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On Interdependence this 4th of July - Josh Viertel

Updated: 16 hours ago

“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer, for Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.” William Blake



Approaching the fourth of July, and reflecting on the solstice, I keep thinking about a particular bear. 


A few weeks ago we had the honor of hosting Tom Wessels for a walk on the farm. Tom wrote the book on Reading The Forested Landscape. In it, he walks through how our region’s apparently “wild” landscape has been shaped, not only by glaciers, forest succession, wind storms, and creatures, but by people and their actions, particularly farming. Tom is a conservation biologist, and has an uncanny ability to read the cultural and natural history of the land. Sherlock Holmes, in the woods. Reading stone walls, stumps, multi stemmed trees, scars in bark, fallen limbs, subtle rises and falls in the forest floor, he was able to decipher the land’s history – which parts had been pastured, plowed for flax or small grains or logged, and when.* 


Tom doesn’t call them “walls” either. He calls them stone fences, because that’s what they were. They kept livestock either in or out. And if they are in the woods, that’s because the woods used to be farmland, and then grew back. In spite of development, due to reforestation of agricultural lands which have been let go, there are more woods in our region than there have been in 250 years.


We made our way with Tom to a maple tree with scarred and broken limbs. The plants below it were pressed down, brown and dead. There were several huge piles of scat. It was a bear’s bedroom. The way the maple’s branches and bark had healed indicated that the bear had been marking the tree for several years. As we moved past the tree, along the toe of the slope, we came across a massive rotten log that had been pushed several feet to the side, exposing moist, rich soil and partially decomposed wood. Tom observed that the bear was harvesting grubs here, and I realized that we were now standing in the bear’s pantry. It is one thing to acknowledge generally that, “when we are in the woods, we are in someone else’s home.” It is another thing to actually understand that this here, right here, is where one particular bear has lived for several years, with a bedroom, bathroom, hallways and kitchen. 


We talk a lot on the farm about Aldo Leopold’s concept of a land ethic. Leopold argues that, to develop a general land ethic, one must know a particular place intimately, and then extrapolate to places in general. Relating to a particular piece of land, farming it, hunting on it, fishing on it, foraging there, is a wonderful way to develop our capacity for empathy for the place, to fall in love with it, and to develop our commitment to protecting places in general. 


Walking with Tom is a great reminder that, just as our “cultural” spaces contain the wild (whether that is a redtail hawk in central park, or a bear tipping you garbage) our “wild” spaces are shaped by culture. Us humans are not apart from nature, but a part of it.


It occurred to me that this same idea may hold true for our relationship to wildlife too. We celebrate Independence Day with fireworks. It can be fun – unless you are a non-human: I’ve heard from wildlife rehabbers, like the extraordinary Lynn Martin, that the noises and the lights scare baby birds out of nests, and push mothering mammals to flee, often leaving their young vulnerable. Since learning this, whenever I’ve heard fireworks, I’ve been generally aware of the potential fear and impact it might be causing. But now, I’ll be thinking about this particular bear, cowering in its particular living room. It is a good reminder, on a visceral level, that all spaces are shared spaces, and that, even on independence day, we aren’t really independent, so much as we are interdependent.


- Josh Viertel, Founder



*As an aside: It took 2 acres of flax to make a linen bed sheet! So before cotton and wool took over, colonial farms devoted lots of land to flax. And before the Erie Canal opened us up to the great plains, and before the railroads, farms had to grow their own grains.  Wheat, barley, and rye were planted, even on steep hills. Stone walls, with fist sized rocks in the center, were adjacent to plowed land, where frost heaved up small stones, and people, mostly children, tossed them onto the walls. And soil was plowed and eroded to the uphill side. So if you see a stone wall with soil higher on the uphill side than the downhill, and smaller rocks, likely it was plowed for grain or flax.

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