Seasons change is by far the greatest part of living in the northeast country. When the first day of September arrived, the change in light, in temperature, in sound, in breath, was like a warm mid-afternoon nap in dapple shade on a luxurious moss bed. At last…
Our field is outrageously overgrown.
We are unceremoniously snapping off enormous daikon branches heavy with seed pod (and still flowering!) wherever we find a little nut tree pushing up through the tangle. The vigorous and unrelenting brambles and stump sprouts have put us in our place – certainly not by our will alone will they give up. I have been reading more recently about the colonial invasion of New England in the 1600-1700’s, and discovering in my own small way what it means to cause a wholesale ecological disturbance and transformation. The colonists, of course, believed they were “taming the wilderness” and reproducing the flawless virtues of their English countryside in the New World. We have a slightly different motive in mind – and yet the parallels are not without some merit. We have clearly disrupted (and are continuing to disrupt) an ecosystem dynamic in its full exploitative phase of forest (re)generation. But instead of seeing ourselves as a force against nature we prefer to think of ourselves as forces of nature. Our “disruption” is perhaps more akin to a small forest fire or patchy ice storm than some kind of epic battle or conquest. True, we are very much guiding the reorganization of the system with our selective preferences, encouraging certain species growth while discouraging others. We are making excellent use of the sickles we purchased on Amazon from some small forge in Thailand. Still, we are attempting to work within the framework of integration, modifying our environment to improve its suitability for our human activities without limiting its habitability exclusively and unforgivingly for us.
Soil is our primary concern – keeping the air, moisture, carbon, and minerals in the ground, feeding the biology and making plentiful the bacterial and fungal microbes that support all other life on the planet. We worship (at times mournfully) nature’s cleanup crew – the bacteria, fungi, and macroarthropods that so diligently and dependably clean up the mess of sick and weak plants. We know our job is not to take care of our trees so much as take care of the soil that feeds and nourishes them. We will know we have done our job when we can begin to feel (and see) the changes in the soil, and by the glossy sheen on the leaves of our healthiest and most productive trees. This is also why we are aligning ourselves more with the “ecologically-grown” camp of agronomists. To us, “organic” food does not condone the appearance of bug-eaten and overly-stressed vegetables on the produce shelf. As one soil guru-mentor of ours, Dan Kittredge, points out, ‘if your weeds look healthier than your vegetables, you should be eating your weeds.’ He no longer bothers to consume aphid-infested kale or powdery mildew ridden squash. It’s as good as trash – nature is cleaning it up. Any plant with a functioning immune system (which is essentially its nutrient exchange system in the soil biome) should have no trouble fending off simple pathogens and insects (the “common cold” of the plant kingdom). Truthfully, USDA Organic Certification is simply an indication of what was omitted in the growing system (i.e. certain, but not all, toxic petro chemicals). It says nothing about what WAS included, how much organic matter was in the soil, what was the total count and ratio of bacteria to fungal organisms, and whether or not any phytoalexins, or plant secondary metabolites (PSM), were measured during the crop’s productive life cycle. These are the indicators that would inform us just how robust and nutritious our food is, and whether or not it is truly fit to be consumed as “medicine.” Because we all know that’s where the real health is. It’s not enough really to eat more kale; we all should be able to know the soil where that kale came from. Better yet if it was grown in your own watershed. Better yet if you have personally gotten to inhale its sweet perfume of glomalin, humic and fulvic acids. Ahhhh.
Growing soil – this is our prime motivation both as aspiring nut farmers and as ecosystem stewards. Our land, while biologically diverse thanks to over a decade of harboring an excellent bird habitat and, as a result, all manner of seeds implanted in bird feces, was building soil at approximately the same rate as any cold temperate forest: S-L-O-W-L-Y. Because our human life spans are far shorter than that of a dynamic old-growth forest ecosystem, we have decided to speed things up a bit, by cutting down fast growing soft woods and pines, laying them on contour, burying them under long mounds of churned earth, slowing down the flow of surface water, and planting new shrubs and trees on top to facilitate a more rapid conversion of carbon into soil organic matter. Our friends in Holyoke, MA have grown nearly a foot of top soil on their barren urban lot in under ten years – with the help of some three-hundred different species of herbaceous perennial vegetables and herbs and a handful of diverse edible vines, canes, shrubs and trees. The take home message here: rather than struggling to minimize our human “footprint” on the “environment” and thus erase our very existence and raison d’être, we can begin to discover ways that our impact can in fact be positive and powerful. This is the process of human reintegration, of embodying the human-in-ecosystem, of healing the rift of separation, the “original sin” of our social and cultural demise of the last millennium. It may call for some measure of ecological disturbance, perhaps even on-going ecological tinkering. But we hope, in our lifetimes, it will initiate the development of a fully integrated “resecrated” landscape and habitat providing for most of our needs and our simple leisurely delights, intertwined with and alongside those of hundreds – or perhaps thousands – of other species of flora and fauna. And not just within our bounded stone walls, but all around and beyond them.