Editor’s Note: Another super effort by Teacher Mahlon, I just love the way he sort of connects us all with nature and emphasizes the importance of slowing down and appreciating it. He’s very poetic. I think Mahlon demolishes the image that some hold of all Amish being puppy mill operators and chemical-crazed gardeners. Great column! Three more weeks left of the trial run of this column, so enjoy!
BY Mahlon Miller
I finished my “landscaping project” last night. I only have three acres of land and when I talk about farming such a small acreage some people scoff. “A 3 acre farmer?” they laugh. So I started calling the work my “landscaping project”. This spring I put out corn. There were a couple of areas in our pasture which were becoming rather thin. And we had almost no clover out there anymore. Clovers produce nitrogen and free ranged thanksgiving turkeys also produce nitrogen, both of which we have in abundance on our farm. So I am thinking the thin spots are the microbes saying “stop, too much nitrogen!” Corn uses a lot of nitrogen and I think by rotating a year or two of corn I get some clovers to come back again. Corn also creates an opportunity to have a husking bee with my students next fall. I am looking forward to that. But that’s a future column.
The interconnections in nature are a very interesting study to me. Corn needs clovers and clovers need corn. Chickens need cows and cows need chickens. Bees need crab apple trees which need fence-rows which need red foxes which need rabbits which need hayfields which need fence rows which need crab apple trees which need bees. Organic farmers are really choreographers.
Naturalist and writer John Muir put this connection in a nutshell very nicely: when one tugs at a single thing in nature he finds it attached to everything else.
Although humans are endowed beyond the rest of nature, I think we are still very much a part of this network of nature. And the mortal part of us is as dependent upon the rest of the network as the crab apple trees are. We need to learn to use without abuse. Working with soils and plants and animals hooks us into the great grid of nature and charges us up. I came home from my summer factory last week with air tool oil on my hands and silicone caulk spots on my shirt while feeling worn to a frazzle. My neighbors horses were available so I got them hitched up and started plowing. By supper time I had horse sweat and dust on my hands and stains from the harnesses on my shirt but I felt refreshed and satisfied. Reconnecting charged me back up.
As a boy I never thought about this much, but when I was growing up we always had cats on the farm. They were mousers and they spent their time around the out-buildings and orchards. Our dogs were farm dogs that fetched cows, chased horses, and barked at visitors. Back then I considered cats as part of the ecosystem and dogs as good companions. But I certainly didn’t think of any kind of pet as vitally important. I do now. Our world is becoming more and more disconnected. I think it is very important for all of us to have something to tie us back to the basics, even if it is only a pot of geraniums or a goldfish. Sometimes I worry that this world is going to super-market, smart phone, drive thru and satellite communication itself to insanity.
The Amish community is not entirely impervious to these changes. The fact that I live on 3 acres shows change. In my grandparents day my farm would have been considered too small for an Amish family. Back then everybody was a farmer by occupation. They milked a half dozen cows, farrowed that many sows, and kept a couple hundred laying hens. Three acres wasn’t big enough. Even 60 years ago about 85 percent of Amish families in our community were farmers, not anymore. In 2012, only 12.3 percent of the married men listed farming as their main occupation. That is the a big change. Will a change in culture follow? I won’t say that it couldn’t but I think most of us maintain at least some form of a connection with our roots. Everybody still gardens, everybody still drives horses. Almost everybody still has a brother or Dad or neighbor that needs help with some farming. And there has been a great interest in family sized orchards, small laying flocks, dairy goats, family cows or “landscaping projects” like my own. I am glad to see that because I think it is vitally important to our culture. Come to think of it, it might not be so far wrong to call my project “landscaping”. Instead of sparse grass and plants the horse won’t eat I have a nice soft seed bed with corn planter tracks running over and a promise hidden below them. It is beautiful.
Mahlon Miller, 31, is an Old Order Amish school-teacher, husband, and father of 4 in rural northern Indiana.