On Fence Lines, Farming, and Agro-ecology

A recent conversation with my neighbour demonstrated how farmers can view the relationship between agriculture and Nature in divergent ways. We encountered each other along a fence line that separates our farms. I had been out for a walk in the forest with our dog, and he had been treating his two toddlers to a ride on the family’s all-terrain vehicle.

During some casual conversation my neighbour, who is half my age, asked me if I’d like him to “clean up” our side of the fence line. The fence line consists of a diversity of tree, shrub and wildflower species straddling a picturesque moss-covered 100-plus-year-old zig-zag cedar rail fence. Last year my neighbour had “cleaned up” his side of the fence line, removing the shrubs and some of the trees.

I thanked my neighbour for his offer, but graciously declined. I said it was my practice to preserve, even enhance, the fence lines on our farm; to make them more biodiverse and help them grow thicker and more robust. He nodded and smiled politely. But the brief moment of silence that followed was for me symbolic of the chasm that can exist between farmers who regard Nature as secondary to their agricultural pursuits – and something to be subdued and tamed – and those who view biodiversity and Nature’s wildness as an adjunct to, even necessity of, truly sustainable farming practices.

My neighbour meant well. I suspect he regards fence lines as impediments to his crops since they might cast a ribbon of shade on the margins of his fields. Perhaps he assumed that I felt the same way and wanted to help. Some conventional farmers prefer that fence lines be eliminated altogether. More such activity has occurred in our region in recent years as farmers buy up farms adjacent to their own and opt for bigger fields to accommodate bigger farm machinery to make their operations more efficient.

To my neighbour, the fence line also may have seemed like an unruly, unsightly tangle of brush that should be removed. To me the “brush” is something of beauty. And it has names: ninebark; honeysuckle; highbush cranberry; chokecherry; moonseed, wild clematis, wild grape, and Virginia creeper vines; and maple, elm and basswood saplings that one day will replace the mature parent trees around them. Together, and with companion varieties of wild flowers, grasses and fungi, the “brush” forms a richly biodiverse ecosystem that is habitat for species of birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects; a community of flora that I believe, far from being an obstacle to farming, can be part of the very foundation of truly sustainable farming. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support this view.

And therein lays the rub. My neighbour is not, in the main, farming in what I would call a sustainable, Nature-friendly, agro-ecological manner. As a conventional farmer he relies on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides to ensure good crop yields and an efficient and financially viable farming enterprise. He tills his fields regularly believing that turning over and working the ground is necessary to help maintain healthy, productive soils. He relies on a standard three-crop rotation: corn, wheat and soy beans, each of which depend on synthetic fertilizers and agro-toxins to generate decent yields.

But as research is increasingly showing, such conventional practices – which seem to be of greater benefit to major agricultural corporations whose primary interest is selling their fertilizers and agrochemicals – are doing such long-term damage to soils and the natural environment as to make agriculture, over the long term, increasingly unsustainable. In contrast, agro-ecological approaches to farming are viewed as embodying the essence of fundamental sustainability.

Agro-ecology is the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems; the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems; a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences. I believe agro-ecology is, or ought to be, the future of agriculture in Canada and the world.

My neighbour’s primary motivation as a farmer seems to be to squeeze as many productive acres and as much productive capacity from his farm as possible. If something of Nature, like a fence line, gets in the way then it should be removed, or if it’s a wetland, drained. My chief incentive as a farmer is to steward the natural environment both for its own sake and to ensure, in a corresponding manner, the overall health and sustainability of the farm. From this perspective forests, fence lines, hedgerows, streams, wetlands and other natural living structures are all important in maintaining a healthy, sustainable farm.

I don’t fault my neighbour (or any conventional farmers, some of whom do employ some principles of agro-ecology). He has likely grown up with and been taught an approach to farming that regards Nature as a resource to be exploited, not something good in itself and important to conserve in a farm setting. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t relish a quiet walk in his woodlot or the sight of deer and wild turkeys foraging in his fields. He may actually take delight in both. But his regard for Nature, at least on his farm, is bracketed by Nature understood as a means to an end and by narrow bottom line thinking.

