Farm News

Gifts: Part 1

honeybee organic farm

Gifts: Part 1

Brad, a born naturalist, has stitched together the storyline of our barn swallows from observational scraps he has a knack for collecting. It’s not as if he sits out in camouflage among the trees, still for hours at a time. We are both farming steadily day in and day out, absorbed in the parallel work of tending plants and soil. But to my delight, bit by bit, he continues to offer up to me the gifts of his perceptive awareness.

I’ve passed by the same mud puddle a thousand times, but it is Brad that finds the copper breasted, blue winged swallow carrying straw to its wet edges. It’s Brad who is able to follow her quick, perky flight and find her chosen nesting site. It’s Brad who acknowledges the bird and her companion’s chittery morning greetings from the donkey fence. And it is Brad who filled her mud puddle with water when hot weather baked it dry. Ever aware, he knew with all certainty the mud nest construction was not yet finished.

Here on the cusp of summer, I watch my husband offer a helping hand to the wild among us. His actions startle me awake to the immense potential and invisible prosperity hidden in farms and humans.

Recently, The Naturalist really outdid himself. Brad and I were hosting a group of restaurant staff at the farm. We stopped to look out north over the unruly orchard grasses so we could show them our active beehive. I explained why we respect bees and consciously work to ensure an enriched habitat for our pollinating partners. I told the group how our bee colony was very small and had arrived by their own accord two years earlier.

When bees reach the physical capacity of their home, the colony divides itself and one group of bees leave to establish a new hive. This departing group of bees is called a swarm. They protect their queen by clustering tightly around her. To the uneducated eye, swarms may look frightening. In actuality, swarming bees are very docile. These are homeless beings, entirely focused on locating a new, safe place to establish themselves. They have no reason to sting, as they have no honey stash to defend.

We never saw our bees swarm into their new home. One day we simply noticed they had moved in. In fact, it is rare for us to witness a swarm. In all our years at the farm, Brad and I have only ever seen one. That was in 2012 and it was moving so incredibly fast we didn’t recognize what it was until it had disappeared into the woods.

“Bees reproduce new colonies by one of Nature’s most remarkable methods — they swarm. While common sense would imagine the new hive is made up of the newest bees, it’s just the opposite. The old bees leave their established location to the younger bees who inherit and take over the old hive.

A swarm is made up of the old Queen and the mature forager bees, about 2/3 of the colony. The swarming bees fly off together to seek a new home in a distant location where they setup house, thus adding another living community of bees to the area’s hive population. The younger bees are left behind to care for the next generation of bees and the new Queen who will hatch, mate and become the matriarch of the new hive who took over the old colony’s home.”

While I answered bee questions from the tour group, Brad moved quietly away, captivated by an entirely different conversation. Minuscule motions had caught his eye at the canyon edge, fifty feet north, and high up.

In that single moment, I observed two extraordinary things. A surprisingly silent swarm of honeybees, these angels of agriculture were clinging to the branch of a fir tree. All of us were looking, but it was Brad alone who could see. Effortlessly, he read aloud to us that wordless language of untamed creatures. A born naturalist, this fluency of perception is his gift.

With enough seasons under my belt now, I have no residual hesitations. I know my gift. I know my place. I know my work. I claimed my contribution to the world in the same way the bees set out from their cramped home to start again, or our little barn swallow built her nest. I recognize the alacrity in bee, bird and me: an intrepid leap into the unknown followed by many small actions, repeated with concentrated care. This brash undertaking of devalued, often invisible work, simply because it is ours to do. I can’t imagine my insect or avian friends having the doubts I carried for so long. But now, it matters not- that shell has broken. No longer a fledgling, I too, have my own version of wings.

* *

As I’ve written before, I’m daunted and discouraged at the ways Clark County is systematically dismantling the ecological integrity of our land. When I drive to the post office, or return books at the library, I pass by what many keep telling me is progress. The scenes haunt me. The callously scraped earth, each inch of topsoil that has taken up to one thousand years to form, is piled up like trash. The living, breathing, soil and the irreplaceable ecosystem it supported is being discarded in the interest of development. What other one thousand year old treasure would you actually pay someone to rid you of?

