Working the Margins

There is something deeply relaxing about watching a flock of foraging hens. Over the winter, I keep ours in a bright, airy coop with plenty of bedding to scratch around in, which keeps them happy enough. But once the snow melts and the weather warms I can tell they itch to get outside. So I accommodate them. I keep a section of semi-permanent electronet fencing set up around the coop, and on warm days I let them roam free.

This taste of freedom keeps them satisfied for a time, but as spring progresses they exhaust the possibilities of that little plot and start eyeing other parts of the property. Not long after, they remember they can fly (after a fashion and for short jaunts only), and soon they are hopping the fence and foraging all over the farm.

When that happens, I have noticed how the hens are drawn to margins. Around the foundations of the outbuildings. Along the edges of the compost pile. Maddeningly, through the wood chip mulch on the perennial beds. Quite often, where the brushy edge of the woods meets the yard. And also in the woods, where they happily scratch away through the pine needles and fallen leaves.

In Gene Logsdon’s final (and excellent) book, Letter to a Young Farmer, he wrote, “Perhaps our old cultural motto of ‘root, hog, or die’ will be replaced by ‘scratch, hen, and live.’” Here his topic is the past half-century’s model of conventional farming. “Get big, or get out,” was the advice, so farmers mortgaged their farms to the hilt, bought up their neighbors’ land, and expanded their operations. Which meant many other farmers had to “get out” to make way for a few to “get big.” In other words: “Root, hog, or die.”

As you might be able to tell, Mr. Logsdon didn’t think much of this new way of farming. Instead, he contrarily advised, “Stay small, and stay in.” This is a philosophy for the kind of farm he favored (and the kind of farm we run here), what he called the garden farm: smaller acreages farmed intensively and producing a wide variety of products sold directly to consumers. Farmers working the margins, working the angles, full of side hustles and crosswise thinking, all done literally in the shadow of the behemoth conventional farms. Farmers who find a different way forward, who stay small, and stay in.

Or as Mr. Logsdon exhorts, “Scratch, hen, and live.”

The Grace of the World

Early last summer I witnessed something until then I had only read about: A tree swallow playing with a downy white feather it had found for its nest. As I watched, the swallow would toss the feather from its beak into the air, then loop back to catch it as it drifted down, then toss it, then catch it, again and again.

I later read that some bird experts suggest this behavior is a mating display, but in this case there was no mate around to impress. It seemed to me for all the world that the swallow behaved this way simply for the sheer pleasure of it. It certainly gave me pleasure to see it.

There’s a danger in imposing human emotions and attributes on the natural world—literary critics call it the pathetic fallacy. But even Cornell University’s online bird guide agrees that sparrows “seem to play” in this way. Who am I to argue?

When my mind is uneasy in unsettled times, I am grateful for moments, like this one with the playful swallow, that invite me to cast my gaze outward. Despite it all, there is a great, good, green world out there, spinning right along. The generous earth yields its harvest. All the world’s creatures live their lives of wild domesticity. Nature delights in itself. And as for me?

“…I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

You Reap What You Sow

If there’s an iron law in farming, it’s this: You reap what you sow.

Amid all farming’s guidelines, suggestions, best practices, rules of thumb, ballpark figures, and back-of-the envelope calculations, this one thing holds true always and everywhere. You reap what you sow.

And yesterday, as I watched with horror and revulsion as the riot unfolded in our Capitol, I thought—and not for the first time this past year—You reap what you sow.

For quite a while in this nation, the president and his enablers have been sowing poisonous seeds, and now we all reap this bitter harvest.

I won’t lie: I am tempted to despair. These noxious weeds are now so deeply rooted that clearing them will be a long, hard job. It seems likely to take years. But the problem didn’t develop overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight.

But here’s the good news, the thing that keeps me from despair: You reap what you sow.

We farmers and growers and gardeners know some things about the hard work of sowing and reaping. Seeds must be nurtured and plants cared for and tended to all season long before we receive a harvest. Perennial flowers can take a couple of years to establish before they grace the garden with their beauty. Fruiting shrubs take longer. Trees, a lifetime.

We farmers and growers and gardeners also know some things about what it takes to bring an abused field back into good tilth. How to transform a neglected garden into a place of heart-rending beauty. How to meet fecklessness and carelessness and vandalism with determined and loving care.

We farmers and growers and gardeners know how to take the long view. We know how to do the work now that will yield a good harvest in months and years and even decades to come. We know that you reap what you sow.

So, my friends, grieve if you will, rage if you must, but only for a moment. Above all, despair not. We may be in the frozen and forlorn heart of winter, but spring is coming, and with it good work to do. Let’s get ready to do that work. Let’s get ready to plant some good seeds.