Returning to nature
We’re letting our farm return to nature. And it feels so very right because, I think, as the journey nears completion here in my eighth decade, I seem to be returning to nature too.
Forty three acres “more or less,” the deed said, when we bought the farm those many years ago. It said “more or less” because, as with most tracts first laid out in pioneer Kentucky, the original surveyors were so abysmally incompetent that their sequential descriptions of adjacent land tracts overlapped like shingles poorly laid across a shake roof. One of these, a certain D. Boone, was taken to court and sued many times by irate land buyers whose purchases were found to overlap other buyers’ purchases. Sometimes even the same tract, with differing survey descriptions, was sold to two different buyers by two different sellers who respectively believed themselves owners of it. One consequence is that no prudent buyer in modern-day Kentucky fails to purchase title insurance, perpetually enriching thereby certain astute lawyers and sellers of insurance.
Compared to more traditional “farms,” the word does not adequately describe this land. Forty three acres of mixed woodlands in which huge old cedars, towering mature oaks and hickory are the dominant flora, interspersed with open meadows of native bushes and grasses—all laid out on rolling-to-steep topography, plus a half mile of bottomlands along Mink Run Creek, its eroded banks bordered by dozens of tall, thin-leafed walnuts. So far more than three dozen tree varieties have been identified on this land. Formerly included were many majestic ash trees, but invasive emerald ash borers have gotten to those and they are now great rotting logs scattered variously through the woods.
This farm is perfect country for deer, who like to graze in open meadows, where they can easily see danger approaching, alongside nearby dark forest they can fade into if it actually does. The deer know us, who think we’re the owners, but they get antsy and fade away if we come too close. Perfect country for wild turkeys, who like laying their eggs in big round nests—well hidden right out in the open—on grassy spots atop the creek banks.
Every year we see the new mama turkeys leading their turklets all-in-a-row along favorite well established paths, a guardian mama always bringing up the rear. More often we see a new mama doe teaching her fawn, its spots just fading, how to live on this land—where to leap barriers, find the most plentiful hickory nuts and acorns, the tallest softest grasses for an overnight bed, the tightest cedars for shelter from weather. One day we saw six fawns frolicking, leaping and twisting about for sheer joy, in a huge leaf pile I had made over by the woods, a single mama looking on serenely as nanny while the kids played.
Forty three acres more or less. Enough land to surround us with nature. We found an ideal site for building a home up the front hill a quarter mile from the road, the hillside lush with daisies, blackeyed susans, Queen Anne’s lace, foxtails, beauty-in-the-eye butterflies, and a distant richly wooded green view from the hilltop.
Enough land to fence off some pasture and run a few head of those beautiful little Scottish Highland cattle I so wanted for my own after discovering their breed some three decades ago. The understated size of ordinary black angus—also originated in Scotland—Highlanders come in seven distinct colors. In autumn their shaggy coats grow longer, preparing for cold winter in the great northern Highlands. With tight inner fur overhung by their second, outer layer of coarse bovine hair a foot long, they look like little wooly mammoths with outstretched horns often six feet wide tip to tip.
They are by nature a gentle breed and I love them. For seven years they roamed the back half of this place, persuaded—most of the time, not always—by a single electric fence wire to stay where I wanted them. Their intended territory was grassy-brushy meadows I mowed over with the bushhog and designated as pasture, plus a couple acres of woods.
Electric fences are iffy things at best. I became robustly healthy from walking the circuit every morning before work, every evening before bedtime, inspecting for wires broken by deer whose curiosity about wires imposed across their territory was never sated. When a deer nose touched the wire and got that low-amp but electrifying jolt—so often did it happen—its owner invariably bolted forward, never backward, leaving behind a broken electric fence as it streaked away on its long deer legs. My job was to find the gap before the cattle did, and fix it without getting shocked myself. Sometimes I did.
I bought four cows and a bull calf who looked like he might become verile when he grew up. My practical notion was to let the cows do their natural thing—ambling, eating and pooping, laying around cud chewing twice a day and, in nature’s good time, breeding, birthing, raising a calf. A cow’s life. Thereby I would acquire more heifer calves who would in their time breed still more calves—and then one day there would be a surplus of desirable Scottish Highland cattle to sell in exchange for money. That was the theory.
The reality was that my cows produced one bull calf after another and the herd’s breeding capacity did not grow. Why the fifty-fifty law of averages never took hold remains for me a bad-luck mystery to this day, but my particular Scottish Highlanders seemed genetically predisposed to bull calves who would never birth more babies or make the herd grow in size or financial viability. I had some fun, but overall spent more than I made. Friends loved to visit the farm just to look at these unusual, strikingly pretty little beasties—“coos” some called them—and it may be that was supposed to be the best part in the end.
