Each animal has its own wisdom, and each offers different lessons that we can learn. Chickens, ducks, and dingo dog, all living beings made up of the wildness of this farm. Each of them are tending this land in their own way - ducks skimming the puddles and swamp woods for grub, all staying together, quacking and moving in unison. They teach us of teamwork, having each others’ backs, being ever vigilant to danger, and taking joy in what others scowl at - like mud puddles. Chickens peck away weed seeds and aerate the soil with their clawed feet, running up to the fence to greet you when you pass by. They are curious, gregarious, and at times adventurous - especially when one decides to “fly the coop”. Mori, the dingo-turned-farm dog, is always looking out for and sometimes hunting the rabbits, voles, raccoons, and other potential predators of birds and vegetables. I could write for hours about all the things he has taught me, but all I will say is that he has shown me how to access strength and leadership skills, courage, gentleness, and peace with death in the 6 years he has been with me. He reads the land like an open book, sensitive with senses very different from mine. He weaves gracefully through the swamp and into places that I never go, and undoubtedly knows things of this land I will never know. All of them, by default, are feeding and diversifying the soil microbes with their poop*.
These animals make me stronger, more observant, more patient, and get me up and outside regardless of the weather conditions. They give me something to share with my community, and give me joy and nourishment every day.
There are always shadows in the awe, of course. As the climate changes, there are many unpredictable, far reaching, and inter-related consequences that farmers experience first-hand. After years of mild winters in SE Wisconsin, we are now experiencing the coldest, snowiest winter storm in over 20 years. Who can say for sure how -26 degrees with a deadly -60 windchill, followed by 44 degrees in the same week will affect the rest of the season, but it certainly hasn’t made things easy for the birds and it’s likely the first of many extreme weather events to come for us in 2019. In this past year, we have seen flooding, drought, mosquito plagues, tick swarms, frozen seedlings, lyme, fire blight, black rot, and so many other diseases increasing in severity as weather patterns grow more chaotic. I look at my chickens, their frost-bitten combs and wild eyes, and I think of all the people not far from me who have no home, can’t afford enough heat, or just live in a run-down old house or apartment like the places I used to live before I moved here, with the wind blowing through the house. The people who didn’t make it through the most recent winter storm echo in the 35 mph wind.
Food and nourishment is only part of the mountain we must climb to surmount the present and impending scarcity of the lower- and working-class, and I can’t help but question my choices sometimes about putting all of my proverbial eggs in this one basket of food and Earth work. This particular “positive obsession”, in Octavia Butler’s words, at times can seem removed or irrelevant compared to the crisis we currently face. Rising food prices and reduced access, leaded water and contaminated soil, winter storms, wildfires, hurricanes, and hate crimes all hit the poor and working class the hardest. Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid the question of how we can build infrastructure to live without depending on fossil fuel based industry, war, and slave wage labor when so many are in dire need of more emergency relief efforts.
She also writes of a “chosen struggle”, which (I believe) is not to be confused with the burdens that most of us inherit rather than choose in one way or another, especially folks in marginalized communities. I like to think of this in terms of the choice TO struggle; and what to struggle against. By choosing to struggle against the causes of climate change and the violation of human rights, we may be able to divert the rage and pain felt by many trying to live within an economic and social system that doesn’t serve them, or even prioritize their safety and that of their children.
I don’t pretend to have answers, but it can’t hurt to share our chosen struggles. We can do this by using the skills and sphere of influence we have, whatever that may be, and work together to cultivate our resources. Part of that, from my perspective as a landworker, and as someone concerned about climate change, is to get in right relationship with the Earth the best we can through food.
It’s both inner and outer work. It’s healing, grieving, and creative work. Among the many workers we need, we need food growers, composters, animal keepers, parents, teachers, healers, craftspeople, and more. None of us can do it all, and hopefully, none of us will need to.
Wellspring is not the solution to the world’s problems, and perhaps there is none except a collaboration of solutions by a variety of people. We can, however, help more people become resilient, resourceful, and sustainable food growers, work to increase local food access, and organize to increase access to land for people who want to grow. We can help people forge a tangible relationship with the Earth and build their practical skills. We are a community of seeds, Earthseeds, as Octavia wrote, growing and spreading over time and space.
*In accordance with food safety and organic certification regulations, no animals are permitted in the growing fields nor fresh manure added to any of our vegetable beds
That day was a lazy, rainy,
cold December Sunday.
We didn’t get back to the farm till late,
and we slept deeply
until I woke up late
and ran out to do the bird chores.
When I came back, I made this
of hash browns
and eggs, mushrooms and greens
Later I took you back down to the city
And I wasn’t back before dark.
When I made it back, there was no sign of the ducks. The snow quickly dusting the ground was so fresh it was blank and untouched by duck feet. I walked all over the farm calling for them, looking for prints and listing for quacks. To be honest, after an hour, after dark, and without a good flashlight, I came inside and told my farm mates what was going on. I thought about giving up. I sat down. But I couldn’t relax. I put on some gloves and went out.
This time, I heard a quack. A muffled, far away one. So rare to ever hear just….one.
It was coming from the west, straight across the half-frozen swamp woods. It’s a chunk of the land to the south of the barn that leans with dead ash trees. It’s thickly understoried with sharp buckthorn, prickly ash, and honeysuckle barring the entrance, not to mention 5 foot tall brush piles along the edge. I briefly wondered if I imagined the lone quack, maybe from straining so hard to hear. But I stomped through the brush in the direction I thought I heard the sound. I concentrated on the next best step, to avoid the ice and the sharp branches, which was impossible anyway. I concentrated on listing for a sound. And finally I heard them, because they heard me.
They were huddled up in the water under a honeysuckle thicket on the edge of the Crescent Garden. I was relieved to find them, and my voice already felt weak from calling them in the cold air for so long, but I suddenly realized how difficult it was going to be to herd them outta there. Branches crossing their path in the dark at every turn. They were panicking and thrashing against brush so forcefully that I thought for sure one of them would end up with a broken leg or wing (they didn’t though). I picked one up that was stuck in a branch web and tried to carry her for a bit, but it was difficult because I was also weaving through branches to get through, and trying not to step on any suddenly stuck ducks.
We pushed back through the swamp woods, towards the coop, and this time I was not listening. I was crying out loud to the sky, totally at mercy of the darkness and the freezing water. I yelled directions and curses to the ducks as if they could understand me.
Finally, I looked up and saw an open sky through the trees. I busted through the the brush pile on the edge of the path, and watched each duck find the way through the pile. They were frantic, though. They wouldn’t even go right in their coop at first. I had to wade out again into a small pond to get them back into their coop.
By now, I had become a frozen footed swamp beast. Numb feet, watery eyes, mud up to my shins, and no patience. I put their food and water in for them, closed up the coop, and felt suddenly relieved that I had gone back. They were not spending the night as sitting ducks in a swamp of hunger mooning wild animals. I had been crying in the rain, wading in the swamp.
I had thought that I couldn’t find them by myself, and that they would just turn up in the morning. They might have. But since that night, they have always been at the coop on time for sundown. Either inside already, or easily persuaded with their evening meal and water. I found out that my farm mate had gone out to look for them, but turned back once he heard me yelling and knew I found them. I’m extremely grateful all around; for the ducks, the land, and people. Still, I take this as a lesson in why to have other options besides free-ranging! And not giving up when the going gets rough.