Black Thorn Farm, Part I
We recently spent a week in the Appalachian mountains just West of Asheville, North Carolina on a 28-acre farm snug in the idyllic basin that is Sandy Mush. To get there, you ascend a serpentine stretch of road unforgiving in its verticality until you crest the mountain where the road suddenly changes names and you descend into literal splendor. For the few minutes between mountain top and halfway down, the view affords almost all of Sandy Mush's painterly pastures with roaming cattle and weathered barns. We arrived at the very start of Spring with the newest of green gilding long stretches of fields where newborn calves, lambs and the tiniest baby chicks were learning to walk across this verdant welcome mat. We'd come to harvest wool from our friends at Black Thorn Farm and to spend the week immersed in their work, cooking alongside them in the kitchen, bottle feeding baby lambs and generally being available as interns to help with muck and fro.
It was the most rewarding week I can remember in many years, surpassing our time spent in Maldivian paradise and even the week we paddled the mighty Colorado through the holiest of canyons. Our week at Black Thorn was one of those openings in time where sensual reckoning and conceptual narrative collide, where what you think you will experience is leveled by the actuality of something much more real, much more alive and your thinking is obliged to follow your sensing.
Dining at Black Thorn became the matter of the day around which all other tasks were to pivot. It wasn't until day three that I realized that this is how Seth and Sharon live, all days and all seasons, to provide for the table and the larder so that all parts of their lives are more free. This isn't meant to insinuate wide spans of idle time, far from it, rather to posit the table as emblematic of such freedom, the table as symbolic of the long view and our daily tasks relating to the table as a pure connection to the right now.
Cornbread with sorghum syrup, sautéed kale and chard, lamb sausage with natural casing, shepherds pie with grits, fried duck and spicy greens, roasted leg of lamb with heady garlic, goose tacos, scrambled eggs the color of a smoldering late day sun.
We washed much of it down with a light bodied stout brewed by Seth and kept in its own refrigerator in a full-size keg right next to the front door for pouring a pint just after you remove your boots.
The kitchen is an evolving collage of commercial fixtures and inherited cabinets, make-do and do-a-lot trumping any aesthetic aspiration. On stainless prep tables, birds are butchered and brined before braising in cast iron pots. Live-edge boards that Seth milled from fallen timber rest atop old formica counters and are cluttered with tools, seed packets and an endless supply of mason jars. The space is small and demanded upon and despite the amount of objects jockeying for space, there is a clear order to things that we learned while putting clean dishes away throughout our week.
Sharon has run kitchens for most of her professional life and is half cackle, half serious business while fluidly moving from chopping board to stove. She is a great beauty, this woman, the type that is always lit up from an internal resonance of living as a good human. Both seem to have figured out a way of being in the world that genuinely transcends our typically saturated lives and this is why we'd traveled across the country to harvest their wool and have it spun into yarn for our next batch of garments.
Our work is about telling an agricultural story and Seth and Sharon are true stewards of their land. Over the six years that they've owned the farm, much of the hillside woods have been returned to pasture where the sheep graze in rotational practice. In return, the sheep help to manage the land, working through the grass and flora over an eight day cycle to prevent parasite infestation and give each piece of the land time to rest. Heritage chickens run in conjunction with this rotation despite their proclivity to jump the hot fence and beg for your scraps.
Seth and Sharon are avid researchers about farming practices and keep beautiful written logs of their work. On our visit, the lambing calendar hung by the bathroom door and was visited almost as often as the room itself to reconcile who'd given birth and when. Three lambs were born during our stay, one who was sadly lackluster and on viability watch. I relished being a part of the whole cycle of the farm and resisting the temptation to confuse cute with genetic health. This is, perhaps, the greatest commitment to being stewards of these animals and what I gleaned as essential to who we choose as partners in telling an agricultural story.
Genetics matter and culling a flock to encourage the healthiest genetic stock is fundamental to good meat, good wool and smart farming. Culling a flock requires bravery and a belief in the long view. The same is true of Sally Fox's approach to breeding cotton and the natural selection through which her plants steadily grow stronger and deeper in color. She, too, culls for genetic health. She, too, has given her life's work to the long view and her days to the right now.
My favorite lunch at Black Thorn was on shearing day when we squeezed eight of us around the small square table and were joined by the father and son shearing team, my curious mother and our photographer friend, Brian Ferry. We ate shepherds pie and grits and shared a bottle of Gamay that I'd brought just for the occasion. Cups of black tea finished our meal, accompanied by a jar of Black Thorn sorghum syrup milled from the cane they'd grown the previous Summer. "When you can grow your own sweetener, you're really close to being totally free," Seth remarked as he passed it along. We all nodded and sipped our tea. We had much left to do that afernoon- a few lambs left to shear and a ram to load in the back of the truck as his job had come to a close and he was returning to the neighboring farm.
I brought a jar of the sorghum syrup home with me, as a mellow sweet for biscuits with cheddar cheese and as talisman for Seth's notion of freedom. The work that Seth and Sharon do- the work that Sally Fox does- straddles the temporal distance between the long view and the right now and somewhere in that stretch is evidence of being genuinely free, energetically free, despite lingering reliances on the outside world. Black Thorn's table was our gateway for an entire week and not an easy table to bid farewell. We returned to our urban hustle and our quinoa bowls and I drizzled sorghum on everything I could think of that first week at home whether it wanted to be sweet or not.