by Leah Hoenen
The sun traces its lazy arc across the sky, calling the morning mist that rises over the brook up into the clouds. The grass warms quickly, flowers open their faces and smile up into the golden light. In an aged patch of oregano, heavy clusters of purple flowers are open, spilling their soft woodsy scent. This is our first garden; once home to greens, roots, and corn; it now houses berries. Alongside them is a collection of herbs, grown for pollinators and allowed to run wild. There is bee balm, oregano, chives, hyssop, chamomile. In a few weeks the butterflies will be here, but today, the air vibrates with a hum pulsating from the wings of many hundreds of bees.
Each morning in mid-summer the bees flock here—honeybees, bumblebees, wild bees, green and blue bees. A few years ago, I would have tried to photograph each one and then run to our bee books to be sure I knew the name of each species. Today, I sit. Watch the flower heads nod under the weight of large bees landing to sample the nectar, collect the pollen. Mostly, though, I listen. The undersong is rich: near the branch, red-winged blackbirds trill, chickadees and finches and cardinals and titmice sing in the trees, bobolinks burble over the buttercups in the pasture. Dogs bark, children laugh, but the sound of the bees is foremost today. Forgetting the book and banishing the urge to know every insect I see, I close my eyes and listen to this diverse community of hive bees, lone bees, bees of all different shape and size converging on this one patch of lovely flowers, humming harmony and working hard to keep the wild world alive.
This is not the farm we had in mind. After six years at a smaller homestead, we moved four years ago to a much bigger property and brought with us our much bigger plans. But when we earnestly reexamined those plans, we abandoned them.
A complete reconfiguration of hopes, dreams, and goals has become the best decision our family has made. Once the question was, “What can I produce here?” But now it is, “What can I do for this place? What does it need from me?”
We moved two toddlers, an aging horse, and 40 sheep to a new farm, while building a new home and barn. It felt every bit as insane as it sounds.
The sheep produced wool for fleeces and yarn, milk, meat, and sheepskins, which we sold to help support the flock and our family. We knew they would revive the overgrown pastures as well: Our new home is situated on another family’s former family farm that had lain fallow for several years.
Upon arrival, the sheep began to work their magic, tramping down overgrown plants and awakening plants hibernating in the soil seed bank. Stemmy, stalky, brown fields began to blush green from the ground up. By the second year, a gorgeous golden haze of buttercups floated over the lush green tips of timothy and young clover before yielding to a carpet of daisies. It was beautiful, and truly awe-inspiring to watch the transformation happen.
But we began to feel we were asking too much, both of the farm and of ourselves. In the spring and early summer, the fields were lush and green, but soon they’d fade to crispy brown, and we felt pretty crispy ourselves by the time each autumn rolled around. Uninspired and unfulfilled, we felt empty.
So, we dug into what was causing our fatigue and malaise. Our move was going according to plan, though we suffered hiccups in building and worried about dry summers and drought. We had good markets for the lamb, wool, yarn, and sheepskins we sold. But things felt wrong, and we questioned what we were doing and why. We had been asking the wrong questions, working the wrong way. It wasn’t a matter of only fertilizing, grazing, and mowing, and meticulously caring for our animals; we were missing the biggest point. We should not ask what we could take, but what we could give. We hadn’t seen the farm, the flock, and our family as a unit of beings, we hadn’t looked at it as a unit with spirit, and spiritual needs.
Instead of expanding as planned we contracted dramatically, reducing the number of animals by more than three quarters. In the garden, I planted less than half what I had originally planned. We paid more attention—I wanted to learn who else shared our home and what they needed from us.
In the spring and summer, we watch the birds and observe where they make their nests, which parts of the pastures the ground-nesting birds use, and where they tend to feed. We learned which plants—wild and garden plants—the bees prefer, which the butterflies like best. In the winter, we snowshoe as often as we can, finding the coyotes’ favorite routes, where the raptors hunt, where the snowshoe hare lives. When we know who is here and what they’re doing we can be more considerate and measured with where to mow, to graze, to spread manure. By using biodynamic preparations on the garden and some of the pastures—and learning how and when to best apply them—we have learned so much more about the earth itself, how plant life functions and what it needs, and how we can support our little ecosystem comprehensively. This, along with the other changes we have made, has brought love and care into our plans and our actions.
After a midday nap, the sheep rise and slowly stretch, arching their backs before shaking the chaff from their wool. Each looks at the others before they walk together down their well-worn path into the clover and timothy to graze. Songbirds sing softly after their mid-day quiet and a few bobolinks flutter into the pasture, hovering over the grass before disappearing down into it. The grass is high here where the sheep browse, untidy. We won’t mow it for another month at least, much to the neighbor’s consternation. In the evening the grasshoppers serenade us into the gloaming, where we sit and watch for the fireflies to dance. The bees have not stopped buzzing and will work, dashing in and out of the garden on their airborne highways, until the dusk.
It seems each year we have seen and heard more life living alongside us, both in volume and diversity. Is it because of the changes we’ve made, or the greater attention we pay? This year we will begin to plant hedgerows to provide more living space for birds and small animals. There will be more berries and herbs planted in the garden, but we will add little else. We are learning what we need for ourselves and realizing that it is so much less than we thought it would be.
The world is more hostile to animals each day, from the dramatic upheaval in our climate to habitat loss and the barbaric killing contests aimed at eliminating predators. To the empathetic, it can be overwhelming to read the news about our age of extinction and about the unendingly irresponsible behavior of people toward the natural world. We have so little control over the big issues that challenge our climate and the wild world, it seems there is little we can do to help.
But we can do simple things in the spaces we steward. None of what we are doing here is ground breaking, inventive, or original. We do what seems right, what feels right. We do not have the answers, but we are doing our best to do what we can where we can. We continue to see the ways in which we live by excess, and how happily we can live a life more simplified. It is good for us and good for the world. And by opening our hearts and our space with love and respect, we hope that we can offer a welcoming oasis in a busy, warming world.
photo credit: Ian Taylor, Unsplash