Thoughts on Farms and Herons

The Patience of the Heron

Stephen Leslie

Back when I was in high school (when Neanderthals still ruled the earth) we had an illustration in our Life Sciences text book that showed the clear and straight trajectory of the evolution of the human species; from a knuckle-dragging ape-like character---on through progressive iterations of increasingly human-like cavemen---to the apex of evolution when fully erect “modern man” (wearing furs and with spear in hand) hit the scene. Paleoanthropologists now tell us that this straight line track from ape to Homo Sapiens never actually happened. Instead, a plurality of Hominids emerged over a period of several million years during which several competing species were present at the same time and sometimes even fulfilling different niches in the same habitat. New developments in the technology of “reading” geologic deposits has helped scientists to understand more fully the impact that climate, and changes in climate, had on the evolution of these early Hominids. The rate of increase in the size of the brain among these species is the most accelerated example of change and adaption ever detected among any species of mammal. What the sediments of east Africa reveal is that simultaneous to the fast-track evolution of early humans the climate itself was undergoing frequent change hallmarked by precipitous swings from wet to dry. In a period beginning about 500 million years ago and running right up until the last glaciers retreated from the Northern Hemispheres 10,000 years ago, human beings have survived and flourished because we have been able to adapt to rapid climate change. In a very real sense, we owe who we are to climate change.(1)

The story of human evolution as revealed by paleoanthropologists is a new telling of an old story. In another version of this story our ancestors were granted free will by their Creator. They chose to eat the forbidden fruit of a tree at the center of the garden. That fruit granted them the double-edged gift of knowledge; a new self-awareness of their basic existential dilemma. Free will gave early humans the power to reason and to choose. Unlike every other mammal species that preceded them, our early ancestors were no longer locked into an ecological niche. Armed with an ever expanding tool kit and an unprecedented ability for social cooperation and communication, they could now move and reinvent themselves in new environments or else alter the environment to suit their needs.

Our capacity to produce tools external to our own bodies, as well as our extraordinary social cohesion and ability to communicate abstract concepts, have opened up seemingly unlimited potential for us not only to adapt to changes in our environment but to utterly reshape the environment itself---for better or for worse. Of all the traits possessed by our highly adaptable hominid forbears, it seems the capacity for “shared intentionality” among social groups played a prominent role in our ability to respond quickly and effectively to new environmental challenges. Perhaps our current epoch of human-generated climate change, while holding dire peril and inevitable environmental disasters, may also herald an extraordinary and rapid phase of human evolution in which we recognize---in a planetary-wide “shared intentionality”---our intrinsic oneness with the earth and all its other inhabitants. Such knowledge, when fully integrated into both our intellectual and somatic intelligences, could lead us to heightened levels of cooperation and communication allowing us to design regenerative physical systems to support our civilizations and at the same time foster diverse and healthy ecosystems.

This past summer as the growing season began to wind down and I made my daily walk out onto the pastures to move temporary fence for our herd of milking cows, I noted a great blue heron frequenting the grazing paddocks. I had often observed herons flying overhead, big as pterodactyl and as impossibly ungainly and graceful as the Wright Brother’s first bi-plane. Presumably they were winging their way from one wetland to another. This was the first time I had observed one stalking through the fields. I had always thought herons were wading birds and made their living hunting in the shallows for arthropods, minnows and amphibians. Yet here was this majestic bird working the fields of the upland pastures, stately in its fine slate blue plumage, slow to the point of motionless, yet possessing lightning-quick reflexes for a sudden stab of the beak at prey. Every time I saw the heron I would stand transfixed---the dance trance dance of the great bird was like watching a ballet dancer, a martial artist, and a dinosaur with feathers---all rolled into one. What came to mind as I meditated on the ways of the heron was one word; “patience”.

At home I looked up the great blue heron and discovered that this voracious bird does not limit its diet to aquatic species. While it eats mostly fish, and other river, pond and lake creatures (such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, and snakes), it also eats insects, small mammals, and even other birds. It has been known to stalk voles and gophers in fields, and to capture small water birds at edges of wetlands. What I learned is that the great blue heron is not only an adept hunter but because of its variable diet it is also a highly adaptable bird. As farmers contending with the erratic weather patterns of the Northeastern part of the country---exacerbated now by the wild swings of climate change---we see how in each season some crops do well and others suffer according to the year to year variables in the weather. We also note how certain weeds, pests and diseases flourish or are diminished according to whether it is a wet, dry, warm or cold growing season. Because of the breadth of its hunting skills and varied diet the great blue heron is able to make short term adaptions to these variables in the weather. As farmers we would do well to observe the patient and skillful means of this amazing bird. 

