A creek flows in a dale at the edge of the meadow. August finds a frog swimming tenaciously against the strong current. He lifts it up carefully and starts to talk to it, just as I used to do at his age. Back then, every living thing was fascinating: everything that moved or crept was worth pausing for, to catch in my hands, lift up, examine.
I put my backpack down on the grass. Lie on my back and gaze up at the sky, listening to August’s conversation with the frog….
I’m reading a beautiful little memoir adventure story called The Boy And The Mountain by Torbjørn Ekelund in which he takes his six-year-old son on a multi-day hike in Norway’s Skrim Mountains. Where the son can be wild and together father and son can immerse themselves in the nooks and crannies of nature. As I worked the land all summer, I did my best to embody boyish joy as I immersed myself in the nooks and crannies of the farm. Spring peeper hunting in the muck, finding frogs, salamanders, wolf spiders, turtle bugs, fireflies, snakes, shrews, field mice, ground birds, native bees. And I haven't even mentioned the sheep or chickens yet: endless entertainment.
There was a point this summer on the farm when we hit Peak Frog. There were tiny froglets, regular old froggoes, and big frog boys – one lived by our barn and was named Softball. A lot of farm chores took twice as long as I'd pause to hold frogs, take pictures of frogs, chase frogs, talk to and sing to frogs. I was no different than young August in the Skrims.
I don’t remember all this micro-wildlife before we introduced livestock onto the farm. Until two years ago, we’d mow the pasture (or attempt to mow around the rocks, stumps, and trash left by the previous owners) once a year or so. Some of the land is high and dry, all goldenrods and compacted soil. Some of it is low and wet, deep rich green. Ticks and grasshoppers were all I ever found crawling around below the knee, the occasional shrew nest. Then the thistles, docks, hawkweed, and all the weeds that thrive in neglect. Awful stuff.
But now, after two seasons of sheep hooves and sheep poop and sheep teeth clipping grass and forbs – and chickens working their chicken ninja magic right behind their fluffy colleagues – the aforementioned weeds were replaced by grasses, clovers, and other forbs and wildflowers I didn’t even know existed. The itsy bitsy critter populations exploded.
I’m not going to pretend to understand how it all works. Lots of science-y soil books and farming books happily explain how when you introduce the intensive rotational grazing of ruminant animals, landscapes improve, biodiversity improves, and the scorched earth you were standing on reverts back to its Edenic state, its default setting. Mother Earth hates bare, infertile soil. She’ll put something there, regardless, usually plants like brambles or knotweed and critters like ticks and grasshoppers. Stuff no one likes. Make her happy and you get grass and clover and frogs. The ticks and grasshoppers populations have been reduced at our place as nature has balanced itself out.
Ask me to explain the carbon cycle and I’ll blow a raspberry, for I am but a pasture-raised poet. I’m a Thoreauvian copycat naturalist philosopher wanna-be who would probably live on an experimental Transcendentalist communal farm if you dropped me in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts. Reading Ekelund's book reminded me of a time I was a boy, just an amateur naturalist philosopher wanna-be, watching an ant crawl up my arm. My memory is of me being calm and still, simply observing. What will the ant do? Where will it go? I'm still like this today.
Except now I sing to the frogs: Sheep poop and chicken mess / makes the pasture gorgeous / Chicks eat ticks and chug the bugs / frogs hang out and have some fun!
The earth spun before we had science. There was always creative energy. It’s good to know how the strings are pulled, but mostly I just want to see what happens when they are.
One of my favorite farmers is the well-known Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia. He’s known as the high preacher of the pasture and is also a self-described farmer poet. He can talk shop with the soil scientists and cattle ranchers, but as he does his farm chores, he’s thinking of the verse in the work. He writes in his recent book Homestead Tsunami:
I’ve often said that chores are my favorite part of the day because I get to make animals happy with my presence. In the garden, I can almost hear the carrots and tomatoes sing in gratitude ‘Oh boy oh boy oh boy, he’s gonna put a hurtin’ on the weeds. Boys and girls, get ready to grow!’ How many beings do you get to make happy each day?
When I’m dependable, faithful, and responsible, the plants and animals under my stewardship and tutelage literally dance in ecstacy.
When I saunter through the pasture, alongside my sheep and chickens, I am walking through an ecological dance party. Frogs and bugs shimmy and shake. The microbiota macarena. Earthworms doing....the worm. Something must be going right for this to be happening. I'm satisfied doing what I'm doing.
The science is well and good. We need to know the correct ratios and temperatures to compost correctly. We need to know what percentages of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter make good garden soil. But grabbing a big old handful of soil that looks like delicious chocolate cake I could eat right out of my hands says a heck of a lot more with less chatter. The excitement of holding a frog, or watching a wolf spider poke out of its webby nest in the grass, or watching a chicken peck a tick right off a blade of grass comes with the rebuilding of organic matter in the soil, the cessation of erosion, the capture of water in the land, the deep lush growth of biomass that feeds all critters big and small. The earth rewards us with its robust, resilient beauty.
Grace our countryside with compost piles; make the earthworms dance. - Joel Salatin