family farming

My Wilderness

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

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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Stoking Up The Woodstove: Winter’s First Ritual

firewood

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

We try to wait until towards the end of November here in Ohio to start up the stove that keeps us warm through the cold weather already howling on our northern ramparts. The “first fire” has become a ritual along with bringing in the last rose of summer, literally, from the garden. The last rose is one of Carol’s miniatures which endures even after the first freezing frosts, and the sight of that brave little thing forlornly alone in a vase can almost bring tears to my eyes. I keep reminding myself that in only about two months, as February approaches, a thaw can bring the winter aconites out of the ground. I have only two months to endure without growing plants.

I stare at the flame of the first fire in that kind of mood. This too is part of the garden farming life: the fire is a harvest feast from our grove of trees. There is sadness in it, but contentment too. I have ranked wood around the walls of the attached garage, at least enough to last until the winter aconites bloom, and filled the woodbox with dry branch twigs to use for kindling. I am ready.

Heating effectively with wood requires that one become what I call a woodburning gourmet. To make a really good fire, the wood should be cut and split and allowed to dry for two years in the rick. Dry wood throws at least a third more heat than green wood, and if it burns with a good draft, it does not violate pollution codes and does not block the chimney with creosote. The species of wood makes a tremendous difference too. A cord of hickory, oak, or ash makes twice as much heat as a cord of light wood like poplar or white pine and one and half times more than most common hardwoods like American elm or wild cherry. It pays to study the lists commonly available that rate woods by their output of BTUs especially if you have to buy your wood. Until you have experience, it would be wise to buy only from a seller you trust or have an oldtimer with long experience on hand when a load is delivered. In general the heavier the wood when it is dry, the more heat per cord it will produce.

Woodburning gourmets like to mix woods in the stove or especially in a fireplace: perhaps a stick of apple or hackberry with its fruity smell alongside a stick of hickory for that delectable odor of hickory smoke; or a couple of thinner sticks of very dry wood with a couple of thicker and perhaps not so dry wood— the former burning quick and hot until the latter are dry enough to burn well into the night without smoldering. The more knowing wood gourmet will prefer ash to white oak or hickory even though it delivers a little less in BTUs because he will only have to take out the ashes once a week instead of twice. How the ash got its name mystifies me. It should be called less-ash. And remember the old refrain: “Ash wood wet or ash wood dry, a king shall warm his slippers by.”

Starting fires in a woodstove can be a real pain unless you want to spend money on various kindling sticks sold for that purpose. Your method will vary, I suppose, with your stove, but in my old Defiant from Vermont Castings which loads from the left end, I lay in two split sticks no more than two inches apart, side by side, some sixteen inches long of roughly five inch thickness, put a handful of kindling twigs between them, and then a third stick athwart and atop the first two, and perhaps a fourth stick tilted down on top of the third, slanted the other way. This allows plenty of space for air movement up through the wood, with the starting flames from the twigs licking against the sides of the two lower sticks and rising upwards into the third and fourth sticks. But not too much space. Two pieces of wood several inches apart will not burn as well as two pieces only an inch apart. And sticks love company: a lone piece of wood will not burn as well as two pieces close together. With a wad of newspaper positioned right inside the stove door and snug against the twigs, one match will get the fire started. With the door slightly ajar, the strong draft pulls the flame into the twigs and then up through the wood. As the wood burns, experience teaches you how much to open or close the draft to keep the temperature steady.

Too much draft and the fire will burn too hot. It is wise to have a thermometer on top of the stove and not let it get much beyond 600 degrees F. About 500 is best for us. Below 300 and either your wood is not dry, or not enough draft. Of course if you are cooking on the stove top, you will want a temperature around 300 for most situations.

Draft depends a lot on weather: with a high pressure front moving in, it will be stronger; low pressure, low draft. The chimney design is also important. When the stove chimney rises straight up from the stove about five feet, then angles about three or four feet into the wall to the outside chimney, the draft will be stronger than an inside chimney that exits the stove horizontally into a fireplace and then angles up into the outside chimney. But both will be satisfactory in most cases.

Two important design features of a good chimney are seldom mentioned in “the literature.” If you notice on old houses, the chimney will often have a bend in it, perhaps ten or fifteen feet up before proceeding on to the top. That is not because the builder miscalculated. That bend helps to minimize downdraft. Secondly, on a house with more than one fireplace or stove, which is often the case, the two (or more) chimneys will be side by side going up the outer wall. Insist, no matter what your builder says, that one of the chimneys sticks up higher than the other by at least a foot, and better two feet. If you don’t do that, one chimney will suck smoke from the other down into the house unless both are in operation. I know because we had to add on to one of our chimneys and that ended the problem.

Another thing: put a rain cover over your chimneys, again no matter what your builder says. You don’t want water dripping down. The cover should also have screening to keep out wild animals or birds. If not, I can almost guarantee that some day you will hear faint rattlings and rufflings in your chimney. Raccoons or birds might do a good job of cleaning fly ash and creosote off your chimney walls before they die or get into the house but….You get the picture.

To bring wood into the house you can buy (or make) large wood carriers that hold about eight to ten sticks of cut, split wood in a completely closed bag that looks sort of like a suitcase. No more dribbling bark and pieces of dirt on the rug.

It pays to have a stove that will operate without electricity. The main reason to have a woodburning stove, it seems to me, is to keep the house warm and to cook food even when the power goes out. The security makes all the work worthwhile.
~
See also Gene’s Wood Is More Precious Than Gold
~~
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 Credits: © Axel Drosta | Dreamstime.com
OrganicToBe.org
| OrganicToGo.com
Gene’s Posts
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