I kill. I plant. I tend. I harvest. Am I now farming?
Killing. I yanked out a few 5 foot tall buckthorns behind the shed. With the Puller Bear’s steel jaws biting the buckthorn’s neck, I press down on the white handle. Pop! The lever action pulls the root out of the rain-softened soil. Sometimes. I needed a better weapon to take on the 8 foot tall honeysuckles. Little Blue, our 45hp 4WD New Holland tractor. One end of towing strap tied around the axle, the other strangling the honeysuckles many necks, I inch forward in low gear. Snap! Snap! Snap! Out come the roots. Sometimes. I needed a better weapon to take on the 12 foot tall boxelders lining the brush pile, the many that survived the burn. Targeted burn. I stacked dry brush and old barnboard under one boxelder and lit it. Whoosh! Crackle! Then finally sizzle, or is a shriek, the sound of steaming wood, followed by the stench of green leaves shriveling in the flame. Before the flames settle I stoke one end, gradually moving the flame around a semi-circle of the brush pile, igniting one boxelder at a time. Then maybe, when the thrill of it all settles, I weep.
Planting. We’ve planted very little. 25 white spruce seedlings. 50 hazelnut seedlings. One 4 inch long stick of an elderberry. The rhododendron my mom gave me for house-warming still sits on the porch. Someday, if the bare ground dries and Excavator Steve shakes himself loose from his other spring rush projects, we’ll final grade, connect the downspouts to the rainwater harvest cistern (yeah!!!!) and then, finally then, we can garden around our house. Ah to feel green grass underfoot rather than mud on my boots.
Tending. Two week ago we performed the only tending our 40 acre prairie needs: fire. I call it tending because the flame actually kills very little: a few small trees, a couple million ticks I suppose. The burn tips the balance away from the European-sourced pasture grass and toward the frequent-fire loving natives. We tended our spruces and hazelnut, hauling wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of woodchip mulch we’d asked the local powerline trimmers to dump. The enemy of trees is grass. We hope the mulch shields them. In another “crazy” experiment, I’m attempting to train a wild grapevine to smother a trellis rather than a black cherry tree. Speaking of cherries, I’ve torn off dozens of silky tents, writhing with leaf-stripping caterpillars. OK that’s killing I guess.
Harvesting. Nettles! The perfect cooked green: fresh, easy, abundant. Oh yeah, I’ve heard they’re nutritious (look it up, you’ll wonder why we bother with garden greens) as well, though ‘nutritious’ has pretty much fallen out of my vocabulary. To what extent does a list of percentages describe the intricately vital relationship between nettles and myself? I’m just beginning that relationship with cattails. Like harvesting nettles, the first thing I’ve learned is what it’s like to hang out in their home, which for cattail is the outer circle of either pond. What amazes (and delights) me is how accepted I feel by the nesting red-winged blackbirds. Normally frantic, even dive-bombing, they just go about their business as I go about mine: sloshing slowly along the muddy shore, seeking a fat stalk, yanking, stripping the leaves, stuffing the soft white pith in my netted bag. Feels great to be part of team pond! Easy to prepare, just eight minutes of steam and a little butter (or a lot, what the heck!). I’m still learning how much to peel off. Too much and I’ve wasted good cattail. Too little and my teeth need to do the stripping, like eating an artichoke. Like any farmer, my harvest is also lacking. I have yet to chance upon a single Morel.
Yet the question remains, am I farming? In our off-grid, rainwater harvest, composting toilet, rainwater harvest, masonry heated home, perhaps our greatest experiment is how we do or do not Claim the Land.
I wonder if humanity’s big agricultural innovation was NOT sowing and reaping and all the technology to do it. After all lots of creatures sow and reap: squirrels, blue jays, mice even. What’s unique to humanity is the degree to which we Claim the land. “It’s all mine and I’ll do what I damn well please with it.” First kill whatever grows on the land (or depends upon what grows on it, or eats what I grow) then plant and tend only what I will harvest. We’ve now extended the Claim to all of planet earth. What does the Claim get us? Could life be better with a different view of the Claim. Its hard to know when all earth is included.
So my novel, a thought experiment where a group dares to discover the benefits and challenges of a different Claim. Stay tuned.
So the Land. A living experiment where Linda and I dare to discover the benefits and challenges of a different Claim. Yes our killing, planting, tending will generate some food and firewood for us. Maybe some income. But mostly we see ourselves as Members of the community of the Land. And to that end we are stewards. Healers. Facilitators listening to the Land. Asking questions. Engaging. A friend once asked, “why not let the land go wild?” I responded, “why not let your teenage son go wild?” The analogy is about right. If we did nothing the results would be predictable: buckthorn, honeysuckle, boxelder, deer, turkeys. The familiar (and very limited) cast of characters. Not at all the diverse community which once thrived here: the ever-changing rainbow of prairie flowers, the drone of a million flower-sipping bees, the grunt of grass-grazing bison.
So yes we farm but under the guidance of new Claim experiment. AND. We Claim the Land AND we don’t Claim the Land. The Land belongs to us AND the Land belongs to the creatures of the Land: our connecting community, the bees and bison yet to be. We’ve learned that his experiment requires an underappreciated resource. Time. It took a thousand wild years for the former prairie to bloom into its glory. Our experiment may very well take as long. Still change happens every day here on the Land. And you, my dear blog reader, are welcome to come and farm. Kill. Plant. Tend. Harvest. Or just watch. And listen. There’s a buzz out there.