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Something Wild

I counted the dollars and coins we had compiled over the month of December from egg and wreath sales, wrapped them into my deposit slip and approached the friendly teller at Meredith Village Savings Bank. He was a tall and warm fellow, waved to every customer who entered, talked to them like he knew them – regulars, no doubt. But I felt welcome in here, the new guy – it’s a good vibe for a bank.

I was recently coached to write Something Wild Farm on the deposit slip rather than my name, as we are a business, and the teller ran the money through the money counter and asked me, “So, what’s the most wild thing about Something Wild Farm?”

I was in full space cadet mode, as it was late in the day and honestly, I’m usually a space cadet most hours of the day, so the question caught me off guard. But it was a great question. We are called Something Wild Farm, aren’t we? Surely, there is something wild about it, but what?

In this short, sweet transaction, words were scarce to grasp at, and grasp I tried. “Well, I am clearing brush,” I mumbled, “and I keep finding twenty feet pieces of electric fencing buried in it.” The teller nodded like I told him the sun was out today. It was just small talk at the bank. I tried to save it: “Lots of wildlife. Hawks, frogs, salamanders.” We exchanged pleasantries and I went on my way, back to the vast and great universe that is Route 25. This space cadet flew back to the farm with the question tucked away in the cargo bay.

If there’s one place I am not a space cadet, it’s probably on the farm. It’s my home planet. I know every inch intimately. I have some help. If we’re going to discuss the wildness of the farm, we need to start with Wilder, our fluffy blue merle Aussie. He is named for the 20th century writer Rose Wilder Lane, daughter (and ghostwriter) of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Wilder is also partly wild, of course. He is a wrecking ball, but sweet and docile when he needs to be. The word wild has always been important for me – I think humans were and should remain partly wild. We are of this earth and we need to remain of it if we're going to stay on it. Wilder is Something Wild Farm’s mascot, director of quality control (someone has to sample the eggs), and spirit animal.

Farms and agriculture are technically the opposite of wild – tamed, literally. We trained the wildness out of crops and made them subservient to our needs: consistently fat and juicy and they last forever in the fridge. This is fine, we need food to be all those things as long as its not at the expense of nutrition or the environment. Where the problem lies is the way it is grown – sterile row crops on dead dirt pumped full of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals. Chickens stuffed in warehouses cages, popping eggs onto a conveyor belt. Tame. Void of nutrition, sucking the earth dry. Earth gives us un-killable coyotes and we create pugs with respiratory infections.

Thoreau wrote in his ode to wildness, Walking:

I love even to see the domestic animals reassert their native rights, – any evidence that they have not wholly lost their original wild habits and vigor; as when my neighbor’s cow breaks out of her pasture early in the spring and boldly swims the river, a cold, gray tide, twenty-five or thirty rods wide, swollen by the melted snow. It is the buffalo crossing the Mississippi. This exploit confers some dignity on the herd in my eyes, – already dignified. The seeds of instinct are preserved under the thick hides of cattle and horses, like seeds in the bowels of the earth, an indefinite period.

This is where we look for the something that is wild on Something Wild Farm. Let the domestic be wild when it needs to be. There is a garden, but there is also purslane and dandelion – and we let them live. We cherish them and use them as much as we use the lettuce and green beans.

Yes, it’s a farm; we imprint our design into the broader landscape of the wilderness beyond us. It’s a well-known fact that the most diverse life and activity in the ecosystem takes place on the edges. By “nook & cranny farming” we are creating a lot of edge. Beyond the garden, there’s cultivated elderberry bushes and fruit trees, surrounded by lush pasture, grazed by sheep and chickens. In come the birds, shrews, the pollinators and weird bugs you only see when you grow certain plants (turtle bugs on the potato leaves, anyone?). This creates the diversity which makes our farm something wild. If I only grew elderberries in a straight garden row with silage tarp and drip irrigation (fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, bird netting, etc.), it would turn into Chernobyl pretty quickly.

When I go out to pull up the old fence from the brush, I let the dogs run around and do dog things. Wilder never gets bored, so let’s follow his nose, shall we? We go say hello to the sheep, where he tries to herd them and Roxy stomps at him. Let’s call him away from the chickens, though – Wilder comes from a line of chicken killers. He gets the crazy eyes. He knows what he eats for dinner every night. He returns to me and pokes his snout into critter holes and mud puddles. Wilder loves mud puddles. So much for being white and fluffy. He is now sufficiently distracted in his bath, and I can work.

