Gene Logsdon and Friends

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Our Love-Hate Relationship With The Red Cedar Tree

In Gene's Weekly Posts on February 3, 2009 at 8:44 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

As with the New York Yankees, country people either love red cedars or hate them. One side says that red cedar is a fast-spreading weed tree and is a host for a disease harmful to apple trees. The other side maintains that red cedar is an attractive windbreak tree with useful, beautiful wood and berries beloved by many birds.

Years ago I fell in love with a Kentucky girl, and then I fell in love with the red cedar trees that adorned (or scourged, depending on one’s view) her family’s farm. When Carol and I married and moved north, to Ohio, we brought some red cedars along so that something in our farm landscape would remind her of home. The trees were already headed north anyway, the seed carried by birds which love the berries. Her brother, who had an orchard on their home farm, almost threw a fit. He protested that red cedar is a host for apple cedar rust which is harmful to apple trees, especially yellow varieties. I countered that his orchard was surrounded, literally, by red cedar trees, and he still got tons of apples including yellow ones, so what’s the big deal. In the end, he shrugged at my contrariness and helped me dig up some seedlings to take north.  As he finally admitted, he thought the pesky tree was pretty too.

That was over thirty years ago. Today our little farm’s fence rows are lined with red cedars twenty feet or more in height. Although the trees are spreading like weeds wherever left undisturbed,  just as they do in Kentucky, I am discovering so many advantages from them that I am for once glad for being contrary.

So far, we have had no trouble with cedar apple rust on our apple trees. Perhaps I am just lucky. Talking to orchardists, however, I don’t find anyone very concerned about the disease. Some apple and crab varieties, Red Delicious especially, are almost immune to it.  (You can google cedar apple rust and find out more than you ever wanted to know about controlling it.) The fungus is easy to identify on red cedar because it appears as a bright orange cluster of gelatinous spaghetti-like efflorescences.  Quite attractive unless you grow apples for a living.

Being a pioneer tree, red cedar, which is really a juniper (junipera virginianus), spreads quickly on cleared land and then gives way in a century or so to hardwoods that eventually grow up and shade it out. That is why there are so many red cedars in the mid-south. They are retaking abandoned farm land or where hardwood forests have been cut over, just as nature intends them to do. In the meantime they provide wonderful wildlife cover, erosion control, a good winter food supply as well as nesting sites for birds, and fairly good fence posts.  At least twenty species of birds feast on the berries. On our farm, bluebirds, which used to migrate south for the winter, now stick around and seem to get along quite well on those berries and those of a far worse weed pest, multi-flora rose.

Unlike other weeds and weed trees, red cedar seedlings, when mowed off, do not regrow so they are easy to control in pastures. They will grow fairly well on poor land and as far as I can see, are practically indestructible although limbs will break off rather easily to heavy wind or ice. Seedlings transplant easily. I have occasionally pulled them out of the ground without digging and replanted them rather carelessly and they still took root. Another plus: livestock won’t eat red cedar (unless starving) so you can plant them for a windbreak and the animals won’t graze them down.

As a fence row tree, they make wonderful shade for livestock in hot weather and shelter from wind and snow in winter. (See photo)  The animals, loitering in the shade, keep weeds from growing up under the cedars. Planted about 12-14 feet apart, the trees branch out and fill the gaps between them, and the branches grow so thick that they make an effective barrier for livestock but especially deer. The branches growing rather densely, prevent deer from jumping a livestock fence underneath them. As the trees age, they tend to lose their lower limbs, like all old trees do. But new seedlings continue to grow up next to the older trees to maintain a fairly good barrier. Originally, I planted the trees next to woven wire fence. Now the fence is deteriorating but the tree limbs twining through the woven wire take its place to some extent. As necessary, I replace parts of the old fence with wire panels and secure the panels to the tree trunks with plastic twine. The tree branches are so thick that inserting the panels under them is often difficult. But once in place, they don’t need much support other than the branches of old trees and young seedlings growing up through them. Red cedar trees can last a long time and so can the wire panels, so the fencing that I am now doing is rather permanent. Too bad I can’t live another seventy years to brag about it.

Red cedars, grown this way, often make more than one trunk, which is good for turning livestock and deer.  But the lesser trunks can and do break over in storms. These I cut and trim for fence posts. Cedar, with its oily sap, makes a fairly long-lasting post at four or more inches in diameter. Red cedar posts are often a commercial woodland crop in the mid-South.

The wood itself is in demand for lining closets and trunks to ward off clothes moths. In our area and farther south, Amish sawmills sometimes have red cedar lumber for sale in small amounts so I suppose local lumberyards occasionally have some wherever red cedar flourishes. The wood is usually expensive. If you have your own trees, it is best to make lumber out of them with a band saw, not a circular saw, since the bandsaw blade wastes less of the precious wood in the saw kerf. Another of my brothers-in-laws makes wooden boxes and other knick knacks out of red cedar (see photo). The deep maroon wood with yellow sap wood  are most eye-catching.

Red cedar trees were the only kind of Christmas tree my wife knew growing up. Her father cut one every year from their farm. Now we are continuing that custom. We and our son and his family can now harvest young red cedar trees from the original fence row trees at Christmas time. All of us and neighbors make wreaths and other Christmas decorations from the blue-berried boughs of the old red cedars. The berries are quite attractive (see photo)  and the foliage has a heavenly aroma.

We’ve noticed of late that cooking magazines are carrying recipes for meat sauces that use juniper berries for flavoring. Junipers other than red cedar have bigger, fleshier berries and serve that purpose better. But red cedar berries could also work, I’m thinking. It would just take three times as many berries as the recipe calls for. Some books say  that red cedar berries are “slightly toxic,” but I’ve eaten them on occasion and not suffered any ill. Nor have zillions of birds. Gin, as you know, is flavored with juniper berries, and I imagine there are lots of folks who would say that gin is “slightly toxic” too. Hmmm. I wonder if I could distill gin from red cedar berries?
~
See also Peach Trees Light Up The Old Hen House – And Vice Versa
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Gene Logsdon
OrganicToBe.org
| OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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The Pond at the Center of the Universe

In Gene's Weekly Posts on January 28, 2009 at 9:52 am

From Gene Logsdon (1991)

The man standing stone-post-still on the shoreline of The Pond was watching a muskrat swimming on the water surface, its wake forming a V-shaped ripple of scarlet fading to indigo against the sunset. Without turning his head, which might scare the muskrat into diving underwater and scooting for its den, the man also watched, out of the corner of his eye, a great blue heron drifting down out of the sky toward him.

He was used to seeing the heron on its nightly trip up the creek valley, headed back to the rookery where most of Wyandot County’s herons, silent and solitary by day, gathered to roost. But this time, the huge slate-gray bird, its wingspan over five feet, was doing something wary great blue herons do not normally do. It continued to drift down in the twilight, made a pass over the pond, and then turned straight at him as if to land on one of the posts that held the homemade pier he was standing on. Forgetting the muskrat, but still not moving a muscle, the man watched aghast as the great bird hovered above him, like an avenging angel, and perched right on top of his head.

Not many people would have the steely nerves to suffer, without moving, a great blue heron’s talons gripping his head, but this man, my brothter-in-law, is not known in these parts for reacting to anything in an ordinary manner. He had already realized that no one was going to believe him unless he caught the bird. He started inching his right hand up the side of his body. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Gotcha! With one swift grab, he snatched the heron’s legs in his hand like a chicken thief removing a hen from the roost and bore his prize homeward so that all the neighborhood might see and believe. His family gathered round, ignorant of the danger involved. None of them knew that great blue herons can skewer an unsuspecting human’s eyeball right out of its socket with one lightning stab of its beak. This time, fortunately, its captor wore glasses and when the heron jabbed at him, it only knocked the glasses from his head. When another onlooker reached for the glasses, the heron speared him in the hand, having endured, it seemed, enough human attention for one day. A quick decision was reached. In the case of herons, better two in the bush than one in the hand. The bird haughtily stalked away, looking like the dignified old lady who hoped no one was watching when the wind momentarily blew her dress over her head. Then it regally pumped its wings up and down, slowly lifted itself into the air and flew away.

Life at The Pond, as we have always called it, has been full of such adventures. One of my sisters, who lives where she can see The Pond out her window, watched a cormorant repeatedly waddle out on the diving board, raise its wings slightly in the typical way cormorants do, and dive in. My sister assumed the bird was diving for fish, but she was not sure. “It looked exactly as if it were just having a good time,” she says. “And who knows. Maybe it was.”

Another day, I arrived at The Pond for a hockey game to see about a dozen little nieces and nephews sprawled out, face down on the ice. My first thought was that they had finally done it—killed each other in one grand hockey massacre. Closer examination, however, revealed that they were peering down through the crystal-clear ice at a trio of snapping turtles, their carapaces as big as meat platters, clearly visible scarcely two feet below, lolling on the pond bottom as if it were June. If we all laid there without movement, fish would congregate under our bodies, obeying an instinct to hide under logs, which they now mistook us for. The ice had become a giant television screen, tuned to nature’s own PBS station.

Three generations of our family have worked, played, fought (the only verb that properly describes our hockey games), picnicked, swum, camped out, made out, and celebrated holidays around The Pond. Most of all it has been a haven where any of us could come when the need to be alone hit us, to sit and slip out of the consciousness of self and into the arms of a little wilderness that thrums and hums with enough activity to keep a naturalist occupied for a lifetime or two. It is not an accident that Thoreau gained inspiration for his best nature writing on the shores of a pond.

A pond, surrounded by meadow and with a grove of trees growing nearby, attracts and concentrates an amazing diverstiy of wildlife. In this humdrum corn-belt country of north-central Ohio, The Pond has hosted, by my count, over forty different kinds of wild animals, not counting hockey players. In addition, we have identified at least 130 bird species around, on, or above The Pond. I have not begun to learn the names and numbers of different insects, the most fascinating pond wildlife of all. There is a little water bug, for example, by the name of Hydrocampa propiralis, which likes to eat the leaves of water weeds. However, it can’t swim or is too lazy to try, and so, like a good American, it uses technology instead. It builds itself a tiny boat out of bits of leaves, and sails off into the wild blue yonder.

As I play Thoreau and watch the life of this little wilderness in action, there evolves in my inner vision, a scene of seething, roiling, dynamic consumption. The Pond is an endless, entwined, labyrinthian dining table, at which sit the eaters being eaten. Barbaric as that vision seems, it is the accurate view of nature, a view without which ecology remains only a vague word, incomprehensible to both environmentalists who wish to protect nature and entrepreneurs who wish to subdue and exploit nature. The Pond teaches that life is not so much a progression from birth to death but a circle of eating and being eaten, the chemicals of one body passing on to form another. A frog becomes a charming prince or vice versa, not by a kiss but by the magic of the biological chain of life.

