Nature’s Promises Kept Again


Every year in the brown, sere days before the great greening in spring, I begin to have doubts. Will the flowers come again?  Will the birds return? Will the trees leaf out? With all the despair and calamity rife in the world, the ancient fear that the end is near is as believable as ever.

Perhaps global warming will burn us up.

Oh no, it’s global cooling on the way. Watch out for glaciers.

No, no. The real fear is bombs and chemicals.

Not to worry. Disease outbreaks will get us before that.

Going into March I am gripped by a madness that has nothing to do with basketball. I am torn between despair over a political process descending into lunacy and an economic process that guarantees only an ever-growing poverty class.  I am glad I do not know how to tie a rope into a noose.

Then I look out the window one morning and see the great miracle. Snowdrops are blooming by the house wall. I blink my eyes and shake my head. They are still there. In a few more days they are joined by winter aconites, merry yellow jewels against the melting snow. Slowly but surely all the spring wildflowers return— actually this unusually warm spring, they came fast and furiously— and I feel that great uprising of joy and hope once again. Nature does not renege on her promises.

The resilience and stability of nature is amazing and we often miss it because the news of the day focuses on the failures and threats, not on the successes. In all the earth-shaking changes that have shattered our sense of security over the past forty years or so, here on our farm, right here, the state of wild nature is remarkably little changed. There is less woodland but what remains is growing trees like it always has. And new patches of forest are on the march on “marginal land” where industrial farming is no longer profitable. In the last hundred years, roughly during my lifetime, we have lost only one bird that I am aware of: the little bobolink of the pastures fields. It left us when most of the pastures were plowed up. But amazingly, the meadowlark remains. And I have a strong hunch that if pasture farming continues to grow, the bobolink will return. It lives its merry life yet on the Amish farms not so far away in eastern Ohio, just waiting to move back in here.

The biggest change is in the creek. I don’t see as many black snakes, frogs, minnows and turtles as I used to. But they have taken up residence in the scores of farm ponds that have been built in recent years. The streambed springs that feed the creek miraculously hang on although uphill springs have long since dried up. A few fresh water mussels remain in the creek, another miracle.

We lost the bobolink, but gained the bald eagle. One year the tufted titmice disappeared from the feeder but were back the next year. For awhile, the great horned owl left us (I am told because of West Nile virus but I don’t know that for sure) but last spring, in those sad days of February, suddenly, at dusk came that old reassuring whoo whoo from the woods.  Along the edge of one of our woodlots, the red-headed woodpeckers still flash from roadside electric pole into the woods and back again as I have watched them do all my life.

It is hard for many people to believe, but actually, in the forgotten and ignored rough and tumble patches of land between the cornfields, where tractors can’t reach, nature is gaining on human civilization. There are hundreds of deer now where in my childhood there were none. Coyotes, new here, are everywhere, eating, among other things, fawns and young groundhogs, keeping both those species from overrunning us. Raccoons continue to take their deadly toll of the bird population, but surprisingly there are more bluebirds now than ever. In the spring, the migrating birds come through as they always have, enduring perilous journeys thousands of miles long from the tropics to the arboreal forests. That alone is some kind of miracle.

It sounds corny, but if we will relax, withdraw a little from the clamor, and sink into the arms of nature with observant eyes, things are not as bad as they appear to be on the news. Keep reminding yourself. The snowdrops have come again.


Well said 🙂 Who needs television when we are blessed to able to work/sit outside watching all the new life of spring literally “spring to life” before our eyes?!

Thanks for another great blog posting.

James, I have often thought about trying to grow corn in a pasture but I have never quite gotten around to it. With one of the new strip till planter I’m sure it would work but those things are expensive. If you do experiment with this idea, I would love to know how it works out. Last year, with the abnormally wet weather, I could not keep up with the grass growing in my corn, but by then the corn was well above the grass. The grass (mostly quack grass) made the field look like hell from a traditional point of view, but I had the best corn ever and there definitely was no erosion with all that grass underfoot. Gene

Gene, Thanks for the inspirational reminder. I’ve been reading your writings and been inspired by them since the very old: “Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine” days and I wanted to let you know they have inspired me and literally changed my life for the better. At a young age, (I’m 58 now) with the encouragement of your writings and other writers in the Old Organic Gardening and Farming Magazine, I started a sheep and poultry flock and learned to use the manure pack bedding as compost and mulch as you re-recommended in the “Holy Shit ” book and also how to rotate grazing to build soil fertility as you re-recommended in several of your books. I recall you also described these practices in the “Practical Skills” book. (That book, although very worn with repeated use, sits in a place of honor on my bookshelf.)