I go down to the pasture to collect the chicken eggs in the afternoon. One day I notice a hen flailing around, a small snake caught in her beak, whipping around on a wild ride. The hen swings it in a violent and victorious blow. Soon the other hens chase her around, all wanting a bite of the snack. Chicken hunting strategy is interesting. The huntress gets the kill, but cannot rest easy to enjoy her meal, because every other chicken around her now has a free shot at the prize. It will get pecked away until everyone has a share – then if anything remains in the huntress’s beak, she’ll be fortunate enough to gobble it up. But someone has to make the kill for anyone to eat. Chicken TV is cooler than the NFL, and just as violent.

When we get to the edge of the pasture, where the brush gets thick and the poplars give way to maples and pine, that’s where the dogs want to linger. This is the biggest giveaway it’s the place with the most life. It’s where the strawberries hide, the trilliums lie, the woodbine climbs its ceaseless climb. And it’s where the dogs want to mark and dig and all but panic until they can figure out just what it is that excites them about this spot.

If one sits back and lingers long enough, preferably dog-free, we will learn the reasons why. Out comes a little turkey. I’m watching her closely. A loner turkey isn’t too common around here; normally they travel in armies, breaking traffic laws like its their revolution. This old girl wanders from the treeline out into the pasture – not too far! – and sits in the sun. She nods off. It has the peace and serenity of one of those nature scenes on a YouTube TV commercial break. Shadows blow in the breeze across her bumpy little head. Is she dead? I need to know because there are certain carnivore quadrupeds I bring back here on a regular basis and I can’t have them coming up to me with a mouthful of feathers. I creep closer to the sleepy turkey. She stirs, gets up. Walks off a few stops, sits again as I back off. She’s just an old lady turkey! Taking a little turkey nap in the sun on a late summer day. I leave her be and make a note to check on her before letting the dogs back out.

At night the dogs alert us of our spookier visitors, the glowing eyes of the deer in the headlamp. The deer congregate in the back pastures, a few hundred feet from where I let the dogs run in the dark. They stare like horror movie creatures, unblinking, knowing. Wilder is sure to remind them who lives here. Barking the bark of a thousand dogs, for the safety of the pack! But for some reason if Wilder finds a toad in the night, he doesn’t seem to mind. A sniff, moving on. To me, it looks like a little cheese ball, the one with the nuts on it you get around the holidays. I thought he’d like that since he is fond of cheese. Maybe Softball the Barn Frog is just too much for Wilder. Maybe he only wants cheese balls during the holidays.

There is so much edge at the old electric fence I endlessly pull from the brush. The left side of the fence was grazed by sheep all summer and has turned back to grasses and forbs. Just an inch beyond the tensile wire, though, it’s brambles and goldenrod. The shrews keep their little houses and the bobcats make their little pathways. The electric netting around the Chick Shaw is edge, too. It protects the chickens, but it also keeps them in. It’s a beautiful teaching moment to show freshly grazed pasture, chewed down to nothing the day before, the patch from three days before that is starting to poke back out, the patch from six days before that’s looking like grass again, and the patch from last week which is resilient and green, dandelions popping like fireworks. And then I point you over to the fields where the dogs are running, almost a foot tall. It used to be crawling with ticks, now it’s hoppin’ with froggoes and tick-free doggoes.

Another draw to the edge that is the chicken netting wanders our way at dusk. I’m putting the chickens to bed with my headlamp on. A pair of glowing eyes get my attention. Settling with calm and chaos up where the fallen poplars lay. The calmness Hamilton the house cat displays when he has a mouse trapped between the door and the wall. Hello, Bobcat. I’ll be right back.

I turn on the chicken’s electric netting and go in the house – not for the dogs, but for the .22 long rifle. I respect the bobcat. I need help keeping the shrews at bay. The old lady turkey is fair game, unfortunately. Softball can fend for himself. But the chickens are my ladies. The bobcat is wild, I am some kind of wild too. I shoot at its shadow, scare it off. It’s eyes settle farther off, closer to the forest edge. “Scram!” I yell, shoot off a few more baby bullets in its direction. It takes off into the forest. It’s a wild west out there. The hens are my pioneers and I am the dude they hired to get them to Oregon.

Now that it’s winter, someone occasionally leaves their prints around the yard and takes a sniff around the barn, but they are smelling humans and they now know what the humans do when they come around. A podcaster I like recently said “Nature is undefeated.” He isn’t wrong.

Pulling fence leads to some wild finds, after all. We just got to look for them.


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