by Lynn R. Miller of Singing Horse Ranch
photos by Kristi Gilman-Miller
The formerly orphan, permanently crippled, seven year old asked, “Uncle Nimbo, why is farming magical?” And the big smiling shepherd answered, “Why is not the question, Ray-Ray. The question should be ‘who is the farming magical?’ And the answer sometimes – slow snow.” – from the novel in process, Roots in a Lovely Filth, by Lynn R. Miller
Nature in its circling, swirling, slow etching, quick silver, thawing arguing angry love, shows us clear paths to a forever future. Shows us that farming can and should be a ride.
Snow pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere and, in perfect conditions, may do dramatic and important double duty for soils and roots. When soils freeze deep and long it may lead to damage of some root systems, setting plant growth back. Snow blankets soils and may lessen freezing. As snow melts, if the soil is receptive, nitrogen infused water will go down to supercharge roots and immediately replenish subsurface water tables.
This last February we had a warming trend that saw a general thaw and were then surprised by three to five feet of snow fall. The subsequent weather conditions permitted that snow on our ranch to melt slowly, over four weeks, with very little runoff, the waters being soaked up by the thirsty warm top soils. A slow snow. And the results have been most dramatic for crop and range land. Its a long-offer joy when a lifetime of farming affords an old farmer to fully see and feel such glories.
It is midsummer as I write this, first cutting hay is in the barns and we are anxious to know if the elk will permit us a second. So far we have been teased by a handful of elk coming every few days to destroy stretches of fence and steal feed. Over the last many years we have seen that handful rapidly increase to 75, 125, 200, 300 and more. Observing our weather and how human encroachment has affected centuries old migratory patterns we guess that our long drought, limiting water and native green feeds, along with the drones and planes of anxious tech-armed hunters gathering small herds together into one large big bunch and attempting to push them towards specific private hunting grounds, have both sent the big herd our way for safety, water and grazing. But I am guessing we have been granted a reprieve of sorts by the slow snow which filled water holes and grew grasses everywhere in the surrounding forests. This summer it seems the elk are sneaking in to our fields like a weekend trip to the coast rather than a desperate migration.
Last year our ponds dried up for the first time in three plus decades. Any captured water we had was from our irrigation well. After this March’s snow melt, even into this warm summer, our ground, ponds and shallow wells still hold water.
We have three main ponds on our ranch. From west to east, the first is a catch lagoon for our irrigation system and does double duty as water source for wildlife and livestock. It’s not particularly attractive or inviting, just a working water hole. The second one is spring fed and nestles up against our old house. It is surrounded by cottonwoods, aspen, poplars, lilacs, junipers and our small orchard. This one is ‘infested’ with luxuriant cattail clusters. All livestock are fenced out, and it offers cover and feed for a wild assortment of birds and varmints. I need to do some mechanical restoration work to remove the accumulated silt and most of the cattails but I want to be very careful not to destroy the beautiful safe haven it provides to wildlife, and us. The third water spot I call ‘desolation pond’ because there are no shrubs, water grasses or trees around it. It appears to be hastily and opprobriously carved from dust and rock, sitting as it does down within a natural depression in an eighty acre dry rangeland pasture of native grasses, sage, bitter brush and scrub juniper. On its water’s western edge, in the shallows, stands, precariously, a large dead snag of Juniper that is a favorite roosting spot for crow, buzzard and eagle. There are times when it looks like some African or Nevadan desert watering spot where you might expect to find carcasses, old boots and a small skull and crossbones danger sign. This pond is also not very attractive, but it is inviting in a dark-story sort of way. I imagine elk saying to one another, ‘I know where we can get a drink but its dangerous and we have to be watchful, race in, drink and get out of there quickly, or one of us will surely go down.’
Sidebar: To illustrate this point, yesterday I noticed a bald eagle circling over the afore-mentioned juniper snag in which four crows and seven buzzards perched. Stretching my eyes along their sightlines I saw two coyotes dragging the limp carcass of a yearling mule deer. They were trying to get it from that flat open expanse of shoreline off and into the bitterbrush fifty feet away. The birds were waiting their turn. Some might see a cruel view of death and destruction in this. I see evidence of nature’s continuing pattern of balance.
