Chapter Sixteen

Every plant, animal, bacterium and viral particle depends on the side-effects and by-products of others, and all life is interconnected, along with the watery brine and mineral crust, into a massively complex adaptive system that one could say is capable of a kind of planetary cognition. Relationships form because living beings can respond successfully to fallible signals, which they subjectively recognize. After eons of such intentional actions, everything hinges on everything else, and so nature is intelligent.

Everywhere I look on my little five-acre farm, there are relationships across time and space and species which, built initially upon instinct, have, through learned experience, evolved into our distinct farm culture. And because the relationships are interpretive, not set in stone, they are robust and can continue, even when some expectations fail.

Generations of crows have dined at our compost pile near the barn; the territorial black sentries, in turn, protect the chickens from hawks, who are pushed to the perimeter near the vegetable garden where they survive mainly on a rabbit and vole diet. A pair of red-tails raise their young in my lately unused treehouse perched high above the garden, which remains practically rodent-free. Meanwhile in the pasture, the chickens range free, unmolested by the hawks, and follow the sheep who scare up grasshoppers for the hens. The skittish sheep warn the chickens about possible invaders. Foxes, who prefer an easy meal of wild berries, snakes, mice and squirrels, only seldom dare to take on a valiant rooster. When a fox appears, the hens fly to the trees and sound the ground predator alarm (a squawking ruckus that I’ve learned to distinguish from the very similar daily ‘I just laid an egg’ announcement and also from the ‘sky predator’ alarm, which is answered by the crows, not me). I put down my coffee cup or jump out of the shower and come out yelling, sometimes in just my underwear and muck boots, waving my arms to chase the fox off the rooster.

A good rooster is essential; he breaks up hen fights and when he finds a grub, he clucks the juicy food signal and presents it to a hen. I lose a good rooster every year, but I can afford to keep extras because forage abounds, mainly from the seeding grasses, the feral raspberry bushes along the boundary and five mulberry trees dotting the pasture, whose ancestors were probably cultivated in the 1750s by the first Quaker homesteaders, who were mimicking the natives, precisely for this purpose.

When I was a boy, we had a blind chicken, who, because we let the grasses go to seed, managed to find food just by feeling around and grabbing seed heads with her beak. We also have grape vines growing on the fences (the sheep keep the trunks pruned) and when this hen, Sydney, ran into the fence, she found grapes that fallen to the ground.

Sydney invented a completely original call to communicate with me and my mom. When she wandered off and got lost (which happened often) we sang out, “Sydney?” and she replied with her signature four-part musical phrase, and we Marco-Polo-ed until we are reunited.

Once when invasive Japanese beetles were turning our grape leaves into lace, Sydney discovered that if she struck the wire fence with her breast, the tasty beetles got knocked loose and rained down. The other chickens learned her trick. And although Sydney died of a bound egg ten years ago, the beetle hunting tradition she started has been passed down and continues today.

How did Sydney figure out this technique? Did she pluck up her first beetle expecting a grape? Animals are like artists when they take advantage of their mistakes. In contrast, if Syme, with funding from Felix, were to design a robot to pick grapes, he would decompose each step toward the goal, assign values as percentages, and create a machine that would reject the beetle as not a grape. Sydney did not merely learn from trial and error to refine her grape-finding skills.  An intelligent animal can develop new skills and new goals by mistaking an unknown for something it does know. Because Sydney wasn’t locked in a cage to keep her safe and was expected to fend for herself a bit, she was out there trying, and she discovered a new way to get easy food; and when the other chickens adopted her method, a plague of insects was prevented from destroying the grape harvest. On an intelligent farm, the mostly self-interested actions of every chicken, sheep, crow, hawk and the others tend to mutually benefit the others. It’s not that animals are communists or anything like that; it’s not that the universe is divinely benign; it’s just that ecosystems tend to evolve this way because those that are helped as a side-effect of another’s actions tend to thrive. Some altruism here and there helps some too. It sure isn’t competition that leads to a smarter farm; it’s the relationships.

Animals in cages aren’t able to fend for themselves. During the lockdown we were put into our cages and sent stimulus checks. Then we got unemployment or PPP loans. We weren’t allowed to try to figure out how to best protect ourselves from the virus. The cures could have been discovered and communicated much faster if the intelligent mass of the planet had been able to freely interact. People who aren’t allowed to fend for themselves, really fend, make decisions, take risks, are not being enabled to give back to their communities. This doesn’t just degrade the life of the caged individuals but the whole system in which we exist.