I sit on the bank and peer into a clump of cattails. As Yogi Berra said: “You can observe an awful lot, just by watching.” A muskrat chomps on the rhizomes at the bases of the cattails. The rhizomes are good for humans, too, if cooked like potatoes. (The young pollen spikes, steamed, are offered as gourmet food in fancy restaurants, and “ears” of this “cattail corn” sell in specialty West Coast supermarkets.) However, the muskrat must enjoy its delicacy with one eye over its shoulder, watching for mink, for whom muskrats are a delicacy. (Muskrats make good human food, too.) The mink, in turn, had better be alert for the great horned owl nesting in the woods next to The Pond. The owl is not at all deterred by the odorous oil the mink can unleash, skunklike, when disturbed, and Mrs. Great Horned Owl’s young would appreciate a change in diet from the red-winged blackbirds she has lately been snatching off the cattails where the birds roost.

Sunfish hide among the cattails, where they hope the big bass will not find them. The sunfish look for snails to eat, which in turn are feeding on algae. If the sunfish watch out only for bass, they may not notice the little Eastern green heron standing like a statue at the shoreline, ready to grab and gobble them. And if they elude both bass and heron, the kingfisher, which sits on the dead branch of the shoreline hickory tree, may dive-bomb into the water and spear them. If the kingfisher is not around, beware of cormorants practicing for the Olympics.

The algae, meanwhile, compete with the cattails for nutrients in the wastes dropped by muskrat and heron and redwing. A frog sits among the cattails, too, half hidden by them and its own camouflage colors. The frog doesn’t know that the cattails and the other pondweeds protect it; they just make a convenient place to hide while it waits to snatch flying bugs attracted by the pondweeds’ flowers. On the upper stalk of a cattail, a dragonfly perches, waiting patiently to make dinner of a mosquito buzzing by. In The Pond, dragonfly larvae feed on mosquito larvae while fish feed on both. Attached to the cattail stalks under water, often in symbiotic nutritional relationship to them, are diatoms and blue-green algae being eaten not only by snails, but various insects and worms. Other types of algae—filamentous algae drifting in the water—become food for bullfrog and toad tadpoles. The snapping turtles, themselves being parasitized by leeches sucking their blood, will eat some of the bullfrog tadpoles, and I will eat some of them after they grow up to be frogs. And, by and by, I shall eat a turtle, too.

Even those plants and animals that die a “natural” death—the most unnatural death of all—do not escape the feast at nature’s table. Bacteria eat decaying matter on the pond bottom, and produce ammonia. Other bacteria “eat” the ammonia and turn it into nitrites. Still other bacteria turn the nitrites into nitrates. The algae and plankton then eat the nitrates and turn them into proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals in them begin the long climb up through the biological food chain. If that sounds complicated, understand that I am oversimplifying the process exceedingly.

The largest or most cunning eaters at the head of the table are kept from destroying the whole food chain because they are the most vulnerable to changes or shortages in the menu—as the dinosaurs once proved. The exception to the circle of diners is rational man, who is clever enough to find sustenance in almost any part of the food chain, but who also has the chilling freedom to rise above it, to act against nature. Thus, man, when he does not understand the full impact of his awesome powers, becomes nature’s greatest danger.

As I watch, The Pond becomes a giant magnet attracting the wildlife around it. The barn swallow skims the surface of the water for bugs, the raccoon and opossum fish from the shoreline, the deer come down to the water for a drink, a black rat snake basks in the sun, having already raided a redwing’s nest and satiated itself. A cedar waxwing flutters above the water for bugs. A wood duck floats on it, diving for food. A fly catcher darts out over it and back again to a tree. A buzzard soars high above it all, watching me, hoping that my stillness means I’m dying and that it can get to me before the undertaker does.

My father built The Pond in 1950, with his little Allis Chalmers WD tractor and its hydraulic manure scoop substituting for a bulldozer. Whether he knew it or not—not having any technical engineering experience in such matters—he picked an almost perfect spot for a farm pond. About a fourth acre in size, The Pond drains water from hardly a ten-acre watershed, almost all of it in woodland so that no silt-laden water from cultivated farmland, saturated with fertilizers and toxic chemicals, can wash into it. Most amateurs want to build a dam that catches the runoff from many more acres than that, which means a large pond, which is hard to take care of properly, and an expensive mechanical spillway, plus an even larger emergency spillway to keep water from overflowing and washing away the earthen dam. The Pond has no pipe and concretebox spillway at all, only an emergency grass spillway, off to the side of the dam, which, despite expert opinion to the contrary, has proved to be all that is necessary, barring some catastrophic flood. Our kind of pond, using an earthen dam to hold the water, is called an embankment pond. The other kind of artificial pond is referred to technically as an excavated pond, easier to build and maintain because it is hardly more than a big hole dug in the ground. Many excavated ponds can be found in north-west Ohio on generally level ground, or dug into big hillsides in the more mountainous sourthern regions, or along highways where the soil was excavated for roadbed construction. Embankment ponds are more characteristic of gently rolling country where small ravines cut through low, but relatively steep, hills.

Neighbors stopped by during the summer construction work on The Pond to speculate about when, or if, it would fill with water. Uncle Ade finally reached a verdict.

“It won’t fill up for two years,” he wailed. He always talked as if he had to drown out the roar of a grain harvester.

“And it’ll dry up every August,” Uncle Lawrence chimed in.

Dad, who did not get along very well with either Lawrence or Ade—or, come to think of it, anyone else—paid no attention to them as he scooped the dirt out of the ravine and pushed it into a pile for the dam. The Pond was overflowing by Thanksgiving.

The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) agent also stopped by to cast dubious eyes on the project. He offered to survey and design the dam properly, which Dad took as a kind of effrontery.

“Don’t need government help,” he said.

“But if you let us design it, the government will pay a third or more of the cost,” the technician explained.

“Yeah, and if I do it your way, it will cost me three times as much, too,” Dad snorted.

As a result of Dad’s stubborness, our dam leaked a little, not having the prescribed clay core in the center of it. It had a number of other minor flaws, too, but with some repairs now and then where muskrats tried to dig holes through the dam, it has neither washed away nor gone dry in forty years.

Dad would not take the wildlife experts’ advice on stocking the pond either. The standard stocking practice in those days was so many largemouth bass to so many bluegills, which, time would prove, led to a pond overpopulated with bluegills that did not grow to practical size for either eating or catching. (Nowadays, you can stock your pond with hybrid bluegills that are sterile or with channel catfish that do not usually propagate new generations in ponds.) Dad put only largemough bass in The Pond, big lunkers he caught someplace else. Anyone who hooked one of those lunkers had to throw it back in. :You’ll see,” he said. “they will cannibalize most of their own young, and so we’ll have no overpopulation and the remaining bass will grow to good size.” The wildlife experts sniffed their disapproval and left. One day in 1957, several of us caught ninety-eight bass, all of a pound or more in weight, which seemed to us to settle the argument in Dad’s favor. (About that time we did heed the advice of the SCS and planted “living fences” of multiflora rose on the farm, which eventually turned into a living hell of briars. I have not much listened to expert advice since then.)

The SCS had more luck with citizens less contrary than my father, which would include nearly everyone except me. Even if its multiflora rose and autumn olive are turning many Ohio pastures and woodlots into one huge living hell of briars (someone has suggested that there might be some good come in it—the multiflora in eastern Ohio may eventually stop the flow of East Coast garbage into the state), the Service can boast justifiably that it has designed and helped build an estimated 9,000 artificial ponds and small lakes in Ohio. No one seems to know how many artificial ponds there are in the state altogether, but SCS officials in Columbus estimate about 10,000, counting those not assisted by SCS, “and maybe more.” The federal pond-building program was probably the most beneficial government effort for the public good ever funded, so, naturally, it has been all but dropped. Farm ponds can, in some cases, slow the runoff of water to rivers, alleviating the effects of floods and decreasing the amount of soil erosion. The water that is held back may recharge groundwater or evaporate back into the atmosphere to recharge the hydrologic cycle. The ponds further benefit society by taking out of cultivation land that often should not be farmed anyway, ravines and hills that profit-squeezed farmers would otherwise be planting in erosive row crops. Also, ponds near houses and barns can be used for fire protection, and thus lower insurance rates. Many ponds, particularly in the northwestern part of the state, as around Defiance, are used as source of house and drinking water to get away from high-sulfer well water. In many parts of the state, particularly in the southern hilly regions, ponds were built for livestock water even before the SCS came into being. Some ponds are also used for irrigation purposes.

But although Dad was full of ideas for growing fish commercially in our pond, and using the water, enriched with fish manure, to irrigate a super-duper market garden below the dam, The Pond has been used only for recreational and social purposes. It has been the symbolic, if not real, center of our family’s activity. All nine of us siblings still live in this rural county, six of us and our families more or less clustered around The Pond. Thousands of other Ohio ponds have served the same purpose for other families—a close-at-hand vacation spot and health spa. The only accessory The Pond lacks that can be found at other ponds is a cabin beside it. Next to The Pond lies what might be mistaken for a large lawn were it not for the bare spots that mark the bases and the pitcher’s mound. In summer we play softball, in fall football, and then the scene shifts to the ice for the hockey wars. In addition to the ubiquitous pier and diving board, The Pond has a small area of concrete apron on the shoreline where the third generation waded and played as tots, free of the mud, and with a sandpile beach above it. Steel posts, set in the concrete apron to hold the net that kept the children from wandering into deep water, stick dangerously above the ice during hockey season, and we have talked for years about cutting them off. But now a fourth generation is coming along, and the posts may be needed again.

The muddy bottom is the bane of all farm ponds, and the best way to avoid it is with a pier and a raft anchored in the middle of the pond, which is what most people do. My cousin, who happens to own a stone quarry, decided he would dump a few loads of crushed stone into his pond to make a mudless bottom. Ton upon ton upon ton he dumped. The stone just seemed to disappear into the bowels of the pond. The beach he made needed almost yearly additions of sand, too. What sand did not sink mysteriously into the earth ran off into the water and then sank mysteriously into the earth. He finally realized that, even with his own stone quarry, it was costlier to try to turn a farm pond into a swimming pool than to build a swimming pool.

His pond, known as Eagle Park for at least three-quarters of a century, was the scene of the original hockey wars before they moved two miles away to The Pond. The wars at Eagle Park involved the whole community and were dominated by Dad’s generation, especially Uncle Lawrence, who flew up and down the ice on racer skates, the blades of which were eighteen inches long. To keep playing after dark, we soaked straw bales in oil and burned them, one behind each goal. One afternoon, Uncle Lawrence, bored with hockey, drove his old, wooden-spoked truck out on the ice and skidded around in giddy circles, whooping like a kid. He finally overdid it and slammed the truck into the bank sideways so hard that one of the wooden wheels snapped in two. Undaunted, he fetched a tree branch out of the grove and wedged it in under the axle to serve as a sort of sled runner in place of the wheel. Still whooping, he drove the jalopy home that way.

