LittleField Notes: Seed Irony
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Seeds are little miracles of potential, waiting as if in cryogenic suspension until the moment when the collected influences of water, soil temperature and light are aligned just so; then begins the journey from seed, to leaf, to flower, to fruit and back to seed again.
They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there (or someplace where the compost was spread) the next summer? It never ceases to amaze me that a tomato can fall off the vine in August, lay pulverized and rotting on the ground, be exposed to three season’s worth of rains and frosts and perhaps even (like this year) an early hot spell — and still germinate. Come spring, baby plants from last years crops will be seen growing hither and thither all by themselves, without the slightest help or encouragement from me. Just this week I’ve noted the sprouts of mangels, cilantro, dill and tomatoes, all from last year’s flowering plants, seeds of which I neither harvested, threshed, winnowed, stored nor planted. And yet there they are, carving out a nice home for themselves in a quiet corner of the garden, the wrong corner of course, since I try to practice decent crop rotations by not planting the same thing in the same plot year after year. And though it pains me, these little volunteer progeny must be hoed out, for at this point they are little better than ordinary weeds.
Why then, when left to their own devices are seeds so hardy, yet become so fragile under our care? I know that if I accidentally left a seed packet out in a bucket for even a couple of hours and a surprise rain shower sprinkled them I’d be lucky to get 15% germination. I would cuss myself for my carelessness and maybe have to replant, or risk suffering a poor, thin crop. There are two sets of rules at play here: one for us, and one for Nature. Our rules are strict and narrowly defined, while Nature’s are broad and flexible. Mother Nature does her work remarkably well. Our best efforts are but feeble attempts at imitation that at times seem more like mockery.
Time was a farmer wouldn’t have been seen without a practical hat on his head, “a good lid,” as my Dad likes to say. In the summer it would likely have been a wide brimmed straw hat providing shade from the hot summer sun. When dipped in the water trough before going back to the field it functioned like a human radiator, cooling through evaporation. In the winter he would don a good wool cap, perhaps with earflaps that could be folded up when his labors produced an internal warmth exceeding that of the chill in the air. For in-between seasons, on cooler summer days, and certainly for going to town, a good felt hat would answer, always a good bet for both sun and rain and general purpose wear. Or perhaps in certain conditions, especially cool, but not cold weather, the classic Irish wool flat cap or fisherman’s cap would answer. I find this to be a particularly appropriate type of hat for our cloudy cool maritime climate (not unlike Ireland) on days when there is neither steady rain nor blazing sun.
Before automobiles, garages and office jobs were invented, people used to work out in the elements more than they do nowadays. Perhaps that is why everyone, men especially, used to wear hats when outdoors. It is said of my wife’s grand-father that he would not step out onto the porch to get the paper without first putting on his hat.
It is true that most farmers still wear hats, but the modern hat of choice defies all logic. The ubiquitous mesh ball cap with the John Deere logo, or the logo of the local feed mill has become standard issue. It’s as if you took all the design elements and materials that are most functional, did away with them, and instead chose an impractical design utilizing impractical materials. To do away with straw, felt and wool and replace it with plastic and polyester, or even cheap cotton and eliminate three quarters of the brim just doesn’t make sense. I know because I myself have stood in a ball cap while the rain dribbled miserably down my neck. I’ve also nursed sunburned ears and neck because I lacked proper headwear. I’ve laughed heartily (inwardly, mind you) at some dude standing there shading his eyes from intense summer sun with his cap on backwards, the brim 180 degrees from useful. But never mind — he was COOL! I guess nowadays it’s Non-function follows form, or form at all costs.
I suppose enclosed, air-conditioned cabs on large tractors, and the elimination of diversity and livestock from most farms has only hastened the shift away from brimmed hats. If this seems like too big a leap in logic, just compare the differing labor requirements of the small, diversified farm with those of the large mono- culture farm and you can easily see the connection. Fixing fence, hoeing corn, checking cows, and picking kale and cucumbers in all weather and in all seasons requires direct contact with the elements, dictating the need for a proper hat. Commodity crop farming, on the other hand, has become largely an indoor activity, making what you put on your head much less important. In fact, a skullcap would be perfectly adequate headgear for sitting for days on end in a sealed, air- conditioned tractor cab planting 5,000 acres of soybeans. Now imagine taking the cream cans five miles to town in the buckboard through a steady rain with a mesh feed store hat on your head. You’d only do that once!
