Our Aesthetics

In March of this year, when I was fortunate to travel to Nebraska to witness the Sandhill Crane migration (thanks again for the great birthday gift, Janelle!), we took a little sidebar excursion to the Switzer ranch to see the Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse do their mating dances.  It was such a striking trip in so many ways, but one of the things that struck me on our auxiliary jaunt was what I shall have to dub “Prairie Architecture.”  Most of the homes were single story structures, and I noticed very few exterior adornments such as the decorative shutters you often see here in the east.  Both of these characteristics were appealing to me personally, but I suspect the style emerged not from whimsy or fancy but as a response to practical considerations, namely wind.  Also, being not constrained by small lot sizes, there was surely little incentive to conserve on foundation footprint by stacking rooms on top of each other.  In other words, there on the ranches they tended to build…um…ranch houses.  Hm.

Like the development of a regional cuisine or a regional dialect, a regional aesthetic is a phenomenon of converging factors through time resulting in an emerging character.  Aesthetics also comprises a system of communication of values, history, and connection that, perceptibly or not, influences members of the community that generates and uses the aesthetic, and can speak to some extent to others far less connected.  Here I am thinking especially of ceremonial sculpture or other art created by artists from functioning indigenous cultures which fills a role of consciously or unconsciously reminding and connecting the community members of and to their history, culture, and values.  The pieces created in such contexts are often deeply admired by western-educated artists who recognize their aesthetic power.  I think it was Picasso who went to see some newly discovered cave paintings and upon emerging from the cave declared, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”

One of my dearest experiences of the type was when I was in Colombia in 2003 on a Mennonite Central Committee Learning Tour, where we were gaining familiarity with the protracted conflict in the country (now largely quieted if not exactly resolved) and in particular the efforts of individuals there who were using refusal to pay the military portion of their taxes as a form of conscientious objection.  It was a humbling and eye-opening trip full of excellent food and lots of terrific people of the most courageous and interesting sort.  Like many places in the world, Colombia wrestles with its transition from indigenous to modern forms of society.  One manifestation of this is that certain political factions disparage “Indian” cultures and their trappings; others celebrate or even embrace them.  A particular example was the “mochila,” which in Colombia means a traditional handcrafted wool shoulder bag of sturdy construction and deep capacity.  An ex-patriot U.S. citizen living in Bogota told of watching—with some Colombian friends—TV coverage of students and activists in the streets protesting some issue or event.  When the camera panned the crowd the Colombians in the room reportedly broke into chuckles.  “Look at all the mochilas!” they said.

I heard this story after having bought one from an indigenous vendor at an art fair in Bogota.  Of all the paintings and bric-a-brac available that day, it was easily this stall full of practical, soulful bags with the unmistakable signature of hand work and those fabulous earthy colors that got my hand to reach for my wallet.  The vendor, a guy about my age, I thought, explained some of the symbolism of the pattern on the bag I bought.  This was welcome, but I know that even if he lectured on the topic all day, I would only have less than half the meaning; it would never mean to me what it did to him and his community.  So the bag was beautiful, functional, and authentic, and represents to me mystery and a connection to an ancient way of life and a people that have a sense of who they are.  Is that what it meant to all those protesters?  I imagine it meaning, consciously or no, respect and yearning in the hearts of the moderns, and tenacity, courage, and identity to those members of indigenous groups or those straddling the divide between the two ways of life.

The bag I bought has proved excellently durable and useful…it still comes out of the closet pretty often almost 15 years later.  Clearly its structure was not created at corporate HQ, but was honed by people who knew what they needed.  And those awesome colors?  They just spin the wool from each sheep separately, so whatever color the sheep is, that is the color of the wool.  Then they mix and match them as it suits the artisan’s purpose or fancy while creating the bag, the process for which requires only a needle and capable hands.  I am so dang jealous.

Here at Tangly Woods, as we endeavor to wiggle our way down into a life that is crafted from this place, we are starting to come up with a precious few examples of objects, patterns, and features of our lives that—in the spirit of one of my Grandma’s favorite axioms: start where you are, use what you have, do what you can—reflect in their composition the place, time, and community from which they emerged.  We envision more and more of this over time, and—being the amateur aesthete that I am—I particularly am licking my chops in anticipation of the forms and character that will be produced by our partnerships with and within our home place.

I’ll touch on a few of those examples to give you a more substantive sense of my meaning.  These examples will be drawn from our own life and the lives of neighbors:

  • The New Table:  This fall I finished a project I had started in June of 2015.  That was when we had our septic field repaired, and on the advice of the excavator and my own judgment I removed a few trees close to the site in an effort to minimize root interference in the system.  One of the upshots was the generation of a few short saw logs of smallish diameter, which we had processed (along with a few other logs generated by other clearing projects) at the local custom milling/drying operation.  The wood will go for various purposes, but most of what came from the septic preservation project was “Hican”, which is a hickory/pecan hybrid nut tree.  We hated to remove it, but the very hard wood that it rendered seemed like an opportune material to create a third auxiliary table for our main dining surface, upping the total capacity of diners to 14, and in the process netting us also a superior food processing surface for the back kitchen; a first foray into this winter’s cabinet creation project for that room.  Because of the species and where/how it grew, the wood was laced with dark streaks at every knot that set off the warm and unassuming creams and browns of the sap and heart wood in lovely ways.  Add to that the bluish gray cast that crept in some places as the logs sat in the weather awaiting transport to the mill and we have a thing of beauty that tells part of the story of this place—our story.  As a bonus, two of the knot holes are filled with a fuzzy substance that begs questions.  I like to let people guess for a while before telling them it is the remnants of some kind of cloth (likely of artificial fiber) that someone left draped in the crotch of one of the limbs.  Eventually the tree surrounded it with new layers of wood and it was not seen again until the mill broke into its quiet tomb.
  • My Egg Basket: Have you ever been annoyed by wire egg baskets?  Even with rubberized coatings on the wires, the eggs easily crack on the unforgiving surfaces if jostled in the slightest.  And in our system, jostling is typical, since I often have to set the basket down to close the coop doors, and/or I have a “helper” at collection time.  Furthermore, wire baskets promote wet, smudgy eggs.  It is advantageous to keep the eggs clean and dry, since that prevents the need to wash, and thereafter refrigerate, the eggs.  The safest eggs are eggs from healthy hens that have been kept clean and dry from the start, then stored at moderate temperatures for not overlong.  Whenever it’s rained or is dewy out, it is almost impossible to keep the eggs dry in a wire basket, since long wet grass tends to slap against the basket while walking, and I often need to set it on the wet, muddy turf while closing coops.  The more I thought about it, the more a large gourd seemed to be what I wanted.  So last winter I finally hollowed out one we had grown and attached a handle from an old fruit box.  It is perfect!  The soft inside prevents much cracking, eggs are protected from wet vegetation on bottom and sides, and it’s a good size and shape to tuck under my shirt to shield eggs from rain as I make my collection round.  It looks awesome, by the way.
  • The Maust Fireplace: Some neighbors down the road have a Finnish fireplace in their house that speaks to this topic.  While the fact that it is well over twenty feet tall from floor to chimney top is neither here nor there (that corresponds to their architectural tastes more than circumstance), it is an important piece because it is eminently functional (they have used it almost daily in cool weather for around thirty years and frequently use the oven feature), its surface is constructed of stone gathered from their own land, and it was built by a stone mason who has been continuously producing work of high quality specializing in the regional styles from that time to the present.  I admire this piece very much.  If we had the money, we would be likely to try to commission something similar for our place.  It’s on our long-term dream list!
  • Nora’s Garden: Using that same stone gathered from our place and theirs, I have crafted a dry-lay seating area and rock-climbing play zone for kids in the garden space we designated for memorializing our deceased daughter.  It includes a spot where kids can empty a watering can at the top of the run, then watch it (or splash in it!) while it cascades down and onto a concrete slab at the bottom.  The seating provides views of the Northwest flank of Massanutten Mountain, and after a day of soaking up the autumn sun, the rocks give off a delicious warmth as a tired farmer (guess who) sits and watches the evening rays light up the mountainside.
  • Rock Outcrops in Pastures: The natural limestone bedrock of the Valley has lent fertility to the clays that weather from it, but has also made cropping challenging in many locations. As such, cattle grazing or lounging among protruding arcs and ledges of bluish gray is a common sight.  A cluster of rocks may prevent bushhogging, which may in turn permit the success of a Black Locust or other resurgent tree.  Open pastures with rocky groves…it looks like home to me.  Combined with the history of erosion from wheat cultivation and our characteristic lowish rainfall, grazing systems in general have emerged as a reasonable solution for land use here.  This has cascading implications aesthetically, with many roads lined with fences and/or fenceline trees, and in periods when grass growth has exceeded consumption, the commonly seen windrows of hay waiting to be baled look like the ribs of the rolling hills, or as if the Valley’s grassy scalp had been carefully plaited.
  • Bluestone Foundations: The simplest example of a regional aesthetic theme for our area that I know of is the historic use of “Bluestone” (locally quarried limestone usually cut into approximate rectangles) for walls and foundations. Many old barns and houses still sit on these piers and walls, which were as utilitarian as they were lovely in their time.  To me the undulating horizontal lines, broken by near verticals at irregular intervals lend a sense of calm undergirding the old structures.  In some cases, the stones are bonded only with soil, but if well-laid their stable structure has stood the years well.  Recent decades, though, have seen a sharp decline in this custom, with concrete products having outpriced the more labor-intensive stone selection, cutting, and laying process.  Have I mentioned that the energetic economy of modern society has disrupted and plundered the bioregional character of human inhabitation of the places we live?

You may notice that few of these listed above are one of a set of items that comprise a major theme or pattern for our bioregion.  The examples of emergent, bioregional aesthetics to be found at the moment are often isolated, the establishment of any contemporary bioregional theme is fitful at best.  What, I often wonder, would life and our artifacts look like if we were a whole neighborhood, a whole county, a whole watershed full of people awoken to our surroundings, genuinely connected and interdependent with the ecological community and each other?

Given my amateur level of sophistication regarding aesthetics, I am keen to pick the brains of the artists and craftspeople among us on this subject.  Below is a list of questions I’ve come up with that are specifically directed towards people who have worked professionally in some form of aesthetics-heavy capacity:

In your work making art/practicing craft, how has the place in which the work was accomplished influenced the process of making it and the results?

When you have gotten to know a new region, have there been aesthetic distinctions that you have noticed there?  How do you interpret these?

What would make a piece of work belong to a place?  For your specialty, how does the character of a region express itself?

Does most currently produced art and craftwork bear an aesthetic signature of the place of its creation?  How about examples from times past?

What do we gain or lose by having or lacking a discernible regional character in our aesthetic environments?  What are the trade-offs?

What do you think would be the aesthetic implications of a conversion of our society to a sustainable mode of living?  

What contribution can aesthetes make to such a conversion, and how might they go about it?

I have a hunch that that while these ideas and the above questions may be interesting to some folks, including artists, they won’t exactly ring a bell whose tone is familiar; the topic may not even remind folks of any particular artist or body of art or craft work that represents specifically what I am referring to.  I suspect that is the result of four factors.  First, like most of us, the notion that the components of our lives would take on the character of our places is not the obvious current mode of thought.  Modern life makes it seem almost unnatural.  Second, this is not included in the curriculum of most academic art programs.  Third, connecting with other artists or critics who are also members of modern society will tend to reinforce and reward ways in which one’s making of art conforms to expectations for universality; if there is any more specific identity it will likely correlate to a particular stream of practice or discipline within a genre more than it will to a bioregional influence.  Fourth, in the effort to render work that has economic appeal (i.e., work that will sell), an artist may feel pressure to be able to cast a wide net, to place apparently safer bets on themes that crop up everywhere and connect with nearly anybody.  Who am I to judge this as a poor choice?  I don’t think of it in those terms.  This is, in fact, a totally unsurprising result.

Our fine friend, Rachel Herr, is an artist by nature and sometimes by profession, and her helpful responses to two of the above questions are somewhat in line with this hunch.

What would make a piece of work belong to a place?  

Rachel: “It feels easy for photographs to belong to the place in which they were taken, though I feel most successful when I can capture softness or mystery in subjects or landscapes that make the piece feel dreamy and timeless. I guess it’s actually a goal of mine to make work feel BEYOND the place in which it was produced, for example a portrait that could’ve been taken today or 100 years ago, in Harrisonburg or in anytown USA. I wonder why I feel this way.”

What do we gain or lose by having or lacking a discernible regional character in our aesthetic environments? 

Rachel: “In my photography I worry that having too much of an aesthetic signature might make the work less relate-able to those who do not inhabit this specific place. Does it make viewers feel more like voyeurs than participants as they consider the work? I want them to feel like participants.”

It is entirely possible that to limit oneself geographically as an artist is a sort of professional death wish at this moment in history.  The work needs to be, to use Rachel’s word, relate-able, and in a culture that has become so thoroughly universalized, how many of us can relate to work that derives its power from the geology, ecology, water flow, climate, natural history, and human history and community of a particular place?  Sadly, I think it is few.

Another local artist, Scott Jost (also with a photographic focus; see his fine published volume on Shenandoah Valley apples), has at times produced work counter to this trend.  While I can’t speak to how financially rewarding it has been for him either way, his commentary found in the 2011 short documentary Down to the River by Tim Kauffman indicates that he sees his photography as a way of telling the story of what’s happening in a place.  In the project detailed in the film, he was working with the intent of bringing awareness to the connections our local waterways represent to the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed.  In describing his approach, he borrowed an idea from another photographer who claimed photography as a form of “community service.”

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My impulse is to believe, as Picasso seemed to suggest at the mouth of that cave, that developments in our aesthetic culture that may seem to many of us to be vast improvements over the past are mainly so seen because what is being produced now in our society better does for us the job that aesthetics have for so long done in every society.  We may be drawn to the cave paintings, ceremonial garb, inscribed tablets, wool bags, etc. that emerge from societies very different from our own, and to the extent we are that may either indicate a degree of relatability despite everything or else something unfulfilled in our own psyches; mostly we do not take them on as our own, and can’t (maybe shouldn’t).  Our society’s universalized aesthetic tendencies—commercialized or otherwise—communicate our values, history, and connections (as I asserted all aesthetics do at the start of this essay) probably very accurately, and we largely take them as a matter of course just as other peoples probably usually have done with their own.

If I have anything to argue, then, it is not that we should change our aesthetics, or that our aesthetes are doing a sloppy job of communicating us to ourselves.  Rather I would argue that, given the assumption that by hook or by crook our civilization or our societies must eventually live sustainably or not at all, and seeing as our values, history, and connections will be radically reshaped in the advent of this sustainable mode, there will be also a radical reconfiguring of our aesthetic processes and products.

I personally welcome these societal changes, but I spend a lot of time (and some of it is anxiously spent) thinking about how we are going to get there from here.  One of the things I have wondered about is why all of us have such a hard time making progress individually and collectively on the needed changes.  It seems to me that much of it is a failure of the imagination.  We can’t see it, so we can’t understand it, so we can’t choose it.  I’ve just got done arguing that aesthetics reflects cultural values, history, and connection, but now I’ll change tack a bit and assert another role that artists fill among us:  they can function as prophets.  They furnish us with visions of who we are and where we find ourselves, true, but they can also furnish us with visions of who we could be, and how.

Rachel’s voice again:

What do you think would be the aesthetic implications of a conversion of our society to a sustainable mode of living? 

Rachel: “I think there’d be a whole lot of aesthetic beauty in this. I imagine fabrics hanging on lines outside, people in clothing without logos on it, fire, wildness.”

What contribution can aesthetes make to such a conversion, and how might they go about it?

Rachel: “I suppose by making art on these themes. Showing people something that calls to them. Making sustainability look beautiful rather than difficult.”

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Critical to the move to sustainability—I have argued elsewhere in this year’s writing—is people voluntarily setting up limits for their living and their work that in turn set them up to better understand the natural limitations we must soon accommodate.  Artists, I argued, get this, in the sense that choosing a discipline is key to their excelling in their artistic production.  The work of artists and other aesthetes, then, is of critical importance in the intentional effort to adopt ways of living that heed the earth’s limitations and restore us to just relationship with the natural communities we find ourselves in, since they carry the keyring of imagination, they know how to work with limits, and they have the power to articulate ourselves to ourselves.

My deepest wish for a result from this year of writing is that folks might begin to think about the implications and characteristics of a sustainable form of society and living; that the conversations I long for might begin to happen.  In that spirit, please feel free to comment on the website or otherwise contact us with your thoughts about this topic and/or your answers to the questions in italics above.  You don’t have to be a professional artist for your imagination to count!

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Our Soils

In the quest to reconcile oneself to the life of a place, eventually there is no avoiding the need to understand its soil.  Or, maybe better said, its soils.

I have seen video in which wine tasters make a show of tasting the soil from a vineyard in an attempt to go deeper with the flavor of the wines that come from it.  I do not object to this notion, and there may be something to it, but there is nothing keeping that idea from contributing further to our culture’s habit of understanding soil as producing things for us to consume.  Which it does.  But I’d like us to realize that in a truly interconnected soil system, it is as much the rule that creatures produce soil from what they consume!  In a sustainable agri-culture, humans would fit in with this same pattern, where production and consumption weave into each other in potentially infinitely variable arrangements expressed as relationships.

Maybe we shouldn’t skip over a definition of soil here.  What distinguishes the concept of soil from that of rock powder, or of the residues of life forms, or even of a combination of the two?  Materially, we get close to a definition of soil when we consider its weathered rock, water, air, and life residue components.  But it is a dead definition.  Soil, as it is ordinarily encountered in the vast majority of all wild and productive systems, is anything but dead.  Put another way, any planet with rock and other substances plus energy for the other substances to work on the rock can produce sand, silt, and clay particles in vast quantities over time.  Soil is what happens when Life gets involved in it and stays involved.  It is a dynamic system where solar energy is put to work in the service of constructing dams for entropy (entropy is the tendency of everything to revert to less organized, lower-energy states) that allow life forms to take good advantage of the resources present to them in their location as the energy falls through them and away.  Soil is, in short, the main locus of terrestrial life.  When we understand this properly, I think we begin to lose our ability to understand organisms that spring from the soil as being separate from it.  “From dust we come, and to dust we shall return…” yes, even we are included here.

It has come to be my belief that a large part of our culture’s failure to understand health and nutrition is our ignorance—willful or naïve—of the connection to (even membership in) soil that we are adapted for.  If we wish to achieve health of any of several kinds, it has become clear that we must our whole lives long interact intimately with the soil through eating, touching, hearing, and seeing it and other organisms with a solid vital connection to it.  There are even some who advocate a need for maintaining an electrical connection to soil (this I cannot vouch for, but I am curious about it).

Equally clear as the human health connection is the abject dependence of all of our livelihoods on a functioning soil.  Hunter-gatherer societies may or may not have had a need to consciously regard soil as an entity, since their concern was/is the challenging enough question of how to survive on the products that naturally arose and were available to them from that soil and its inhabitants.  Agricultural societies have a more precarious situation, since they have dared to intervene in the soil’s process and choose new trajectories for it.  Any agricultural society that fails to respect their dependence on healthy and resilient soil—and therefore develop habits of soil maintenance—will eventually fail as the soil’s ability to yield the produce they require wanes.  I’ll call to mind again my metaphor of an entropic dam:  if those obstructions to entropy are removed by disturbance (plowing, overgrazing, poisoning, drought, etc.), entropy resumes its faster pace.  Obvious examples of this are erosion, leaching, oxidation of organic matter, and the return of nitrogenous compounds to gaseous form.  For the non-soil-nerds among us, suffice it to say that these are very, very bad occurrences when we make a habit of any of them.

Which we are, in spades, in modern agriculture.  This loss of soil vitality is what the organic movement has been sounding the alarms about for all these years.  Now, with the urbanization of our population, fewer and fewer of us have a frame of reference for those alarms, which may explain why consumers of “organic” products are now more focused on personal health concerns and effects—it has become a purity narrative—than on reconnecting with and taking responsibility for our own effects on the soil and ecosystems that sustain us.  Resultingly, current organic standards reflect this purity narrative as much as they do the duty narrative of yore, such that farms can be certified organic (indeed they may produce excellent food), while still adding up to a devastating soil system.  Organic standards having been included in the USDA rubric has expanded organic production hugely, but has also exposed organic markets to some of the same pressures conventional markets have faced for many decades, forcing similar compromises.

Taking the sustainability of agricultural systems seriously will necessarily expose some of these compromises and pressures, and will preclude acceptance of many of the advantages that both conventional and organic agriculture currently usually assume.  Namely, the liberal use of fossil fuels for: transport of amendments and produce, soil work, production of nitrogen fertilizers (conventional ag.) and the drying of grains; and the habit of importing fertility (often fossil or mined materials) as an ongoing part of the soil-maintenance program.  Is it not obvious that, unless these issues are addressed, it is impossible to think of the current conventions as sustainable systems?

What is agriculture like when you can’t just test your soil to see what is lacking compared to the idealized standard and purchase the prescribed remedy?  What if the percentage of land that can be dedicated to a given cropping system or type is limited by the availability of the appropriate resources near at hand?  What if, once the nutrients leach out, they can’t be replaced?  Anyone who is accustomed to U.S. Agriculture as currently practiced (organic or conventional), will appreciate the challenge this would entail.  It is, I believe, the kind of challenge our society must eventually face.  There are some of us who are trying to think about this before circumstances force us that direction.

Those with good imaginations might also appreciate that each place, with its own unique soil constraints, could be counted on, in such circumstances, to generate its own set of solutions, its own palette of possibilities, its own sense of proportion, its own abundance…its own unique character.  Let’s return to winemaking as an example:  The set of minerals and compounds and organisms found in the soil in those vineyards may indeed have an effect on the flavor of the grapes grown there, and if the vintners have grown fond of that flavor and understand its derivation, they will carefully avoid importing materials or otherwise changing the soil in ways that might disrupt their unique soil situation.  Perhaps as much to the point, certain varieties of grape may turn out well or poorly in their location, or be easier or harder to grow for them, with the result that their winery becomes known for a particular blend of varieties that reflects the best of what they have been able to produce in the proportions that they’ve been able to produce them (I’m speculating, but with some confidence).  I believe a sustainable agriculture, being desperately, dutifully, joyously wedded to the soil of a place, will generate this same kind of phenomenon for untold numbers of products, in innumerable places.

Modern agriculture—with its dismissal of soil health and with its tremendous energy backing—collapses these fragile structures, and is collapsing its own foundations, too.  Many modern agronomists recognize this collision course and are hard at work trying to reconcile the problem.  May they succeed!  I suspect, however, that it will be impossible, in the end, to come up with solutions that can be universally applied.  Disregarding the specifics of the locations where agriculture happens is a big part of the problem…likely the solutions will have to return to a regard for those specifics.

At Tangly Woods, we have made it our goal to try to understand what a version of agriculture that was actually sustainable might look like, by trying to accomplish it as nearly as we can on the scale of one family’s needs and abilities, in one place.  As anyone who has spent time around here has found out, there are still plenty of compromises and it is a work in progress.  It turns out that we have a lot to relearn, unlearn, and learn when it comes to the life of the soil…this soil.

One of the first things we learned is that this soil will not tolerate aggressive tillage.  It is naturally prone to settling into a form that is too compacted to admit sufficient oxygen for feeder roots to operate effectively, if they can survive at all.  Over time, the plants, animals and microorganisms that live here without our interference are capable of deepening the available soil layer such that plant vigor can be in the normal range.  If tilled aggressively, this tenuous situation is scrambled, the small amount of organic matter (life residues) thus far generated is oxidized (becomes carbon dioxide and returns to the atmosphere whence it came), and everything collapses into a layer that is hard enough to be removed in chips and flakes.  Steel tools used for weeding in it make sharp, grating noises and tend to bounce off.  Not exactly the garden of dreams, unless you count nightmares.

I say this is a natural occurrence, but let’s bear in mind that before Euro-Americans took plows to this land, this tight soil layer was likely covered with a foot or two of rich loam, which is now at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay smothering ancient, astonishingly productive oyster beds now decimated (but recovering!).  Another effect of all this erosion was the concentration of rocks from those generous topsoil layers…the soil washed away, the rocks didn’t.

Do I sound bitter?  Actually, I am so thankful for this land which has fruited so abundantly for us now that we’ve learned to respect its parameters.  I am thankful for this chance to make some things right, and for the chance to learn, learn, learn.

This year, the big lesson seems to be that our soil trends acid, so we must get good at balancing that.  Given our commitment to on-farm resourcing, this implies learning the skillful use of wood ashes.  My concern there, though, is that calcium may not maintain the prominent position it needs in the mineral mix around the plant roots, since I think potassium hydroxide is the main agent of alkalinity in wood ashes.  Deficient calcium is a somewhat rare situation in the Shenandoah Valley, I believe, since high calcium limestone undergirds and is the parent material for most of the Valley’s soils.  This is true of our location, too, but only if you dig deep enough.  The geology seems to suggest that being snuggled up against Massanutten Mountain as we are has put us in a location where the upper, more acidic layers of rock were not eroded as completely here, and limestone-based soils can only be found by deep excavation.  When we dig down 6 or 8 feet we hit the Valley’s characteristic red-orange clay with sporadic limestone hunks.  And our well water is very high in alkaline minerals, probably mostly calcium.  So irrigating with well water has a liming effect on our typically acid topsoil, which is welcome in the garden (but not the blueberry beds!).

But if you will permit me a little soil geek-out here (skim if you aren’t too interested), I think there is another way to work at the calcium issue at our place, using what’s available.  The trees, especially those with taproots, have their toes in the limestone soils, and they make leaves and drop twigs routinely, both of which I believe are fairly high in calcium, though they tend to decompose in acid environments and result in acidic residues.  These acid decomposition situations are excellent for soil health in that they tend to be populated with fungi, which decompose organic residues into compounds that are stable and resist oxidizing out of the soil.  But the acid nature of the resulting leaf mold and duff probably makes the calcium less available to many crop plants.  My thinking is that we can use fungal-decomposed leaf and twig residues on our gardens and fields, but they will be the most useful, especially in regards to calcium availability, if we simultaneously use wood ashes and/or biochar to increase pH.  For many perennials, the alkalization would be unnecessary.

Some folks cringe at the thought of adding alkaline substances to the soil for fear of destroying fungal bodies.  Point taken: proceed with caution.  But I suspect that disrupting fungal networks in specific locations where crops are being grown that prefer a more neutral pH while allowing undisturbed havens for the fungi nearby (so they can keep incurring) is the magic sauce that garden plants and garden soils will thrive on.

Fungal-developed soils are probably the lifeblood of most healthy plants, but garden and crop plants tend to fall into an ecological class of plants known as ruderals, which are specialists in occupying ephemeral niches created by disturbance in overall more stable systems.  Fire, windfall, animal activity, etc. can create breaks in the ordinary business of running a forest, and suddenly destroyed and decomposing plant tissues and fungal bodies release a trove of nutrients that ruderals can scoop up and use for a few seasons before the more enduring life forms regroup and reclaim the space.  So if we wish to imitate this [nearly] eternal pattern of life on earth in our agriculture, yet continue to take advantage of high-yielding systems, we do well to: learn to make direct use of many of those more stable life forms, i.e., the plants and fungi of the forests, but also to learn to make indirect use of their abilities to build complex, nutrient-keeping soil conditions, the cascade of resources that generate from the disturbance of which our common crop plants need to thrive.

From my amateur vantage point, I propose four possible strategies (not all original) for working the acid/base, perennial/annual, fungal/bacterial interplay to the benefit of our common crop plants:

  • The above-mentioned pattern of moldered forest products used as soil amendment with the addition of an alkaline substance such as limey soil, wood ashes, or biochar
  • Alley cropping between rows of woody or other perennials. The inclusion of deep-rooted nutrient accumulators in the perennial mix can help reclaim leached nutrients from the alleys.
  • Use of fallows (periods of no mechanical disturbance besides possibly mowing), with re-conversion to cropping preceded by alkalizing amendments, fire, and/or tillage
  • Swidden (“slash and burn”) agriculture, wherein land is allowed to revert all the way to young or even mature forest, then converted through felling and fire to agricultural use for a few years until the burst of fertility wains, then allowing it to revert again.

In a way, you could say that all agriculture besides hydroponics and other aquacultures are already dependent on fungal-developed soils, since all our agricultural soils are useful in part because of the residual organic matter in them that is the legacy of the perennial systems destroyed to make way for the agricultural use.  But this is the opposite of a reassurance, since this dynamic requires reciprocity, or at least implies a pendulum effect.  The time frames may be quite flexible:  Swidden agriculture can count on a rotational schedule of 80 years or more, and soils that are well stocked with organic matter and nutrients from countless centuries of forest or prairie presence can tolerate ruderal agriculture for quite some time before wearing thin.  Herein lies our peril, since the period of use of our main productive soils is long enough that we have managed to build up our entire civilization within that time frame, and have failed to account for the bill that is coming due—the reverse swing of that inexorable pendulum.

There are those who are finding that the soil harm implied by agriculture can be partly, mostly, or even totally halted (reversed?!) by judicious incorporation of abundant soil-building cover crops and green manures into the rotational plan, and/or by re-seeding the soil with beneficial organisms, especially fungi.  I strongly suspect that these ideas will be refined and accepted on a large scale, given their success in the field, and I think that’s a deeply positive development.  I even maintain a shred of hope that they may play a strong role in moving modern society to a sustainable model.  Perhaps this should be added to my list above, but I hesitate to because it is still largely an approach that assumes cropping over a broad scale and with annual, ruderal crop plants, often with specialized machinery, so although it is an approach I see as legitimate, it is of a different class.

Some of the most basic versions of this (rye-vetch winter cover) have been tested and proven to be helpful in slowing the decline, but not stopping it.  More sophisticated approaches including more species in the cover mix and soil inoculation with microorganisms, plus minimal tillage seeding practices and reduced or eliminated chemical fertilizer use are far more promising, and have been distinct problem solvers for lots of farmers whose land was in such desolate straights as to force them to the brink of bankruptcy.  I am not an economic spiritualist—I don’t believe in the infallible wisdom of the marketplace—but I do think that this approach is proving itself and is going to get traction.  We’ll see how far it can go.

One of the upshots of an uptick of organic matter creation in mainstream agriculture by any of the methods mentioned above could be our agricultural soils absorbing a tremendous amount of atmospheric carbon, which could at least partly address our CO2 problem.  Perhaps almost as importantly, the reduced use of chemical fertilizers and the increased nutrient holding effect of these improved soils could pull back our tendency to produce nitrogenous gaseous compounds that are outsized contributors to the greenhouse effect.  It is worth noting, too, that all of these strategies reduce soil leaching, erosion, and runoff, which are the symptoms of ill soil and which are the source of so much devastation for aquatic systems (including well water!).  So much could be healed by taking our duty to the soil, which is to say our duty to ourselves, seriously.

