Also this week, Sharon gave a slideshow presentation of her trip to Africa, followed by music and baobob fruit sampling. Photo by Illly.
Beneath a thinning coat of dry, golden field thatch creep the emerald antennae of spring grasses. We are not yet to the season of green-up, the one pastoralists and their ruminant cohorts alike anticipate all winter. This is equinox, the great leveling of Earth’s forces, especially for us here in the temperate reaches of America’s Midwest. After a brief age dominated by northerly winds, arctic air, and the pale glow of human made light, I feel the strange familiarity of spring.
Howdy y’all, this is Ben, and I’m sorry if I’m getting all nostalgic about the seasons here, especially if you’re in a place where summer is ending, or on the equator or in the arctic, though I hear it gets to be spring up there too. I guess there’s just something about the way this place smells, once the soil thaws. Sometimes the smell is pretty good. Sometimes one must acquire an appreciation.
Well, nobody must acquire an appreciation for the smell of duck manure, but I think it helps. One of the reasons I prefer ducks to cattle is the size of both their bodies and their droppings. Duck manure dries in only a couple of hours of March sun, and by some function of natural alchemy transmogrifies into fluffy, flaky, magical fertilizer. It’s happening on my porch right now! I will grant that cow manure needn’t smell very rank, and generally emits little more than the airy suggestion of sourness when homogeneously deposited across a healthy, open pasture, and that if anyone were to confine ducks in one place for a while, well, things may become rank there as well. But I digress, and unless you’ve had the opportunity to breathe a whiff of the duck-sweetened prairie pasture land of this corner of Northeast Missouri, you may feel less nostalgic than I when it comes to this olfactory indicator of the seasons’ turning.
There are other ways to sense that we are on the cusp of spring, like peepers singing in the draws and ponds, the arrival of new birds, the gradual yet sudden reemergence of yarrow, comfrey, and wild onions. The empty roads and vacant landscapes of our slumbering village carry travelers again; up and across a low rise I see the mud-streaked visage of children seeking tadpoles.
The elderberry buds are fat and neon green. Everywhere the smell of damp hay and leaf mold rises, along with the chatter of fat robins stalking the sod for worms. Here and there protrudes cress, peppergrass and crocus, every overturned piece of wood conceals a colony of roly polies, or the stretched tendrils of sun-starved grasses. My child has already returned home with a tick on her back. Beneath the breezeblown thatch of these rolling hills, the murmur of a spring electric deepens.
There is, rightly so I believe, a necessary aura of tumult around this time. Atmospherically speaking, air masses are battling each other for dominance, if you’ll bear the personification. I sure do miss a good thunderstorm. As flora and fauna awaken from their dormancy, or seemingly spring to life from moisture and warmth, the struggle for survival begins anew. Here I am without hardly a notion of what to start on first, and several generations of dayflies have passed from birth to the great beyond already. Our laying flock is highly active at the moment, providing at least two dozen eggs a day. If we can’t get these eggs pickled or sold, we’ll be up to our ears in no time. Abundance always seems to necessitate work.
I’m not a good gardener, but I am a highly excitable one. A good gardener, I think, would have peas and onions in the ground by now. That’s not how I’m going about it. I’m planting lambsquarters. Everywhere. You might know them as goosefoot greens, or pigweed, or huauzontle, depending on your vernacular.
These chenopodiums (same family as quinoa) don’t need much encouragement, and are a bane to tidy gardeners. I am not tidy. These annuals really like to drive their roots deep, a defense against drought. The leaves are tender and tasty early on, and end up getting bitter and tough as they age. Well, there ain’t nary a green that doesn’t do that, cultivated or not. And lambsquarters have been cultivated, as early as 1700 BC by aboriginal Americans.
Why pull these things out when we can eat them? Goats like ‘em fresh or dried like hay, chickens and ducks will take them chopped with clover, nettles, and chickweed, and they really bulk a salad up in those early days when the garden yields little. They also seem not to give a rip where they’re sown, whether in the most fertile, well-structured organic garden soil or atop a fifteen foot mound of clay.
