best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer.”
-- Chinese Proverb
While that ancient wisdom
is true, there are many different kinds of footsteps. Some
are big, some are small. Some disappear as soon as the morning
dew burns off in the heat of the day, others endure long after
the farmer has departed this world. That, I think, is because
there are what my friend Louis Bromfield called “good
farmers” and “bad farmers.”
Good farmers nurture the soil, live close to nature and love
the earth. They build beauty and peace, know true security
and real satisfaction. They constantly try new ideas, yet
are no slaves to technology. They never stop learning, are
optimistic by nature. While working in the fields, they are
closer to God than people in the grandest cathedral.
In short, the good farmer reveres life.
Then there are bad farmers. These are greedy, shiftless and
lazy people who only use and abuse the soil. They steal as
much as they can from nature. They take and never give, leaving
the land worn-out to be ravaged by wind and rain. They are
the exploiters, who ruin one farm before moving on to the
next. They leave a vast burden for future generations to pay.
Every time I go out to work in the garden beds and fields
around our farm, I wonder: What kind of footprints am I leaving
on the land? How will farmers in the future read what I have
written in the Book of Soil? Will they approve? Will they
laugh? Or will they curse me for what I have done?
||In the Book of Soil, everything is
eventually revealed. There are no secrets. No one can
hide. There is no escaping from the consequences of our
actions and how well -- or how poorly -- we fulfilled
our responsibilities as stewards of the soil.
Time will tell. In the Book of Soil, everything is eventually
revealed. There are no secrets. No one can hide. There is
no escaping from the consequences of our actions and how well
-- or how poorly -- we fulfilled our responsibilities as stewards
of the soil.
For 20 years now we have been the only ones farming our land,
yet the footprints of earlier farmers are everywhere. The
oldest were left by the “Lenne Lenape” or Delaware
Indians, a once large and powerful tribe of what we now call
Native Americans. The Delaware roamed the fields and woods
of the Northeastern United States for many centuries before
white Europeans came to the shores of the New World.
The Delaware grew corn, beans and squash. Those crops, called
the “Three Sisters,” were often planted together
in little hills or blocks. Corn provided support for the climbing
beans, while the spreading squash vines protected the soil
and blocked out weeds. The Delaware tread as lightly on the
land as a pair of soft moccasins, so little evidence of their
The Delaware were mostly hunters and gathers. They came to
this area of southeastern Pennsylvania in search of Jasper,
a kind of quartz that like flint can be split and then knapped.
Jasper holds a sharp edge. It is perfect for making high-quality
arrowheads, spear points, knives and other implements. One
mile west of our farm is Jasper Park, a place where native
peoples from throughout the Mid-Atlantic area traveled to
dig jasper. The quarry was sacred ground. It was neutral territory:
No fighting allowed.
Also held sacred by the Delaware were the many turtles that
roamed the nearby streams and wetlands. Chief among them was
the shy little Bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii). “Turtles
remind us that the way to heaven is through the earth. In
Mother Earth is all that we need. She will care for us, protect
us, and nurture us, as long as we do the same for her. For
that to happen, we must slow down and heighten our sensibilities.
We must see the connection to all things. Just as the turtle
cannot separate itself from its shell, neither can we separate
ourselves from what we do to the Earth,” Ted Andrews
wrote in Animal-Speak, a guide to the spiritual and
magical powers of animals.
Today, the Bog turtle is on the endangered species list.
Our fields are full of old spoons
and forks and pieces of broken cups, saucers and plates.
Now and then, we find a bog turtle or an Indian arrowhead
in our fields. But, mostly, we find garbage from the
20th century. It all makes me wonder: What am I leaving
That’s because earlier generations of farmers drained
wetlands and cleared the hardwood forests to expand crop acreage.
Using horses, they drug huge stones to the edges of the fields.
The stones are piled in crude fencerows that now mark the
perimeter of our land, while iron harrow teeth, pieces of
chain and horseshoes rust away in the fields.
The previous owner of our land sold off small building lots
along the road. Houses sprang up, often in areas where they
never should have been built because it is so wet.
Other reminders of his farming turn up every time I work
our fields. He raised pigs and fed them garbage from restaurants
in the city. Our fields are full of old spoons and forks and
pieces of broken cups, saucers and plates. Now and then, we
find a bog turtle or an Indian arrowhead in our fields. But,
mostly, we find garbage from the 20th century.
It all makes me wonder: What am I leaving behind? What am
I writing for posterity, and for good or ill, in the Book
of Soil? Somewhere in our fields, I know, two Soviet army
wristwatches and several pocketknives are waiting to be found.
There are a few plastic irrigation fittings and empty shotgun
shells, even though I always try to pick up all of our litter.
But, hopefully, there will be nothing more egregious, no
large compacted areas that never drain or ugly erosion gullies
scarring the earth. My sensibilities were heightened recently,
as Ted Andrews urged, by a little verse that helped me look
at the land in a new way:
Sedges have edges.
Reeds are round.
And where it is wet,
They'll both be found.
The speaker was a professional wetland scientist. She was
doing the first formal survey of our wooded wetlands in the
east field. It was part of our long but successful fight against
a proposed development (a 150-run dog boarding kennel) next
door to and uphill from our farm. (Our dogfight with the kennel
is another story for another time.)
Plucking two clumps of greenery from an odd corner of our
field, she handed me a sample of each, so I cloud feel the
difference for myself. Reeds are round. Sedges do
have edges. And it really is wet there most of the year, very
wet, which is why I am going to stay even farther away from
that spot with my tractor and mower.
Now that I am better able to understand the language of the
soil, I’m finding more special places that deserve different
care and fewer, lighter footprints.
How often do you read the book of your soil? How well? More
importantly, what -- and how well -- are you writing in the
Book of Soil?
What's that sticking
out of the field?
This is how George discoverd the antler pictured at
the beginning of this article. Who knows when or by
whom the antler was discarded. It could be a page from
the Lenne Lenape's chapter in the Book of Soil. Or simply
an example of the natural cycle of life and death also
etched permanantly in the land.