I became age sixty-five soon after the millennium rolled over, and with that landmark realized that cutting, raking and “putting up” hay—a laborious imperative of cattle farming—always occurred on the hottest possible days in late June or early July. This wasn’t my first round of doing cattle, so I was struck with further realization that I was getting a bit old for this sort of thing and, really, it wasn’t that much fun anymore.
So all but two of my Highlanders went off to live elsewhere and, after fifty years of working that began with my grocery-bagging job at age fifteen, I retired. At fifteen I had been told that sixty-five was the age at which one retired, so when the time came I did—aware that some cultural standards seemed to have changed and people a lot younger than me were retiring and starting new careers. I loved retirement beginning immediately, never looked back, never once considered a second career. There has always seemed to me something fundamentally wrong with those who do, or want to, or even consider it.
Those two who didn’t go to market… A headstrong old mama and her son, a quite large three-year-old bull also headstrong, didn’t go to market because five determined adult humans could not persuade them to go up the chute into the truck which—they seemed to know—would haul them away. For those who don’t know, one never argues with a three-year-old bull. That is the age at which it’s time to acquire a younger bull, one less sure of himself. What those two did was, they ran away. They climbed over and destroyed a gate, leaped the fence, and were gone with the wind into the square mile of wilderness behind our forty-three acres. True winter chose that moment to set in, so for two rainy, sleety, nasty-cold weeks I had no idea where my two fairly valuable coos were, only that they were loose somewhere in—probably, presumably—the square mile wilderness.
Then a man called to tell me he’d seen cattle tracks—“Two of ’em,” he said—over on the far edge of the wilderness. In our boots and winter work clothes went wife and I across the fields and woods, deep into the wilderness, following two sets of bovine tracks much as D. Boone might have when he was not surveying. Presently the tracks went into the dense ground-hugging lower branches of a giant cedar tree—and did not emerge. As we approached the guilty parties burst forth—and paused in indecision, heads high—giving me a chance to vigorously point my arm in the homeward direction and roar “Go home!”
And don’t you know, they did. Across the wilderness and intervening woods straight to the electric fence—over which they jumped into their home pasture, heading for the sweet feed area as if nothing had happened, nothing at all. Straightaway I went and called the man who puts wayward beeves into freezers—but that’s a less romantic story to be told another time, including how wife and I grew so sick of all the choice beef cuts—prime rib, sirloin, ox-tail stew beef—that we were both launched unknowingly toward near-vegetarianism in our old age.
Now the point of all this is that I learned—learned in spades—how utterly destructive are cattle to the ground they walk on. Like most other heavy ungulates, cattle’s sharp hooves tend to cut into the top inch or two of the soft earth, pulverizing whatever happens to get stepped on. Ordinary plants, native plants, rare plants, invasive plants, flowers and weeds—no matter to the cows, it’s all the same, they’re just ambling from here to somewhere else in quest of another mouthful of something, anything, that’s worth eating. I don’t even know if they have discriminatory taste buds, but they will try anything they don’t think is poison. In process of their perfectly natural daily bovine business, they destroyed utterly all undergrowth everywhere inside the electric fence—forest and field.
I had often heard how hard cattle are on the earth beneath their feet, but didn’t realize the extent of it until they were gone and I really looked. Most of the pasture was still grassed, but it was so picked over that plant diversity was practically nil. Woodlots inside the fence were worse. Most undergrowth that normally fills the spaces between trees was gone. Some patches were simply bare, a scraggly survivor poking up here and there. I began to understand all the talk about vital diversity. Call it knowledge one gains the hard way enroute to becoming a better environmentalist.
With the cattle gone and no reason to maintain pasture as such, I removed the electric fence and stopped mowing. Presently I began to notice tiny cedar trees poking up through returning grass. Then some wildflowers. A year or two later, oak and hickory seedlings.
It has taken most of twenty years for the land to recover from my sweet little Heeland coos episode. But recovered it is, and in full vigor. The entire back acreage once devoted to pasture, along with two formerly mowed front bottoms lying between creek and road, is today lush with native plants that found their own way home, that just naturally know how to live and thrive in these old environs. And I have learned how wonderful, how educational, it is to watch the restoration process unfold.
The back half of the farm, once devastated by cattle innocently doing their thing, is today returning to nature—to a natural state it most likely has not enjoyed in the past century. The narrow ridge tops are among the few almost-level places around here, and I know that former owners of this land—farmers all for two centuries past—did what they must to make a living. That they logged off and sold the trees a half century before my arrival is evident in the large number of large double- and triple-trunk trees today growing out of what were the stumps of the old originals. The never-quite-flat ridge tops were the fields those long-ago farmers used for growing tobacco and such other crops as could be eked from this minimally fertile high ground. That they did so is certain from the absence of old trees on the ridge tops and the survival of small round ponds they dug to provide for watering their tobacco plants, to avoid the hard labor of hauling water up from the creek.