Eagle Park in the 1920s and thirties really was a park, with a baseball diamond as well as the large pond for fishing and swimming, and a nice grove of hickories for picnicking. Across the road from it was a little red-brick schoolhouse, crumbling away today, which I suppose was the reason the park came to be there in the first place. Grandfather Rall built the pond, and he did not do it for frivolous reasons like providing the community with a park. He needed water for his sheep. He drained the pond once, and even though I was only a little boy then, I can still remember big catfish wriggling down the sheep paths below the dam in a couple inches of water, looking as out of place as a bishop on a manure spreader. Grandfather grazed sheep not only on the pasture around the pond but on the ball diamond, too. Waste not, want not, he said. Eagle Park had its own baseball team, which had the reputation of whipping all challengers. Fritz Cassel, who attended that little red schoolhouse and would later serve twenty years in the Ohio legislature, says he was the water boy. Literally. “Whenever a ball was hit into the pond, I had to go after it,” he says.

Since nearly everyone in the neighborhood was a farmer then, whenever the ice was thick enough, work stopped, whether it was midweek or weekend, to play hockey. Weekend was not a word in our vocabulary. I wonder now, after all these years of progress and prosperity, how many rural neighborhoods have a free park all to themselves, kept manicured at a profit by sheep, and with the time to enjoy it? When we were poorer, we were a whole lot richer.

The hockey wars shifted to The Pond largely because Dad installed lights that allowed us to follow our madness far into the night without fear of running into burning straw bales. And it continued for a while to serve as a community watering hole as well as a family gathering place, just as Eagle Park did and many ponds in Ohio still do. The Pond hosted lodge meetings and church groups (although not immersion baptisms as Eagle Park once did), and especially school parties. These parties moved from pond to pond, depending mostly on which owner had young people at the right age for such activities. But gradually, most of the ponds have become, for the time being, anyway, forgotten little domains of wild nature where only those with old memories go now and, long to, as James Whitcomb Riley said of his day, “Strip to the soul and dive once more into the old swimmin’ hole.”

But if the countryside empties of people, it fills with more wildlife. The deer that sift out of the woods for a drink at The Pond were unknown in the days when catfish swam down sheep paths. Canada geese, once very rare in these parts, have become a destructive pest around farm ponds. And even ten years ago, no one would have thought a cormorant possible here, let alone working on his half-gainer. Life is a wheel forever turning. Whatever goes around, comes around. I have a hunch even the young people will come back someday after they realize the cities have deluded them.

But one wild species, Homo hockiatis, is definitely dwindling, being found in all the county only on The Pond, and then only in reduced numbers. Will a whole crowd of them ever flock again to The Pond to beat each other with hockey sticks or sit on the bank by the fire drinking hot chocolate? I think the peak year was 1957, when even in February we were all still eager for one more game. Snow had fallen six inches deep on the ice, however, and a warm wind was melting it and the ice. Uncle Lawrence decided the only way to remove the wet snow quickly was with our Allis Chalmers and its manure scoop. Dad did not think much of the idea, but he went along with it. After all, this probably would be the last game of the season.

Since the tractor had little traction on the ice, Lawrence would start out in the grass, careening along in road gear till he got to The Pond, then drop the blade and let the weight of the tractor slide it and a scoopful of snow to the other bank. Halfway through the job, halfway across the pond, the thawing February ice gave way, and the tractor sank four feet into the water, while Lawrence sat astride the seat, whooping hysterically. “You’re still the craziest man I know,” Dad yelled at him, shaking his head. “Me crazy?” Lawrence roared with hyena-like laughter. “This is your tractor, not mine!”
~
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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The Percheron On The World’s Most Famous Farm

In Gene's Weekly Posts on January 21, 2009 at 8:12 am

From Gene Logsdon
Excerpted from The Draft Horse Journal, Summer, 2002
In Memoriam, Andrew Wyeth, July 12, 1917 – January 16, 2009

This is a fairy tale story that is not at all a fairy tale. The story has so many parts to it that I scarcely know where to begin. Louise Kuerner’s horse, Dentzel, the Percheron referred to in the title, lives on the Kuerner farm in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, a farm immortalized on canvas by Andrew Wyeth, widely viewed as America’s foremost living painter and by many art lovers as one of the best artists anywhere in any time. He has used the Kuerner farm’s building, animals, fields and people hundreds of times as subject or models. I might argue that Dentzel is now the most famous draft horse in the world too because recently, Wyeth painted him in a work titled “Karlanna,” and a watercolor study done for the final painting called “Fenced In.”

Dentzel’s other distinction in life is that he is currently the only draft horse to be driven (by Louise) in the enormously popular Parade of Carriages that precedes the Point-to-Point  steeplechase races at Winterthur in the state of Delaware every spring. “At 17.2 hands, he’s the biggest horse in the parade,” says Louise, laughing. “But that’s what I wanted. A big horse. When my first horse, Pony, died, I thought I didn’t want to go through that heartbreak again. But when I found Dentzel, I just had to have him. He was even sick when I first saw him, not a smart way to buy a horse, but we nursed him back to good health and he’s been just splendid ever since.”

Louise is married to Karl J. Kuerner, a rising star of an artist himself. (A recent painting sold in the six figures.) He has painted Dentzel many times in his own work. “Well, he has to pay for his keep some way,” Karl says jokingly. Louise’s pastime and passion is driving horse-drawn carriages on the farm and over the many trails along the Brandywine River nearby. She is a regular participant in the Parade of Carriages. She gathers with other drivers at George Weymouth’s farm (another accomplished artist) nearby and together they drive their horses and carriages to the Parade at Winterthur about six miles away.

That Karl is an artist of recognized merit is an intricate part of the fairy tale that is not a fairy tale. To explain, I must start at the beginning of the story, or at least one of the beginnings. Wyeth named his painting of Dentzel, “Karlanna” after Karl and Anna Kuerner, the artist Karl’s grandparents, now deceased. They were the first Kuerners on the farm that was to become so well known throughout the world. Wyeth used them as models for some of his most masterful paintings. The Kuerners, poor immigrants from Germany after the First World War, had to overcome almost overwhelming financial and personal odds to get themselves established on their farm. Having known them myself, I would guess that Dentzel, standing so stolidly and unyieldingly inside the scraggly pasture fence in Wyeth’s paintings, reminded the Wyeths (Betsy, Andrew’s wife, usually titles the paintings) of that steadfast, stalwart, stubborn farm couple who figured so prominently in Andrew’s work. At any rate, as the last unexpected turn in the fairy tale story that is not a fairy tale, who could have ever predicted that the relationship between this hardscrabble farm and one of America’s greatest artistic geniuses would result in a Kuerner grandson, Karl J., becoming a well-regarded and successful artist too. The wonder of this for me is that both Andrew and Karl continue to draw inspiration from the same little farm. Karl once told that while discussing this rather amazing fact with Andrew the latter commented: “And we haven’t even hit the tip of this iceberg yet.”

There was a clue that the fairy tale might  turn out this way. The first Karl, whom I shall call Old Karl in deference to his son, Karl Jr. and his grandson Karl J., the artist, had a brother in Germany who was also an artist. The tendency did run in the blood. It also helps to explain why Old Karl allowed the painters from the nearby Chadds Ford school of art (The Pyle School of history) to roam his property with their brushes and easels. Other farmers in the neighborhood in earlier days looked with displeasure on “those weird people” poking over their fields. Old Karl made them feel at home. Another famous painter, Peter Hurd, who was, as Old Karl told me, “crazy about horses,” boarded  his riding horses on the farm right along with Karl’s drafters and paid the rent by giving Karl a paining. N.C. Wyeth, the very successful illustrator and painter and Andrew’s father, painted on the farm too. According to Henry C. Pitz’s book, The Brandywine Tradition,  N.C. incurred the displeasure of a bull on one of his countryside painting jaunts and escaped only by jumping into a farm pond. This might be part of the reason why his paintings never lapsed into the fuzzy “peace and plenty” tranquility that affects so many artists charmed by scenes of rural life.

But it was with Andrew Wyeth that Old Karl formed the most endearing and enduring  relationship. He even gave Andrew a key to the house so that he felt free to come and go as he wished. While the Kuerners worked at farming, Andrew worked at painting.  “He wanted solitude, to be left alone,” Old Karl told me. “We tried to keep it that way. We farmers understand that.”

But the Kuerner farm has a story to tell quite apart from the artistry that blossomed on it. The farm can serve as an excellent model for telling the history of agriculture in America up to 1990. The house was built, according to Old Karl, around 1706. Even a person of average height must bend down to go through the entrance doorway, a nod to the fact that people were definitely shorter three centuries ago. The house was used as a hospital for wounded American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and apparently Washington and Lafayette made it their headquarters during he Battle of the Brandywine. That alone is enough to make the farm a special place.

I have little knowledge of what occurred on the farm between then and the 1920s when the Kuerners first rented it and then bought it, but so much did the farm continue the traditions of earlier agriculture that when I first visited it in 1967, it might as well have been 1867. Everything I saw there reminded me of my grandfathers and the long tradition of pre-industrial farming that I almost missed. I understood when Helga Testorf, Wyeth’s model for the famous “Helga paintings” and Old Karl’s nurse in his final days, told me later that when she, also an immigrant from Germany, first came across the railroad track and saw the farm spread out before her, she was so enchanted that she resolved immediately to live somewhere close by.

I was writing a book about Andrew Wyeth at the time. His art on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, had smitten me. For the first time I had found an artist who in both his work and his articulation of his view on art made sense to me. I knew that his views about the creative impulse applied to writing too. I thought that I could discover how to write better if I could learn enough about Andrew Wyeth. Both from that notion and from being a farmer myself, I found the Kuerner farm to be a magical place. There was no other word that worked. I saw all round me Wyeth paintings in the flesh, so to speak. It was as if I were viewing Michelangelo’s David, and the statue came alive and spoke to me.