These three water holes are bordered, all around by high desert rangelands crisscrossed by pine and juniper forest. And they punctuate our 135 acres of irrigated or irrigable farmlands with grasses, grains and legumes. As is our penchant and prerogative we do not treat this square chunk of our land, these cropland acres, as rectangular fields delineated by fence lines, but rather as an area of many smaller pieces defined by soil character (some pieces of it are like purest beach sand), rock outcroppings (lots of them), hollows that hold moisture and long low drainage troughs that switch from gravel to perfect deep silty soils. As I have mentioned before, we choose to approach farming these fields in separate long parallel seven acre lands, mixing plantations and procedures which allows me to ‘see’ how each ‘way of working’ and each cropping combination perform in comparison. Our secret to this way of working’ is to keep a notebook just for recording tillage, plantings, seed combinations, rotations, harvest, etc. Otherwise I mis-remember what I did and what the results were. That hardbound green notebook with those dates, names and numbers is of critical importance. These days I am referencing it more than most.
I am so deep in patterns and urgencies with my farming, and sheltered by an excusable old age, that the usual caution and care has left the arena. I bundle up my thoughts in oily rags and slingshot them, eyes closed, towards the confines of an essay like this one, perhaps someday useful as editorial. If there is any rewrite it comes from those embarrassing accidental revisits to the writing when I ask myself ‘what on earth is this?’. Balancing the multiple personalities, some would say responsibilities, of farming, painting, writing, editing, and more, less and less often I will go back to my writings (and paintings) and ask ‘does this deserve to see the light of day?’ And the guiding filter for that question is ‘what might be the consequence of these thoughts released?’
Consequence and the consequential have been on my mind a great deal lately, mostly as regards farming, but certainly also as regards our societal mishmash and slamdumbery.
The thoughts triggered by the summer consequences of that slow snow has me looking for clear evidence. Did the snow cause this dramatic increase in grass growth beneath trees, in overall fertility? Is this land, this region, this wildife migration zone, showing signs of comfort and appreciation for the weather and water turnaround brought by the deep snows? I see the strength of our pastures, the health and gain of our livestock, and the increase in the bird populations. Quail, dove, bluebirds, finches, hummingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, meadowlarks, swallows, kestral hawks, crow, eagles, hawks, even buzzards all in great good health. I watch them fly and light on tree tops and my eyes, gradually lowered down the tree, are greeted in the perfect light with another form of evidence – the post tree encircled many years ago by fence wire showing how it has kept its strength in the strangle hold. This tree has seen the dry winters and the deep snows and with its bound growth written its own seasonal history in the patterns of bulges against the wire. Evidence everywhere, but you only see it if you are looking for it. And, as farmers, we look for it because it gives us clues for our management choices and preparations. The slow snow helps me to see underneath because my eyes are drawn to the obvious changes.
Underneath: the tiniest of lifeforms, in their natural state, contain within them glorious complexities and mystery. While the larger circumstances, including humankind’s uglier footprints – a storm’s consequence – cosmic confluence, all tend to blanket outcome with the result that we may come away knowing less than nothing. As the second layers of the old adage attest, the trees may block a view of the forest but certainly less so than the garbage ‘neath the leaf mold. Drilling down we find this heavenly planet challenged and we must not be forgiven.
For centuries humankind has been like a slow snow over the planet. In some places we have actually protected or even improved the balance (usually with an official and deliberate hands-off plan) but most often the consequence of the slow melting deep pile of humans has been destructive.
Why? Don’t we have choices? Aren’t we uniquely equipped to steward, care for and protect our ‘nest?’ Thankfully we are all different and many do. It is in the aggregation and aggravations that we destroy. I say we need to drill down to the individuals.
It’s just you and me. Nobody else. So I offer a few of my confessions. But please know this. If it gets out to anyone, and they ask me if it’s true, I will deny it all. That’s the deal, you don’t need to agree or disagree, it’s all on me.
