Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Old Ways

So, sitting on the tractor with the tiller ripping stumps and rocks out of the ground, I got to thinking. The European settlers who first came to Windham County had to cut down the trees with axes and crosscut saws and break the ground with draft animals. For a horse to pull a plow through recently cleared woodland, with its dense network of thick tree roots, must be impossible, and digging the stumps of old growth forest out of the ground with picks and shovels -- I don't see how it can be done. They might have been able to plant some small gardens between the stumps at first and then they just would have had to wait for the roots to rot out.

Maybe they had techniques I don't know about, but anyway, after 10 years or so they would have been able to clear most of the stumps and plow the land. It was full of rocks, which they piled up in stone walls -- more back breaking labor. People often think that these New England stone walls marked property lines or the edges of fields or pastures, but in fact they were mostly just a place to dump the rocks.

Now here's the curious thing. Most of Windham County today, outside of the towns, is woodland -- deep oak and hemlock forest, for the most part, full of huge trees. If you didn't know better, you would swear it had been woodland for thousands of years, but for one thing: those deep woods, even far from any roads, are criss-crossed by stone walls. In the 18th and 19th Centuries the settlers cut down the woods, almost completely, and Windham County was a land of farm fields and pastures, from Thompson to Woodstock to Windham. Then, in the 20th Century, the woods grew back and the only evidence of the past, at least to inexpert eyes, is those stone walls.

So what happened? In order to live like a 19th Century Yankee farmer, I would need horses, first of all. That means I wouldn't need enough cleared land just to feed my family, I'd need to feed my horses as well. So I'd need to clear at least all of my 20 acres and probably more just to make 5 acres yield enough for my own needs. Then I'd need to heat my house, fire my forge, and cook my food. That means I'd need firewood and charcoal. In fact the most powerful force driving the destruction of the Connecticut woods was charcoal making. Itinerant charcoal burners would come through, pay a fee to a local farmer, clear a patch of land, and build and burn charcoal ricks. The farmer got a few bucks and some new pasture out of the deal, but he probably wouldn't have had the motivation, or at least the time, to clear that pasture had the charcoal burner not come along.

I'm pretty sure, in fact, that my own land was never cultivated, that it was only pasture. The rocks were removed haphazardly, there was even a pile in the middle of a space defined by very sloppy walls, and some big ones were just left in place -- although it's hard to be certain about that because they rise up from below over the decades due to frost heaving.

Then, of course, charcoal and firewood were replaced by coal and oil, and draft animals by cars and tractors. Farming did eventually decline in Windham County, but the regrowth of the forest began before that. A lot of farms remain but the fields and pastures are now surrounded by woods, where once they just ran on continuously across the landscape.

Wildlife is coming back as well, in great profusion. I have read that the population of white tailed deer is far larger than it was before the Europeans came, but perhaps that will change now that the cougars are coming back. (Don't tell anyone.) When I was growing up in rural Connecticut, I never saw a turkey, but now they're as thick as black flies on the Athabasca. Okay, that's an exaggeration, but not by much. Fishers, black bears -- all sorts of critters that hadn't been seen for 100 years are back.

And for this we have to thank the industrial age fueled by petroleum and coal. With the much larger human population of today, we could cut down the woods from Maine to Georgia and we still couldn't survive in the old way, of course. So what are we going to do? It's what you might call an interesting question.

A note on agricultural methods: Roger recommends considering no-till agriculture. This is a new idea -- people have tilled the soil, in one way or another, for 10,000 years if not longer. It has merit in some situations but considerable limitations. The advantages are said to be, first, that it stops loss of top soil to erosion by wind and rain that occurs when tilled soil is left exposed, because crop residues are left on the surface; and that it reduces the number of tractor passes over the land, both saving fuel and preserving deep soil structure.

A major limitation, however, is that it is incompatible with organic farming. One of the most important functions of tilling is weed killing. If you don't till, you have to use herbicides, and generally you have to plant genetically modified crops that resist those herbicides. Small scale gardening is possible if you can go through constantly and pull weeds by hand, but not commercial farming. You also need very expensive, specialized seed drills in order to plant through the surface debris.

So I've looked into it but it isn't feasible or appropriate for me. Due to topography and climate, I don't have a problem with soil loss anyway. However, I'm definitely always looking for better methods and I'm interested in discussion of farming and gardening techniques. I've thought of starting a new blog along those lines, if there's interest.

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