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The Farm in the Landscape: A Historical and Ecological Perspective

Craig Holdrege

This essay was originally published in Stella Natura 2000 (Kimberton Hills Biodynamic Agriculture Calendar, Kimberton, Pennsylvania: 2000).

I have the fortune of teaching at a rural Waldorf School-Hawthorne Valley School in upstate New York. It is surrounded by forest and by the fields and meadows of the biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm. In the 11th grade I teach ecology. For me, ecology means viewing and understanding phenomena within their larger context, the context that gives these phenomena their real meaning. In an ecological view each tree, each wildflower, is a focal point for a whole web of connections. Can I help the students begin to see such connections? Can we build up an understanding of the unique environment — the place Hawthorne Valley — of which they are a part every day?
Many of the students have gone to the school since Kindergarten. They have taken walks up through the forested slopes, played on the rock outcroppings, walked along and waded in a stream that meanders through a part of the valley where the heifers graze. They’ve tended farm animals and helped with harvesting in their "projects" classes, as well as on farm practicums in the third and ninth grades. They have been able to connect with the environment of their school in a way that most children cannot.

When the students reach high school, they can observe more wakefully and reflect more consciously upon their experiences. They can begin to see the familiar with new eyes. Once again we take walks. We study the shape, size, and species composition of the trees in different parts of the forest. By counting the annual rings of trees that have fallen over in winter storms, we find that most of the trees are less than 100 years old.

Once in a while we’ll come across single or a small group of mighty, older trees that once had great, expansive crowns, evidenced by the remains of dead branches and by knots further down the trunk. Such old giants usually grow along the remains of stonewalls that crisscross through the woods. Some of them have wire from sheep fences running through them, the wire having been overgrown by the wood and bark of the trunk. One time we came across a group of lilac bushes in full flower in the middle of the woods; nearby stones were piled upon one another in an order that suggested they had once been part of the foundation of some structure.

The students are surprised and fascinated by these observations, because up until then they had thought of the forest as a basically unchanging entity. Suddenly the forest becomes part of a process of historical and ecological change. The present is connected to a past that the students can begin to picture in their minds: within the past one hundred years these forests have grown up in an area that was previously dominated by farming. The fields had been cleared of rocks and rock walls were built to mark property lines and also to keep in sheep. Along such borders trees grew with expansive crowns, and lilac bushes were planted next to the farmers’ dwellings.

But in the course of time sheep farming died out and dairy farming moved west. Most farms were abandoned and the forest grew. If Hawthorne Valley and neighboring farms were to stop working, the Northeast would become one gigantic, dense secondary growth forest-except for towns and cities. Or, by contrast, if industrial agriculture had taken hold in full force, then there would be deforested land covered with huge hay and crop fields. Instead, the rich interplay of forest and farmland has come to determine the landscape in this part of the Northeast.
We then turn our attention to the farm. There are meadows, which are cut for hay, and some old abandoned fields that are becoming forest. There are grain fields and a large parcel of land used for various garden crops. The cattle graze on different pastures on a rotational cycle. Two streams run through the farm, one of which separates it from a forested slope. There are a number of small ponds. There are bands of trees and bushes that run between some of the fields and along parts of the streams. We notice that different species of wild flowers grow in the forests than in the meadows and again different ones in the pastures. A rock outcropping in the woods supports a wholly different community of plants than a rock outcropping on a southerly exposed pasture.

We are impressed by the great variety of life and the intermingling of different kinds of habitats. Ecologists speak of the edge-effect: where boundaries between differing habitats are created, a diversity in the communities of organisms arise that is not the same as in either of the habitats whose borders create the edges. In one study, for example, ecologists found only five species of birds on and around large crop field, but when trees grew along a field they found an average of 19 species.

It becomes clear to the students that if Hawthorne Valley were a forest or only a specialized farm with corn and meadows, this diversity would not be as great. This diversity is connected with the variety of habitats and boundaries, but also with the fact that herbicides, pesticides, and inorganic fertilizers are not used. Under these conditions myriad organisms can thrive.

In this way of viewing, an ecologically oriented farm begins to become an example of how the human being can interact with nature to support richness and diversity. Every child grows up today hearing primarily about the destructive impact of humanity on nature. But there is a real danger that overemphasis on the negative will have the opposite of the desired effect: increasing passivity in young people inculcated with the "keep-out, you’re destructive" attitude.

It’s not a matter of denying our often negative influence or of overlooking the necessity of conservation. But the reality of most places today is that they have in one way or another been influenced by human beings-even many places we call wilderness. We can’t step outside of nature, and the example of the Northeastern forest shows clearly how bound up we are with ongoing change in nature. The question is, whether we can find ways to guide our interaction with nature responsibly and creatively. I suggest that ecologically oriented agriculture, where this striving and its fruits can be seen, serves as a positive guiding picture for young people.

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