I remember once performing the awful task of pulling a quarter acre of the stuff on someone else’s farm. Awful tasks are always performed on someone else’s farm, whereas they become some sort of Zen practice at home. It has to do with having a boss, I guess. I had blisters from pulling after a few minutes, and the whole time, these people had goats, loafing around dumbly and hungrily in an adjacent pen. Like many first time homesteaders, they went broke due to a lack of creativity.
It’s almost as bad as having so many resources and so much money that you don’t have to be creative in farming, which pretty much only happens with hobby farmers. Then there’s the kind of farming where there’s so much debt and red tape that the farmer isn’t allowed to be creative. Pursuing my agrarian dreams at Dancing Rabbit has been the ideal incubator for my creativity, between my lack of debt and lack of money. We are beholden to no one but the livestock, and we can either innovate new ways of feeding and maintaining them in earth-wise manners, or eat them. Win-win! Well, for some of us anyways.
But of course, I’m not a real farmer. I’m just a guy who spends his time admiring the smell and consistency of duck manure, spreading weed seeds, and arguing with goats and chickens. Sure, I might plant two or two hundred trees a year, spend countless hours and minutes a day moving fence, hauling hay, hauling water, hauling feed, but I don’t operate a tractor, I don’t have a farm loan (yet) at a farm bank, and I’m perplexed about hog bellies and cattle futures. Who isn’t?
If there’s one thing I know about farming that isn’t just cattle dung, it’s the tumult and turmoil of trying to raise a good yield during a narrow window of time in accordance with whatever kind of weather we get, and I think that is something true of farming land as well as building an ecovillage. In myriad ways we are navigating the same storms and droughts, the patterns that bond us a bit more to the land. Even if we aren’t really farmers, we finally got the USDA to come and admire our little poultry project, so at least I’m somebody.
You know somebody who probably would qualify as a farmer? Johnny Appleseed. I got curious about him recently, as he has cropped up in Althea’s school book. The kid’s story was quaint and vague. According to the myth, Johnny Appleseed was some kind of gentle, wilderness-adoring tramp with a pot on his head. He kind of wandered around there for a spell and spread a lot of apple trees, because he liked them. I can relate to some of that. Not the pot part.
A bit of cursory research reveals that he was also a vegetarian, a missionary, and a capitalist, albeit an ascetic one. This guy could probably do alright here. It turns out he planted orchards of apples from seed on the frontier so that he could sell the plots to incoming homesteaders. But he never used grafted varieties, due to his religious convictions, just seed-grown stock, since most of the apples were intended for cider production, safer than water at the time. (In some places it probably still is.) Appleseed was not only a skilled orchardist, but an accomplished real estate developer, like many modern farmers have to be.
I’m not much of an apple grower. Not for a few years at least. But I’ve got a lot of hedge apples. As I’ve probably stated before, I’ve been collecting hedge seed for a living fence for the past coupla years now, storing the mushy fruits in barrels of water over winter until the flesh melts and we’re left with a slurry of gooey seeds ready to sprout.
As a part of my taxation for picking these up and using them to my own ends as a human being, I allow other critters to freely munch on them the four or five months they’re stored like this, to the point that a very fat squirrel has moved in nearby. I see this squirrel constantly stuffing its cheeks with hedge seed, and scurrying about stashing the quarry, some of which will doubtless as the spring re-emerge to feed future generations of rodentia.
So, Johnny Appleseed, altruistic as he might seem, was making financial investments for himself, all the while providing a little something for future generations, who, well, did what they did to the vast wilderness of North America, and now here we all are, dealing with it as best as we know how. I think I’d rather model my farming off of the squirrel: erratic, opportune, naïve, hopeful, and beyond the influence of self-declared experts in the field, like casting lambsquarters seeds on a mud-caked road ditch in late March.
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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an intentional community and nonprofit outside Rutledge, in northeast Missouri, focused on demonstrating sustainable living possibilities. Find out more about us by visiting our website, reading our blog, or emailing us.