Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Becoming a Teamster

"And so we plough along, as the fly said to the ox."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
It is strange the turns life sometimes takes. One year ago, I never would have imagined that I would become an apprentice teamster in the original sense of the word -- an ox team driver. And yet here I am learning how to work with a fine team of Jerseys who go by the names of August and Henri.

When I first got to D Acres a little more than six months ago I was completely intimidated by the oxen. As a city boy I have always been more comfortable riding the New York subway at 3 AM than being close to large animals. Horses made me nervous, let alone oxen. And these two large Jersey oxen who stood there silently watching me with their enormous brown eyes and long curved horns as I walked from my cabin in the woods past their house to the community building every day, well they just freaked me out. When I was first offered the chance to participate in the mysterious chore of "mucking out," I wasn't sure I could handle it. Katie, Matt and Dustin were the only interns properly trained to do the chore of daily morning and evening ox care and Dustin was going to be leaving, so a backup person was needed. I reluctantly agreed. I had already done some work with the oxen in the field over the summer, running chains during logging operations, and that had gone surprisingly well. They didn't stomp on my feet, gore me with their horns or even squash me in between the two of them as I retrieved the chain hanging from the big steel ring in the middle of their yoke and connected it up to another chain that I had looped around a log to be dragged out of the woods. Slowly I got comfortable enough with them to brush the flies off of their flanks that they couldn't reach with their long tails. I got the sense that they respected my efforts as I worked alongside of them dragging the heavy chains into the new pig pasture we were logging, as I struggled to heave the logs onto the wood pile we were building and as I freed logs that got stuck on stumps or roots. The strange set of commands that Beth issued as she drove them were mystifying and enchanting. Little did I know that I'd start to learn what "ha Henri!" and "gee August!" really meant and how to use them to communicate with these powerful but still gentle beasts. I am getting ahead of the story though.

The ox chore, the mysterious "mucking out" is really not that difficult as it turns out. The oxen spend nights in a small barn called the Ox Hovel and every morning someone leads them out to their pasture, shovels out their poop and soiled bedding and tosses it up onto the compost heap outside, piles the dry bedding that remains on the side to allow the floor to dry and walks around their pasture collecting the previous day's turds with a pitchfork. Then in the evening their bedding is spread back out on the floor, new woodchips are added to the rear of their stall to supplement the hay that makes up the bulk of their bedding, a new bale of hay is opened and arranged in the front of the stall with a cup of grain added for a snack along with whatever apples onions and squash we have collected from the supermarket's out of date food on the town run, their water bucket is emptied, cleaned and replenished with fresh water, they are let back in and they are clipped in to leads running from the front of the stall to their collars. It all sounds fairly straightforward, except for the fact that you need to be right next to them to lead them out in the morning and then clip them in at night, in a very confined space, not to mention the fact that they weigh more than half a ton, have large sharp horns and don't always want to do what you want them to do. A little deep breathing and a sense of humor is required. In spite of my initial hesitation though, I soon got more comfortable being up close to them, until, that is, August took to swiping at me with his large curled horns rather than let me lead him out of the barn one morning. It turns out that he wasn't really trying to hurt me, it's just that he didn't want to be rushed since he prefers to scratch his neck on the door frame on the way out. Now, I realize that if I grab a long skinny stick and tap him on the flank, he moves out of the barn a bit quicker. I tend not to rush him though, but instead scratch his neck on the other side.

Before I get to the next phase of my training, I should say a few words about what exactly an ox is, especially since I had no real idea until recently and some of my readers may be similarly clueless. Well an ox is just a (usually) castrated bull trained to work, most often in a team of two. And any breed of cow can be used for work from the Texas Longhorn to the huge Italian Chianina to familiar Holsteins and Jerseys to the feisty Devons and diminutive Dexters. They are amazingly smart and agile, something I had not known about cattle -- not surprising given the reputation of cows as dumb, herd-oriented animals incapable of thinking for themselves. Oxen were traditionally used in New England as draft animals since they can handle the harsh winters here far better than horses and are less picky eaters. They move fairly slowly, but are more powerful than horses so they are well suited for plowing heavy soils, and for pulling logs out of the woods. We use them here for the latter chore since we are trying to avoid the use of fossil fuel powered machinery as much as possible even though we need wood for fuel and building and we need land cleared for farming. They also do a great job converting hay into the compost we use to rebuild our impaired soils.