Well, all of this is very interesting to farming nerds like me, but for the purposes of this year’s essay series I have to wonder about how residents of each region might make tailored use of these strategies.  ‘Which approach will work here?’ (wherever here might be) is the question.  And how will that affect the way life is lived in each place, the way food tastes, how densely populated each place can be?  Soils that tolerate some tillage as part of a responsible total plan will permit the planting of many of the crops we are used to eating that might have to be quite rare in a region with more fragile soils.  In the fragile areas, perennial systems should probably dominate, with fruit, nuts, timber, and pasture-based forms of agriculture taking precedence.

This may strike a person with at least a minimal awareness of history as a restatement of the obvious, since our past is littered with examples of regions that specialized in given crops as a result of conditions found locally, and to an extent it is still true even in conventional agriculture.  Lowlands tend to have deep soils, so row crops tend to show up there.  Trees will grow between rocks on a steep slope, so mountainous areas tend to produce the timber.  Duh.  My point is not to ignore those obvious conventions, but to celebrate them, call attention to them, raise them to prominence in the reader’s thinking, and emphasize the value to a sustainable agri-culture of a much more carefully selected, much more nuanced system of production that the people of each place must learn to create and hone as their individual and collective chief work.

Here at Tangly Woods, we humbly submit that we have begun this work for our location.  I mentioned above some of the challenges we have encountered with our soil (the U.S. Geological Soil Survey declares it “…not suitable for agriculture”!), despite which challenges we have of course come to cherish that soil, the fruits of it, the way our lives are every year coming more to reflect its bounty and its limitations.  If it were a rich and fertile bottomland we had happened to find, that might have been reflected in our pursuing an economic opportunity in vegetable production.  As it is, the state of the soil has concentrated our attention into a relatively small area—roughly 100 by 100 feet in the main garden with a few smaller patches outlying and some foraging areas for animals—from which we now derive the majority of our sustenance.  The biggest opportunity has been for learning, and so the main product to flow out from our place for some time to come may well be the insights we find here.  With that in mind, I do hope you find this essay and the others in this series helpful!

The good news for us is that in the areas we have been able to concentrate on the soil is rebounding, at places to an astonishing degree.  I can now run my wheel hoe through some beds almost without breaking stride, which comes as a shock after a few years of bouncing off the rocks held tight by the gritty and silty amalgam.  Clods that are unearthed digging potatoes are now riddled with insect and worm tunnels, and in some places the tilth is so much better that clods are hard to come by.  Far be it from me to rush time forward, but I can hardly wait to see what that garden will be like in ten years!  My vision, heavily influenced by the soil we’ve come to know, is for us to expand production in the next several years not by extending the boundaries of our cultivated area (except for maybe pig pasture), but by expanding the productive capacity of the soil we are already working with.  The evidence would suggest this is the best return for our investment.  I anticipate that the abundance of that area will result in a spillover effect, such that the fertility and productiveness found there will, if tended with care, naturally find its way to the surrounding soils; I see no reason to assume we won’t, one day, be in possession of a patch of soil, perched here on this sunny southeast slope that contends with the finest available soils in productivity and ease of use (somebody is going to have to pick up a lot of rocks first!).  Maybe one day that will represent a financial opportunity for our descendants; a chance to make a living farming.  But more importantly it represents a secure option for making a life here, for those who come after us to have a place to participate in the life of the soil.

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Our Yields

Here it comes.  Basket by basket, on the wagon or lugged in hand; here at Tangly Woods September means our hard-wanted, much-labored-for rewards are flowing in from the gardens.  It’s a busy time, no doubt, since fall crops (carrots, turnips), overwintered plants (spinach, garlic), and cover crops (barley, rye, radishes, clovers, etc.) are going in as the spent plants fade.  But the joy is real.  This time of year we live it, and with gratitude.

This year’s writing is made up of 12 ways of saying, in 12 months, that mutual ownership between place and people is the natural end and character of sustainable agriculture. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, this month’s installment will be dedicated to the concept of yields, because they are the telling elements of any agriculture, they comprise perhaps more than anything else the substance of the life a community comes to live and love in a place, and because—heck—it’s September and who can think about much else?

There is a certain tension I experience when I enter a patch to harvest.  This is especially true for plants that are cropped all in one swoop, such as dry corn, winter squashes, or root crops.  The tension derives from the resolution of some open questions:  How did they do?  Did they respond well to our preparation of soil and the tending we provided, or failed to?  What about this year’s weather cocktail or the disease and herbivore pressure?  For cash farmers, this translates financially.  For us it has significance in our home economy, but only indirectly has a cash implication.  The consequences for the success or failure of the plants to yield is more dietary in our case:  What will our meals look like and taste like this winter?  Will the ratio of one crop to another curtail our usual cuisine and/or inspire the creation of a new wave of recipes that utilize this year’s bumper crop?

For me particularly, there is also the identity question:  What does this feedback mean about how I, who seem to so cherish the notion of myself as a wise and skillful garden farmer, must or may adjust my view of my abilities?  Every year has its own portions of juicy delight for the self-concept and a few pieces of humble pie.

Here on our place, I believe we are at the beginning of crafting a stable system of sustenance from this specific land.  It’s an exciting time, as we acquire new seed and/or develop varieties to suit our conditions, then blend and knit them into a cohesive whole.  The yields tell us a lot about how that project is going!

In this age of commercialized agriculture, it is something of a default setting for most of us to think of yields as products to be consumed (or wasted, as the case too often is).  In my concept of sustainable agriculture, yields are better thought of as the raw materials that we receive from our environment and from which we craft our way of life.  You may think this hopelessly romantic and obviated by economic reality.  Not so fast.  I didn’t claim there was no economic significance.  Quite to the contrary, what I am claiming is that pursuit of sustainability leads us necessarily to deriving our way of life from what the earth can be made to yield without exhausting, ever.  I am arguing that the sustainable economy takes its cues and makes itself from some combination of yields thusly derived.  The land sets the limits, the economy is what we can make of what the land allows.

For the purposes of this discussion, then, a person (like myself) might be most fascinated by the question of what limits each place would set on those populating it, and how those folks might turn the bewildering strength of their human ingenuity to the task of orchestrating a full-service lifestyle out of what that place can be sustainably made to yield.  To me, of course, the most interesting place of all of them is ours, and I humbly wish to submit—in the service of stimulating your thinking—our own flawed, compromised, halting, and (I think) intriguing and charming attempt at the ingenious adaptation I propose as the historical—even prehistorical—human standard.

The easiest way to do this is by a celebration of yields.  What is it, exactly, that we find we can rely on harvesting each year at Tangly Woods?  And why bother…what do we make of it?  I will hazard a list organized by general chronology of the year.  Please, dear reader, do consider yourself most welcome to peruse this list at will, but feel under no obligation (in the end this endeavor became a 38 page single spaced document that is likely most interesting to us!).  Skip and skim and dig deep as you choose, and if you find yourself craving more detail…we live to fill you in!  Just ask.  Diving right in then:

Wood

Winter—when the sap is in the roots—is the time for us to cut trees.  So far this has only meant the taking of trees that are located inconveniently for competition with other plants or for the safety of our structures.  We burn wood for heat, but not much, since our home is designed to take advantage of heat from earth banking and sunlight infiltration.  We also burn a small amount of wood for recreation and outdoor cooking in our fire ring.  Oak and autumn olive wood logs we have sometimes used to grow mushrooms, and we have several times gotten some of the larger logs milled for lumber.  Acceptably straight Black Locust and Red Cedar poles we put aside for fence, trellis, and shed posts.  But by and large we cut wood to burn.  Eventually we will burn through the several-year stockpile of firewood we have on hand, then burn our way through the several more trees that need removal for the above mentioned reasons, and will finally be able to turn our attention to thinning our small woods.  We have about two acres of young woods in our six acres of land, plus another two or so of scrub land.  I have heard that the average house needs 7 acres of woodlot to supply firewood sustainably.  If the house is well designed and moderate in size, I take issue with that.  I think our supply will probably last indefinitely.

Wood ashes, of course, are the natural by-product (far from a waste product) of burning wood for heat.  Ashes are useful in managing garden soil or compost pH (they are strongly alkaline…only spread a thin dusting on soil!), we use them to nixtamalize corn (soaking with alkali releases the niacin in corn…an ancient practice), and whatever is extra beyond those uses gets dumped in a dry, dusty place for chickens to use for dust bathing…it reduces avian lice and mites nicely.

We use the brush that is generated by taking down trees, too.  Some of it gets chipped for path mulches, most gets stockpiled for converting to biochar.  We like for it to be seasoned for at least 8 months before the char burn at the winter solstice.  Perhaps better said, dormant wood collected in one winter can be charred in the next winter; anything cut after the leaves sprout out in spring I put it in the next pile to be charred the winter after next.  Some twig and leaf decomposition takes place over that time, leaving a nice layer of duff that we use half and half with compost for a potting and seed starting mix.  It is loaded with saprophytic fungal bodies, and seems to be a probiotic disease preventative for seedlings, as well as providing excellent drainage and aeration structure.

One other use of wood is for creating planting areas, especially for woody perennials, by digging a trench, filling it with decomposing wood of various ages and diameters and filling in the gaps as best you can with crumbled up rotten wood and duff, then topping the whole mess with the removed topsoil (we used the excavated subsoil to make a retaining bank for it all in our sloped location).  This is known as Hugelkultur, and if our raspberries are any indication, it WORKS!  Check back in in a few years for a report on its suitability for blueberries.

We also use locust poles for fence and shed posts, use various logs and branches for garden markers and stakes and retainers, and even pull aside a piece or two of wood from time to time for carving or crafting in the wood shop.

Water

We don’t grow this, but we sure use it!  I am inclined to break down into effusive reverence here, and that would be fine.  The fact is water is how almost everything happens on a farm, and mostly we don’t have to think about it.

We have three main sources of water: rain, dew, and the well.  We try to think carefully about every place we have changed land shape such that the resulting forms will slow and spread runoff water in our productive areas, and keep it from turning into a troublemaker for buildings, lawns, and driveways.  Those areas mostly don’t need extra water, so we divert their supply to gardens whenever possible, or store it for later use.  Permaculturists can be heard saying that the cheapest place to store water is in the soil, and I agree.  Generally this means making sure the landscape is receptive to rainwater and the soil has good organic matter and pore space, but purposely stopping it or slowing it to allow infiltration can help build groundwater supplies and raise the water table on a farm.  We have a few of the classic swales one sees in Permaculture designs, and I think they help supply water to nearby trees pretty effectively.  In one case we’ve dug a pit and filled it with rocks in a location where runoff tends to accumulate.  This is near the main vegetable garden, so the hope is that water can soak in there and keep the soil water levels in the whole area a bit higher.  We divert some of our downspout water to a rain garden; an area that can fill with a few inches of water and sink it in a matter of a few hours.  This is the location of our outdoor fire pit, so the sand we placed on the bottom does double duty as fire prevention and infiltration medium.  We also have one cistern that stores roof runoff.  It is our main water source for animal drinking and is what we use to water the blueberry bushes and other plants that might not want or need the high-calcium water that comes from the well.  This is plumbed to a hydrant but not pressurized, so it doesn’t work to use it with a full-scale garden sprinkler or a soaker hose.  But I found that a “sprinkler hose” turned upside down in the blueberry row releases water just fine under low pressure and functions just about like a soaker hose.

Our well is not a strong one, which is one of several reasons our farm will probably never be a heavy-duty market vegetable business. 1.75 gallons per minute won’t take four acres of broccoli plants through a drought.  But it is enough to supply the house without a hiccup, and if we run the home sized (50 x 30 foot pattern) sprinkler less than 8 hours per day, we never notice disturbances in the water supply.  It is a deep well, so during times when it’s not being drawn from it has opportunity to build up a goodly amount.  Our well water is extremely “hard”, meaning it has a high dissolved alkaline mineral content, probably mostly calcium and magnesium.  I think I have noticed that our plants actually do a little better when we have enough dry periods that we have to water some.  I am guessing this is because of the liming effect of the water.  Rain is always slightly acidic, but we are sometimes downwind of some coal-burning power plants (acid rain) and the high CO2 levels on this planet are increasing the carbonic acid content of rain globally.  These combine with our soil’s natural high acidity and our leaf-based composts in ways that gardens don’t favor, I suspect, and a little calcium and magnesium go a long way to making life tolerable for our crop plants.

I don’t know how much difference dew makes, but sometimes it is surely heavy enough to drip into the soil a little.  If we could have two people hold two ends of a hose and drag it across the lawn every morning before the sun come up and evaporates it, I suspect the lawn would be much greener!  We currently employ no such strategies, but just have to accept whatever gifts the dew offers.

Sunshine

Admittedly, our farm only uses a small fraction of the solar energy that strikes us.  But, then, rainforests only use about 2 percent, so we don’t need to feel too badly.

Photosynthesis is obviously the most important yield here.  Trees are in the best position to use light thoroughly and from all angles, and trees that have gaps between them as opposed to a more solid canopy develop or keep side branches that gather light and produce organic matter, nuts, or fruit over a large vertical surface, plus allow herbaceous plants and grasses at the soil surface to thrive nearby.  The productive potential of these mixed systems is phenomenal, mostly because of light management.

Solar energy also functions in other ways for us: passive heating of our home spaces, water heating, and solar photovoltaic electrical generation.  It helps speed laundry drying and the drying of fruits and vegetables in the solar food dryer.  It sanitizes the incubator after a hatch.  It produces vitamin D in our own skin.  The list could go on, of course.

Perennial Spices

Rosemary, Winter Savory, Winter Thyme, Lemon Thyme, Sage; these stalwarts of the spice garden can flavor our food all winter, though in tough winters we have to avoid the damaged branches and we might have to reach under a frost cover for Rosemary.

Chicken Eggs

Due to centuries of selection of chickens, eggs are at least somewhat a year-round assumption.  But with the breeds I included in our breeding stock and without perfected lighting conditions, etc., there is often a slowing of production during winter, which is corrected as the light begins its return in earnest: long about February.  So I include it here.  What would we do without our eggs?  Almost every day for breakfast, and usually they end up in something else, too, throughout the day.  We probably use two dozen every three days most of the time.  With the pasturage our chickens get and with our feeding regimen encouraging foraging, the yolks of our eggs are so yellow they are almost red sometimes.  Eggs are the binder in countless versions of skillet patties, oven casseroles, and pan cakes, and they add structure to breading coatings.  Our cooking is so infused with the properties of eggs…is there any food we would miss more?

Duck Eggs

A few years ago Kali got interested in raising some ducks, and it has been an enduring interest.  Duck eggs are denser in protein and fat and with a proportionally larger yolk than chicken eggs.  Many chefs adore the density and viscosity of duck eggs for use in baked goods.  We don’t bake many cakes, etc., so for us they mostly just end up on the skillet like the chicken eggs.  Ducks fed mostly on purchased feed are probably a bit less efficient than laying chicken hens, but if allowed to forage for most of their feed, some breeds might be able to produce eggs with less purchased inputs than chickens, especially if they have access to bodies of water.  We want that pond!

Spinach

This is really the first thing of any bulk we get to harvest in spring.  As soon as the weather warms a little in late February or early March, the fall-sown spinach plants (we’ve selected our strain for excellent wintering properties) shake off the frost and start growing.  There is no sweeter spinach to be had than that winter growth!  We love making the large, thick leaves our strain produces into spinach salads with boiled eggs and crunched up home-cured bacon, made lively by a dressing recipe Janelle has so modified (to avoid off-farm inputs or industrial food products) that it may as well be her own invention by now.  Freshly picked spinach is the best kind for a cheesy spinach dip recipe we all relish.  We also love adding spinach to soups and stews and such, putting substantial amounts in the freezer to use this way all year.

Welsh Onion

This is a perennial, clumping onion that doesn’t form bulbs as such.  The neck and green leaves are used.  This may be the original “Scallion,” though immature annual bulb onions are often sold as scallions and used the same way.  Though hard freezes damage the foliage a bit and make it harder to use in deep winter (though I know I’ve hacked off a frozen piece for the skillet in January), it is a delight as soon as it starts growing again, which is early.  We cut them an inch or so from the crown and let them get a head of steam again before re-cutting.  This way we enjoy nice, pungent onion stems, leaves, and scapes from the same plant maybe 4 times each growing season.

Garlic Chives

What an underappreciated perennial vegetable!  Just when you’re really craving something green and perky, here come the garlic chives.  They resemble daffodil leaves, though they come a bit later.  Don’t be fooled…daffodils are toxic!  If you have them planted together, use the smell test on clumps of leaves until you can reliably distinguish them.  I say they are underappreciated, but not so in China, a Chinese friend told us.  She was delighted to see them growing on our place.  We use them for giving a mild garlic flavor to lots of soups and egg dishes in spring and into summer.  Especially handy if you are concerned about how your bulb garlic supply is holding up!  We don’t use them in roasted applications or in place of bulb garlic in pestos or hummus, however.  Best used where the leafy component of their fine flavor is an asset.  They also are reported to discourage voles eating tree roots and bark when planted in the root zone or at the tree base, and they flower in late summer, attracting lots of insects.  These are examples of indirect yields.  We have a carpet of them in our blueberry beds.

Onion Chives

If you have any potatoes left and you know how to sour your own cream from whole, raw milk, might we commend the notion of baking a few of those spuds?  Time for more of that crunched-up bacon.  If you’re really good at storing potatoes, you might even be able to hold out for broccoli to come in.  This calls for a cheddar sauce, don’t you think?  Chives are nice added to lots of dips and dressings and sauces, and they couldn’t be easier to grow.

Lettuce

You know what to do with lettuce.  We like ours ruffly and crunchy.  How do people stab into those flat little salads they serve in expensive restaurants?  Maybe they sort of scoop them up with their forks and shlurp it, plus vinaigrette, right on in.  We prefer to eat it by the bowl with nuts, raisins, toasted seeds, ricotta cheese…whatever looks good at the moment!  Overwintering under cover makes for a slightly earlier harvest, but the recovery from the winter takes time, whereas seed sown in spring makes lively plants, and the thinnings from the row come about as early as the winter lettuce, but they can be annoying to process and they tend to make those swanky, limp salads I disparaged above.  We are tinkering with lettuce to get better wintering, but not much progress yet.  Also, we have had poor luck with Romaine, but we have a strain now that might hold some promise.  Stay tuned.

Wintercress

A.k.a. Yellow Rocket, this is a wild green that starts making edible leaves early, but we get excited about its broccoli-like flowers.  This hasn’t been selected for a long harvest window, so you have to patrol your weedy areas often if you want to get many of these.  Nice in stir fries.

Asparagus

Asparagus may be example number one of how we pay dues for trying to do things our own way.  Was I content to purchase asparagus crowns, manure, amend, and till the soil, dig a trench, plant the crowns, water well, keep weeded, refrain from harvest for a few years, then reap rewards for decades?  No, of course not.  I found wild asparagus growing on our land, dug up the crowns, divided them, hacked poor excuses for holes in our flinty ground, surrounded them with strawberries and rhubarb, and hoped for the best.  Which we did not get.  But amazingly they have come around by now with some better care over the years, and we are starting to get some handfuls each year.  We have also, by the way, purchased and installed some crowns a little more according to orthodoxy, and we anticipate some more customary results that way.  Asparagus ends up in the inevitable, tasty egg scramble, and we love it steamed and salted, or pan fried with garlic.

Strawberries

Sorry to say we’re still getting the hang of these in our homegrown, home-supplied system, but I think we’re on to a method now, so we’ll see.  Anyway, when we have a lot of these, we love to make freezer and canned jam, but most of all they get popped in the freezer capped but otherwise unmodified to take out for fruit salads and smoothies all year (that is, those that are not first popped in someone’s mouth).  The first ripe one each year, of course, gets divide equally among all family members unless someone cheats (they better not tell!).

Milk

Ok, so we don’t have a milk animal…yet!  But we have dairy farming neighbors whose raw milk herdshare marketing scheme has the unfortunate property of not being able to use all the milk they want to produce.  They are desperate for people to make use of this excess so they don’t have to endure dumping so much in the manure pit each week.  We hope for them to one day find a more ideal balance between supply and demand, but in the meantime we are happy to help use this gorgeous waste product.  Here’s how:

We drink a bunch of it.

Real, whole, raw cream makes coffee pretty special.

We ferment chicken feed in whole milk to generate a gloppy soured wet mash.  This saves about 50% on feed costs (since the milk has been offered to us free of charge), and because it doesn’t seem as addicting as raw grain for chickens, they tend to forage more, whether pastured in pens or free-ranged.  Their health seems as good or better than on grain feeds, and they lay very well.  Egg flavor is excellent

We make cheese (cottage, farmers, buttermilk, ricotta, cheddar), yogurt, and butter.

The whey and some skin and buttermilk (as well as failed dairy experiments) goes to the pigs, being the probiotic and fermenting medium for their restaurant and T.W. kitchen scraps.  They are radiantly healthy, and we hear whey-reared hogs are superb (milk-fed was excellent last year).

Lambsquarters

This sprouts and begins growing as frost is dissipating, but it is a few weeks before it’s worth harvesting.  We usually have plenty of the ordinary stuff most people hate as a weed that spontaneously grows in any disturbed soil.  Our friend Adam gave us a variety that has magenta coloration to the growing tips, so harvesting is easy on the eyes.  These plants can be ten feet tall at maturity, and at six feet they are still covered in edible growing tips.  If you like the spinach-like flavor, this is an easy way to grow a lot of nutritious food.  We do weed out most of what sprouts in our beds, but often we pinch off the growing tips as we do and it becomes Indian spiced pureed greens, gets stir fried, or ends up pureed and in the freezer for later use as itself or as a way to make homemade bread or pasta more nutritionally complex.

Beet greens

By now the beets might be up enough to thin.  We use these stir fried or in that Indian greens dish.  Not a fave for us, but we don’t usually waste them.  If you like, you can just wash off the root and chuck the whole baby plant in the skillet.  That’s kind of fun.  Greens from mature beets are also usable, but ours are usually full of holes and scars from insect damage by then, and we don’t love them enough to overlook this, so they go in the pig slop bucket as a rule.

Kale

We have finally learned that if we start plants early indoors, we can get them rolling before the flea beetles and cabbage moths get too bad, and if the soil is rich enough the plants grow so fast you can pick off leaves at a rate (every few days) that prevents the cabbage moth eggs from ever hatching.  In weak soil, this doesn’t work; they get caught up with and overwhelmed.  So we are just now finding we can grow spring kale, though we have yet to develop a reliable system or strain that allows for summer and winter survival so we can save seed from the plants the second year.  Anyhow, we love kale steamed or oven-toasted (kale chips), or raw and massaged into crushed kale salad.

Oregano

This is good in the aforementioned kale salad, and it starts out in spring.  That fresh flavor is very nice.  We trim it back a few times during the season to keep it producing tender shoots. We dry enough for pizza and sauces year round and when there is extra fresh, it makes a delicious unique pesto.

Dill

We never have enough dill!  The leaves are excellent with cucumbers in fresh yogurt-dressed salads, or in egg salad.  We also make a beet patty recipe with yogurt cucumber sauce that calls for a lot of dill.  Dill loves tilled soils, and we don’t do much tilling, so it’s not gotten very established for us.  But I think we are getting the hang of encouraging it and it’s starting to colonize more of our garden spaces now; building up its seed bank in the soil.  For some people this is a weed.  We can’t really understand that, but then we make a lot of egg salad and pickles, given the chance.  The immature seed heads (filled out but not dried) are the valuable part for our pickle recipes, both fermented and canned.  The dilly beans are particularly special.

Mushrooms

This is a crop with major potential for any small farm with a woods.  But since I am the only one of the immediate family who enjoys them so far (Terah is still a wild card), the motivation to ramp up production is low.  We have done several batches of inoculation, with mixed results.  We’d have gotten better results by following all the instructions more carefully, I’m sure.  Still, I have carried many a handful of Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms into the kitchen over the years we’ve had mushroom logs, and have found a few wild ones in the woods of puff ball, lion’s mane, and oyster.  I was pleased to discover that oyster grows reasonably well on Autumn Olive logs.

Black Locust flowers

Sometime in spring, the Black Locust blooms.  Its pea-type flowers can be cooked or pickled, but we’ve only eaten them raw.  The girls say they taste half like a pawpaw, half like a green bean.  Not a major crop, but fun.

Redbud flowers

Also not a major crop, but much more of a focus than the locust.  These are gobbled by the girls and snacked on by everyone.  They make their way into as many salads as possible during their short season.  Sweet and tangy.

Violets

What’s not to love about this plant with the valentine leaves and purple and white, edible flowers?  They pick up garnishing salads where the Redbuds leave off.  The leaves are reported to be edible, too, though we haven’t really tried them.  And how much time have we saved on weeding and mulching in garden paths and perennial beds where we’ve allowed the violets to fill in as ground cover?  Thank you, little plant.

Fennel

We hear that fennel can become a problem in the garden, but since our kids stuff handfuls of the leaves in their mouths many times when they walk by, we actually have to encourage it a little.  The leaves are the key partner to sage in our sausage making, and if I eat a leaf, then eat a red raspberry I enjoy a lingering pleasure.  This year the plants got heavy in the rain and fell across a walking path.  I cut them at the base and hung them in the garage to dry (lovely scent in the garage for weeks!)  When dry I trimmed the immature seed heads and have been steeping them with my green and black teas.  Especially nice with the green.  Mature seed can be skillet toasted or just ground (coffee grinder works) and added to meat dishes, teas, and more.  Ours does not produce bulbs.  You’re on your own there.

Mints

We make use of Peppermint (Chocolate Mint?  What’s the difference?), Lemon Balm, and the fuzzy-leafed Apple Mint.  We also have patches of Spearmint, but so far the flavor has been too weedy to use.  I suspect that is a pH problem or a poor soil problem, but I am not sure.  Anyway, we drink unsweetened mint tea all spring, summer, and into fall, then dry some for winter, also.  Throw a few Anise Hyssop or Holy Basil leaves or flowers in for an extra treat.  Also, you should know about Peppermint Pesto:  Honey, Nuts, Coconut Oil, Mint.  Mill it together.  Freeze in patties and coat it in chocolate if you dare.  I will never be the same.

Rhubarb

Crisps, and Peach/Rhubarb or even better Blueberry/Rhubarb jam.  Yum.  Also, Janelle has discovered that it makes a good replacement for lemon juice in most recipes. We harvest in spring when the oxalic acid is said to be lower and Janelle cooks some down, purees it and freezes in ice cube trays to have easily accessible for popping into a recipe here and there.

Red Currant

Maybe it’s my Swedish roots, but I love this tart little fruit.  Mostly we know it as a jam berry, but I think we have a lot to learn about this one.

Amaranth (veggie)

We grow a red-leaved, black-seeded amaranth my Mom used to grow at home in PA.  It volunteers readily, so there are always lots of young plants to weed out as we harvest the growing tip for greens.  Also very nutritious, and used much like Lambsquarters but with a different, earthy flavor.  We tried to use the leaves of our Golden Giant grain amaranth once, I think, and found them courser and less yummy.  This produces enough seed and grows quickly enough to be handy to use as a fill-in cover crop that you can eat before terminating if you want, or if you leave it to maturity you can easily harvest the seed for grain (see below).  Usually we just eat around the edges a little on this one, veggie wise, but at home Mom used to stir-fry it with onions, I think, and add soy sauce and cheese.  Highly edible, and we ate it regularly.

Sour Cherries

Man, I wish we could speak from more experience on this one.  We have one old tree that I barely saved from smothering by multiflora rose a number of years back.  This year we finally got a quart or two before the birds did.  That pie was memorable (sour cherry is my favorite pie).

Serviceberry

Unfortunately, I’ve never seen these growing wild here, though I am sure they once occupied their role in the ecosystem of this hillside, as the few intact mountaintop forests in the area demonstrate.  The only one we have growing here at the moment is a low-growing, shrubby type that sends out runners to form a patch.  The few berries we’ve plucked so far are tantalizing, and the time frame of the patch formation process is not something my monkey mind is taking to very well.  Nevertheless, one runner has now sprouted up in the path, allowing me to think about dividing it off to start a new patch.  Once we’ve got a few spots started, the mathematics of the situation will take over and we’ll be where we want to be, able to generate a nice row from our own divisions if desired.  And I think it will be desired!

Blueberries

Our own plants are still putting on their initial growth after transplant; not ready to bear their own crop.  But we live next door to a top-class blueberry patch, and have unlimited pick-your-own opportunities, so we pick and purchase a LOT of blueberries each season.  Mostly they go in the freezer, too, for kid snacks and fruit salads, but jam (with rhubarb for a special treat) and pure blueberry syrup (just blueberries pureed and reduced on the stove to a glossy syrup) are also popular. We tried drying once but it was too much of a production to blanch first and they are so good fresh/frozen.

Stinging Nettle

This is a high-protein plant.  Unless you know the proper folding technique, do not attempt to eat these raw!  Harvested and chopped with gloves firmly in place, once these are steamed or fried or dried their stingers are disabled.  We enjoy their distinctive flavor a few select ways: cooked in one of the infinite variations of skillet eggs, pureed into a soup, and chopped with garlic and mixed into batter for a savory biscuit.  We like the tender growing tips best, so when the plants grow long and start to flower or get woody stems, we scythe them back to start over.  This happens maybe four times each year.  If we could learn to love nettles more deeply, we could probably shrink our footprint substantially.  What a productive plant!  I have just begun using the dried, pulverized plants in my fermented chicken feed.  The chickens readily eat the leaves, but tend to leave the portions of stem that make it through the shredder intact.

Shelling Peas

Like hordes of gardeners everywhere, we use Green Arrow for our shelled pea crop.  We like them raw in salads or for snacking, we love them freshly steamed, and sometimes we even put a few bags in the freezer!  2017 was a paltry crop of peas.  A neighbor suggested it may be a pH problem.  Peas are always a labor of love and a special food for us.  We could enjoy lots more of them than we have yet produced, but it seems unwise to dedicate more space to them before we have found a system that allows a better yield for our labor!  Maybe best to let them be a delicacy.

Sugar Snap Peas

Maybe there is a better variety out there, but we use good old Sugar Snap for our snap pea crop.  Almost all of these are savored fresh, and then a few get sautéed and in a good year the freezer holds a few.  This year was NOT that year.

Snow Peas

Again, 2017 was a poor year for these.  We’ll add wood ashes in 2018 and see if correcting pH helps.  In any case, some of these get eaten fresh, but these are excellent in stir fries whether fresh picked or from the freezer.