Based upon these inspirational writings, when I was a young person, my Dad and I planted clover and grass in the orchard , then rotationally grazed the sheep through the orchard and used them and poultry to clean up fallen fruit, which is also something you advocated. The sheep and poultry did well, soil fertility improved and fruit quality improved as well. It was indeed Providential that the first magazine I read besides :”Field and Stream” was:Organic Gardening and Farming”.

I also learned to save extra eggs to incubate and raise poultry for our own use and to sell, which meant that at a young age I was able to bring in income and eat good basic home-grown food. Mom’s Sunday fried chicken from free-ranging poultry was second to none. Grass-fed Beef from Jersey Steers, mutton and deer meat filled in the red meat needs. I didn’t have a clue what Omega 3’s were but I knew our meat and eggs were better than anything the store sold. Which, was a good thing because we didn’t have money to purchase much meat from a store anyway.

In essence you helped ensure that I was able to grow the raw ingredients for a well-balanced diet from a young age. I must admit though, that we ate mutton because it wasn’t worth much, but lambs were worth good money. I can’t say I ever really ate lamb until I was an adult with my own flock because we always sold the lambs. But I’ve has some barely edible mutton and some that was better than any restaurant beef steak I’ve dined on.

About 25 years ago, while raising my own family, after I read your book on small scale grain raising (1st edition) I left a patch of winter rye in the garden ,(which was originally planted as strictly an over-winter cover crop) go to seed and harvested the grain and straw with a scythe and homemade (cobbled) grain cradle made from some heavy-duty utility wire and some worn out fencing. It was a source of many delicious grain products and great memories. I never would have done it if I hadn’t been inspired by your book. Even more recently my wife and I have been able to demonstrate to people, both young and old,how to process grain from the sheaf to the kitchen based upon what you taught us in your small scale grain book.

Most recently I allowed the Bluegrass/clover lawn and pasture to grow and mowed it several times with a custom scythe from ScytheSupply in Maine and a push reel mower or even a power mower if it lodged. I’m hopeful of trying the grass silage in a plastic bag trick for winter poultry feed in the forthcoming growing season. Homemade hay and silage really cuts down (bad pun) the purchased hay bill and the livestock really enjoy the fodder.

I’ve found that if I follow your advice on developing a good manure bedding pack during winter (I use straw, waste hay and shredded woody material for bedding) and rotating garden spaces with Bluegrass/clover pasture that vegetables grow really well with no other fertilizers other than inoculation of seeds with mycorhizzae fungi and Rhizobia bacteria for the legumes. After several years of Bluegrass/Clover pasture the crumb structure of the soil is incredible.

I hope to eventually essentially minimize tillage as well because I’m convinced tillage can be harmful in the long-term. Because we live in the arid west we use our 7.5 gallon per minute well to irrigate with as well as supply our delicious potable water. Even with our hot summers, the Bluegrass will stay green with irrigation, although clover and alfalfa will pick up the slack in Bluegrass growth during the summer slump. Fancy, expensive grazing grasses tend to disappear over time, but Bluegrass hangs in there, even though the poultry and sheep can sometimes graze it much closer than I would like.

If company is coming I usually smooth up the pasture and lawn with a power or reel mower . Because of the Bluegrass pasture base people think I have a large, impressive lawn. Often they don’t put the healthy livestock together with the mowed lawn until the relationship of livestock, especially lambs and kids and chicks bouncing around the “lawn” and stopping to graze the “lawn” grass is explained.

Because you’ve inspired me to think unconventionally in regard to agriculture, I’m hopeful of experimenting with growing corn and small grains in the pasture as well, in accord with Fukuoka/Bonfils (One Straw Revolution) methods. I’ll mow the pasture between the grain rows and/or alternate warm season crops with cool season pasture. I don’t expect record grain yields, but as soon as the pasture is worked by tillage, the weeds move in and wind erosion can occur, so I’m trying to conserve soil quality and control erosion..

Thank you again for your continued inspiration over the years, because you have helped me think in unconventional terms in regard to agriculture. Therefore, as a result, I and my family have eaten really well on home-grown foods regardless of my income status.

For reasons such as these, I do not despair for the downfall of civilization that seems to trouble Gene in the first part of the essay — I welcome it!

Those who can harvest sunlight will get by okay, no matter what comes. Or I should say, they’ll be the last to go, if things get bad enough.

But if you’re in a city, you’d better learn how to produce your own food. An MIT research team has found that we’re right on-track with the predictions made by the Club of Rome in their 1970 book, Limits to Growth

Here’s to a prosperous way down!

Betty and all, thank you so much for mentioning my new book, Betty. It means so much more coming from a reader. And to all of you, my heartfelt thanks for your wonderful support. Gene

For Farmer Brown’s Wife,

You have to read Gene’s new book A Sanctuary of Trees–I think it will really speak to you where you are now. I wish I’d had his books to read at your age! Especially this one.

