Archive for June, 2020

Silence Among Many Ears

I strolled up the driveway to the mailbox. No mail. I looked over the neighbor’s cornfield across the road.  I decided to explore. Zigzagging between the thigh-high corn plants, I went in a dozen rows. Then I lay down.

I gazed up through the swaying corn leaves where soft clouds dallied eastward on the faintest of breezes. With a good rain the day before and full-on sun today, the corn should be climbing. An old farmer’s adage optimistically declares, “On a quiet night you can hear corn grow!” 

It turns out that with highly sensitive recording equipment you really can hear it. The noise is the tearing and pulling of corn stalk fibers. The process is similar to an athlete building muscle mass. Strengthening the muscle requires a multitude of micro rips of tissue. As they repair themselves the muscle becomes stronger. 

I rolled close to a stout stalk of corn. All around me was eerie silence; no insects, no birds. Staring into the sky, I spotted a high-flying dragonfly hurrying directly overhead. Why should it stop when this sea of sameness harbors no insect sustenance? 

From my prone position I peered far down the orderly row of corn stalks. There was absolutely nothing else growing there. I was lying in a desert made through the intentional poisoning of the ground.

This firmament of sand holds little organic matter. In order to grow corn it is augmented with a swill of herbicides, fertilizer, nitrogen and who knows what else.   

Looking through the genetically altered crop, I recalled a visit to a long-time farmer near Ames, Iowa. He was over 80 years old and was farming the land the same way his father had in the early 20th century, with no pesticides or herbicides. He really didn’t intend to farm “organically,” it was just the way his father taught him.

He spoke of his corn and its yields compared to his neighbor’s fields where they grow genetically modified corn using conventional methods that include applications of pesticides and herbicides.   Even when his fields didn’t produce as many bushels per acre, many years his profit margin was better than farmers who grow corn using chemical inputs. 

I asked if any of his neighbors ever consider growing organically to cut input costs. He looked at me and said, “Well they can’t.  Their ground is addicted to chemicals. All the microscopic life in the soil is dead. My neighbors have to keep the chemicals going if they want to make any money at all.”

He paused and looked out over his summer field. “They’re are in a tough spot. In order to build up the life in the soil they would have to let the field sit idle for a few years. And how are you going to pay the bills then?” 

He turned his head and looked at me, concluding, “It’s sad. I doubt any of them ever really intended to kill their soil.”

Across the dirt road from where I lay is our patch of restored prairie, a wild tangle of stem and deep roots. The explosion of bloom buzzes with thousands of pollinating insects. It hosts pheasant and vesper sparrow nests. The soil beneath teems with microbial life. 

Up to forty years ago this piece of ground grew corn and soybeans. Then I said “No more.” Instead I gathered native prairie seed from nearby wild patches and scattered and poked them into the ground. I let the remnant prairie in the roadside ditch slowly claim the cropland. Over time the ground has begun to wear the face it had prior to my ancestors farming it. 

After a half hour of corn cogitation, I could stand the sterility no more. I got to my feet and retraced my path out of the geometrically perfect rows. 

Returning home through the patch of prairie, I noticed a dragonfly zigzagging over the clumps of big bluestem and between the slalom gates of the blue-flowered spiderwort. 

A nap in the prairie would not be easy with the racket of biological diversity. 

The Riches of an Unkempt Lawn

Nobody on their death bed is going to wish they had mowed the lawn more frequently.

The neighbors were buzzing with excitement over our beautiful lawn until I commenced the seasonal atrocity of mowing.  The neighbors I am referring to are the fat bumblebees and other assorted members of the insect tribe that bobbed and crawled from purple blossom to purple blossom on the ground ivy that carpets much of our yard. It’s a thing of beauty. 

The gang of the genus Bombus, our plump buzzing bumblebee friends, are part of the insect clan that pollinates approximately 1/3 of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Our society’s lawn maintenance practices threaten their livelihood. 

Most folks refer to the fragrant ground ivy as Creeping Charlie. European immigrants intentionally brought the beloved plant to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain and other Old World countries this short herb was also known as runaway robin, ground ivy, or Lizzie-running-up-the-hedge.

For more than 5,000 years this little relative of the mint family has been an important medicinal plant. It is high in Vitamin C and is valued for soothing coughs, colds and headaches. 

So how is it that this plant slid from sainthood to lawn villain? 

Can you say “money?” 

You can never fail to make money if you can convince the public of a lurking monster, something to be very afraid of, and then hail yourself as savior for having the product to defeat the real or perceived fiend. So it is no surprise that big chemical companies like Monsanto, Scotts, or Dow declare this innocent ivy and other lawn companions such as dandelions as “bad.”

Clever marketing convinced lawn owners to buy the chemical panacea needed for a lawn of sameness. A monoculture is not nature’s way. rather than follow nature’s blueprint for the strength in diversity.

When you create a single-species lawn you have to work really hard and spend money to keep it that way. Roughly 80 million Americans have lawns.  According to a national Time Use Survey, American lawn owners spend roughly 40 hours of care on their lawns each summer. That is a full workweek! 

Then there are those who fertilize their lawns so they have to mow even more. Go figure!

If you really want to be the same as everyone else, then be my guest. I’m going to keep company with the mesmerizing buzz of the Bombus clan and gather up some nutritious plants like Creeping Charlie, sheep sorrel, and dandelions from the yard for a salad. That way my lawn pays me.