Something to consider as the world becomes more “instant” and modern. How can we get back to more sensible times? Especially with food and farmland in NJ?


by Hardscrabble Farmer

“The study of plant diseases for their own sake is proving an increasingly intricate game, to which modern scientists have devoted many wasted hours. Such studies would be amusing if they were not tragic, for no disease in plant, animal, or man can properly be viewed unless it is looked on as interference with, or to speak more plainly, as the distortion or negation of that positive aspect of the growing organism which we call health.”
― Sir Albert HowardThe Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture

Every year right about this time large clusters of chicken of the woods mushrooms appear on the root base of one of the big white oaks at the end of the esker. Laetiporus, an especially flavorful mushroom with an otherworldly orange hue, only appears once it has been well established within the heartwood. Basidiomycetes are indicators of a tree that is entering terminal decline and once this process begins it is simply a matter of time until it dies. I feel bad about losing the oak, it is a stately one with a massive butt free from any branches for at least fifty feet having grown in the shelter of the slumping side of the glacial kame. There are probably close to four hundred board feet of lumber in the trunk and two or three cords of firewood in the limbs alone. I expect that we should cut it soon if we are to get the most out of it, but for now, we slice off huge hunks of the sherbet-colored shelf fungus to roast, saute’, and dry for soups every couple of days.

We’re getting into the part of the year where the first clusters of red leaves appear on the soft maples down in the wet areas and the blue has gone out of most of the green, even in the garden, shifting towards the yellow spectrum of decline. I don’t know if most people can even see it, especially when the weather remains warm into the middle of September, but it’s there all the same. The weakest of the rock maples will give off color early, sometimes in single branches, sometimes all over and at once as if to throw in the towel on Summer before the Sun reaches its midpoint between zenith and nadir. I feel a sense of loss for these monsters, some of them 300 years or better, running short of time. The brilliant scarlet stands out amidst the funerary green of the big leafy heads and signals what is coming in the larger sense. At night we leave the windows open and wrap up against the cooling temperatures, sensing well ahead of time what we can reasonably expect in the coming months. We’ve begun to put the chickens in the freezers, to cure the Winter squashes and cook down and can the last flush of tomatoes to feed ourselves in the months to come. The ducks and the turkeys are still at it, for them it would appear as if Summer will never end, but it’s only a matter of time now until the frost for us to harvest them as well. I try and enjoy their sounds as they make their way around the farmyard looking for bits of this and that, stopping by the waterers to take a drink and then heading off again on their interminable rounds.

“The prophet is always at the mercy of events; nevertheless, I venture to conclude this book with the forecast that at least half the illnesses of mankind will disappear once our food supplies are raised from fertile soil and consumed in a fresh condition.”
― Sir Albert Howard, Soil and Health

I’m beginning to feel a few things myself lately; an inability to remember the specific word I am looking for as I compose a sentence in my mind, the dull ache in each of my joints that I have broken over the years, as well as a slight failing of my eyesight. Right now, as I write these words, I can see a miasma of floaters drift across my field of vision, highlighted by the glowing screen and though I can hear the soft call of a barn owl in the distance, behind it is the constant ringing of tinnitus. Each of my afflictions was earned by a careless disregard for the lifespan I have been blessed with and had I known at 20 that I would still be around 40 years later I like to think that I would have shown greater care for my physical body. In the 12 years that we have been living on this farm we have made up for some of those mistakes by eating better, sleeping deeper, working harder, and living in accord with our true natures, and it has worked out quite well for us. There have been accidents, sure, but no illnesses or disease have troubled us and we are physically and mentally fit for our ages. I understand that life is finite, that at any moment something that we had never considered might suddenly occur, some malady or affliction, but in knowing this there is a commensurate peace that accompanies such thoughts. Mortality is not something to be feared, but respected. How better to enjoy the moments of your life than to be aware of its eventual end? The agrarian life has demonstrated to me the inextricable link between life and death, the constant ebb and flow of vitality and decline, of growth and decay. My spirit has made peace with the process of slaughter and it fits into the bigger picture as perfectly as the hatchings and births. Plants emerge from the soil made entirely of dissolution and rot and they flourish in their time as essential as the sunlight and rain that falls on both.

