I never really thought much about the land…the land from which we draw sustenance. I know that most of us have a connection through our ancestors. Somewhere in our lineage are those who at some time or other have scratched a living from the land, but few of us have actually pulled a cultivator behind a tractor to prepare a field for planting or even mowed a pasture.
Until I retired from the corporate world, my connection to the land was tenuous at best. As a restless teenager, I used to visit an aunt and uncle in the panhandle of Texas who were honest-to-god cotton farmers. They lived in a small frame house just north of Lubbock; some irrigation wells, a few tired tractors, and a rolling bank loan were the principle assets of their “family farm.” I remember best that we had cantaloupe with every meal, and that all the males wore overalls. I discovered the relentlessness of farming by having to change irrigation pipes every four hours throughout the day and night. The tediousness of the farm was occasionally relieved by driving thirty miles to Lubbock to go to the drive-in movie. While I enjoyed these brief contacts with the land, I was always more than ready to return to the city.
Then, in one of my college summers, a friend’s father offered me a temporary job on their sheep ranch in west Texas. It sounded good, even vaguely romantic in the abstract, but the reality was well beyond my worst expectations. For a few weeks I was a “dauber” on their shearing crew. As you might imagine, the dauber is the low man on the totem pole of sheep-shearing crews, and I’m pretty sure that sheep shearing, as a whole, is pretty far down the job chain as well. My job was to daub hot pine tar on the small cuts inflicted on the sheep in the shearing process. Modesty precludes me from telling you the reaction of a freshly shorn sheep after being so rudely daubed with hot pine tar, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t pretty and was very smelly. That particular contact with the land did more to increase my motivation to get the sheepskin that comes with a college degree than all the lecturing and hectoring I had endured previously.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, I fell in love with a farmer’s daughter. Well, actually, at first I didn’t know I was in love and I didn’t know she was a farmer’s daughter. She was just a beautiful girl that tugged at my heart. Even then, my connection to the land, I mean the-real-honest-to-god farmland, was not only through my wife, but also through my ambition to succeed in business. Yes, I talked vaguely with my father-in-law about the economics of the cattle business (not very good), and the importance of having roots in the land (very good), but it didn’t seem a part of my world or what I wanted my world to become. It’s important to note, I think, that my father-in-law never owned more than fifty-seven acres. I’m absolutely certain he never made more than a few thousand dollars a year, nor worked less than eighty hours a week. In spite of those facts, he was also amongst the happiest of the human race. I should have had a clue then, but, of course, I had none.
Fast forward three decades when I came face to face with the rest of my life. I had, in defiance of fairly long odds, achieved business and economic success well beyond my greatest expectations. I was faced, in a modest way, with the “man on the moon syndrome.” That is to say, if I can land on the moon or achieve substantial business success, what then, can follow? I thrust about for a time, doing this and that, trying to hold on to my past, but finally, with a startling clarity, I concluded that the rest of my life was not likely to be like what had come before. I needed, I wanted, I had to have something entirely different to give the rest of my life meaning. The options whirled through my mind…politics, public service, charity…all had their allure. And I got more advice than I could reasonably deal with.
One loose weekend, S. (my darling wife, Sandra) and I visited the old home place. A kind of “going home” for her and a lost weekend for me. We stayed at the small ranch house that situated itself where the home place used to be. I walked the land, all fifty-seven acres of it, remembering the years now gone, the bird hunts, the fishing trips, and the conversations with my father-in-law, Tilt, about the value of the land. I don’t mean the economic value, but the value that only comes with generations of ownership, and the sweat of honest labor. I recalled the still vivid memory of my last walk with him over the land. He was at the end of an energetic life, plagued with a virulent cancer that would end his days within weeks. As we walked and talked over the land,
land that was a part of the original acreage that came to the Lyday family through an 1835 land grant from the Republic of Texas, land that was part of his very being…he confided to me a lie. His lie, of course, was a lie of circumstance. My wife, her sister, and Tilt’s wife had all been urging him to sell the land, his land, the land of his fore bearers…in order to defray the expense of his illness and to provide some measure of financial security for his wife when he was gone. He said to me, “Gary, the women have been on me to sell the land, and I’ve told them I will. But, son, I didn’t tell them the truth. I could no more sell this land than I could sell my soul. I’m not ever gonna sell this land, and I hope, when it’s yours, you won’t either.” That small lie of Tilt’s made little impact on me at the time. But, in a way, it allowed me to peek into a window of his soul, and like all voyeurs, I was a bit embarrassed or maybe puzzled by what I saw. How could a few acres of dirt be so important, so meaningful that he would forego a small measure of financial comfort in the last days of his life and some security for his wife after he was gone? This question stayed with me, always in the back of my mind. Only years later did the answer begin to reveal itself to me. Not arriving in a coherent whole, but in bits and pieces. A layer at a time, perhaps.
