One Last Look

Our designer, Lisa Cadieux, and I went to Springfield Printing Corp. today to give the book a final look. I drove up Route 7A from Shaftsbury to Manchester, then Route 11 and 30 through the Green Mountain National Forest, up Bromley, down into Londonderry, then along the Middle Branch into Chester. From there I ran up 103 and right angled onto 10 to get to North Springfield. Lisa was coming from Burlington, so her options were more varied. I forgot to ask how she drove. Likely it was on the Interstate to save time and brain capacity, but maybe in the spirit of the book we both just helped build it was down 100, through Waitsfield and Granville, Pittsfield and Plymouth, the Mad River and then the White and then the Black. Or maybe it was 12 to 106, and Randolph and Bethel and Barnard and Reading and all those other little heart-of-Vermont towns. I leave you with the image of two people driving from their respective corners of Vermont and meeting in the middle at a Vermont printing company that’s been in one family since the 1960s. All of us working together to publish a book about life in rural Vermont. It feels very 2020 in a good way.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Trevor Mance to the Board

When we make broad statements like humans have been amending soil for millennia, we run the risk of making history seem like one straight line. It also implies that we keep getting better at it, when the truth is much more complicated. If we look directly at the soil, then sure, it was great when farmers in the nineteenth century  started amending soil with bonemeal and guano. They were learning that they couldn’t take without giving anything back. But the big picture was awful, with guano mines in the Philippines being worked with slave labor and at least some of the bonemeal a byproduct of a market hunting industry that was driving wild animals to the brink of extinction. Today conventional farming relies on synthetic fertilizer, which is certainly a step up from a human being being whipped in a guano pit, but it still carries its own host of complications. The 10-10-10 pellets many of use — myself include — fertilizes soil without building it, so it’s a short term boost followed by a long-term depletion.

From where I sit, one of the more hopeful trends in the art of amending soil is compost, as we watch, in real time, this endeavor get turned from a backyard pursuit to big business. The whole promise of the industry is built on the common-sensical idea that if we take the food waste out of our wastestream, we can take a CO2-producing waste product and turn it into a CO2-sequestering product that builds soil. And while the history of ag, really the history of capitalism, warns us to be wary of big business, big business needs to be a partner in this if we’re going to make any dent in a global problem.

There are many reasons why we’re excited to welcome Trevor Mance to our board, among them his business acumen and vision. I can vouch first hand for his gifts, since as his older brother, I’ve known him his whole life and all but the first three years of mine. But in the context of the Almanac, it’s great to know someone on the forefront of the compost question. Trevor works for Casella Waste Systems, the largest wastehauling company in Vermont, as their compost operations manager. If he and his team, along with all the other players in the industry, can figure out a way to make large-scale composting logistically feasible and cost effective, then there’s the opportunity for landscape-scale good.

Vermont Almanac Welcomes Chuck Wooster to the Board

We subscribe to a USDA newsfeed, and so we get press releases concerning food that’s being recalled. Over the past three weeks there have been alerts concerning around 100,000 pounds of meat products, from taquitos and chimichangas that had hard plastic in them, to meatballs, chicken, and meat patties that were released without inspection, to an ambiguous near-17,000 pound jag of “meat” that was “misbranded.” (They forgot which company they were packing for? They forgot what animal the meat came from?)

Let’s be fair about this: If you look at the historical trend line in food safety in this country, it’s clear that the USDA and the packing houses have done and are doing a remarkable job in ensuring that the food we eat is safe. And there have been no reported injuries or sicknesses from any of the product that was recalled. In a sense, the recalls are an example of a system working. Still, the system itself is sobering and overwhelming. If the past three weeks are representative of a year, that would mean over a million pounds of meat will be recalled. The scale is so large. The players so ambiguous. (Ever heard of BrucePac? Hafiz Foods? Coco’s Italian Market?) The system itself just feels so disjointed, and overwhelming, and so divorced from the land, that it makes you stare long and hard at everything on your plate.

Virginia Barlow and I had the pleasure of walking around Chuck Wooster’s Sunrise farm the other day – we were there to ask Chuck if he’d be on the Vermont Almanac board. And what we saw there was an antidote to the sinking feeling I got trying to wrap my mind around the recalls. The chickens in the cooler at the CSA stand had, just weeks earlier, been scratching in the pasture on the hillside. We walked up and saw their replacements. Chuck and his crew are the farmers and the packers and the marketers – the whole food supply chain is on display for the consumers to see. They can also see how the farm is an integrated, circular system – how the land and the vegetables benefit from the animal manure, and how the animals in turn benefit from the healthy land.

It was a great visit, and Chuck agreed to be on our Board. Besides his many other talents, Chuck will be bringing real world farming experience and a vision of what healthy agriculture was and can be again. Having him as an advisor and a partner in this project makes the publication stronger, and we’re thrilled to add him to the team.

What a tail! Nothing like a gorgeous comet to take a person out of this world. Just after dark, just below the big dipper, in the northwest.

Abuzz

The pleasure of my summer has been watching the food plot I planted in May come along . . . has been watching the wildlife garden I planted in May come along . . . has been watching the . . .

