The magical Indian Bean Tree

As is traditional, this Thanksgiving of 2016 I’ve been giving thanks, and I am most grateful for growing up rural on a working farm, and just as grateful for that happening in a time when farming wasn’t so industrialized that knowledge of the past wasn’t devalued or forgotten.  So often now, the  knowledge, especially the knowledge of nature that I saw used daily by my depression era parents, is considered “lost.” Happily, many individuals are working hard to bring it back and one of the areas where this occurs is with “native” plants.

One reason for the new interest in natives is that there’s a growing awareness that our pollinators are suffering from loss of habitat (not to mention all the poison used in modern “traditional” ag) — and that if we plant the right plants, i.e., natives, we can help re-create habitat that will aid pollinators and other beneficial insects.  And concern is merited. Pollinators are integral to plant growth–and agricultural effort.  We need our pollinators, our bees.  To this end, environmental studies are conducted, people are hired, and meticulous scientific inventories are conducted on parcels of land selected for study.  All of this is a good thing.

But selective effort isn’t enough–we need a widespread realization–and widespread shift–in how rural properties, both agricultural and residential, are managed.  Two key changes would have dramatic impact. One is abolishment of the use of synthetic pesticides. If we can get rid of the poisons that are routinely used in landscaping and in agriculture, the benefits would be rapid and dramatic. The other change that would help would be to change our addiction to mowing, to pristine golf-course style lawns and landscapes.

This past year I tried something on the farm.  I didn’t mow.  Not one bit, after bush hogging everything last November.  The result? When my reviewer came for the farm’s annual Certified Naturally Grown audit, I discovered that he had interned at the Smithsonian and was also working on his master’s in environmental science–and had certificates in permaculture.  He got out of his SUV and the first thing he mentioned was about the “bluestems.”  I didn’t quite know but quickly learned that native grasses–true natives–were all over the farm’s meadow areas.   There were others–and some I’ve learned about since.

The other thing that I’ve done was to abolish synthetic pesticides and herbicides. No Roundup.  Zero.  The only thing I’ve used has been hot pepper spray and in some cases, a vinegar and salt solution (the latter will kill anything).  And that’s been the case for 19 years.  And the results show, in pollinators, and in animal and plant life.  So often, I find a plant I can’t identify, like the one below.IMAG1734.jpg

During our walk around the farm that day in October, a bitterly windy day, at one point we looked up and saw a Monarch, struggling against the wind as it flew to a wild daisy plant, much loved by pollinators.  It was the last one I’ve seen this year–but amazingly, I’ve seen quite a few. Later, at the end of the visit, when I looked over the forms, I was happy to see a comment about “incredible diversity.”

My approach to farming, rooted somewhat in that depression era practicality that I was raised around, but also in a very modern awareness of the essential need to protect our biodiversity and to keep clean habitat–not just for animal life, but also for human health–has taught me to value the softer vistas of waving grasses, to check what’s emerging that might be something of value.

Out in the paddocks, where the goats and donkeys keep the grasses down and “controlled”, bluestems and other native grasses aren’t emerging as much in the other areas, but there have been these two strange 30 foot tall stalks with large leaves a foot across. I’ve been wondering what they were. Turns out that these are Cigar trees, or Indian Bean trees–an important Native American medicinal.  Another name for these are Catalpha Trees.  Native Americans used the seed pods for asthma and whooping cough–and the bark as a substitute for quinine.

Ten years ago, I would have cut those saplings down immediately.  Now, I wait to see what is emerging from nature.  Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all–that if we work with nature–rather than in reaction to, if we manage with an open mind to value, as to what is and isn’t a “weed”, rather than mowing everything down to a 1 inch swath or poisoning everything to eliminate anything not “planted”-our environment will do most of the work to restore itself.  And humans will benefit.

Can our communities, so focused on the ultimate mowed lawn, transition themselves to a place where nature is welcomed and not banned?  Hard to know, but if they could, wouldn’t that be wonderful.

Of course, yes, we need to manage the environment–but only where we need to do so. In addition to the Bean trees, this approach this year brought so much Saint John’s Wort, a highly valued medicinal that grows in meadows. Yet without some control, meadows and fields become forest, so this November/early December, fields will get bush-hogged, saplings–except for plants like the Indian Bean Trees–cut, and garden beds ready for cultivation. But all in moderation and all in intentional coordination with, and appreciation of, the power and cycles of nature.

There’s a full moon in the photo of the bean tree–the September Harvest moon of 2016. Seems fitting.