I’ve been reading Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard and found myself thinking about the messages contained within his masterwork. As a young mycologist, he was sent to India by the British government to see if he could discover the cause of a malady infecting the indigo plant. He was part of a team of specialists; bacteriologists, virologists, and other assorted experts in the field of agriculture. Each brought their particular lens to study the blight which had recently appeared and threatened the income of the Crown. After months of fruitless study, Sir Howard made an appeal to the office in London to ask for additional funding, not to study the sick plants, but to spend time on the farms of those Indian peasants who produced perfect specimens. Over time he began to understand that the blight itself was not the problem at all, that specialization was not the tool that was needed to discover the cause of their troubles, but rather a handicap. The issue was that in their efforts to expand production and thus increase profits, the new plantations were located in soils completely unsuited to the species. The seedlings planted in the wetlands along the river deltas had the nutrients they required routinely washed away from the roots by the waterlogged soils. Once they were amended with ample supplies of composted manures, the blight vanished and the crop delivered bounteous harvests. In this way, by listening to the people who lived on the soil and worked with living things daily, he was able to piece together what would one day become the foundations of the organic farming movement. Even as Britain- and indeed much of the West- had moved away from agrarian lifestyles in order to facilitate the burgeoning industrial era, it had left behind a vast trove of precious knowledge about life itself. That living organisms do not exist as atomized individuals or cogs in a machine, but as integral parts in a tapestry of living ecospheres. The soil was not an inert anchor for roots, but a living carpet of incalculable organisms that sustained all life on land. The mere addition of NPK, lime, herbicides, and pesticides might give the appearance of vigor to new plants, but what it did to the soil, the water, the overall long-term fertility of anything planted in it was disastrous. Halfway through the book, Howard began to unveil a different sort of understanding, not so much about plant life, but about his own species. The soil, he’d discovered, and everything which grew out of it was essential for the health of human life.

We can all see that what has been going on in our country over these last four or five decades isn’t healthy. We know that the only solutions offered are political in nature and therefore doomed to failure. Like Howard discovered when he looked into the indigo blight the symptoms are not the problem, but the conditions which allow for them to manifest themselves are. Everything exists in context; the people, the land, their food, and their lives are bound inextricably to one another, and that the failure to maintain the proper balances as far down the food chain as the soil would show itself in the maladies and diseases that appeared in the organisms so affected by our tunnel vision, our religion of Science with its experts and specialists, the clerical order of the 21st century. All of the tangible fear that exists in the top half of the covered faces of the West, the morbidly obese monsters that barely resemble human forms, the endlessly modified bodies, the hundreds of millions of psyches placated by chemical adulterants, the endless orgy of violence and arsons that take place daily in virtually every urban center on Earth are not planned expressions or well thought out protests. Rather these are spontaneous reactions to a desperately malnourished body politic. Hands without creative work to manage them become tools of destruction to tear down the edifices which represent our toxic environment. Humans without complete connection to one another become bitter enemies despite suffering from similar maladies in the same environment. All of what we’ve experienced in these past few months is more like the dying reflexes of a chicken with its head cut off, the random electrical impulses firing synapses unconnected to reason or logic, driven by instinct rather than rationale. There are those who, I imagine, must gaze upon these riots and hordes of anxious pseudo-surgeons wandering aimlessly amidst the wreckage of civilization in the midst of its death throes in the same way a farmer looks at his terminal trees. Everywhere are the signs and signatures of a herd driven mad by thirst or hunger with no respite in sight. They may have engineered this calamity in the same way that the British dye makers planted their indigo along the brackish waters of the sub-continent or they may simply be opportunists working the angles until such time as the table is swept clear of the useless-eaters. There is simply no way for us to know, but that doesn’t mean we no longer have an option. This world is a closed system and only by observing the immutable laws of Nature can we ever hope to escape an event horizon which rapidly approaches us all.

“Our industries, our trade, and our way of life generally have been based first on the exploitation of the earth’s surface and then on the oppression of one another–on banditry pure and simple. The inevitable result is now upon us. The unsuccessful bandits are trying to despoil their more successful competitors. The world is divided into two hostile camps: at the root of this vast conflict lies the evil of spoliation which has destroyed the moral integrity of our generation. While this contest marches to its inevitable conclusion, it will not be amiss to draw attention to a forgotten factor which may perhaps help to restore peace and harmony to a tortured world. We must in our future planning pay great attention to food–the product of sun, soil, plant, and livestock–in other words, to farming and gardening.”
― Sir Albert Howard, Soil and Health

Know this; the only way to live a healthy life is to be close to the soil, to inhabit a place, and to make it better by the humble industry not of machines and technologies, but of hands and spirit. We must, if we are to survive for the next generation, find our way back to the garden and raise our own provender one day at a time and to live as we were meant to, not inside artificial urban fortresses jam-packed with man-made devices dead and inert. We must raise and teach our own children the lessons and skills, the values and traditions that have meaning to us, and not blindly accept the dictates and demands of the unhinged and power-mad political classes that treat us far worse than any form of livestock for their own profit and amusement. We are still free if we believe that we are and by believing we manifest another reality, a separate peace, one where our children and their children will grow up healthy and happy, connected to that which keeps them healthy and alive.

About the author


NJroute22 (site admin) is an avid traveler along NJ Route 22 (and almost all of central New Jersey!) Family man, pet lover, and property owner who has a natural curiosity for everything around.