The Gulley family showed true grace. With leaden hearts, they were gracious and friendly to the line of people that would continue for up to three hours. There was going to be a potluck supper as the day wore on. It was the first, and probably the last time I would see the family in white pants and dresses.
They held a wake for Ed today in his cornfield, a good place to say goodbye to him. His casket was made of beautiful mahogany. There were two portraits of him resting on the ground, both, I am proud to say, were of my photographs. I can't think of a better use for them.
One was of Ed standing by our red barn, the other was of him watching our shearer trim the sheep at an Open House. In the background was the hearse, carrying Ed back and forth from the funeral parlor to the farm (the service is Sunday).
Behind that, the cornfield ready to be chopped. I thought the picture said everything, I avoided too many shots of the family, I wanted to give them their space.
Ed's wake was held today in his farm's corn field under a rented tent and a clear sky and a punishing sun. I think just about every farmer in White Creek and Washington County stopped by with their spouses and kids to pay their respects to the family and express their sorrows.
I am not a good person for wakes and funerals, but the family asked me to take some photos and I was happy to do it. I lasted for an hour or so. Ed was in a beautiful closed mahogany casket surrounded by flowers and two portraits of him that I had the pleasure of having taken.
They were good photographs of Ed, and how could they not be.
You'd have to be a poor photographer indeed to get a bad photo of Ed, he was born for TV or the movies, really. He could have walked right onto the set of Duck Dynasty, his sartorial inspiration.
The farmers and their families pulled their cars and trucks right up to the tent and walked through the line, past the grandchildren with their friends, past the Gulley children, Maggie and Tony, Chad and Kate, Jesse (Jeremy wasn't there when I was there) and Carol.
I have never seen Chad cleaned up like that, his beard shorn, his close spotless. I didn't recognize him. Carol was holding herself together, Maggie is having a hard time with Ed's death. Carol was ashen. The grandkids were all dolled up, I have never seen this farm family so squeaky clean.
I told Chad he must have run through a car wash.
Maria and I went together in separate cars and we sat for awhile in the folding chairs the undertaker brought. He was old school, tall and somber in a black suit with white shirt and tie. I tried to chat with him, but he mostly gave me grim nods, like a Secret Service Agent around the President.
It was awfully hot and humid and I stood out in the sun for awhile taking pictures, Chad sent his son out with a bottle of cold water.
It was touching to see these big and undemonstrative men and their families show their love and feeling for Ed and Carol, this was a rich gathering of people who work the land, all of them in jeans, brown with calloused hands and dirt under their nails. Their handshakes all hurt.
Ed's community turned out in force for him, just as they had for Carol when he was sick.
The farmers and their wives hugged Carol and the kids and the men mostly didn't seem to know what to say – who does? – but everyone knew what they felt. Carol, a neighbor and friend said the men all had great hearts but they were afraid that emotion was a sign of weakness. It didn't mean they didn't feel it, she said.
Like me, it was clear that they knew someone quite special in their world was gone. In the line there was the usual farm chatter – cows, feeds, money, milk, heat. The land is turning brown and dry, I heard it again and again.
As for Mr. Gulley, I was grateful the casket was closed, he would not wish to be seen as he was when he died, so thin and pale. He did like being the center of attention, and he would have enjoyed that. Everyone was there for him.
The portraits positioned around the casket captured his robust and very much alive self. I was glad to hear he was buried in his favorite uniform, a camo shirt and shorts and white socks, they were his dress clothes.
He rarely took them off unless they were just too filthy to bear.
I thought they might bring out one or two of his favorite cows, but it was too hot I think. The line was long at 4 p.m. and longer at 5:45 when I left, broiling under the heat of the sun and the weight of my cameras and lenses.
They were still coming when I left.
I'm sure Ed would have been delighted at the setting. In a funny way, I felt like Ed's family is my family now, and vice versa. Carol is our friend as well as Ed, and we will try to be present for her, insofar as she wishes.
One of the kids' may need some outside counseling and we brought a name of a therapist.
Carol plans to enroll in bereavement counseling. I love to say that only the strong get help, I believe it to be true.
Ed was very important to that family, he was the center of their universe in so many ways. That is strange for me, I barely knew my father, and he meant very little to me, neither did his death.
There was a wallboard at the entrance to the tent, more than a hundred photos of Ed, only a few were mine, but I was happy to see them there.
Maria and I walked through the line, did more hugging and smiling and commiserating, but it felt strange, because we had nothing new to offer, and we have been doing that with them for days and weeks. It seemed a bit stale in a funny way, so I retreated to step back and get some photos.
It was strange for me to think of Ed in that basket heading on Sunday to the nearby family plot. In that field, he has always been in a tractor.
Today had a sense of finality for me, i don't think I'll be going to the funeral on Sunday, I don't need to eulogize Ed, lots of people will be on hand to do that. Something is holding me back. I've kept my promise to Ed, made my peace with him, said my goodbyes.