Most of the hats I dislike have advertising on the front. Along with the selling of bottled water while perfectly good, perfectly free water flows endlessly out of the tap, one of the greatest advertising coupes the world has ever seen is that of businesses getting people to pay good money to walk about with a tiny billboard on their forehead. It would be like CBS paying Budweiser to run its Clydesdale beer commercials during the Super Bowl instead of the other way around. If I decide to parade somebody’s logo around town for all to see, I expect to be paid by the company for services rendered.
It’s true that ball caps are inexpensive and in some cases free; can’t complain about that. And actually there are some nice wool and waxed cotton ones available now that are actually quite nice. I like the caps from Ebbets Field Flannels, which makes high quality, wool flannel reproductions of hats worn by long gone minor league baseball teams. I’m also partial to the logoless, American-made caps being sold in wool and waxed cotton from FairEnds, of Missoula, Montana.
I realize that times and styles have changed — the fedora is out, and the feed store cap is in. And I’m sure I have just offended half of my ball-cap-wearing readers, many of whom are my friends and relatives. Please forgive me and chalk it up to the ravings of a Luddite loony trapped in a century he doesn’t claim as his own.
Keeping livestock always presents interesting challenges and surprises. We have a red-tailed hawk that has developed a taste for chicken and has on more than one occasion swooped right down into the barnyard to grab an unwary bird. The hawks seem for the most part to have moved on, it being nesting season, and I, feeling bad for the cooped up chickens, have begun letting them out in the afternoon to scratch around in the barnyard for bugs and grubs and to nibble on fresh grass. Yesterday morning I counted the chickens and came up one short. I have five Buff Orpington pullets just beginning to lay and they are easy to count against the backdrop of black and white Barred Rocks which make up the rest of the flock. I only counted four. I looked carefully around the pen; I looked in the coop, the nesting boxes; nothing. Nowhere did I see the fifth buff colored hen. I figured the hawk had struck again and I’d better keep them locked in. In late afternoon after unharnessing the team and turning the horses out to pasture, I glanced in the chicken yard and wouldn’t you know it — there were all five birds scratching and pecking happily. Where she had been hiding in the morning I’ll never know, but there she was, as pretty as you please. I’m a big pushover for the longing, sideways glass-eyed stare of a chicken in want, so I’ll probably take my chances and let them out for an afternoon dust bath.
This morning after milking I was walking Lilac and her calf back to the Waterfall pasture where I also have been grazing Donald. The stud horse and cows don’t trouble each other in the least; each pretending the other doesn’t exist. It can be a little tricky getting Donald out and keeping the cows in, or vice versa, but it is an ample 10-acre field and it generally hasn’t proved too difficult. This morning when I came to the field with the cow and calf, Donald was nowhere in sight. “Perfect,” I thought, “he must be hiding out in the trees on the other side of the field.” I opened the gate and had just turned my back to tend to the cows, when up he came at a full gallop. It was too late to reach the gate and shut it before he arrived so I had to quickly think up a Plan B. His halter was hanging on the gatepost, but once he came tearing through the gate and up to me we would be 30 feet from it — no time for that. Acting quickly, I undid my suspenders and slipped them off. He came right up to me and stopped (he’s that kind of horse) and I quietly reached up and slipped the suspenders around his neck, and sweet talking him the whole way, led him back to the gate where I quickly slipped on his halter, tied him up nearby, put the cows in the pasture and proceeded with Donald to his stall in the barn.
It’s not the first time I’ve used belt or suspenders to catch an errant horse. The only improvement to this plan, I suppose, would be to wear suspenders and a belt, so that ones britches would not be compromised while tending to a Situation. But perhaps that would be taking it a little too far, at least that’s what my wife tells me.
Shock and Awe
It has been said that in the event of a cataclysmic failure of Earth’s life giving systems, one species that will likely prosper after the dust settles are rats. But even in a post apocalyptic world, rats will have to feed on something, and I feel pretty certain that that something will be bindweed. I don’t know if the end is near or not, but I’ve certainly dealt with both rats and bindweed this year and I can attest to the extreme hardiness of both.
The rats first came to my attention when my fuel pump quit working on the pickup. It seemed a little strange that a fuel pump on a Toyota with only 60,000 miles would just quit. As it turned out, rats had chewed through the wiring. This was not the first rodent related vehicle wiring issue for me in the last year or two. About the same time that my truck was sabotaged, we started noticing the little buggers crawling around the rafters of the garage when we pulled in at night. They did not even bother to scamper for cover, but brazenly stayed out in the open, watching us as if they owned the place. Over the course of the next two weeks or so I trapped no less than a dozen rats of at least two different species in the garage alone. For whatever reason, and no one seems to know for sure, the rats have been very thick this year, and not just here on the farm, but in other locations as well.