A few weeks ago when Beth asked me if I wanted to learn how to walk the oxen, once again, with some trepidation, I said, "Sure," although the idea of it made me quite nervous. Walking the oxen requires fitting each with a simple halter and leading them out of their barn into the wide world one at a time where they are tied to a fifty five gallon drum filled with concrete and then fitted with a heavy wooden yoke after which they are walked around the farm in tandem in search of fresh grass. There are far more things that can go wrong. The first part of my training was a test walk with Beth, who showed Matt and I what to do and gave us each a go at driving. Except for the fact that August, who is the lefthand ox of the team, the one the teamster walks next to and whose halter he or she holds on to, insisted on running me into boulders, bushes and apple trees as I attempted to tell the two of them where I wanted them to go, everything went pretty well. They sort of listened, but also made it clear that negotiations would be needed if we were going to be working together. I survived that and another training walk and then was assured that I was ready for a solo walk and it was duly scheduled in.

Due to an early season snowfall, my first solo walk with them was delayed by a week or so, but eventually I got to take them out. Even though Henri almost ran away as I led him out of the barn it went surprisingly well. I have continued to walk them on a regular basis and am feeling less and less nervous about walking them as I start to get a sense of the range of their various moods and learn their quirks and how to avoid having them run me through brambles, fences or rocks. It's been slow but steady progress for me as I work on building trust with them and learn how to guide them around to the best bits of grass left over from a productive growing season. It takes about an hour or so of walking them around until they are full of grass, clover and the few remaining apple drops and ready to head back home. During this time I have to remain alert and ready to get out of their way to avoid getting stepped on, or in their way to prevent them from ransacking the remaining vegetation in our gardens. But I also get plenty of time to watch them eat -- they are quite efficient at mowing the grass with their long tongues flicking out of their mouths and drawing bunches of grass in to their waiting teeth -- and ruminate myself on how they perceive the world, what they think of me, and the relations between me as a human and the animals us humans domesticated millenia ago. That topic is a huge one -- wildness and domestication in humans and other animals -- which I am still mulling over so it will have to wait for another time. But it is much on my mind every time August or Henri or both of them together lift their powerful heads up and lurch into action dragging me along as they seek out a tasty apple or sniff the wind for the smell of sweet grass. For now I assuage whatever guilt feelings I have about my occupying a position of dominance, whacking them across the nose with a stick to get them to back up (this doesn't really hurt them I am told since they are far tougher beasts than we), and leading them around by reminding myself what a good life they have here. Most of their days are spent hanging out and eating or snoozing under a tree, and they are well fed and cared for and seem not to mind the work we have them do. Like good card-carrying union members they are also familiar with the tactic of the sit-down strike, as in, when they are done working, they just stop and no amount of goading will make them do more. We relent and let them rest or lead them back home to their pasture.

Soon the snows will set in and their diet will shift entirely to hay and so they won't be walked as often. I'll continue to work with them as our logging operations move into a new area being cleared for more garden space, but I'll be back to running chains, rather than driving them in the more complex pulling operations required. I am looking forward to being out in the snow covered woods squeezing in between them to hook up loads and scratching their noses occasionally, appreciative of the hard work they do for us and their putting up with our demands.

~George Matthews

Friday, November 25, 2011

always on the lookout for more mulch...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Colossal Chestnuts and another Pecan

There’s been some aggressive weeding of late. I found the tell-tale sign the other evening: come the end of the day, I went about my dutiful effort of hair brushing only to have the exercise yield a brush full of twigs and accompanying detritus.

Mind you, projects for the week have focused on “perennial triage.” That is to say, freeing trees and shrubs from encroaching weeds, invading vines, and the ever-dominant wild raspberry. Thorns, thickets, prickers, and spines require a careful approach, while bedstraw, vetch, grasses, wild strawberry, and rogue ferns necessitate an all-or-nothing tenacity. Somehow the dirt dirties more than just my hands.

The goal is multifarious. These perennial plantings are easily pushed down the priority list throughout the growing season, so taking the time to clear around them now, as the season winds to a close, is essential if they are to be given a stronger start come springtime. After weeding around each tree, a mulch or sheet mulch is applied for fertility and weed suppression.

Our sheet mulching method here at D Acres incorporates two primary materials. First is cardboard collected from area establishments, a means of up-cycling biodegradable material otherwise destined for a landfill. Second is a woody byproduct. Often woodchips are used, a resource we have readily available from our logging efforts. At the moment, I am making use of sawdust donated by a neighbor. Piled in a less than ideal spot, my goal has been to work through the material as quickly as possible. Another week of sheet mulching should easily accomplish the task. Of these two materials, cardboard is utilized for weed suppression, while the placement of organic matter serves to hold the cardboard in place while simultaneously providing a rich nutrient package that will slowly be released and returned to the soil.