Here’s those slippery, perhaps illusive, and certainly inconsequential confessions:
First – I sing harmony with myself, unaided. When I go to the field for a long process, say plowing many acres, or mowing a big hayfield, I take with me, in my head, the words and melody of a couple of songs. When the repetitions of farming process set in, back and forth across the field, I start to sing, out loud and loud. As I sing I imagine I am singing the harmony parts, I imagine it so solid and real that I actually begin to hear it. Over here I am singing the melody, over there I am imagining the harmony, and deep inside I hear the perfect blending. I become an old rowboat fisherman howling at dusk’s wine dark sea, or an Irish poet drunk enough to think he’s alone. I never ever do this when anyone is around. Never. People who know me will cringe at the thought of those sour howls, and thank me for keeping it to myself. Seems old guys aren’t supposed to sing. Same can be said of old farmers, male or female. But then old age is the province of surprise release. And deeply held farming is the perfect absorbent.
Second confession: I love farming, love it with a passion. I saw you looking away. That’s ok. We can talk about something else now.
Third confession: It positively thrills me to learn new things. Significantly, perhaps, I prefer to learn obscure things, facts, aspects, principles, and principals. And then to find how this new found knowledge is actually and fundamentally useful to me. For example: I’ve discovered that I’m a dope and you’re a dope. We’re all of us dopes. But we farmers are far less dopey, or at least our dopiness is often useful. I can feel the full throttle of that realization because as a senior of pirate/farmer persuasion, one who has lived far far past any reasonable expectation, I can say it without fear of reprisal. So how does discovering my dopiness serve me? It makes my presumptions soluble. They melt or fall away easily. Here’s an example: I recently read of some amazing new discoveries and early conclusions in the area of naturally occurring electricity and electrical conductivity which seem to point towards deeper secrets in the natural world, healing secrets.
There is a microbe, Geobacter metallireducens, Geobacter for short. It is an electroactive bacteria found under water and in the ground. It’s a very complicated business and I do damage oversimplifying but here goes: Geobacter feed on carbon compounds and create energy. They transfer that energy or those electrons to iron oxide or rust which is then converted to magnetite. Geobacter then sprout hair-like growth or Pilus which conducts that electricity. In other words, we have a natural power grid pretty much everywhere in the biological world. Today scientists are working to try to understand how this may account for many heretofore mysterious occurrences in the natural world and, heaven help us, how we might commercially harness this natural power grid. These discoveries have the potential of dramatically changing things in our world and for our world. At the very least, if we are open to it, they may change how we view and treat our world. The dopey farmers in our midst may be best equipped with such information to let their presumptions fall away and embrace the notion that the health, vigor, fertility, and interconnectedness of life have at their base and core a web, a web of life and electricity. Hmmm.
So I am seeing in the compost pile, and out in the hayfield, in my cow’s rumen, deep beneath the ground in the rock strata, at the bottom of our ponds, tickling the roots of trees, and beneath the deepest snow cover, these microscopic webs of pilus, of hairlike fiber, through which runs naturally occurring electricity, all reacting to the rust made from carbon compounds. How does this affect plant growth? How might this mitigate atmospheric imbalances? What does this say about the the planet’s capacity to create new forms of life? To heal itself? Wild stuff.
Sidebar: If you would like to read more about the electric planet, I suggest Gordon Studier’s excellent article, “Wired Bacteria Form Nature’s Power Grid,” published in a summer 2019 issue of the New York Times. Its a great starting point. To quote from his article,
“…cable bacteria grow to astonishing densities. One square inch of sediment may contain as much as eight miles of cables. … Their wires look like spider silk reflecting the sun. … Electroactive microbes are so abundant, in fact, that researchers now suspect that they have a profound impact on the planet. The bioelectric currents may convert minerals from one form to another, for instance, fostering the growth of a diversity of other species. Some researchers have speculated that electroactive microbes may help regulate the chemistry of both the oceans and the atmosphere.”
Has me loving farming even more, because with it I can play around in my imaginings with this wild wild world. Is there a large clue in there someplace?
