Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Carolyn and I won’t be bringing in a panel of landscape architects and interior designers to judge our efforts around our farm and home. If we did, we probably wouldn’t get high marks. The shrubs along the front of the house are overgrown. The sidewalk is crumbling here and there. The arbor I built in front of the chicken house looks ungainly – some might say ugly. But the expert’s assessment doesn’t matter. The objective evaluation isn’t important. It’s the aspiration toward beauty that provides motivation and joy.
We’ll be replacing the shrubs one of these days and repairing the sidewalk. I’m going to get some vines to grow over my arbor and disguise it.
Suburban lawns on two sides, a strip of woods on the east and a big field of corn or soybeans on the north surround our farm. Our natural pastures probably look unkempt to some people, but a couple of neighbors have commented that it’s nice to see the grass growing tall in the spring. Around the house, we leave about half the grass unmown through the summer. Those undisturbed patches of prairie are my favorite features on the property. Indian grass, two species of bluestem, several species of grama, buffalo grass, switchgrass and two dozen other species compete for space out there and grow tall, some of them soaring well above our heads. At the height of summer you can’t see our biggest bull in the middle of a pasture in grass six feet tall. In the parts of our yard where we don’t mow or graze, the height and density of the plants is a monument to nature’s bounty. The grass is taller than our heads and so thick that walking through it is like plunging through deep snow. It moves continuously in the wind and changes color over the course of the season, from an intense green in spring to a prairie kaleidoscope as the grasses mature in late summer, flashing a hundred shades of green, yellow, purple and red in sun. I try to take photos as the year progresses, but they never quite capture the beauty of it.
If you live within sight of Biscayne Bay or Mount Rainier you probably find my passion for 50 acres of manure-strewn Kansas prairie quaint – or maybe pathetic.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
I always found the land here fairly attractive. The natural savannah is easy on the eyes. The exposed limestone in the hillsides gives it a Western flair I like. The air smells good here, grassy with a hint of juniper.
But the land, like any true love, becomes more beautiful the more time you spend in intimate contact. I think this is particularly true of the prairie. From a distance the grasses are a green blur. The trees are small and indistinct. The hills are only hills. The flowers are mostly small and grow close to the ground. You have to draw near and stare for a while to pick out the reds, blues and yellows of the different species, like subtle strokes of color in an oil painting. The old prairie juniper on a grassy hillside becomes, on close examination, one of the world’s most majestic trees, gnarled, deep green, festooned with little ice-blue berries.
People everywhere probably have this experience of gradual infatuation with their landscapes. The Grand Tetons inspire love at first sight, but the rancher who spends six decades making his living on the grass at their feet can understand their beauty in ways that require familiarity. The land’s steward knows the tawny color of the stones under the shallow riffle at a particular bend in the creek. He knows the place in the exposed pasture where the wind is likely to build a series of symmetrical snowdrifts and the particular blue shadow they make. The farmer may grow fond of a little stand of willows that fill up with butterflies in May. The angler remembers a mossy log that glows like an emerald in the water under a stream bank when the raking light strikes it 20 minutes before sunset. A deer hunter reminisces about a patch of forest not only because he found a big buck there, but more because he watched dawn make its gradual way through those woods a hundred times before he claimed his trophy.
Is Rancho Cappuccino beautiful? Yes. Are we making it more beautiful? Of course I believe we are. I think we are creating beauty with our care and stewardship, by paying attention to the farm’s appearance and doing the work necessary to improve its health. But we’re creating beauty more fundamentally, internally, by learning about the place, loving it and treating it with care. Year by year, its beauty is more compelling to us as we know it better. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.
Our recognition of beauty is the definition of beauty – in a person, a farm, a landscape or a planet. And as the individual aspires to make a place or an enterprise more beautiful, he or she cares for them more deeply, and better.
My wife and I will attend to the farm’s maintenance. We will paint and prune. We want friends, passers-by and future owners to appreciate it. But they’ll have to pay close attention if they want to learn to love it the way we do.