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May 27th, 2013

Sex in the Trees

Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.

5-27 AA periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.

So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.

They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.

Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle.  All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.

527EFruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.

Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates.  And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.

The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.

527 DGooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds

Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited.  The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark.  All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death.  What’s the point?

Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose.  We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning.  Maybe the joke is on us?

So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on.  The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.

527CWe parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.

I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me.  –Mb

…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.

They must begin at last to struggle towards love…

This is the wild light that our dreams foretold

while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-

while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.

–Judith Wright, The Cicadas

Visit Stonegate Farm at StonegatefarmNY.org

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May 5th, 2013

My Dilemma with Omnivores

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”

CSA May 2013-9344Breakfast of Chickens:  The apple blossom special.

My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first.  Just when a long-awaited apple,  pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.

Chickens are über-omnivores:  They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask).  And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard.  Who does that?

I’m not alone, of course.  I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.

CSA May 2013-9492Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.

I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation.  “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters?  How do you keep them out?  This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable,  plundering is not.

And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry;  It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.

I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.

I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.

CSA May 2013-9511-2

Spring at Stonegate Farm:  One sexy piece of earth.

So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante.  Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs.  -Mb

Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org

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July 27th, 2009

The Love Apple

Our tangled galaxy of heirloom tomatoes has started to glow with color this week, and – barring a love apple apocalypse – we’ll be in fruit until frost. Caught below in flagrante delecto, they seem oblivious to blight, sun-colored and heat-swollen. Yes, there is something remarkable about a warm, unruly ravel of tomatoes, the kind of sensual squalor you don’t get from neatmarshalled rows tied up with string.

Love apple comes from the French (who else?), who thought the pomme d’amour was an aphrodisiac. The Germans had their Liebesapfel, the Italians theirpomi d’amore. It seems this little fruit gets around.

But these are tough times for the pommed’amour, and the plight of tomato farmers across the Northeast has hit prime time: Both the New York Times and NPR ran pieces on the fungusamungus, and Orange County’s black dirt region was singled out at particularly hard hit.

And the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes – where the buyin‘ is cheap – seem to be complicit (surpirsed?).

So we can add a medieval black death of tomatoes to the minus column this year. Here’s a link to the Times article: Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop.

My advice: Savor every sweet, local liebesapfel that crosses your lips this season.

We Go Both Ways


Neat, marshalled rows. Efficient, very German.


The sprawl method: sensual squalor.

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