Natural Farming — Part 2 (continuation from last Sunday's blog)

The comfrey I planted throughout the orchard did not spread as I had been warned. We experienced our area’s driest summer in history. We don’t have clay soil like the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka, but quite the opposite; our orchard soil is classified as Hinckley, an exceedingly rocky, fast-draining soil. It is definitely not choice soil for an orchard. The young trees struggled just like the comfrey. Only the older trees, with deep roots, tapped into water. I realized that if I wanted to plant more herbs and wildflowers, and create a natural environment like Fukuoka, I would need to have some way of delivering water to all the trees.

We applied to the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) for a grant to put in an irrigation system, and our grant was accepted. They knew that with our Hinckley soils, the apple trees would surely benefit from irrigation. We installed the system ourselves, pumping the water from the surrounding wetlands. Now I could plant all kinds of beneficial and medicinal plants in the orchard—plants that would be good for our soil, and that might help with pest management.

The beauty of the orchard delighted me as the summer progressed. Sunflowers, rudbeckia, mountain mint, asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and echinacea flowered and fed the pollinators. When Blase asked if he should mow in the orchard, I replied, “Not yet, no.” The Jerusalem artichoke flowers were six feet tall, and the valerian stalks were covered with delicate white flowers. A few weeks later, he said, “I really should mow the orchard.” Again, I said, “No mowing. Not yet.”

The orchard was beginning to feel like a natural woodland. The trees were loaded with fruit, and it seemed like an abundant crop. I finally asked Blase to mow between the apple tree rows to accommodate the pickers, but we left all the wildflowers and natural growth between and under the trees. We had a great harvest season, the farm quieted, and Blase and I turned to other pursuits.

Heavy snow fell during the month of January. The drifts were over three feet high, burying the lowest apple limbs. In early February, warmer temperatures brought a thaw, and I went for a walk among the trees. Snow melts first around the trunks, and my eye caught sight of gnawed wood close to the ground. It glowed a bright orange color. Shocked, I reached down and brushed more snow away. The gnawed wood went deeper.

Voles! They had scampered across the crust of the deep snow, climbed over the 18-inch high hardware cloth fence that encircles every trunk, and dropped down between the trunk and the protective screen. There they made soft, grassy nests, and ate and lived in the safety of their cozy burrows with a pantry of food close by. In tree after tree, especially in the back of the orchard, these rodents had eaten the bark, chewing their way around the base of the trees and down to the roots. Many trees were completely girdled. Girdling, when it is complete, kills the tree by cutting off the sap flow between the roots and the crown.  

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles girdled this tree.

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

Voles even ate the lower branches because of the height of the hard packed snow!

I panicked and called in reinforcements. With a couple of friends, we started shoveling the snow away from every trunk.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

Gabi White tirelessly shoveling snow.

It was exhausting work. There was no way we could remove that much snow from around every tree. When we were too tired to shovel, we stomped the snow down with snowshoes. It felt like a war zone. Our hats, coats, shirts, and gloves were scattered everywhere.

Gabi White — resting!

Gabi White — resting!

After a short break, we got back to work, shoveled more snow, heated up and stripped to tank tops, but it was too late. The damage was done.

Paige O’Brien, one of our farm workers, made a detailed map of all the injured trees and numbered them on a scale of one to four. One was one-quarter girdled, two was halfway, three was three-quarters, and four was completely girdled. We cut down the threes and fours, because they would either die or struggle mightily. A weak tree would attract more disease and pests. In all, fifty trees out of three hundred needed to be cut down. A saw blade to each trunk, and the task was done. Such quick work compared to years of cultivating growth.

Later, I learned it had been a bumper year for voles. Nature is like that—a bumper year for acorns, for apples, and now, for voles. Commercial growers knock down the vole population every fall with pellet poison. I had done the opposite. I had created a perfect vole habitat by growing delicious herbaceous perennials and cultivating long grasses and flowering plants. Following the irrigation drip lines, the voles had scampered freely from tree to tree.

So much for a wild orchard. I would have to rethink my approach and mow down all the perennials in the fall. Now, we mow several times throughout the season to dissuade the vole population from even considering making the orchard their home, but we leave patches of herbs and wildflowers growing between the trees. In preparation for winter, even these plants get mowed down to the ground. We also pull the drip lines away from the trees. In the spring, the hardy plants come back. I can already see the healing herbs like comfrey, valerian, and mountain mint unfolding their leaves. The orchard is not wild, but it’s not a monoculture either. We are trying to live peaceably with the other creatures who make their home nearby — definitely not offering them apples trees to chew — but encouraging a diversity and abundance of nature.