If we are to survive as a species, the ones who now run the farm need to be put in their places as peers, not leaders. The bureaucrat’s role is to put up a few fences and make sure there’s a good roof on the barn, for which he can be paid the average laborer’s wage. Our elites need to get out of way and let us be the smart animals we are.

If we are to survive as a species, we each have to tend our own plots. More suburbanites need to have a kitchen garden and a five or six hens. More city dwellers need rooftop gardens and more than a few of us in the rural areas need to fully return to the habits of our hayseed ancestors and start working with the dirt. 

“Is this one?” asked Honoré showing me a shriveled plant she had pulled up.

“Let’s see. It’s got a knot of orangey roots, a stiff dark shoot going off here. Yeah, it looks like a strawberry plant.”

“I’m good at this,” she said.

“You learn quickly.”

It was an usually warm November morning. Some animal instinct had driven me outside to finish preparing the garden beds for winter. The night before a lighting storm had cracked the sky into innumerable pieces over and over again and the subsequent thunder had wracked the old house until Julia thought it might come down. In the morning, the ozone-clarified air seemed thinner, and slate gray remnants of storm clouds were breaking up in the east. A bright white sun was climbing over Rattlesnake Ridge into the clear cornflower blue when Honoré’d found me in the garden working with a pitch fork on an old strawberry patch.

“Watcha doing?”

“Moving strawberry plants. This bed’s overgrown with grass.”

“Can I help?”  She was dressed in a white cotton nightgown and blue rain boots.

“Yes, you can. I’ll loosen the dirt up, like this. And then you come in and pull the strawberry plants out and separate them from the grass.” I pulled up a long creeping rhizome. “See these white roots? That’s grass. Throw it into this weed pile.”

Honoré  thrust her chubby hands into the loose soil and pulled on the grass shoots.

“If you hear the roots snap, that’s not good, so use this hand trowel to pry underneath and loosen them up more.” I demonstrated.

Honoré  pulled on a stand of bluegrass. A perfectly intact two-foot root slid easily out of the soil.

“Excellent. Put the strawberry plants in this bucket here. Later, we’ll plant them over there by the blueberry bushes.” I thumbed over my shoulder.  “No one mulched it during the summer.  We’ll put a thick layer of mulch on and next year the bed won’t have so many weeds.”

Honoré had been coming with her mother to stay the weekends for more than a month.  Although I wasn’t provided with any details—Julia was discrete that way—I understood that a separation agreement had been reached and Julia was going to be the main custodial parent, per her wishes.

I’d had zero experience with children prior to getting to know her, and frankly, I’ve always been a little frightened of kids, due mainly to my exposure to them when I was one. But I realized my relationship with Julia would depend in part on how well Honoré liked me. Luckily this diminutive person in oversized rain boots was chatty, helpful, curious and empathic. We got along fine.

Honoré was still under the impression that adults play chores, and I took advantage of the situation to exploit child labor.  Soon enough Honoré would reverse her position, but for now she was eager to further develop her expertise at distinguishing strawberry plants from bluegrass.

“Felix O’Brien, you know who that is, right?”

“The godzillonaire.”

“Yes. He is trying to make robots to do this kind of work. How do you feel about robots taking your job?”

“Well, I would share the work if they wanted. What’s this, Winston?” Honoré  pointed to a tiny sprig of fennel. Her kindergarten class, I happened to know, was inculcating the benefits of sharing.

“Good eyes,” I said. “A robot would never know to ask that question. That’s fennel. It grows all over the garden and reseeds itself every year.  You know that sweet tea your mom makes? It’s from the seeds.”

“Should we leave it?” asked Honoré wiping her hands on her nightgown.

“It won’t make it through the winter. Eat it.”

She did. She looked at the pile of grass that she had just pulled up. “Poor grass.”

“We can throw it in the pasture. Maybe it will take root there.”

“Will it be happy there?” she asked squinting. In the morning sunshine I noticed her hazel eyes were greener than her mom’s.

“Maybe even happier,” I said. “It will serve a purpose there that will ensure its survival.”

“The sheep will eat it,” she said corroborating my theory. “Do plants have feelings?”

“I can’t speak for plants. But I’d bet they don’t feel quite like we do.”

“I like working with you.”

“Same. You’re a big help.”

“My dad says you’re a nutcase,” she mentioned matter-of-factly as she kept digging out the roots.

“I love pecans and cashews, don’t you.”  My humor was a bit lame.

