Black flies, Newts, and “The Biggest, Little Farm”

What do I love about New York City? No black flies. I’m scratching the welts received during a bout of gardening a couple of days ago but fear no more—at least, until I get back home. Meantime, honking and shouting, car alarms and sirens, and heat. I take on the façade of a true New Yorker and don’t leave my mother’s apartment. Rather, I step out only to get from point A to point B. Fortunately, from A to B usually requires a walk through Washington Square Park. As I wander through—looking ever so directed and purposeful, a slight frown, and don’t make eye contact—I watch pigeons, instead of chickens. Cooing instead of clucking. And no roos.

I have threatened my mother that some day I’m going to arrive with Schtude, our resident roo. Mom laughs nervously as I describe how we will diaper him and let him free range in the apartment. She would prefer a hen or two for their happy eggs. We agree to compromise. We will set him free in the park. He will strut his stuff for the pigeons, attack unwary passersby, crow his fabulousness . . . and his loneliness because he’ll be the only chicken in the vicinity that’s not been plucked. 

Thus, I haven’t brought him. The idea of Schtude being sad is too much to bear. He remains in New Hampshire with his 15 hens. And I, in New York, dodge humans, instead of black flies.

Meantime, at Darwin’s View, the hens take their daily morning constitutional around the perimeter of the garden. With Daisy, Splotches and Swallow in the lead, running and flapping with delight, the other hens take time to peck and poke, a harem accompanying the stately promenade of Schtude. Every time I look out my window to see the sun as it rises over the Wapack Trail, I smile. The chickens’ joy in life when they catch a bug, or ohmygoodnessit’sawormminemineminesquawkgulp brings me heart-warming happiness and hope. As do newts. 

Carl and I went for a walk earlier this week. While Carl foraged for mushrooms, I saved no less than twelve newts who had paused in their progress across the road. They had no idea what danger they were in, perhaps, not noticing their fellow, smushed Pleurodelinae. These efts, terrestrial and fully metamorphosed, are Eastern newt and exquisite. They exhibit the breathtaking complexity of nature. From their orange color to the fragile solidity of their bodies, they expose the essence of life, and its dogged persistence. 

As are so many other species, newts are threatened. Habitat loss, fragmentation and pollution. Several of their species are endangered. The Yunnan lake newt is extinct. But the ones I saved, that I picked up ever-so-gently and carried over to the side of the road to which they were headed? They are safe, right? They will live to enjoy the day, and breed. Right? Or did I, just by touching them, like Midas, kill?

Thus, hope is double-edged. Black flies might swarm but are there enough of them to feed all the birds? We seem to have far fewer barn swallows this year. Usually there are dozens of them flitting about, looking so natty in their blue and black tuxedos. This year? Four or five. And so I mourn the lack of black flies. 

Chickens, too. They bring me great joy, and great worry. Weasels. Hawks. Coyotes. John and Molly Chester of Apricot Lane farm would understand. They lost a lot of chickens in their film The Biggest Little Farm. It’s a wonderful, heart-wrenching film about taking dead dirt and transforming it into a sustainable, resilient, productive, biodiverse farm. One in which every animal plays a part in the web of life. Every species is there for a reason.

I rate it 5. I loved the film. I felt as if I’d learned something since we moved to Darwin’s View because, when they faced snails and maggots, I knew the answers to their problems before they did. NO! I’m not going to tell because it’s part of the drama. If I told, I’d spoil it. 

What broke my heart? The fact that life requires death. What enlivened it? They created their vision. John is a filmmaker and had his crew film everything that happened on the farm for seven years. The film shows the evolution of the farm. The building of the swales, and the very large pond. The fixing of the well. The buying and planting of 10,000 trees. The care for a lot of animals, not least six large, white guard dogs (who bore a remarkable resemblance to Enzo, the Maremma guard dog of our nine rental goats last year.) And a large farm crew of (young) people. Eventually, the farm found its feet and began to make money. But whew! How did they support it in the meantime? 

Maybe they got a subsidy from the government like the fossil fuel and nuclear industries do.

Whatever. They did it. Hard work, openness to learning, and love. They prove that it’s possible to change how we grow our food. Their farm is what all farms need to strive for: regenerative agriculture. That’s what we must do—transform our food infrastructure from Corporate, monoculture farms and factory farms to regenerative, no-till, biodiverse farms. Return to Mother Nature’s ways. She really does know best. 

How can we afford it? Remember the $10 million a minute? Move all the subsidies given to the fossil fuel industry and give it to the farmers, and the land. In seven years, deserts can be transformed into lush places that grow more food than the current framework, and don’t kill the planet in the process. On the contrary. We might have a chance. In fact, the real question is, how can we afford not to?

On Friday: Lead up to a Dirty, Little Secret.