Perennial Leek

We’ve only intermittently managed to squeeze regular, annually grown leeks into our garden plan.  However, when we moved here there was already a perennial variety of leek in residence.  It took me a bit to figure out what it was, but now we’re cool.  We harvest the perennial leeks mostly in spring, a little in fall.  In the heat of summer they die back and in the dead of winter they don’t look too appetizing, if they are up at all.  Traditionally leeks are valued for their long, white, blanched shanks.  But if the plant is not too old and tough, the whole thing is edible.  With the perennials, you’d have to hill them up to get blanching, and you don’t want to remove the base or you’ve destroyed the plant.  So our practice is to cut them about an inch from the base and let them regrow.  So the only white part is the interior of the shank.  That’s fine.

Leeks are a nice mild onion flavor that we’ve still got a lot to learn about, but leeks paired with potatoes in a creamy soup are magical.

Grass

We can’t eat grass (frowny face).  But chickens and pigs can (smiley face)!  And we can eat them and their products (contented sigh).  The Omega-3 and other healthy components of fresh growing grass thusly accumulate to us, and we are grateful.  But grass is also useful as a fertility-boosting, pest-preventing, moisture-conserving mulch for garlic, beans,potatoes, onions…I could go on.  Grass comprises the soil-holding living carpet that allows places to play and travel around our place.

Clover

This is a broad term which includes species whose growth habits and life cycles differ from each other.  What they have in common is a capability to host nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodes on their roots, which helps them eliminate one of the biggest limiting factors in all of plant growth.  This results in high protein content in their tissues, which is a boon for anybody that can digest them.  Humans can eat some of them in some forms in a limited way, but they are wonderful for stock.  Ruminants cannot survive on an exclusive clover diet, though, as digesting them produces too much gas and the beasts bloat dangerously.

Clovers also leave excess nitrogen I the soil when they slough tissue or when they die, which is grabbed by other plants.  Human use of this property of clovers is as old as history.  We use it here, too, though I would not say we’ve mastered it or learned all the potential.

For us, White Dutch clover is sown in any pasture or lawn seed mixture, and is helpful as a direct animal food and for aiding the growth of the pasture or lawn grasses.  Honeybees love the flowers, but we have no hives.  We’ve also tried White Dutch as a ground cover, and it’s nice under woody perennials but in the vegetable garden paths it promotes slugs and spreads quickly, so while I am easier on it at weeding time in the hopes of gaining a little more benefit before eliminating it, we don’t usually let it survive in the annual gardens long-term.

Crimson Clover is an annual clover with lovely red flowers that we (like nearly every other organic gardener and many conventional farmers and gardeners) like to sow with barley as a cover crop combination.  Now if only I could find an easy way to gather and process the seed on a home scale, I would be even more pleased.

Red Clover is a perennial that is a much taller plant than White clover, and spreads more slowly, without forming such a dense mat.  Mostly it spreads by seed.  We allow it to grow with tall woody perennials, often harvesting the tops for pig food, mulch, and even herbal tea (the flowers and tender leaves near them).

Other various clovers whose names I don’t know help themselves to their niches all over, and I am trying to learn where they might be purposely left in planting areas to good effect.  In a weeding frenzy, I try to pause a moment and consider before popping out any clover.

Creeping Thyme

Years back I had read about how some folks use Creeping Thyme as a ground cover, even for paths, and of at least one person who had replaced their lawn with it.  This seeming too good to be true, I hankered to try it out, but never got around to it until two years ago when I sought a solution to retaining a fairly dramatically sloped raised bed edge that adjoined a walking and barrow path in the vegetable garden.

Well, I’ll be durned.  It works! It mostly outcompetes other plants it encounters as it spreads, and those it doesn’t you can usually terminate easily with one or two careful extractions from the mat of thyme.  It is tolerant of some foot traffic, and its semi-woody, interwoven stems give excellent traction.  It grows low, never casting too much shade on adjacent plants.  It flowers, attracting beneficial insects.  Soil can’t erode from under it, so far as I can see.  Nearby plants haven’t seemed stunted or outcompeted at all, so long as the thyme was removed to a suitable margin prior to planting or sowing, and it is easily removed by humans with tools.  It seems to tolerate poor soil and dry conditions, though I think it is thicker and spreads quicker in nicer soil.  I haven’t noticed that it harbors slugs or that voles especially like making burrows in it.  Sizable pieces of it transplant well to new locations if watered at first.  The only thing we haven’t done with it is spice our food!  For that we seem to be drawn to the standard Winter Thyme, and Lemon Thyme.

I am now cheering this plant on, eager for it to colonize all my garden paths and some bed edges, thereby reducing my weeding time and making all my garden footsteps fragrant.

Anise Hyssop

This is a licorice-scented native perennial from the mint family.  The tender young leaves are scrumptious, as are the young flowers.  It blooms beautifully over a long season, attracting lots of beneficial insects the whole time.  It does not spread vegetatively like other mints, but rather by seed, or perhaps clump divisions, though I have not tried this.

Weeds

This is a yield?  Well, until we get so good at cover cropping that the soil can be supported exclusively though plants that we intend, I am grateful for the contribution of weeds.  After they have fueled the soil process through their photosynthesis and root exudates, we pull them and compost them in situ or in the compost pile and they fuel it further through decomposition.  And now that we have pigs, pulling smartweed, lambsquarters, dandelion, chickweed, poison ivy, and sow thistle have taken on a new pleasure as I watch them chewing and smacking over them with deep contentment.

Groundhogs

Yes, it is true we have eaten our share of groundhog.  Truth be known, an acceptable sausage can be made from the ground meat and maybe even with liver added if it’s a young individual.  But once freezer-burnt it’s not as palatable, so don’t let it languish in the freezer.  We’ve even eaten one in the crock pot with apples.  It was not bad, but I won’t say I loved it.  I could get used to it.

Now that we have started with raising pigs each year, the new solution is to cook the rodents whole and outdoors in an old pot I keep in the shed.  Once thoroughly cooked and cooled, I heave it to the obviously appreciative porcine units.  They eat it so eagerly it scares the baby.

Mice

While I’m discussing making use of vermin (see above), I’ll mention how we use mice.  Mostly they yield annoyance and worry about loss of good seed, etc.  But when I trap them in the composting chicken coop, they get dumped on the floor as is, and if the chickens are in the mood it becomes to all appearances their rugby ball until they’ve managed to eat it.  I’ve seen a chicken swallow a small one whole, and if they find a nest of pinkies or if I disturb one and it seems the right move at the time to eliminate it (feeding them to chickens is the most convenient and humane demise I can think of in short order), they eat them “like bonbons”, as I once heard someone describe their chickens’ way of consuming squash bugs.  Lest we forget chickens are really small dinosaurs…

Cilantro

Humble pie again.  We never have great cilantro.  I think our spice garden might be too hot and dry for it, but soil pH might be the bigger issue.  In any case it almost always bolts before we happen to need it, so we typically eat cilantro out of friends’ gardens.  However, the one thing it does consistently yield for us is its seed, in which form the plant is known as Coriander.  When not overapplied, it can be magic for chicken dishes.  And that’s about all I know to use it for, though occasionally when the seed is fresh I crack open the jar just to get a whiff of Froot Loops.  Bizarre, but true.

Gooseberries

These were growing on our place when we bought it, planted by someone with a knowledge of obscure but tasty fruit.  They require little care.  Picking can be annoying if you lack patience for avoiding thorns, but once in the hand or in a dish on the table, the mauve little orbs are very nice.  Much like a table grape, but with a firmer skin.  Also good for jam, and I hear they are appreciated in pie.

Garlic

This is ready just about the end of spring for us.  This year we ended up with around two bushels, all told, and, yes, we will probably use all of that!  What don’t we use garlic in?  If it calls for onions, we often use garlic, too, and when it calls for one or two cloves, we sometimes use a bulb instead.  Favorite uses include flavoring in fermented and canned pickles, mincing for adding to the spice rub for roasted chickens, mixing with oil on the skillet when frying our heritage-type chicken breast fillets (squabbles have erupted over the crispy little chunks), tossing with potato wedges and plenty of homegrown paprika for roasting, and milling into pestos and hummus. We grow all hard neck garlic which means two harvests – first before we pull the garlic we get to snap off and enjoy the garlic scapes (flower stalks), which we make pesto with, use hand over fist for garlic flavoring in cooking in season, give away as many as we can and sometimes freeze some (double bagged).

Wild Black Raspberry

At the woods edges at our place can be found in late spring one of North America’s most delicate flavor sensations: ripe Black Raspberries.  They are also among the most health-promoting of foods.  We are so fortunate to have access to them, and we try not to waste this resource, though not every day affords the chance to go looking.  If the weather has been dry or disease has caught up to the patch, the berries may be small and dry.  This year they were so nice.  We made some time to bring a few quarts in.

Japanese Wine Raspberry (Wineberries)

We pick the fruit of this exotic plant gladly, even as we wonder whether it is best to encourage it to grow around our place.  Native plant proponents at times disparage the Wineberry and its rapid spread on this continent.  I am no expert here, but since it seems nearly impossible to be rid of it, we see little harm in allowing it to live in a few places and enjoying the fruit.  We also are glad for access to a friend’s parents’ woods, which is habitat for a prolific population of these slightly sticky, fuzzy plants.  An evening of picking there in the season’s peak usually nets us a few gallons, and reacquaints us with the ancient pattern of an intergenerational group of humans earnestly seeking out berries where they freely grow.  The flavor of these berries is tart and sweet and otherwise subtle.  When they are juicy they are very good.  For us they are a source of jam, fruit salad, and annual ritual.

Barley

We grow barley (with Crimson Clover) primarily as a winter cover crop, but lacking tillage equipment and wanting to abstain from its use in our soils anyway influences us to let it mature and die on its own rather than forcibly terminating the plants while green.  Bonus: Grain!  Yes, it takes time and work, but I have made myself a one-handed flail that I can use to thresh out the dried sheaves on a plank laid across two sawhorses, which saves wear and tear on the back.  This year we ended up with over 70 pounds of barley.  We’ve never met a beer we really liked, and so far it seems silly to feed hand-threshed grain to chickens, so we will have to learn to eat barley in earnest! In the past, we’ve ground and sifted it to remove the tough hull, and the resulting flour is quite good.  But it amounts to a refined and unfortified carbohydrate food, since the bran and germ is probably mostly removed, so I don’t want to stuff ourselves on it.

Spring-bearing Red Raspberry

This is actually more of an early summer crop for us, but who’s splitting hairs?  In any case, when these are doing well (ours did at first, now we are slowly learning how to maintain a healthy patch over the longer term), they can put out a lot of good and healthy fruit.  Jams and freezer for fruit salads or snacking again.  They pair beautifully with peaches, which don’t make the list here for us since we have no trees this early and none that produce reliably.

Spring crop of Everbearing White (Yellow) Raspberry

This plant bears better in late summer and early fall, but if you leave the new canes from the last year instead of pruning to the ground in winter, those canes will produce an early summer crop (this is also true of everbearing reds, of which the whites are a derivative variety). In truth, the best overall results might be obtained by concentrating the plant’s energy into the fall crop by complete pruning, but we love these too much to do that to all of them…we want some to taste at each time!  The flavor is more delicate and smooth than the reds, and a few yellows in a bowl of reds on a walnut wood table is a sight to see.

Basil

Basil has a prominent place in our spice garden; we use a lot of it in pasta sauces (canned and otherwise), pesto, dips, and of course with tomatoes and homemade mozzarella.

Cucumbers

Crunch!  When the cucumbers come in, they are so welcome!  I eat piles of them fresh…they must contain something my body wants.  By the end of the harvest, my craving has dissipated a bit.  One of our favorite salads involves fresh cucumber, yogurt, dill, and salt.  Fermented dill pickles are hard to beat, but for winter use we also can whatever cucumbers we, um, can.

Green beans (bush and pole)

For bush beans, we use the old standby variety “Provider”, having tried out a few others.  We have found they are very dependable for producing a lot of straight, clean, delicious beans.  Steamed and gobbled is typically the year’s first use for these, but then they end up in all kinds of dishes, from green bean/barley cakes to roasted veggies with garlic to skillet stir fries.  They are very nice fermented with garlic and dill, or canned thusly.  A few of our French Gold pole beans mixed in with the dilly bean or fermented jars sets them off nicely.  We also grow a purple pole bean that tends to provide us with an ongoing supply of steamed beans for the supper table a few times a week long after the bush beans are done.  We also eat some green beans raw, especially the late season Rattlesnake beans, which can be really rather sweet for a raw green bean.

Goumi

This shrub that shares a genus with the established, opportunistic exotic Autumn Olive comes ripe in early summer for us, and has fruits that are far bigger, and with a smoother and sweeter flavor.  Like Autumn Olive they are Asian in origin and contribute nitrogen to the soil.  Our one bush just produced enough berries to be worth noticing this year.  I hear established planting fairly drip fruit from the twigs, and I look forward to that.  If we notice them cropping up around the farm, we may find that is a yield we don’t want, but on the other hand Autumn Olive is already firmly established here and it seems they would compete for the same niche, so this seemed a likely location to give it a shot.

Alfalfa

This tallish, perennial clover has plenty of uses for soil improvement and animal fodder and forage, but we only have one small patch started, so although the animals eat some and I am sure the soil appreciates the help where it grows, it doesn’t figure prominently.

Our most noticeable use for alfalfa so far is the use of the growing tips as part of a tea mix that an herbalist friend recommended to Janelle for general tonic purposes (alongside stinging nettle, raspberry leaf and mint).  We’ve got enough for that!

Raspberry leaf

The growing tips of raspberry canes are also in the tonic tea mix mentioned above.  Now that the hugelkultur raspberries look like they want to take over the world and will require restraining, we have a supply of this resource that we could never exhaust.  Pigs love raspberry leaves, too, especially in spring.  They made it look so good this year that I tried a mouthful…I’ll stick with tea, thanks.

Beets

These may have been crucial to the diets of medieval Europeans; for us they are a more marginal crop.  But we do use them as a simple cooked vegetable, grated into a chickpea oven patty with dill, fermented, and pickled (vinegar and some sweetener, canned).  The canned pickled beets are in turn used to soak boiled eggs for a flavorful and colorful food.  If we can get good at saving seed from our favorite Cylindra variety (we’ve achieved it only once so far), we might have motivation to get more into this crop.

Zucchini

Assuming the squash vine borer hasn’t killed all the plants before they could even set fruit (which is a common experience for us), we might get some zucchini like normal gardeners.  We like the Costata Romanesca variety because it is finer-grained than the standard issue and is nicer for drying slices as a tortilla chip substitute.  This year we were brave enough to try it again and were rewarded with a few nice flushes and one fruit than hung on long enough to bear a nice pile of good seed, so we’ll probably do it again.

Trombone squash (Tromboncino) – see also winter section to be extra impressed with this vegetable!

We can’t claim anymore that our version of Tromboncino is true to the original Italian heirloom.  Too many years growing near other Moschata varieties has had its effect, so we are constantly selecting out the off types.  Anyhow, these plants have tremendous potential to produce summer squash of fine texture and warmer flavor than zucchini if the squash bugs, green plant bugs and brown-marmonated stink bugs will kindly quit sucking all the life out of the vines and baby fruits, causing fruit abortion.  Last year was bad for this, this year was fair, though now that the bugs’ life cycles are more complete, the vines are starting to put out some fine fruit again.  Very nice with egg scrambles with basil or savory.

Rabbiteye Blueberry

This species of blueberry (at least the one plant we happen to have…thanks to someone who came before us here) produces at the end of the highbush blueberry season, and its own season lasts many weeks.  If I nibble all the ripe ones each time I walk by (always a good idea) the birds don’t get to it too badly.  The fruit is less intensely flavored than highbush types, having a lighter and more citrusy flavor.  We have not attempted anything other than nibbling with regard to using the fruit.

Shallots

A friend got us started on shallots a number of years ago, informing us that they were onions you grow like garlic (plant vegetative starts in fall, harvest the following summer).  Sounded interesting.  We tried it once for the experience, and we kept them for the flavor.  Since then we have learned why chefs treasure shallots for sauces and braised dishes (though not searing or hard sautéing like onions, or they will be bitter).  Their warm and bright oniony flavor exceeds what you can achieve with any other allium that we know of.  Our favorite way to use them is to stew them with tomatoes (reducing overnight concentrates the flavor excellently) as an all-purpose savory topping for egg dishes, mac and cheese, etc.  They dry down and store very well, and have the ability to set seed and not exhaust the bulbs, which grow in clumps.  Our population is diverse, yielding bulb clumps of tremendous variability in shape, size, productivity, and color.  We favor the traditional gray/purple color, though, so we are embarking on the long-term project of narrowing the genetics to favor that color and to exhibit ideal usable form and storage characteristics, with good disease and pest resistance.

Monarch caterpillars

Should I open a can of worms by talking about a yield we don’t in any way consume?  I mention these little guys because of how important they feel to me.  Monarchs, in case you didn’t know, have been in serious decline.  Those of us with land need to be letting milkweed flourish where possible to allow more forage and habitat for them.  What a joy to see so many more this year!  May the counts of hibernating butterflies in Mexico this winter be way, way up!

Potato onions

These are sterile (non-seed-producing) clump-forming onions that are planted in fall and harvested in summer, like shallots.  The flavor is more true onion, though.  We have found them to be only moderately useful in the kitchen, since the dryness of the outer skin sometimes penetrates too far into the bulb, such that you either have to tolerate bits of tough skin in your recipes, waste lots of onion, or spend a long time trimming them as you process.  Where they could shine is if you were making a bone broth and wanted onion to flavor that broth as it cooks for a day or so, but where you don’t want or need actual onion matter to make it into the final product.  This species may or may not be grown by us over the long term, but it’s too interesting to let lapse just yet.

Wheat

This is a tantalizing crop, and there is something gratifying and ancient about winnowing out the chaff and seeing the naked wheat berries lying there in a pile waiting only for grinding and mixing and rising and baking to become BREAD!  Trouble is, wheat may be much harder on soil and on our bodies than we knew, so I view my good feelings in the harvest askance.  But for now that which we continue to grow in excess of the seed needed for next year’s cover crop we will consume with gratitude and pleasure.

Winter Pea

We just now have a large enough supply of this seed to try growing it with the wheat or barley.  I am unsure: Can this product be consumed by humans?  Is it possible, for example, to make split pea soup from the dry seeds?  I ate a few fresh this past year and they were good…like small shelling peas.  So more exploration to do here.

Tomatoes

Finally!  We’ve been waiting for nine months or more for a taste of fresh tomato from the garden.  The cherry tomatoes come in first, then the rest start in.  We have two of our own varieties of cherry tomato, one that we are now growing in pots that is a dwarf variety—“Sweet Norita”—descended from an ordinary red hybrid cherry, named in honor of our daughter Nora who had a genetic disorder and died at 7 months’ age.  The other is descended from another hybrid “Sun Gold.”  This one is elongated with a pointed end, yellow in color, rich and mellow in flavor.  We call it “Sun Drop.”  It’s perfect for the kitchen garden, since it produces early, consistently, and long, with nice flavor all the way through, though admittedly, like most tomatoes, the best flavor is in early August when the plants have good vigor, the sun is high, and the temperatures warm.  By mid-September, things have faded a bit.

For table-use slicer tomatoes, we are currently using four varieties:  Black Krim (Brown and purple tones), Kellogg’s Breakfast (Yellow), Mortgage Lifter (Pink/Red), and an unknown green variety.  Kellogg’s Breakfast wins the flavor competition here and has vigorous growth and good productivity, but on all of these we get a little frustrated with the deep cores and some have enough shoulder cracking that spoilage is an issue at times, so we are by no means settled on all these varieties.  This year a friend gave us a new red variety to try that looks very promising!

For sauce, salsa, and dicing, we use Mariana (so we call it…may or may not be like most Mariana types), one of our own we call Sandwich Buddy, Hungarian Paste, and Amish Paste.

Mariana is the star performer when it comes to dicing and salsa.  It is a determinate tomato, and so it bears its crop in a short window, then the plants are exhausted.  This is very handy for efficient processing.  But the best thing about it is the firm texture of the fruits.  Combined with the low moisture and small amount of seeds and goo, I know of no better tomato for adding up to lots of diced tomato product that holds shape and texture through processing.

The Hungarian Paste is our workhorse for sweet-flavored sauce and paste production.  It is early and is still bearing in September.  Given its low moisture content, large fruit size, and the way the pleated fruits sag away from the stem end (permitting the knife-wielder to zip the minimal core off quickly and with minimal loss of fruit), there is no quicker way we know of to process large amounts of tomato matter in a hurry.

Amish Paste.  If you can grow only one tomato, make this the one.  It is dense, yet juicy enough for fresh eating and with classic flavor.  It starts a little later than Hungarian Paste, but is productive and with a long season.  Its slightly elongate and heart-shaped form makes for lots of nice tomato slices from each fruit.  We use this tomato for anything.  I think it would even juice nicely, but would yield a dense juice with rich, intense flavor.

The Sandwich Buddies are still trying to figure out their purpose in life.  They are so called because they are firm and dryish (when you bite down on the sandwich seedy goo doesn’t squirt out the sides), with only a modest core, a pleasantly garbled mix of dry flesh and seed cavity around the edges and a large seed-free middle, and a nice, sweet flavor that wouldn’t overwhelm the other flavors in a sandwich.  But given our lack of confidence in the wheat system and wheat as a crop and food in general, sandwiches haven’t figured too prominently in our diet.  Not ready to let it go yet, we included it with the cooking tomatoes, which it is more like.  But we grew it in low cages and it grew much more vigorously than usual this year, such that it flopped onto the ground and much of what ripened rotted or was attacked by hungry chickens.  Better luck next year.

For generating lots of sun-dried tomatoes with an ideal flavor balance, we can’t beat Principe Borghese.  This year we also ate a stunning quantity of them out of the ever-present (in season) bowl in the middle of the table, but honestly as a fresh tomato they are a little bland.  When dried the flavor is concentrated, though, and comes out just right, whereas standard cherry tomatoes can be a little too intense when dried.

Matt’s Wild Cherry, by the way, has also made itself at home in a few places around, and it is welcome as a weed, but we don’t try anymore to bring many of them in the house.  The harvesting method that makes the most sense for these little guys is to clip the whole raceme when ripe and stack them in a bowl for casual plucking as desired.  Often they didn’t get used before spoiling, so mostly we have ignored them.  But sometimes when you are working outside in the heat and you come across some ripe little tomatoes, they are just the thing.

Despite the chickens having helped themselves to nearly every cooking tomato within reach (and a few they had to jump for), we canned diced tomatoes, salsa, pasta sauce, pureed/reduced tomatoes to use as paste, and tomato/shallot sauce, and this was the first year I don’t think we used any supplemental tomatoes from market gardening friends.  If we put that fence in this winter, the tomatoes will keep us hopping next summer!

Onions

We are several years into the development of our own storage bulb onion variety, so this yield is of particular interest to us.  Some other folks have had chances to try this strain now, and the feedback is positive, one friend reporting a new bed, 3 feet by 30 feet yielding about a hundred pounds.  There are always a few conversations around the time the onions are starting to look ready as to when the optimum time for harvest will be and how close we can get to it given our schedule.  This year we went a little earlier, just after a small dry spell, just before a rainy stretch was due, and while only about 20 to 30 percent of the tops had spontaneously fallen.  My hunch was that some of the pesky storage trouble we see every year was encouraged by onions with dead tissue sitting around too long in moist soil conditions.  My concern, on the other hand, was that if we took them in with greener tops they might dry weirdly.  The jury is still out on that last question since we haven’t gotten into the winter supply yet, but so far so good on the storage question.  I haven’t pulled any rotten onions off the braids yet.

We use bulb onions almost every day in winter if we have them.  We would use more than we can currently produce, I think, but they are more labor intensive on weeding and watering than some other crops, so we have found it impractical to grow a larger planting.  We’ve tried a few seasons of that, and it always gets away from us so the yield is not more than a smaller, better tended planting.  As such, we think of the onion crop as precious, and I fuss over the drying, then the braiding of the bulbs.

Rye

There is little more beautiful than the blue-green leaves and stems of rye, laced with the purple flowers of the vetch that is its growing partner, waving in the summer breeze.  Its yield is mostly in the soil, as each plant develops miles of root fiber that decomposes as soil organic matter.  This is a traditional practice among organic farmers for soil regeneration, though there is some question about whether the net result is as beneficial as was thought, as cereal grains other than oats may also promote oxidation of existing organic matter.  That question unresolved, we nonetheless have, for several years, enjoyed some fresh rye flour as a byproduct of the cover crop.  My Scandinavian heritage is pleased.

Hairy Vetch

Rye’s cover crop partner, the presence of this plant in the mix may buffer the possible oxidative effects of the cereal grass, and certainly leaves more nitrogen in the soil by living there.  We don’t know if we can eat these seeds, but we are grateful for not having to buy them each year.

Peppers

I didn’t like peppers much growing up.  Then I ate a ripe bell pepper, which changed everything.  Why did we only know about the green ones?  Weird.  Anyway Janelle and I always tried to grow nice bell peppers and always had a hard time.  Then we tasted Carmen peppers, and life changed again.  Amazingly, these long, slim, fruity treats were easier to produce!  However, Carmen being usually a hybrid, we had a challenge saving our own seeds.  By now, however, we have worked a few bugs out of our growing system and are beginning to isolate a nice strain, so this year’s harvest was very satisfying and is ongoing.  Liberal consumption of fresh slices—with or without dips—is the crucial point, but what would we do without peppers in our pasta sauces and salsa?  Any fruits not consumed fresh, in daily cooking, or by the summer recipes for winter use get diced and frozen in bags.  A person could also freeze strips for fajitas, but we’ve decided to keep it simple for now.

Not quite content with only red peppers, we have acquired a strain of yellow bell pepper that does a little better for us called Corona.  It seems to have crossed with some of our others, though, so we have another re-selection to do, which is great because that is the way we get a tailored strain for our own conditions!  Ideally we’d love a non-hybrid yellow strain of Carmen-type…maybe one will emerge.  There is a yellow Carmen commercially available, but I believe it’s a hybrid.

Apples

Apples occupy such a long season it is hard to know where to place them in this rough chronology.  We get precious few apples from our young and/or pest-beleaguered trees, but we have a few sources for apples from trees that friends don’t use much fruit from.  Often these are the summer sauce apples such as Lodi or Green Transparent, which is why I placed them here just after the peppers.  These opportunities tend to come on all of a sudden, and it’s not everyone who is ready to dive into a huge picking and processing project on short notice.  So it falls to us, and we are grateful.  It wouldn’t be summer without at least one long day of chopping, cooking, cranking, and canning a few bushels of apples!  Excess sauce can be cooked down on the stove, in the crockpot (lid off), or what have you for apple butter.  We had two great opportunities this year, so there are probably a hundred or more quarts on the shelf!

Sweet corn

We don’t grow any of our own sweet corn yet, though we just made plans for a cooperative patch at a neighbor’s place where they have a stout deer fence.  Still, we have our names in with locals who know about gleaning opportunities, and we are willing to sort through a bedraggled, picked-over corn patch to find the good corn, so we’ve managed that way.  We always save out a few ears for eating off the cob, but most of it gets done up in one or two big days, and gets socked away in the freezer.  This enters soups, becomes a side vegetable, becomes a component of a squash-based summer gravy over potatoes or maybe gets added to salsa.  Worms in the ears are a good sign…we prefer to use corn from a patch that was not sprayed.

Oats

Grown here primarily as a cover crop (it is probably the most beneficial for soil of all the cereal grains due to its promotion of non-oxidative soil conditions), oats show strong potential as a feed crop to grow for chickens.  With its tough outer covering, unhulled oats don’t appeal as irresistibly to chickens as, say, wheat or corn.  So they are less likely to gorge on it, and will choose foraging as a greater percentage of their diet.  If they get hungry, the oats are there for them.

We harvest enough oats despite the attention the chickens and cardinals give them to keep a strain going for cover cropping purposes, but it is too complicated to harvest and process by hand to have seemed worthwhile to grow for person food, despite the fact that we use commercially produced oats in our kitchen with regularity.  Maybe one day we’ll get serious about them, or figure out how to grow the hulless kind without the birds getting them all.  Not yet.

Flowers

We are late comers to including flowers in our garden plan.  We’ve been focused on feeding our bodies, possibly to the neglect of our spirits!  But this year we gave Janelle’s Mom—who loves flowers—the birthday gift of us preparing space and raising plants to fill it of several varieties of flowers of her choosing.  The zinnias and African marigolds, indoors and out, have been turning my head all season.  A splash of color in the field of vision does something to a person.  Thanks, Mom!

Paprika Peppers

How could it possibly be worth growing, deseeding, slicing, drying, and grinding one’s own paprika, you ask?  Well, have you ever tasted the home-grown version?  I’ll wager not.  It’s worth it.  Also, my Hungarian genes are rooting for it.

Okra

Starting with Cajun Jewel and Clemson Spineless, we now have a strain of Okra that seems to be relatively reliable for us, though our patches still don’t wow us.  Still, we get enough for some with okra out of the freezer in winter, and we always bread and fry a little a time or two along with eggplant each summer.  We are eyeing plans to expand.  Okra is a tropical African crop that is not especially well suited here; we know we’re pushing it!  But we’re sort of in the pushing it business, in many ways. It’s very easy to freeze – we just keep a quart bag in the freezer and chop into it until full and start over again.

Eggplant

Our oldest daughter is the one who wanted to try pioneering this one this year.  We’ve tried it before, but flea beetles have got our number with eggplant, so it’s been a no-go.  She took pains, though, to cover the plants when young, so she brought in enough to fry a few tasty fruits and save seed from the best.  So maybe it’s launched.  We’ll see.

  Watermelon

We grow Crimson Sweet Virginia Select.  What we love about it is that it doesn’t seem to matter what size they are or how well they got pollinated, they are always pretty good, and some of them are exceptionally sweet with rich watermelon flavor.  We feel our variety is getting better by us keeping a high standard and only keeping seed from the best performers.  It’s always fun to run the taste tests together, everyone spitting the seeds, if the melon is good, into the same dish.

Cantaloupe

After trying four or five varieties, our soil seemed best able to support Caravelle, at least well enough to produce consistently yummy melons, and that has held true for several years now.  Even I, who have accused cantaloupe of tasting a bit like dirty socks, like this melon.

Peaches

One version of paradise is a place where you get to eat all the peaches you want, ripe off the tree, for free.  In this world, successful organic methods are just now being understood, and not by us yet, so our harvests are slim.  We enjoy every one we get.  If we had all we wanted of peaches, we would freeze a bunch for fruit salads and smoothies, and can a bunch for off-season use as a special treat with cottage cheese atop a bed of lettuce, the basis for peach kuchen, and just plain slurping down.  Someday maybe!

