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Learning from the community of the land

While recently shoveling aged horse manure around the berry vines on my small organic farm to fertilize them, which gives me great pleasure, I thought about what I have learned about the community of the land by farming over the last two decades. For example, I noticed how spreading brown gold--to which I add the green manure of decaying plants--utilizes waste to transform plants and help them grow. The animal-plant communal connection is essential to life.

“The Life of the Mind” is the motto of the University of Chicago, where I studied. It was a good book-based education. But after a couple of decades teaching college, I realized that something was missing. So I left full-time teaching, bought rural land, and established a farm outside Sebastopol in Northern California. I want to communicate some of the things I have learned from agri-culture--the basis of culture and community. “You are what you eat,” as the saying goes.

Farming has moved energy from my brain into my hands, legs, back, and the rest of my body. I enjoy this regular manual labor, which provides health insurance as important as my insurance policy. I read fewer books than before, but I learn a lot from plants, animals, soil, water, wind, and what eco-philosopher David Abram describes as “other-than-human” in his book “The Spell of the Sensuous.”

Farming with nature in mind

I seek to farm with nature in mind, rather than against it. Permaculture is a helpful design system for this kind of agriculture. One of the many good things it teaches is to place cardboard, burlap bags and newspapers around the berries, on top of which I put composted manure. This fertilizes, reduces weeds, and keeps moisture in the ground, as well as builds soil. The Earth does not want to be bare, so when factory farms strip it with chemical herbicides, it throws up a new covering, called “weeds,” not wanting to be naked, seeking protection. Pulling weeds can be a back-breaking task on organic farms, so reducing them is important.

The boysenberries with which I share this land are the under-story within a forest. That diversity provides beauty and protects my main crop from pests, as well as providing fallen leaves for mulch. The redwoods, oaks and other tall trees draw moisture from the atmosphere onto the farm. I put large, flexible used flour bags as bedding for the chickens, which catch their manure. I then put those bags around the berries and add other compost.

By the words “the land” I mean more than just the surface. It includes the entire coming-together community that is involved in making that land what it is on the ground, from below, and from above. This includes four-legged creatures and those that crawl and fly, those that are feathered, horned, big/small/hidden, hairy and slimy. Gophers on my farm can be pests, but they also aerate the soil; poison oak is inconvenient to humans, but it could also be considered a forest guardian, keeping human predators out, who can do a lot of damage, which we are doing to our planet. The many gophers in our area carry a message—better to plant perennials like berries and trees than annuals like vegetables. Listening to the land where one lives, rather than trying to make it something it is not, is key.

Glorious raptors circle above, including screeching hawks, as do graceful turkey vultures, adding to the community. Humorous wild turkeys and busy bees pollinating berries as I reach in to tend them, never getting stung, are members of our diverse community. Yellow jackets are another thing; when I accidentally get too close to their nests, I am stung and swell up. “Beware,” certain creatures communicate, including those cute skunks. Streams on the other hand, seem to beckon humans into the water, which connects us all, the blood of the community.

Much is ongoing, only some of which is visible. Together, this is the community of the land, of which humans are only a part. We too often over-play our role and under-estimate the importance of other community members. Among the good writers about such “land” are Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver. Land communicates. Years ago I spoke at a “Language of the Land” conference which met on an active volcano in Hawaii. Our job is to listen to the land.

The land has become my primary teacher, as it has been for most people over most of history. We need to return more to the land’s inherent wisdom, if we are to survive the multiple problems caused by chaotic climate changes, thawing ice caps, rising sea levels, the diminishing supply of oil, and other crises. Books are important, but most of them come mainly from human minds, rather than from the more diverse and abundant land of which humans are an integral, though sometimes damaging, part. Words are important, but knowing in the body can transcend what can be put into human words. Most of my words here were first written longhand with a pen on page on an outside picnic table while taking breaks from farming. Only eventually did I transfer this to a computer, for editing. Machines can get in the way.

The word “land,” as I am using it here, is both inclusive and specific. Native Hawaiian teacher Manu Meyer took a group of us to experience an elder who lives and works on a wild Big Island coast. He explained that the Hawaiian word “aina,” which is usually translated as meaning “land,” is quite specific. He had us stand in one spot and notice a strong wind, whereas a few feet away there was no wind. The presence or lack of that wind defined the aina in those distinct spots.

The Hawaiian elder expressed what the Welsh language has a specific word for, which means “love of the land.” Ancient Greek has words for distinct forms of love—eros, agape, and philia, all of what are person-centered. “Don’t ever sell the farm,” my Uncle Dale in Iowa would say, thus expressing his intense love of the land on which he lived for decades and died in his 80s. After that, following his will, his house was burned to the ground, part of the aina, and went with him.

