Filling The Gaps

Limbs are a by-product of orchards and brush piles, a by-product of limbs. All three have their advantages. Orchards and their limbs lead to fruit—nuts in this case, which generally keep just enough money flowing to allow one to continue spending one’s days amid the birdsong and shade. But, without the birdsong, what would be the point? Brush piles bring wealth in their own way and today, both types of wealth are hard to come by. As are the wild creatures who take advantage of such character in a landscape.

               We make pruning cuts to pecan trees on an annual basis. Not satisfied with our trimming, mother nature adds to this embarrassment of riches with windfall from storms and the weight of laden limbs. In absence of an economically feasible way to grind up this material and add it back to the soil at the moment, much of it is hauled out of the orchard with a tractor and front-end loader, and after some drying time, is burned on a cool winter’s day. A portion of it; however, is put to better use.

               Each year, I make a few piles of limbs just into the wooded edges away from the orchard, depositing them at strategic locations where blackberry thorns grow beneath the pines and muscadine and honeysuckle vines will weave themselves over and through the tangle of limbs in the summer heat to come. In an age where the farm’s row crop fields have grown larger and offer wildlife nothing more than an ocean of monocrop browse in the night hours, these tangles serve a specific purpose.

               My interests as a pecan farmer are only a piece of the puzzle that is the farm. As a social animal at work on the land, it only makes sense that I look out for my neighbor. And who are my neighbors among these woods, and fields, and orchards? Those who show mercy upon me, I am told. On a hot, summer day or on a day when the world has beaten me down, there are few mercies greater than that of birdsong in the brush, a spotted fawn rising from the tall grass, or a prism of butterflies flickering over wildflower blooms.

               Brush piles give haven to the wren, the cardinal, catbirds, towhees, brown thrashers. The common yellowthroat, whose buttery breast glows like the sun, may even peek its masked face out of the honeysuckle vines overtaking the piles. White throated sparrows prefer to feed near my brush piles in winter so they can quickly dive into cover. Deer bed down behind the bulk of limbs placed on the edges—close enough to keep watch and make a hasty exit when they feel the need. If fortune shines, maybe even a bobwhite or two—now ghostly relicts of the pasts—will make an appearance and announce their presence or call up their covey mates with a clear throated, piercing note. As the hawk plunges or the coyote pounces, they can escape beneath the cover of the limbs.

               Cotton rats, deer mice, shrews, rabbits, and the predators they bring–snakes, foxes, and bobcats are increased by these brush piles, as are raccoons and opossums. As undesirable as they are to some, these are links in the chain. They belong in these woods. Seeking to exert what we consider our “control”, we too often increase the burden for some of them, making the world a more harsh place. I am trying to lighten their load and make amends. Everything has its place and the presence of these predators, prey, and opossums within reason are a sign of health upon the land.

               A couple of years ago I planted a wildflower patch at the edge of one of my orchards. I disked the ground in early summer during a dry stretch. The harrow’s discs cut into the hard ground and enveloped the tractor in a cloud of dust. I spread the seed by hand, ran a drag over it, and hoped for the best. The next week it rained and continued to do so at regular intervals through the summer. I took it as a sign. By August the wildflowers were up and blooming—sulphur cosmos, gaillardia, sunflowers, ….in succession.  The natural spring re-seeding the following year added purple bee balm to the palette. And with these a multitude of honeybees, bumblebees, viceroy butterflies, skippers, tiger and spicebush swallowtails, perfectly symmetrical black and yellow striped heliconids. It has been one of the most delightful things I’ve known on the land and it cost me virtually nothing.