But more than that, if there can be more than that, the farm was also a museum of sustainable farming only slowly and grudgingly giving way to modern technology and the advance of the suburbs. Like an Amish farm, it was able to operate to a certain extent independently of the mainstream economy. Until the mid-1940s there was no electricity on the farm and with the way the farm was operated in 1967, it could still have functioned without it. The water in the house and barn was piped from the never-failing spring on the hill across the road. It flowed first through the house and then the barn without any technology or expense of power except gravity. The water never froze. For three centuries it had just kept running that way. The barn took advantage of the same free power of gravity in another way. It was built into a steep hill. On the back hill side, the Kuerners could enter the top hay loft floor at ground level and unload without much need for lifting power, and then feed downward from that floor level to the second floor and then on down to livestock on the bottom level…

The Kuerners still heated and cooked with wood. Even in her nineties in the 1990s, Anna continued to rise at night to chop kindling in the woodhouse off the kitchen, talking to her cats in German. There was a smokehouse to keep the meat; a springhouse to cool the milk. One of Karl’s and Anna’s daughters, also named Louise, told me that when she was growing up on the farm, sometimes a frog would jump in the pan of milk cooling in the spring water. “Worse that that,” her brother, Karl Jr. chimed in. “Once Daddy noticed a frog swimming in the milk when he got to the cream station. He grabbed it and stuck it in his shirt before anyone noticed.“ Both of them laughed hilariously at the memory….

This was the marvelously self-sufficient world that Andrew Wyeth discovered when, as a boy, he walked over the hill from the Wyeth property, which abuts the Kuerner farm. It was a world totally different from his own rather upper middle class surroundings, but one far from the “simple life” or “bucolic serenity” that upper middle class people fancy they will find on farms. The Kuerners liked to tell, giggling, how  their mother started fires with drawings and paintings that Andrew left in the house, scraps that would be worth thousands of dollars today.  Andrew learned that the Kuerner Farm could be filled with darkness of the spirit as well as light, of tragic sadness as well as joy, of hardship more than ease—a family depending on their wits to survive both nature and what we euphemistically refer to as mainstream economics.

I can amuse myself for hours meditating on how this fortuitous meeting between a practical farm family and a dreamy artist from upper middle class society could produce art so down to earth, so reflective of the real farm culture the world now seems to be abandoning. Whatever mystery is involved, people with roots in rural life sense something in the paintings that they understand but cannot name. Wyeth is as popular in Russia and Japan as he is in America because the Russians and the Japanese are even more aware of the passing of traditional rural life than we are. There must be hundreds of millions of us…. One of the strangest sights I ever saw on the Kuerner Farm was a group of diminutive Japanese visitors walking rather confusedly across the pasture fields, seeking in vain for what they saw in the paintings.

For that reason I must be careful that I do not read into a painting just what I want to see there. I think of the one that Andrew gave Old Karl, one of the first he did on the farm, when he was only 16 years old. It is a rendering of Old Karl’s workhorses (they were Percherons too) and a hired man, plowing… It would be easy to interpret the painting, “Spring Landscape At Kuerners” as a rush of sentimental romanticism or of true sorrow for the passing of horse farming and the passing of the family farm… I made that mistake at first. But as Andrew told me, he is not interested in farming as such, nor does he try to make historical or sentimental statements with his paintings. He just embraces what he sees and how he sees it and then works on it as if he were portraying, as he puts it, “my own little world.”… In this case, Old Karl told me, the young Wyeth was struck by the way the sun’s rays at a certain angle made the sweat on the horses glisten with an almost unearthly glow. Many farmers who have worked horses are familiar with this sight. That is why, I think, so many people with roots in farming love Wyeth’s paintings and why some urban art critics, not fortunate enough to know that culture, do not… With a similar ignorance, they don’t see much difference between a Wyeth painting and say, a Currier and Ives illustration.

But here’s the irony that forever baffles the student of human behavior. Practical Old Karl sold that painting for $12,000 so he could buy a tractor. The person who bought it turned around and resold it to a collector for $65,000 as Wyeth tells in it in his Autobiography. Today the painting might sell for over a quarter million. But Old Karl wanted money to buy a tractor and he wanted it now. Imagine: the farmer sells a priceless painting that immortalizes plowing with horses in order to buy a tractor. That’s the history of farming in one sentence….
~
See also Gene’s Organic Art?
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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Did the Amish Get It Right After All?

In Gene's Weekly Posts on January 13, 2009 at 6:18 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

There is an interesting development in mainstream U.S.A that just might have significant relevance for garden farming. Record numbers of people are acquiring pets. The dog and cat business is not at all depressed by the recession. (If you are wondering what all this has to do with the Amish, bear with me.) You see evidence of the trend everywhere, especially in advertisements where dogs are shown licking the cheeks of children— this in a society that has an almost manic dread of germs. Pets are the in-thing. Apparently our society is so enmeshed in its mechanical and electronic gadgetry that the human psyche is seeking solace in real life, as in the ancient loving connection that we have always enjoyed with animals.

The modern pet craze is not limited to cats and dogs but embraces many animals, especially horses. (Now you see how the Amish are going to get into this discussion.) Statistics say there are 6.9 million horses in the U.S. involved in various activities from racing, showing, pleasure riding, polo, police work, farming and ranching. The horse business or hobby adds about $112 billion to the GNP. Horses generate more money than the home furniture and fixtures business, and almost as much as the apparel and textile manufacturing industry. In other words, while we generally think of Old Dobbin as a step backward in time in agriculture, horses are very much a part of our modern economic and social lives today.

Why this is pertinent to garden farming becomes apparent from what happened a few months ago. At the time when the national banking fraternity was on its knees in Washington, begging for money, news all over the media reported that Hometown Heritage bank in Lancaster County, Pa., was having its best year ever. Hometown Heritage may be the only bank in the world, surely one of the few, that has drive-by window service designed to accommodate horses and buggies. Some 95% of the bank’s customers are Amish farmers. The banker, Bill O’Brien, says that he has not lost a penny on them in 20 years. They obviously don’t have auto loans to pay off and do not use credit cards. They might not need bank loans at all except to buy farmland, which especially in Lancaster County, has risen almost insanely in price. O’Brien says he is doing about a hundred million dollars worth of business in farm loans. To further make the point, an obscure law does not allow banks to bundle and sell mortgages on farms and homes that are not serviced by public electric utilities.

There is plenty in this situation for economists to contemplate, but what struck me the most was the fact that these farmers are buying farm land that can cost them ten thousand dollars per acre or sometimes more, and paying for it with horse farming. And because of their religion, the Amish do not accept farm subsidies that keep many “modern” farms “profitable.” Facing these facts, it is very difficult to see how economists or agribusiness experts can claim that farms using horses or mules for motive power are any more backward, or any less profitable, than farms using tractors.

If you study the great debate that raged in farm circles from about 1920 to 1950 over the economics of horses and mules vs. tractors, (a good recent book on the subject is Mule South To Tractor South, by George B. Ellenberg, Univ. of Alabama Press, 2007), you will learn that the experts never agreed. Both sides finally admitted that it didn’t matter anyway. There was a rising kind of younger farmer for whom tractors were just too alluring to resist. These farmers were going to use them, no matter how much more they cost than horses. Farmers who loved farming with horses wept while they watched trucks haul their teams off to the the rendering plant. They did not get rid of their horses because of the supposedly harder work involved but because they were afraid that if they did not switch, the farmers who did switch would eventually take all the land.

I grew up when horses were still the rule in farming. I had a runaway with a team and a wagon when I was 11 years old, so I know the dark side of it too. Because of the strange circumstances of my life, I worked on horse-powered farms again in my early twenties. I assure you: farm work is no harder or easier using horses than tractors. Each has its pluses and minuses physically. Mentally, farming with horses is more relaxed (they always start in the morning no matter how cold) except during a runaway. The horse farmer I worked for during those years, (1950s) was by no means Amish. He did have a big old tractor to plow his hilly acres. He used horses because he made money farming with horses. He was the best economics professor I never had. The way he farmed wasn’t what you’d find in articles in the leading farm magazines; it wasn’t very pretty. But it was a lot prettier than the Americans lined up at the employment offices today because they opted out of hard work in favor of the great American dream of ease and forty-hour weeks.

I do not speak as an uncompromising champion of horses. I actually prefer my 1950 WD Allis Chalmers which has cost me hardly $5000 total during all the years I have owned it. But that is not my point. I just wonder if we are not making a mistake by not taking seriously what the Amish are demonstrating to us. Given the facts of the matter, I don’t think it is naïve to suggest that young garden farmers take a closer look at horses, mules, even oxen for motive power on their little farms. Quite a few already are. Given the demonstrated yearning that humans have always shown for animal companionship, it seems entirely logical to me that young farmers just might lose their acquired attraction for the tractor one of these days to become horsemen and horsewomen again. The dollars and cents, the Amish will tell you, are on your side if you enjoy being at home and would rather work hard physically on occasion rather than pay for exercise at a fitness center.

With peak oil upon us, think of it this way. You may be able to grow enough extra grain or biomass to make ethanol for a tractor, but it will always be cheaper to grow the extra hay to feed a horse. You don’t have to distill the hay.
~
See also Gene’s An Ode To Horse Manure, And Other By-Products Called Waste
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © Marianne Venegoni | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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Knowing One’s Place

In Gene's Weekly Posts on January 6, 2009 at 10:41 am

From Gene Logsdon (1991)
Garden Farm Skills

Dave Haferd sees his farm with eyes that are 200 years old. He knows every foot of its 180 acres, on top and underneath. Walking across his land, he discourses endlessly and joyfully upon almost any rock, post, tree, clod, weed, or building that his eye falls upon. The gully that cuts deeply into the hill going down to the creek is where the road used to go years and years past, he says. The boulder in the fence corner required two days of hard work to move out of the field, he says, which reminds him that over in another field—he waves his arm in a southerly direction—there is a stone so huge embedded in the soil that he has never been able to move it. He worries, now that he is thinking of retiring, that the next farmer will break his plow on it.

The wild hop vines on the fence are not really wild, he confides, but escaped years ago from the fields, when hops were grown here commercially. He says this casually, not seeming to realize that he may well be the only person, until now, who possesses this potentially useful memory of this northern Ohio county.

Over there, across the boundary of his land, on what is known as the High Bank of the Tymochtee Creek, he says that the Indians burned Colonel William Crawford at the stake in 1782. “Or so the history books say,” he adds. “Actually, I believe Crawford was burnt in the bottomland across the creek from the High Bank. That’s what Black Betty told my grandfather. She was a herbalist who often came to the farm in the late 1800s. She told grandfather that she had talked to Indians who had been there.”

The boulders set at regular intervals in a loose line across the Tymochtee, he points out, were put there for stepping-stones by the Indians and were, he believes, part of the ancient Indian trail known to have traversed this region. And just down from the stepping-stones is the old ford, where, before good bridges, farmers drove their horses and wagons across the creek.

Walking along the edge of one of his fields, he asks me if I can see anything unusual in the wheat growing there. I cannot. “If you look close, you can see a sort of division. On the west side, the wheat is a bit taller and lusher than on the east.” Now that he points it out to me I can see the difference. “On the east side,” he explains, “the land was cleared and farmed eighty years ago, and on the west side, forty years ago. I still call the west side the ‘new ground.’”

