by Jo Leath
"What are we going to do with 185 acres?"
That was the attitude that brought us into this life stage. Now, five years later, the land has overtaken all the other things that ought to be going on in our lives. The house was sitting in the shadow of a bulldozer; about to be razed to the ground.
"We can save it," we told the owner, "Just give us a chance."
We promised to rehabilitate the building, which had been variously abused and neglected for over a decade. We didn't promise anything about the land, which had been a strawberry farm back in the 1960's and '70s. We hardly even noticed it. There was a meadow and some trees, and some overgrown raspberry canes.
The neighbours told us that DDT use by the long-gone farmers had eliminated song birds, but we resolved that we would put a feeder up anyway, and see whether there was a response. Within a single season we had been discovered by bluejays and chickadees, grackles, purple finches, orioles, and several species of grosbeaks. June brought ruby-throated hummingbirds. When the first snowflakes of our first winter fell, juncos touched the land too, struggling south from the frigid arctic, renewing themselves outside the massive window we had installed in the south wall of our living room to let in the sun.
The presence of seeds enticed squirrels out of the trees, and they ventured across the small space towards the house, to invent ways to raid the bird feeders. We watched with delight as the squirrels scaled the post with suet-filled holes, which was attracting downy and hairy woodpeckers. They perched chattering to themselves, berating us for the obstacle course, before leaping like taut springs onto the roofs of the pagoda style seed bins. Hanging upside down they would stuff their cheeks with our seeds, and scamper back to their families and the trees.
They were followed by other creatures. Field mice gathered what the squirrels and birds dropped. And hawks came to the lure of fat mice. The following spring, we watched the arrival of raccoons and porcupines who felt welcome to partake of the feast we were laying out. We planted a tiny garden, and laughed at the fat rabbits who ate it.
Watching from our windows, as the parade of animals unfolded, we grew aware of the patterns of the sky. We learnt the position of the sunrise, as it slid along the horizon on mornings through the changing seasons. We felt the light of the nights when the full moon filled our home with a silver glow. We felt a link with the entire solar system. With acknowledgment of the great energy of sun and moon, we began to notice the other forces around us.
We noticed the cold snapping of the flag we had hoisted. It let us connect with the wind; we knew at once the direction, and the speed. We felt the vigor of its approach, it's potential as an enemy. Thus we came to admire the strength of the trees, accomodating the gusts, bowing and bending yet always standing again; an education in flexibility. When autumn came, we appreciated the changing colours of this Eastern forest; a marvel of colour.
A kaleidoscope of yellow and crimson and orange turned daily, until only the pale lemon of the poplars remained to be blown and drenched away by the first of the winter storms. We learned which were maples, which hemlock, willow, birch, aspen and alder. We identified the apple and pear trees of ancient orchards in this place, abandoned and fungal.
In winter, the trees became a playground for the squirrels, who knock cascades of snow through the multiple browns and tans and tawnies of the bare limbs. The trees protect the birds who winter here now, and when spring beckons, we observe as the branches stretch into new life, turning from brown to yellow along the boughs. Leaf buds pause, swollen with promise, for an endless week, before finally bursting into full verdant leaves. The summer breezes rustle them, and in July they greet showers with leaves outspread, thirsting for each touch of water, drinking so deeply as it falls, that the ground around their roots remains dry.
When the ice storms flirted with us during the first months of 1998; while Montreal and Eastern Ontario were paralyzed, we watched as great limbs from our magnificent trees plunged to the ground, groaning and creaking in death throes worthy of any animal. Whole trees bent double, supplicating, determined to adjust without breaking; sculpting themselves into forms for survival.
Following this assault, we felt obliged to trek into our back woods. We saw the responsibility of being custodians of land. It was our role to prune and repair and remove the damage; to minimize the impact of such an extreme season, while thinning the growth so that crowded trees could spread their roots and climb tall.
During the last days of the official autumn of 1998, we brought a lopsided spruce indoors, and festooned it with symbols. We have a moon and a sun which hang on our festival tree. When we install them, in the concluding short days of the year, we place the moon at the top. We mark the Solstice, and reverse them; lowering the moon and celebrating the sun.
We sat down at the table laden with home-grown, home-preserved harvest. The south window reflected the sunshine yellow of corn relish; the bright, growing green of dilled beans. Our plates were decorated with the ruby glow of raspberry jam; the satin smoothness of apple butter, the mustard tang of cauliflower pickles. We tried to remember the tastes of winters past, and could not. Whatever the foods of those years gone by, the flavours were incomparable to this hard earned feast.
"What did we eat at the Solstice that last year in the city?" we asked each other. "I can't remember." "Whatever it was, this is better by far," we smiled appreciatively.
Our meal, a gift from the land outside our window, was a celebration of ourselves, our work and the mystical largess of the planet. We raised our glasses of cloudy hand-pressed apple juice and toasted Sol Invictus; to the victorious return of the power of the sun.
"May the sunlight fill us all with wonder for this, our home, our Mother Earth."
Jo Leath is a writer, activist and counsellor, living at Down To Earth Farm on the south side of North Mountain, which encloses the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her household includes her life partner of eight years, one Border Collie, and 26 laying hens. She hopes to be able to earn her living without leaving the property.
E-mail Jo at:
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