Grapes

Here, too, successful organic methods have not gotten as far as us yet.  But unlike with tree fruits, backyard growers can often get a crop from their vines that might not be retail-worthy but is certainly usable.  This year we got two decent dishpans full of bunches from our young vines, which was more than we could eat fresh, so we froze a few grape pie fillings (which Janelle is crafting into pies for my birthday party later this week!).  Our neighbors have a small market vineyard that provides us gleaning opportunities, so we usually get to juice a bushel or so, which is most welcome.  This year untimely rains compromised much of the Concord crop, so several of us neighbors gathered together at our place and got two juicers going, ending up with over seventy quarts of juice.  The yield was excellent, and the juice was nice, too!  We live for neighborhood events like that.

Thornless Blackberry

We don’t know all our variety names, but we’re glad for the few plants we have, dug from friends’ and neighbors’ plantings, that produce a long, lingering season of berries, the flavor of which does not usually knock our socks off, and the timing of the picking of which can be a little touchy (a day too early and they are too tart – though our Kurdish neighbor friend loved snacking on them green.  A day too late and they are too soft), but which liven our yogurt snacks for a month or two.  The season is almost over as of this writing.  We’re getting the hang of growing them now, so we hope the long row we’ve planted has good flavor, and if not we’ll consider finding one with excellent flavor and learning to grow it.  The health benefits are wonderful, and when blackberries are good they are really good and can be rewardingly productive.

Medicinal Herbs

Yarrow, Pokeweed, Elder, St. John’s Wort, Ground Ivy, Sumac, Wormwood, Chamomile, Valerian, Calendula, Artemisia, Meadowsweet, Milkweed…the list could go on, but in truth I am writing in ignorance.  All I really know about this is that herbalist friends have liked what they have found here, and these are some of what they have come after.  The only thing I have done in the herbal remedy department is failed to cure my warts with milkweed sap and attempted a worming regimen for the hogs, after I saw a nice specimen of parasitic worm hanging from the afterwards end of one of their digestive systems.  I can’t say whether my mixture of garlic, rosemary, and wormwood added to their slop buckets for seven days straight two different times a month apart (and with diatomaceous earth added to every day’s bucket as general practice now) has helped or not.  I haven’t seen one since, but I had never seen one before, either.

Elderberry

The Elder plant is one of those that just keeps giving.  The fruit tastes good and when cooked and sweetened a bit, it’s loaded with health-promoting phytochemicals, the flowers draw hordes of beneficial insects, the plant grows so vigorously it is considered an over-producer of carbon (that it sucks out of the atmosphere) by those who study such things, it is inspiringly beautiful, and herbalists love the whole plant, calling it the “poor man’s apothecary.”  I will say that the syrup of this plant made with honey is undeniably soothing, but beyond that I am uneducated on these matters.  In any case, I am always amazed how much is happening in one little spot when that spot is occupied by Elder.

Wild Black Cherry fruits and pits

The chickens and ducks eat these a little, as we found when butchering recently, since there were some pits in the gizzards.  We sampled a few for the first time and found that when fully ripe they were better than we thought, but plenty small.  They might make good juice.  But the real customers are the hogs, which search for them diligently on or just under the soil beneath the trees, and seem to really enjoy crunching the pits to get at the nut in the center, which might be pretty good, being related to almonds.  We have no way of gauging the value of this yield to us, but judging by how much the pigs think of it, it may well not be incidental.

Buckwheat

This plant supposedly releases phosphorous bound in the soil, and grows so quickly it can outcompete most weeds in tilled ground, then is easy to till in when it’s time for the new sowing.  We don’t till really, so my way is generally to cut the green plants with a sickle and knock the seeds off by slapping the plants against the sloped front edge of a wheelbarrow tray.  Most of the seeds end up in the wheelbarrow that way, and we dry them for the next year’s cover crop, which for us follows onions in rotation.  One year the chickens didn’t eat much of it, so we had enough to eat a little, and it was good.

Red and White Raspberries-fall crop from everbearing plants

September is the thick of the season for these berries, and this year is a good one.  Currently we are picking a generous handful of white raspberries every other day, and close to 2 quarts of reds.  They are starting to accumulate in the freezer!  That means good fruit salads all winter.  Red raspberries are hard to beat for jam, and now that our hugelkultur bed is cranking, it looks promising that we might get to branch out into pies and tarts.  If my Swedish great-grandfather could know that, he would like it.

Black-seeded Amaranth

The same plant that produces the edible, nutritious leaves mentioned above, when allowed to fulfill its life cycle, bears small, black, hulless seed that is an ancient grain.  At first I found it hard to process the seed.  Drying the seed heads usually resulted in mildew, so I went to beating the heads to loosen seed when freshly cut, then drying the seed independently.  This year I have found that allowing the heads to wilt for two days or so before crunching them in the hands and then beating them with a stick inside a large plastic tub.  The seed falls out much more cleanly, what chaff is there is less humid, and the heads don’t have time to get moldy.  After drying the grain for a week or so in a thin layer, it can be winnowed in front of a fan, then sloshed around in a mixing bowl such that any remaining chaff surfaces and collects on the top and can be removed in pinches.  Then it will be clean enough to use.  In any case we like to soak a bit of this overnight with our rice before cooking.  It speckles the rice beautifully with black and complexifies the nutritional profile.  For us, this plant fills the gap between shallots and the following fall’s cover crop of rye.  This year, we are going to have a much bigger harvest, so maybe the rice will have to be the decoration!

Spaghetti squash

Shying away from cereal grains as we do, but loving tomato sauce as we do, spaghetti squash is coming to occupy a more important niche in our diet.  Here again the plants have crossed liberally with other squash types, with some visually inspiring results!  We just hope the flavor is ok on these oddballs and that they show good spaghetti-string character.  If so, we’ll let them be whatever shape and color they want!  If not, we will happily consume the seeds with the squash.  This is another Tangly Woods strain in the making.

Delicata/Sweet Dumpling squashes

These are one of the prime culprits for corrupting our Spaghetti squash strain.  But we forgive them, because when deseeded, sliced, and boiled for 7 minutes, they are a shockingly good quick lunch solution, and when split lengthwise and baked, with a little melted butter applied, it is hard to believe it took me to my adulthood to find out about this food.  Taste testing these squashes is a favorite fall family activity around the dinner table, and the results after just two generations of this have been encouraging.  These are ready to eat about two weeks after harvest, and should be used by Thanksgiving or Christmas at the latest for good flavor.  The seeds are also very nice skillet toasted in lard or butter and salt.  Sprinkle them on a bisque soup for savory crunch.

Figs

A good crop of figs is not something we expect with our growing season which is plenty short for them, but each year we get to enjoy a few nice handfuls from our three plants, amounting to maybe 50 total.  They give us a burst of tropical luxury just as cool weather is starting in, and the season is too short for the flavor to become ho-hum.

Pennsylvania Dutch squash

This is like a butternut on steroids.  The vines can grow to 30 or more feet, and each plant can produce a few long-necked, tan fruits weighing 8 or so pounds (or more) and with a sizable bulb at the end.  The texture of the flesh is juicier and with a more fragrant, fruity flavor than butternut, especially when you wait until after Thanksgiving to eat it, which is traditional.  We love that you can slice off the amount you need from the neck and it will heal over with dried sap.  If you take your next slice within a few days, no deterioration usually occurs.  We bring in usually a few hundred pounds of these squashes, baking them for taste tests, then scooping out the flesh for mixing with breakfast or snack yogurt, freezing in the ice cream maker and eating with berries atop, converting to bisque soups, or any other application of pureed squash or pumpkin, including delicious pies.  It replaces butternut very well in any recipe cubed also.  The seeds, if they are not from an exemplary individual, get skillet toasted and are usually very plump and nutty.  The flesh of the bulbs is a bit stringier, but purees fine and has good flavor.  The fruits will last in storage until early summer of the next year, or maybe longer in idea conditions, but in our experience they are best before about April.

Trombone squash, winter

And this is like a PA Dutch squash on steroids!  The vines are similar, but the necks are often twice as long.  This year we have another 50 incher, and the biggest one hit 17 pounds.  Having been bred as a summer squash, the flavor of these Moschata (same species as PA Dutch, Butternut, and Cheese Squash) winter squashes is not as developed as the others, typically, though we have found it to be perfectly acceptable and better than you expect from most grocery store butternuts.  Storage is simple if you grow them on a trellis as we do:  Just stand them in a corner!

Chestnuts

We have three chestnut trees of nut-bearing age.  They were planted over two decades ago by the woman we bought this place from in 2005.  There was some suggestion they are American chestnut, but I feel sure they are the more common Chinese.  In any case, as summer comes to a close they start dropping mast (two of the trees are earlier than any others in the neighborhood), and this year was a large crop.  We probably ate 3 or 4 gallons and gave away about 7.  Now the squirrels are catching on, so the season has ground to a halt.  We always had bad luck with them in the toaster oven in the past, not knowing what we were doing, and had taken to scoring the nuts with an X shaped cut and boiling them ten minutes or so, then peeling and eating.  A fine food, but laborious.  Then recently around an outdoor fire Kali suggested with try roasting some that way.  I sent her for the campfire popcorn popper and we tried it.  WOW!  Much better.  Half dried, a little singed, a little smoky, and they almost tumbled out of their shells.  Since then we have skillet-toasted them, used the stovetop popcorn popper, roasted them in the oven, and even did a batch in an outdoor pizza oven, but have boiled very few.

Once out of their shells, they pair nicely with Brussels Sprouts, or they can be further enhanced by spending some time in bacon grease on a hot skillet, sprinkled with salt, and devoured without shame.

Hot Pepper

Two varieties, Serrano and what we think of as Thai Dragon make up our hot pepper crop.  This year it was four plants of each, which might have exceeded all previous harvest records for hot pepper except that the acidity trend in our soils or some other factor may have hindered the Serranos, which make up the bulk of our take in most years.  The Thai Dragon we now grow in pots, and they are tiny buggers on a little bushy plant; boy, do they pack a wallop for their size!  The Serranos are plenty hot themselves, but much bigger, juicier and fruitier, so they form the background for our four-ingredient, very satisfying hot sauce (smoked salt, garlic, apple cider vinegar, hot peppers).

Golden Giant Amaranth

We sow this after we harvest our garlic in June.  Harvested just like the black-seeded variety, this kind produces a seed that is not only hulless, but lacking a seed coat.  As such it is even more amenable to eating in bulk than the black-seeded.  We soak it overnight before cooking as a breakfast porridge.  Without soaking the flavor is a bit rougher and more earthy, and our daughter gets a stomachache from it.  With soaking, we all like it with oatmeal-style toppings like nuts, dried fruit, and a touch of maple syrup.  This is the same kind of high-protein grain you can buy the flour of in health food sections, and I think it’s the easiest grain for home growers to grow, process, and utilize with minimal effort and no specialized tools.  We expanded our garlic planting this year, so naturally the Golden Giant crop will also be larger.  Looks like lots of amaranth porridge this winter at Tangly Woods!  Maybe we’ll even branch out and grind some for flour.

Ragi Millet

I think this is also known as African millet.  Anyway it was another of Kali’s ideas that we decided to keep.  It is drought tolerant, produces in marginal soils, and seems to me to add a lot of organic matter to the soil it grows in.  We have grown it alone, as a companion to black beans (worked), and as a ground cover in the P.A. Dutch squash patch, which tends to ramble far and leave gaps that we prefer to see filled with crops than weeds.  Where the squash wants to grow, it seems able to grow over and through the millet.  Would the squash fill in more completely and produce better without the millet?  I can’t say.

We thresh the heads by scuffing them on a rough surface with our shod feet (a flail doesn’t do much to it), during which process the most wonderful grainy smell is released!  The resulting tiny grain has a sweet flavor, adding something special to breads and muffins.  We liked it pretty well as a stand-alone porridge, too.

Sesame

I don’t know how to grow sesame, and I really don’t know how to thresh it or use it.  But somehow I’ve got a handful of plants out there full of pods and headed for harvest, so I guess I had better learn!  This is our first season, so the primary yield thus far is fascination.  Why, I ask myself, are all the plants fuzzy except that one?

Chia

I have yet to successfully grow chia to maturity.  It seems it likes a long season, which we don’t have, and being an experimental crop, it always has to wait for last in the priority list, so I’ve never really given it a fair shot.  However, the unintended learning from that has been that Chia is a vigorous plant from a tiny seed that critters don’t seem to eat which puts on a lot of growth in a hurry, and if you plant it any time after May in our location it’s too late for it to set viable seed.  Eureka!  The ideal cover crop, because the small seed makes distribution a snap and you can let frost kill it without risk of it dropping a lot of seed to become a weed.

When we eventually master the growing of Chia as a crop plant, I suspect we’ll find the tiny, high-omega-3 seeds a valuable addition to our cuisine.  I believe this is a North American native plant adopted by some pre-Columbian cultures as a staple crop.  It is supposed to be tolerant of poor soils and drought.  I believe it, based on what I’ve seen.  I am keen to welcome it into our mix.

Quinoa

I have never grown Quinoa.  I have never even sown it.  But in my mind’s eye the tall plants with the scent of the Andes give up their grain under my flail, and I triumphantly carry a bowl full of clean, winnowed grain in to the house to show my dutifully impressed family.  It is so far, then, a yield of the imagination.

Lentils

We’ve sown these as a companion to oats.  I still think that’s a promising idea, but thus far the variety or our soils or our growing style haven’t been quite right.  I have seen sweet little plants and sweet little pods on those plants.  I’ve even opened the pods and seen perfectly formed, tantalizing lentils inside.  But we have yet to harvest any beyond that.  By the time we’re ready, they are overwhelmed by weeds or laying in the dirt or eaten by animals.  We would eat a lot of home-grown lentils if we could.  I know this because we eat a fair amount of bulk lentils from the mail order co-op as it is!

Sweet potatoes

The ground around the vine bases has heaved, and there is a forty degree night on the weather forecasting horizon.  In our view, it is soon time to dig the sweet potatoes!  We usually go through a few hundred pounds of these each year.  We grow Beauregard and have started with Mahon Yam (not botanically a yam, but a true sweet potato).  Both of these are similar: bright orange flesh with moderate dry matter.  The Mahon Yam is a little smoother in texture, and a tad less sweet, than our old standby Beauregard.  Both store well under dry, cool (not cold) conditions until the following summer or maybe longer if needed.  Sweet potatoes pair nicely with chicken and spinach in one of our favorite winter soups, oven-roasted chunks tossed with garlic and olive oil are a staple, they are nice baked and topped with sausage gravy, and the girls love to snack on boiled pieces of them…another good quick lunch option.  A family favorite is to bake pieces of them with apple pieces and sausage or made into nutty sweet potato waffles.  One way we don’t eat them: pureed, sweetened, and baked with a layer of marshmallows on top!  This traditional Thanksgiving dish is the reason I always thought I didn’t like sweet potatoes as a kid.  A well-cured sweet potato is so fragrant and sweet on its own…must we drown it in sugar?

Black Walnut

This continent’s most distinctively flavored nut, and a producer of fine lumber, the black walnut is high in omega-3s and probably all kinds of other health-promoting substances (even though the plant bears its share of toxicity as well for many plants and animals).

Alas, we don’t care for them too much, though we are keen to be converted, given the harvest potential on all sides at Tangly Woods.

However, we recently took our first foray into using the shell husks as a fabric dye.  This successful experiment turned our poor, dingy futon cover (word to the wise…never buy a creamy white furniture fabric just before embarking on the childbearing years) a dignified gray-brown, almost stainproof color.  In our excitement, a few pairs of socks and underwear, plus a pair of my shorts and two of my shirts ended up the in the pot, too.  Fun.

Dry beans

Currently our dry bean regime is limited to what pinto beans we can grow in our potato patch, though we have a start of black beans and a few others.  We still buy more than we grow.  But having learned a bit of the knack of hand threshing is whetting my appetite for more such crops!  I have to reign myself in so as not to overwhelm our growing capacities.  I wish I could say we notice a huge difference in flavor, and in truth there may be some such benefit from naturally dried beans (no propane necessary), but mostly they taste like regular beans.  The real benefits to us are ecological (beans add nitrogen to the soil and make a good growing partner with potatoes), economical (a tiny bit less participation in the waste and destruction of industrial agricultural systems), and psychological (we grew our own beans!).  They become soups and refried beans in our kitchen.  A particular fave is refried beans topped onto Navajo Fry Bread for an open-faced oven taco.

Ground Cherry

These little annual fruits in paper husks on sticky-stemmed plants are in the category of weeds that don’t always get pulled.  We leave some grow in marginal spaces.  None of us adore them, but they are interesting and it’s good to know you can eat them in a pinch.  I nibble them while I work, and the classic use is pie.  I hope to pick a few quarts soon for a relative who craves just one good ground cherry pie per year, and hasn’t gotten one yet for 2017.

White (Irish) Potatoes

We don’t know what our main variety is, since we got them from a friend originally.  They are just an ordinary white spud.  Yukon Gold makes up a quarter of our crop.  As soon as the pinto beans are done and out of the patch, it’s time to dig the potatoes, too.  Our soil has not so far yielded as many of these as we might like to see, but I am hopeful that this year’s soil preparation (including laying biochar in the trenches before planting) has helped…we shall see.  Regardless, the crop we do get, be it large or small, will be used baked and topped, roasted in the pan with chickens or other meats, roasted as oil-tossed wedges in the oven with hope-grown paprika and garlic, mashed for a side dish for a meat/gravy meal or used as the main layer in Shepherd’s pie, and boiled in chunks for topping with summer gravy or sausage gravy.  For a special, once-a-year treat, drop some pieces in the hot lard kettle as it’s rendering over the fire at hog butchering time, fish them back out, salt them a smidge while they cool a few minutes (please! Be safe) and then devour with great relish and fine bonhomie. And following that hog butchering, some potato donuts fried in lard are nothing short of amazing!

Parsley

This would fall in the “humble pie” category mentioned above.  We’ve hardly ever had as much parsley as we could want.  I think the trouble is that the roots of the parsley plant are affected by a pest that also prevents us growing spring carrots, but spring planting for parsley is most desirable since you want the spice throughout the growing season and it doesn’t overwinter reliably for us.  So the plants look great at first, then they decline and by the end of the summer we often go to the spice garden for parsley and return with a sprig or two instead of the fistful we went after.  This year we tried a fall sowing, which is what has been our carrot key…we’ll see. We have been grateful to friends who have taken our extra parsley plants, planted them, had great yields and shared some with us!

Peanuts

We love the flavor of homegrown peanuts (peanut butter made with coconut oil, skillet-toasted peanuts!), and they are a fun plant to be sure.  But we learned our lesson a few years ago when we sowed four one hundred foot rows of them…weeding was laborious in that unrefined soil, the yield was not astounding due to shortish growing season, and picking the pods off of the dried plants, not to mention shelling the seeds out was tedious and long and yielded less product than justified all that time.  Still, we keep tinkering with small amounts, having sown a 16-foot double row this year interplanted with some sweet potatoes; since they both need to be dug and are ready at the same moment of the year, it seemed at least one step could be minimized and maybe having more jobs available at tuber-digging time could reduce squabbling among young’uns over who gets to retrieve sweet potatoes, when, for how long, etc.  If the sweet potato yield is not too reduced in those areas and if the ages of children prove amenable to completing the processing without too much ardor for the busy parents…it sure would be nice to tick “eliminate purchase of peanut butter” off our mental ‘to-accomplish’ list of homesteading successes.

Persimmons

Ours is the American native species.  The first ones at our place come ripe in September, but the heart of the season is probably October.  Some years fruits will freeze-dry on the tree and we can snack on them into January.  Otherwise, picking the persimmons directly is usually a bad idea.  They are too astringent when underripe to be edible, and it is rare to find a fully ripe one still on the tree.  Typically these are picked by collecting any that aren’t too smashed off of the ground, then slurping down the jelly-like flesh and spitting out the large, bean-shaped seeds.  If a person finds enough of them that way or takes it to the next level by holding out a sheet and shaking the tree to dislodge ripe fruits, the flesh can be milled off the seeds in a Foley mill or with a spoon and a sieve.  Our favorite way to use quantities thusly gathered is in a chocolate persimmon muffin recipe we came across.  It is one of those magic combinations you might not have predicted.

Black Oil Sunflower

No, we don’t have an oil press, sorry to disappoint.  Therefore, we can’t really make direct use of this lovely plant.  For us it is a cover crop, carbon generator (chipped dried stalks make good chicken bedding), insect attractor, bouquet contributor, and bird magnet.  We don’t thresh out enough to cover Janelle’s dad’s feeders’ winter demand (not by a long shot), but goldfinches, chickadees, and titmice home in on it before I would even call it ready to shell out.  To get enough for next year’s sowing, I have to cut the tops while the stems are still green, when I judge the seed is far enough along to mature off the plant.  I hang the tops in bunches in the garage (out of reach of mice), then smash the seeds out and winnow them when the whole mess is dry.  We may give a try to large, snackable sunflower seed varieties soon, now that we know how to grow them reasonably well.

Autumn Olive

Late September through November sees lots of tiny red high-lycopene fruits appear over the acre or two of resurgent scrubland that is a near monoculture of Autumn Olive on our homestead.  We snack on them regularly, the free range chickens gorge on them, the pigs pick them up when they fall in their paddock.  If the migrating robins don’t get them all before the leaves fall, it becomes efficient to strip the clusters of fruit from the twigs and process them into jam, which is uniquely and enjoyably flavored, though it forms an odd white pasty layer at the tops of the jars.  A friend made juice one year, which had the startling property of smelling exactly like tomato juice when the jars were cracked open, then tasting nothing like it.  Must be the lycopene?  Unusual fruit.

Box Turtles

Fear not.  We do not eat the box turtles!  They yield to us the pleasure of benign interaction with a wild and mysterious species.  It is always fun to come across one as long as we haven’t done anything to hurt them.  Once I hit one with a scythe, but only nicked the shell, I think.  Box turtles are sensitive to habitat disturbance, so seeing them (especially the babies) always reassures me that we may be doing something right.  Also, they live a very long time, so they are a reminder of all the changes to this land that they may have seen in their lives.  I hope we are making their world a better place.

Chicken meat

Breeders like us raise a lot of excess chickens, and sink a lot of resources into it, too.  It’s so nice to finally reap the reward back out of that investment, and butchering days are the mechanism for that harvest.  One is coming up this coming weekend, and I am looking forward to more chicken in the freezer (we’ve got to eat some chicken, y’all!) and less feed disappearing from the shed every morning at chore time.

Chickens—how do we use them?  Let me count the ways: Slow-roasted whole is probably our perennial favorite, but works best with birds of sixteen weeks’ age or less, generally.  My prep regime is typically something like minced garlic sautéed in ample butter, drizzled over thawed birds, then a spice mix of ground green and red paprika, cumin, coriander, salt, and black pepper is sprinkled or rubbed onto the skin of the fowl, and a little tucked into the cavity.  We usually roast two or three birds for 2.5-3 or 3.5-4 hours, respectively, at 300 degrees.  Removing the lid for the last 30 minutes renders a crispy skin, then resting the birds in a warm spot with lid on for 20 minutes or so before carving works great to keep the meat from drying out too much.  This means I can usually prep the birds right after lunch and they can go in the oven by 2 or 3 to be ready at 6.  This is a fall-off-the-bone country roasting recipe, and might make a meat connoisseur cringe.  Of course, most chefs would probably turn up their noses at our rangy, forage-fed birds (not 100% wild fed, but truly free ranged as much as possible), but I am fond of referring to the popular offering as “marshmallow chicken”, and don’t enjoy how flavorless and mushy it is.  So we’ll agree to disagree, I guess.

Other popular chicken dishes from the Tangly Woods kitchen include thin breast fillets pan-fried with oil and garlic; chicken sausage made from meat from whole older birds, leg meat from parted-up younger birds, giblets, and some extra fat from butchering; tenders breaded and fried with eggplant and okra; pulled chicken barbecue made from what we sort out from the stock strainings; and broth—with or without meat bits—made from roasted chicken leftovers or bones, skin, necks and [scalded, peeled] feet accumulated during the butchering and parting processes.  The broth—canned or fresh—enriches rice dishes and is the basis for soup and stew all winter.

Duck Meat

I think the potential for meat yield from commonly available forage on a small place might be highest with ducks of any of the non-ruminants we’ve tried.  They are omnivorous, but eat a whole lot of plants of many types, and they grow quickly.

Duck is choice meat.  Their waterfowl heritage gives them strong flying muscles (breast meat), and minimal walking muscles (legs).  All the meat is dark, in contrast to chicken.  The large breast fillets can be a little dry if cooked without the skin on, which is high in fat and helps impart flavor and texture benefits to the breast meat.  Whole roasting of birds is rewarding, but we found the legs less impressive, so what we have begun doing with duck is breaking down the carcass into the breast section, the legs, and everything else.  The shield-shaped breast sections with skin on and bone in we freeze in packs of two or three for roasting.  Three can usually be roasted side by side in a 9 x 13 pan.  Legs get the meat cut off and ground with giblets for sausage meat.  Everything else gets cooked down for stock.  Any extra fat can be rendered (pieces heated gently to release the pure oil) to yield a cooking fat that can replace lard in most uses.  This supposedly figures prominently in historic Jewish cooking.  It is delicious!

Acorns

Is there anything that kids love to collect more than acorns?  Humans have consumed them for far longer than they have wheat, and if they had gotten enough sign-ups to hold the thing, Kali and I were heading for a nut and mast workshop this Sunday that would have caught them up to speed on what our ancient ancestors knew about how to make use of the buggers.

If the relationship between humans and acorns is old, then that between pigs and acorns goes back to time immemorial.  Ground corn makes hogs who don’t get it often go berserk for it.  With acorns, ours find the pile and settle in for a meal.  Eventually, it would be great to have pastures lined with mast-producing trees so each year’s hogs can put on a good bit of their winter weight in acorns, chestnuts, hickories, and the like.  For this year, though, we’ll have to be content with the few trees they will be able to eat from and the random handfuls we and maybe the new neighbor kids bring to them.  We hear that acorn-fattened pork brings top dollar at pricey food joints in New York.  We look forward to the flavor of the pork we will harvest that will have acorns as at least part of their diet.

Insects

The sounds of several species of cricket streams through the open windows as I write; listen to all that chicken food!  The pigs also eat grubs and insects they find in the soil, and there is nothing like them for building the bodies of growing chicks and ducklings.  Chick starter feed is but a poor substitute.  And don’t even get me started on pollination, soil aeration, and nutrient cycling!

Native Hazelnut

Unknown to me until I started working for our neighbors, this shrub produces hard-shelled, smallish, yet tasty and nutritious hazels.  I have not bought any of these, but have found them sprouted here and there in the scrubby areas and have transplanted them to favorable locations.  Given its growth habits it seemed a good choice for between our driveway and the neighbors’, since utility wires are stretched overhead there.  One of these is now fruiting nicely, as are two I put in near the garden, partly for nuts, partly for interest, partly for the long, straight rods the plant tends to grow and which are useful for various temporary staking needs in the garden.  Alida has gotten interested in these this year…shelling them out of their frilly husks can calm and distract her nicely.  If she ever gets to cracking the nuts and we get to eat some meats…bonus!

Popcorn

When the husks and plants have mostly dried and the kernels are hard, it’s time to take in the popcorn.  Each of the two older daughters have their own strain going that is color-driven, and we have a family strain of red popcorn that is flavor- and texture-driven.  Even so, we have to admit that the flavor nod usually goes to Alida’s pink popcorn, which has sweet, almost fruity overtones.  The red is hearty and beautiful and crunchy, but less delicate.  We love both; we love the differences; we love the process of testing and selecting.  This year we’ll do less of it, though, since the timing of the neighbor’s GMO field corn crop’s flowering was too close to the popcorn’s, so most of it will have to be eaten instead of kept in a careful attempt to prevent the genetic contamination which would be undesirable to us but which is also—should we try to sell contaminated seed—illegal!  How it has come to pass that contamination of our corn by seed breeding companies is legally our fault is a long, incredible, unjust story, and beyond the scope of this writing, but if you don’t know it or don’t believe me please educate yourself and be prepared to be offended by the truth.

Be that as it may, every year “our” popcorn gets better suited to our soils and our palates, and everyone loves filling up the baskets at the corn patches with all those beautiful ears—intended colors and off-types alike!

Flour Corn

Corn seeds contain two types of carbohydrate-based endosperm (the starchy part of the kernel): Floury and Flinty.  Flour corns are those strains selected for a high percentage of floury endosperm, which renders the seeds softer, lighter, and easier to grind or chew raw.  We’ve selected a variegated and a red strain that shell easily, and are trying to increase the kernel size and yield of the strains by crossing with larger dent corns and gourdseed corn, preferably the flourier sports of these varieties as they emerge.  Fun to watch the progress!  The ground kernels easily collapse into a fine powder, with flakes of seed coat and bits of germ and flinty endosperm mixed in.  Grinding again yields a fine, soft whole cornmeal, and sifting divides the ground corn into a fine flour and a more gritty meal.  The flour or fine meal make wonderful biscuits, cornbread and other baked goods (the high temperatures of baking seem to bring out the best in floury endosperm), the grittier meal is good for dusting a pizza stone or bread-baking sheet, or can be baked into a courser-textured cornbread or pone.  Having gotten this far in the process, there is a dazzling array of possibilities for using this crop.

Flint corn

This is flour corn’s opposite, being selected for a preponderance of the harder, denser, flinty endosperm.  Popcorn is one variant of flint corn, if that gives you an idea of the texture and weight.  Flint corn is harder to shell and grind, though we select for easy shelling properties.  Truly flinty corns achieve nice flavor without needing to bake them, according to Carol Deppe, one of my favorite garden writers and a plant breeding guru of the sustainable agriculture set.  It seems to be true, and we find that we can make delicious polenta from simply grinding the flint corn (or popcorn, if that makes sense) coarsely and boiling it until soft enough to enjoy.  Whatever is left over can be poured into loaf pans and fridged, where it will gel so firmly that it can be sliced with a bread knife.  We then like to fry slices in the skillet and eat them with eggs for breakfast.  A little salsa or chili to the side completes the picture.  Some like fried polenta with butter and syrup.  We often cook ours with a little sifted wood ash, which helps render the niacin available and creates a new, earthy flavor.  We have settled on a strain of flint corn for our use that has a bronze color, the pigments of which seem to impart a user-friendly flavor that is just one shade more interesting than neutral, which is what you get out of a white corn.  Grinding it finer than polenta style makes it possible to use for cornbread, and the flavor is nice enough, but the texture is less homogenous (the bits swell and gel but do not disintegrate) and may surprise anyone used to cornbread from a box.

