The whole farm smells of lilacs. We inherited a lot of ancient lilacs that surrounded the barn when we moved in here. The sheep have pretty well killed off the ones in their yard, but outside it there are lilacs 20 feet tall. We’ve encouraged the growth of others around the place — there’s one by the back door, one in the front yard, and a new fancy hybrid one (all the others are plain old-fashioned lilacs) that Suzanne has just planted by the front door.
So I find myself just going outside and sniffing these days. Just a little sniff, I say to myself. Then I notice a few weeds in the herb garden and pull them out. Then the sheep yell at me that they’d like to come out and graze in the orchard. So I let them out, but I have to keep an eye on them so they stay out of the raspberries. So I decide to gather the eggs and bring some comfrey to the chickens, since I’m out anyway. Then I remember that I haven’t yet staked the delphiniums. And it’s cloudy, a good time to set out the onion seedlings. And the strawberry bed needs mulching.
Three hours later I shoo the satiated sheep into their pen and happily take a last sniff before I go back to the word processor. These days are not very productive in terms of writing, but they sure are satisfying.
The orioles have returned to the high maple trees and their liquid song dominates the daytime. At night the peepers are the main noisemakers. The apple trees are in blossom and the meadows are spangled with dandelions. We are still in danger of frost, so the gardens are only half-planted. At the end of May when (theoretically) the last frost is past, we have a frenzy of planting the sensitive things, the tomatoes and peppers and beans and cucurbits.
Now they’re all still in the greenhouse. John’s greenhouse is finished, and boy, has it ever changed my life! He worked out a nifty design. It’s a lean-to coming out from the garage door that leads into our basement on the west side of the house. Since we need that door for other things (such as driving in cars for repairs in the winter), the greenhouse has to be removable. It all comes apart into four pieces, each of which weighs only about 100 pounds. When he finished it, he, Suzanne, and I set it up in about 15 minutes. It won’t take more than half an hour to take it down and store it away. Its main use will be in the spring, housing seedlings for the garden, which is what it’s full of now.
The minute John got the greenhouse done, I started moving in all the plantlets that I normally cover every windowsill in the house with. Then I saw that I hadn’t even used up a quarter of the space, so I freaked out and started up lots more of everything and moved down all the houseplants too. When the dust lifted and I sat back and saw what I had done, there was this beautiful sunny space, at 75 degrees (outside it was about 50), full of plants and flats and watering cans and bags of peat moss. Something in me blossomed — I realized how much I had wanted a greenhouse and for how long. I can hardly stay out of it. John comes down to work in his shop in the basement and finds me hovering over the seedlings with a silly grin on my face.
That grin is definitely goofy, but nothing compared to the one on Dennis’s face as he rods around on his NEW TRACTOR. If he were writing this letter, you would have already read several pages about this tractor. It’s a smallish orange Kubota (sorry, you’ll have to get the technicalities from him) with a front-end loader and a bush-hog and a chipper.
He has been attacking all the brushpiles on the place, reducing them to shreds with the chipper. There were a lot of brushpiles. Suzanne and I have a habit of working out our aggressions by cutting back jungle, and there’s no end of jungle to cut around here. We clip and pull and dig and hack and pile up the result. I try to burn the piles after they dry out, but they don’t really burn very well. So Dennis just chipped them all up, and I’m using the chips to cover the garden path and mulch the raspberries and fruit trees.
Yesterday Suzanne asked Dennis to take down two trees that were shading her garden. First he used the tractor’s winch to put tension on a cable that would guarantee what direction the trees would fall (it was a tight slot, between the barn and the garden fence). Then when they were down he lopped off the limbs and put them through the chipper. Then he used the tractor to drag the trunks to the woodyard for cutting into firewood. Grinning all the while, almost as much as I do in my greenhouse.