Clark County residents benefit from a wealth of natural and community resources most other regions of the country do not have the luxury of. We have rich topsoil, sufficient precipitation, access to excellent markets, even a unique climate exceptionally suited to vegetable seed production, (there are not more than a handful of these regions in the world). Plain and simple, we have an unmatched ability to create a regenerative food system. We could actually produce the food we need to feed our community, and not just for ten or twenty years, but in perpetuity. There are not many counties in the United States that could pursue such food security, even if they wanted to. Yet I look around and see self-inflicted scarcity at the end of every cul-de-sac. If I let my mind race, I envision a bleak future for my farm. It’s no wonder I never rush into town to pick up my mail.

Unlike my doubts as a young agrarian, these days, I don’t question if farming is a viable profession. Now, it is the decimation of all I hold dear that preoccupies me. Ignorance and greed are the obstacles I must work hardest to skillfully traverse. How do I navigate those troublesome thoughts about the rapidly disappearing farmland in Ridgefield, the fear and worry and sadness of such a profound loss? I question my responsibility. How does one make sense of any of this? What is my part of the equation? What can I do?

Sometimes I gently remind myself that I do not have to carry this mental burden. I have a choice. Other times, the farm demands I set it down. I return to the immediate work at hand, simply because there is so much of it. Often, I can’t belabor the broader picture because my trained hands are needed in the trenches. I have personal commitments to families, fields, and even a small forest. I plunge into the realities and necessities right before me. Water troughs need scrubbed clean and refilled. Tomatoes need staked. Grapes need pruned. Cedar trees need planted. Families need food. Bees need homes, safe from pesticides and the starvation that follows asphalt and a monoculture of turf grass.

I have a responsibility to my community to not simply lament, but to act; I pick up my posthole digger, my seedlings, my harvest crates willingly. I traverse my farm with visitors and together, we pollinate ideas one by one. In the face of discouraging scenarios, instinctually, I move to carry the smallest batches of mud and straw, again and again and again. I smooth and shape this small farm nest. I tend to each seed, each head of cabbage, each donkey hoof, each tomato vine with a precise attention born of heartache and hope.

Here is what I know. It is in the submitting to such delicate details that I discover the salve to my sorrow. In the context of the greater tragedy, I become painfully aware of the astonishing complexity and brilliance at my very fingertips. Watching a pig yawn, waking to the melody of a Swainson’s Thrush, bearing witness to harvest after harvest pulled from this good Earth, I wonder at how and how much longer these marvelous things can happen. Each one in turn, becomes equally more precious.

Everyday, I work with partners in the natural world that until dead, do not give up. With these partners as my mentors, I expand to embrace a broader perspective of individual responsibility. Concurrently, I take shelter behind an outcropping of grateful curiosity.

It’s no wonder I find reassurance in grass that keeps growing. Each spring, like old friends, Lambsquarter, Chickweed, Persian Speedwell and Pigweed grace the rows of onions and potatoes. What irony! I weed and I am thankful to see the weeds. For I fear a day when the weeds do not return, when herbicide drift might injure my annual crops, or kill my decade old grape vines.

These things I have learned: I am not a community organizer, an impassioned orator, a leader of people. These things I know: how to collaborate with seeds and soil, how to cultivate joy, how to treasure the splendid observational gems Brad gifts to me, how to give voice to the silent among us.

**

Picking peas, Brad shows me a newly hatched preying mantis. Then, on a farm walk he spots two lemon winged Swallowtails and a brilliant orange Monarch butterfly. These are the moments I think to myself: Of all people, I get to be here, doing this work, right now. The common? It is priceless.

Each small bit of mud and straw, placed where needed most, holds the fragile idea of a healthy, safe home together. Each set of legs, clinging to the partners surrounding it, protect the Queen of Life. Thousands of bees hold themselves together, upside down, on a high bough. A bird, weighing barely half an ounce, constructs her house on a sheer vertical plane with nothing but dried grass and wet soil, teaspoon by teaspoon. How are these things possible?

In the forthright light of the day, through the heaviness of rain, and long into thick, moonless nights, others travel into the constructs of human built worlds, into places of progress and development. But the bee, the swallow, the farmer– we stay here, at the intractable, liminal borderlands called farms. We stay, knowing our job is to safeguard the places where Life begins, steadies herself, then hungrily reaches out both for what she needs, and for what she alone can gift to the world.

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