Thursday, November 7, 2019

Cultivating Outdoor Life


Much as we love the house with its energy superpowers, it’s still just base camp for what we’re really doing: enjoying, learning from, and prospering the little corner of earth we live in. Every day brings new insight—about wildlife, about tools, about how things grow. And just for the record, for people who keep asking about volume 2 of my Isaiah commentary: yes, I’m doing that too. Isaiah in the morning, farming in the afternoon. A good balance.

Recently some neighbors, older lifelong residents, were telling about the family that owned these acres nearly a hundred years ago—or maybe more. Two brothers and two sisters all named Schwein, none ever married. I had found them listed on the 1940 census, along with their father, who emigrated from Switzerland. Our neighbor remembers planting corn for them on our house site decades ago. That may have been the only conventional thing the Schweins did. They owned exotic animals—peacocks roamed the farm, and their house was filled with cockatiels and other colorful birds. The last remaining brother sold the place in the 1970s to our predecessor, who dug the pond and kept the fields neatly mowed.

Show-off!
For years we’ve cultivated trees, letting some fields grow back into the forests that used to cover Indiana. When we first planted a patch of oaks and poplars, they seemed artificial, straight rows of tiny whips. But nature has a way of taking charge. Now other species, sycamores, pines, cedars, have volunteered themselves to fill in. Deer, hawks, rabbits find cover there. Every time we drive in or out, a half dozen trotting turkeys lead the way.

As newcomers, we feel wonder at the bullfrogs and turtles, the single chipmunk, the bossy red-winged blackbird and curious hummingbirds, indigo buntings, great blue herons, kingfishers; the tadpoles growing in muddy puddles around our construction site, which the builder’s son and I rescued from a concrete tomb, and fed in pails until they sprouted legs and jumped away (they eat boiled lettuce, by the way); the dazzling monarchs and swallowtails, dragonflies, spiders, lizards, hundreds of ladybugs; elusive snakes and crawdads. One day this week I glanced outside and saw a single duck swimming in the pond: a hooded merganser, something we’d never seen here and nearly missed. It all lends urgency to pay attention.

Carrying on the tradition of trying the weird, I’ve planted not only lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, asparagus, garlic, and shallots in my Hugelkultur mounds, and several varieties of berries and other perennial fruit in beds around the house. I’ve also started some mushrooms. On a recent visit, my brother and sister-in-law helped me harvest some oak logs and drill shiitake plugs into them, and these are stacked by the barn waiting for the mycelium to inoculate the logs and begin fruiting.

Until recently, morel mushrooms could not be cultivated, only found wild. We once paid $25 for a small bag at a morel festival, and found them pure deliciousness. Now some farmers are growing them. There being no consensus yet on how it’s done, we don’t know what we're doing. Yesterday, after tilling a
10’x10’ square under some trees, we spread peat moss, soil with compost, gypsum, and sand, and then I scooped up and added all the wood ashes I could find to simulate a burn site, and raked in spores of black, white, and yellow morels. We’ll see if we grow anything besides a bad case of poison ivy.

When I used to lead trips to the Middle East, I felt awe at standing in places deemed holy for centuries and even millennia by residents and pilgrims from all over the world. But all that weight of glory is burdensome for clashing peoples, especially for those who lose it in the fray. At journey’s end I was always relieved to return to fly-over country—to a secret place that only we love. Now I’m content to stay.