LittleField Notes: Changing of Seasons
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” – Ecclesiastes
As I scribble these notes a day or two before the summer solstice I can’t help but reflect on the changing of the seasons. Down through the ages if there were one topic of conversation common to all peoples in all places it would be the weather and its close cousin the passage of seasons. How often, as the longest day approaches do we hear folks cry with trepidation, “just a few more days and it’s all down hill, all the way to the shortest day of the year” It is almost as if people are dragged through the year kicking and screaming. “I’m not ready for the dark days of winter!” And in hot climates I imagine people dreading the inevitable heat.
Now I like to talk about the weather and changing seasons as much as anyone. I don’t, however find myself bemoaning the end of summer or dreading the days following the solstice when each succeeding day will be shorter than the last. I must say though, that my comfort level with each season in turn is something I came to only after I started farming and ceased living a cooped up indoor life. I know this seems counter-intuitive, that being out year round in all kinds of weather could make one less desperate for warmth and sunshine and more at peace with whatever Mother Nature offers up. I may be unique in this regard and I really don’t have a good explanation for it. I only know that when I was teaching school I used to suffer terribly from spring fever. I think that being inside causes one to miss out on the minute harbingers of change: the first birdsong in February, the shift of light in mid-August, the first morning of summer when the spring chill has gone for good. Each clue is a window into the future and a light on the present. Staying inside too much reduces the seasons to their blunt, most basic nature and somehow makes us less at ease with their passing.
I find great comfort when autumn comes with its requisite chill. When the days become noticeably shorter I am ready. Ready for that ineffable and almost instinctual urge to stack wood, gather seed, put by, plant rye, don a sweater. Your body knows, the deer know, the trees know, the bear knows. It’s time to prepare for the dark days ahead.
Then winter: short northern days mean cozy evenings by the fire; potatoes, carrots and collard greens bedeck the winter table. Long evenings provide time to slow down, breathe and put some space back into life.
Ah… spring! Once the first tantalizing green spears of new growth poke through the dormant earth in late February I am ready to slough off winter and ease into spring with planting and plowing. I gather steam along with the season’s advance and when summer arrives in all its splendor I too feel invigorated with energy to fill up its long days. And so it goes, our little blue planet, spinning around the sun, creating a lovely panoply of seasonal change, year-to-year, eon-to-eon.
I suppose if you grew up in San Diego or Hawaii or some other southerly clime without such large shifts in temperature and day length as we Northerners experience, you may not feel such visceral connection to seasonal change. I have a strong hunch, however, that though they be less extreme, even tropical lands offer seasonal rhythms and repeated patterns to anyone who will but pay attention.
I pity the poor urban dweller with no more motivation to change his behavior than to change the thickness of his coat as the seasons come and go. The local Whole Foods Market will have fresh goodness the whole year round. No need for planting schedules and harvest windows. The office worker in his tower will work from 9:00 to 5:00 regardless of the day length. His never changing job will carry on with the same sameness as the day before and the one before that. His commute may be inconvenienced by the odd snowstorm, but not to worry, the city snowplows will shortly have the whole thing cleared up.
We are blessed who are active participants in the life of soil and weather, crops and critters, living a life grounded in seasonal change. This talk of human connection to land and season is not just the rambling romantic musing of an agrarian ideologue. It is rather the result of participating in the deeply vital vocation that is farming and knowing its fruits first hand.
Donald Teamed Up
Last issue I told of my adventures training our young stallion Donald. He has continued to demonstrate a willing way and sharp intelligence and has progressed nicely. Alas, twelve-year old Clark, my go-to gelding for many years, has developed ringbone in his front left pastern joint rendering him too stove up for work.
So, compelled by necessity, I ended up having to pair Donald up with Star, the Suffolk mare he had just bred, sooner than anticipated. What excitement (!) the first time you hook a stallion with a mare. I don’t recommend it for beginners. However, there is no reason it can’t be done. There are a few necessary preliminaries and training aids that will help make this endeavor a success.