The reason there are still sheep to yell at me from the barnyard is that the two yearlings, Faith and Charity, are still up here and still unshorn. All the others have been sheared and are happily down in the pasture with their lambs. I don’t need to do much more than keep an occasional eye on them until September. Charity is going off to auction as soon as she’s sheared, and Faith may be pregnant (we still haven’t decided for sure — she’s still bounding around like a new lamb), so I’m keeping the two of them up by the house awhile longer. They are in the company of six Rouen ducks we just got. There are also 25 new baby chicks in the basement, and Brenna’s bunny Bobby in a hutch outside. My goodness, things do pop around here in the spring, don’t they?
John is busy fixing up a new little bedroom space in what used to be our attic. It started out as a simple project to insulate the roof better, so we wouldn’t have melts and ice back-ups and leaks in the winter. But the idea gradually expanded, and now we’re seeing it as either a guestroom, which we don’t have at the moment because the house is filled up, or more likely as a bedroom for Brenna. She’s getting to be big enough to need a room of her own, and she’s spending more and more time here rather than with her mother.
I have mostly been right here since my last newsletter, which is the way it should be in the spring. I took just one short trip, to the University of Wisconsin where I was an Earth-Day speaker, and from there to Fox, Arkansas, where there was an interesting meeting at Meadowcreek. Meadowcreek is one of my favorite places, one of those special places like New Alchemy and Findhorn and Auroville (and Foundation Farm) where people are trying to work out and live in their own lives a vision of a communal, sustainable, rational, peaceful world.
Meadowcreek was founded by two brothers, Will and David Orr, and their families. It’s in a beautiful valley between two Ozark ridges — it used to be six small hardscrabble failing farms. Now it is one working farm, plus a sawmill and woodworking business, plus a blueberry plantation that will soon have a cannery attached to it, plus an educational facility for young people who want to come learn about the earth both theoretically and experientially. It has a huge meeting-house and office building, and two large dormitories, and several regular houses for the staff, all solar-and-wood heated. Students come there on internships. They spend mornings reading and discussing the literature of the environment, and afternoons doing the work of the place — designing a solar building or constructing it, planting in the greenhouse, working in the fields or the woods.
I’ve watched Meadowcreek evolve since the beginning, when David Orr told me with a gleam in his eye of the plans for the place. It’s a classic story of people creating a wonderful vision out of nothing and making it real in the world. Never an easy exercise, new problems are always coming up, Meadowcreek’s are certainly not solved, but what a wonderful way to use your life, working for what you really want! People who do that not only deeply satisfy themselves, they inspire everyone around them. The Orrs certainly inspire me.
I went to Meadowcreek this time because of a wonderful meeting called there. A bunch of the leaders of what I will loosely call the environmental movement, all friends of mine — the Orrs, Nancy and John Todd, Hunter and Amory Lovins, Dana and Wes Jackson — together with the few farsighted foundations that support such wild activities as Meadowcreek, decided to assemble some of the workers of the movement for a brainstorming session. How are we doing in the quest for whole-system sustainability? What could we do better? How might we work more deliberately together? How can we add up our efforts to make more of a difference?
It was the kind of question we are always asking in the Balaton Group, and I knew from my experiences with Balaton that the asking is more important than whatever answers we come up with. I was especially delighted because, though I have the Balaton Group to ask such questions with internationally, I have never really been able to ask them, and to forge a network, with the many good workers in the United States. Internationally I feel I have many co-workers and many homes, but in my own country I feel kind of lonely. Not because there aren’t terrific people here, but because we never get together.
Well, it was a great meeting, and it met many of my needs, not only to meet new people and get back in touch with ones I already knew, but also to find specific information I need. I’m really onto urban recycling now, thanks to Neil Seldman, and onto a great natural way to process sewage, thanks to John Todd, and onto some neat new energy stuff from Amory Lovins. You will see this all emerge in columns as time goes by.
I got home from Meadowcreek just in time to watch a late-April blizzard mash thousands of newly-blooming daffodils. Ah, New England, land of eternal surprise! The power was out for 30 hours, which drove this computer-dependent household absolutely nutty. We have woodstoves for heat, a brook for water, candles and lanterns for light, we’re really pretty resilient against power outages, except for those computers. Dennis and I roamed around the house with nothing to do and I had a newspaper deadline closing in. Pretty grim, but we recovered.
So did the daffodils.