We have found this to be a highly effective process. Effectiveness, of course, is predicated on knowing the location of the pertinent plantings to be cared for. It seems that each year I discover another tree that has previously eluded my observation. This year it was finding a pecan in our ox hovel hedgerow, a lilac bush in our upper field, a fourth roadside beach plum buried beneath goldenrod and sensitive ferns, a fourth sea buckthorn acting as a trellis for somehow-still-lush bedstraw, and a chestnut with the simple tag of “Colossal.”

“Colossal” could also describe the remarkable diversity and strength of our edible landscape. While the work of weeding and mulching will provide these perennial plantings with a power start next season, this work is also in preparation for a more distant future. These trees are tended to now with the hope of production for future decades and future generations. Perennials represent remarkable caloric potential, but time, patience, and persistence are required if that hope is to become a reality. This week has been about weeding for the future, for all of our futures.

as published in North Country News

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Wall Street in Theory and Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

~Yogi Berra

It's been a while since a crew from D Acres went to participate in and check out what was happening in Liberty Square, home base of Occupy Wall Street. It was a pretty inspiring experience and I've been meaning to write about it, but wrapping up the growing season, preparations for winter, and the first snows of the season have gotten in the way. But now that things have taken a dramatic turn, with the protesters having been evicted from Zuccotti Park, it's time to act. After much reflection on what's been going on down there, here's my take on it.

In theory of course, Occupy Wall Street has set itself an impossible task -- bring about a revolution of some unspecified type with unspecified goals by camping out in the symbolic epicenter of global capitalist finance and refusing to leave until everything has changed. This is absurd from a number of angles: the combined brute force of the NYPD with all the backups they need from the National Guard, not to mention the Department of Homeland Security, can easily be used to disperse and/or arrest all of the protesters -- a band of a few hundred disaffected youth with a couple of grannies for peace and old school anarchists along for the ride; besides, Wall Street is itself mostly of symbolic value, since most financial business is carried out online and many traders telecommute, so camping out there will only inconvenience the locals in an increasingly residential area of lower Manhattan; and besides, most of us are implicated in Wall Street's shenanigans through pension funds, the financing schemes of local and municipal governments, the mortgage racket, and more; and besides all of this, there is no visible leadership or set of coherent official demands being made by the occupiers. In theory, this is completely the wrong way to go about affecting any change in the real world and responding to the ongoing worldwide financial crisis. Honestly, when I went down to Wall Street during the third week of the protest, I wasn't expecting much.

Maybe I've spent too much time thinking about theory to realize that these reasons why this protest has to fail might be irrelevant. In theory, theory and practice are equivalent -- theory maps out what real options are available in situations like this and in an age of global commerce and finance a few protesters on the street are irrelevant to the workings of the system. It will grind on according to its own inner logic with all of the weight of the hefty institutions behind it, like the governments of the world's most powerful nations, not to mention large corporations and the organizations that represent their interests such as trade groups, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so on. Theoretically, this protest was the same as every other protest that has taken place since the end of the Cold War -- some loud voices expressing opinions about the evils of capitalism, with some also mentioning environmental issues and political corruption, ending with a return to business as usual for those protesting and those inconvenienced by the protests immediately afterwards.

In practice, however, things have turned out a little differently. In practice there are the famous "people's mic" communication system, a kitchen serving free, donated food during most hours of the day and night to whoever stands in line, the people's library in one corner of the park, many teach-ins, seminars, and open discussions about theory and practice, a sanitation crew, a recycling center, a grey water system to handle dish water, a crew of trained medics looking after the health of the occupiers and visitors, a group of programmers and computer savvy people working to upload terabytes of video footage to the web, a security contingent helping to defuse potential conflicts within the group and between the occupiers, the police and the public, a direct action group organizing regular marches around the city. In short, in practice, a leaderless group of strangers got together and built a working small model of an alternative way of organizing society all without leaders and without a preconceived plan. This was what impressed me the most, and it clearly impressed many of the passersby and reporters with whom I talked. And, I think, this is what resonated with those dissatisfied with business as usual everywhere in the world who started occupying everywhere. In practice the contours of a different way of living are becoming visible even as representatives of business as usual in the banks and their governmental supporting institutions futilely attempt to revive the way of life that the protesters reject.