Today our former pasture is richly coated with central Kentucky native grasses and wildflowers, not to mention an oncoming host of small hardy cedars, already head high, and a zillion young oaks and hickories which will in their turn, a decade or two hence, overshadow the cedars and reign supreme. They already do in those areas I never subverted to pasture, and the trees in those older woodlands, tall to majestic, have now had seven to nine decades of growth since the last loggers departed. Former pastures have become oh so very rich in many types of wildflowers, each appearing in its time as growing season rolls by. Included are several species of milkweeds to which we now see monarch butterflies returning each year in slowly increasing numbers. And did you know monarchs love zinnias?—they flock to the zinnias lining our front walk.
The bottom lands down by the creek—the only truly fertile land on the place because it got the nutrients that washed down from the ridge tops—were never amenable to farming because they lay in the creek’s floodplain where flash floods roar by with every sustained rainfall. Thus these unfarmable bottoms, once kept mowed by myself for no good reason, have now been left alone for ten years and they too are returning to nature—a visual unfolding even more fascinating than that happening up on the ridges.
When we bought this uninhabited farm all wildlife seemingly right down to the voles and moles had been hunted to extinction. One of my first acts as new owner was tearing down deer stands built high in two trees. Today gray and red squirrels with great twitchy-bushy tails frolic among the walnut trees along the creek. They are diligent in harvesting fallen walnuts, which they bury throughout the bottom meadows as food insurance against cold winter when there’s nothing else to eat. I don’t know whether they forget where they buried all those walnuts or just can’t eat all they bury, but we now have several dozen young black walnut trees, along with several other species, coming up all over those former uselessly-mowed bottom fields.
The pleasure those bottoms give us each year is transient but wonderful. When summer matures they become covered with ironweeds and yellowstem, tall above my head. The yellowstems’ brilliant yellow flowers and the iron weeds’ deep purple tops lend a glory of contrasting colors the meadows’ full half-mile length. They last a month or so before fading with promise to return next year, a few weeks after spring phlox bloom along the creek banks. The rich, interlaced diversity of so many different growing things is far more beautiful than I am capable of describing. It intermingles, runs together. I can only mention how much I appreciate it all.
And appreciation is the real subject of this writing. I’ve finally got around to it after beating all around the bush, the bush I used to mow down but which today I revere and leave alone to do as it will. What I’ve really been meaning to say is how grateful I am for it all, how a deeply felt, boundless gratitude is returning me to nature. And that nature to which I return is a realm of natural understanding. Just that. The years of seeking and hard work are over, mostly, and understanding prevails, preoccupies my thoughts.
It is an understanding that everything is nature. Everything. Every…thing. The natural world of forests and fields, of canyons and oceans. The worlds of fishes and bugs, birds and bacteria, mammals and myself, and all my fellow human creatures. The human-made world of cities and streets, machines and technology—for Wo/Man is nature too, so whatever S/he makes and does is an aspect of nature…still more of the endless faces into which energy can manifest itself. The world of science and the world of religion and the world of human culture and the world of animal instinct…all that and more is nature…
…along with the heavens and galaxies and vast broad universe clear to the far outer dark boundaries where there has been no light since the big bang. And the omnipresent unseen background universe of atoms and quarks and subatomic particles and forces and gravity. Nature—all nature, every one of these, every bit of it, and still more…including a certain mysterious conceptual realm that is not quite exactly any of these yet is more than all of these—a veiled-off truly infinite surround within which our finite universe sits…
Contrary to popular rumor, everything is nature. And I’m not waiting for eventual certain death of the body I live in to return me to it, I’m returning already, while I’m very much alive and kicking. Back to nature, joyfully. Glimpsing the fullness that nature is, ready to engage in it as fully as mortal self can manage. I think I’ll give it a capital N: Nature.
After more than eighty years filled with experiences and a ton of seeking, I believe I have learned a few things—few but important. And so I am writing about those things, to tell what I’ve learned, why I’m grateful, what I think and why I think it—as well as why I’m returning to nature and can hardly wait for the process to advance.
I think it just possible that what I have to say may be meaningful to certain readers, a sufficient outcome for which I would feel grateful. My approach, describing my private experiences and reasoning, are my preferred alternative to preaching. Lay it out there as I lived it, tell about it as I perceived it, then the reader may keep whatever pieces of it the reader wants, no more or less. The metaphor is not unlike a lighthouse that can also be used as a church or spiritual place, but only by those who want to. I’ve never liked the missionary urge, which requires being so vainly sure of oneself.
– to be continued in one week –