We’ve stayed in Michigan through this time in June to celebrate a few events, including my middle daughter’s birthday yesterday, with friends and family. This last week has become kind of a farewell storm of gearing up for the big trip and meet-ups with friends and family. And the last few days have been especially fun.
Thursday eve was graduation. My girls have had the good fortune of attending a wonderful school in northern Michigan with a heavy focus on outdoor education. The educators are like family, and the girls so closely bonded with friends there. I think of the Greenspire School as a junior high where the difficult years are met with support and respect between students and among students and teachers. It was the one thing that held us here until the very last proverbial bell of the semester rang.
Yesterday, my daughter turned 14 right where I turned 14 (I’m suffer from a condition known as extreme sentimentality), on the shores of East Grand Traverse Bay, braving the chilly water to escape the thick June air. I could barely keep my toes in the water, but these kids stayed in the water for upwards of an hour swimming! My little fishies.
The evening prior, a dear friend I’ve known since high school, and the son of my farming
mentor, invited us to his farm for a send-off gathering. Following one of the best potluck dinners ever, we were met by a wall of wind and water in one of the most wicked storms I’ve seen since last August. We took shelter in the old greenhouse, seated on old wooden benches lit by candlelight. There, we told ghost stories and ate pie to pass the evening until the rain subsided enough for us to partake in the cannibal hot-tub. (Chris is now convinced we need one of these).
This cannibal hot-tub is made like an over-sized barrel with a submerged aluminum wood-fired stove. The water was a consistent and comfortable 98 degrees. Whenever we got too warm, we simply laid our heads back and let the cool rain wash over our faces. Lightning flickered in the distance and the low rumble of thunder shuddered over the churning waters of West Bay. I couldn’t have imagined a better send-off than that.
In the next few days, we’ll be loading the trucks, prepping for the long haul, and by Tuesday eve, arriving back home in New York. Having weathered the storm of this past eight months, it is finally time to put down our roots. Home awaits.
I’m trying to decide what to do with Healing Tree Farm. It has been a remarkable part of my life and has really helped me come to a genuine place of healing after a difficult health ordeal. And while the move out to New York doesn’t constitute starting over, it does feel like a refreshing next step in the direction of a dream. Do I owe that next step a renaming or re-branding? Part of me yearns to step away from the connection to illness, but another part of me feels I owe that process some ongoing recognition.
At the same time, I feel like we’ve outgrown the name, heading into a direction so well-rooted in fiber, despite our continued adoration for apple trees. I have no intention of giving up fruit-growing; I just want to broaden the scope to include a full-scale fiber operation.
When people have asked in the past about Healing Tree, I find myself feeling obligated to share the full story. In NY, there’s a kind of freedom from that, if that makes any sense. I’m no longer the girl who got cancer and started a farm out there. I’m the woman who wants to launch a fiber business.
And it’s purely psychological. Naturally, I don’t have to launch into the full story every time I’m asked about the significance of the Healing Tree, but even if I don’t share the story outwardly, it runs through my mind.
So, as we pack up the fencing and materials at the farm this week, I am engrossed in this ongoing dialogue. Remembering, reflecting, and thinking about which elements to carry on with us, and which to leave behind, both literally and figuratively. And I can genuinely say, it’s a healing process.
I’ve started my new job in New York, from Michigan, which makes for a nice transition to a new house in a new community within a new state. We leave at the end of the following week for closing on the house and we’ll make a few trips out prior to the big move with the kids in June.
This whole process was kicked off by a series of events in the deep of winter early in 2015 with a serious evaluation of our long-term goals.
Chris and I have similar goals across the board, save for the one about opening a burger joint (though the food would be fantastic, I can attest), which made the envisioning process easier. Some things were immediately clear: 1) We were not living the life we dreamed of in the way we hoped to live it, 2) We could not alter the situation without a change in location, and 3) We have two kids quickly approaching college-age and one not far behind those two.