Dent Corn

A genetic combination of flint and flour corns, and mostly not used by Native Americans, who tended to grow either flint or flour corns, dent corns are usually more productive than either of the other types, as if they get the full amount of each type in the kernels.  This is great for bulk yield (almost all feed corns are dent corns for this reason), but can be inconvenient in the careful cook’s pantry, since boiling and baking processes are usually both required to get the full flavor benefits from dent corn.  Nevertheless, it is the traditional euro-American hominy corn, and nixtamalization (soaking or cooking with alkali) seems to render its flavors well enough even when only boiled, as in whole kernel hominy and hominy grits, a southern breakfast staple.  We’ve done a little bit of this with the corns we grow for mixing desirable traits into our flour corn, and it’s good.  But we’ll likely not keep trying to grow dent corns beyond perhaps finding a place for Texas Gourdseed corn, which is so unusual in shape and type it suggests its own uses.  Meal ground from yellow dent corn is almost all you probably have ever known as corn meal.  If you can find meal made from the deep-red Bloody Butcher heirloom dent corn, the flavor difference there will likely get you started on your own culinary odyssey with this continent’s own ancient grain.

Sorghum

This is a new phenomenon around here.  Thanks to a neighbor that grows cane sorghum for syrup production (she’d like to supply a craft distiller of rum), last year we got to collect unwanted seed heads from her crop of “Dale” sorghum, shock them up to dry, then thresh out all we wanted.  I stopped threshing at about a bushel of grain, I think, and then shredded the rest of the heads up whole for chicken feed and bedding in one handy product!

Sorghum is a multi-functional plant.  The cane type can be used for grain, syrup/molasses, fodder (the leaves are stripped at harvest), and soil improvement, as the roots are extensive.  It handles tough conditions well.  Cutting the plant back during the growing season supposedly invigorates the plant and causes even more root growth and biomass production.  We used some of the copious seed this year for soil improvement in locations where we intend to plant berries, as well as for a follow-up crop to pigs using a paddock.  The pigs just returned to that paddock and it was fun to see them chewing up and sucking on the sweet canes, and gobbling up the seed heads.  The ground is now littered with shredded sorghum biomass.

We are using the ground grain in many recipes.  Basically anything that calls for flour seems to accept sorghum o.k. except for yeast breads.  This variety is not perhaps the most refined, and maybe that’s why we have trouble milling it fine enough to get rid of that last bit of gritty texture, but we love it anyway and Janelle is drawn to the texture in many products.  She likes food with substance!  Our favorite use, though, has to be 100% Sorghum “Cornbread.”  We were shocked to discover that we liked the sorghum a bit better than the corn in that recipe.  Even tastier with a drizzle of sorghum syrup!

Rice

Remember that humble pie?  Kali got a taste of that a few years back when she bought rice seed and sowed some in flats and some in the soil, and neither produced much of anything.  But they didn’t produce precisely nothing, because we have a little container in the seed collection of her harvest, which awaits further interest and the development of a better system and attention span.  Once we figure out how to grow it, we can deal with the question of how to extract it from the hulls.  In China, of course, every country kitchen contains a rice dehuller/polisher.  Maybe the best yield from any successful rice growing here would be that it might push us over the hump to figuring out dehulling, which would be applicable also to oats and barley.  Now that would be a win!  Of course, we could just read Ben Fulk’s book and learn how he gets away with it in Vermont.

Gourds

With gourds, it would appear the money is in the decorative kind, or at least that’s what the cash croppers seem to go for first to diversify the farm stand.  Lacking that particular kind of entrepreneurial gene, we of course have only grown gourds we can imagine a function for.  Bushel, Gooseneck, and Dipper gourds have come out of our patches, as well as Luffa.  But we have enough shells and extra luffas built up by now that we felt no need to complicate things this season; no gourds in 2017.  Last winter I cleaned up all the old shells and spiffied up a few to experiment with.  The most fun I had was crafting a (very) rough flute from one with a long, thin neck.  But there isn’t much time for such things, so for now they live in a box and take up space in the garage.  We use the luffas, though, for occasional cleaning tasks.  Nothing like it for scrubbing poison ivy oil off of the skin (with soap, and not too hard lest you get contact dermatitis), and it cleans the shower nicely.  Ok for dishes, but don’t bother trying to clean a floor or table top with it.  It is not absorbent enough to carry just the right amount of water with it without leaving too much on the surface, says me.

Radish

Radishes could be a spring crop for us, but it seems the more convenient hole in the rotation schedule falls in…um…fall.  I and sort of Kali like them, so there isn’t a whole lot of motivation to get good at them or develop a strain for us.  However one variety, Daikon, is taking the agronomic world by storm with its ability to punch holes in tight soil with its huge taproot, then die in the cold time of winter, leaving a channel for aeration.  We also use it thusly, and I tried fermenting a few of them cut into sticks.  It’s pretty sulfury…not a taste everyone wants to acquire, but some of us kind of like them!

Turnip

These occupy more or less the same season as radishes, but they get a slightly better score on utility and palatability around here, especially steamed with a little butter and salt.  A few of us like them sliced, raw, too.  Broadcasting turnip seed in the garden when the summer has wound down is customary soil care and one last crop in this area.  Brassicas in general are said to have soil “purifying” abilities (does that indicate a biological or chemical effect?), so maybe that custom serves several purposes.  I have a growing sense that they may be antifungal, but I don’t think I’ve read that anywhere.  I have more in the ground than ever this fall, so we’ll see if they turn out and if we come to use them more than usual.  I do hope so!

Jujube

Our first apartment had a tree growing outside the front door that I had never seen before.  In fall it dropped its leaves with fruits attached all over the sidewalk.  They were spongy and sweet and looked like dates, even having a similarly shaped seed inside.  Eventually we learned the name “Chinese Date” for the tree, which we later learned was the same as “Jujube.”  We transplanted one seedling or root shoot of that plant to our first purchased home in honor of Kali’s birth, then brought it with us here and planted it again.  Then moved it again.  Poor thing!  Somehow it made it through all that and now grows by our front walk.  It is finally big enough to fruit; we hope it gets to dropping fruits in our path!  This is not a developed variety.  There are several that make larger, crispy fruits that remind one of apple.  Someday.

Pork

New to us last year, we are quite sure this is going to continue as a Tangly Woods tradition.  There may be no other single yield that beats the body of a hog for return of nourishing food, sheer utility, wonderful flavor, and neighborly good will.  Hog butchering is not something most people take on alone if they can help it, and doing it well entails equipment and requires knowhow we don’t have yet.  Last year we asked the help of skilled and equipped neighbors who came through in spades…it is among the year’s treasured memories.  The one drawback to last year’s hog butchering was the “feedback” we received in the way of the condition of the carcasses:  we had obviously overfed them!  Now, we use lard happily, but seven gallons from two smallish hogs (we used a small homestead breed known as American Guinea hog) was more than we needed!  This year we’ve focused on fermenting their buckets of restaurant kitchen trimmings in whey rather than whole milk, split the restaurant waste “contract” with another hog raiser, and increased the number of hogs by one to three.  The slop buckets alone might be a little spare for them, so we give them lots of fresh, organic weeds and try to keep them in paddocks that contain some forage.  So far it looks like the balance is going to be much more favorable.

Products we have used from last year’s hog slaughter:  Lard in abundance, cracklings, ground pork (usually spiced to sausage), salt-cured bacon, bacon grease, salt-cured ham, ham hocks and bones for soup starter, ham lard rendered after cooking ham, ribs, backstrap roasts, tenderloin, backbone for stewing, ham bone broth converted to pon hoss, and a little bacon rind I want to try to use for fish bait sometime.

To include all the recipes these products have spawned and enhanced would be overmuch.  Suffice it to say that lard-fried donuts are delicious and don’t make me sick like oil-fried ones, homegrown sausage spiced with sage and fennel and converted to a milky gravy and spread on baked sweet potatoes can almost make a person weep, the bacon quiche was a phenomenon, and nothing can make an egg slide around on a skillet like lard.

Venison

True enough, I have not harvested a deer myself for over two decades now.  I have sat in the tree stand and watched the sun rise or set, though, and that’s nice.  But neighbors are more successful, and they are also generous.  Sometimes we get the ribcage or other bones for stock, sometimes a meatier piece, sometimes a carcass minus choice cuts, sometimes a whole deer.  We usually accept any offer if we can.  Plus motor vehicles accidentally harvest quite a number on the roadways.  If you can change your plans for a day to accommodate a sudden deer butchering, you can have 50 or 60 pounds of red meat for your trouble.  Just make sure it’s fresh!

Venison is one food whose flavor is often improved by pressure canning.  In my view, canned big old buck is just about the best venison there is.  Sometimes a young deer is far better as choice cuts or ground, since the flavor is mild, and older does are the ground venison mainstay.  But both can be made a little blander by pressure canning.  With the old buck, the flavor settles out just right.  We like the flavor best when the meat is cubed and packed in the cans raw with no extra water, but one teaspoon of salt poured in the top.  The meat releases its own juice in the processing.

Ground venison goes in any recipe calling for ground beef (and a few that don’t call for it!).  Venison bone broth, whether pressure-canned or used immediately upon making it, is an excellent starter for bean and lentil soups.  Potatoes are a plus, too.  And remember that carrot top stew I mentioned in the carrot section?

Venison tallow is its own product.  Hard, white, and waxy at room temperature and liquid, clarified golden, and greasy when heated, the rendered fat from deer can be used in soap making, and we’ve filtered it through knit cotton cloth, then poured and dipped candles from it.  Despite the poor reviews such candles get in some literature, we found that when filtered well and with all water/broth excluded, they burned cleanly and without odor.  The tallow can probably be used as a crude wood finish for tool handles, etc., might be good for waterproofing leather, and I have used it mixed with olive oil (to loosen the consistency) as a grafting sealer, though I can’t claim it works as well as the classic recipes, since I have never tried those.  It didn’t seem to harm the apple grafts…they all took this year.

Leaves

Uh…leaves?  Yes, for those of us living on eroded soils, the organic matter and high available mineral content of tree leaves are welcome amendments whether used as mulches or compost ingredients.  Every late fall sees us puttering around to neighbors’ yards, cheerily raking their unwanted treasure and hauling it home, where we stockpile it and dole it out over the following year.  We seem to be erring on the side of too much acid this way, however, so we are keen to learn the use wood ashes and other strategies to keep our garden soils balanced, allowing us to continue to use leaves liberally.  Also, there is the memory-making value of leaping through the crisp air and plunging into a five foot deep heap of leaves and nearly disappearing.  That’s worth a lot.

Clay

This is the kind of thing that the land yields once, so one must exercise caution regarding one’s clay extraction habits.  Not that we use a whole bunch of it.  I use it occasionally to change the shape of the ground when I want to alter the way surface water runs on our land and don’t need to have a fertile planting location, I have used it leveled and compacted while slightly damp as the permanent floor of our woodshed (recommended!), I use it to toss with seeds to pelletize them before sowing in places where chickens might eat the seed and/or I need a layer of soil around the seed to help with germination on the soil surface when broadcast spreading without tillage (works if rain or watering are spaced ok), kids enjoy molding it and leaving it out to dry, and it fuels fond fantasies of one day giving a little more space and time to the making of pots (still working on that perfect mug!).

Rocks

Like clay, this is a one-time yield, though it often doesn’t seem like it.  Phew!  The size of the farmers’ chert piles found in the woods when we moved here bore witness to the condition of the soil when they arrived, and we still haul rock every time we disturb even the top few inches of soil.  For agricultural soil, these omnipresent rocks render it marginally useful at best, according to the U.S. Geological Survey analysis.  So you would think the only yield here would be toil and travail.

Take heart!  We use the buggers a lot.  They have formed the backbone of many landform changes, especially in travel paths and driveways.  We used them as the bulkiest part of a chicken coop foundation, and we have built two parking terraces with them.  The nicer chunks of sandstone have been useful for borders and even seating in landscaped areas.

Carrots

Sown in September rather than spring to avoid the root-boring insect that plagues every spring-sown carrot we’ve ever produced, our Danvers (half-long) type carrots usually sneak in enough development by the time the truly cold weather hits to be well worth digging.  When it looks like they are big enough and the cold is almost upon us (December sometime), we cover them with a deep layer of leaves (straw might be better if we had enough), then pull back the mulch to dig carrots nearly all winter, if the voles don’t get too happy under there.  Toward March the roots have lost much of their December sweetness, so it’s not worth extending the harvest too much beyond February.  Again, breeding for our own patterns seems to be succeeding here.

By the way, the carrot tops are not totally a waste product.  We have enjoyed them very much as an ingredient in venison stew, if not overdone.  No, we probably can’t use all our carrot tops, and they are no good once they’ve had mulch laying on top of them for a while, but when fresh and green they are fine, and the tender thinnings from the row are especially usable.

Chicken compost

One of our sources of compost is an A-framed, stone-founded, dirt-floored chicken coop we built a few years back for the purpose of housing our woods flock of Massanutten chickens.  By keeping it properly hydrated and adding carbon sources as necessary (we have come to like straw the best now that we are generating some), we are able to provide the chickens a sanitary and even nourishing coop floor (the composting action overwhelms pathogens and generates a modest amount of forage), and are in return provided with a bulk quantity of compost for the gardens.  Given the fresh manure percentage here, we don’t use this on plants we are planning to eat fresh from for at least a few weeks after application, but it has been excellent on overwintered plants like garlic.

Humanure compost

And, finally, our other source of compost is a sedentary composting system (we don’t turn the pile) which we use for all kitchen scraps and processing refuse that can’t be fed, as well as some weeds, inedible animal carcasses, rotten eggs from under broody hens, and some manure and litter from coops.  This is also where we compost our own waste.  After we’ve added the last “honey bucket” around the turn of the year, we allow the pile to age for a full year and a half before breaking into it for garden use.  We feel confident in its safety on all crops when treated thusly and certainly have noticed no problems.  We prefer the in-the-moment functionality of the indoor bucket collection system to the customary water toilet (narry a clog, folks, narry a clog), and there are psychological rewards knowing our waste is not going to waste.  I have no definitive proof of this, but it seems to me this element of our system is a key component of building a soil environment that can sustain us over the long term without external inputs (eventually), but that is too big a topic for this paragraph.

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this list.  Or if you skipped most or all of it, then I hope you enjoyed that, too.  I had no idea it would turn out to be so long!  I can’t figure out if I am exhausted by it or energized, but then that is the central conundrum of our life, so there you have it.  Despite the exhaustion associated with it (hopefully not on the part of the reader…oh, dear!), it is not exhaustive, and if we start to get into the less clearly defined yields such as fulfillment, personal growth, a background for children’s education, sharing of our lessons with others who might need them, and so on, this essay could by itself turn into a book.  I’m not saying it won’t maybe someday do that.  But it won’t happen in September!  If you notice any omissions, please feel free to let us know.  This may turn into a working document for our homestead.

I hope the reader can remember while perusing this list that it is not intended as a prescription for all the things a person or family must grow or do or care about.  It is just representing one family’s interaction with one particular place, and we hope it can be helpful in showing just how vivaciously and completely one place can nourish, and the complexity and startling diversity that exists here if we use our lives to attend to what it has to give.  We give this place our attention and labor, it yields to us the stuff of our very lives.

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Our Innovations

(Lest anyone think Jason is not meeting his “one post per month” in 2017, this is his writing from May that has been sitting in My Documents when it should have been shared for you all to read! Imagine May in the woods as you read it! Janelle)

I write this month from another getaway…the reader might be tempted to think all we ever do is take breaks.  Not so, I am afraid.  Rather, the only chance I tend to find to write is when we pry open a stoppage in the normal schedule and chink in some fun!  So here I am, tippety-tapping away in the living room of a rustic cabin built by the CCC in the thirties on the grounds of WV’s Lost River State Park.  Cozy rooms, idyllic weather, blooming mountain laurel on the ample hiking paths…it’s working its magic, and my mind starts thinking of things beyond the everyday; I wake up with new songs in my head.  It’s a good time to write.

Last evening we cooked supper over the fire in pie irons, which, weather permitting, we plan to do each of our three evenings here.  How else to try all the possible combinations of ingredients and still save room for peanut butter s’mores?  There seemed to be a minor memory epidemic (or a glitch in the ingredient buffet arrangement) among us, since several different people forgot to add home-dried oregano, which we all prize, to his or her pizza pocket.  Our oldest daughter missed it on her first round, then on her second round, announced that this time she was going to leave it out on purpose, just to see what it was like that way.  “Forgetting it the first time”, I commented, “was a mistake.  Leaving it out on purpose…that’s innovation!”

I was trying to make Janelle and Kali laugh.  They may have obliged, I don’t remember.  But in truth I was right, and many innovations have begun just that way.  Take for example the recent finds that Chimpologists (my word, maybe) have made, wherein they observed chimps knocking rocks together to break off flakes, then licking the freshly broken surfaces…presumably for the minerals.  One can easily imagine some early human taking a blithe lick, then screaming in pain as his or her tongue accidently ran along the sharp edge and bled.  Was it they or their neighbor whose eyes widened as they encountered that very human moment of stillness and realization…Now there is something I could USE!  One way or another, the creation and modification of rock flakes for cutting animal flesh and plant tissues became big business for us, and fundamentally changed our way of relating to the world and each other.

The ability to innovate is among the set of traits that we humans have emphasized far beyond what any other species has.  It is one of our defining features.  I would argue that humans in our natural state do this almost instinctually, which is what has enabled us to adapt, in astonishingly short periods of time, to almost every climate this planet proffers.  I love seeing how the indigenous peoples of the far north rigged up sunglasses, kept warm and safe in ice houses, and inflated sealskins to attach to their whale harpoons.  Some pacific island nations figured out how to increase their genetic base without using more resources, so I hear, by learning to keep their men strung out on a mind-altering plant, in which circumstance they consume very little food.  These men did scant work, their main usefulness being in supplying fertility to the women as needed!  And who doesn’t love the conical sun hats of the Chinese peasants?  Some of these strategies are surely intentionally developed, some are probably stumbled across in the course of events and kept because they worked.  Either way it’s a new thing under the sun, and that’s the process our species depends on utterly.

It seems to me that there are two situations that lead to surges in innovation.  One is a circumstance of plenty, wherein folks have the luxury to goof around with the details of their environment and every now and again come up with something that makes life a little easier, or funnier, or exciting, or advantageous or what have you.  The other is difficult times, wherein people are pushed beyond the comfort of their customs and made to try something new.  If just one person in a group of desperate humans comes up with some workable method or solution, everyone else notices and before you know it it has become an institution.

For the purposes of this writing series, I am interested in how the innovation process contributes to the localization of economy and culture within a given context.  The sum and interaction of all the little nuances and innovations are what give a place and its people their “character.”  The modern economy has reputedly rendered these distinctives irrelevant, and if we accept the assumptions underpinning that economy (fossil fuels, stable world order, dependable climate, resource availability, etc.), it is hard to argue against that point.  If, however, like me, you doubt the sustainability of those assumptions, you might feel that as the prevalence of the modern economy continues and the economic, ecological, and cultural distinctives of our places erode, we have something to grieve there.

Coming to terms with the implications of this dynamic will naturally lead, I think, to a desire to recover the old strategies, tools, and solutions still present in our communities in whatever amounts, and to learn to use them.  I am not talking about nostalgia here, though I am beginning to think of nostalgia as a grief process of its own.  But whereas nostalgia has a tendency to value times and things gone by because of how they contributed to who we are today, I am referring to a state of mind that recognizes that our ancestors were grappling with their own present circumstances and that their ingenious solutions may again be useful to us, should similar circumstances again prevail.

Taking this a step further, I would suggest that one of the greatest honors we can do our ancestors is to continue their work of adaptation in our present and into our descendants’ future.  Computer enthusiasts will surely now try to make the point that the most meaningful interpretation of that is to adapt ourselves to the electronically mediated life so many of us now find ourselves in.  I do not object to using high-tech tools in the service of the human project, but we ought to consider the mode and degree of our use such that it doesn’t become, or remain, abject dependence.

I refer to continuing our ancestors’ work, but I don’t mean that uncritically.  Some of our ancestors worked pretty hard to take what some others of our ancestors had and needed.  Let’s grieve that well, too.  I mean that in their flawed way, our ancestors were trying to engage their ancestral or stolen places as nourishing and beautiful homes, and just because we have unprecedented distractions available to us now doesn’t get us off the hook for the same duty.  There is no app for this, my friends, except the one hardwired into your brain.

So why am I characterizing this subject matter as “innovation?”  Because that’s what the old solutions were in their time, and that’s our greatest need today.  We are in new circumstances as a species, and in most cases even our regional climates are set to change dramatically if they haven’t started already.  I, for one, want to be in a position to recognize these changes as they progress, and to engage the challenging and exciting work of crafting adapted and connected ways of living as we go.

I declared two situations ripe for the development of innovation: surfeit and famine.  Implied is a third, less ripe state of being: ordinary life, which is a messy but overall stable amalgam of the first two.  In ordinary life, innovation doesn’t stop, it just slows dramatically.  Cultures tend to develop revered and inviolable traditions, which are largely sets of solutions to their circumstances.  So which of the three states of being do we find ourselves in today?  Well, that depends where you live and to whom you are connected.  But the chances are if you are reading this you are among the most privileged beings to ever enjoy the comforts of earth.  Predators don’t bother you, hunger is not a thing really…your greatest challenges relate to status, relationships, finances, and the stress of being divorced nutritionally and psychologically from a healthy ecosystem.  So we must face that as a society we are in the first category, though with the gaps opening between the incomes of the wealthiest and the rest of us, that is less secure for many of us than it used to be.  And with the distortions of industrialism having flooded the economy, you may experience resource-access stresses of novel kinds, such as: Why can’t I find GOOD food in my neighborhood?, and How long can I keep the landlord off my back?  I am not downplaying these challenges.

Myself, I am the child of what our society would consider moderate privilege.  Some of my great-grandparents struggled to keep food on the table, my grandparents were far from wealthy, my mother was a doctor so we usually wanted for nothing and growing up I didn’t worry about resources.  Becoming more politically aware in college and beyond, I have felt a responsibility attached to my inherited privilege.  Yes, it is a responsibility to share what must surely look like excess to most of the world, but I have also come to think of it as a responsibility to innovate.  As mentioned, situations of excess allow for playful trying, and that is a critical function.  If I waste my opportunity on TV, I won’t think much of myself, I must say.  Partly that is because my personality is drawn to crafting new ways in the world, so I am naturally driven to the role of innovator.  But a big piece of it is the sense I have of how precarious this contemporary industrial way of life is when measured by the ancient standards of life on earth.  I live with the thought every day that this is a precious time for humans: a chance to take a few steps forward in ease before our steps become labored again.  Maybe even a chance to set some things right we’ve long done poorly.  Here I am thinking of our regard for sexual minorities, ethnic relations, gender equality, agricultural practices, and more.  I do not mean to imply that indigenous groups haven’t at times achieved high standards in all these areas…they most certainly have.  I mean rather that as a species, especially in the context of civilization, we have been wrestling these demons for millennia with mixed results.  Let’s take our chance to understand this history.

One of the things that seems unusual about our current situation is that with the advent of climate change and our measurement of what’s left of the critical resources of the earth, we find ourselves having a chance to goof off a little, but with the knowledge that it can’t last.  I’d like to challenge us to transform this odd scenario into a fruitful time of preparation.  I’ll divide what I have in mind into a few steps to help order our thinking and give you something to react to:

  • Doubt the prevailing model. Train your mind, preferably in concert with a group, in recognizing the ways in which heedless energy use and profiteering have distorted our culture and economy and distanced us from our contexts.  Do your best to avoid getting caught up in the values and striving of the industrial economy, thus limiting its stranglehold on your autonomy.  Learn to master money’s pollution of your mind and its grip on your choices.
  • Cultivate local awareness. This comes in two parts.  First, we should familiarize ourselves with the particular constraints and bounty of the places in which we find ourselves, and learn what strategies our forebears and precursors employed to thrive here prior to the interference of fossil fuels.  Pursue knowledge of what challenges your home area will face with the advent of climate change.
  • Cultivate awareness of self. Diversity is the absolute linchpin in this process, and there is no one like you.  What are you interested in?  What do you have to contribute?  Notice which topics and elements of your landscape draw your attention.
  • Declare some limits. Combine what you’ve learned about your self and your context to establish a framework within which you will work.  This will require discipline over time, as the conventional economy and culture will not understand your choices, making you feel like a fool at times, but I think you will find it a productive approach.
  • Find your network. Yes, I think it’s important to be well rooted in spots and in circles that include conventional thinking.  Also yes you will need some folks to be in touch with who get it.  What a relief when you don’t have to explain everything (even though it’s important to have to a lot of the time)!
  • Start trying stuff. Maybe this means buying land and learning to live from its fruits, as we are trying.  Maybe it means community organizing for self-determination.  Maybe it’s art in the streets.  Maybe it’s meditation and intention.  Fashion design.  Culinary pursuits.    Circus acts.  Accounting.  You tell me.
  • Reflect and Reset. Periodically you will want to give time to analysis of various kinds, as well as remaining open to feedback and further awareness.  You may also find it necessary to take moments for reiterating your chosen values and limits and rearticulating why you chose them.  Be open also to endings and change.  Surely you will take wrong turns, or life won’t turn out the way you thought.
  • When you finally achieve that fully homegrown raspberry tart or one of your students takes on their first massage client or whatever it is you are into that blends well in your context, it pays to rejoice!  I’m not saying rest on your laurels, I’m saying a few high fives and hugs and wiping of moist eyes goes a long way towards healing the negative messages you will get from the larger, more dominant, doomed culture.

Notice there was no heading labeled, “Innovate.”  That is because innovation is what happens along the way when we are presented with challenges to our conventions, or when we reach for new levels of achievement in something we were already doing.  Any time, I will say, that we go beyond wishing and bend our minds and bodies to the weekday work of reconciling the difference between the way things are and the way we want them to be.  To this work we bring our whole selves, warts and all, and not every innovation makes the world a better place.  Burning petroleum for personal transportation, for example, was a significant innovation.  So was fast food.  And mustard gas.  You see why the limits we set matter?

A few examples from Tangly Woods, I hear you requesting?  Alright, I will oblige.  A year or so ago, while grinding her teeth over our use of imported lemon juice in recipes, Janelle finally tried something she’d been thinking about:  substituting rhubarb!  Folks, it works very well, going especially nicely with lentil stew.  Score!  Another win:  I have been long dissatisfied with the available tomato/pepper cage options.  Either they are topply and hard to install in our stony soil or they are bulky and hard to store.  The twine options I have seen fail too often for our closely calculated plantings.  I don’t have time for staking as many as we need, and determinate tomatoes don’t like pruning anyway.  Finally I dreamed a solution (literally), and spent a few hours designing, then building a prototype from concrete reinforcing wire.  It works!  I have now built over thirty of them.  They stack for storage, don’t topple easily, are easy to pick through, and support growing pepper plants and determinate tomatoes with no pruning or guidance.  Now I just need to learn to make them from tree branches or basket willow!  In a third example, we wanted a round table for social interaction reasons, but couldn’t fit one in our space.  We also wanted the ability to expand, but are both a little irked by needing to store table “leaves” in a closet to be brought out only when the table needs to get bigger, not to mention wrestling with cantankerous table expansion hardware.  After much sketching and staring at the ceiling in the dark, I came up with our football shaped table: two freestanding three-legged tables that butt up against each other, plus two auxiliary rectangular tables of matching dimensions that get used in other parts of the house but can be commandeered as needed for dining table expansion.  Hah!  Works.  That table gets lots of use and attention when guests are around.  I could think of more examples, and so will you once you start taking notice of these issues, but I think you get the idea.

One of the upshots of all this is that when a critical mass (maybe less folks than you might think) have been at this work for some time in our various niches with our various motivations, there begins to be an accumulation of strategies, tools, and solutions that have proven dependable, pleasing, and productive, and have been picked up by others of like (or like enough) mind and inclination.  The accumulation begins to assemble itself into a workable pattern, and you have the emergence of a local culture.  If we have done our work well, then the limits we have chosen will reflect the nature of the earth we inhabit instead of violating it.  That, to me, is the place towards which the long arc of sustainability must bend.  I will work for it, I will talk about it, I will raise my children to live in it.  I invite you to your place in it, and to help me know mine.

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Our Predecessors

Jared Diamond, in his fascinating book on humans, The Third Chimpanzee, proposes the following:  Geographical variation in many aesthetic characteristics of the human form derive from selective pressure based on sexual preference as opposed to functional considerations (if significant survival function remains associated with a feature then that takes precedence).  In some cases, he goes so far as to say that these preferences for certain aesthetic characteristics may be essentially randomly generated at the outset and almost entirely arbitrary, such that whatever combination of the many possibilities prevails in a given population, and for however many centuries the group members all have borne the same stamp, it is quite possible that it has its origins quite simply in whatever happened to be the preferences that emerged as the style among the first inhabitants of that area, or within that culture if more than one culture inhabits an area.  As his starkest example he offers the Solomon Islands (pg. 110), where the islands are not far enough apart to have been settled by people of strikingly different origins, and which were settled more or less at the same time, quite a long time ago, but between the populations of which dramatic and distinctive variations in appearance exist.  Climactic conditions are nearly identical.  He dares us to account for it any other way.

This year’s writing is about the necessity and nature of mutual ownership between people and places over time in a sustainable version of human habitation.  Why am I rattling on about sexual selection?  Because one thing we should recognize about this process of habitation is that it is not something that is done by one generation any more than a truly sustainable agriculture can be practiced by individuals acting alone, and Diamond’s hypothesis about racial variation strikes me as analogous to some of the social and aesthetic features one notices in rooted cultures.  Hats in France, for example.  I remember a National Geographic article that highlighted a phenomenon where in times past each village or region in France maintained a fierce, serious pride and differentiation in the style of the hats worn by the women.  To my eye, of course, each looked sillier than the last, and I could not imagine how in the hang anyone had managed to come up with and successfully promote each non-functional pattern.  In the end, the function seemed to be to have something (anything!) to rally around and claim as a key part to the distinctiveness of one’s group identity.  Such things do offer a richness, bordering on whimsy though it may, that the fashion runway barons of Paris and New York and their hordes of followers seem to at once disregard and crave.  I would wager that each village having its own hat style would alarm these folks, since maquiladoras cannot be efficiently utilized in making only enough hats for one village at a time.  Their money is made by teaching people the pleasure of a new desire instead of an old identity, by getting as many people as possible to fall for the latest item so they can sell lots of them, then repeat the process by making their own creations from the year before seem dowdy.

This is to say, I think we might find that in the establishment of sustainable agri-cultures, distinctive regional characteristics are certain to appear and be cherished, and not all of those will have any logic behind them whatsoever, but will merely be reflections of the preferences of whoever got there first!  This cracks me up.  It is entirely possible that if a viable culture emerges in this valley someday, every person will, say, pierce the top of their left ear with Honey Locust thorns at the age of 15 for no reason.  If Jane Doe did it and was beloved and successful in the ways that culture deems, then it might become part of the stamp.  One of the functions of predecessors is to give us something to rally around, which is to say something to build on.