It’s hard to come up with the right descriptor.

I broke ground in May for a wildlife garden in the back-backyard, up against the tree line. The problem with calling it a wildlife garden is that it sounds so Ranger Rick. As the proud father of a three-year-old, I’m nevertheless trying to hold on to a bit of my adult self. It is a food plot, but I’m uncomfortable with that blunt, clinical phrase in the other direction, especially with the implication that its sole purpose is to hang a tree stand over. To be clear I’m not above meat-hunting, and if a fat doe presents a legal opportunity this fall while availing herself of the forage, there’s a chance she’ll end up in the freezer. But the goal here is a lot bigger than hunting. It’s about giving back, to deer but also to every other animal that wants to avail itself of the planting.

The original plan was a buckwheat crop that I’d knock over right about now, to be followed by a fall clover planting. In theory, I want to kill the buckwheat before it goes to seed. But in practice, I just can’t bring myself to do it. When I envisioned helping animals I was picturing mammals, but this planting is so abuzz with thousands of insects that I’ll likely miss my window.

In the quiet morning you can hear the buzz emanating from the quarter-acre plot at about 50 feet off. I spent some time this morning standing in the chest-high flowers, just feeling the pulse. There were hundreds if not thousands of honey bees, and bumble bees of all different species, but most remarkable were the pollinators I’d never taken the time to observe. Little yellow jacket mimics that hovered like hummingbirds. Jewel-colored flies and wasps of all sizes. Black insects with orange bottoms and soft, moth-like wings. Dainty wasps with hornet-butts and delicate, French-looking wings. Aggressive-looking horsefly-sized flies. Nondescript flies. Ants of every size and shape.  Tiny butterflies that you could spend a morning trying to ID.

I remember interviewing an entomologist for a story years ago, who told me that while there were something-thousand known insects in the Northeast, there are likely thousands more that have yet to be classified. There’s a chance that some of the pollinators I was watching have never been documented. And with the well-known struggles pollinators are having these days, there’s a chance some could go extinct without ever being “known.”

And so the buckwheat stands, and the clover planting is being pushed off until the buzz dies down.

Vermont Almanac on WCAX

Dave Mance and Patrick White appeared on WCAX on July 13 to talk about Vermont Almanac. Our thanks to host Céline McArthur–the conversation was a great opportunity to introduce our new annual book about life in rural Vermont to an audience around the state. Here’s a link in case you missed it, here’s a link to the WCAX segment.

 

Taking Responsibility

Wendell Berry once pointed out that if we believe that the ultimate reality is political, and therefore the ultimate solutions are political, we’re going to have a hard time doing right by the land.

I’ve been thinking of this as Vermont unrolls its new mandatory composting regulations. As of July 1, residents are required to keep vegetable waste out of the trash, though in reality ANR will not be searching garbage bags for compliance. If these composting regulations are to lead to a greater good, people will have to buy in and change their habits. The private sector will need to figure out how to absorb or pass on the extra costs. Homeowners will have to figure out how to discourage or live with more crows and skunks and coons and bears. Farmers are going to have to figure out how to incorporate finished compost in lieu of synthetic fertilizer, even though it’s more expensive and harder to handle. If people are going to be motivated to do this, they’ll need to see the earth as something more than dead matter upon which they drive to and from work.

Berry’s point is that when we see things through a political lens, it’s easy to sub out the hard work to others and then Monday-morning-quarterback the results. Politics – especially these days – also turns simple things into complicated, existential things. The relatively straightforward issue of not throwing a banana peel in the garbage can become an affront to our personal liberty and right to make a living, or a dramatic first step towards a worldwide eco-revolution. The reality is that the politics here are a nudge, trying to push society in a less wasteful direction.

If we’re to do the enormous work of learning to live within our means on an increasingly fragile planet, we need to start with simple steps that are manageable and that we can each be responsible for. For those of us who live in rural areas – which geographically speaking is the majority of us – we now have to scrape our food scraps into a bowl and walk it to the hedgerow each night. I can handle that.

Composting can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Here’s the years-old compost pile in my hedgerow. We compost everything, including meat scraps. It doesn’t smell unless you’re standing on top of it. We ignore the crows and opossums. We delight in visits by foxes and bears. We’re not trying to make a finished product.

A Buckwheat Planting for Soil Health

The people who founded this publication all come from the forestry world, a craft that’s a lovely mix of art and science and voodoo. One of the things that fascinates me about it is the lack of control. You never start with a blank canvas – even clearcuts have unpredictable seed banks – and so you’re managing a forest that has its own ideas about what and how it wants to grow. You’re also working on crazy timescales: 10 years, 30 years, 70 years, 100 years until you see the results of your inputs. The best foresters I know practice the craft like the best teachers I know. They evaluate, then meet the trees/pupils where they are. They help the site reach its maximum potential, which in different scenarios means different things. They balance economic productivity with wildlife habitat goals and ecosystem health.

