Rural Ramblings – Winter 1978 (part 1)
Ralph C. Miller
Although I may have some trouble justifying it, this column is about OASI. While I’m not sure how many readers know what these initials stand for, I am certain they are aware of it under the all inclusive umbrella of Social Security. OASI is Old Age and Survivor’s Insurance and the fact that this Rambler is getting closer to the OA portion is mere coincidence. What we want to consider is more the Survivor’s or survival insurance anyway.
Some 200 odd years ago when 95% of people lived on farms or in a rural setting there was no OASI and little need for it. Now that the 95% are in the cities we probably couldn’t get along without it. I hope I’ll be pardoned for thinking that there is a direct connection. The Farm, along with families and community, served both old age and survivors in a way that much of modern society must find incomprehensible.
In producing this magazine and trying to fill the needs of our subscribers we are constantly on the alert to see where the appropriate writing is coming from. Although we have many fine writers and contributors, much of the pertinent material is being printed in book form. For that reason we do a number of book reviews each issue. I had several books I expected to review but it suddenly came to me that it was going to be difficult to separate them from the viewpoint of this issue’s Rural Ramble. So be it!
Survival can seem to involve so many different factors but when we dig deeply enough we find them all interconnected and parts of a whole. We tend to think first of ourselves and our own way of life, a selfish and shortsighted viewpoint.
Dominie John Donne warned us several hundred years ago, “No man is an iland … if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse–” The apartment dweller in New York City is that much nearer extinction by every pound of topsoil that washes down the far off Mississippi, the Nile or the Ganges. Figuratively we are several billion souls perched on the head of a pin and if one falls can the rest hang on?
Under such circumstances it behooves us to make an evaluation. One: How do we stand and what needs doing? Two: What has been past experience? And Three: How are some people dealing with it today? Not all OASI comes in the form of a brown envelope containing the monthly check.
Driving to the office the other day I saw a hawk sitting in a field and a few miles down the road in another meadow was a Great Blue Heron. The hawk was some distance away and difficult to identify, but the way he stood as high as he was able and swiveled his head from side to side as he stared intently down the slope marked him as a hunter of rodents. Probably a Marsh Hawk or even the larger Ferruginous.
I doubt if the farmer knew he was there or if he ever thought to give credit to his feathered exterminator. The heron too was after snakes or field mice but it was the hawk which called up a book by Eugene Poirot – “Our Margin of Life.” Much of the book is based on imaginary conversation, part of it between the man and a Sharpshinned Hawk who lives in a giant Elm Tree along Coon Creek on Poirot’s Farm.
Gene Poirot is a farmer. The fact that he is a scientist, a naturalist, an educated student of agronomy and the human condition, both from the anthropologist’s viewpoint and on a personal level – all of these are only parts of a man dedicated to farming. As he indicates, all farmers who successfully remain on the farm have these qualifications to some degree. Most never think of themselves in that light. Along with everything else he is a gifted writer – and he has the spirit of a Rural Rambler.
The book is written that way … of a moonlight stroll around Gene Poirot’s farm. I believe he has about 1800 acres in Southwestern Missouri, of which 800 is still virgin bluestem prairie sod that has never known the plow. That may not seem to fall in the category of small farming but the outlook he has fits the general topic of farming on any level.
Poirot takes us with him while he talks to us all – the hawk, the owl, the other small creatures of the night, and to Lady Moon who lights the way. This is an intensely interesting trip around his farm, across the prairie, past ponds, beside the creek and through the brambles, and it is so well and subtly written that you are halfway through the book before you realize that his picture has a side as dark and potentially deadly as the hawk. He points out the damage we have done and how close we have come to our own extinction with our heedless practices. Fortunately, he also offers solutions.
He talks about the soil, about nature’s way, about insects and microbes, about birds and animals large and small, about plants and their growth patterns and nutritional qualities – about all these things as a seemingly incidental part of that moonlight ramble but always about their relationship to man and his survival.
As he says when he started farming in the 1920’s, “I had no education then, just a university degree.” On the farm he studied nature, not books. He tells of lessons of fertility and natural balance from fish in his farm ponds, of learning from flocks of geese who built up their own food supply by carrying seeds of pondweeds along their flyway; pondweed which threatened to choke out the fish with its rapid growth until the geese returned in record numbers to eat the weeds and restore the balance.
He watched and studied plant growth, watched birds for insect and rodent control. Most of all he studied nutrition by closely observing what his cattle ate instinctively. “One year I sowed some grass seed in my pasture that cost a dollar a pound. In another part of this pasture we had unintentionally scattered some soybean seed. The grass seed grew well and, in addition, there were soybeans and white clover six inches high when the cows were turned in. Along one side of the pasture was a five acre field which had been in cultivation and was abandoned that year because of the uncontrollable crop of weeds it had been producing. It had once been a hog lot and had received generous applications of magnesium, limestone and phosphate fertilizer. There was no grass in this lot, but fourteen varieties of weeds were identified, including cockleburs, jimson, ragweed, pig weed, lamb’s quarter and buffalo burs.
“The cattle made a path through the expensive grass, white clover and young soybeans to eat the weeds down so closely that most of them lost their identity.”
When his studies had shown him that these things were so, he wanted to know why and how he could best make use of the knowledge for healthier crops and hardier animals, and to maintain checks and balances on pests and diseases. He concluded, as he demonstrates admirably, that the best way was to supply Nature with the tools and to trust her for the certain results.
By accepted figures his operation supplies equivalent food for 1100 people. He recognizes that he must keep up both volume and quality to hold his market but also recognizes a moral obligation to produce the most nutritious product that he can. Since he does accept this he makes the valid point that those 1100 people also have an obligation to him and to all farmers. His conversation with those people, with us, may make some of us squirm a bit. Truly a worthwhile book and we’ll come back to it again in summing up.
to be continued
Our Margin of Life, by Eugene M. Poirot, published by Acres U.S.A. (out of print, but easily found with a search)