But of course this is not the only function.  It is important to recognize, especially in this these decades of extreme cultural upheaval, that those individuals regarded as predecessors are the ones that made it through the tough times; through a combination of luck and wits they managed to learn lifecraft in a place and pass the painful lessons learned on to the next generation, whose pain was thus lessened, and whose chances of thriving were thus increased.  So before you get excited about being one of the ancestors, be forewarned: you are going to have to earn at least part of your veneration.

Am I the only person who is fascinated by ancestor worship?  Not that I, myself, worship my ancestors!  Some of them were pretty great, don’t get me wrong.  The ancestor of mine that I tend to gravitate towards when looking for a role model is Leo Nelson, my great-grandfather, who applied his care and skill to generating a fruitful farm and raising a lovely family against steep odds in withering times and conditions in Bayfield, Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century.

But I don’t worship him.  Why not?  I suspect it is because, a) I was raised Christian, and Christians of my family’s ilk typically don’t engage in such, and b) my sense of dependence on him and gratitude to him haven’t been dominant themes in my life.

Maybe in some parallel universe, I was born and raised in the Bayfield area, with the Great Depression having finished its work so thoroughly that the outside world was never seen or heard from again, and it was up to the imported Swedes and the members of the Red Cliff tribe to work out some kind of life in proximity or even together there on the shores of Lake Superior [Kitchi-Gami in Ojibway]  (This reminds me of the mysterious Melungeon communities in the mountains of the Sountheast).  In such a case, my very survival and that of my whole community would be utterly dependent on our brightest ingenuity, but perhaps even more on the memories and accumulated skills represented and carried by our elders.  Then my sense of gratitude to and dependence on Leo and his wife Anna would likely cross over into a form of reverence, which after their deaths would be coupled with a longing and a beseeching that could be called nothing more accurately than worship.

It seems to me this is roughly the function of ancestor worship in the indigenous context, be it an agricultural or hunter/gatherer society.  The way of living that a community’s progenitors managed to craft could never be perfect, but by golly it WORKED, because here we are!  In the long reach of human history, most people most of the time have had a keen awareness of the thin margin that separated them from disaster; the ways of the ancestors were an indispensable guide, an indescribable gift.  Their blessings and satisfaction while alive were key ingredients in the perpetuation of a successful way of living in a place…it is not hard to imagine the beseeching, deferential habits extending beyond the moment of death for those left living, striving, doing their best.  Those in the group who treated their progenitors with indifference or contempt were likely trimmed out of the population (through their ignorance) by predators, the elements, failed crops, hunger, disease, rejection by potential mates, etc.  Those who made it were mostly those who adored and emulated their predecessors.

Here in Virginia in 2017, this is not how it is done.  I’ll speak plainly: success in this madhouse economy mostly doesn’t come by emulating elders.  In order to “succeed” now, you have to keep up with the changes more than you have to memorize the golden way (or what have you).  But what if we find ourselves siding, as I do, with William James (1842-1910), who in a letter to H.G. Wells sent September 11, 1906, complained about “The moral flabbiness born of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.  That—with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success—is our national disease.”  Hmm.  I judge that the patient is as sick as ever it was in 1906.  If we accept that the “cash interpretation” of success is a disease, I warrant we’ll find ourselves seeking, as humans always have done, the wisdom of our elders in the pursuit of healthier versions of success.  But folks, we are out of the habit, and between mass entertainment, the education system, and Wikipedia, we are not going to relearn it until we see one kind of wolf or another at one or more of our doors (for the record: I see them coming).  One of the greatest tragedies of our time is the plethora of retirement facilities full of people who are living longer than any previous generation, who are loaded with wisdom, experience, and stories, and who are also often desperately lonely and nearly entirely ignored.  Frankly, in this cash economy their wisdom is irrelevant.

Here in our neighborhood, there is a side economy going on to some extent…I think William James might approve.  Among several of us, there is the concept—lived out in varying ways—that that cash interpretation of success is a deception.  We are haltingly trying to make choices and establish patterns that depend on the flow of needful resources and needful relationships; to attend and respond to the flows of natural forces; to live as if love mattered.  Yes, we need money to make it work, and we all compromise when we must to make that happen.  But money doesn’t dictate to us what our needs are, or where our interests are going to fall.  I won’t claim that we’ve got a functioning village here, or that what we are doing amounts to a full-blown alternative model.  I am just saying that there are enough of us like this here that I am willing to claim it as an opening in the fog, and I am starting to get curious about what is going to emerge.

In a way I feel as if there is an inkling of the indigenous process of inhabitation (my phrase) at work.  By that I mean that here and again I feel like we are coalescing into a band, a group loosely assembled from many places and trying to make their way in a new place somewhat together.  But whereas the general human pattern would be literally learning to inhabit a previously uninhabited place, this time the new ground is learning how to live as if cash is, in the end, a lie when it comes to success and how to live in a way (partly within, partly removed from the cash-diseased economy) that prioritizes—in the ways we spend and direct our time and attention—those things that make for health, thriving, and reconnection to the life of this planet in real time, in this real place.  I put forward this assertion tentatively, and I know there are no associated guarantees.  People move.  People change.  The world changes around them.  I am just saying there seems to be a little fire to gather around, and I see people sidling up out of the shadows to its warmth.  Goodness knows it’s where I want to be!

To what (besides the geography of our little side valley that seems to have made us a side thought throughout the past two centuries, conveniently placing us outside the mainstream) can we credit this?  Well, I think that—like I suspect it might be for many a band just starting out—tough, new circumstances bring out the innovative, pioneering sides of people, and also bring the innovative pioneers out of the woodwork, and this happened here.  The environmental and political crises of the 60s and 70s were, as circumstances go, pretty tough and new in their ways.  The Counterculture of that time can be seen, I think, as an attempt by some to follow the arrow William James and many others (like, say, Jesus of Nazareth) drew for them; an arrow that pointed away from the rushing mob.  The Hippies and other folks expressing their disillusionment sought a way forward that lived the truth.  They had to try some things, and trial and error being what it is, not everything worked, and even those things that did work didn’t always last.  But there were a few folks who persisted, who saw fruits of their efforts—at least enough to modify their plan and keep on.

Those environmental and political crises have not really abated to the present day.  To our consternation, the same counterproductive forces keep rearing up in different forms.  A person who finds their self disillusioned today is disillusioned in much the same way as John Lennon or, for that matter, William James.

We happen, in our neighborhood, to have had several individuals that tried stuff in the late 70s with cooperative land ownership, etc., who, even though the forms changed around them and some hard, hard lessons were learned, persisted in some way in their pursuit of truthful lives that saw through the lie of cash success.  They have tried to treat their land accordingly and have raised their families on these notions, too.  I believe that to the extent there is a fire to gather around now, it was kindled by these courageous and creative predecessors.

This past Sunday many of us gathered to memorialize one of these predecessors who had passed away a week and a half earlier.  Samuel Johnson, my dear friend, neighbor, and mentor in so many ways succumbed to metastatic prostate cancer.  It was hard to accurately convey to the gathered group the debt of gratitude I feel to him, and I know many others felt the same.  Over time, as we try to carry on with our lives according to the values we shared with him—maybe even learned from him—we know we bear his indelible stamp.

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Our Work of Grief

At the Virginia Association of Biological Farming annual conference last January, I attended a session in which the presenter asked us to write a few thoughts about why we were doing what we wanted to do, then to gather in little knots throughout the room and share our writing.  In reference to our work here at Tangly Woods, that moment was the first time I remember it coming home that there was an element of grief in it for me.

“Grief!” you might be thinking, “How does that have anything to do with the endeavor of sustainable agriculture?”  Well, I have given it some thought since that time, and have had to realize the many ways in which losses, and coming to terms with them, have ended up shaping my thinking about what a truly sustainable agriculture is made of and implies.

The grief I feel daily as I go about my farming and gardening is a bit contradictory, or two-edged anyway.  On the one hand I often find myself grieving the vast quantity of accumulated and beloved knowledge and wisdom that we have lost by way of modernity, that which changes wrought by the industrial revolution and now the digital age have made seem obsolete and so unworthy of preservation.  By shunning a few of the technologies and practices of modern life and agriculture, we at Tangly Woods have put ourselves in a position to often wish we or our neighborhood still possessed the tools, knowledge, and life patterns that would make our goals easier to accomplish.

On the other hand I grieve modernity.  I grieve a sort of innocence and trust that goes along with presuming that whatever makes sense for your bank account is the best course of action.  That voting constitutes your only true civic duty.  That you can have confidence in whatever appears on the shelves of the grocery store.  That this “way of life” we USA Americans have come to cherish and declare ourselves ready to defend at all costs is good and clean and right.  This economy depends on us blithely choosing goods on which to spend our hard-earned monetary power; the system resists us looking behind the label to see the colonization, the injustice, the abuse, the corruption, the devastation behind each shirt, each piece of lumber, each plum, each rubber tire.

And there are other elements of contemporary life that imply grief work, though I would contend that need is usually avoided or unrecognized, and therefore plagues us with dysfunction.

One of the elements, for many of us, is the loss of a home area when we move away from our place of origin, as so many of us do, and as I did.  For me it is compounded by a recognition that I never really knew my home area in the way I am trying to know this valley.  There is also the converse:  the loss to a community of young folks who move on, though in my particular case I never got the impression that beyond my family my leaving was a loss that anybody really felt.  Why, I sometimes wonder, was there nobody in the community who much missed me when I left?  Did I fail to establish deep connections?  Yes, but I also think our culture has adopted an attitude of nonchalance about these losses.  This is just how it works now.  People move around.  You make do.  Maybe that’s a healthy form of coping—it implies acceptance in a way—but it is hard to believe it reflects a well-integrated, interdependent community.

My case is a particular expression of a pattern we can probably agree is general, even almost universal.  It seems to me that these larger patterns of loss are divisible into at least two types: “ordinary” or “natural” losses (arising from within) to be experienced in the course of life as it ebbs and flows its way through history, and systemic losses, which are the results of changes to the course of that history, often externally derived.  Like the fact that rivers have always had periods of low flow and even running dry, and as a result creatures in the ecosystems around them experience losses.  But a pattern of sucking so much water out for industrial and agricultural and civil uses that the river consistently no longer reaches the sea (like the Colorado) amounts to a systemic loss, and implies a change in the particular forms that the ordinary, natural losses take.  The ecosystems react to the systemic change by supplying a new, sometimes novel matrix of life that continues the work of incorporating ordinary losses as they arise.

Perhaps this will clarify the distinction I am trying to make:  A whale biologist will experience grief at the death of an individual known fondly to him or her.  He or she will also experience grief at the extinction of that species.  Both are losses, but they can’t be thought of as the same kind of loss.  The first is an ordinary, natural loss.  The second is systemic.

Applying this to economics, take this example: grocers die, and some percentage of grocery stores have always ended up going out of business.  But a change in the economics of food and retail that results in minimal possibility for any local grocer to continue being a grocer or for any local grocery store to make a go of it…that is a different kind of loss.

How do we categorize the grief I feel at the knowledge that I have no one in my community to share grain harvesting with?  That the much-pined-for simple, sustainable life depends utterly on a level of cooperation and knowledge held and practiced communally that is, in a word, gone?  Does anyone else feel the denial, the anger, the anxiety in that?

I came of age during a time when it was beginning to dawn on some thinkers and some elements of certain subcultures (Mennonite was my subculture of origin) that maybe the hippies had been really, truly right about a few things, most especially the deepening environmental crisis, which is still barreling ahead full steam despite all the hype and international summits and whatnot.  The more a person tries to establish a sustainable way of living from a piece of land (which can be thought of as a microcosm of the patterns needed for all of civilization), the more starkly our society’s current structures and institutions and assumptions show up as a city of cards, and our politics and economic policies begin to look like ways of running interference with the wind.

But the wind is picking up…how long will this city of cards be defended?  It seems to me that for those of us who recognize the peril, it is our duty to grieve the assumptions of our peers—the assumptions most of us grew up with.  It’s a form of leaving home, knowing you can never go back.  We have to try to make lives in the new reality to show the possibilities to others.  You may call this a delusion of grandeur, that I am placing myself and my family in an elite group of innovators whose work is critically important to the future welfare of humankind.  Hm.  Sorry.  The fact is I hope I am wrong in so many ways, and we don’t undertake this work lightly.  Other members of this elite group include all our ancestors and resistant peasants all over the world.

I’d like to urge us to take seriously the role of alternative and sustainable farmers and their allies in leading the transformation of our civilization (if it can be transformed) to patterns of use that can be perpetuated indefinitely in a finite world, which is my definition of sustainability.

In order for us alternative and sustainable farmers to do this work with integrity, I believe we must not shy away from this aspect of grief.  Grief is a matter of stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are the conventional stages in the conventional order), and I think if we pay attention we will each find ourselves operating out of one or more of them.  We’ve got to move beyond the denial stage!  Having labored through this process, and when we have truly accepted the reality of the losses our communities and culture and ecosystems are suffering from, that is the ground we can stand on to participate in the regeneration of the places that belong to us, and to which we belong.

There is no avoiding the reality: loss is painful, and alters our lives in ways that can never be “fixed.”  For example, there is a seven year age gap between our first two living children, because our second child, born when our first daughter was four, lived only seven months and it took some time for us to decide to try again.  So that loss is not only recorded on our hearts, it is recorded in our family structure.  Recently I was speaking with a good friend and the grandfather of a very young child in our neighborhood and friend circle who recently died suddenly of a freak complication of a common illness.  He related feeling like a beautiful new shoot that had so recently appeared in his life—a life complicated by circuitous spiritual paths and a failed marriage—and had meant so much to him was cruelly and unceremoniously lopped off.  He couldn’t understand why, or how his life’s tree was ever going to recover from such an insult.  I offered that a tree in such a situation does typically recover, and usually very well.  But if one looks closely one can always see, in the growth pattern of the trunk, the traumatic event that the tree endured.  In a sense the tree never forgets.  When trees are milled for lumber, the knots in the wood are reminders of the loss of limbs or central leaders, and though I hesitate to offer this perspective in times when loss is fresh, still it seems true to me that in the end the most beautiful wood grain is created around these knots as the tree responds to its losses with continued growth over time.  To wit, I have created the following poem:

Lay it Down

Do you

see this

oak knot?  That elegant

turn of grain

in the board?

Look

how layer after layer of

fresh

wood was laid

around

the place

that limb

was lost!  It’s

grow

or die, my friend, and

make something

beautiful of it if

you can.

Of course there

will

be no forgetting, and

it

can never be what it would

have been.

Can you see how the tree

remembered?

This idea, I think, can be applied to the regeneration of our lands and communities.  I think of the devastation of mountaintop removal mining, of which I do not intend to make light and the effects of which I am not minimizing.  I am simply aware that Life is in the business of transformation.  Time will show us what the world can make of these devastated places, and I would bet that though the scars will never go away, we will also find some beautiful surprises.  Another example is the oyster mushrooms that have been bred to consume spilled petroleum.  Who could have imagined that?  How about the loss of communal knowledge, habits, and practice of grain harvest mentioned above?  To move into a sustainable future for agriculture, which is to say for all of us and our relationship to the world, we will have to grow around these kinds of knots.  A sustainable culture, agriculture, and society will be characterized by the growth that follows such traumas, and much of its beauty will derive from that growth.

A tree, an ecosystem, a culture can be shaped as much by their turbulent losses as by their successful peacetimes, and the astute eye can read in the emergent patterns of growth a living memory (not a dry record) of the traumas and resilience that have happened there.  As often happens, I am reminded of Emily Saliers’ line from the Indigo Girls song Everything in its Own Time, “When the winds have blown things ‘round and back again, what was once your pain will be your home.”

I’ve been generalizing here, but another aspect of all this that fascinates me is how each bioregion, each community, each farm undergoes this same process of trauma and resilience.  It will be interesting (in moments when we are not panicking) to see what forms emerge from the current and coming turbulence.  Easy times induce uniformity (not exclusively) whereas adversity engenders diversity (except when it doesn’t), as each set of circumstances influences the shape of its own solutions.  Like so many aspects of life on Earth, the principles are universal, many patterns are translatable, but the results are inevitably specific and particular.  It’s like the pattern of highly populated herbivores browsing off all the lower leaves of the trees in an area (or in the case of giraffes and acacias, the upper leaves).  It might be different herbivores, and different tree species, and that makes endemic, local combined patterns, but each pasture or woodlot—even each tree—is its own version of that pattern.  I am also reminded (while I’m in the song lyric mode) of Paul Simon’s ironic Myth of Fingerprints lyric, “…I’ve seen them all and, man, they’re all the same.”  This is a fertile paradox!

So our family structure reflects the loss of a daughter, but has grown to something beautiful it wouldn’t have been any other way.  We appreciate the beauty, we remember the loss.  The lovely oaks that populated the old fence row uphill from our house we regretfully took down to reduce risk of damage to our house.  Those seven logs full of knots and twists from growing in the open all those decades ago became the flooring of our great room; we remember the loss of those tree and marvel at their beauty and will for years to come.  Our farm bears the scars of devastating erosion: the legacy of wheat and barley monocultures in this valley.  We’ll make use of the old gullies to direct water to a pond (we hope) someday.  The systems that emerge from our specific histories become functional stories full of memory, and like trees they are often shaped as much by losses as by reaching for light.

This summer has felt especially full of this dynamic for our family.  It has been valuable and challenging to accompany our daughter Kali as she navigates aging and illness in some of her pet poultry.  The much-beloved Buttercup the Chicken is about six years old and beginning to ail at times.  Recently she seemed to have a bout with an intestinal infection, and things didn’t look too good for a few days.  Thankfully some probiotics in the form of fermented feed, some isolation, reduced grain intake, increased plant intake, vinegar in her water, exercise and time seem to have worked their wonders, and she’s back in the saddle!  But she is still an old bird and I would bet on a fatty liver, given her lovely life of ample grain feeds.  Meanwhile, the last of Kali’s original ducks, Dragonfly, who had been slowly declining over several months, began to show signs of increased weakness, but her ailments were overshadowed by the concern lavished on Buttercup.  While Kali was in WVA with grandparents and cousins this week, one evening we noticed her almost unable to walk.  I helped her into the coop at bedtime, feeling how emaciated she was, yet with a body full of fluid, and sometime during the night she died.  Combined with our dear neighbor’s worsening health at end stages of cancer, and our little friend’s death mentioned above, this has resulted for me in a sense of the fullness of life and death all around us.  The following poem emerged:

Summer Young

It is

summer

and the mat of

life that

covers the ridges and shelves of bedrock, that

insinuates

into the seas of their

broken

and pulverized

flesh is surging

in earnest, many of its myriad forms—linked

and swinging

in their life dance with the others—now

releasing

their children into

the

same sun-flung

cacophony

of beginnings and endings that pulsed them

into being.

There are so many

young!

What does that

tell you

about death?  For we who

cling to

life and each other,

grief

is on all sides: long,

laden

branches of it.  The

trees

invite you: Reach out

and

fill your hand, pluck and

sink

your teeth

into your

own juicy piece of

loss.

Though this website is a public space and this year’s writing is devoted to public issues with which we are involved and to which we are dedicated, still I have purposely chosen to incorporate personal story into these thoughts on the usefulness and necessity of grief work in the development of an approach to sustainable agriculture that has integrity, because just as our farm can, I hope, be one of the microcosms and testing grounds for patterns of sustainable human land use, so, I hope, can our lives be microcosms for understanding how to incorporate loss into resilient forms of living in a broader sense.  Will you join us in bringing your experiences honestly to bear on the project of healing our culture?  Can we, together, be a forest of stories, memories so alive they burst off bark, a living record of years of deprivation, openings in the canopy, the breaking of our limbs, fire and lightning, disease and pestilence, growth and joy, and always a reaching for the light?  Pain, loss, disappointment, suffering…we do not need these things and need not invite them.  But our communities need to see and become familiar with our process of response to them, hopefully thereby gaining the courage to face the work of grief that we must all embrace together.

Which leads me to the last poem this month’s events and reflections have cast up on my shore.  It is a response to a tree planting event that happened a few weeks back to commemorate the life of the toddler I mentioned above who so tragically passed away.  We were among the group that came together to speak our memories, condolences, and grief pertaining to that special child and his unbelievable passing.  The Red Maple came from our woods, and now stands alone on the side of a hill above the house he was living in with a soulful and spectacular mountain valley small town view.

Planting the Maple

We stood on a hill to plant a tree.

We gathered to leave it in the sun and wind.

We came to bury together what one had dug.

We changed a place; we started something new.

I will end with the following meditative story that I created in response to events around the impending loss (to prostate cancer) of my friend, mentor, and neighbor:

Versions of Paradise

Walking up my neighbors’ steep driveway, I startled some deer.  Mildly, it would seem—the doe and her two fawns paced lightly across the pavement, then through a clearing and into the underbrush, not much concerned.  They are surrounded, in this leafy season, with food and shelter.  This was their paradise I was walking through.

I was on my way to help my dear friend into the car, or rather to help his wife help him into the car.  They needed to visit the hospital for a CT scan to troubleshoot his symptoms, and the cancer has been taking his abilities rapidly…this is the first time I was called to help.

I remember many times he and I spent together when I was his farm employee, pruning and picking peaches, blueberries, grapes, the hours laced with laughter and with talk of religion, agriculture theory, our histories, music, and psychology.

As his health deteriorated from several causes, some mysterious, some clear, I worked more alone.  But his knowledgeable voice rang in my ears the while, and of course the evidence of his thought and care were all over the land.  We’d try not to get too distracted by our mutual interests when I checked in for more instructions or with a question.  We were not always successful.  Eating my packed lunch in their little kitchen was always a highlight, since that is when we would get to indulge our friendship more.  He’d put on some music he wanted me to hear, or we’d talk about current events, personal or public, or whatever else was on our minds.

The time then came when his health was depleted enough that most of the fruit work had to be turned over to a hired farm manager, and since my family life did not allow me to assume that role, my employment there, always part time, came to be even more sporadic.  I was on call for special tasks in need of doing around the farm and house, including problem solving and remodeling to improve the health, comfort, and function of their home environment as well as the farm buildings, and some involvement with his chicken raising and breeding hobby—a strong mutual interest and a privilege for me.  Eventually, most of the systems got the bugs worked out, so my employment there trickled to a stop.  And for my family it was just as well: our home, gardens, animals, and family life had been on a steady crescendo all this time, and now it was getting to where there were no truly spare hours.  I was glad for the chance to focus on what I am vocationally about in this world (understanding and practicing sustainable food systems), but I missed those moments of connection.  However, several years after I started working for them, we had taken an opportunity to buy the deed to a six acre place adjoining the farm.  Being neighbors gave us reasons to interact other than employment, and though it wasn’t as frequent as we all would have liked, we did stay in touch and visited back and forth regularly.

In the years since his prostate cancer diagnosis, we have all lived with the knowledge that the time might well come when the art of medicine would run out of tricks for holding the disease at bay, and it would claim him.  A year or two back it became clear that indefinite remission was sorely unlikely.  Now, when I was walking up to help maneuver him into his car, his body too wasted by disease and treatments to support its own transport, it was heavy on my mind that that fearsome moment was bearing down on us.

Entering their small, cozy house again—the house he’d built himself and I’d helped repair and modify—I found him disoriented but pleasant.  He fumbled to put his handkerchief somewhere (He couldn’t figure out where…at his wife’s gentle suggestion he chose his shirt pocket), then asked for help knowing where to put his hands to hoist himself off the loveseat and into the wheelchair.  The three of us made our way safely out the door and to the car.  One more careful transfer to the car seat, and another treacherous passage had been traversed.  While we waited for his steadfast and patient caregiver (his wife) to get some things together, I decided for both of our sakes to try some small talk, farmer style.  “Well, we could use a little rain”, I think I said.  In a moment his eyes cleared and his gaze leveled; his mouth formed a small smile.  “Are things getting pretty dry?”  He asked.  We went on to talk about a gardening item or two, and the breed of hogs we are trying this year.  He was right there with all of it.

—————————————————————————————————————————

Later that day, I was walking past the garden, where I had just set the sprinkler to heaving its scattered stream of pumped subterranean water (old rain stored deep in the soil) into the hot breeze; the peppers and sweet potatoes drank in the relief.  My boots scuffed on the dusty, hard soil.  In that summer afternoon I just wanted to lay down and close my eyes against the heat, the brightness, the grief.  But there was work to do, so I kept moving.

By the garden gate, something caught my eye.  In the middle of all the green and brown, there by the filbert bush, a dot of blue on the ground.  When I reached it I found it was a male Indigo Bunting, alive but consumed with panting: apparently exhausted in the heat.  I could lift him in my hand; he offered no resistance, couldn’t seem to muster fear.  Any foraging, omnivorous small mammal would have snapped him down in a few seconds, and any snake large enough to swallow him would have been delighted…he was a helpless morsel.  But what happened is that I, instead, found him.  Not that I knew I could do him any good, but thinking it could be that he had simply run out of water, I placed him in the shade of a sweet potato leaf inside the garden fence and left him there with cool water falling all around.

—————————————————————————————————————————

The next day I was walking near the garden again and suddenly remembered the bunting.  I went right to the place I had left him, thinking maybe I would find him curled against the earth in death, or there would be a few of his cobalt iridescent feathers scattered where an owl had found him in the night.  But I could find no trace of him.

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Our Limitations

In this culture (especially in advertising), it is common for people to effuse about limitlessness, whether it be notions of endless economic growth, experiences of extreme recreational or sexual pleasure, assumptions about natural resources, the number of cable channels available, human expansion into space, the many wonders of the internet, sweeping vistas, or all-you-can-eat buffets.  These are of at least two types: limitless resources and limitless opportunities (the taking of which would, naturally, require limitless resources).  There is a certain security in the feeling that one can never exhaust one’s supply of some essential resource, and the mind can relax in a similar way into the thought that one will not have to make do with the opportunities one has…there is always another option out there.  What’s not to love about that?

Plenty, starting with its impossibility.  But this is more complicated than a simple iconoclastic grouch session, tempting though such may be.  The artists in our midst help us see that limitlessness is a chimera; that there is little more antithetical to creativity, freedom, and transcendence than having no parameters, shortages, and/or demands with which to contend.  Paradoxically, when the artist embraces limitations and finds his or her place nested within them, this is typically the path to transcendence and the breaking into a place of free expression and communication that the artist seeks.  A songwriter, for example, that frees their self entirely from harmonic structure, the rhythm and meaning of language…surely they will produce music that will not outlive them.  By embracing and working freely within these limiting structures and more (and judiciously breaking the rules on occasion), the songwriter can bring self and audience to previously unimagined realms.  Any self-identified artists who might happen to see these paragraphs:  Am I right?  I believe I am, enough so that most artists choose parameters for their work just for this purpose.  This still falls in the category of limits, but being voluntarily chosen, might be best categorized as a discipline, the action of which is distinct from the action of limitations, which are unchosen limits to which one must adjust, voluntarily or kicking and screaming.

In these paragraphs, I am specifically thinking about those unchosen limits, their effect on how humans end up making their way together in a place; there is a richness to that process and its results that can be gained no other way.  Any person endeavoring in their craft, and the combined, self-organized whole of the collection of individuals, families, neighborhoods that inhabit and endeavor in a place come to reflect in a unique way the specific limitations of that place.  We call this the local pattern of living.  Anyone who has spent time laboring physically in Central America or other hot, humid climates soon learns to appreciate the wisdom of the Siesta tradition.  In the countryside near Concepcion, Bolivia, I remember staying the night with a farm family.  Up before dawn, they took a little coffee and a small bun of bread before heading to the fields and pastures at first light.  By ten, the sun was hot and they were home for lunch, which was their big meal of the day.  Then it was hammock time until the afternoon sun had started to lose its punch, whereupon they ventured out again for an evening of work, coming in for a small supper and a game of dice around the lamp again after dark.

————————————————————————————————————

Patterns, as Dave Jacke says, are important because they are solutions to problems that keep occurring.  Take, for example, the factor of slope.  Jokes about hillbillies with one leg shorter than the other aside, living in hilly country really does have its effects.  Two examples from South America:  First, a classic passage from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land, from his essay “An Agricultural Journey in Peru,” which is the first in the collection:

“These hillsides, like nearly all that we saw, were very steep, and much more intensively farmed than I had expected.  There is some erosion, bad in certain places where the water has apparently been diverted around fields, but in general the land seems well conserved.  It is necessary to keep in mind that these fields have been farmed and have lasted a long time—some from before the Incas.  The ground is worked and planted in varying patterns according to the availability of water and suitable ground.  The rows are laid off mostly up and down the slope, which at first seems contrary to sense—and then makes more sense the more you study the problem.  On such steep slopes, considering that the rows are “hilled up” to a height of perhaps as much as ten inches, contoured rows would almost certainly erode worse under heavy rains than these downhill ones.  The water would collect behind the mounded, loosened dirt of the contoured rows and break through, carrying the dirt with it.  The downhill rows, on the other hand, let the water out quickly, not allowing it to accumulate anywhere, and it runs over the packed, unworked earth between the rows.

But in some fields, not many, the rows went across the slope; in others they went downward on a slant.  Some of these slanted rows zigzagged across the slope.  The purpose of this slanting, I guessed, is to slow down the runoff to allow the ground to absorb more water.  The fault of this pattern was that where the Vs pointed downward there would be a wash.  A much more satisfactory pattern, affording both water retention and erosion control, was a zigzag down the slope.” (pgs. 17-18)

I first read this essay about 16 years ago and it totally lit me up.  We now live on a slope, albeit much milder than what I imagine the Peruvians in question were dealing with.  All the same, I laid out our potato patch beds slightly off contour to take advantage of this idea.  It WORKS!  Good infiltration and good surface drainage…bingo!  But it would only probably work on smallish fields, or with planned relief in larger systems.  Otherwise the water volume accumulates to damaging levels between rows.  For our slope’s purposes, about a hundred feet is as far as one can go without a relief channel.

Example number two comes from my own travels in South America, this time to La Paz, Bolivia, 1995.  Parts of that city’s streets are extremely steep, and there is a pattern of one-way streets.  This, combined with the necessary habit of thrift on the part of the city’s drivers has made for a charming phenomenon.  Drivers on uphill streets operate their vehicles normally.  On downhill streets, they all cut their motors and coast all the way to the bottom of the hill (power brakes and steering are unaffordable decadences that would be an inconvenience there).  This means that every other street when travelling across the slope is a quiet street and then a loud street and so on.  Street vendors, if memory serves, took advantage of this by selecting quiet streets if their category of wares called for much hawking or description to passersby, or making do with loud ones if their offerings were more routine.  I think the quiet streets were more in demand…they also smelled better, with no exhaust!