It was early February of 2015 when Chris showed me a farm for sale in Western Massachusetts. I said, “There’s no way I’m leaving Michigan.” And he said, “I think you’d really like it out there.” The rest is history. Eastern NY is very similar to Western Mass. And the land is affordable, the soil profiles are outstanding, and the people are straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
After five trips out East, we finally located the right property in line with our five-year plan, right in the middle of the Schoharie, with an agricultural college just minutes from the front door, and universities scattered within a three hour radius in every direction. It isn’t a farm, but there’s enough land to grow food and a large field adjacent to the property, so who knows. We will keep chickens and bees, tend the Shiawassee Beauties, and continue gardening, while growing our savings to accommodate dreams of opening a fiber mill in Upstate NY.
Moreover, I hope the girls can finally feel the satisfaction of being part of a community, rather than living in the outskirts. Apart from college, there is so much to experience in New England, from the history around every corner, to the natural features of this old, old land, to the simple joy of riding your bike to the movie theatre on a summer afternoon.
And you bet, I’ll still be processing and spinning fiber. It likely won’t be local Michigan fiber, if you can forgive me, but I can promise some local Schoharie Valley fiber to keep our friends in beautiful northern Michigan warm.
I just returned from another trip out to New York, this time to explore the Schoharie valley and Delaware County. This trip, thanks to the farmers who housed me, really invigorated me. I think I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from farming, despite the daily regimen because we’re currently partially uprooted. Being on a farm started by a woman and witnessing the incredible foundation she has built, along with the connectivity she fosters with neighboring farms, has really inspired me not to “begin again,” but to continue with this mission forward to build a farm and fiber business.
The farm where I stayed (had to make this trip out alone so Chris could tend to the alpacas), is technically East Branch Farm, but most of the locals know it as Straight Out of the Ground, a beautiful property with a goddess of a guernsey cow, who is the apple of Farmer Madalyn’s eye, for sure. And it’s easy to see why. Look at that adorable face!
In addition to farming, Madalyn also co-produces a radio show called the Farm Hour Radio.
The mountains are nothing short of magical. The roadways and farmland trace their contours, and in the mornings, mist hovers over the valleys, leading me to look for hobbits and unicorns as much as farmland.
Madalyn connected us with some good folks and resources for farmers and reinforced the awareness that New York is a good state for agriculture. Beneath every county sign I passed, the words “Right to Farm” appeared prominently. The soil in the valleys appears good and the prospect of a fiber mill feels welcomed.
Moreover, the locals are fiercely loyal to their agricultural roots and at one stop, in a village where we had been told we could not house our alpacas, a local business owner stormed down to the local village office and demanded to see the ordinance. When the village couldn’t provide any specific wording ruling against alpacas, she called me and said, “You can have your livestock here.” Can’t help but love these folks.
I would like to say we have figured this whole thing out, but after an inspection revealed some significant issues on the house we were under contract to buy, we are once again looking for the farm. However, despite this setback, I feel more confident than ever that we’ll find the right place, because more significant than where we will land is that feeling of where we belong. And it’s there, among the mountains and the hard-working farmers of the Schoharie, where we feel most at home. Looking forward to calling this place home.
Last trip out, we traversed Sharon Springs, where an inspiring couple revitalized a farm into an enterprising business. Madalyn told us it’s not only a thriving business, but they even had a television show. Check it out below. Also, living in the region, a woman I look forward to meeting at some point in the near future, Shannon Hayes, the Radical Homemaker. And so much more I would like to share, save for the time to write it all down…
If you don’t know them already, the Beekman Boys are fabulous.
There’s a kind of innocence with which we reconnect as adults studying ecological design. The design process emphasizes the importance of observation, a kind of observation free from agenda or assumptions. It’s not easy, but there are ways to practice observation to enhance your ability to see your environment without immediately interpreting and assigning value or reacting to what is being observed.
Observation, not Reactive Observation
First, let’s explore the difference between observation and reactive observation. The example I use most often is that of the “invasive.” Consider a forest canopy in which there is a presence of tent caterpillar. They have eaten away the foliage on an old maple tree amid an otherwise dense canopy.