In an isolated little cemetery we walk through, he pauses at almost every tombstone to give a brief history of the grave’s occupant. “That fellow was worthless,” he said. “And that one next to him hit Poppa with a hoe handle over a line-fence dispute.”

In another field, he stops suddenly and studies the ground. “Right here someplace there’s an old gas well. Pipe broke off down in the ground but the gas continued to seep up to the surface for years. We would light it when we were hunting and have us a real nice campfire.”

It is not only old bones and gas wells that he knows about. “There’s an eight-inch tile runs through under the fence right there and goes clear across that bottom ground to the hill, with four-inch laterals branching both ways along the foot of the hill,” he says, as if I were the son he never had, the next generation to whom this essential knowledge needs to be passed on. “Well, I’ve got ‘em all drawn out on a map,” he says, almost to himself, “but it isn’t the same as coming out here an seeing where they are.” He pauses. “You really can see them some days, you know. Right after a rain, on cultivated soil, the dirt will dry out first right over the tile lines.”

Strolling along the creek that flows through his farm he speculates on whether, as rumor has it, the landfill upstream might be polluting the water. Although the idea troubles him, he is not given to the shrill protest that abstract knowledge brings to environmental debate. “There’s still a lot of fish in the creek, so it can’t be too bad,” he notes hopefully. Then he smiles and the patience of a thousand years of peasantry glints in his eyes. “When I was a boy this creek ran black with oil during the oil boom years. The oil scum got blocked by fallen logs and my brother and I set fire to it. The whole creek was on fire. A sight to behold.” He pauses to enjoy the scene in memory one more time. “But forty years later we drank out of the creek again.”

Today, with our wives, Dave and I are returning from a walk viewing his crops, our Sunday afternoon ritual. As we pause on the road in front of the house, he points with his walking stick at a barely discernable, grassed-over rut that starts at the foot of the hill next to the cornfield below us, and runs parallel to the road out past the grove of pine trees, then along the edge of the garden, and disappears where it meets the lawn at the top of the hill. “That’s the old cowpath,” he says. I nod, although I can scarcely make it out. “That’s where we used to drive the cows up from the creek every evening. Right up the hill across the edge of the garden and lawn to the driveway, then on to the barn. After the cows learned to follow the route, we didn’t even have to worry about them scattering off into the yard.”

We walk on to the driveway then, myself marveling at the detailed knowledge Dave has of the farm he was born on, had farmed all his sixty-four years, and which his father had been born on and had farmed his entire life, learning from his father, who has spent the greater part of his life on the farm, too. “See that bit of depression in the grass right there?” Dave asks. “Used to be a hitching post there. Sunday visitors would tie up there and the horses wore a hole in the ground stomping their feet to chase away flies.”

I stare at him in great wonderment. Although we have been close for many years both by reason of kinship and friendship, or perhaps because of that, I have never been able to convey to him the uniqueness and significance I see in the depth of his knowledge about his farm. It is something he takes for granted, as if everyone knows their places as well as he knows his. I do not know how to tell him that he is a last member of an ancient tribe—the genuine traditional farmers who committed themselves lovingly to a piece of land and husbanded it from generation to generation, carrying in their memories a lifetime of their own experiences and that of their fathers and grandfathers on that land. Dave’s crops are almost always just a little better than the others in the neighborhood, because he knows his place.

Had I spoken all that aloud, Dave would only have been amused at this example of what he takes to be my romantic exaggeration at work. He does not know his own value. He does not know that the disappearance of his kind puts society at terrible risk. A stable food supply depends entirely on the concrete particularity of his kind of knowledge, without which the abstract expertise of science is useless. If one can leap imaginatively over the ruins of several civilizations, there is a direct line between Dave Haferd and the ancient Phoenician settlers who turned the sands of North Africa into a garden of plenty, building precisely on this same intimacy with place. When those farmers disappeared, so did North Africa’s glory days, leaving not only an agriculture in ruins, it needs to be pointed out, but a landscape dotted with empty amphitheaters. (Read: football stadiums.)

But after walking with Dave Haferd on his land, there is comfort even in that. If errors are repeated over and over again, rightness returns again and again also.

We wade into Dave’s clover field west of the barn. It stands almost to my thighs, hardly a weed in it, our noses full of the sweet smell of its blossoms, the air over it full of dancing butterflies and bees. Redwings and meadowlarks rise from it and settle back into it.

Red clover is always in the rotation on this farm, whether Dave makes hay from it or not, and in these latter years more often he just plows it under. “Oh yes, it still pays if you only plow it under,” he says. “This ground would not last without a regular plowdown of clover. And it’s the greatest help in weed control. We learned that long ago.”

The clover reminds him of something that makes him smile. “We always sowed clover seed by hand, walking. I still do, in fact, most of the time. Poppa was not one to buy new machinery if he could avoid it. We had one of those little hand-cranked seeders that hangs on your shoulder, and a fiddle seeder, and one of those horn-type broadcasters, which I guess was the oldest of all. He’d assign the crank model to me, the horn seeder to my brother, and he’d manage the fiddle seeder. Side by side we’d walk back and forth across the field, sowing seed, cranking and fiddling and sawing the air. From the road it must surely have looked like a three-piece band marching along.”
~
See also Gene’s Pasture: The Foundation of Garden Farm Success
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Barbara Field
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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The Fire Fiddler

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 31, 2008 at 6:24 am

From Gene Logsdon

Now comes the test of one’s homesteading stamina: January.  Might as well throw in February too except that by then the aconites and snowdrops have started to nose up through the ground or may even be blooming in sheltered places. But for now,  hang in there and read garden catalogs.

Another way to ride out the depths of winter is to spend time staring into the burning embers of a fireplace and lose self-awareness to the flames. That’s what I do, but losing self-awareness sounds terribly precious. What I am really doing is looking for more excuses to fiddle with the fire, that is, tweak the burning sticks of wood around so it flames brighter.  Fire fiddling is a more or less safe way to compensate for tendencies toward pyromania.

Something in the human psyche loves to play with fire. It probably is something we inherited, genetically or environmentally, from cave dwellers. They fiddled with fire for survival.

Even today, as the peak oil age arrives, fire fiddling can be once more a practical skill, even an art. Everyone knows that fireplaces are not efficient home heaters— most of the heat goes up the chimney. But a master fire fiddler can get twice as much heat out of a fireplace as a beginner.

The first condition of happy fire fiddling is to burn well-cured wood. If the wood in the fire sizzles on the ends like a frying egg, you may keep the fire going okay by mixing in a good dry stick occasionally, but fire fiddling will not be nearly as gratifying nor will be the amount of heat generated.  And the more uncured wood used, the more chance of little whiffs of smoke puffing out into the room before it gets dry enough to burn well. On the other hand, if the wood is cured through and through, rain water on its surface will dampen a cheery flame only briefly.

The second condition is good fireplace design. The proper ratio of hearth depth to front opening is important. So is the angle for the sides to take (a little inward) from front to back as well as the angle of the rear wall from the floor of the fireplace. It should slant inwards slightly as it goes up to the chimney opening.  The details of design have all been studied and debated for centuries. Needless to say, not everyone agrees  and we don’t have very many fireplace masons around anymore with a couple of centuries of experience under their belts. To be on the safe side, we purchased a steel insert for our fireplace, one whose design was in keeping with the best knowledge available as far as we could ascertain. Then we built the fireplace about twenty inches off the floor so it was easier to lean in and fiddle with the fire without bending over so far (and perhaps falling into the fire if one is also at the time fiddling with a martini).

The steel insert afforded us a handy way to increase the amount of heat going out into the room rather than up the chimney too. The stonemason who laid up the stone around the insert built ducts into the wall to draw in air from below the fireplace hearth and circulate it up and around and over the steel jacket. The heated air then passes back out into the room from ports above the fireplace. You can install circulating fans to move the air faster but they are not necessary at all. The heat pulls the air strongly enough through the system on its own. The fire not only throws out heat from the fireplace directly but indirectly through this circulation system.

To add a little more efficiency, our fireplace is in the finished basement of our home so that heat coming from it out into the basement rises up the nearby steps to the kitchen and dining area above. You can actually feel the warm air ascending the steps.

The art of fire fiddling involves the placement of the pieces of wood, or sticks as we call them, so that they generate as much flame as possible and as close to the front of the fireplace as possible without belching out any smoke. The first rule, if one must get formal about it all, is to keep a big backlog at the rear of the fire to throw the heat forward, and then to arrange the sticks in front of the backlog so that there is a bit of a crack between each of them. Then the flames rise cheerfully up through the cracks rather than sulk underneath because of being blocked by the sticks. Ideally, you keep the logs so placed, and then add new ones as the old ones burn up, so that a wall of flame from four to ten inches or thereabouts is always dancing above or in front of the wood. Some master fire fiddlers lay the sticks on top of each other at a sort of angle from each other so that there is plenty of room between the pieces,  or actually rack them up two one way and then two crisscrossed on top of the first two.

You realize the joy and purpose of fire fiddling when for the first time you pry with a poker two pieces of  wood apart and the sulking fire below them suddenly springs up with a sprightly flame in the crack you made.

Making sure there is space  between the sticks is most important when starting a fire— what was referred to in former times with the art of “laying a fire.”  I “lay my fires” on an iron grate that keeps the wood about three inches off the floor of the fireplace. First I lay in the big backlog behind the grate. Then a handful of twigs goes on the grate and then a small front log piece. Then I put two pieces of wood (split chunks no more than about five inches thick) on top of the twigs about an inch apart and parallel to each other. A third and fourth piece go on top of the first two but at slight angles to each other and to the bottom two so that there are spaces between them. Then I light the twigs from below the grate with a twist of paper. Sometimes two or three twists are necessary before the twigs start.

A banker friend of mine who is an avid fire fiddler, says that if you are short of paper and twigs with which to start fires, good, cheap substitutes right now are bank notes and stock certificates.
~
See also Gene’s Easy Way To Start A Grove Of Trees
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Image Credit: Fireplace © Luckynick | Dreamstime.com
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The Barn Raising

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 24, 2008 at 1:45 am

From Gene Logsdon (1983)

The summer tornado that touched down in Holmes County left a path of destruction cut as cleanly into the landscape as a swath mown through the middle of a hayfield. The wind plucked up giant oaks, tulip poplars, ashes, and maples and laid them down in crisscrossed, splintered chaos through the Amish woodland. With the same nicety for borderline definition, the tornado sliced through Amish farmsteads, capriciously reducing barns to kindling while ignoring buggy sheds, chicken coops, corncribs, and houses close by. In the twenty-minute dance that the tornado performed before exiting into the wings of the sky as abruptly as it had come, it destroyed at least fifteen acres of mature forest a hundred years or more in the growing, and four barns that represented the collected architectural wisdom of several centuries of rural tradition.