The challenge remains, however.  I check on trees that aren't growing as well as I would expect and discover they are partially girdled, and two days ago I cut down a Crimson Crisp, a three-year-old ready to take off, but completely eaten around the graft. I'm discouraged. Then I smile at a dove sitting on  a young tree as a blue heron flies by. I see pink buds on almost every branch of some eighty varieties of apples. I am blessed.


Natural Farming — Part 1

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, 
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go, 
we have begun our real journey. 
            —Wendell Berry, Farmer, Poet, and Writer

In 2006, the once abandoned orchard at Old Frog Pond Farm received organic certification. But that didn’t mean I understood what I was doing as an orchardist. An experienced farmer tends the earth for years, season after season, noticing, altering her approach, and trying new ideas. I was following an instruction sheet that I only partially understood. In my search to improve my orchard practices, I came upon the writings of Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), a Japanese rice and citrus grower, who discovered a way to farm that was in harmony with nature. His book, One Straw Revolution, published in English in 1978, became an underground manifesto for a new approach to agriculture: one that did no harm, that did not depend on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or mountains of compost — one that emphasized ease.  

As a young man, Fukuoka worked for the Customs Bureau’s Plant Inspection Division, having studied plant pathology at the university. His long hours led to a bout of acute pneumonia and hospitalization. He lay for days in his hospital room where a broken window let in cold and snow. He recounts that a nurse checked his temperature from time to time, but that was all. In the midst of this icy solitude, he started to fear death approaching. When he was finally released from the hospital, he fell into a terrible depression. The work that had fascinated him seemed useless. He could not sleep or focus on anything. One night on a hill overlooking the harbor, he collapsed with exhaustion. He woke the next morning at dawn, gazing over the water.  “Everything I had held in firm conviction,” he wrote, “everything upon which I had ordinarily relied, was swept away with the wind. I felt that I understood nothing.” The next day he handed in his resignation and began wandering, trying to explain to people he met what he had experienced. “I challenged a lot of people with my conviction that everything is meaningless and of no value, that everything returns to nothingness. But this was too much, or too little, for the everyday world to conceive.” He returned to his father’s farm resolved to live a simple life.  

I settled myself on the mountain and everything went well up until the time my father entrusted me with the richly bearing trees in the orchard. . . . My conviction was that crops grow themselves and should not have to be grown. I had acted in the belief that everything should be left to take its natural course, but I found that if you apply that way of thinking all at once, before long things do not go so well.

Fukuoka ruined the citrus crop and his father insisted that he leave and get a job and come back when his mind was right. Fukuoka left, and found a job as Head Researcher at a nearby agricultural research center. It was just when Japan was preparing for war and for the next eight years Fukuoka did research devoted to increasing the wartime food supply. Throughout this time, he was always pondering the idea of a natural approach to farming.  

Fukuoka returned to his father’s farm, convinced that a grower could trust nature and not use any chemicals. On a clay hillside above the farm, he decided he would grow an orchard of mikan, a Japanese clementine. “The red clay was so hard you could not stick a shovel into it,” he wrote. People had previously grown potatoes there, exhausted the soil, and abandoned the fields. His father thought he was crazy.

To improve the soil, Fukuoka first tried digging holes in the compacted soil and adding organic matter, a physically demanding effort that led nowhere. Then he tried burying straw and ferns that he had carried on his back from higher up on the mountain. But hauling ninety pound loads and digging trenches was exhausting. The trenches eventually caved in, and there was barely any organic matter. He thought of building organic matter in the soil with decomposed wood, but it wasn’t available nearby. This was his “aha” moment — he could grow the wood himself.

Among his citrus trees, he planted pine, cedar, pear, loquats, cherries, and other native trees. On the bare ground under them, he sowed white clover and alfalfa. After several years, the clover grew and blanketed the hillside. He planted daikon, the large white Japanese radish. With its deep taproot, the daikon opened the way for water and air to circulate through the dense clay.  The radish reseeded, softening the hard clay soil, and, after a few seasons, Fukuoka could plant root crops like potatoes and eventually more tender vegetables. He continued to sow clover, a nitrogen-fixing plant that returned more nitrogen to the soil than it used. The orchard soil became rich and dark, and the tall trees provided a windbreak protecting the smaller citrus trees. With the ground cover of nitrogen-producing plants, the orchard naturally had all the fertilizer necessary. With the diversity of plants and trees, insect pressure decreased, and he had no need for pesticides. 