Reactive observation might lead to the immediate assignment of weighted words like “infestation,” “destruction,” “invasive,” “damage,” and “bad.” However, these words do little to describe the relationship of the tent caterpillar to the natural environment. Observing this same scene without reactivity means looking at the individual elements, first, then observing any relationship these elements may have with neighboring elements.
In this scenario, we might include notes like:
Presence of tent caterpillars
Maple canopy eaten by tent caterpillars
Maple tree old
Sunlight on forest floor
Presence of green foliage on forest floor
New forest edge forming
Presence of birds more so on maple, than other trees
These observations do not assign values to the individual elements, but allow us to make interpretations free from reactivity. Rather than a hyper focus on the “damage” done to the maple tree, we might be able to see how the presence of the tent caterpillars opened the canopy, thereby allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, creating a new forest edge. The presence of anything that might feed off of the tent caterpillars indicates a natural response to a change in the bio-web.
Prior to practicing observation, it’s sometimes fun to test your observation skills. So often, those new to this process protect their ego, asserting that they are good observers and insisting they do not need practice to see. They then, inevitably, go on to do an initial site plan, forgetting major elements like large trees, sheds, or pathways – the brain simply takes these elements for granted.
To practice the art of observation, sit in one spot for a period of 15 minutes. Spend the first 60 seconds writing down anything you observe in an area as small as a square foot, from visual to auditory to sensory to olfactory. Take a break, then observe the same space for another 60 seconds, noting anything new you can observe that you may have missed previously. Repeat this practice until you can no longer detect the individual elements. At this point, begin noting any relationships between the individual elements, again in one minute increments.
Consider a dandelion. Assume you knew nothing about the plant. Instead of asking “What’s it called?” examine and make note of its individual elements, from the broad leaves radiating out from the stem, to the flower, to the bee on the flower, to the deep taproot. What kinds of plants are growing next to the dandelion? Each of these characteristics and relationship-oriented elements can tell us loads of information more than a label. A dandelion, by any other name is still, after all, a dandelion.
Next, Work from Patterns to Details
The above practice helps you observe individual elements and their relationships in an environment. The next step is to make broad observations of an environment. Patterns in nature, whether spirals, branching, key-hole, or waves, are repeated on a grand scale, like the spiral galaxy, to something small like the structure of our DNA double helix. These patterns do not repeat because they are pretty, but because they are efficient.
Consider the Mississippi. It’s fed from multiple, smaller rivers and streams. The bulk of the transport of water is taking place where these rivers and streams merge and the path followed is that of least resistance to water. We can mimic this same pattern in the design of our garden beds, with the wider paths being accessible to tools or other resources, to the smaller pathways that allow enough space for the human element to harvest. Walking this space and observing where you feel naturally inclined to walk, can help aid you in the design of pathways for the space.
You may also observe a space from a distance and notice the types of plants growing in a space. Plants can indicate much about the health of a soil to the soil type and water accessibility. They can also indicate previous human presence or soil degradation. Taking the broad view, you might spot rows of spotted knapweed growing among carrot flower, indicating a space once occupied by an orchard or cornfield. This kind of broad observation can help you formulate a plan for revitalization of soil at the site.
Using that same example, work from the larger pattern and what it tells you, to smaller details, like proximity to resources that can provide nutrients, pathways of water-flow occurring naturally, to changes in the edge space between the field and the neighboring ecosystem.
Working within the Nature’s Envelope
Working within nature’s envelope, rather than forcing a design on a space will save time and energy in the long run. Running any system using this model can improve overall productivity and efficiency, whether it’s a working farm or a business. Practice may never make perfect, but it’ll certainly take you a step closer to where you’d like to be.
It finally happened. We had to call in the professionals when it came to shearing Tassie (It’s official! I received my first kick!) and Bree. Jeff Goodwin (and his incredibly helpful family), our new farm heroes, came to our rescue.