I do not mean to imply that conditions in a given region dictate uniform adoption of certain patterns.  There will of course be pockets of exceptionality.  For example, in the Sandhill’s region of Nebraska (see earlier essay) it is nearly impossible, as a rule, to grow row crops.  Except in the river bottom, and the ranchers cherished their little plots of corn that grew there.  These exceptions have their own key role in the economies and ecologies of a region, but typically more to the point is the collection of adaptive solutions that end up over time also adapting to and linking with each other to form a relatively cohesive, if sometimes tenuous, way of managing within a particular system of limits.

To talk of adaptive processes and the discovery of limitations is to use intellectual language to describe what might more aptly be called the school of hard knocks.  Lots of discomfort, even suffering, is often implied.  To quote the brilliant Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls (in the song “Everything in its Own Time”), “When the wind has blown things ‘round and back again, what was once your pain will be your home.”

———————————————————————————————————–

True freedom of the life and mind, I would contend, happens not when we achieve the long-sought security of limitless resource and opportunity, (which I think would only foster craven laziness), but rather when we achieve balance, a dynamic equilibrium between our desires and our limitations.

Time for a story:  Once upon a time there was a middle aged couple that was too busy.  It seems they couldn’t even find the time to evaluate their lives and figure out what—among all the many ideas they had pursued for how they might use their time to achieve the life they desired and make a difference in the world—they must let go of.  The wife had been trying to tell the husband for years that this was all beautiful and worthwhile, but too much.  It was not lost on him, but it was much easier to see all the many things a person could do than it was to turn his attention to what not to do, so he kept on in his distracted folly.  Eventually, though, it became clear that the days were slipping by too fast.  There was no way to keep up with all the projects.  It was equally clear that this was stressing his life mate overly…it was time.  In a conversation around the lunch table, he admitted as much, and offered that if there was one project that had to go, it would probably be such-and-such.  To both of their surprise, it was she who got a bit teary thinking of letting go of this “great” idea and effort.  They both experienced a mixture of relief, doubt, and grief over the next little while, but there were proud of themselves for finally admitting that they may have accepted their limitations and felt hopeful that they might be on the way to understanding what the words “enough” and “balance” might mean.

Ok so that’s us.  A few days ago we decided to wind down and shelve our “Dryland Garden” soil space and crop rotation.  It has so many time-saving implications for us, which we, quite simply, need.  It was hard to do.  But look, if you aren’t sometimes deciding to cut cool things with lots of potential out of your life, then you either aren’t cutting anything out of your life (which in turn means you are either living devoid of new opportunities, are extremely averse to adding new stuff, or are a kind of boring person) or it means all the things you are cutting out of your life are uncool, which means part of your life wasn’t cool.  So having to cut cool things means our whole life is cool, right?

Not if it’s too full, it’s not.  Working at awesome projects with too little sleep and a stress level that makes your brain buzz is not cool at all.  Don’t we all know on some level that choosing less involvements and doing them well produces the highest quality, most fruitful work?  Haven’t we all seen people whose attention is so divided between all the great things they do that they never have a chance to see anything through?  Yeah…me, too.  It’s painful to watch.  It’s also a painful person to be.  I should know!

This tangential discussion is included here to highlight the effect of limitations, and the very gritty process of coming to terms with them.  In our case, we never have, and never will have, enough time or energy to enact all the valid ideas we come up with: ideas for making the world, and our spot in it, into a better place for us and everyone else, too.  But who else is doing this?, my mind demands to know.  Who will do this if you don’t?  To this I respond, A decent point, Mind, but now I have a few questions for you:  What good is it to start a bunch of stellar examples of ways to heal what is broken that we can’t even maintain well enough for folks to understand them?  And how appealing does all of this look anyway when we are running all over the place, day after day, just trying to keep up?  Hey, would you hold still and listen when I’m talking to you, you crazy monkey?!

In this highly personal example, perhaps the reader can see a hint of a process that is endemic to the sustainable agriculture subculture.  Many, many of the folks who stand behind the booths at your local farmer’s market or who hand out your CSA box are running themselves ragged trying to keep up with this thing.  It is love that keeps them in it, and the sure knowledge that they are right where they know they need to be, but love can be a hard master.  Eventually, those of us who care about this stuff are going to have to reckon with this illusion of limitlessness that we labor under.  I hope we can allow the discovery of our limitations to point us to a process of nesting ourselves, like the good artists we are, within the system of limits that is found in each of our places and in so doing achieve the balance we so desperately need, thus transcending ourselves finally in the only way it is actually possible: becoming part of a dynamic, growing, whole community; giving our work, our creativity, our very selves to it.

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Our Models: let’s get some legs under this stuff!

For this month’s installment of writing about humans accepting ownership of and by their lives and contexts, I want to piggyback on last month’s thoughts spurred by my 40th birthday trip to Nebraska (with a few stops along the way) and expand a little on those notions of our species exercising a role of ecological promoter in the places we inhabit.  Let’s follow along with the itinerary of the trip, using some of those stops as examples to help us understand a point or two.

Our first stop was Dayton, Ohio, where we used the available sleeping surfaces in my cousin Steve’s house, and enjoyed some conversation.  Actually, that conversation started in a Lebanese restaurant.  It was amazing to see a restaurant full of Arabic folks eating the (delicious!) food they loved in a city in the middle of the heartland.  But how many times has this story been replicated here?  My own ancestors brought their German life to Pennsylvania (and their Swedishness to Wisconsin, their Hungarian selves to Connecticut).  Dayton is not just one of the American melting pots, it is also hurting, and it represents some of the illness that plagues our society.  Saturday morning before we left for Missouri, the Dads stopped for a fast food breakfast.  That not appealing to me for multiple reasons, I stayed in the car and ate some of the food we had brought.  While I munched, a woman appeared on the intersection with a cardboard sign and some extremely bright pink stretch pants.  She set up shop by the light pole, dancing and swinging her arms and pointing to her sign.  There I was, with a box full of food and a few minutes on my hands.  Observing that a pedestrian made it past her without getting into a sticky situation, all my excuses were used up.  Just before we got back on the road I dashed across traffic and handed her an apple and a granola bar.  She seemed surprised and grateful, and didn’t even have to interrupt her cell phone call.  How many different things are wrong with this picture?  We’ll get to more detail on Dayton on the way back home, when we had a bit more time to get out into the city.

Through the sea of black soil that is the Midwest we sailed until we arrived in La Plata, Missouri, where my dear friend Adam is living amongst some folks loosely gathered around the concept of living regeneratively in the land, and doing so in patterns that also restore human relationship in community.  Blah, blah, blah…what do those words mean?  Well, near as I can tell the first folks of this mind to move there had as their goal to establish a low-tech Ghandian-style ashram that was for the purpose of pursuing justice with regard to humans relating to each other and the rest of the universe, with the idea also that it would be a place that could be looked to as an example of such right living, primarily through on-site trainings and such.  Technologies to be used would be carefully chosen to promote life and community as much as possible with as little harm as possible.  Speaking of possible, they called themselves the Possibility Alliance.  Folks they knew and others soon heard of this initiative and were attracted to it, some for the short term, some longer term.  Adam ended up there after a protracted solo bike tour of his home state (MO), and he says if he hadn’t stumbled upon this collection of folk, he would have concluded that there was nothing appealing enough in the state to him to keep him there.  Adam now lives on an adjacent property sort of pursuing his own hero’s journey, but with frequent contact with the originals.  Several other homesteads and Catholic Worker houses and sundry have been magnetized to the neighborhood as they work out similar themes and recognize how vital a functional neighborhood is to truly living out these converging visions.  I won’t burden a person with details, even though that is where the high ideals get worked out.  Think goat cheese, composting toilets, chickweed salad, no electricity…candlelit conversation with thoughtful minds (Adam and his wonderful partner) uncrowded by screen time is the precious setting I carried away from there and am still treasuring.  Germaine to our current discussion is what this collection of people and their choices represent thematically, which I am going to call an attempt at regeneration.  The word is deceptive, though, in the sense that it seems to imply a return to some former state of health.  This is an unfair accusation.  In fact the participants realize they are trying to achieve health for their selves and their context moving forward.  This requires many reaches into the past, some acceptance of present customs, and a whole lot of attentive care as the fresh challenges arrive.  But lest you think they have cracked the code, be aware that they feel their challenge keenly.  11 years in, the neighborhood is facing upheaval as exhaustion and other factors have the original founders looking for a new start in Maine.

After said candlelit talking, an excellent (truly dark…aah!) night’s rest and a tour in the morning, and after a lightning round of garden-in-a-box (i.e., Jason shares and explains some seeds), we got into the very high-tech Prius and zoomed off to the Platte River area of Nebraska to see the cranes, ostensibly the whole point.  See my last writing for coverage of that experience.  Here I want to talk about the conservation center we visited, the Rowe Sanctuary.  I can’t say how the thing is funded…I know it was established with some kind of endowment, and I know we paid some sizable fees for the places we occupied in the blinds (worth it!).  But beyond that it is hard to say exactly how it fits into the economy at large.  So far as I can see, to be paid for is a nice visitor’s center, managed areas to suit the cranes’ needs for safe roosting, possibly incentives to local land managers for creating good crane conditions in the area, and staff time to oversee all of this.  This doesn’t add up to a huge chunk of change when you consider the size of the surrounding economy, even locally to that area.  I am pretty sure, in fact, that the crane gawkers bring more money in to the area than the management activities require.  Surely it’s worth a little tweak to cropping patterns, a load of gravel for the lot every so often, a fresh coat of paint every few years, some heavy machinery work on the sandbars and a gaggle of humans bustling around between offices with papers under their arms!  It’s not hard for an individual to see the value.  But getting the system to acknowledge values we might hold personally is a terrific challenge.  The Rowe folks must feel in constant peril of their project being tossed in the trash at the first hint of economic trouble, because in moments when panic starts to rise, suddenly setting money and land “aside” starts to look like a luxury, and that is, at least in part, what their model depends on.  This is too blunt of a characterization, but I see the “Wildlife Sanctuary” model as often practiced to be an extension of an “us and them” notion of doing right by our contexts, where humans are the ‘us’ and all wild species are the ‘them.’  The only things, in practical terms, keeping us from wiping them out completely in the interest of commandeering all available resources for our own use are a sense of loss we know we’ll experience if they disappear forever (which is also selfish) and a moral obligation we seem to feel to not completely, totally, eliminate all of the other species on the planet except ourselves and the ones we know we can make to serve us.  To be fair, there is more nuance here…Rachel Carson and her ilk helping us see that “nature” provides many needful services and that patterns we see in “nature” help us recognize when we’ve thrown things out of balance.  Furthermore they kindle in us a sense that our fellow species and their communities have intrinsic value.  These things are true and I laud them.  To quote the fine woman directly, “…for all people, the preservation of wildlife and of wildlife habitat means also the preservation of the basic resources of the earth…”  I would elect Rachel Carson if I could!

I put the word ‘nature’ in quotes above because the very use of the word implies an othering impulse.  This is the prevailing model, I am afraid, of those of us who are trying to take responsibility for our effects on the natural world.  The governing idea is that we should stop short of taking it all, but implied there is the acceptability–or at least inevitability–that the lands and other resources we make use of are used in ways that exclude and degrade the integrity of the places where the use happens.  Put in plainer terms, we assume farms replace or displace wild species and communities, and that saving islands of “unspoiled nature” is good enough, or is the best we can do.  There is a current of denial in this.  As if by “saving” some fragment of the original system, we can escape responsibility for having blithely and ignorantly decimated the vast bulk of it.  It is time we move beyond the denial stage of grief and fully face the losses we are bringing on our environs and by extension ourselves in our arrogance.  People who have done their grieving work well can more honestly face the mess they are left with and make the best of it.  That is where we need to get to.  The “leave some room for nature” mode of thinking may also be thought of as an extension of the notion of original sin…humans are automatically and irreparably bad, and any limits to that badness are accomplished by hard work and strong ethics.  You see why I called it a burden last month?

I am going to label this the Conservation model.  I don’t think we can do without it in some form.  It would do us so much good if we could conserve way more of our wild lands and keep our hands off of them to the extent possible.  But it is decidedly not good enough.  If we can’t honor our neighbor species and their relationships and learn to participate in their lives as members of the whole in the places we live, we all suffer that loss, and it is my belief that that expresses perhaps the majority of what is wrong with our culture.  We conservationists seem embarrassed by our own need for sustenance.  Certainly you don’t hear polite conservationists talking much about it.  I admit I am always startled when I am reading some nature writer and learn that they keep chickens.  I am taken by surprise by their need to eat, and the realization that they face the same conundrums I do and haven’t gotten much further ahead in solving the puzzle than me.  I find I wish that biologists would write about their diets.  Barbara Kingsolver is the notable and honorable exception to this unmentioned rule of silence.  Of course this would open up some conceptual conflicts and draw some disappointment and consternation, but we’d best get into that and through it…going around it isn’t getting us there.  Nature isn’t a beautiful, “unspoiled” place to visit or leave alone, nature is the whole world, including us.  To the extent we realize this and start to live this way, I also think conservation in the conventional sense will feel more natural and less burdensome to us.  If that’s right, then separating ourselves from the wild, even supposedly for its own sake, is counterproductive to the goal of conservation.  When people have meaningful (better yet useful) contact with wild species in their daily lives, they can cherish them and sacrifice for them, generation after generation.

Enter Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer ranch, near Burwell, NE.  Last month’s writing got into some detail on this place…I will try not to repeat!  But last month I couldn’t fit in some things about their endeavor that I think relevant to this discussion.  After our Safari jeep tour through their soulful, real and gritty prairie ranchlands, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Sarah–who with her brother Adam is currently doing the bulk of the running of the place–for a little Q and A.  I did the Q part, she the A.  I’ll incorporate some of that exchange as we go.  Several times since being home from the trip folks have asked me what exactly it was about the Calamus Outfitters story I find so compelling.  It could be that I just fell for the prairie environment.  I have a mantra I tell myself when I am in a new locale, especially one rich in biological and geological interest: “Don’t fall in love…don’t fall in love…”  I said that in Maine when we were there a few years back, I said it in Highland County Virginia in February, and I said it this time, especially on my walks through the land both evenings during which I noticed that walking in this landscape would encourage excellent posture as a person was constantly encouraged to stretch a little taller and see a bit more of the horizon.  I was just thankful it was overcast the whole time we were there so I couldn’t see the stars!

The real answer is the sense of integration (let’s call this one the Integration model) I picked up from them.  It would seem they have found a way to continue doing what they love by monetizing other facets of the place they love, and their family’s several-generation history running a farm business in the place renders them capable of seeing the value of managing these elements (the prairie plants for grazing and the prairie chickens for gawking at) in ways that ensure their flourishing over the long term.  When asked to respond to the notion of “sustainability” on their ranch and with the outfitting, Sarah mentioned a few product choices and feeding scraps to the chickens, even planting nitrate-loving annual crops to reclaim manure nutrients from cattle wintering areas (less than 1% of acreage in any given year), but then came the interesting part:  she mentioned that they’ve been grazing the same land for 100 years, and it’s better now then it was 50 or even 30 years ago.  There it is.

It intrigued me to see how natural “naturalism” was to these folks.  Though the elder Switzer (Sarah and Adam’s father) confessed on video that the first time he went out in the blind he was astonished at the mating rituals of the prairie chickens.  He had lived there all his life, had always had prairie chickens in his grasses, and had never taken the time to know them this way.  He expressed hope that his grandchildren would not make the same mistake.  For her part Sarah, according to Adam, actually went to university with the idea of studying environmental science or ecology or wildlife biology or some such but quit the program because of how antagonistic all the professors were to agricultural land uses.  Conservationists take note:  think what the typical attitudes almost cost the world that time.  Fortunately it didn’t end there.  During the jeep tour Sarah and Adam treated us to, their knowledge of all aspects of the land including wild species ran so obviously deep, and Sarah especially was able to talk about it lucidly…a breath of fresh air to me: the doubter in the conventional crowds of both agriculture and conservation.  

Given this comprehensive interest on their part, I didn’t know how Sarah would answer when I asked whether the outfitting/ecotourism thing was a fun and exciting idea they wanted to pursue for its own sake or a compromise they were willing to make to stay on the land.  Truly, she explained, it was a compromise.  The cattle market had been poor and Adam was tired of agriculture-themed jobs that involved a lot of travelling and prevented his daily participation in ranch life, which was what he truly yearned for.  Getting desperate for other sources of income that allowed him to stay home, he used his gift for hunting and opened their ranch to guided hunts, mostly for turkey and deer.  From there it has expanded to ecotourism and river trips, such that the hunting has faded in importance.   At this point, she says, their ranching is again profitable, but if they want opportunities to be there for the generation coming on, then the outfitting must remain a part of the mix.  Yes, their first love is ranching, but this other stuff is a nonetheless fulfilling way to earn that extra money, she says…when people appreciate it!  When asked if there are things that get under their skin, she admitted it is “very, very hard” when visitors are critical or unhappy with the way they do things on the ranch.  It would seem that is one of the perils of opening up their home in this way.  Though it wasn’t their first choice, it is, she contends, a good fit for their personalities and for their ranch (especially in terms of relative location to migratory flyways, grouse ranges, and the Calamus river), and seems to her to have all worked out for a divinely guided reason, even matching daydreams she used to entertain as a girl of showing people around their place, introducing them to its wonders and pleasures.  

After the success they have seen in this business, they seem to have won over their skeptical ranching neighbors, and feel they are in a supportive environment in that way.  Economically, I worry.  Not because of their specific business model, but because of the way the damming of the Calamus river (the lake is visible from the ranch) has changed the whole land economy of the area.  Cattle prices, she declares, won’t even pay the interest on the purchase price of land with any view of the lake.  So land use in the area, in her words, “will change!”  At this point she claimed they are the only ranchers around that haven’t had to sell land along the road for houses to pay the bills.  There will be a decline in ranch-style land management in the area.  As English sheep farmer James Rebanks said in a March 1 Op-Ed in the NY Times,  “Economists say that when the world changes people will adapt, move and change to fit the new world. But of course, real human beings often don’t do that. They cling to the places they love, and their identity remains tied to the outdated or inefficient things they used to do, like being steel workers or farmers. Often, their skills are not transferable anyway, and they have no interest in the new opportunities. So, these people get left behind.”  A hateful situation for ranchers and prairie chickens, as last month’s writing details.  As other ranchers find they can’t afford to stay, the mutual help between neighbors that ranching life depends on will be harder to find, and the seasons lonelier.  The Switzer clan have other reasons to resent the lake.  Historically their family could raise corn for feeding in only one place around: the river bottomland that disappeared underwater when the dam was completed in the 80’s.  She called this event a hole in their hearts that will never be filled, but they are learning to take advantage of the new circumstances.  In fact, Sarah seemed to think that although they are operating at capacity  and can’t really manage any expansion of their outfitting business, the opportunity would be there.  If they built bigger, she is confident they could fill the spaces.  Furthermore, in response to a question of mine about including local cuisine (I bought a book about Sand Hills Cuisine out of their store) in their offerings, she thought people would eat that up (pun intended…by me, not her), and it would be a great opportunity for someone, but not a good fit for what they are trying to accomplish.  All in all, in fact, her opinion seemed to be that they are right about exactly where they want to be.  When asked to describe her ideal scenario moving forward, she was plain about it:  “To keep doing what we’re doing.  We’re together.  It’s a good life.”

Beat that, next stop!  It couldn’t possibly.  We headed out to St. Louis for some birding and a visit to the City Museum.  I think I described most of what is needed to say about this last month; suffice it to say that we visited a waterfowl refuge of some sort that was created (not preserved) out of farmland spoiled by flood deposits.  It is carefully managed for the promotion of wetlands wildlife, most notably huntable waterfowl.  It was impressive.  One wonders what would happen if similar initiatives could be proliferated at strategic points along the flyways and at breeding grounds, etc.  Could we see a resurgence of the wild abundance this continent was known for before the Western mind took it over?  I will call this model Farming the Wild.  Yes, it is a fraught concept, but if we take our grief work (mentioned above) seriously and face reality, we will see that we’ve been mucking about in these systems inadvertently since the beginning; time to take responsibility, albeit with the greatest of humility and with open minds.  My mind, for its part, was full to bursting with these thoughts and concepts as we made our way back to Dayton.

Arriving there earlier in the day this time, we had time for a nice dinner together at their home, then a walk through the neighborhood.  After the ecologically rich, if complicated experiences we had just passed through, I admit Dayton was a bit of a shock.  Nothing out of the ordinary here, just a fully realized wealthy urban American cityscape from street level.  A natural spectacle of its own, in a way.  As the cranes were individuals to each other but indistinguishable to us, so every house there runs together in my mind in a unified image of shorn grass out front, tasteful shrubs and herby perennials, nicely accented trim, car in drive.  Over, and over, and over again.  Miles and miles of them!  After several blocks, we came to a park, which included a huge sand box with Tonka trucks, excellently maintained play equipment including a fountain garden for kids to splash in, and a few well-placed trees.  Indeed, I think this was the first play park I have ever seen which benefited from the foresight to place the jungle gym under a tree for shade!  Brilliant.  The place was absolutely crawling with kids.  Not all of Dayton is so financially endowed–my cousin and cousin-in-law declare it a racially and economically divided city, as many old industrial towns are.  In their neighborhood, though, people write angry letters to the editor when a Goodwill looks to locate in a new shopping center.  ‘We pay good tax dollars’ they complain.  Hmm.  Anyway, a few blocks further and we found our second destination of the evening, where I enjoyed an unexpected treat, in that usually I don’t enjoy ice cream beyond your standard Mint Chocolate Chip (the mint cuts that gummy sensation in the throat, or at least distracts from it).  But here they had a flavor I had to try:  Bourbon Pecan Chocolate Chip.  And friends, it was every bit as good as it sounds!  We are talking detectable whiskey flavor, pecan halves, nice chips and no gumminess detected.  Odd we weren’t in Tennessee or Mississippi, but I am not complaining.

It is, however, to my point about urban Dayton.  I am going to call it the Where Are We? model of biological management.  Truly, there was nothing left of what had been there, and no visible attempt had been made to bring it back.  Organisms that can survive these conditions are celebrated, all others are absent.  We could have been anywhere.  It is not that I didn’t enjoy the visit.  Good family time.  It is just that what has been accomplished there makes me sad beyond measure when I stop to think.

From there it was homeward bound.  We arrived back at our beloved Tangly Woods and into the waiting arms of our own precious ones.  Over the following days I had to think about how our home place relates to the other models we experienced on our Crane odyssey.  It is a wilder and kinder place than Dayton, but shares something of its sensibility of order in places.  It lacks the extreme of simplified technological involvement shown at the Possibility Alliance, but we are working towards a similar place.  We don’t have an endowment or the clarity of focus that the Rowe Sanctuary possesses, but we experience wonder in those moments when the forces of nature make their spectacles.  We are not business people and have a much shorter history in this land, but like the Switzers we pay attention and try to respect and integrate what we find around us and the systems that support our lives.  Like the waterfowl preserve, we are aiming to rehabilitate ailing farmland and bring it back in line with a more natural trajectory.  This is the place we claim and hope to be claimed by; it is our opportunity to reintegrate our lives with the soil, atmosphere, and water cycles of this planet we all share, one place at a time.

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Our Ecosystems: Knowing our Places

I start the writing for this month (March) from a cabin I am sharing with my father and father-in-law at Calamus Outfitters located on the Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Nebraska.  We are just past the middle of a 10-day road trip that is the celebratory gift Janelle gave me on the occasion of my 40th birthday, which occurred exactly 6 months ago yesterday (9/29)!  I know, I know, happy birthday to me.  I got sung to by the other guests at dinner last night.  They even made a feeble attempt at harmony!  I was the youngest person in the room, a situation that suits me well, especially when I am in a reflective mood.  Peers can be distracting.

We are in Burwell to see prairie grouse—the Sharp-tailed Grouse and the Greater Prairie Chicken—as they perform their yearly collective pre-mating ritual at their special stomping grounds (literally) known as leks.  The ritual involves lots of noises and motions on the part of the male grouse that seem rather silly to us, but which clearly are of great assistance to the lady grouse in deciding with whom to mate.  They are all so occupied with this that humans seeking to look in on their business can do so from blinds located quite near the leks.  This morning as dawn was almost breaking we snuck into old broken-down school buses with windows removed and watched in amused wonder as the Sharp-tailed Grouse flew in, then strutted their stuff while light came to the prairie.  We will do the same for the Greater Prairie Chicken tomorrow, to our delight I am sure.

As entertaining as this is, and as beautiful as the birds are, this is not the primary reason we are in the Great Plains.  Janelle’s idea for this trip came as a response to one of the few items on my “bucket list,” which was to witness the migration stopover of the Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River in central Nebraska.  Up to 500,000 cranes pass through there in any given year on their way from wintering grounds in Texas and Mexico to their breeding grounds in the upper Midwest through Canada and the Arctic.  For millennia, the Platte River valley has offered them respite from the grueling journey, and their life cycle relies on stopping for a month or more, depending on weather conditions, to rebuild energy reserves before heading on.  I have always been fascinated with biological spectacles, especially migratory (how well I remember sitting for an hour or more on the lawn and watching the ribbons of migrating grackles passing thirty or fifty feet overhead and stretching as far as I could see in both directions), so as I have heard about this one over the last several years I have developed a desire to be here when it happens.  I guess I mentioned it often enough that Janelle took me seriously!  I am very grateful.  Part of my desire also stems from something like whimsy, since I used to have a recurring dream of large, fantastical, heavily plumed birds on migration descending from the sky into my parents’ yard.  We would converse together, the birds and I, though I don’t remember anything we talked about (They were kind enough, but a bit aloof, as I recall).  This crane thing in Nebraska seemed the best match to experiencing in waking time a dream I had savored.

On all counts, the cranes exceeded my hopes for the experience.  No, they didn’t match the birds in my dream…but let’s not get picky.  Anyway where would you hope to find hordes of flamingo-headed birds with fine ostrich-like plumes descending feet-first from the sky like ballerinas with the fluttering of their dainty wings, their knowing looks casting my terrestrial nature into pathetic light?  In a way, the speech of the Sandhills accomplished the same message more eloquently and efficiently:  their staccato bugles in flight and rolling chuckles on their sandbar roosting sites made quite clear that I am a stranger in their world; a world in which standing all night in a chilly wind with your feet in a snow-melt river means rest for your journey, and in which your home is as much in the sky as it is on the ground.  I am sure my dream played into it, but I felt chills in my spine when a crane coming in to land would drop its legs down, pull its head up and set its wings for descent, as if it would stand on the air.  The first evening as we waited in the blinds along the river and the cranes flew in, we experienced a satisfied wonder.  This was what we had come for!  And then they kept coming.  And coming.  In from the fields where they were foraging all day to the relative night safety of numbers and a ready-made warning system in the form of a water barrier between them and the terrestrial predators.  As the horizon heaved up towards the sun and color filled the western sky, the trickle of cranes became a current, skein after bowed skein flowing in like collapsed waves coursing up a beach in slow motion.  Looking upriver into the sunset through binoculars revealed miles of such waves, each wobbly fleck of silhouette an individual like the tall and elegant bird standing with its peers in the shallows of the sandbar in front of me, each needing to find a place to stand and rest, each on a journey to seek out a place to hatch and feed its young.  Life pulsating its way over such dimensions…what can prepare you for this?  And the exhilaration of watching them, the next morning, launch themselves noisily into the air (just a small taste included here) in increasingly large groups until at one moment by some accumulated or communicated signal, the bulk of them on our stretch of river leaped up and grabbed onto the air all at one moment with those agile wings and lifted themselves up, up, up and outward in a joymaking spectacle that had the humans in the blind catching their breath and scrambling for their electronic recording devices, eyes moist.  The cranes’ raucous calling resounding in our ears (it still is), the flock climbed upward into the sky and drifted away like firework smoke to their favorite foraging spots beyond our sight.  We beamed into each other’s faces and exclaimed in whispers about the moment we had just passed through together with something like reverence for the oldest known surviving species of bird.  Our admiration was utterly lost on the cranes.  They are enough for themselves.

Or are they?  No organism in this world can exist without its relationships to other organisms, with the possible exception of some thermal vent bacteria or other mineral-feeding, heat-driven microbes.  The cranes are very old…though individuals in the wild don’t last more than 25 years or so, as a species they have seen not only civilizations, not only other species, but even perhaps the very rivers come, go, and change form.  It is tempting to think of this as a form of biological aloofness; an untouchability or even invincibility.  I suspect that it is rather a testament to their adaptability and fitness, developed over thousands of long millennia of selection pressure, for a wide variety of circumstances.  But what it does not imply is independence.  Each species in its form and function implies interdependence within an ecosystem:  a bioregional community to belong to.

The human is the species for which this might be thought to be in question.  We have made quite some specialty out of divorcing ourselves from the need for a specific bioregion or environment in order to thrive.  But again, looks can be deceiving.  We have made little progress in divorcing ourselves from our need for functional relationships to other species (we can’t live on Mars as is), but we have made astonishing strides when it comes to adaptability.  Another way to say this is that in our pre-agricultural form we have needed vibrant ecosystems as much as any species ever has, it’s just that it has become more or less irrelevant exactly which ecosystems, since—and this is our great evolutionary leap—we are adapted for mediating our dependence relationships by way of culture and learning, not by way of instinct.  Actually, that is not quite correct.  We do use our instincts, but our instincts are honed specifically for the development of culture, which is how we survive everywhere.  Upon close examination, we find that to some extent culture can be credited to many of our fellow animals (maybe even some plants, but let’s not get too far afield here).  Elephants and cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins) are prime examples of groups for which culture plays a huge role in survival success.  The human distinctive is one of degree, not kind.  Look at cranes…there are groups that have given up migrating and live in Florida year-round.  The species is not totally locked in to the prevailing pattern.

I think it’s useful now to highlight something the observant might already have picked up.  As the cranes fly out to forage each morning, they forage in fields, by which I mean agricultural fields (mostly corn and soy) and cattle pastures.  60% of their diet on these annual stopovers is one food:  gleaned waste corn from monocultures, of which the total population is said to consume 1,600 tons annually.  Why is this ancient wild bird eating modern corn?  The answer is simple and two-fold:  because their old foods are too diminished, and because it’s there.  This ancient bird, it turns out, is happily omnivorous and likes corn rather well.  In fact, given the changes in the Platte River Valley due to intensive management of the Platte river for irrigation, municipal, and industrial interests as well as conversion of land for agriculture, it is likely that without the corn available the cranes would not find enough food to bulk up satisfactorily for their journey north, and the species could suffer declines.  Furthermore, the changes in seasonal river flow have disrupted natural flooding cycles that keep sandbars in the river cleared of shrubs and trees—clear sandbars being critical crane roosting features—such that conservationists have taken to using heavy machinery to clear the resurgent vegetation artificially.  Think of the implications of this if you will:  Because of our interference in their ecosystem, they now depend on us for support.  This is a perfect example of the Permaculture concept “Burden to the Intervenor.”  I don’t know if this feels heavy to you, but it sure does to me.  Is this a burden we want to keep carrying?  Is this a burden we will indefinitely be able to carry?  To borrow from the old gospel song:  How, I wonder, does one lay such a burden down by the riverside?  What else might we have to lay down?  Into what new life would we be baptized?

