Sometimes (maybe always) the most delightful events in life happen seemingly by chance, not plan. Or to say that a better way: if you strive to live with respect for nature’s ways, unforeseen good things happen. And keep on happening. Take a look at the picture that accompanies this article. This breathtaking view of molten maple gold started to appear in our kitchen window about fifteen years ago and continues to return every fall, becoming in the process, fuller and more eye-dazzling with each passing year. To achieve this delight, we did not have to do anything, so help me. I shall try to explain.
It took me until age 30 to know my own mind, to realize that the way I wanted to spend my days involved living on the ramparts of modern society, on a little cottage farm far from the concrete jungles of commerce. My plan was to let nature operate that farm as much as possible. I would merely act as the conductor, waving my hoe like a baton in front of a natural orchestra that could read the music better than I could. I wanted a place that would contain habitat for a complete food chain, (a complete set of ecological music-makers), that is, a section for woodlot, another each for pasture, garden, orchard, pond and creek. If not philharmonic, my orchestra would be full-harmonic.
By and by we did find such a place, although it did not look as romantic then as I describe it now in my books. It was just 22 acres of rather plain countryside in the “flyover” midwest, with a nondescript creek at one end and a neglected woodlot at the other. In between was the usual boilerplate of sharecropped brownfields so typical of the cornbelt. As we went about the task of trying to orchestrate an ecological symphony from this land, we had no idea of the unforeseen wonders that would, well, more or less happen spontaneously.
One of the best examples came trumpeting out of the woodlot into which we nestled our house. The grove had been heavily grazed in years past, then more or less abandoned. Remaining were old oaks and hickories with the forest floor growing up in thorns and brush so thick that we could not even walk through it. Normally when outlanders settle in a grove like this, they bush-hog the undergrowth away to make the woodlot look like a park, which, over the long haul, has the same effect as grazing: no new trees to replace the old ones that eventually die.
We decided not to do that (too lazy to, actually). When I inspected the brush closely— really looked at it— I saw coming up through it thousands of little sugar maple seedlings from two ancient mother trees. They grew very fast, I noted, as much as six feet a year, straight up, reaching for the sun. I had to identify them from books; I didn’t even know they were sugar maples at first. Or that they would grow in shade. Or that, within a few years, they would shade out the brush.
In about ten years we could walk just about anywhere under the big trees, no clearing required. In thirty years the forest floor was as unobstructed by puckerbrush as if mowed. Nothing, but nothing, grew under the maples. Too much shade, although the shade of big oaks and hickories above them did not bother the maples. They grew straight as telephone poles and so in time will make prime timber for structural lumber or furniture, or easy to split for kindling.
By about the twelfth year, we looked out the kitchen window one October morning and noticed scores of golden flames of maple lighting up the under-story of the woods. It really was startling, and only grew more spectacular as the years went by. Now in October and November, the whole woods is enshrouded in gold. Even on a cloudy day, the sun appears to be shining.
There is a negative side to this, I guess. Seedlings of oak and hickory and other sun-loving trees won’t grow under the maples. There are old oaks, hickories, and ash trees still towering above, but at the rate the grove is growing now, in another hundred years it will be all maple, with other trees only around the woodland edges, or possibly filling in where the maples will be cut for timber or burnt by fire. (Managing all the different “woodwind” sections of this orchestra for prime timber, furniture wood and firewood is a subject for another post— oh those unforeseen puns.)
What we have inadvertently achieved by doing nothing is a masterpiece of living art that grows daily toward a masterpiece of economic and ecological sustainability. And the gift keeps on giving. The maples look lovely in spring (yellow blossoms) and the cool green of summer means natural air-conditioning for the house nearby and leafy bowers for wild animals. The trees will eventually be big enough to tap for maple syrup and sugar. Bird music filters down through the branches throughout the year. Even when the golden leaves fall, their beauty continues for a few more weeks before snow comes, making a carpet of gold on the forest floor. And all this for a backyard that never needs mowing.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
Image Credit: Jill Logsdon