As I mentioned last issue, I want the stud to be comfortably and confidently going single before I attempt to drive him double. He should understand “whoa”, “back” and some version of “git-up.” He should be able to pull a forecart with a moderate load. He should be able to take the forecart down a hill and comfortably hold the vehicle back. In short he should be well started. While training we want to avoid asking a horse to do more than one new thing at a time. And asking him to work with a level head along side an animal he has just bred is a tall order indeed. You want to have your ducks in a row before you try it.
Use a jockey stick. This is simply a stick about 30” long with a snap on either end. One end clips into the halter ring on the stud and the other clips on the middle hame ring on the mare. This keeps him from turning his head to nip and nicker at her, as a stallion is want to do.
Use a butt rope. This is simply a rope from inside breeching ring to inside breeching ring. This keeps the two horses from spreading apart when ground driving them to and from the vehicle. Getting young trainees straightened out from inside-out is not a fun or safe endeavor. You want to avoid this with any young team and a butt rope will prevent this common mishap.
Be firm. The stallion must learn that when the harness goes on he is to become a gentleman. The nickering and nipping must cease in preparation for work. A valuable command I learned years ago from a venerable old hand was “quit!” – delivered in a firm, almost growely tone. Again, I recommend it with any team for that horse who is trying to rub his bridle off on the neck yoke, or trying to pick a fight with his teammate.
Do some actual work. I’ve said it before and bears it repeating: there is no substitute for sweat on the collar pad. A few rounds of harrowing a fallow field and Donald was not so keen on noodling around. Work quiets a horses mind and gives him something to think about other than fine-tuning the pecking order while in harness. People are not so different. Sweat on the brow and a callused hand make good character.
At this writing it has been about four weeks since I first drove Donald and Star together. They continue to progress nicely. Yesterday I went out with a wagon to do some odd hauling chores. Donald walked quietly and stood patiently, the perfect gentleman.
Missed Opportunity – This June we had an unusually warm and dry spell that prompted many local farmers to cut hay earlier than usual. They had more faith in the weatherman than I. Instead I put my trust in my forebears who never would mow before the Fourth of July. So I held off, just sure that even if it didn’t rain the usual June marine layer would keep off any real heat and delay curing. Several years ago in June when the forecast looked promising I mowed a couple of acres only to have to abandon it in the field as mulch. I simply wore that hay out with my daily trips over it with the tedder. It just wouldn’t cure.
This year was different. Those folks who went ahead and mowed got some really first rate hay made. I feel betrayed in a way. Betrayed by the erratic and extreme weather patterns of late. Is this yet another case of seasonal norms disappearing, of old adages and local lore that no longer hold? Anyway, the Fourth of July is just around the corner and I’m still counting on that good weather coming my way.
A Parable – One beautiful sunny day around the 15th of May I sent my youngest son Brendan out to our little corn/mangel/pumpkin field to plant field corn. For several years I have been planting a variety called Painted Mountain, which does very well, in our cool summers. Most years it will dry down in time to make nice feed for chickens and hogs and corn meal for the kitchen. The variety was bred at high altitude in Montana a decade or so ago and seems to be gaining in popularity in northern sections outside the Corn Belt where for various reasons traditional field corn doesn’t do well.
Around the same time that Brendan planted his corn in the field I planted few rows of sweet corn in the garden. We both used the same tool, a wonderful old hand held corn planter with two handles. A hopper is attached to one handle. When the handles are separated a coupe of seeds are released. The tool is then plunged into the soil whereupon the handles are brought together and the seed is deposited in the soil; take a step and repeat on down the row. Two acres a day could easily be sowed this way.
After a couple of weeks the corn that Brendan planted came up beautifully, with no skips and no thinning necessary. Meanwhile my sweet corn effort produced only two plants. Baffled and trying to figure out where I may have gone wrong, I asked Brendan about his technique. He simply said, “Dad, I prayed the whole time.” I’m sure my mind was wandering hither and thither during my planting effort, no doubt occupied with some worry du jour. Meanwhile over in the field, St. Isadore, the patron saint of farmers, must have been smiling as young Brendan poured his holy intentions into his sowing on that glorious spring day.