Nor do I wish to be perceived as overly judgemental and self-righteous given my support and advocacy for agro-ecological farming. Farmers who approach farming differently can learn much from one another, if they can manage to engage in friendly, mutually-respectful and open-minded dialogue. Given that the subject matter is often emotionally charged, and one can so easily feel judged and put down by the other, meaningful and constructive dialogue is a perennial challenge.

Many conventional farmers say they are quite comfortable farming as they do and will vigorously defend their choice. Others are less dug in. I’ve talked with some who are sympathetic to the principles of agro-ecology as well as organic farming, but who for various reasons can’t manage to step off the treadmill of conventional, industrial agriculture. Habituated practices, fear of judgement by their farmer friends, fear of being overrun by weeds and insect pests, debt – these and other factors conspire to keep them moving in the same singular direction.

I believe we need a new vision for farming that places Nature and Nature’s own principles of sustainability at its center. Of necessity, this would mean a 180 degree turn away from large-scale intensive and monoculture-oriented farming, to something like the small mixed farms of yesteryear. Not only would this type of agriculture better understand and respect the complexities of soil health and the natural environment and ensure healthier food, it could encourage a process of re-ruralization and restore the proliferation of vibrant small communities that once thrived across much of rural Canada. Not all large-scale intensive farms necessarily need to disappear – some may be necessary to meet society’s total food needs – but they would no longer be approaching the norm, and they would strive to incorporate principles of agro-ecological food production.

Some will dismiss this vision as hopelessly and haplessly naïve and romantic. If it were merely a matter of trying to go back to or replicate the past, I would agree. But it’s not. It’s a vision of going forward to the past, of utilizing what worked well on the small mixed family farm and all that’s good about modern technology, but in a way that truly respects the Earth.

Indian physicist, philosopher, environmental activist, eco-feminist, seed saver, and farmer, Vandana Shiva, was once asked on CBC Radio whether such a radical shift could actually be achieved. Her response (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) was: Of course it can. If we created the industrial model of farming that dominates developed countries today, we can certainly uncreate it and replace it with something built on the foundation of real, long-term sustainability. It’s the political will that’s missing.

I think Ms. Shiva, whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting, would enjoy a stroll along one of the robust, biodiverse fence lines here at River Croft Farm.

[Note: I am mindful that what I’ve written above, despite the sensitivity and nuance I’ve tried to employ, may upset some of my conventional farmer friends. If it does, let’s talk. I am always open to learning.]

Resources in support of the perspectives offered above:

The United Church of Canada, Toward Food Sovereignty for All. “One emerging vision of a food system that embodies principles of food sovereignty—that of “agro-ecology”—offers a compelling alternative to today’s dominant industrial food system. Agro-ecology could revitalize rural communities in the global South and North. It could be the catalyst to transform the global food system, leading to a more resilient system of food production that resembles not the linear chain characteristic of the industrial food system but a complex interwoven web of food provision.” http://www.emmanuelunited.ca/_pdf/food.pdf

“Diversified Farming Systems: An Agroecological, Systems-based Alternative to Modern Industrial Agriculture,” Ecology and Society. “…Industrial agricultural methods are inherently unsustainable in mining soils and aquifers far more quickly than they can be replenished, and in their high use of fossil fuels.” http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol17/iss4/art44/

Wittman, Hannah, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe, Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature, and Community (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2010). Food sovereignty as the means to provide for the food needs of all people while promoting envi­ronmental sustainability, local empowerment, and agrarian citizenship.

Songs to accompany this reflection:

“Garden Song (Inch by Inch)” by Peter Seeger https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90qRE2F7CM

“Down to Earth” by Peter Gabriel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9wd23wPuDA

 

Edge Habitat: Dwelling in the Shadowlands

A former colleague of mine, Adele, once offered an oral reflection on “edge habitat” – a place where two different natural environments meet creating a rich and biodiverse new ecosystem. Examples include a sun-drenched wildflower meadow transitioning into thickets of ninebark, highbush cranberry and other shrubs; a creek bank where sedges, arrowhead and cattails mingle with and finally surrender to the lazy flow of a meandering stream; a fence line of trees, shrubs, vines and wildflowers that divides a farmer’s fields, winter wheat growing on one side and cattle corn on the other.