Farms as communities that create relationships

Communities are based on relationships. Good farming requires creating and maintaining good relationships—with people, plants, animals, the soil, water and other elements. Most farms are located in agrarian communities, though sometimes on urban edges. They function well when they are not isolated from those who would purchase their food and fiber.

Developing loyal customers and co-workers is essential to the stability of small-scale farms. In Sonoma County we have long had a helpful group called Farm Trails, which makes a map to guide people coming directly to farms to purchase their food and fiber. Some of our farms have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) component, where families pay the farm in advance and come weekly to receive a box of fresh food. Laguna Farm, for example, has over 500 families that it feeds. Part of the motivation of some CSA members is to have on-farm experiences. Laguna hosts harvest dances and meetings of groups such as Transition Sebastopol and Sonoma Beyond Oil. Farms can be important gathering places within nature to learn about humans and the rest of nature. Another local farm, Singing Frogs, hosts art shows.

The Grange is the United States oldest farm organization, going back 140 years. It has been experiencing a renaissance the last year or so as long-time Grange families have recruited new members into their communities. The Sebastopol Grange, for example, has been hosting breakfasts that draw over 100 people. Much of the food for these breakfasts is donated by local farmers, who then even cook it and serve it to anyone who arrives. The Grange Hall is a popular place that hosts speakers such as author Richard Heinberg talking about Peak Oil and his recent book “The End of Growth”. We have even hosted an old-fashioned barn dance.

Brock Dolman of the long-time local intentional community the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, which teaches permaculture, recently brought a group of permaculture students to the Sebastopol Grange to re-design its two and a half acres. Their plans were posted in the hall and discussed at meetings. Implementation has begun, which may include adding a playground for the many children who come to events and add their play. Both children and elders are important to and valued by family farms.

Each kind of plant requires a particular relationship and care in order to be nurtured to produce its best crop. Some, for example, need irrigation, whereas others are better if dry farmed. Water management is an essential element of permaculture, since much water that is often wasted can be put to good use.

Chickens are the main farm animal, a most unique animal, at my Kokopelli Farm. They can appear batty and loony, but one human trying to catch a chicken is likely to fail, unless he or she has a tool. Chickens have mastered the martial art of aikido, knowing to avoid direct contact with more powerful forces and go to the sides. I also must establish relationships with many other kinds of wild animals, including gophers, feral cats, deer, many kinds of insects and birds, snakes, raccoons, possums and many four-leggeds. Otherwise some will eat my chickens and berries.

A farmer’s relationship to dirt is important. I remember enjoying playing in the dirt, mud, and puddles as a boy. Farming gives me an excuse to continue such play. Though farming is difficult work, it is also rewarding—being outside and able to observe how things change. The composted manure that I regularly spread is transformed into life-giving soil.

Soil is precious, as the recent documentary “Dirt! The Movie” reveals. Much of my activity throughout the year is to build soil and retain the topsoil, so it does not wash away during the rainy season down the gentle slop and become sediment in the Cunningham Marsh. This requires cover crops between the berry rows, rather than naked ground. Weeds can actually help one’s crops compete, up to a certain point. Then one needs to know when to remove them. I tend to do so by hand, though I do have a self-propelled mower that I use between the berry rows, bagging the cuttings, which I then compost, to spread later.

I prefer simple hand tools to motorized machines. I enjoy pruning and then sculpting berry plants and trees to improve their performance. My approach to so-called weeds is not conventional. I learned from master farmer Bob Cannard, Jr., that weeds are not always the enemy that some think. The aesthetics that guides me would not be described as tidy. I do not mind the look that some would describe as “weedy.” California’s Mediterranean climate of winter rains and summer heat means that most grasses tend to die back over the summer. So I let that seasonal reality save me the labor of too much time cutting.

What can be described as a “farmer’s shadow” is important. This term refers to the farmer regularly walking the land and noticing what is happening. I have lists of things to do when I go on these saunters, to use the word of Henry David Thoreau. However, as I meander I tend to observe other things that are not on the list, but need to be prioritized, such as a tree needing pruning. By circling her or his farm, a farmer stays in touch with the community of the land and how it is evolving, which it does seasonally and otherwise. One of the many joys of farming is watching things grow, both those one has planted, as well as volunteers.

Farms do far more than just produce food. For example, they can be healing places. I have published chapters in various books describing agrotherapy, which is an example of ecotherapy. Nature can heal, as can farms. Two such books are the Sierra Club’s “Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind” and “Enduring War: Stories of What We’ve Learned.”

Equine therapy is the use of horses to help deal with post-traumatic stress. I volunteer with a group called Horses Building Communities (www.horsesbuildingcommunities.org.). We use “the gentle power of horses with veterans and their family members.