In Japan, after World War II, there was a great rush to emulate the West and use modern methods, specifically chemicals for farming. At first these new introductions from the West meant less work for the farmers, but it took only one generation before the minerals in the soil were depleted and the crops became dependent on chemical nutrients. Fukuoka knew intuitively that there must be another way.  

Over the over the next decades, Fukuoka refined his approach to agriculture and called it natural farming (different from 'do-nothing' farming that had destroyed his father's citrus crop). He believed that farming should be pleasurable and in harmony with nature, not such oppressively hard work that the farmer is left with no time for other pursuits. “There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song,” he would grumble. Fukuoka always sold his crops for less than chemically treated produce, because he felt natural food should be less expensive. “After all, natural food [is] easier to grow, even though it [is] more nutritious and tasty.” When Fukuoka learned that a distributor in Tokyo was selling his mikan for a high price, he immediately stopped selling to him.

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.                      —Masanobu Fukuoka

The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.  
                   —Masanobu Fukuoka

I aspired to Fukuoka’s ease and trust of nature. Having no idea what I would do, for several weeks, I carried around his book, as if the spirit contained within it would infuse the farm. My first real step was to plant comfrey throughout the orchard, a plant that also has a long taproot. People told me that I was really foolish, because comfrey spreads its seeds and will take over gardens, fields, and even orchards. The comfrey didn’t turn out to be a problem, because the deer kept it in check. But what happened next in my desire to create a natural orchard in the spirit of Fukuoka was devastating.

                                               Natural Farming: Part 2 will follow next Sunday.




Boats, Figures, and Catching Fish

Boats embody our life journey, each of us, adrift, on a vast ocean. We can only surrender to what life presents. We embark, not knowing where the wind will drive our craft. I first started making sculptures of boats in 2007, inspired by teachings of Dogen, a 13th century Japanese Zen master. His writings are short, poetic, beautiful, pithy, and quite challenging to parse. In Genjo Koan, Dogen writes:

When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.      Tr. Tanahashi et al.

I made boats in wax — boats with one figure, boats with fish, boats with two figures, boats overturned on a beach, a figure emptying water from a boat, a figure birthing a boat. There was nothing fixed in my play with the wax sculptures — only an endless reconfiguring of figures, boats, and fish.

I showed some of these sculptures to friend and poet, Susan Edwards Richmond. She wrote, River Crossings, a poem in five parts based on several of the sculptures. It was originally published in Issue One of Wild Apples, A Journal of Nature, Art, and Inquiry that we founded together with two friends in 2005. [There are back copies still available].

A figure of wax, softened
by pinch of fingers, heel
of a hand . . .

  in the river, bearing

the burden of flood, the stoking
rhythm of oars, molded to that
position, I brace for the sluice
wherever it takes me.

. . .
When I tried to push you
from the boat, a fish leapt
from the river, lodged in my arms.                                       

Richmond’s poem has just been reprinted and is the final section in her first full full-length poetry collection, Before We Were Birds, published last month by Adastra Press. This fine collection begins with the poem sequence Boto, the mysterious freshwater Brazilian dolphin that rises from the Amazon River on full moon nights. A Boto is a shapeshifter who takes human form to catch humans, and even bring them back to live deep in the river.

In Dogen’s, Mountains and Rivers Sutra, he refers to sages who live near water and catch fish, and catch humans.

. . .  from ancient times wise people and sages have often lived near water. When they live near water they catch fish, catch human beings, and catch the way. For long these have been genuine activities in water. Furthermore there is catching the self, catching catching, being caught by catching, and being caught by the way. . .                                                                                        Tr. Kotler and Tanahashi

In this same sutra, Dogen uses expressions like riding the clouds and following the wind to describe states of meditative practice and transcendence. The mountains and rivers are none other than our own body and mind. How do we ride the wind and cross each river?

River Crossings ends with:  

sprout back along the river, edges
grow dense with birds. I am called
neither forward nor back,
out of the water nor into it.

This is the art I practice,
the one that leaves no wake.

Susan Edwards Richmond has published four chapbooks of poetry, Increase, Purgatory Chasm, Birding in Winter, and Boto. A passionate birder, she works at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary. Richmond is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, edits the Plein Air poetry chapbook, and organizes our Plein Air Poetry event every fall. We are also working on a series of children’s books on sustainable agriculture. I am grateful, Susan, for our ever widening collaborations.