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The Ag Field (Part 2 of 4)

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

Was it even a swale? Or was it a hellhole? Surveying it with the team, I went to that form of denial known as wishful thinking. “It just needs an inch or two of rainfall to smooth it out,” I declared to the team with enthusiasm and confidence. In fact, monsoon season wouldn’t have smoothed it out.

That form of denial known as wishful thinking has an impressive history and an impressive title. It’s called the deus ex machina – a kind of extricating intervention from out of nowhere. The ancient Greeks used the deus ex machina as a literary device – a cheap fix to a plot line gone awry. More recently, the Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put a theological spin on the deus ex machina. For Bonhoeffer it was turning to God at the last minute as the last resort and expecting results. Needless to say the deus ex machina is, and always has been, a weak idea, but some weak ideas have staying power, which brings me back to the swale.

I waited for rain. While I was waiting, the pioneer species moved in – the first plants to colonize distrubed soil. The uneven, clumpy, ankle turning nightmare was now embedded with weeds. It was a setback, and it was enough to shake me from that form of denial known as wishful thinking.

Out came the tractor. Avi used the bucket to scrape the swales off and smooth them down. We threw a few varieties of clover and hairy vetch in the ditch, which not only fixes nitrogen and attracts pollinators, but also outcompetes the pioneer species.

It was time to plant trees and shrubs downhill from the mound. On BigDaddy, we decided to plant nut trees. The medium swale would be devoted to fruit trees, and the small swale to berry shrubs. Choosing species was easy enough. It was simply a matter of determining what trees and shrubs grew in our hardiness zone (4b) then employing the STUN method.

The STUN method was popularized by permaculture guru Mark Shepard. Stun is an acronym for Sheer Total Utter Neglect. You plant what grows in your hardiness zone then turn your back on it. Sure, you can give it a drink, and perhaps, in a moment of weakness, a Japanese beetle trap, but you don’t give it much more. It’s the best way to discover what wants to grow there and what doesn’t – invoking the permaculture principle, “Don’t fight nature.” Permaculture or not, it’s a battle you will never win. What wanted to grow there was pine nut trees, chestnut trees, pears, apples, cherries, hazelnuts, aronia berries, elderberries, and gooseberries. So that’s what we planted. The swales now simply awaited the piece de resistance….(To be continued)

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