But what followed in the wake of the tornado during the next three weeks was just as awesome as the wind itself. In that time—three weeks—the forest devastation was sawed into lumber and transformed into four big new barns. No massive effort of bulldozers, cranes, semi-trucks, or the National Guard was involved. The surrounding Amish community rolled up its sleeves, hitched up its horses and did it all. Nor were the barns the quick-fix modern structures of sheet metal hung on posts stuck in the ground. They were massive three-story affairs of post-and-beam framing, held together with hundreds of hand-hewn mortises and tenons.

A building contractor, walking through the last of the barns to be completed, could only shake his head in disbelief. Even with a beefed-up crew, it would have taken him most of the summer to build this barn alone and it would have cost the farmer $100,000, if in fact he could have found such huge girder beams at any price.

The Amish farmer who was the recipient of this new barn smiled. The structure, complete with donated hay, grain, and animals to replace all that was destroyed by the storm, cost him “about thirty thousand dollars, out-of-pocket money”—most of that funded by his Amish Church’s own internal insurance arrangement. “We give each other our labor,” he said. “That’s our way. In the giving, nothing is lost, though, and much is gained. We enjoy barn raisings. So many come to work that no one has to work very hard. And we get in a good visit.”

The outsider listened, dumbfounded. The barn raising had already shaken his faith in the religion of Modern Progress in which he had been raised. He had come to see a folksy rural skill of the nineteenth century and, instead, witnessed a practical example of how to survive rather elegantly in the modern world.

The first day, the Amish installed the girder posts, girders, sills, joists, and flooring over the lower level where the livestock would be housed. The oak girders were sixteen inches square and fourteen feet long, hoisted up on the girder posts by human muscle heaving in perfect unison. The joists, half the size of the girders they rested on, were mortised into the sill beams over the foundation. Floorboards were laid down over the joists. Then the Amish carpenters installed the horse stalls, cow stanchions, calf pens, bullpens, pigpens, mangers, feed boxes, hay and straw chutes, all with so lavish a use of wood as to make a cost-conscious modern builder weep.

While this work was in progress, the most skilled carpenters were sawing to size the timbers that would become the post-and-beam skeleton of the barn, then marking and cutting the mortises and tenons by which the posts and beams would be put together into “bents.” (A bent is the basic structural unit of a post-and-beam barn. It consists of at least two vertical posts connected by two horizontal beams, with additional braces notched in at each corner for greater strength and rigidity.) The mortise holes were first bored round with brace and bit, then squared to size with mortise chisels and corner chisels, the work moving along rapidly. All the while there was steady conversation about the Yoders’ new baby, the price of horses at the Kidtron auction, the possibility that the Stolfuss family might not make it from Indiana to the raising in the morning.

“The raising draws all the attention,” one of the carpenters told a watching outsider. “But this is where the real work is done, measuring and cutting the joints accurately. The raising is just putting pieces of a puzzle together.”

The procedure for joining timbers properly has changed little for three centuries. A hole is bored through both mortise and tenon and a wooden pin, of white oak or black locust, is driven through the hole to lock the two beams together. The pins, before use, are dried in a little makeshift kiln kept fired nearby. Once it is driven into a joint, the dry pin swells slightly in normally humid air, while the greenwood beams dry and shrink slightly over time. The resulting bond is so tight that, even after a century, the pins will sometimes be impossible to drive out. For joining wooden structural members, no method has improved upon this classic mortised, tenoned, pinned joint.

There was no detailed plan of the barn construction, although the building was large and complex. “The blueprints are right up here,” a carpenter said, pointing to his head. “Not so difficult as you would think. There’s a standard way these barns go together and the overall design does not change much from farm to farm. The size of the barn determines the number and dimensions of the bents, and the dimensions of the bents rule the dimensions of the posts and beams. It was all figured out long ago.”

By six-thirty the next morning, a traffic jam of buggies clogged the country road to the barn raising. The main bents were all laid out in proper order on the barn floor, ready for raising. Every Amish male who could swing one carried a hammer, and they stood around in expectant little knots talking quietly as the sun poked up over the cornfields. In the house rose the sound of female voices, the warmth of their chatter alone enough to start the great pots of food to cooking. “You mean to tell me there will be a barn standing here before the sun goes down?” a visitor asked in disbelief. “Oh, yes,” one of the carpenters replied. “Fact is, you’ll be able to put hay in it by noon.” The visitor laughed, thinking he was being teased.

At precisely 7:00 a.m., the head carpenter, or “boss of the raising,” as he is called, shouted in German the traditional order to begin, and without fanfare, seemingly with great casualness, some twenty bearded farmers poled the first bent into upright position, while twenty more held it with ropes from falling on over the edge of the foundation. Just as unceremoniously, twenty more workers quickly poled the second bent up and immediately the more agile of the young men climbed up the beams like monkeys, jiggling and fitting the connecting beams into their proper mortises, and driving in the locking pins. The barn raising was under way.

The casualness was deceptive. “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night,” the boss of the raising admitted later. An older man nodded understandingly. “Ja. You know I had to quit bossing on doctor’s orders. Too hard on my blood pressure.”

What appeared at first as a rather distracted and unplanned bustling about on the part of several hundred workers was, in fact, an operation being run with almost military precision. Under the boss of the raising were two assistant bosses, and under them was a group of men recognized for their skills in particular departments of barn construction. Each of them headed up a crew, while the majority of the workers simply joined a crew according to the type of work they felt most comfortable doing, or where they saw another hand was needed. Skill and sometimes age determined the choice. Nimble, younger men worked high in the framing, fitting the beams together. Older men mortised and built doors. Strong men hoisted up rafters and beams. Little boys gathered up waste wood and piled it out of the way. Besides the many crews of polers, siding nailers, roofers, and rafterers, there was a special group framing doorways and windows, another soldering and hanging spouting, another putting together a new hay track out of the wreckage of the old one, to be hung later high under the roof peak across the haylofts.

All this work went on simultaneously at various sections of the barn. Yet few orders were given. The men knew what to do. The boss of the raising and his assistants and crew captains merely orchestrated the flow of work, like band directors leading skilled musicians. The barn grew, organically, in one cacophonous symphony of shining saw and pounding hammer.

One worker was using a skill saw powered by a gasoline motor. Sometimes the motor would not start, and he would glare at it. When it did start, he grimaced at the noise and smoke it produced, clearly uncomfortable with this rather un-Amish tool. Why, he was asked, did the Amish go to such great lengths to avoid electricity when the gas-powered replacement seemed religiously just as repugnant? The farmer pushed his hat back and toed the saw, now lying on the ground. “The Bible says we must not be yoked to the world,” he explained. “The electric, it yokes you. This gas motor—I can take it or leave it. And to tell the truth, right now I’d just as soon leave it.”

Another bystander who heard the question wanted to help answer it. His mother was originally Amish, he said, and was shunned by Amish society when she married an outsider. “They even had a funeral service for her. Her parents never spoke to her again.” But he was not bitter about that, he said. He respected the Amish. “Electricity is a yoke, you know. They think if they let it in their houses, the temptation would be overwhelming to get all the gadgets electricity encourages, like the rest of us do.”

The issue reminded him of an experience he had when he was younger. “I used to work with my Amish kinfolk. I helped in the threshing. The bishop had a big lug-wheeled steam engine to run the thresher, and every time he drove it to another farm, those steel lugs would tear up the road and the county commissoners would raise hell and send him a bill. One day when I arrived at the threshing, there sat the steam engine with the lugs removed, replaced by rubber treading over the steel wheels. I always kidded my kinfolk about their ways, so I said, ‘Heavens! Rubber on your wheels, Bishop! God’s gonna getcha now.’ He laughed, but took it kind of serious, too. ‘Well, we prayed over the matter and studied it a long time,’ he explained. ‘We finally decided that it was not the rubber itself God was against, but riding on air. Only angels should ride on air!’”

Around the edges of the little army of Amish workers gathered the outsiders—the “English”—most of them brandishing cameras. A television crew set up to record a scene to lighten the evening news.

“Unreal,” the photographers kept murmuring as they clicked their camera shutters. The Amish elders stayed busy asking the English not to take pictures. The English stayed busy trying to sneak a few anyway.

“But what is wrong with taking a few photographs?” some of the bolder photographers protested.

“A picture leads to pride,” the elders tried to explain. “It is against our religion.”

The Amish and the English engaged in a staring standoff then, exuding mutual bewilderment. The English could not understand a religion that viewed images of reality with suspicion. The Amish could not understand a religion for which the image was the reality.

The head carpenter’s noon prediction was wrong. The barn was ready for hay by eleven, an hour ahead of schedule. He nodded with delight when the English visitor who had laughed at his prediction apologized. “We’ll be finished by three,” he said, and this time the outsider did not laugh.

The speed of the raising was not attributable just to the large number of workers. A good third of them were standing around talking or eating at any given time. The secret was that the men not only knew what they were doing without being told, but they always knew what to do next. The work flowed. The workers were extremely “handy,” a word the head carpenter liked to use. Because of their lifestyle, the Amish knew how to use their hands, their whole bodies, in physical work. They could perform physical tasks in less than half the time and energy it might take a typical office worker, or even a typical blue-collar worker trained to do only one job well. Watching the Amish workers, one observer said he no longer believed it necessarily took one hundred thousand slaves twenty years to build the Great Pyramid, even if it was 482 feet tall and 775 feet square. With a bit of practice, a hundred thousand Amishmen could have built it in less than five years, he decided.

In addition to individual handiness, the Amish farmers were taught by their tradition how to work efficiently together. At the tedious task of nailing on the hundreds of siding boards, for example, there was no eager elbowing for room on the wall, each man intent upon seeing how many boards he individually could nail down. Instead, crews of older men, away from the barn, marked each board with a chalk line indicating the place where the board crossed the beam it would be nailed to. Then these men started nails along the chalk line. Other men quickly carried away these boards, invariably three at a time, and passed them up to younger men clinging to the beam frames. They, in turn—one above, one below—slapped the boards in place with one hand and drove the preset nails in with a hammer in the other hand, the siding going on in almost a continuous wave, as if it were being slowly unrolled.

By three o’clock, the barn was finished, even to the hanging of the doors. The workers hitched up their buggies and went home to tend to their livestock. By 7:00 p.m. they had all returned, this time with wagons laden with hay and grain, pigs in crates, horses and cows in tow on ropes, to fill the barn with the feed and animals the tornado had taken away. When that work was completed, more food was served amid convivial rejoicing—as close to a party-like celebration as the Amish ever come.