…I am writing now from a hotel room near St. Louis, Missouri, the next stop on our road trip.  We planned to stop somewhere around here to break up the long drive into manageable hunks, and chose St. Louis so we could find an established population of exotic Eurasian Tree Sparrows in a city park, and so we (o.k, I) could visit the City Museum, which my dear and well-traveled friend Adam (a Missouri national himself…we visited him on the way out, but that’s another story) regards as one of the wonders of our continent if not the world, and which my brother-in-law Mark briefly highlighted in the film YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip.  Theirs are two of several dependable recommendations.

The riot of crane calls and the sounds of the Sharp-tailed Grouse are now joined in the ear of my imagination and memory by the whoops and booms and cackles of the Greater Prairie Chicken, male members of which honorable species put on a real show for a few females that looked like they couldn’t care less (but didn’t leave either, so take heart, fellas).  A gaggle of us bird nerds watched in glee from some decrepit school buses parked nearby.  It was so much fun!

Prairie chickens are a species that is, as its name implies, tightly entwined with its prairie ecosystem.  I would have to say that it seems to me less flexible than the cranes in that regard.  Some tiny percentage of the original prairie remains, and the same is true of the chickens.  Some of the best intact prairie is found on ranches in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and it is working prairie.  That is to say cattle graze it under the attentive care of the ranch owners.  It is a starkly fragile sod; early European settlers soon learned not to take a plow to any but the richest of its bottomlands lest it return to its ancient form: drifting sand.  Overgrazing it is almost as perilous; the area’s ranchers fear little more than they do bringing damage to those precious acres of prairie plants.

At Calamus Outfitters, we were exposed to the conundrum these lands, and their iconic chickens, now face.  Prior to the arrival of European settlers it was the grazing action of bison and elk, combined with the work of dung beetles (not to mention the vast array of other species in the complex) and effects of lightning- and human-kindled grass fires that maintained the treeless and diverse plant communities that thrived here.  The prairie chickens thrived with them, existing in hordes that settlers claimed “darkened the skies” and were found “swarming” over the hills.  It sometimes seems to me early settlers were a tad prone to hyperbole with such things, but the point is made:  there were a lot of prairie chickens.  In less fragile soils, where prairies have typically been converted to grain production, the birds are gone now.  On well-maintained cattle ranches, they hang on, but do not darken skies or swarm.  When ranchers have had to abandon land or have been unable to groom it with tools or fire (in fact, fire has usually been actively suppressed for reasons our culture thinks are obvious), introduced and native local tree species begin to establish in the open areas, providing potential perches for raptors; the grouse and prairie chicken hens instinctively avoid nesting near a perch, so unless the land stays in open prairie, the birds rapidly decline and disappear.  So keeping the ranches functioning and healthy is crucial for keeping prairie chickens.  Like the cranes, it won’t do to leave them alone, given prevailing land use patterns.  But perhaps unlike the crane situation, in the case of the prairie chickens the paradox is nested in a bit more of a complete system, at least on Switzer ranch.

Whereas the crane conservation efforts are headed up by nonprofit foundations entrusted with crane protection and promotion that seek to maintain benign or even mutually beneficial relationships with local grain producers and water regulators, the prairie grouse habitat on Switzer ranch is actively and purposely maintained by the ranching family itself, because through ecotourism they have found a way to turn a natural byproduct of their ranching system—a semblance of ecological integrity—into a source of income.  Badly needed income, I might add.  Few ranching families are able to make a realistic income from ranching alone these days (the same story as nearly every other sector of family farming), so ranchers are hanging on as precariously as the charming chickens that sometimes populate their beloved acres of prairie.  This reality is not lost on the World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy, both of which have partnered with the Switzer family on habitat projects on the ranch.

It might be happenstance in this case that what is good for the ranch is what is good for conservation.  Certainly human uses of land or other ecosystem interventions (over-hunting comes to mind) conflicting with the needs of native species would seem, if conservation organizations’ literature is to be believed, to be more the norm.  But I have my doubts about that way of thinking (I was getting some fun out of asking in otherwise polite conversation around meals which was the better conservationist, the hunter or the birder) and I maintain hope that models like the Switzer ranch, while surely not perfect for the ranchers or the conservationists, represent a microcosm of how we might begin to change our thinking about human involvement in ecosystems.  We might learn, if we pay attention, to extract principles from this scenario that could be used to rethink the resource use conundrums that give us such a collective headache.

Eventually I would like to see us push ourselves to think even more flexibly about these issues.  Here are two examples to support what I have in mind:  First, the case of the Alewives.  I don’t know much about Alewives, but I recently read enough about them to get excited.  Alewives are migratory fish along the lines, ecologically, of salmon or ocean-run shad or trout species.  They ascend rivers at a certain time of year to lay eggs in spawning grounds under small streams.  Eggs hatch, fry descend to the estuaries and oceans to grow to adulthood, and the story is repeated ad infinitum, assuming nobody blocks the river or stream with a giant wall of concrete.  Oops…Dam!  Rivers in the Northeast used to abound with Alewives during the spawning runs.  On the river I read about (I think it was the Connecticut), the yearly estimate had fallen to 10,000 individuals.  Observing this decline and also noticing that many of the dams were old and no longer purposeful, someone got the brainy idea to convince all interested parties to remove them.  They did it.  No other changes were made, so far as I remember reading.  In a few years the estimates of spawning Alewife in the rivers had increased to 1.5 million.  That’s 150 fish now for every 1 before.  Impressed?

The second example also comes from fishery rehabilitation, this time full-time saltwater.  I don’t remember the species involved or the location.  I believe it was a tropical situation.  What I remember was that the indigenous population of a given island nation or region had grown and I think they had also commercialized the fishing of their local species enough that they had collapsed the fishery and one or more species were threatened with extinction.  It was a desperate situation for fish, fisherfolk, and conservationists.   One way or another, the humans involved were able to agree to the plan that a minor percentage of the formerly abundant, now nearly exhausted fishing waters would be placed off limits to fishing, whereas the rest would be fished as usual.  Within a short time (I think under five years), the young produced in the protected area had generously populated the depleted waters, and the fishery returned to productivity not seen in a long time.  Impressed again?

Each of these scenarios had its own limiting factors, its own ecology, and its own human society in place.  The strategies, therefore, were uniquely tailored.  But the basic idea that studying a given situation of former abundance now suffering decline and finding the little tweaks that might allow it to resurge is anything but unique.  In fact, in terms of engendering abundance in our surrounds, I would like to suggest that there is no technically easier approach, though politics and culture present other challenges.  But just imagine with me for a moment:  What would happen in the case of the cranes or the prairie chickens or others if we tweaked things to favor abundance of what is already adapted to the environments we populate, the lands we use?  What surfeits of life would emerge?  Could we eventually induce wild populations of such species to increase so much that harvest and consumption of a carefully monitored and chosen percentage would be practical?  Like grizzlies pulling salmon loaded with roe from an Alaskan stream, we need not experience taking what we need as a moral trespass, if we do so as mutual and integrated ecological partners.  Take notice with me of the power of this continent, this Turtle Island to produce flows of life that stagger the mind, be they passenger pigeons, bison, or corn.  And take further notice of the power of humans to craft situations that remove obstacles to abundance.  Could we turn our attention to cooperating with the natural order on this?  If we got really good at catalyzing the thriving of our ecosystems, what power would we unleash?  I think our imagination is the limiting factor.

Around the table at the lodge at the ranch, as we dipped our toes into these issues, the slightly horrified birders at least got curious enough to ask Adam Switzer whether he’d ever eaten a prairie chicken.  “Yeah,” he admitted.  “They’re terrible.”

…Back at the Super 8 in O’Fallon (an outlying town in the greater St. Louis area), we’ve got another day of birding adventures under our belts, plus that visit to the City Museum.  As an aside, do visit the City Museum if you can, it is a phenomenon of human ingenuity and love.  But three pieces of advice:  Dress lightly to avoid claustrophobia, try to visit on a weekday if you don’t want long lines for the hugely inventive slides, and if you are over forty bring a kid with you so you have an excuse to do all the stuff; a way to trick your stodgified mind into enjoying it fully.

The birding adventures consisted of a visit to a St. Louis area park along the Mississippi to find the not-very-elusive Eurasian Tree Sparrow (another tick on the life list…check!), and a few hours finding what we could at a series of marshes near the river, accompanied by an expert volunteer guide found through BirdingPal.org.  We tooled around the wetland, parking on the gravel roads a few places and strolling along paths in the marshes, pulling our binoculars up to find birds, birds, birds.  And then more birds, birds, birds (also a beaver).  We had not planned on another spectacle, but we got it.  Hundreds of White Pelicans kettling and flocking overhead; over a thousand American Coots in one spot; Shovelers in the hundreds; two kinds of Teal; Gadwall; Grebes; Marsh, Song and Fox Sparrows; Harriers; Harlan’s Redtail Hawk (plus the regular kind); Bald Eagles;  Yellowlegs, Greater and Lesser; Grackles; Rusty Blackbirds; Robins; Cardinals; Killdeer; and my favorite—a solitary Trumpeter Swan finding his lunch.

At one point we walked past an industrial-looking installation of huge pipes and valves.  Knowing this was a protected area, my suspicions were raised that we had stumbled onto another example of what I am talking about.  I asked our guide.  Yes, this is all former farmland that was damaged for cropping by sand deposits after some floods in the nineties, such that the farmers became willing to sell it to the Missouri state conservation service which manages it carefully for—you guessed it—duck hunting.

Which brings up an interesting point.  Am I not simply suggesting something that the fish and game departments of all the states have been doing for decades now?  Why, yes, I think I am, more or less, and it’s been “wildly” successful for several key species (white-tailed deer, wild turkey, black bear come to mind).  I never said I was reinventing anything, though I would like to advocate for a much more thoroughgoing engagement that tends to blur the distinctions between promoting wild species and agricultural endeavors.  One of our chief tasks now, in my view, is to bring ourselves up to speed on the ways in which we as individuals, as a culture, society, even civilization may already be engaged in parts of this process and then throw our support behind those programs, businesses and efforts, and bring awareness to them.  That is to say, go visit your conservation areas, attend those public meetings, read that literature, patronize that integrative farmer, dust off those binoculars, turn over some rocks, sit a while in a place, let your kids run a little wilder.  Be a part of the current of humans coming home to roost in the places we belong, our toes in the free water, with each other for raucous companions.

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Our Economy

“For one final moment in our evolution as a nation we still have a community memory of the family farm.  Many still carry the personal baggage from our rural past, a history of family members who sustained the land, and the legacy of a community that worked the earth for generations.

But this is the final generation holding an affinity with the American family farm.  This is the generation that will control the destiny not only of my Sun Crest peaches but also of my way of life.”

David Mas Masumoto—Epitaph for a Peach (page 160)

For the past few years I have been attending the Virginia Farm to Table conference, and this year I also attended the conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming.  At each event, much is made of the problems that farmers face in maintaining profitability and a reasonable work schedule; experts in farm and food economics and marketing give brilliant talks about complex political dynamics, aggregation strategies, niche markets and products, value-added processing, etc.  It is all very interesting, but I often end up feeling like we’re not really getting it.  What about the love, I keep wanting to say.

I will spend my February writing opportunity exploring some issues around this question, and if you don’t mind I’d like to take David Mas Masumoto, author of the 1995 classic Epitaph for a Peach along on our ramble, since I just finished reading it and his meditative work fits in perfectly to the themes I wrestle here.

Here is the thing:  Why do farmers continue to try to produce…um…‘produce’ for an ungrateful market?  Let’s bring Masumoto in (from page xi in the prologue):

“I’ve been keeping those old peaches for years, rationalizing that it’s worth hanging on to something that has meaning beyond mere monetary reward.  But I’m scared.  Scared because I can’t sell my peaches; thousands of boxes sit in storage, blacklisted with a bad reputation.  Boxes that have been paid for, fruit that cost me and my family, a year’s labor wasted, unproductive and impotent.

Many family farmers with fruit varieties like Sun Crest peaches no longer calculate how much they earn but how much they owe.  Can you imagine working an entire year and having your boss inform you that you owe him money?  No matter what you believe, you can’t farm for very long and only be rewarded with good-tasting peaches.

This year will witness not only the possible death of this peach but also the continuing slow extinction of the family farmer.  A fruit variety is no longer valued and a way of life is in peril.  My work remains unrewarded.

When I first started, I realized I would never make a fortune in farming, but I hoped I could be rich in other ways—and maybe, just maybe, my work would create some other kind of wealth in the process.”

And from page 229, “A neighbor in his forties insists that only the bottom line counts.  He says he’s not here to raise pretty fields and he won’t farm for very long if he can’t make a profit.  I know that pretty fields are very much part of my annual profits.  Farming provides me with meaningful work, a way of life that integrates family, community, and tradition.”

Since this book (partly because of this book?) there has been a noticeable rise in the local food movement.  It has done some good!  There are more farmers now than there were a few years ago, and that’s probably why.  The ingredient quality issue I touched on in January’s essay has been championed for quite a while now by some well-respected chefs and the message is getting some traction.  Some people even want their food to mean something, and that is wonderful!  As yet, however, the few examples of farmers, especially new farmers, who are able to make a good living on a manageable time schedule without also bringing in off-farm income are held up as tantalizing models for the rest.  The bulk of the work is being done by people who are not really being compensated adequately for their time or effort, if I understand it rightly.  Most of the people you see standing on the other side of the stall at that Saturday market charging you prices you might think exorbitant for their offerings are probably working harder than you would believe and banking pretty paltry sums at the end of the year.  There are exceptions, of course, and we should all pay attention to them.

But I’ve been puzzled by this whole dynamic.  Why the continual bleaching out of the vitality of our small farm base?  What is driving this Sisyphean race to the bottom?  Why are the farmers putting up with it?  If society is not rewarding this role, why try to fill it?  I did not grow up in a farming family, and my childhood interaction with farming was more adventure, interest, maybe self-provisioning…only marginally economic.  Maybe I’ll never understand the identity issues at play here, the ones Masumoto can’t avoid.  Certainly I have heard farmers talk about the affirmation that it is to receive cash for their produce.  As a culturally symbolic ritual, that makes sense to me:  our culture uses money to confer honor and value; the act of exchanging money carries a weight of esteem.  It could be that’s the driver from the farmers’ end: wanting affirmation from their peers that what they are doing is recognized as valuable.

From the average consumer’s point of view, even, it is obvious that society can’t do without farmers.  Even if technology has amplified each farmer’s capabilities enough to transfer the vast majority of us to other sectors, still it all depends on food rising out of the soil someplace or other, and somebody needs to keep an eye on it and get it when it’s ready.  Those of us who would want to identify as farmers (me) have a hard time reconciling this contradiction:  We are as desperately needed as ever, but we are treated by the system as if expendable.

I have come to believe that a major contributor is connectivity.  How can any farming community get a head of steam for its products when somewhere somebody is bound to have circumstances that can produce any one of those products just a little bit more cheaply?  Bulk shipping costs being more or less negligible and distribution systems having now had enough decades in operation at this level to have hit on some pretty slick solutions, production for any given product swings dramatically from place to place around the continent or even the planet, pulling the rug (or perhaps more aptly, the soil) out from under the feet of community after community.  The more efficiently this system works, the worse it gets, not just because better places can be found or developed, but just as much because better places become worse places since often what looks on paper like the more economical option is in fact a place more favorable to exploitation: a place with rich resources that can perform despite being ravaged for long enough to put the last best place out of business.  Soon enough that place will be the next domino.  And the hardworking, financially squeezed end consumer is put in the unwitting position of gunning the engine, because every time they run by the store to grab some “groceries” on the way home, they are presented with lots of apparently simple choices that look like this: two or more products side by side on the shelf, the only obvious difference between which is about seven cents.  And who doesn’t want to save seven cents?  Multiply that by 350 million, not to mention 7 billion, and you can wipe whole towns off the economic map in a heartbeat.

For the community farmer hoping to make a decent living supplying their neighbors with food, the exasperating dynamic is the certain knowledge that for most farmer’s market and farm stand shoppers there is the perfectly understandable niggling voice in the back of their minds: ‘I could get this cheaper at the store.’  For the producer, it’s like having a big fish (that you are starving for) hooked on a very fine line.  If you never pull, you’ll never get it in, but pull too hard and it’s gone.  Set your price where your customers want it and you’ll barely break even.  Set it a smidge higher and you’ll go home with half of it and lose a whole bunch of money.  That is a very stressful way to make a living.  Do we ask this of any other essential occupation?  And is there any occupation more essential?

It’s a maddening conundrum for everyone:  many folks spending money on food know the value of this kind of production and of keeping farmers in business, but they feel unable or unwilling to fully fund the system.  Farmers know this is valuable work and deeply love what they are doing, but burnout, financial failure, and family breakdown rates are high, and few can pull off the ecological/financial/marketing/logistical feat and still come out on top in a way that compares to their peers in other occupations.  Producers and consumers both know that economies of scale—just out of reach—are working against the relationship.

At the same time, in areas near the urban centers that drive local perishable food production, it has become standard fashion for those who can afford it to buy up parcels of land for use as home and yard only.  Again, fossil fuel assumptions make this a reasonable and appealing choice, since the easy urban consumption habits can be accomplished with little penalty at quite some remove, and the same goes for accessing urban employment.  This influx of competition in the real estate market (more connectivity trouble) has driven prices way beyond what farmers making their living farming can hope to afford.

The net effect of these forces is rural communities that are not what we seem to think they are.  Largely they are composed of country people living urban lifestyles, urban people colonizing the country, and country people (and former urbanites) trying to live farm-based lives in whatever time they can afford not to work at some kind of supporting-income off-farm job.  Not universally true, but to my view mostly true.

Here we have another angle on the above contradiction, where on the one hand we have completely acclimated to a life where fossil fuel-based energy is available and affordable for use in all sectors at will, and on the other hand we seem to be failing to accept or acknowledge the effects that dynamic has wreaked on our patterns of living.  Masumoto again (page 163)

Obsolete.  The word carries feelings of failure, rejection, loss.  I can’t help but take it personally, since my peaches embody my labor and commitment.  Yet how can a food become obsolete?  My businessman’s muse answers, ‘Simple, when fewer and fewer buyers will pay for it.’

I explain my dilemma to a friend and she does not understand.  After an animated conversation I realize she is unable to think of the value of food beyond qualitative parameters.  ‘Food is sacred and valued,’ she says.  ‘You cannot put a price on your work.  You need to keep those peaches for us all.’

For a moment I bask in her flattery.  I envision working my orchards to feed the world, my social responsibility, my contribution to the public.  Quickly my muse responds, ‘There are easier ways to support causes.’”

Well, I guess he and I have both seen enough.  I won’t do it.  I won’t put my family through it.  Not that I will never dabble in income-generating farm enterprises:  we make eggs available to friends and family and we just sold our first homegrown and homebred vegetable seed.  I am tempted by the notion of co-packing some salsa and hot sauce at a facility in Farmville to sell at our leisure.  But I will not expose our treasured home and life in this beautiful place to the vagaries of the farm products market, despite my lifelong love of agriculture and working in the soil.  We can’t live the way we want to and know we should while being held over a barrel.

What does that mean in practical terms?  A few things.  For one, we need to look askance at money.  We figure out how much we need, and we decide on the most life-giving, most values-consistent, most efficient compromise we can find to supply that amount.  Maybe some of the solutions will be farm-related, given our values, passions, and experience.  Fine.  Currently that need is being met by Janelle’s administrative job at EMU.  Fine.  A critical priority is that we need to guard our center.  That means we don’t expose our physical homestead and its functioning to high risk, nor do we unduly stress or compromise our family relationships.  Another thing is that we put thought and effort not so much into supplying our needs within the standard economy, but rather into reducing our need for the standard economy.  It has proven untrustworthy for so many.  Our system isn’t perfect.  We are too busy, especially here in the development phase (how long will this go on?).  But by our measures it is working, and we are glad to be able to live this way.  Masumoto’s voice again, from page 12:  “…if the land wasn’t going to make money, I might as well try to enjoy not making money.”

This may come across as antisocial and cynical.  I will deny both attributes, but I will admit readily to a sense of bitterness and consternation.  It is a common theme in our rural communities to see a hardworking, diligent, responsible, efficient, quality-driven, passionate farm entrepreneur work his or her body and mind nearly to the brink and yet never break into an economic opening that truly rewards that person with an acceptable living.  Each time one such productive soul settles for a “regular job” with predictable income, I totally sympathize with that choice and simultaneously grieve the loss of vitality for our communities.  I have read enough economic theory in college and a bit beyond that to know how inexorable market forces can be, and I know full well that that is what we are up against.  Nearly any agricultural entrepreneur that enters the market on its own terms will soon be buffeted by those same winds.  As a society we are failing to master our own economic systems:  they have so far by and large still got our number.

In the Christian scripture one can read that Jesus admonished his followers to be “…crafty as serpents and innocent as doves.”  I opine that the sustainable agriculture sector has got some strong moral weight behind it.  We have a pretty good handle on the innocence half of that maxim, if you will bear my adapting it here.  But as a group we are not a crafty lot.  And we haven’t the financial clout to hire crafty people to work the chambers of power on our behalf.

If I am casting doubt on the long-term economic strength of many of the current endeavors, but I still seem to care about sustainable, community-based agriculture (both are true), then what do I think of as a reasonable model for making progress in these areas?  How to preserve, or better said restore, a sense of our connectedness to the land through our systems of nourishment if the standard money economy so reliably refuses to promote—even sabotages—this progress?

Disappointingly, perhaps, I must now admit to not having a single, triumphant, twenty-second-sound-bite solution in mind.  Had I one, I could probably run for political office!  I have come to an awareness of ecology as the finest example of how things actually get done in the world.  That is to say that I believe the solution will look more like a resurgent forest than anything: each participant filling a niche as life triumphs in the burgeoning of a million complex relationships.  More process than product, it nevertheless yields countless products in a cacophony of give and take.  And when up and running, this kind of system can even be made to yield a measure of more uniform, bulkier product without being degraded.  Careful selective timber harvest comes to mind as the analog (no pun intended) here.

As I understand long-lasting agroecosystems of the past, and the societies that depended on them, there was a clear understanding that the strength of the society was built upon the strength of the agroecosystem (not in so many words, but you get the picture).  To the extent that urban overlords viewed their role as purely dominant and extractive, human-managed rural landscapes under their thumbs degraded over time.  The Roman Empire is a case in point.  I have read at least one analysis that blames the Roman policy of exacting tribute in the form of grains from the peasant cultures they dominated for the conversion of sustainable cropping systems to monoculture grain production, which precipitated the collapse of the soil resource, necessitating further expansions of power and so on until the empire was stretched thinly over an exhausted landscape and collapsed under its own weight.

Chinese society has lasted far longer, some think because of the differences between the cultivation patterns of wheat versus rice.  I am no expert on this, but supposedly rice requires more careful attention, and the dynamic that develops favors an elevation of status for peasant farmers; their relationship with political leaders was more mutual, and the rulers were compelled to some extent to carefully tend their relationships with those who provided their wealth.

Egypt was abusively hierarchical and lasted a long time, but they cheated…they had the annual flooding of the Nile—a natural fresh deposit of the nutrients literally streaming out of much of Africa—as a resource that could be degraded by agriculture yearly with no apparent consequence.  Unfortunately, much of Western agriculture seems based on the Egyptian model.  Instead of the flooding of the Nile, we cheat with manufactured fertilizers and other fossil fuel and technological inputs, and the ongoing, progressing devastation to our soil resource is obscured by these workarounds.  For now.

I’ll reiterate the ecology point:  We need a lot of people, all working in their niche.  Marketers, aggregators, educators, party organizers (the fun kind and the political kind), motivational speakers, farmers…and we need them working within the economy that currently dominates.  Partly.  But I contend that that economy is antithetical to sustainable community-based agriculture for the reasons mentioned above, such that until the engines and drivers of that economy change, its support for that agriculture will remain marginal and specialty-oriented.  Not that interesting things aren’t happening in some big companies…keep it coming and prove me wrong!  I just don’t see it shutting down too many smokestacks yet, or reducing traffic on the beltways.

Where have I taken us thus far?  I have contended that regional agriculture is an essential part of the meaning of life and love in rural communities, (indeed for all of society in the end), and I have made my views known as to why it is so blasted hard for efforts to maintain and restore that agriculture to gain a critical mass of traction, despite the devotion of its practitioners.  I have also said that it pains me and strikes me as futile in most cases for passionate farmers or farmers-to-be to enter the standard food market—even the organic version—on its own terms, when the usual results are burnout, bankruptcy, or pallid profits at best.  To be clear:  I am a homesteader and stay-at-home dad; I haven’t the time or training for the kind of scholarship the topic deserves.  This is my vantage point and my own thinking on the subject, and I make it public only because I notice two gaps in the conversations, public and private, that revolve around these topics:

Firstly, I assert that we fail to recognize love and attachment as major economic forces here.  Stemming from that is a failure to recognize how this plays out in terms of the oft-decried unbalanced power relationship between farmers and consumers.  In order to effectively strategize as individuals and as a group, I thump my fist on the table and beg us to take this seriously and face it squarely.

In this way I lump many farmers (including yours truly) in with artists, musicians, writers, and restauranteurs, in that in each of these pursuits there are far more wannabes than successful career professionals.  And there are more similarities:  There is far more skill and ambition than opportunity.  Love for the craft contributes to a viciously competitive market, and mass production and distribution undercut both the sustaining of a larger number of practitioners and the development of regionally specific styles and methods.

Secondly, and this one is harder to articulate, there is a need for recognition of the value of a vibrant core.  This economy has been demanding the same things of our rural communities and farm families that modern agriculture demands of soil: maximum production.  And the results are equally devastating:  loss of diversity, a reduction in resource mobility, degraded capacity, lowered resilience, sheer reduction in volume.  Without outside inputs, the recovery from that kind of devastation is long and slow, and Wendell Berry makes the point that any time in U.S. history that a community or region has managed to build a thriving economic system based on their locale, some enterprising individual or corporation has seen an opportunity in that and reaped the harvest they did not sow, destroying the resource they saw value in in the process.

So I say that there needs to be a change of tack.  An underfilled niche in the sustainable agriculture ecosystem is the conscious inclusion and valuation of an aspect of economic refuge.  Since it is clear the standard economy is not going to give these values their proper due, then we must designate and create and maintain systems which operate somewhat separately from the standard economy, if the values are to be served.  Masumoto has a related musing (page 87): “I wonder if my peaches belong to a past generation, those who savor produce and value the taste of natural foods.  Sun Crests are not to be consumed like fast food.  I agree with my grandmothers when they call my peaches ‘family food.’”  Which gets me back to our family’s strategy.  We have chosen to refute by our daily choices the lie that monetary compensation represents the highest affirmation of value

I say “underfilled” above because there are some things happening in this vein: CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) marketing systems, nonprofit farming, alternative currencies and labor exchanges, homesteading.  Many of the strategies currently being tried share DNA with what I’ve been talking about here, and I have been personally involved with each of the ones I listed above; all of them have lots to commend them.  Pieces of the puzzle each, with dedicated people and moral gravity on their side.  In addition to a basic desire for vast increases in each of these strategies and more, I would argue in favor of two improvements to this sector.  One is that we must remember as we participate in these structures that we are knowingly doing something that the economy thinks is stupid.  We should be alert to the surety that each of us will face moments of judgment—internally and externally sourced—that engender embarrassment and doubt about the wisdom of our choices.  We will need reminders, maybe even rituals of awareness and memory, built in to the group and individual processes associated with these structures and lifestyles, if we are to resist the prevailing logic.

The other improvement is an increase in the square and unapologetic addressing of our undergirding justifications in public forums.  When talking about the benefits of CSA, for example, we must never neglect to mention that it has its roots in the notion that farmers aren’t being given a fair shake, and this is a way for a group of those concerned with the problem to support a diligent farmer or farm family at a fair rate.  I fear that neglecting this aspect in public has led to the transformation of CSA in many cases into yet another highly competitive, and in the end abusive, way of converting the devotion of the farmer to their craft into maximum production in favor of the consumer.

This is not a direct strategy for transforming our whole society.  I am arguing for the careful and conscious and joyful creation of a way of life within, or maybe better said to the side of, the larger society.  There are many of us in the margins and tucked into pockets here or there that are quietly pursuing this, reeducating ourselves as to what it means to participate in the natural life of our chosen places, to recognize and develop the “true wealth” potential of that participation (from which monetizable products may eventually come, but that’s a whole essay of its own…stay tuned!).  To me the biggest growth edge (among many…what an exciting place for an innovation magnet like myself!) to these initiatives is the joining of our efforts into interdependent, functioning regional communities and economies that know how to resist the more deleterious effects of connectivity with the larger economy, culture, and civilization.  It is my view that this is more than a way for those of us who share these values to have a meaningful opportunity to live them out; it is a critical piece of the functioning of the broader society itself.  Every society, to continue in anything approaching health, needs (to use a flurry of metaphors from my Christian upbringing) its salt and light, its city on a hill, its sacred remnant, its voice in the wilderness, its source of renewal.  It is no accident, I suppose, that the earnest pursuit of Christian spirituality of my youth has led me to this place.  While I no longer place value on the notion of drawing others into my spiritual beliefs, a perhaps not dissimilar impulse, tempered by the doubt and wisdom that age has hopefully granted me, prompts me to invite you to join me and my family in letting go of the value system the economy promotes, and living into what we know is right.  From page 229: “Over and over…my struggles were resolved only when I included my family and neighbors as part of the solution.  The greatest lesson I glean from my fields is that I cannot farm alone.”  Maybe we can do it better together!

I’ll sign off with one more Masumoto bit, from page 215:

“The hardest decisions come when an old limb is dying but not quite dead.  It may have borne a partial crop last summer and probably can carry a limited harvest next year.  But it’s dying and the question remains: When do I cut it out and make way for new growth?  As I grow more experienced, I find it easier and easier to make that decision.   There comes a time when you see the inevitable.  The limb gave ripe, juicy peaches for years, but this past season was its last.  Its time has come.

With each dead limb there’s hope for new growth.  That’s why I enjoy this part of pruning:  I’m always working with the future.  I’m like a bonsai gardener with my peach trees, shaping each tree for the long term.  When working with dying trees I feel one of the most important and strongest emotions a farmer has: a sense of hope.”

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