               A farm is settled country and if we are to have a countryside worth living in, it requires more than the presence of people and the things that stimulate finance. These are important to be sure. Farms have to be profitable to survive. Like beavers and termites, the human niche in the natural world involves manipulation of our environment. In this way we are somehow to improve our own lot in life and provide for the family. The farm is the most basic human expression of this task and the most puzzling part of it all is trying to do so-as Aldo Leopold once said much more eloquently than I- in a way that doesn’t wreck everything. By its very nature, the sole purpose of the farm is to provide. At their best, farms provide food and fiber for the public, a living for the family, larder and shelter for wildlife, fresh air for lungs and beauty for the eye. If its fields are not laid bare, its wetlands are not destroyed, and its bottomlands are not over-logged, it cleans the waters soaking into the earth and running in the streams. It can provide for all.

               Farming is wrought with risk, sweat, days spent in sweltering heat, hours spent racing against time in the cold, or the rain or the wind. Payday may only come once a year. Sometimes all one can do is watch as mother nature, bad timing, bad luck, or the pressure of market forces take all that you work for. This understandably creates a strong desire among people to create order out of seeming chaos. Thus, clean field edges, removal of natural woody debris, drainage ditches, and the clearing of wet ground, etc. In so doing, we have sometimes created too great a chasm between farming and what has come to be known as “conservation”. A better term for what we call conservation is simply wholeness. The more narrow the gap between farming and conservation, the more whole is the land.

               We live in a time in which our agricultural interactions with the land are reduced to market figures and the programming of machines, the pressing of buttons, the clicking of the mouse. I am no luddite. I don’t believe we have to be organic farmers to farm with respect for the land. Technology is all well and good when it is responsibly used as a specific tool for the right purpose. But, using a hammer to remove a screw simply damages the screw. You may get the screw out of the hole but it becomes unusable in the process and the hole gets wallowed out.

In the minds of politicians, agriculture has increasingly come to mean agribusiness. Investment companies gobble up land, parking their money in fields until the stock market takes a turn for the better. Investment companies are not committed to land. They are committed to profit and will treat the land as such. There is no room for compromise on an acre of ground in the mind of the company. Every square inch is expected to provide financial return.

               Farmers have a right, like anyone else, to make a comfortable living from their work, but I am not so sure that one is meant to get rich farming. The markets have a way of remedying that. As soon as crop or commodity prices rise, so do the costs of things like fertilizer, pesticides, equipment, etc.—the agribusinesses favored so much by the politicians, and which are the so-called tools of the trade. They are the turning of the screws that apply the pressure to “get big or get out”. At every turn, the farmer is prodded to scale up, taking himself further away from the land in the process. And so, the gap widens.

Quality often declines inversely to quantity. A good farmer is first and foremost a landsman. This means that he or she sees the land, the way it lays, where the streams are, where the poorly drained areas are, understands it, and considers the land’s needs and the effect of his or her actions upon those needs.  He also understands the land’s potential and its limits, as well as his own. With these things in mind, the health of the land and the life upon it will take care of themselves. You’d be surprised at what can fall into place when one can temper one’s own ambitions just a little for the sake of the land.    

               It is possible to see more than dollar signs when we look at land. We can see it for what it is-a great, intricate puzzle with a myriad of pieces. Sometimes we may see our role as trying to fit as many of those pieces together as we can. But perhaps we need to consider that we may simply be one of those pieces which join the others together, one of those pieces that fill the gaps. Either way, we can take great pleasure in the puzzle. The real wealth found in farming is in the keeping of a family, a people, and a community well with the land through the generations. The family, the farm, the land, and the community must all remain solvent. That is no easy task in this world today. Aldo Leopold once suggested that the land can be restored by the same tools which have destroyed it. He was referring to the axe, the plow, the cow, fire, and the gun. One could add a myriad of other technological tools to the list as long as those tools are used responsibly. As for me, I build brush piles in the woods and plant wildflowers at the orchard edges. We don’t have to do big things. We can do the little things, and if still well enough intact, the land will fill the gaps.

5 thoughts on “Filling The Gaps

  1. My son just bought a house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and it came with 65 acres. I’ve told him about this blog and he’s going to combine small brush piles around his property into larger ones to try to attract more wildlife.


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