Two English farmers, leaving the party to which they had been invited, walked silently to their car. The summer night rolled quietly over Holmes County on the wings of fireflies. One of the farmers finally spoke. “Makes you wonder if some of them folks might not consider praying for a tornado once and a while.”
~
See also Gene’s Oxen Power for Family Farms
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream 1994
Illustration: Barbara Field
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
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Mulch Can Cover A Multitude of Sins As Well As Weeds

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 16, 2008 at 8:50 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

Sometimes I think that Ruth Stout, the Queen of Mulch in the early days of organic gardening, did more to hurt the practice than to help it. She made it sound so easy and carefree. That’s okay because I daresay she persuaded more people to start gardening than any other single writer at that time. We all rushed out to gather up leaves and grass clippings from the four winds to pile on our gardens and then, tra la la, fell back in our hammocks and waited for harvest. Ruth put gardening on Easy Street.

As the old song puts in, “it ain’t necessarily so,”  as we all found out. Mulching is one of the very best gardening practices, but like everything else, you have to master the details if you are hoping for quality time in the hammock.

The rule of timing: The sin that mulching so often covers, in addition to weeds, is cold wet soil from applying the stuff too early. Do not start mulching until the soil has warmed up completely. I suppose on pure sand or in the deep South, this rule is not as critical, but whatever, especially on clay and loam soils, you will experience much grief if you layer on the mulch early in spring or worse, put it on late in fall or through the winter under the mistaken notion that you are protecting the soil from winter’s cold. The soil benefits from winter’s cold.

Mulching too early means you can’t work up a nice seedbed until late in the spring.  Transplants set into cold, mulched soil will sit there, blue and shivering, until July. I am talking now about organic mulches— hay, leaves, straw, grass clippings etc. Black plastic “mulch” can be put on early, and it will help warm the soil up. But that’s a subject for another time.

Here in northern Ohio, (you can make your own determinations accordingly), we do not put on organic mulches until June and then aren’t in a hurry. Right after a good rain is the best time, so as to prevent that moisture from evaporating into the air. Mulching in a normal year can take the place of watering. In a dry year, it can cut watering by half.

First we mulch early vegetables, perhaps even a little before June, especially leafy vegetables so that rain doesn’t bounce mud on them. Then comes the twin pole bean rows where the vines are climbing wooden poles anchored to a center wire overhead. That means a sort of tunnel underneath, impossible to get to with the tiller and hard even to hoe. Then we do potatoes before the plants fall and flounce all over.  After that we do the viney melons, squashes, sweet potatoes, etc. before the plants crawl out all over the place and make mulching difficult. Last comes tomatoes, eggplants and peppers which especially need to be growing vigorously in warm soil before mulching. Do not mulch onions up close. The bulbs need air and sunlight to grow properly. I usually do not mulch the sweet corn either since it is easy to cultivate weeds between the rows with the tiller.

Exceptions to the rule of timing:
I put leaf mulch on the asparagus row as soon as possible after the first spears appear. That will be early, the last week of April here, but obviously the soil is warm enough or the shoots wouldn’t be coming up. Asparagus spears will come right up through the mulch but delay weeds. Then in June, on hands and knees, I crawl along the bed and manually turn over that leaf mulch, at the same time pulling out weeds, especially the zillions of little asparagus seedlings that have started to grow despite the mulch.

I mulch the raspberry patch heavily as soon as the raspberry leaves start coming out. I just throw leaf mulch with a fork over the patch and let them fall helter-skelter among the canes. New canes will come up right through a leaf mulch but most weeds won’t, at least for a month or so.

In a northern climate like ours, strawberries should be mulched in winter after the ground has frozen. Wheat or oat straw is the preferred mulch (rich in potassium). This mulch keeps the ground from thawing and freezing repeatedly over winter, which will heave strawberry plants out of the ground. Winter mulch also delays spring growth, therefore spring blossoming, therefore fewer frost-killed blossoms. Also, mulch protects the berry plants from deer which often take a craving for the first growth in spring. After the plants are pushing hard to get up through the mulch, pull the straw back to the edges of the strawberry bed where it will keep the subsequent berries clean and row middles relatively free of weeds.

Depth of mulch: As a general rule four inches is about right. Fluffier materials can go on thicker but you don’t want more mulch than will decompose over winter. If you grind up the leaves or other mulches as with a lawn mower, they are usually dense enough so that four inches or even three will do the job. Grass clippings, being fine, can work well at three inches. Sawdust will do the job at three inches. The trick is to snuggle the mulches up close to the growing plants where it is hardest to control weeds. Some weeds will still come up close to the plants you are mulching.

Materials for mulching: It is not a good idea to use fresh barn manure close to leafy vegetables to be eaten directly and besides the ammonia nitrogen will wilt the plants. Barn manure bedding from the previous year is fine, and two or three years old is  better.  I like sheep manure bedding, trampled in the barn by the sheep to a hard, dry mass. I peel it up with a manure fork in layers that are only an inch or two thick, but impenetrable to weeds.

Straw, hay, tree leaves and grass clippings are of course all fine. I pile them near the garden for use the next year. I don’t want them to compost much before use. Finished compost will not smother weeds. Half composted materials may not last out the whole growing season before decomposing. Old hay that is full of weeds seeds is not so desirable, but if you watch carefully when the weed seeds germinate, you can turn the hay mulch over thereby killing the weeds. Chopped up cornstalks, bagasse (dried sugarcane pulp), peat moss, cocoa bean hulls and other commercial products are good but comparatively expensive.

Sawdust or wood shavings, after having served as bedding for chickens, or if well rotted, make a very nice mulch, easy to work in and around garden plants. Fresh sawdust or shavings are less desirable but the caution often given, that they will rob nitrogen from the soil, is not true enough to worry about on a good, rich soil. Reason?  Something almost magical takes place in that inch or so of no man’s land between good soil and the layer of decomposing mulch. Scientists tell me that oil microbes run wild there and create nitrogen as fast as the decomposition process is removing it. This process is otherwise called sheet composting and in my experience is just as effective as a soil builder as going through the laborious process of making compost in piles.

Warnings. If you do a lot of mulch gardening, you will have plenty of earthworms (good) but also a plague of moles (bad).  Also mulch does not control all weeds. Thistles will, given a little time, come right up through most organic mulches. Towards the end of the growing season, grasses will creep in from the edge of the lawn. By fall most kinds of weeds will find their way through the mulch but much fewer in number than not mulching.

On the other hand, mulching works very well on our two most bothersome  weeds:  chickweed and purslane. Yes, I know. Both are quite edible. So? After you eat a ton of the stuff, what do you do with the next four tons?
~
See also Gene’s Organic Garden and Small Farm Skills – Hoemanship
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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My Wilderness

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 9, 2008 at 11:35 am

From Gene Logsdon (1990)

In human culture is the preservation of wildness.
-Wendell Berry

I used to say that it was but a few steps from the world of my garden to the world of wild woodland, but now I realize how that statement reflects one of the most invidious errors we humans have been making.

It certainly is true that my garden borders woodland. It is also true that a pronounced change in my mentality occurs when I slip from my workaday garden into the wilder haunts of the woods. I am transformed from Mr. MacGregor worrying about Peter Rabbit into Tarzan rallying the jungle animals against the excesses of human civilization. Nor would I deny that my garden serves the side of my rational mind that demands MacGregor-like order in a chaotic world, while my woodland provides me with the wilderness that the mystic, wild side of my nature yearns for.

The error is in thinking that these contrasts represent different worlds. Vegetable gardens are perhaps more human-controlled than are wild woodlands, but the difference blurs with close scrutiny. Every effort to impose an order that would sever the garden completely from wild nature ends in silly futility or catastrophe. One year a neighbor of mine decided that, by God, he was going to get rid of every weed in his sweet corn patch once and for all. He drenched the soil with atrazine above the recommended rate. No weeds for sure, but nothing else would grow there either for three years. At the other extreme, we preserve “wilderness areas” as if we could store nature away like a can of pickles to satisfy momentary cravings. I went to a wilderness area once and got trapped in a colossal trafifc jam. The only wildlife I saw was elbow-to-elbow campers emitting mating calls from portable stereos.

If gardening has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t separate ourselves from wild nature. Even in a hydroponic greenhouse I recently visited, a cat was kept to control mice, and shipments of ladybird beetles were unleashed to eat the aphids. We live in union with a wilderness fundamentally beyond our control or we don’t live long at all. We don’t have the choice of moving from a human world to a nature world, but only from one footstep to another. As Theodore Roszak put it so well in Where the Wasteland Ends (1972):

We forget that nature is, quite simply, the universal continuum, ourselves inextricably included; it is that which mothered us into existence, which will outsurvive us, and from which we have learned (if we still remember the lesson) our destiny. It is the mirror of our identity. Any cultural goods we produce which sunder themselves from this traditional, lively connection with the nonhuman, any thinking we do which isolates itself from, or pits itself against, the natural environment is—strictly speaking—a delusion, and a very sick one. Not only because it will lack ecological intelligence, but because, more critically still, it will lack psychological completeness. It will be ignorant of the greatest truth mankind learned from its ancient intimacy with nature: the reality of spiritual being.

I had to step back and forth from garden to woodland many times before I realized that the line between them was too fine to draw, that the “reality of spiritual being” dissolved the difference I had imagined. Amid the jungle-like fernery of the asparagus patch, for example, nature plays out dramas of eating and being eaten as wild as those that occur among the bulrushes of the woodland creek: the chipping sparrow flits from her nest in the strawberry patch to prey upon larvae of asparagus beetles with all the grisly intensity of the black rat snake snatching into its gaping mouth a field sparrow bathing at the shoreline of of the creek. Wren battles wren for territorial rights to the birdhouse in the apple tree as ferociously as two bucks in the woods battling for supremacy of a deer herd.

The difference between the larvae of lady bird beetles attacking aphids on the lima beans and cheetahs attacking wildebeests on the Serengeti Plain is one of scale only. I learn to measure my progress as a gardener not by the size of my tomato harvest, but by the degree of calmness I can maintain when I abruptly meet a garter snake hunting slugs.

There is only one accurate way to describe the roiling, moiling, toiling scene of the healthy garden: it’s wild! Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of species of bugs, birds, worms, and animals move in and out of it, all eating and being eaten. Yet most of the time, this banquet table of soil provides enough food for me, too. The real need to “protect” it comes only when nature’s normalcy has been thwarted, either by its own seemingly chaotic workings or by that of humans.

An ecology-minded world would not need to protect gardens from rabbits because gardeners would understand the continuum of nature and ensure the natural habits and habitats of owls, hawks, foxes, and other animals that feed on rabbits. All else failing, humans would eat their rabbits themselves, with the same gusto that they eat Big Macs. Cabbage patch and wilderness would be one. Tarzan understood gardening better than Mr. MacGregor.