My interaction with the land, if you can call it that, began with a search. I wanted more from what had been a very good life. And in my search for something more, I wanted to see if the land could provide for me what it had provided for Tilt and so many others. S. and others who know me well say that I am merely restless. Never satisfied with what I have now or know now. And they are right. At my core, I believe that there are only two states in life. One is either growing or one is dying. The status quo is no damn good, and I wasn’t ready for dying just yet.
On the other hand, I believe that the first and maybe highest obligation of wealth is to preserve it and use it for the benefit of one’s own family, and if possible, share it with others wisely. I’m not inclined to risk it all on a toss of the dice, but a bit of risk makes life a lot richer. Let me fast forward to a recent conversation. When I’m in Dallas, I invariably join a group of friends for an early breakfast at Dallas Country Club. The talk runs the gamut…sports, politics, family, and business. I was talking about my efforts to make the farm a paying business proposition, and one of the group asked about my financial objective for the farm operation. I replied that I thought I could get it up to about $500,000 per year in about three years if things went right . He chuckled a bit and retorted that I could probably do that playing gin rummy at the club and with a lot less effort. I thought for a moment before answering, then explained that it wasn’t really how many zeros followed the significant digit, but the importance of there being a clearly measurable goal, and being involved in something that had meaning to me now and in the future.
So I started buying land (without regard to ultimate purpose) to add to the fifty-seven acre “home place” that S. had inherited. My only guidelines were that the land I bought should be contiguous to the land we already had…and, ideally, it would be a part of the same land that the Republic of Texas used to woo Sandra’s ancestors. There was no business plan, there was no conservation plan. My only plan, if you could call it that, was to get as much land as I could and then figure out what to do with it. The results were predictable. I got the land I wanted and had no idea what to do next. Raise cattle? Plant a crop? Buy a horse? Get a tractor? Well, I did all of those things and, over the years, I sorted it all out. What worked and what didn’t. What we enjoyed doing and what was plain drudgery. Within three years, I had zeroed in on breeding Egyptian Arabian Horses, growing hay, and preserving the natural habitat. I had even been recognized as Farmer of the Year by the local chamber of commerce…but perhaps their selection was influenced more by my donations to the chamber rather then my perspicacity as a farmer. Along the way I planted hay fields, bought tractors and assorted other farm equipment, bought and sold cattle, built barns, built lakes and roads, fenced paddocks, stocked farm ponds, and met and learned to appreciate others who did this for a living and did it well. I’ll paraphrase the old saw, “The way to make a small fortune in farming is to start with a large fortune.” I was well on my way to that “small fortune” in farming.
What I had not anticipated was that I really, really enjoyed what I was doing. I commented to another of my DCC coffee klatch colleagues that, “Getting on a tractor and baling hay, or performing any of the other seemingly mundane tasks of farming, was one of the few things I had ever done where I could look look behind me and see exactly what I had done and how well I had done it.” I’ve known others of my ilk who experienced the same thing…leaving the race and stress of the office behind, rushing to the farm/ranch/acreage in a three-piece suit, mounting the brand new Kubota tractor and attaching the bat wing shredder, then mowing a seven-acre pasture. Is it the smell of the just mown grass? Or is it the sense of doing something outside of our comfort zone and doing it well? Maybe it’s just the personal satisfaction of connecting with the land as our forefathers and their fathers before them had done.
I recently had the wonderful experience of driving through part of our land with my daughter and two of my granddaughters. I was showing off a bit I guess. I wanted them to see and appreciate the work that S. and I had done to create a “wildlife management area.” We had cleared the land of the scrub brush and invasive trees. We planted native grasses, pollinating plants, legumes, wildflowers and flowering trees. All designed to make our land a hospitable place for the local fauna and flora. For the deer, wild turkey, butterflies, birds of all kinds and even the bobcats and raccoons who populate the area. I had my wildflower photo portfolio with me and was able to name most, if not all, of the wildflowers in bloom. My granddaughters were pleasantly curious and asked polite questions. My daughter, however, was frankly surprised. Surprised that I had the interest and knowledge to create something so inconsistent of her image of me. To her I was the business guy in the three-piece suite, always on the way to a meeting or the airport. She asked how and why I had become interested in this nature thing. I didn’t have a good answer. But now, as I think about it, I suspect the seeds of a relationship with the land is somewhere deep within all of us. Some are precluded from realizing it due to the circumstances of their lives. Others like me, at some point in their life, have an opportunity to make a connection on some level, long hidden, to nature’s world.
As I make my way through my eighth decade, I am delighted to continue to discover other dimensions of my connection the land and to nature. Planting and watching a field of wildflowers grow, or harvesting my own mess of purple-hulled peas, or watching a newborn colt take it’s first uneven steps, or baling a few bales of hay from a pasture you planted. I believe that’s what my father-in-law was trying to tell me when he said, “Son, I’m never gonna sell this land.”