Farm life also demands great patience and an ability to adapt to variable circumstances, from changes in the weather to ups and downs in the market place. There is seldom any instant gratification on the farm. We plant seeds in a heated propagation tunnel in March. Weeks later we pot the plants on to a larger container. When the soil warms up enough we transplant them out to the field and then we hoe, cultivate, weed, water, fend off pests, until finally at the end of the growing season the leaf, stalk, fruit or flower is ready for harvest---and the cycle begins again. When one of our cows has a calf, we milk her, feed her, care for her every need. After a couple of months she is bred back. When her lactation period is over we dry her off and wait until she calves again and help her if she needs help. We raise the calf, breed it at a year old or so, care for her until she calves and is ready to join the herd and we begin to milk her, too---and the cycle begins again. Our mare has a foal. We raise the foal and treat it with kind authority. We gradually introduce it to training over the course of four or five years, until at last the foal is full grown and ready to take its place as a work horse on the farm---and the cycle begins again.

It has been estimated that industrial agriculture contributes at least 40% of the greenhouse gases triggering climate change. Industrial agriculture requires a toxic cocktail of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and it indulges in intensive water use, builds inhumane animal factories and promotes large-scale transport, storage and distribution of its “goods”. The principle objective of factory farming is to maximize production to maximize profits. The true costs of this extractive production system are not internalized or reflected in the price of the abundant cheap food available in First World supermarkets. Industrial agriculture transforms biodiverse landscapes into mono-cultural plantations and displaces the small-scale regenerative agricultural practices that have sustained rural communities and healthy ecosystems for thousands of years. The social, ecological and climate debt accruing to this agricultural system of mass-destruction is deferred to future generations, who will be left with a planet stripped of its regenerative capacity and resilience. Yet its advocates and lobbyists call for ever more land, technology and investment to feed the growing population, in spite of the fact that the industrial world currently wastes enough food to feed all the hungry.

There is extensive evidence that a small-scale agriculture which regenerates healthy soils and ecosystems will be more resilient to climate instability and can produce more food now and for generations to come. Right now, small farmers are still providing 70% of the world's food. The majority of these small farmers still rely on draft animal power to till their fields and to generate home-grown fertilizer. Locally produced food is not only healthier for people and the planet, it also provides meaningful livelihoods and decentralizes control of the food system, thus contributing to authentic food security that is not dependent on the “development strategies and initiatives” of multi-national corporations.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC---operating under the auspices of the United Nations) has estimated that for every 100 kg of nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil, one kg ends up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas and is the world's most significant ozone-depleting substance. In 2014, this was equivalent to the average annual emissions of 72 million cars driven in the United States—about a third of current the US fleet of cars and trucks. The wholesale use of chemical fertilizers impoverishes our soils, gradually depleting them of organic matter and of resilience in the face of flood or drought.(2)

Some scientists and engineers are now proposing that we can slow down or stop global warming by altering the environment with gigantic technological fixes such as launching vast arrays of solar deflecting shields into orbit or by constructing enormous machines that could pump CO2 below the floor of the ocean. The question here is whether you trust this new technology to fix the problems created by the old technology. As I meditate on the message of the great blue heron it occurs to me, that even in a time of global environmental crisis, we need the patience of the heron---and we all need to think and act like farmers. The very best way to sequester carbon and establish food security is to promote agro-ecological farming practices among every society around the globe. If every individual human being, and every village, town, municipality and city on this planet were dedicated to creating more topsoil through the promotion of sustainable agriculture we could sequester all the carbon we need to heal the environment, provide meaningful employment and feed all the earth’s people.

We humans suppose that free will is a special gift of our species but I think we should at least entertain the idea that other species have also chosen to evolve in certain directions. Imagine the ancient proto-horse---the dawn horse---venturing out in small herds and discovering the power to run. When I watch my own horses galloping about in the pasture in the freshness of a spring morning it seems clear to me that they are an animal that runs for the sheer joy of it. The theory of evolution tells us that species adapt to environmental pressures---natural selection rewards some and cuts down others in a ruthless mechanistic process. But our poets tells us that there is a lively and playful spirit afoot in the natural world---an intelligence embedded within the spirit of life itself---a spirit that is constantly morphing and shaping matter and increasing in self-awareness as it dances through the eons. Why should we not suppose that the first horses “chose” to evolve into fleet-footed single-hooved beings that could thunder in herds across open prairies and leave their enemies in the dust? Why should we not suppose that horses chose to ally themselves to our cause just as much as we chose to domesticate them?

With the help of draft animals we can create a truly regenerative agriculture and reclaim our place within the fabric of life---we can make it work. Our machines cannot save us from environmental destruction---but our allegiance with horses just might.


About the Author

Stephen Leslie, along with his wife Kerry Gawalt and daughter Maeve, manages Cedar Mountain Farm; a 4 acre Fjord Horse-powered CSA and Jersey cow dairy, located at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, VT.  Stephen is the author of “The New Horse-Powered Farm” and “Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century” both from Chelsea Green Publishing. He is a regular contributor to the Small Farmer’s Journal and Rural Heritage Magazine.

End Notes

1) For an in-depth look at current theories about the influence of climate change on human evolution see the article titled: Climate Shocks by Peter B. deMenocal on page 48 of the September 2014 edition of Scientific American magazine.

2) For more on the on the effects the fertilizer industry has in contributing to climate change see the September 30, 2015 report by Andrea Germanos, staff writer for Common Dreams, titled: 'Exxons of Agriculture' Wielding Power to Block Real Climate Solutions.