Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Happily working in my shop – it’s almost always happily even when some cussing may be required – I finished hand making some custom PVC clips for the ends of a few braces needed in our newly recovered hoop greenhouse, and headed up the slope to our backyard to install them.
My sweet wife, who loves gardening and has a truly magic and curative touch with seeds and ailing plants, was taking advantage ofour early spring and working leaf mulch and our own compost into the raised beds.
Rounding the deck that overlooks the garden, I heard her whimpering wetly, and found her standing with a large garden fork in her hands, tears streaming down her beautiful face. Barely able to speak, she was repeating, “I’m a horrible person, a horrible person.”
Because of the heavy fork, I thought, God, was there an accident with one of the chickens? With our trusty dog Pete?
“Honey, what is it?”
“I’m a horrible person. I killed a little toad. I’m a horrible person.”
I grabbed her close and reassured her and she told me that she was digging and saw the tiny garden toad only after one of the heavy tines had hit it. You know, I told her, these things happen in a place like this. Unless they’re moving, toads are designed to blend in. It was an accident, nothing more.
Those among you who are reading this and surprised or amused by her deeply emotional reaction to the unintended death of an inch-long, cold-blooded amphibian may be hardened by the realities of farm life, or are philosophical homesteaders who face the same things on a smaller scale and have had time to accept them.
Vicki has not. We’re pretty new to this.
I have the advantage of many weeks during many summers spent with the farm people on my mother’s side while I was a boy. It’s where I got the desire to own enough land to breathe freely and to grow delicious and healthful fruits and vegetables like my relatives grew that tasted, even then, nothing like the supermarket stuff in Detroit. Such produce has been further degraded over the decades, even genetically engineered, to be hard enough to withstand the hundreds or thousands of miles it’s shipped before it gets to consumers, often unblemished – for visual appeal and salability – and just as often devoid of flavor, or pleasant flavor anyway.
I also had at least minimal schooling in the realities of husbanding livestock for food. Whether it’s the enormous pig you’ve cared for since it was a pink piglet, whether it’s the cow or the milk, the chicken or the egg, rabbits or goats or any of the other farm animals and the food they provide us, you’re obliged is to give them the best care possible, always with respect, and show thanks. You give them lives free of the brutality so often found in commercial livestock operations and, when the time comes, they are to be dispatched quickly and with compassion, then dressed and butchered with as much skill as you possess.
Vicki and I love animals. As I write this, a huge storm is growing stronger, tornadoes have been spotted, and it’s all heading right for us. We’re taking cover in our strong basement and brought Pete, both of our cats, and our little parrot, Monk, with us. Only the chickens are vulnerable, though their house is very heavy and sturdy. Hoping the best, of course, for us all and for our neighbors back here in the hills.
(We just lost power.)
I have been charmed, or at least fascinated, by the many types of wildlife that visit our homestead or take up residence here. On smothering hot summer days, we usually awake to find dozens of bugs clinging to the outside of our screened room in back, letting the dew dry. Many of them I’ve only known from books: Luna moths. A type of praying mantis with outlandishly long antennae. Beetles with fearsome jaws and others with big eyes and military camouflage. Walking sticks. I’ve seen brown recluse and black widow spiders in our attic, and baited them with traps. There are also large wolf spiders, which carry their young on their backs.
(The power is back.)
Many white-tailed deer – does, fawns but no bucks. Wild turkeys pecking at the fallen seed around our bird feeder, and soon so comfortable that they’d ignore Pete only a few feet away. Gorgeous and highly entertaining hummingbirds. Sinister vultures and glorious hawks. Pileated woodpeckers, brilliant bluebirds, and purple martins. Big box turtles, two of them copulating a few yards from our front porch. A snapping turtle the size of a dinner plate that lunged for the toe of my boot while I photographed it. Many kinds of lizards, including the neon black-
spotted orange cave salamander, so shiny that I mistook one for a discarded toy. A black snake four feet long and many smaller snakes, but no rattlers. One day, while climbing up the steep bank of the holler where a spring-fed streamlet crosses part of our property, an armadillo stuck its head out from its burrow under a fallen log, curious and squinting in the sudden brightness outside. I’d had no idea these worm-eating armored beasties were even in Tennessee. For the record, they’re 9-banded armadillos.
And there are toads, many of them, a blessing for our gardens. I’ve read that a single toad can eat as many as 10,000 slugs and other pests in one season. But we’ve seen only one or two bigger than an inch, and it strains the imagination to think of them eating so much.
When we find them outside the garden area, we carry them gently to it and place them in a dark, moist corner to make a home. This season I’m going to build a few simple toad houses to invite occupants.
They are also undeniably cute and comic. I’m not about to say that I’ve seen them at play, but it sure looked like it one hot day when I was mowing. I keep a sharp eye in front of the tractor while I mow because our soil is more rock than dirt. It was funny to see two toads, one directly in the path of each front tire, leap high and off to the sides, legs splayed and looking almost as though the move had been choreographed. I turned at the end of my swath and, halfway back in the other direction, they did it once more. I’ve wished every time I’ve mowed since then that I can see it again. And I try not to think about the toads I haven’t seen.
OK, they’re cute as hell, and we’re big-time suckers for cute animals. On a rural homestead run like a farm, you do what you have to do. But you feel a loss when a charming little creature whose presence means nothing but good meets an accidental end.
Vicki feels it keenly. So she wept when she was the unintended cause of such a death. Even if it was just a toad.
(For more about our experiences as Detroit Yankees homesteading in the South, please take a look at my personal blog, I'm Mildly Concerned that One of My Hens is a Rooster...
Photos by Ric Bohy