Permaculture is helpful partly because it is an integrated system, rather than merely an agricultural approach. It has an expanding meaning for many fields, including gardening, landscaping, and building.

Kokopelli Farm

I named the pace where I live Kokopelli Farm, after the legendary humpbacked flute player of the pueblo peoples of the Southwest. A wounded healer, he is also known as the Great Sprinkler and Great Fertilizer, a man of the ground who went peacefully from village to village and was accepted even by people who were warring against each other. Kokopelli could be described as a “trickster,” an important figure to many indigenous peoples. Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture, would be a contemporary example of a trickster, as would Coyote to some Native Americans.

The hump on Kokopelli’s back may also have been a bag of seeds. He is an agrarian figure, what one might consider a “god of the ground,” rather than a sky deity atop Mt. Zion or Mt. Olympus. Kokopelli’s antenna reveals that he is a member of the lowly insect clan; I wanted the blessings of the insects on the land where I live and work. Most insects are beneficial, not pests. I explain to new workers at the farm that the many spiders are helpful to my crops, as are gopher snakes.

The farm is on the edge of wild land. It includes redwood and oak stands. Those trees are celebrated by Mary Oliver in her poem “Sleeping in the Forest.” She begins, “I thought the earth remembered me,/ she took me back so tenderly.” By living on, caring for, and working on a small acreage my life is filled by visible and mysterious energies that guide my thinking, learning, writing, and teaching.

I begin farm tours, when possible, with a scent trail, smelling the roses, lilacs, or mock orange, depending on the season. This can activate the most primitive of our senses. Then we walk into the redwood stand at the front of the farm and sit on the ground. I ask visitors what they notice and feel. For me, it can take me back to my childhood living in Panama near a jungle, into which I would wonder.

The two-year-old son of one of my Sonoma State University colleagues on a recent farm tour started picking up little sticks from the ground and breaking them in two. I followed Evan, which stimulated him to laugh. Other adults were soon breaking sticks. The boy felt empowered and lead us out of the redwoods into the field and the chicken area. He later led us on a hike into the wild area at the bottom.

Evan fell down frequently, laughed, and jumped right back up, with the help of his flexible spine. Environmentalists could benefit from more such flexibility. He became our teacher, as chickens and plants are teachers. Children often have more immediate and intimate relations with nature, I’ve noticed here at Kokopelli, before they assume adult work and responsibilities.

The Cunningham Marsh--in whose uplands my farm rests--provides mystery and magic to the farm. It has a different order, more natural, than that of the built zone and the farmed zone. I can sometimes hear sounds made by Great Horned Owls, coyote, migrating birds, and even a mountain lion down there, especially when I sleep out beneath the redwoods and under the stars on the soft forest ground.

Thinking like a chicken

In his classic essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” ecologist Aldo Leopold tells the story of hunting and killing a wolf. He later noticed how the exploding deer population, without that predator, ravaged the mountain. Those lovely deer think the roses where I live are candy and made decades-old oaks look like bonsai. When a lion came through a few years ago, those slow-growth oaks with deep tap roots shot up as much as ten feet a year.

When I take guests onto the land that I share with farm animals by day and wild animals by night, I ask them to “think like a chicken” and “think like a berry.” I request that they observe, perceive and adapt to the animal or plant with which they can communicate. We could all benefit from an animal of choice and a plant of choice. Mine are the chicken and the boysenberry.

“Chicken Wisdom” titles an essay I wrote in the psychology book “Held In Love.” Chickens are prey, whereas humans are predators. Humans have much to learn from this other two-legged creature, including how to survive and be alert. Too many humans, on the other hand, are not doing such a good job in those areas, as we further pollute our air and water and cause chaotic climate change. Among the many things that chickens can teach humans are the following: greet each day with enthusiasm, enjoy the flight, delight in simple things, jump for joy, keep dancing, recycle, snuggle into the Earth, cuddle at night, be a companion, persist and endure, show gratitude, and be prepared to surrender and let go.

Three essential stages of farming are as follows: prepare the ground, plant and harvest, engage in post-harvest tasks, such as pruning and reflecting. These three stages can also apply to the rest of life.

By twenty years of preparing the soil that feeds berries with chicken, cow, horse, lama and goat manure (“shoveling shit” farmers call it), as well as the green manure of decaying plants, the soil at my farm is rich with life-giving vitality. Life goes on all around us, and it is good.

(Shepherd Bliss owns Kokopelli Farm in the Northern California, teaches at Sonoma State University, and can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.)

Editorial Notes: Shepherd Bliss has been a journalist, university instructor and occasional contributor to Energy Bulletin. -BA

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