I walk from one part of my property to another as through a continuous wilderness. The vegetable rows, the woods, the pasture, the creek bottom, the little grain- and hayfields are all “garden.” They are all part of the Great Garden that once covered the Earth and might cover it again. As I walk, I pass only from one realm of the Great Garden to another. The more indeterminately the borders coalesce, the more assuredly I achieve the oneness of the natural continuum. The vegetable garden, the most humanly shaped realm, becomes a kind of decontamination chamber, a place where I can slough off the fretting cares of civilization while I pull weeds—lamb’s-quarter, purslane, pigweed (wild amaranth), and sour grass—some of which I realize, wryly, are nearly as tasty as the salad plants I grow.

Then I step into the woods by way of a glade that also serves as backyard lawn. I leave the yard deliberately unkempt so that the mower freaks who visit me can’t tell where lawn ends and wood begins. Who can say whether I should mow here or not—whether I am obeying the strictures of lawn neatness that our rural middlewestern mentality teaches? Raspberries at the woodland edge further blur the border between civilization and wilderness. Are they part of the garden or the woods? I ask the same question of the hickory nuts hovering over them.

In the woods I become a sort of high-tech Tarzan. Loincloths unfortunately are not approved of by rural middlewestern Germanic souls of propriety any more than unmowed lawns, but my belt holds a knife and more (magnifying glass and hand pruners). With binoculars around my neck, I can watch for what food, spiritual or corporeal, this wilder garden has to offer today. I find a luna moth—an endangered species in this region, where even woodland is sometimes mowed—newly emerged from its cocoon, still not ready to fly, glistening pale green and purple. I hold it in one hand and study it through the magnifying glass with the other. I am transfixed by its beauty. Of the unlimited arrangements of color and pattern that moth wings could take, why these particular ones?

I am face-to-face with mystery I cannot fathom, appearing over and over wherever I turn my eye. I begin to understand the meaning of “reality of spiritual being.” Here is knowledge that science has not yet imagined, not visible to magnifying glass or the most powerful microscope. The moth flutters away. It soon will mate and lay eggs if a bird does not catch it first, and then it will die shortly, its magnificence “wasted” if not for my chance meeting with it. Perhaps wasted. In the realm of spiritual being, perhaps is the most necessary word in any language.

Leaving the woods, I enter my pasture, a miniature version of the Serengeti Plain, another mode of the Great Garden. Here, wild and domestic life mingles even more intensely than in the vegetable rows and orchard. I once sowed “improved” grasses and clovers here, believing the universities, which told me these improvements would be better for my cows and sheep than the herbage that nature grew. Nature laughed at such pride and sowed more enduring plants. In almost every case, the wilder ones have proved better for the livestock than the university-improved ones, not to mention for the birds and insects that also live there. Even the “weeds,” except some of the more noxious ones introduced from Europe by pioneers who also thought they could improve the native landscape, make good grazing. If I mow occasionally, the pasture takes care of itself.

Meadowlarks sing from fenceposts, bluebirds nest in the houses I have set atop some posts, kingbirds sit on the fence wire between the posts, bobolinks burble and spin up over the fence and into the grass again, barn swallows dart at bugs rising from the grass, field sparrows crouch over nests of eggs at the base of bull thistles. Cowbirds perch on the back of the cow and the sheep, watching for flies. I rake the meadow with my binoculars and gather the whole scene into a spiritual harvest.

I pass into a third realm of the Great Garden: my fields of corn, oats, wheat, and clover hay. Red-winged blackbirds walk the cornrows, stolidly hunting cutworms. I turn over a lump of barn manure that didn’t get worked into the soil at planting time and uncover two ground beetles, a species that also feeds on cutworms and wireworms. I lift another manure clump and find two more. The reason for these unworked clumps is that a killdeer had been nesting there at planting time, and I dodged her with the tractor and disk. In the wheat plot, a path of trampled stalks leading into the stand tells me that raccoons or groundhogs are probably in the field, digging burrows that the growing grain stalks already hide from view. I scowl, the Mr. MacGregor in me asserting himself.

I pass into a fourth realm of the Great Garden, the grove of trees through which the creek winds. I sit on the bridge I built across the stream, my legs dangling over the side, and gaze into the water tumbling over the rock dam the children built. The sound of water over the stones is spring’s best music, next to the meadowlark’s song. Along the bank, almost in the water, a wild iris blooms. It appears to have been deliberately planted there, I catch myself thinking, still needing to remind myself that nature was planting flowers long before humans and can do the job just as well.

Suddenly, a fish flies between my dangling legs. It leaps from the water under the bridge in an arc up over the dam into the upper pool. I can’t believe my eyes, so I wait. Another one! At least a dozen dance over the dam as I watch. How did these common little shiners and larger suckers (as we call them) learn to leap dams built by children? There are no natural rock dams in our world of mud-bottomed creeks, far from the salmon runs of the wild Mackenzie. And yet, is the “real” wilderness any more spiritually vitalizing than this humdrum remnant left in these Ohio farmlands? If all the land were kept as part of the Great Garden, there would be little need for wilderness parks.

But all land is not kept this way. I walk into a section where, as far as my eye can see, there is nothing but plowed soil. I come here to hunt flint arrowheads and stone hammers left by the Tarzans of another era. I search a while, but the stillness, the eerie emptiness of hundreds of plowed acres stretching into the gathering dusk, overwhelms me. No barns, houses, pastures, woodlands, or fencerows are visible. I have entered a strange planet, one which man has almost succeeded in severing from the full life of nature. Ironically, the men who create these moonscapes for money use the profit to vacation in far-off wilderness areas.

I shiver from some vague fear. A vision of nature decapitated spreads before my mind’s eye: a future in which this countryside is slowly but surely turned from its original Great Garden into a desert stretching between lonely roads, a no-man’s-land between cities. I see whole townships and counties where a virtually limitless variety of plants, insects, animals, and humans all in their allotted niches once lived—field, pasture, woodland, farmstead, and village—now turned into empty spaces of pulverized, eroding soil producing surplus corn, rootworms, poor-quality food, and an unhealthy society. The Indians left their flints to mark the passing of their culture. I have only a hoe with a shiny handle to mark the end of mine.

I retreat back to country where the Great Garden is still remembered. A wood thrush sings as I approach my tree grove, renewing my hope. The dark vision cannot come to reality, the thrush seems to be telling me, because the coninuum of wild nature is even stronger in humans than the continuum of greed. Even the agribusinessmen will understand, once the wilderness areas they escape to are all paved with traffic jams and populated with deanimalized bears eating human garbage. Then everyone will be convinced that the only “escape” is to make all the Earth over into the various realms of the Great Garden.
~
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream (1990)
Image Credits: Deer © Mike Rogal | Dreamstime.com
Beetles © Rusty Dodson | Dreamstime.com
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Unexpected Benefits From Pasture Farming

In Gene's Weekly Posts on December 2, 2008 at 10:49 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

The biggest problem in pasture farming, that is raising farm animals almost entirely on pastures without much annual soil cultivation for grains, is internal parasites, especially in the more humid parts of the country. Parasitic worms hatch into the larval stage in the soil and crawl up the grass stems where they are ingested by the grazing animals. The worms’ eggs then pass out of the animals in the manure, and cycle back through the soil and up the grass stems to be ingested again. As pasture farmers increase livestock numbers because they have learned how to increase the carrying capacity of their pastures, the more the problem is exacerbated and the more they have to rely on various wormers. Treating sheep with vermifuges three times a summer has become necessary in some cases and even that may not do the job very well. Internal parasites seem to be growing immune to the usual medications, necessitating the use of different, stronger and more expensive ones.

We shepherds have learned that taking the animals off a pasture for a month does not break the worm cycle on that pasture, as used to be commonly believed. However a pasture not grazed for a year can eliminate or greatly reduce infestation. Medieval farmers resorted to dividing their land into two parts and alternately grazing only half in any given year. But today, graziers don’t think they can afford to pasture only half their land (so much for progress) and put hay or grain alternately in the other half. That would mean doing annual cultivation of half the farm every year thereby losing the cost-saving advantages of permanent or nearly permanent pasture.

But there might be an effective compromise that rotational grazing makes possible. At least it has worked for us so far— keep your fingers crossed.  In earlier years, we had gotten to the point where we had to worm the sheep three times a summer to keep them healthy.   (Sheep with stomach worms have pale eyes, scraggly wool, invariably have rear ends coated with manure, and the lambs do not gain weight efficiently.)  Now we are back to only one worming a year and I have hopes of eliminating the job completely.

We have experimented with various schedules and carrying rates on our rotated pastures to arrive at what seems, all things considered, the best for us: a division into eight plots of about an acre and a half in size, with two other woodsy plots grazed only irregularly to give the animals a chance to eat acorns and walnut leaves and other wild plants traditionally thought to be helpful in controlling internal parasites. Each of the eight plots, or paddocks as graziers call them, is grazed for one week at a time and then the sheep are moved on to the next. That means any given plot has sheep on it only one week roughly every two months. In a grazing season of eight months, each plot is visited only one month (four separate weeks) out of the year at two months intervals. Parasitic worms do not have a chance to build up high populations under this regimen. The animals are allowed the run of all the plots in winter because worms aren’t active in cold weather. Although this is not quite once-a-year grazing, it seems to work so far.

To help this kind of parasite control, I usually mow a  paddock following one or two of  its four grazing periods  to control weeds that the animals might not have eaten and to encourage lush new growth of grass and clover. Mowing helps control worms, so the books say.

I’m sure that part of the reason we have had success this way is that we don’t overcrowd our pastures. We keep around 20 ewes on about 14 acres. From April until October, there will be another 20 to 30 lambs too,  or altogether, roughly about three and a half head per acre. Normal carrying capacity on our kind of soil and climate is five sheep per acre.  A commercial shepherd might find  our stocking rate too low to be profitable, but I wonder. If we can eliminate internal parasites we might make as much net profit with a low carrying rate.

I can’t resist sharing another, somewhat humorous benefit from rotational grazing. When the sheep see me coming to switch them into another plot, they run ahead of me like a herd of crazed buffaloes to the gate, then turn around and stare at me expectantly. They know the routine.

I used to wish I had a good border collie to help me move the sheep.  Now I don’t need one. All I have to do is stand at a gate, any gate, and call a bit and no matter where the sheep are, they will come running. The grass where they are grazing might still be good,  but if the master is calling, it must be better on the other side of the fence. Finally they will even come into the barn lot without being driven if I stand at the gate and call. Going through gates just gets to be a habit with them, an indication of better things to come. Wish it were that easy to instill hope in human society in these paranoid days.
~
See also Gene’s Our Ewes Are Having Lots Of Lambs, But Is More Better?
~~
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © John Manning | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org | OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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