The ladies are looking great and the process went smoothly save for one small bump at the end.
Ironically, as Jeff and his family were about to head out, I mentioned that the farm had a personality all its own. I explained that just when I feel like I’ve got it figured out, it throws a dramatic curve and sweeps me off my feet again. It shouldn’t be called a farm; it should be called a humblerer.
As little ‘Topher and I watched the trucks pull out of the drive, I was feeling pretty great. The Goodwins had successfully sheared, vaccinated, clipped nails, and done teeth, and the alpacas did great. Loads of gorgeous Suri fiber lay piled high on a blanket beneath the old white pine. The sun was looming lovely and bright over the horizon. Chris would be home soon for dinner. It was time to relax and enjoy this thing we call farming.
However, the humblerer had other ideas.
Before we headed up to start the fire, I checked in on the ‘pacas and noticed Pecan, Tassie’s mother, was down. Not down in the way I expect to find them while resting, but a death’s door kind of down.
I ran out to check her breathing and found she was breathing normally, but her behavior was way off. She snuggled into me (totally abnormal for an alpaca, no matter how adorably snugly they appear). I ran for my phone only to realize the battery had died.
I had two options – one to flag down someone on the trail for their phone, or two to try to get her to her feet and better assess the situation. Chris would be at the farm shortly, so I opted for a better assessment.
I got her to her feet and she stumbled into me. She walked zombie-like and it appeared she was either blind or suffering from some kind of neurological reaction to the vaccines. Chris arrived with his phone and we called Jeff to first find out whether he had ever seen this reaction. He had not and quickly walked us through a process of evaluation to determine the urgency of the situation. In this time, we saw signs Pecan was improving, but it felt painfully slow.
As it turns out, she had a quickly-resolved reaction to (we think) the vaccine. Before long, was walking normally. By morning, she was eating and behaving as though nothing had happened. We, on the other hand, were again keenly aware of how precious and precarious our walk with livestock can be. Not one, but two large-animal vets now programmed into our phones, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude for each twist and turn life takes. And also how wholly in love we are with these magnificent animals, no matter the spit, kicks (Tassie!), and dung piles…
With special gratitude to the Goodwins for their gentle handling of our animals and for their support following.
People utilize permaculture principles selectively. It’s in our nature and there are 12. And honestly, it took me a few years before I really, fully, truly understood all 12. That’s part of what makes permaculture a great compliment to nature; it’s natural pace.
Often permaculturalists are asked to rush designs to accommodate what people would like to see, which means bulldozing past quite a few key elements that will make a design thrive. Yes, those plantings may yield after some time of their fight against opportunistic plants better suited for poorer soils, but the time and energy needed is crudely invested.
That said, there are often may outside, human influences rushing the process. We like to see results and for humans these days, that’s something akin to the immediate gratification of seeing plants in the ground. But more and more, I find myself questioning these methods as they fail to reiterate that key principle, Slow and Steady Solutions.
What makes this principle so critical? For one, it allows room for the first principle of Observation, which if practiced alone would save the average gardener years worth of toil. Secondly, working closely with the land at a slower pace allows for a gradual accumulation of new microbes well-suited your soil, it affords valuable time for soil-building and cover cropping in which carbon and nitrogen cycles have time to sufficiently stabilize, and as those changes unfold, creates smaller feedback loops permitting more time to observe changes and adapt.
Where we fail to apply this principle, we find thriving opportunistic plants, decreased yields of desired plants, and if plants suffer, an increase in pests and disease, resulting in a poor demonstration of permaculture and a weary grower. That’s not to say that every permaculturalist who fails to yield to this principle is going to suffer. If done correctly, it is possible to establish a fairly productive system mimicking the longer-duration process, with the right elements in place and with, at the very least, time allotted for observation.
That said, please slow down. Take time to get to know the land. Have a picnic in your future garden space and see experience the wind and sun, the insects, birds, and neighboring plants. As with any relationship, don’t rush it; savor it. Grow with it.