Surprised, Honoré laughed. She must have expected me to be offended. She was not as naive as she pretended. She decided to push the provocation a bit further, “He means your crazy. He thinks you’re making my mom stupid.”

I restrained myself beautifully, “Well, since your dad is not here, it’s not right for me to argue against him. But you can ask me any questions you want about my sanity.”

She had no further questions.

When the bed had been cleared, we trekked up toward the barn and filled up a wheelbarrow with soil from the back side of the compost pile where most of the organic matter had returned to dirt. After denying Honoré the opportunity to ride in the wheelbarrow overloaded with the dirt (she did not take that very well), I drove it down the hill, bouncing over the treacherous dirt-bath holes the chickens had made under the mulberry trees. Then I dumped the load onto the newly cleared bed and started combing the dirt with a rake. I turned over a jawbone. There were also a few scattered brownish ribs and one bright white scapula.

“There are bones in the dirt,” said an understandably horrified Honoré.

Memento mori.” I whispered. “When sheep die we put them in the compost pile with the hay and the manure from the barn. Little microbes eat the flesh until only the clean bones are left.”  I picked up the jawbone. Six back teeth, heavily worn. Adult. Fairly recently deceased. “Old Fortinbras probably. He died last September.” 

Honoré hung her head in silence.

The previous morning, after turning over the compost pile with the tractor, I had paused to note that the head of Fortinbras had been unearthed on the top, to preside there, kinglike, bits of wool still stuck to his skull. He wasn’t ready yet to be on view. I grabbed one of the horns, which corkscrewed out four turns, and dug out a hole on the side of the pile, put the head in it and covered it up.   

Honoré  picked up a rib bone. While she examined it, a cloud passed over the sun and a loud sparrow began making inquires in the near distance.  She looked up and waiting for my explanation.

“The little ribs must be from a stillborn lamb,” I said. “We had one last year, I remember. Pax’s baby.” 

“Poor thing.”

“Our compost pile and our garden are our graveyard.” I returned the bones to the dirt and covered them up.  “I bet bone meal is good for plants.”

“That’s a nice way to keep them alive,” said my kleine Philosophin.

Teaching Honoré kept Gertrude alive—not her practical knowledge—any Internet search for homestead moms would do as well for that.  I was keeping her example going, her kindness and patience. Absentmindedly, I continued to rake and arrange the dirt, like a Japanese sand garden, while Honoré watched and added her own decorative lines with a stick.

A few weeks ago, when I had finally retrieved Gertrude’s ashes, I’d had a lonely funeral. An early light snow had fallen on the compost pile overnight.  Steam arose from the melted top, heat from the hot archaea deep within the pile. 

I hadn’t bought an urn.  I opened the cardboard box. Inside her charred remains resembled the 9/11 dust that I had collected the day my father died. Ceremoniously, I flung the contents at the pile. The dirty stain the ashes made on the snow was not the effect I wanted. I grabbed a rake and worked the ashes into the pile. 

There might be minuscule amount of Gertrude mixed with the dirt that Honoré  and I were now preparing for beets. It’s what she would have wanted. 

“Winston, what’s a virus?” Honoré asked.

“Most people will say it’s a micorganism. I don’t think viruses are alive. They seem like a tools, to me.”

Honoré looked doubtful. “Whose tool is it?”

“Maybe not made by anyone for that purpose.”  

Honoré clearly wasn’t buying my argument. She waited.

“Like a scapula that you use as a shovel. It wasn’t made for that but it works.”

Honoré gave this new suggestion some consideration.

“I remember when my mother taught me about viruses. Well, she didn’t teach me; we looked it up together.  I’ll have to find you the videos we watched. There are all kinds of viruses, some that infect animals like us, some that infect little bacteria.”

“We’re not animals.”

“Aren’t we? Human animals. Bacteria are little animals too, just different kinds. Plant aren’t animals.”

“But they’re alive!”

“Yes.”

“But viruses aren’t alive?”

“Think of it like this, animals and plants are definitely alive. Rocks are not alive. But there are some rocks that replicate and grow, like crystals.”

“Mom and I grew sugar crystals.”

“Were they alive?”

“No,” said Honoré with confidence.

“Viruses are a little more like crystals than we are and not much like animals. The ones that attack bacteria are basically little needles, injecting stuff into them.”

“What do they inject?”

“RNA,  genetic material—which is a kind of template—that your cell uses to connect protein building blocks in the right order to make a new virus.” 

“My dad said not to tell you what he said about you,” she confessed.

“He probably didn’t want to hurt my feelings,” I replied with an ever so slight note of sarcasm.

