Monday, July 27, 2009

The rainforest

July is almost over and thus far the weather has not turned. It's the most unusual wet and cold July that anyone around here can recall. Almost continuous fog and drizzle has been punctuated by moderate and heavy rain. The number of rain-free days has been almost zero. The number of days with mostly sunshine can be counted on a single hand. In this kind of weather outdoor activity slows drastically, and the storage building I was going to work on has scarcely seen any progress. The second planting of soybeans was washed out along with the first, although there are perhaps 20 plants standing and I will guide them through to term, to save seed if nothing else. Somehow two plantings of snap beans resulted in a decent stand. Broccoli and brussels sprouts are doing little; cabbage is better, onions are good. Beets are fair, carrots few and far between; spinach bolted; lettuce doing well from the early plantings. Tomatoes slow but the plants are growing and depending on the rest of the season may bring in a sufficient crop for eating and canning; peppers and eggplant the same. The apple crop, which looked so promising at blossom time and shortly after, has diminished and will be scabby from all the dampness.

In Maine this summer a potato disease, called late blight, the same disease that caused the Irish potato famines in the mid-19th century, has struck hard. Usually it is present, particularly in the commercial growing sections of Aroostook County, but not a serious problem. This summer it is. The airwaves are full of warnings and advice to growers, not only the market growers but also home gardeners. If you are a conventional gardener you are supposed to spray a poison onto your plants. That has never made sense to me. Why would anyone want to poison the food they will eat and the soil it grows in? If you are an organic gardener there is supposedly an IPM (integrated pest management) program that you are supposed to look into. But that sounds wrong. The blight is not caused by pests. The best way to prevent it, it seems to me, is to have healthy soil, which will grow strong plants that may be able to resist the blight.

And so my potatoes here have escaped the infection, in part perhaps because the soil is now good, and possibly also because there are no gardens with potatoes nearby from which the infection could spread. Indeed, the plants are taller than ever. The Dark Red Norland plants are dying back now and I'm digging good sized potatoes every few days for meals, larger and a higher yield than I've ever had. The Satina variety plants are still going strong.

Were I a market potato grower this would be a good year for me, but each year I grow only for my own use, with occasional surplus given away. The principal food crops I grow and eat are dry beans, tomatoes (put up for sauce, mostly), green soybeans (edamame), potatoes, and onions. I also grow greens and salad vegetables such as peppers and eggplant for summer consumption, and often beets, cucumbers, leeks, spinach, chard, and squash. I have learned from the soil and climate what can and cannot be grown well here; and not every crop can be grown well each year. This is the second bad year in a row for soybeans.

Both Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have made a philosophy out of the idea of "nature as measure." That is, one works with nature in one's local place; nature tells us what can and what cannot be done, what should and what should not be done, if only we will watch and listen and learn, and if we will be patient in doing so. In this way of thinking Berry and Jackson stand in opposition to the idea of bending nature to human will, in opposition to the idea of humans dominating nature. For Jackson, in the state of Kansas, learning from nature means restoring what he believes is the original prairie ecosystem. For Berry, the ideal is a kind of mixed farming which uses the soil wisely and gives back as much or more as it takes.

This is a philosophy that bears thought. Certainly as much as I would like to grow corn here, I cannot do so well. I have learned, as I said, what crops appear to be comfortable here, and I have grown them in a kind of cooperation with what nature will permit, if not encourage. I have used seaweed from the shore as fertilizer; it works well. But vegetable gardens and domestic livestock would not be here without human intervention. This would be a land of chiefly spruce forests with meadows where the poorest soil is. The meadows would be filled with plants for birds and animals. Of course, that is the way much of the land is already. Of those edible plants that grow wild here, rosa rugosa is the most prominent, with edible rose hips in the fall; but there are many berries which must be as good for humans as they are for the birds and wild animals. Yet it is not a place advantageous for farming, as the soil is shallow and rocky. The woods are abundant now with deer that could be hunted, but the chief source of food for humans in this place would normally be the sea, although at present the fish stock is low from overfishing, and the lobster stock threatens to follow.

And planting a garden here means thwarting and dominating nature to some extent. If you don't fence your garden the deer and other critters will eat everything you planted. They are happy to dominate you. And at certain times of the year, particularly now at the end of July, they are coming out of the woods to graze on the blueberries and other meadow plants, and they will happily graze in your garden if you let them do so. This evening I saw a doe grazing in the blueberry field across from the house. I approached within thirty feet of her and could have gotten closer, I think, if I hadn't tried to scare her back into the woods by shouting and clapping my hands. Perhaps I should have sat down and had a little talk with her and come to a rapprochement: you may have all the blueberries you want over here, but don't jump the fence and get into the garden over there. But how does one speak the language of deer, without becoming one?

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