Frankly, I think I need to protect myself, I've had my own brush with troubles of the mind, and I need to trust my instincts.
I expect I will continue to write about Ed in one way or another, but this phase of my friendship with him – the end of his life – is over, I think, for me. Time to be helpful and present and to let go and move forward, something that will be much harder for the family to do than for me.
Of course, Ed asked me to keep an eye on Carol and his children, and of course, I will. They are pretty smart and pretty tough, and i think they will do a good job of taking care of themselves. Together, they are a small army.
One important thing:
I believe Carol and Maria and I will continue the creative journey we began with her and Ed three years ago. She wants to keep publishing her very popular blog and I am there to help her with her writing if she needs it.
She is thinking of writing a book about this experience.
My life is different without Ed, emptier and shallower, a part of me is open, there is a large hole, and I will fill it as it goes. It's not something you can force.
I will not soon find another friend like Ed. I did have a brief moment of self-pity last night, I thought of Paul Moshimer, who killed himself, and I thought of Ed, and how sad to lose two such precious and compassionate friends before their time.
These kinds of people do not grow on trees, and I am a bit shy of losing another. I'm 71, perhaps time to get easier with my life and accept it more fully. I have a lot of good work to do.
My self-pity doesn't last long, I dislike it. I shook off this sludge feeling off, and felt waves of gratitude instead. That I did not commit suicide, I do not have brain cancer. I have a wonderful partner, my life is full of love and work and meaning and animals and challenges and photos and blog posts. At 71, I have never felt luckier or more alive. I have never once thought of retirement, it makes no sense to me (for me.)
Several people have suggested bereavement counseling for me, but that is not something I want or need right now. I didn't have brain cancer, I did not lose a father I loved, my spouse is not sick or dying. I have learned the hard way to get help when I need help, and I do not need help.
So I stood in front of Ed's casket and said goodbye one more time, I told him I wouldn't be seeing him before he goes into the ground and his spirit is free to soar to a new place, with or without angels. It might have left already.
He always has a lot to do.
If somebody were to ask me what I might suggest for Ed's tombstone (nobody has or should), I might suggest one of his favorite slogans: "Drink Milk, Save A Cow."
Ed may not have expressed the idea in the most graceful way, sandwiched as it was between two bleached halves of a steer's skull, but still, it is a powerful statement with much meaning.
The sign might as well have said "drink milk, save a way of life.
According to the United Stations, 2,473,018 people died in the United States in the most recent year for which the data is available, which means 6,775 die each day.
Was Ed's death the most important? Was it worth all this fuss and attention? The wonderful Aretha Franklin died early this morning also, her death was all over the news. Ed's obituary in the local paper cost $50.
Ed's death is important, and not just because he was a good friend and a fascinating man.
His life and death is important because he is a powerful symbol of what so many Americans are feeling as we become a corporate and angry and selfish nation disconnected from each other and no longer interested in sustaining the land or protecting the individual, and the individual's way of life, which is to say the farmer's way of life.
About a half century ago, the politicians and economists and corporations who run our country decided that the family farm was no longer efficient, it required the labor of too many people. They decided expensive machines could do it better and faster and cheaper.
Since this policy was embraced and announced, America has seen one of the greatest migrations in the country's history, from the farm and rural America to the cities, where tens of millions of people gave up doing what they loved and knew in order to seek safety and meaning in jobs they mostly hated working for people who care nothing about them.
No more life in nature, no more life with animals, no more lives full of choice and meaning.
This migration was to devastate Main street, rural America, farming communities, and especially the family farm. It set the stage for the bitter polarization ripping the country apart. It was the beginning of the end for farmers like Ed.
Ed recognized this, he often described himself as a dinosaur, and I knew from the first time that this was the truth. He hoped to badger his fellow farmers into fighting or changing or diversifying in some way. It didn't happen. I remember telling there was no way our greedy and sometimes valueless society was going to turn and spend money and save the farms.
It is a cliché to say somebody is the last of a breed, but Ed was, in fact, the last of a breed.
You will not again see many like him in our lifetime. But he was a troglodyte. He could never fit into the corporate vision of the farm or the country, any more than I could. Maybe that's why we loved one another.
The strongest force that followed the great flight from the farms has been economic ruin on the family farm.
Stagnant prices, growing debt, murderous competition from corporate farms, bloodless economists and government policy that supported bigness, not family or individuality or quality of life.
This became a tsunami for farmers, an overwhelming series of difficulties for them to fight.
It wasn't just another business that began to fail, it was a way of life.
Ed Gulley was a doomed warrior for that life, he fought for it every day of his life, and he knew he never really had a chance. His own life has a think, become it's own legacy, it reminds us of what we had and what we seem determined to lose.
Today with thousands of farm families losing their farms every week, the economists and politicians are still saying, as they have said for decades now, that people like Ed Gulley deserve to fail, need to fail, because they are the least efficient producers of food, and that all of us are better off for their failure.
