Monday, July 23, 2007

The Little Red Hen

The story of the Little Red Hen made a BIG impression on me when I was a child. That story probably has a lot to do with who I have become--not that I'm a farmer, but that I'm someone who likes to do things from start to finish.

I trace my interest in and inspiration for raising sheep back to my very early childhood. Mom taught me how to use my fingers to crochet a chain from yarn. I would do this for hours: crochet, unravel, recrochet, re-unravel.

(Hmmmm, that may also be either the seeds of, or an early manifestation of, my penchant for doing repetitive activities, contributing to my eventual career as a farmer in other ways. Like hand-plant onion sets, or pulling weeds, or picking, or swinging the scythe or pulling the bowsaw.)

Anyhow, it's totally in character for me that once I was good at yarn-crafts like crochet (with a home-made hook) and knitting, I would move on (back?) to making the yarn to knit with. And when I learned to spin, using a simple drop spindle (home-made, of course), as a high school student, I suddenly wanted to grow my own wool...and that, of course, meant raising sheep.

Well, here I am. I bred the sheep that grew the wool that I washed and carded and spun and dyed and knitted to make hats, sweaters, etc. And for that matter, I've grown the grain to grind for flour to make bread, though in a very limited fashion. All processes that take many complex steps over a long time, and a lot of repetitive labor. The Little Red Hen taught me to appreciate what goes into making something. She also taught me a slow, patient, diligent work ethic.

But I also learned an important lesson from the other side of the Little Red Hen story: the other animals--the ones who were too busy or too bored to assist the hen with any of the steps, except eating the cookies. The lesson I learned from them was a "what not to do" lesson. Because they didn't help, they didn't get any cookies. I reasoned that if I helped with other people's projects, I would share in the results.

Sometimes it works that way. Sometimes they don't share their cookies even with the ones who helped grow and grind the grain. Disillusioning...and over time can discouraging one from volunteering on someone else's project. Evidently that has happened to others, as well. I find more and more that people want the cookies first, and then maybe they'll help wash the pans...or maybe not.

But at least by helping, even if I didn't get a share of those cookies, I had learned a lot about making my own cookies, starting from scratch.

I look around me in today's world and see a lot of "other animals" and not so many Little Red Hens. Right now, they can go to the store to buy cookies from a factory henhouse. Or they can buy the ingredients and bake their own, and say "I made these from scratch."

But I believe there will come a day, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, when natural disasters or fuel shortages cause widespread interruption of our food supplies. And I'll have been the Little Red Hen, toiling cheerfully away by myself at developing a farm, for years. Everyone who was "too busy" to help out, even in little ways, will suddenly want the food, knowledge and land that I have. Those who are putting their time into leisure activities and pampering, those who put their money into knickknacks and extravagances, those who scoffed at my determination at "not economically viable" activities, will suddenly want to be my friends and share in my suddenly re-valued wealth. Those who have paved their land and turned rich farm ground into sterile parking lots will be hungry for the fruits of my labor, having wasted their own.

It is a hard thing, to see that pattern unfolding among my nearest and dearest friends and relations, busily pursuing their personal gain of material wealth. I'm afraid that someday I'll have hard choices to make about who to share my cookies with. It's tempting to want to beg my favorite "other animals" to change their ways before it's too late, to help me build the farm NOW so that it will be there for them when they need it, when it's too late in some ways. But I can't make that choice for anyone but myself. Like the Little Red Hen, if I wait for others to help me, I'll never get it done.

I will, however, encourage folks to see a documentary called "The Power of Community" ( I watched it for the second time this evening, with a small group of people interested in "Intentional Communities." This documentary of Cuba's energy famine when the USSR broke up speaks of many of the causes and effects that I somehow understood years ago, even before I started the farm. It's an amazing story, and a sobering as well as hopeful one. Let me know what you think of it.

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