I believe this is his best yet–a combination of practical, useful knowledge as well as the meditative ahhh that this last post has invoked.

Farmer Brown's Wife April 5, 2012 at 7:36 am

Hello Gene! And Happy Spring to you!
I just finished reading The Contrary Farmer for the third or fourth time sitting here on my grandmother’s porch swing with a barn cat in my lap. I love this time of year, though this morning I’m still bundled in my “porch blanket” here in southern Ohio. While Grandma worries about the neighbors and the height of of the grass I worry about the garden and the current state of the pastures. I’m 28 years old and I just finished getting my nursing license out at the vocational school. Not long until I have to find work away from the farm again, (Bah Humbug) but until then I have a few more days to plot and scheme about what I would like to do with all the retired neighbor’s empty fields! Thank you Gene for your irreverent reverence of all things farm. We’re not too far away from each other maybe one day I can shake your hand and thank you in person!

Thanks for this Gene, you made my morning cup of Joe taste a whole lot sweeter -without me adding any sugar. I love this post and will keep it bookmarked and reference it when I feel the need to close my eyes and wish the world was a much better place; this simply validates that it still truly is. Never give up looking, right?

I have so many co-workers at my “real” job who miss out on all of what Gene speaks of. They don’t see (mostly because they don’t look for it) how encouraging the natural world is. Babies being born in the spring, grass growing, food growing in gardens and living amongst all of these wonderful things puts the “real” job in perspective for me.
We have the bobolink, but not in great numbers. Our meadowlarks have already shown up along with the bluebirds. The giant pilleated woodpeckers can be heard in my cousins’ woods across the road and occasionally, we see them flying over our place! The owls have been telling us about their day in the early evening. I can’t wait to see our swallows show up as I enjoy being dive bombed while raking hay! We’re still waiting on our pheasants and bobwhites to show back up. I think we lost all of them in the blizzard of 78′.
There is an order to this world and easy to see on our farm!
Thanks Gene!

I was just thinking how I’m so very pessimistic about the state of the world and our country but personally optimistic and here you come and say it so much more lyrically–thank you for your wise, funny, and thoughtful posts.

Nice post, Gene! As a rancher who always looks for signs such as the first swallows, I agree that it’s nice to have the confirmation of Nature’s cycles. I must admit I’m a little worried this year as I haven’t seen any orioles yet…

Simply beautiful.

Very good observation, Menachem. Mysteries in nature can almost always be resolved just by watching for a while; there’s almost always a logic or history or relationship involved. There are people I’ve grown up around and watched and wondered, and after years I just threw up my hands and said WTF. Nature doesn’t have beliefs. Probably been people who have watched me with the same results.

I live next to a lake, and I measure time by what’s passing through, arriving, or leaving. A friend of mine keeps purple martin houses, and tracks them on the computer as far as their migration north. They are his surrogate children. Last week I called him and told him to keep an eye on his houses, because the swallows had arrived at the lake, and that had usually happened at the same time his martins arrived. He called me the next day, thinking I was Miss Cleo.

I’ve been blessed this spring in that the phoebes which normally nest in a lean to 80 feet from my house have built two nests on my house. They’ve splattered mud on my big windows, and I’m cool with that: I get to watch them fly down to the creek 40 feet away and gather grass into mudballs and then fly back to my house. I’ve always enjoyed watching them flying off a perch to fetch a flying bug and then come back to the same perch, so I’m looking forward to the summer. I wish I had been smart enough and ambitious enough to keep records of when things come and go, but I haven’t. One of my favorite books is “Log From the Sea of Cortez”, and Ed Ricketts was always my role model.

Thanks as always Gene. Man’s laws are laughable; Nature’s laws are true and absolute.

For a view from another Ohio artist and treasure, read Linford’s letter (link below) – don’t miss the poem at the end regarding how slow we are to understand nature and our land. (By the way, the music he and his wife Karin make as Over The Rhine is worth investigating if you have not had the pleasure:).

Let’s give ourselves the gift of time to try and understand…

The nature essayist Alan Devoe, in the midst WWII, wrote of “regions of permanence.” where we find solace in times of evil and chaos. Thanks, Gene, for your naturalist’s eye and insight–reminding me of what returns and endures..

The world of man is chaotic, the world of nature is so much more sensible.

This post caused me to sigh with relief and gratitude. Thank you for the reminder that nature renews itself and, as part of it, us.

(And the armadillo also has made it’s way to middle Tennessee. It’s a wonder how, since they can’t seem to cross a road without being hit my a car.)

Thanks Gene. I needed that. we still have the bobolink and have gained the Bald Eagle, the wild turkey and the opossom. (well two out of three ain’t bad – just kidding – all God’s creatures got a place in the band)

Thank you for this Gene.

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