I always regarded Ed as a freedom fighter, as many farmers are in different ways.
Ed fought for much more than milk prices, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously.
He found for the right to live freely and for himself. He fought for the right to pursue a calling, not just a job. He fought for the right to live in community when many Americans are quite alone. He fought to life a life in nature, and in close connection to the land.
He fought to live a life with animals, to give his cows the best lives work animals have ever had in this world. He fought for the right to be different, to get buried in the camo shirt and shorts that were his uniform.
Ed saw his world clearly.
He saw the insularity of farmers, their unwillingness to engage with the outside world, their failure to pursue their own interests with political leaders who cared about them, their willingness to go deeply into machine debt and lose their storied independence, their resistance to change and to new technologies that might help them.
They endured the flight of their sons and daughters from the family farm, which could no longer support them, to the big cities.
I had the sense that Ed's death marked not only his life, but an era in which the family farm was the soul of America, a breeding ground for freedom and hard work and fulfillment, the source of Main Street's strength and community and vitality.
As Ed grew older, the family farmers themselves began to age and fade away, unable to fit into the new Corporate Nation, which is the very antithesis of what the family farm always stood for.
The great question that hovers over the future of the family farm, wrote Wendell Berry, a farmer, author and environmentalist, is this question:
what are people for?
Is our greatest dignity in bad work and unemployment? Is the obsolescence of human beings, of a rich and valuable and iconic culture the social goal of government and industry? I think so.
Berry and other lovers of the farm point out that this is the only conclusion we can reach from our new attitude towards work, especially the manual work necessary to preserve the land, care well for our partners the animals, preserve individuality and self-sustenance rather than expensive mechanization, automation, and the new ethic, cost saving and profit-making at all costs and by any means.
The great irony of the family farm, which was for centuries a bastion of freedom, is that it is no longer affordable for anyone to farm but giant companies with access to endless cash. And the government and the economists and the corporate vampires got their wish.
Where do people and their lives fit into this new and cold way of finding our food, and living our lives?
Nobody can say.
Ed stood for many things, but not this new economy, this new way of agriculture, which seems to have quite openly forgotten what people are for. He never allowed himself to lose his independence to bankers or tractor makers.
He saw his own world fading, and his place in the new world disappearing. In that sense, his passing had meaning beyond his own life.
Ed never forgot what people are for. As a result, he will be remembered and celebrated long after many people are not.
I am not the world's most patient person, and I am eager to have another small dog to love and live with and write about. I have also come to be especially fond of Bud given what I am hearing about him.
We loved Gus, and he whetted my appetite to learn about the appeal and nature of the small dog.
I am grateful to Carol Johnson, a great dog lover from Arkadelphia, Arkansas who is fostering Bud for these many months.
FOHA specializes in heartworm dogs, once unique to the South, now in every state in the union because of the traffic in rescue dogs to the Northeast. You can learn more about heartworm here.
It now illegal to transport a dog with heartworms from the South to anywhere else, and this means it will be three months from adoption to actually having Gus with us. An understandable delay.
I used to see heartworm as a Southern problem, it isn't any longer. Heartworm, transmitted through a simple mosquito bite, is now a problem for anyone with a dog.
A good exercise in love and commitment, I am waiting restlessly but patiently for Bud. I am fortunate to have in Carol Johnson a diligent communicator. A fosterer with FOHA, she sends me regular photos and updates. Gus was a mess with FOHA got him, he had been abandoned out in the woods.
Gus. Ears Up!Carol is fun to work with, once she finished investigating me. They don't take shortcuts.
Bud was very sick when he was adopted, and FOHA nursing him back to health and paying for all of his medical costs. They are also transporting him North when the time comes. They care about people as well as dogs.
I think they are quite worthy of support. They have inspired me to adopt them as a cause for the Army Of Good.
Bud was frightened and battered when he came to Carol, and terrified of men. He is getting more affectionate, and adventurous, even to the point of stealing bags of spicy jalapeno chips. Fate will love him.
I noticed that in most of the photos, But had his ears down. Carol took some shots above of Bud with his ears up, a sign of happiness. Bud looks like a mellow old soul, even though he is only 10 months old. We will loosen him up here on the farm.
It was almost eerie, I came upon their site for the first time and saw Bud's face looking up at me. I heard a voice saying "this is your dog," showed him to Maria, who said "this is our dog." Enough said, that's how it happens.
Several days a week now, I now look at the FOHA/RI site for possible adoptable dogs for people. These are heartworm dogs undergoing treatment and in need of home. Take a look at BB, a mixed breed Lab. And think of donating to this group on behalf of the many thousands of heartworm dogs in need of help.
I think this will be an especially rewarding experience for me.
There are all kinds of good ways to get a dog, from reputable breeders to conscientious rescue groups. I think the right dog kind of yells at you to pay attention. Gus is is yelling at me in every photo: "Let's get a move on."