Cold Spring Diary: On Common Ground

by David St.-Lascaux

28 February 2015

WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY LOOKING FORWARD and back is a Januarian (Janusian) concept, the end of February finds your sober narrator doing just that. Having spent exactly a year in Cold Spring, one sees the cycle of seasonal activities begin again. For example, a tinnery of sap buckets was installed this week in Fahnestock Park at Hubbard Lodge, in far greater numbers than last year. They were in place when we arrived on March 1 a year ago. Their legions may imply optimism, or an informed program. Apparently certain years are more productive, forecast by whirligigs (the scientific terms for maple seeds are samaras and achenes) — in England “spinning jennys,” named for the prototypical Industrial Revolution cotton yarn machines (and note Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History [2014], the eye-opening story of the rise of global capitalism and factory industrialization) — and facilitating temperatures.

Whether through arboriculture or agriculture, the recycling bounty of nature is good. And it’s good to know that in the depths of agricultural winter, the maples lend their sap for syrup. At the Cold Spring farmer’s market, there’s another kind of garnered sap – Breezy Hill Orchard’s delicious winter cider, and various vegetables, some – like peppery radish sprouts and succulent pea shoots, grown in greenhouses. At Glynwood, it’s Siberia – potatoes, onions, eggs and frozen meats, however delicious.

Last week at Glynwood, I was talking with Farmer James about Norman Wirzba’s now-to-be-rescheduled lecture at Yale. Wirzba edited and wrote the stellar introduction to Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2002), a contemplation of agrarian values. Farmer Donald, also at Glynwood, says that Berry’s novels inspired him to become a farmer, especially A Place on Earth (1967). Caveat lector: a whole life’s ahead.

One usually learns more when one listens than when one talks. When I asked Farmer James what he was reading, he mentioned This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm (2005) by Scott Chaskey, a farmer/author/poet who farms at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, New York. Chaskey is an adept writer of humanity, humor and anecdote. As the title suggests, This Common Ground encompasses the soil, and contains such data as the lifespan of earthworms, critical tillers of the earth and indicators of its health. Chaskey is also a poet who knows his agrarian poetry, citing Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth and a number of moderns, including Elizabeth Bishop, Basil Bunting, Eugenio Montale, Lorine Niedecker, E.B. White and also poet Berry. Pertinently, This Common Ground is organized by seasons, beginning and ending – or rather rebeginning – in the spring. Chaskey’s bibliography, which includes Lady Eve Balfour (read on) and Aldo Leopold, is a companion in itself; the back cover blurbs lead off with one by Joan Dye Gussow, whose Cassandran argument for agrarian relocalization, The Feeding Web: Issues in Nutritional Ecology (1978), is unreviewed at

Chaskey’s literary talents notwithstanding, his case for local, non-industrial agriculture is his book’s most compelling and persuasive message. Chaskey quotes Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese agronomist, as saying,

“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

Fukuoka’s 自然農法•わら一本の革命 (Natural Farming: One-Straw Revolution; 1975) made its own case against Western industrial agriculture as polluter of the earth.

Virtuous paths always lead to new vistas of knowledge and pleasure. Fukuoka’s country lane leads to another book to read: The Living Soil (1943) by Lady Eve, an English organic farming pioneer whose longitudinal “Haughley Experiment” in Haughley Green, Suffolk, began in 1939. “Haughley” compared organic and chemicalized agricultural methods: earthworm populations were claimed to be diminished in the latter, suggesting that “fertilizing” the soil might be better characterized as anything but.

Meanwhile, a proposed “Plan B” solution (of questionable seriousness) to presumed faunal extinction from atmospheric warming (and society today is apparently unmoved by this prospect) is the injection of sulfur into the atmosphere. This justified by its author given that fossil fuel burning already annually releases 55 Tg (that’s 55 teragrams, 55×1012 grams or 55 million metric tons!) of sulfur into the atmosphere. Alternatively, we can solve this problem by ceasing to engage in (or minimizing) the activities that produce such effects in the first place, such as generating heat and electricity from coal and petroleum, driving petroleum-powered motor vehicles and raising livestock for food, inter alia.

PLAN B IS THUS A SOLUTION for decreasing earth’s albedo coefficient (reflectivity) that is environmentally and ethically analogous to soil chemicalization, genetic modification and pesticide application as means of increasing agricultural output. Perhaps there is something to the primitives’ mythic claims of humanity’s loamy origins: Being of this earth, our fortunes rise or fall with its.

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Text copyright © 2015.

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