This is all so different than traditional agriculture, where your goal is to grow a crop. Sure, you’re still worrying about ecosystem health, albeit in different ways. But where it comes to the ground you’re cultivating, you buy seed that’s already been selected for overachievers, you create as blank a canvas as you can each spring, and then you grow towards a goal of maximum yield. The whole endeavor ends within the span of a growing season.

These differences between Ag and Forestry feel both foreign and exhilarating to me. And I guess the part that appeals to me most is the ability to build and strengthen the soil, which is something you can only do very passively in the forest.

I’ve been working on the soil in two garden plots this year around my house, one for the family, one for the wild animals. The first step was to drag an old International Harvester two-bottom plow out of the hedgerow and use it to turn the earth. It’s 1930’s – 1940’s vintage, but it worked elegantly. This was followed by a pass with a set of disks of the same era, which did show some signs of their age. I ran into some snags in the garden plot – we’ll get to that in a different dispatch. But the food plot went better, and I was soon picking and piling clods. (Some are reading this and wondering why, if i’m interested in soil health, did i even plow at all? The simple answer to this fair question is that using a cool old piece of equipment with my three-year-old was more appealing than strapping on a backpack sprayer full of chemicals to kill sod. We’ll get into no-till systems in more depth in future content.)

When the field was prepped, I seeded it with buckwheat. The goal is to grow a crop for the soil, though crows and chipmunks (among other animals) love the seed, and it’s being munched by deer and cottontails as it grows, and it’s flowers will soon attract pollinators, especially honeybees. The plant’s roots loosen topsoil and the stems store phosphorous, which then gets released as it decomposes to be used by the next crop, which in this case will be a perennial clover mix.

Buckwheat is relatively easy to grow. Its big black seeds are highly visible and thus a breeze to broadcast. It’s not known to be particularly drought tolerant, but it weathered the drought we’re in like a champ. I used an old set of harrows to cover the seed. Knowing the implement was less than ideal, I overseeded to compensate. The charts call for 50 lb./ac; I probably seeded closer to 80 lb./ac. But seed’s cheap, so for a quarter-acre plot we’re talking maybe an extra $10 to overdo it.

You can see from the picture above that the results have been pretty good. Buckwheat grows fast, so in a few weeks from now it’ll flower, and a few weeks after that it’ll be ready to get turned in. If I were transplanting the next crop, I would cut and leave the buckwheat residue in the field to maintain soil stability and suppress weeds. But since I’m seeding, I’ll likely till it in. The downside to this is that I’ll be breaking up soil aggregates, the upside is that I’ll have a better surface for the clover to germinate in.

A real farmer across the road is rehabbing an old corn field with buckwheat this summer, too. Here’s a picture of his crop in as it breaks into flower. It smells 80 percent sweet and lovely and 20 percent dank and sour.

Trout Fishing in Vermont

Many outdoor pursuits, were they analogized to the written arts, would read like essays or newspaper columns. Trout fishing season on the other hand – all two hundred something days of it – is a full-fledged epic novel.

This pretend book – let’s call it “Trout Fishing in Vermont” – has a sprawling, Russian feel, heavy on symbolism and descriptive elements. The story unfolds somberly, the palette heavy towards blues and grays. There’s condensed breath against steely skies. Tension in roiling, potentially hypothermic whitewater. The landscapes are stark: rivers angry; lakes desolate and sterile seeming. First the lakes look glaucomic, with blue edges and icy pupils. Later they steam like cauldrons and appear hot to the touch.

The action is slow in the early chapters. Stocked rainbows provide simple sport and early-spring camaraderie, but the experience is often blunt. Native trout, which make you work for them, can be sluggish and disinterested at first. In fact, on cold years like this one, the book starts off at a glacial pace. But don’t worry. Stick with it, and “Trout Fishing in Vermont” will prove well worth your time.

When our protagonists do make more than a fleeting appearance, often in May, sometimes as late as June, it’s always breathtaking. Matriculated rainbows shine with sheen. Hook-jawed browns present pupil-sized crimson spots. Brookies – the loveliest of all – feature greenish vermiculations that give way to shades of cadmium yellow and pumpkin orange and salmon pink, vibrant colors that grow in depth through the seasons. Part of the charm is that all these fish are beautiful and shy. They’re also sensitive – especially the brookies. To find them, you have to seek out cold, clear water first.

As the novel progresses, it becomes bright and redemptive. Most of it unfolds at a quiet, arthouse pace. There are lots of wandering subplots. A whole chapter might be devoted to a doe and fawn drinking from a pool, or a river-bottom path that leads to a splatter of chanterelles. There are mid-day naps on shady sandbars, the remnants of a fish lunch nearby.

If this all seems random in my retelling, rest assured that the author somehow makes it work.

The human characters in the book are a ragtag bunch: absent-minded poet types, streamside entomologists, worm-can-toting youngsters with old souls, dandies with $1,000 fly rods, rebels with wild hair and empty wallets, to name a few. But while they come from all walks of life, they’re united in devotion to this one particular family of fish. Why not big cretin bass, or cast and catch panfish? Why not charter-boat blues? Why trout? You may as well be asking why love. Why sing.

Read the book and you’ll understand.