Life can be particularly abundant in edge habitat. Often more species of flora and fauna dwell there than in either of the adjacent vegetative settings. And life, as we know, is precarious. In edge habitat species often live in a fragile balance of interdependence. Sudden changes can bring upheaval, even catastrophe. For example, when a fence line of trees, shrubs and wildflowers is bulldozed to create a larger crop field, or a wetland is drained to expand suburban housing.

My enduring images of exploring edge habitat as a farm boy are many: a monarch butterfly chrysalis, translucent pale green with gold stitching, dangling from a milkweed plant growing on the margins of a field of barley; a northern water snake swimming stealthily at the edge of a stream where a leopard frog sits unaware, itself seeking prey; wild cherries, grapes and elderberries festooning a thick hedgerow dividing field from field. They were times to marvel at Nature and experience her dynamism and endless wonders, and to encounter something of myself, even if only intuitively, in those treasured moments.

I was intrigued by the way Adele used edge habitat not only as a biological concept, but an imaginatively inclusive device to invite reflection on the transitions we humans experience throughout our lives: birth, the first day of school, graduation, love, marriage, loss of a relationship, death of a loved one, illness, accidents, retirement. All are moments in which to experience edge habitat, times and places of change and transformation. As Adele said, they are occasions when we choose or are thrust into shadowy, unfamiliar spaces that can hold opportunity or threat, new life or death.

I recently retired, and I now find myself dwelling in edge habitat. I am wrestling with the transition from a life where my identity was significantly defined by a certain kind of productivity, to a sometimes unsettling place where new challenges and options are emerging. In this space, grief over what I’ve lost comingles with excitement at what might lie ahead. I am in the throes of redefining what “productivity” will mean for me as I move into the future and ultimately how my identity will be partially or wholly reshaped. “Edgy” habitat might be a better name for where I currently find myself.

As the Franciscan friar and Christian mystic Richard Rohr writes, all transformation takes place on the threshold (in Latin, limen) of major change where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. Our old world is left behind, while we are not yet sure of our new existence. We experience uncertainty and restlessness and struggle for patience. We inhabit a kind of shadowland.

Some Indigenous peoples call liminal space “crazy time.” That analogy really speaks to me. Rohr believes the “unique and necessary” function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time; that religion should guide and accompany us through the shadows and into sacred spaces where the deconstruction of the old “normal” can occur. I wonder how many people view religion in that way. For some I know, a Nature-based spirituality has filled the void they associate with religion. But that’s a topic for another post.

A few days ago I sat quietly on the bank of the pond at the southwest corner of the farm that my partner and I steward. Encircled by white cedar, black willow, basswood and sugar maple trees, the pond is for me a naturally meditative place. Mindfulness comes easy there. It is a place of edge habitat, a liminal space, a shadowland, and richly so. While drifting between random thoughts I was aware of the incredible amount of activity around me: chub minnows nipping at some algae where water touches bank; whips of young black willow waving ever so slightly in the gentlest of breezes; an eastern painted turtle pulling itself onto a log to bask in the sun’s warmth; a Monarch butterfly flitting among a stand of flowering Joe-Pye weed; concentric rings forming on the pond’s surface where a floating insect receives the kiss of death from a brown trout; the raucous chatter of a belted kingfisher as it lurches from perch to perch; and so much more.

For me the pond’s edge is a sacred place where genuine newness can begin. I try to go there often, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively through some other moment or encounter that might present itself during the course of a day. In those quiet and hallowed spaces, old worlds and ways of being fall away and a larger, richer reality is revealed. I believe we start idealizing normalcy, and risk getting stuck, if we don’t yield to the liminal spaces in our lives; if we don’t dwell willingly in edge habitats; if we don’t allow ourselves to enter the shadowlands. They are the thresholds of the personal and relational growth that help to make us whole.