One of us goes about the work of farming, dead to the connections, plainly and simply applied to the tedium of the task. Another of us goes about it raw and open to each and every suggestion that presents itself. Today’s feeding of hay, lovely, fragrant and green as it is, was met by the stallions with disinterest. While yesterday’s less than attractive hay they devoured with relish. Why? Let me smell this one and that one. Let me remember its making, let me trace it back to that portion of the field which gave it up. Did tiny frogs wash their feet in the drying windrows? Or was it affected in the stack? Did the dog lift his leg on this corner of feed? Did some petroleum spill there? Too much thinking. Ready and easy observations are the joy, not insistence. Can’t know everything, but must stay aware and open to it all. Afterall, for many years you’ve noticed that magnificent stretches of legume/grass pastures were bypassed by the livestock who unexplainably preferred corners and patches which appeared less appealing.
“You must remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing. There are wars and defeats and victories of the human race that are not military and that are not recorded in the annals of history. Remember that while you’re trying to decide what to do.” – John Williams, Stoner
The human species is racing towards obsolescence. The last domain, the one we’re in, the one where you cash in on ideas only peripherally your own, is saturated by trespassing, thieving, arrogant snobs without portfolio, snobs who’ve not a jot of actual on the job experience. But, alas, they hold the cards and are naming the game. And the game is ironically known, if not named, as ‘brave new world.’ Hanging in the air, garbed by various and differing social and economic theories, is this zombie notion-as-goal that humanity will “arrive” when we don’t have to work, when we do not have to worry about where our meals come from, where we are guaranteed the best health care at no expense, where homelessness is cured, where narcotics are all over-the-counter and legal, and where procreation is an arcane curiosity.
What of art?
Farming teaches us the long game, and the slow gain. Weather sometimes offers our playing field unpredictable game time with fragile deference to the zoological. Nature owns weather and won’t be hustled, but she has been abused. Not good ’cause nature has the memory of an elephant, or better yet, a mule. Nature will get even, and often in those actions nature turns to weather as weapon. Farmers never want nature getting even with them, the best of our farmers have learned to stay on nature’s side. Our laboratory agriculturalists and store-bought scientists, however, continue to push nature aside (think levees, genetically modified organisms, herbicides). And, backing way up we know that even the best of farmers are damaged when nature roars in angry force as wind, rain, snow, ice, flooding and earthquakes toss and batter all boats. It is within such times that we learn the value and structures of resilience. Our best farmers are defined by resilience as much as anything else.
Weather’s changing. Indisputable. With those changes come losses; loss of glaciers, loss of low lying islands and coastal beaches, loss of storm buffers, loss to massive flooding of top soil, loss from contaminants in flood waters to estuarial life, loss of wildlife habitat, loss of species, loss of the seasonal balances that have held wildfires in check, loss of planting time, loss of crops, loss of life.
Yet, I am here to say there is great good evidence that, even at this late date, nature is willing to make us a deal. If we agree to play by her rules we might still, as good natural farmers and humble servants, enjoy centuries more of heaven on earth.
“Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time.” – David Foster Wallace
Evidence? Slow snow. We had a warming spell this last February which was followed, late in the month, by a deep and even frightening snow. The ground beneath was not frozen. The ensuing temperatures flirted with the snow and gave us a long slow melt, allowing all of that moisture to seep down into thirsty soils rather than run off. Following that snow came a couple weeks of soaking rain. We went from drought to high ground water in three weeks. Rapid correction to the long slow harm of years of drought. And a clear indication that nature’s balancing acts are sometimes every bit as corrective as they may be destructive.
In that deep slow snow and down beneath the frog sprouting water-fed grasslands there’s an answer in there someplace. We just need to read it. – LRM
“Who are you? A simple son of the soil, as you pretend to yourself? Oh, no. You, too, are among the infirm—you are the dreamer, the madman in a madder world, our own midwestern Don Quixote without his Sancho, gamboling under the blue sky… But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find. Well, in the world you’ d learn soon enough. You, too, are cut out for failure; not that you’ d fight the world. You’ d let it chew you up and spit you out, and you’ d lie there wondering what was wrong. Because you’ d always expect the world to be something it had no wish to be. The weevil in the cotton, the worm in the beanstalk, the borer in the corn. You couldn’t face them, and you couldn’t fight them; because you’re too weak, and you’re too strong. And you have no place to go in the world.” – John Williams, Stoner