I like to bait rattraps with cat food. I just sprinkle it on and near the trap. They like to take it back to their nest where they can store it for later. Alarmingly, sometimes they snatch it all up without tripping the trap. But cat food makes such easy pickings that they can’t resist, and will keep coming back for more. Eventually they misstep and it’s all over for them.
My bindweed (Concolvolus arvensis) troubles started three or so years ago when I noticed a single plant vining its way up a new blueberry bush in the far south corner of the garden. For a person who does not wish to spray poison on his food-bearing garden, bindweed is a real challenge. It has a long tendril-like root system that burrows its way laterally underground sending up vertical shoots along the way that quickly bear leaves and happily twine around any plant it encounters. Digging it up only encourages it, and any little bit of root left in the ground has the potential to grow a new plant.
Some call it morning glory but I refuse. There is nothing about it that calls to mind morning and certainly nothing glorious about it — perhaps inglorious morning would be more appropriate.
Once I spotted the first plant, its expansion was swift and sure. I played catch up the whole season, never taking the threat as seriously as I should have. By the next year I could see I was in real trouble. I even tried taking the whole corner of the garden out of production and covered it with three layers of black weed barrier to hopefully starve it of light and kill it off. This did set it back some, but through every seam and every tear, a wedge of green would inevitably appear, like a rat peering out from behind a rafter. In the end, the weed barrier proved futile, and this year I have replanted that corner of the garden back in vegetables, reasoning that it will force my hand, making me face my foe head on, daring it to come after my crops. This spring, after setting out tomato plants in that corner of the garden in one of my portable green houses, I squinted my eyes and leaned down toward a bindweed vine at the base of a blueberry bush and in my best gravely gunfighter voice said, “You yellow-bellied, green-leafed, water- guzzling, nutrient-sapping son-of-a-weed — there ain’t enough room in this garden for the two of us!”
So began the campaign of shock and awe against my enemy, though maybe shock and hoe would be more a more appropriate title. Every third day, and more often if I get the time, I grab the stirrup hoe and head for the garden to dispatch any new shoots poking through the brown earth. When haying season is in full swing I may have to steal little moments out of the day or run out for a few minutes in the evening- whatever it takes. I have to stay at least slightly ahead of the curve this time, instead of hopelessly behind. I am hoping that if I can starve the beast by not allowing it to adequately photosynthesize, eventually it will perish. I continue to be amazed at its ability to regenerate after only 48 hours. I’ll arrive with hoe in hand, after what seems an astonishingly short time and find a brand-new crop of bindweed plants to dispatch.
It will be a long war of attrition and one of us must fall in the end. And neither of us is taking prisoners. The bindweed has waged its own campaign of shock and awe against me for three years. Now I’m fighting back. I am concerned however, that my retaliation will be more a policy of shock and- awe shucks!
I told myself I wasn’t going to make a note about the weather for this issue because I am wary of sounding the same tired refrains over and over. Weather should be boring, something for old men down at the coffee shop to complain about. But now it seems like everyone is talking about it all the time. Just when you think the weather can’t get weirder and wilder, it does. Right on the heels of the wettest winter on record in our area we have just experienced the warmest ever April, with temperatures in the high 80s, and even 90 unofficially in some places in Western Washington, a part of the country that often won’t see the temperature rise above 65° until July. Here we were, sweltering in early April. Timeless (to humans, anyway) earthly systems of normality have run amok. And I’m afraid this is just the beginning. It doesn’t take a climatologist to see that. Ninety in Seattle while it snows in Texas in the month of April?! And still we have arrogant politicians with their starched suits and faces to match telling us it’s all nonsense, and even if the climate has gone haywire, they say, it is certainly not caused by our addiction to cheap oil, dirty coal, easy money, excessive living, ecological indifference and industrial ingress. Follow the money and you will find a short yellow brick road to perdition that leads from the oil-patch purse to the re-election purse, from halls of industry through a special revolving door to the halls of government. Yet the vast majority of scientists concerned about such things tell us the math is actually quite simple: carbon in – carbon out. We are a species addicted to speed, to greed, to expansion, to profit at all costs, to military might, to excessive comfort, to waste, to sloth, and increasingly, it seems to ignorance, all fueled by internal fires of carbon that took millions of years to lay down and less than 150 to burn up. We are making our bed and we will surely have to lie in it. The only ones who should be sleeping easy are the rats and the bindweed.