Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Back to nature?

I'm sure readers would find my personal life as least as boring as I do, but I refer to it from time to time for purposes of illustration. Those of you who go back a ways already know that in addition to my home in Boston (where gainful employment is to be found) I own some land in rural Connecticut, where I am building a house. (Currently hanging drywall -- the end is in sight.) Yesterday, while Al Gore and his friends Sting and Madonna were raising global consciousness, I was working on the sustainable agriculture project, for real, in the broiling sun.

I am planting fruit trees, and I intend to do some vegetable farming and maybe put in a vineyard as well. Yes, it's a hobby farm, essentially -- I've written before about my friends Festus and Angie, who are real farmers, and they work harder than human beings were designed for. But President Gore wants us to rely more on local produce, and I'm going to do what I can.

Here's the story of this land. Like essentially all of Connecticut, it was clear cut in the 18th and 19th centuries for firewood, charcoal, and pasture. It appears that my land was never plowed, because it's so rocky. There are a couple of desultory, half built stone walls, as though someone removed a few of the most egregious rocks from the surface to improve the pasturage, but there's no way anybody ever got a plow through the rubble that remained. Early in the last century, the owners planted pine trees in a strip of about 200' along the road, and left the upland to return to wilderness. It once again became dense forest, dominated by oak interspersed with hemlock groves.

I had a logger come in and selectively harvest, in exchange for building a road into the heart of the property and clearing about 3 acres out of the 20. (In case anyone wants to guilt trip me, my neighbor and I also bought up 35 acres of abutting property that was slated for development, and sold it to the state at a substantial loss for incorporation into the state forest.) I now have a barn and couple of acres of arable land behind the pine plantation, and further back, a house and another acre of land, separated by a wetland. Behind the house is a steep hillside and an upland forest, deep and dark, teeming with wildlife.

My mission, I have discovered, is to defend this little clearing from the voracious forest, equipped with a 15 horsepower diesel tractor and a three-gang mower deck. Any place I don't mow for a few weeks turns into an impenetrable mass of wild raspberries and seedling trees. The rough ground has already cost me four sheared mower blades. I'm steadily digging out rocks and stumps and spreading topsoil to fill in the ditches and hollows, to make the land cultivatable but also just to make it defensibly mowable. The rocks already make three huge piles, enough, I think, to build a stone barn. Unlike the settlers who first farmed here, I don't have the assistance of three sons, two brothers, and a team of horses, so I depend on the tractor for these tasks as well, assisted by a chain saw and a pickup truck. I'm also slowly pushing back the perimeter in places because I need to open up more sunlight and take advantage of the best, flat land. I turn the harvest into firewood with the help of a gasoline powered log splitter, and I turn the waste into mulch with a gasoline powered chipper.

If I were to keep at this for a while, then start to truck in manure and till and plant, I could have a farm like Festus's, and sell my produce at the local farmer's markets and the Willimantic Food Coop. I could heat my house with renewable biomass energy, and probably have a surplus to sell to the neighbors. I could spend the winter eating canned vegetables, cold frame greens, and tubers from the root cellar. Maybe I will do all that some day. I'll use less fossil fuel than trucking and flying in the goods from Mexico and Chile, and I'll do it all organically and sustainably, building up the topsoil instead of depleting it, eschewing pesticides, growing real tomatoes designed to be eaten instead of packed into box cars.

That's all good and fine and sweet, but there's nothing natural about it. Nature is my enemy - the encroaching forest, the marauding deer and woodchucks, the insatiable insects. I have to slash them down, fence them out, burn them and drown them. (Just last week I burned out four trees full of tent caterpillars with a propane torch.) Festus has a 22 to deal with his woodchuck problems, and he's surrounded his entire property with a 12 foot fence to keep the deer out. Most of the local farmers use electric fencing, powered, ultimately, by burning coal and fissioning uranium. There is absolutely no way that I will be able to cultivate the land without the tractor -- probably a bigger and better one than I have now, in fact -- and the chainsaw. Stihl has named my chainsaw the Farm Boss, because it's marketed to farmers. The land I cultivate will be nothing like the primeval land -- rock free, treeless, all the roots pulled out and cow manure tilled in, the deep forest loam stripped off to leave bare soil between the cultivated stalks in summer and a lawn of winter rye in the off season.

Ted Kaczynski, the anti-industrialist radical terrorist, hunted rabbits with a rifle and lived in a house made of plywood. This is how we live now, in a world we have remade. We just can't go back. We can try to live in this world a little better, a little more heedfully, more carefully. But it's still the human made world.

By the way -- anybody need some rocks? I have some . . .

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