A neighbor’s laughing turkey punctuated our conversation.

“He says it’s ‘our secret’.”

“Your dad means no harm, I’m sure, but there is sort of an unwritten rule that adults should never ask children to keep secrets.” Then, trying not to sound quite so suspicious, I adopted the phony helpful tone of Big Bird. “You might want to let your mom know if he asks you to keep other kinds of secrets.”

“What if Mom asks me to keep a secret about a birthday present for Dad.”

“You get to tell him eventually, right?”

“Yes.”

“So it’s not a secret secret.”

“In general, tell your mom everything, okay Sweetie. Don’t keep secrets from your mom.”

We had finished our project but before going back in, we gathered up what was left of  the arugula, kale, and collards. 

“That’s it,” said Honoré, with arms akimbo, surveying the garden one last time.

“But we do have the first Brussel sprouts to look forward to in a few days.”

“Oh goody,” said the deranged child who liked vegetables.

That night when I lay down to sleep, the backsides of my eyelids showed me the imprint of weeds in the garden bed. It was some deep primitive trick of the mind; the memory of the shapes of leaves must have been all-important for our ancestors. No other image was recorded for me like that.

The next morning at eight, through the cracked door, I looked at Honoré sleeping. I was relieved to see the flush of life.  For many days now, when she slept a little late or I heard a strange quiet coming from her room, I was overcome by the unreasonable fear that she had somehow died in her sleep. Knowing I was crazier than even Honoré’s dad imagined me to be, I nevertheless had to check just to make sure. I believe I am suffering from some sort of step-parenting syndrome. My heart rate is up. I feel constant low-grade fear. My skin is peeled back from my soul, and I feel vulnerable to great loss.

Another thing, this protectiveness extends to other children as well. In the grocery store, I have started to make eye-contact with masked children. At first, they are afraid of my nude face, widening their eyes and clutching mom’s skirt. I wink and smile to counter the negative propaganda. They show the squint of surprised smiles. And we’re good.

  Today in the fresh produce section, a very young mom had stepped away from her shopping cart to grab some item, leaving a toddler in the seat. The opportunist immediately pushed himself up with his fat legs. I dashed to his side. “Hey there, cowboy,” I said, “stay in the saddle!” That was enough to get him to sit back down. Masked mom returned promptly with a bag of pears for her cart and a dirty look for me.

It’s as if I’ve joined the human race, feeling a need to protect other people’s children.

I haven’t told Julia yet that my love for her daughter is equal to the love I feel for her.  When their train is late, I run through all the horrific possibilities—derailment, cow stuck on the track, tree down, active shooter—and I picture myself speeding to the scene of the tragedy. Emotionally, I’m tracking up to the top of a chemical roller coaster with adrenaline levels mounting with each clickety-clack.  I never reach the top. I never plunge down. It’s just up and up and up. I get no relief.  And yet I’m grateful to be able to love those two so intensely.

I finally understand the enormity of my parents’ love for me.

Again at the grocery store. Usually I pass through the vegetable section pretty quickly, grabbing an avocado or two and some bananas. We have more than enough of all that temperate-climate produce, but for some reason a plastic box of salad greens caught my eye.  I guess it had a new packaging that I hadn’t registered before. “Moon Salad,” said the label. Out of curiosity, I picked it up and read the back, which, as was the marketing fashion these days, told the “story” and “vision” of the company.  The salad was indoor-grown, manipulated by robotic arms to give it just the right amount of LED light. The leaves of green never touched soil or fresh air. It was grown under 1,000 parts per billion carbon dioxide to give it extra flavor and extra blue spectrum to make it more crisp.  It was pesticide free, herbicide free (and also free of beneficial microbes).  The name, “Moon Salad,” derived from the fact that the venture was an off-shoot of Felix O’Brien’s moon colony “in-situ resource development” research. The idea was that if they could grow food here on Earth under unnatural conditions, they could do it on the moon.  Felix had somehow procured NASA funding to perfect the method. 

Gertrude would have a thing or two to say to Felix about using a sterile environment for growing food. What bacteria-produced enzymes would be missing? What nutrients would it consequently lack? and even if tasty and beautiful, would it be poisoned by petroleum by-product fertilizers instead fertilizers from good old poop, dead animals and plants?

I took a picture of the Moon Salad box which bragged about being able to provide “locally-grown, fresh greens in winter.” I posted it to Telegraf and tagged Felix. “In the spring and summer, eat salad; in the fall and winter, eat soup.”  I put the box in my cart to show Julia.


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