Now what does the practical side of Occupy Wall Street have to teach in terms of theory? Most of all it teaches us that the model of human interaction championed by Wall Street itself -- that we are all basically self-interested individuals who only interact with one another if it furthers our personal goals -- is far too limited. In fact, as anthropologists have been pointing out for years (most compellingly in recent years by David Graeber, whose phenomenal book "Debt: the first 5000 years" I've been reading lately), the mode of interaction that takes place in the market, where we temporarily get together for the sake of each pursuing his or her own self-interest is only one of many modes of interaction that humans engage in all the time. Of course this should be obvious, but it is too often overlooked in a world in which progress and the pursuit of happiness have become synonymous with interactions mediated by money. Instead of taking care of our neighbors kids, we pay for child care; instead of teaching each other we take on massive amounts of debt to pay for education; instead of producing and sharing our own food we pay for meals; instead of talking to each other about our difficulties we pay psychologists to lend us an ear. This is partly responsible for what economic growth there has been in the last 30 years or so -- growth that was paid for with the largest lending and borrowing spree in the history of money and has ended up with most of us tied to jobs we hate but that we keep just to maintain a supply of money. But, as the occupiers clearly demonstrated, a group of people could come together for a common, if still somewhat vague, purpose and help each other out without expecting anything in return nor requiring much money to thrive in one of the world's more expensive cities. Solidarity, a sense that we are all in it together, can be just as much a product of tough times as fighting to keep what you consider yours. While the people of Wall Street continue to award themselves huge bonuses at the expense of whoever has less financial power, the people at Occupy Wall Street support each other and build community.

This compelling protest movement also teaches us that we should be open to and welcoming of new and previously unimaginable alternatives as we confront an uncertain and potentially troubling future. Let's not be blinded by our theories of social organization. Watch carefully how things are really working there and start doing it on your own. Organize, do it yourself, practice consensus decision making, live without cash as much as possible, trade with your neighbors, help each other out.

Long live Occupy Wall Street!

~George Matthews

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Lunging for Leaves

The leaves have dropped from our largest heartnut tree. Behind the cob greenhouse, overlooking the top duck pond, the heartnut stands prominent in any easterly view from D Acres’ kitchen. Just the other morning, once the sun crested the trees and the shadows diminished, it was like a seeing an old friend in new clothing: it warranted a second take.

See, the leaves fall seemingly at once, like a bed losing its blanket or a dog shaking snow from its back. With the heartnut, there is no slow denouement of a season, no gradual turn from summer’s vitality to autumn’s beauty to November’s starkness. Rather, it is a clear and concise statement, an act of assurance: now is the moment, today is the change.

And so it was this year. Overnight, in fact, it happened. Just a few days prior, the butternuts performed the same act of decisiveness.

Now the heartnut and butternut leaves join the kaleidoscope of bold and colorful maple, birch, beech, ash and the occasional oak leaves covering the ground. A natural mulch, rich and multihued, the leaves will serve to protect the soil. Slowly decomposing back to soil and enriching the woods floor or garden edges where they fall, they are exemplars that lead us in our work to build soil fertility.

While leaves across the property are left intact, in situ, for this very reason, leaves along our roadside are a different matter. Fated to clog ditches & drainages, linger in culverts, and be tossed by ambitious snowplows, we sequester these leaves for higher purposes.

We start by hitching up the trailer and tossing in rakes and all available hands. Leaf raking is an all-day affair here, sometimes multiple days. Up and down the roadside we march, raking piles large enough to fulfill everyone’s inner child. But it’s not time for jumping just yet. One overflowing armful at a time, we pile the leaves into the trailer. Someone earns the enviable job of stomping down the growing heap, while those remaining squat, lunge, gather, and heave the piles into the trailer. A tremendous quantity can be packed within the slightly askew wooden sides.

From here the leaves are deposited into caged piles strategically close to our various garden zones. Leaves will be used as part of our fall mulch, mixed with straw to create a powerful nutrient package. Not only will this protect the garden beds through the coming seasons, this leaf mulch will also contribute to the ongoing process of increased soil fertility through the continual application of organic matter.

Most of the leaves gathered, however, are not destined for immediate use. Rather, the hustle of a couple of days will come to fruition after a year of patience. Let sit for twelve months, these leaves will be partially composted by next fall season, when they will once again be spread about, applied to garden beds across the farm.

Mirroring the process of humus creation within a woodland ecosystem, the input of leaves to our garden system is an essential means of building soil fertility. You, too, can do this: leaves do not belong in plastic bags, nor the back of trash truck, nor a backyard fire pit. Money may not fall from trees, but good soil can be found beneath them. Is that not more valuable?

as published in North Country News