Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Laying Low

My friend Sue, who runs a fairly large (by local standards) organic vegetable farm in south central British Columbia wrote this profound statement:

"Life is not really on the farm, it is the farm - the sweat from my body and energy from my hands giving life to the babes in the fields that turn into the veggies sold at market. Any moment away and the cycle is broken allowing the weeds to take over and control the world. "

The farm--that separate entity that includes all its component beings in the way my body includes various cells and microorganisms--has been HOT this week: mid-90's in the afternoons. Thankfully, the nights have been pleasantly cool (upper 60's-low 70's), so it isn't yet our typical relentless heat of August.

This is the beginning of the season I "lay low" (my personal term for it; another friend refers to "lurking") for the better part of a month and a half. Not just in the heat of the day. Even in the cooler morning and evening hours, I'm less inclined to active work than when the highs are, say, in the mid-80's.

Reflecting on this while driving an air-conditioned bus, I realized that "laying low" is bigger than a mere personal response to comfort conditions--hence my difficulty with motivation to work even in the delicious, dew-dazzled mornings. It's instinctive compassion and accommodation for the burden that the farm's beings are enduring now. We're all in this together, me and all the life of the farm. Its life is mine, and we're hot.

The sheep are hot; they lurk in the shade through the hours with overhead sun. They don't feel like eating much...both because they don't want to be out in the sunny pasture, and the digestion of food generates internal heat. I don't feel like eating much, either. I avoid even going outside and doingthings near where the sheep are, knowing that seeing me at certain activities can rouse them to stand up and come see if, perhaps, I'm pulling any really especially delicious weeds to throw over the fence to them, or opening the gate to a fresh paddock. Their heat-reduced grazing ocurs at the same time that the parasitic stomach worms, haemonchus, are most prolific, so that the sheep struggle to keep their weight, and they are often challenged with anemia from the bloodthirsty worms. Dark colored sheep are generally affected more severely, because they heat up faster in the morning sun and retire to their favorite lurking spot before their paler companions.

I've noticed that I haven't written about them much lately. Thinking about that, I realized that as I become more aware of our interspecies non-verbal communication*, I'm more attuned to them knowing what I am thinking. Thus, it seems like writing about them would rouse them from their lurking unnecessarily. This time of year I tend to think about them as little as possible, while still meeting their needs as well as I can, and listening to them when they voice concerns.

It's not just the sheep. All beings of the farm are burdened by the heat, stressed by it. I hesitate to walk on the grass because I know the dehydrated leaves can't recover as easily from broken cell walls, crushed by my footsteps. I hesitate to order feed until it rains (hopefully thunderstorms tomorrow?) because the pressure of the tires of the huge delivery truck will leave tracks of beaten-down, dead grass that will show for a long time. If I pick it up myself, I could use the garden cart to haul it a few bags at a time...but even the balloon-bicycle-style tires and my feet will wear a path far more quickly this time of year than any other.

My thoughts do turn to relentless pruning of shrubs and trees. Pruning alters the ratio of root (water absorption) to leaf surface (water loss through transpiration), helping the plant endure conditions where transpiration exceeds the plant's ability to take up water. But first--is the overgrown plant shading a desirable plant? Will the reduced competition for soil moisture offset the increased transpiration from greater sun exposure of the sheltered plant?

I deliberate about whether to pull weeds at all. First, it's just plain hard work to pull them (large or small), with the ground beginning to bake fairly hard under heavy weed growth where the mulch is thin. But there is the delicate balance of shade vs. soil moisture to consider. And pulling them will disturb whatever mulch there is, and expose previously un-exposed soil to the baking sun and drying wind, so that more soil moisture evaporates. Tradeoffs.

Often I opt for simply cutting back the weeds, knowing that they will regrow and I'll have to do it again. Or, where I can, using portable electric fences to run the sheep into weedy fallow areas where I want to conserve soil moisture for fall planting, as well as prevent weeds from seeding. The cut weeds can be thrown to the sheep in their shady spots, encouraging them to eat when otherwise they might not.

My preferred cutting tool is the Austrian scythe previously mentioned. My grass blade suffered serious damage a few weeks ago, and I'm waiting for the replacement, watching the foxtail grass top 5' tall with its graceful arching seed heads.

It's a good excuse, anyway, for laying low right now.

*In years of "working" sheep, I've noticed that they KNOW which one I'm looking for, which one I'm about to grab. I've learned that looking at a different sheep isn't quite enough to fool them. I have to THINK about a different sheep, too. Likewise, when milking, I learned that they set boundaries for how far my thoughts could stray from the task at hand. Daydreaming too far afield resulted in a swift foot in the milk pail.

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