Friday, 27 February 2009

Not So Simple

By Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I've been turning the idea of "simplicity" over in my mind a lot lately. In the blog reading I do, it's a term that is bandied about quite a lot. And after all, here I am writing for the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. While I understand what is meant these days by "simplicity," I don't think simplicity is what I'm aiming for in my life. Rather, I'm aiming for a particular kind of complexity, one which gives rise to an astonishing sort of beauty.

Nature is not simple. On the contrary, it is vastly complex. So complex that we humans are still coming to understand the permutations and interactions of the various environments we inhabit. On the other hand, we strive to create simplicity in many of the places where we cannot avoid coming into contact with a naturally complicated world. We like our lawns to be uniform green fields of a single type of grass. We will wage chemical warfare to eradicate "the enemy" species of dandelion, crabgrass, clover, and chicory. We'll also squander water which was purified at great expense in order to sustain that monoculture lawn in places it would never exist otherwise.

Conventional agriculture also embraces a toxic simplicity. A field of corn (maize) larger than some small countries contains not single weed, and supports not a single butterfly or songbird. This monoculture of human making is maintained by a similarly simplistic understanding of soil nutrients and the supposed needs of the plants. The NPK triumvirate - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. If you were to listen to a fertilizer salesman, those are the only three nutrients you need to worry about in farm soils.

But we know, or we ought to know, that it is not so. Nature is not simple. We enforce such precarious simplicity at our own peril. There are complexities in the world we don't begin to understand, even though they are tantalizingly near to us every day our lives. Our brain chemistry, our immune systems, the microorganisms in the soil beneath our feet, the web of species that make up any given ecosystem, the climate that governs the weather patterns in our region - these things are all extraordinarily complex. The brightest human minds have yet to fully unravel their mysteries.

And this is why I don't strive to create simplicity in the little piece of the world that I claim as my own playground. Quite the opposite; I see it as my duty to gather into my two-thirds of an acre as many species and as many dynamic systems as I possibly can. My duty to this land is to increase the biodiversity here, and my challenge is to learn to thrive by means of the complexity that arises. Fortunately, I have found that complexity is easy to arrive at and live with. It's often a case of just allowing nature to do her work, and finding the value to myself in that work.

I suspect you're wanting a concrete example right about now. Well, then, I give you the laying hen. Last year we added four mature laying hens, kept in rotational grazing, to our extensive backyard garden plan. Very quickly, I found that I was actively looking for green things to feed the hens, other than the purchased feed and new patch of grass they were on each day. And because we hadn't sprayed our lawn with pesticides since we'd moved in, I soon found dandelions and prickly lettuce to feed them. When the purslane almost took over the new garden bed I had cleared last spring, it wasn't a disaster, it was an asset. Because the chickens like to eat purslane, which just so happens to be the richest land-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. I had a reason now to pull dandelion leaves from the lawn each and every day. It was no longer a pointless, irritating chore for appearances' sake, a fight against an unwanted invader. It was a good use of the biodiversity of our little piece of earth, and a way both to lower my feed costs and improve the nutrient content of the eggs we enjoyed so much. Had we sprayed our lawn, there would have been no dandelions, no clover, no prickly lettuce. Had I mulched heavily in the garden there would have been much less purslane. Because it was there, I offered the prickly lettuce to the girls. Because they liked it, I learned its name. And because I saw its value to me, I let it go to seed rather than try to kill it off. As it was, none of these "weeds" got out of control because I was happy to harvest some of them every single day.

Likewise, the chickens added to the complexity of my tiny slice of the biosphere when we had an infestation of squash bugs. Without the chickens, I would have looked over my assaulted pumpkin vines in helpless dismay. Unwilling to douse the bugs with pesticide, I probably would have thrown up my hands and fled the garden, leaving the plants to the insects. Instead, I gathered the bugs twice a day with a wide plastic container and a dust pan brush. I threw them into the hens who excitedly gobbled every single one of them and eagerly asked for more. Because of this additional species - one I had made a deliberate decision to bring onto our property - what would have been a disaster again became an asset. The same was true whenever rains swelled our cherry tomatoes enough to split them open. What would have been a crop loss to us became instead a chicken treat. Less waste, better nutrition for the hens and us, more happiness for the hens and us.

This is just a sampling of the complexity that arose, and that I was able to observe, because we added one more species. Of course their manure is contributing to the greater fertility of our soil. They keep down the tick population, helping to protect our pet cat. There are, no doubt, complexities that I miss entirely in my limited ability to perceive and to comprehend. But the complexity that the hens brought which I could perceive filled me with a sense of wonder at the natural world. It made me want more species, more complexity in my life. Of course I wanted more: I found deep pleasure in experiencing these things. My life was richer for it.

Going forward, this is my goal: not more simplicity in my life, but more vibrant living complexity. Last year I pondered the question of what would be our next (animal) species. This year we plan on more berries and fruit trees, and I've already added some composting worms. Although they live in tubs in my basement and are therefore not directly interacting with the other living organisms outside, I can already see an added level of beautiful complexity in having them. The few compostable items the chickens were indifferent to (banana peels, citrus rind, tea leaves, onion scraps) are all most welcome and useful in the worm bin. It's almost eerie to me that the very food wastes I had no better use for than to toss into the compost bin are so well suited for the worms. It's as if a piece of the puzzle is fitting perfectly into place in my life - because of another species. When the worms have done their job, a tea made of their castings will provide an incredible nutritional boost to seedlings and potted plants around our mini homestead. If the worm population grows larger than my bins can contain, I will give some away to anyone in my area who wants worms for vermicomposting. After that, further worm population growth will turn into a feed supplement for the hens. Another layer of complexity in our homestead ecosystem.

We would dearly love to add bees to our homestead, and we may yet do so this year. It's easy to imagine some beneficial consequences of adding bees to our property: better pollination, a supply of honey (and therefore mead) to consume or barter, and a fascinating species to observe. But what is even more compelling to me is that we would discover another layer of marvelous and as-yet-unknown relationships. I don't know exactly how the bees would make our little piece of the world more complex, but I'm absolutely sure they would. And that's something I greatly look forward to finding out.