For more on Richard Rohr’s conception of liminal space:

“What is a liminal space? Think: ‘Change’ and ‘Disruption’” http://inaliminalspace.com/about/what

“Liminal Space: Transformation” https://cac.org/liminal-space-2016-07-07/

Songs to accompany this reflection:

“Shadowland” from The Lion King https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPJqaxkBRro

“Fields of Gold” by Sting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeKE2Z-9HVM

 

Welcome to my blog!

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A compelling image from the video accompanying the Youtube recording of “It’s Nature’s Way” on the album, Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus, by Spirit.

Introductory Post

I’m calling this blog “It’s Nature’s Way.” My short written reflections, while varied, will in some way address and lift up Nature in her complexity, resilience, mystery and glory. It will explore the relationship between Nature and humans, Nature and spirituality, Nature and agriculture, Nature and biodiversity, Nature and indigenous people, Nature and music, and so on. The possible Nature-related topics are myriad.

“It’s Nature’s Way” has been used as a title in other contexts. I chose it because it captures the spirit of what I hope to say through my reflections. Also, it’s the title of a favourite song of mine by the American rock band, Spirit (Album: Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus). Written and sung by guitarist and songwriter, Randy California, the song in a few simple words witnesses to Nature’s despoliation at the hands of humans (see lyrics embedded below). Its power is in the simplicity of the lyrics and arresting musical and vocal accompaniment. The song was perhaps as prescient in the realm of early 1970s-era rock music as Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, was in the world of non-fiction. Since its recording, many other musicians and bands have included songs about Nature in their discographies. It might be fun to do a blog post on some of them sometime.

You can listen to “It’s Nature’s Way” (and view an interesting accompanying video) at: https://www.google.ca/?gws_rd=ssl#q=in+nature%27s+way%2C+spirit. Or, listen to the full album also supported by great visuals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkd5JWYM9wM. “It’s Nature’s Way” is song #2 on the album.

I will write these reflections for myself, to deepen my understanding of some of the issues that have become important to me on my life’s journey. I hope that in some way they will have meaning for you as well. I’m aiming for a minimum of two reflections each month and will announce on Facebook when a new reflection has been posted and include a link to the blog site. I welcome comments and questions on the topics I write about. Your participation will make the experience richer.

Contrary to conventional thinking and behaviour, we humans are an integral and inseparable part of Nature. In this sense our mistreatment of Nature, historical and contemporary, can be considered a form of self-abuse – as we do unto Nature we do unto ourselves. And we’ve done much – systematic and centuries-long ill treatment of flora, fauna and other natural manifestations found on this wondrous planet we call Earth. Our essential relationship with Nature is still not well understood, at least widely, and is even denied in some circles. I hope to add something to the explication and illumination of that relationship and how we can deepen it.

I hope you enjoy “Its Nature’s Way” – both the blog and the song.

Thank you for joining me on my adventure.

I am grateful to my friend, Jackie Schuknecht, for allowing me to use her compelling image of an unfolding fern frond as the logo for my blog. Jackie is an amazing artist who creates “digital art” from the photographs she takes. The fern piece is entitled “From the forest floor.” You can view more of Jackie’s work by visiting  http://www.jackieschuknecht.com/. Jackie and I see and feel Nature in similar ways. She is fortunate to be able to express what she sees and feels visually, whereas I am limited to words.

Lyrics to “It’s Nature’s Way” by Spirit

It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong

It’s nature’s way of telling you, in a song

It’s nature’s way of receiving you

It’s nature’s way of retrieving you

It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong

 

It’s nature’s way of telling you, summer breeze

It’s nature’s way of telling you, dying trees

It’s nature’s way of receiving you

It’s nature’s way of retrieving you

It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong

 

It’s nature’s way, it’s nature’s way

It’s nature’s way, it’s nature’s way

 

It’s nature’s way of telling you, something’s wrong

It’s nature’s way of telling you, in a song