BACK FORTY REPORT
Afternoons I wear many hats, but mornings I get to be a farmer. The job pays nothing, indeed it costs money, but the rewards are priceless.
Yesterday, glimmery, gloriously light and cool, and the sun smiled on the work of many spiders.
They must have been working all night, creating mystical magical receivers in the branches of the trees and in corners of the barn and all through the fields among the grasses.
I was headed for the barn, my first chore to get breakfast to the horses, but I had to stop and marvel. From my spot on the path just outside the barn door, I counted five enormous round webs among the beech branches. Thank you, spiders, thank you sun, thank you shimmery leaves and sparkling dewdrops for making my morning.
Keeping horses on smallholdings requires steady maintenance and cleaning, and I include in my morning routine time for pasture maintenance. While Oakley, Dora and Diego are settled eating the rations I bring them, I decide the lot rotation for the morning, open and close gates, and sometimes move electric fence posts and wires to direct grazing traffic. I pull weeds, pick up manure and build compost piles on the edges of the lots.
Long a fond champion of the monarch butterfly, I’ve been known to keep milkweed in the garden and cannot classify it as a weed. The first year that we were at Beechwood, I refused to remove any milkweed from the fields and watched with dismay as milkweed ran rampant, and never did I see a butterfly. Milkweed is toxic to horses, and as the edible offerings in the horse lots grew smaller and the toxic plants flourished out of balance with the plants safe to eat, I started pulling milkweed from the horse lots and limiting the time the livestock were allowed to wander in each defined zone. Deer went in and out as they would.
My pasture weeding routine grew heavier last year when I noticed a striking purple tinged mint plant I had never met before. I saw just one at first, on one of my pasture walks. It caught my eye with a touch of foreboding – looked like mint but with a sinister color. What was it? After I found it was called perilla mint, I started seeing more, sometimes in clusters about a foot and a half in diameter.
Now I can see from across the hill where it is growing, because when able it grows close to its fellows and creates circular communities where nothing else grows. I’ve been getting to know perilla mint. Considered a culinary and medicinal herb, perilla is native to Asia, India, China, SE Asia – depends on who you ask. It came somehow to America and, having escaped cultivation in eastern American gardens, it has become a noxious weed on farms in the southeast United States.
More pertinent to my situation, some varieties of perilla are extremely toxic to sheep, cattle and horses. Kills goats, I read.
So then I had to get rid of that.
My horses know what they like and what they like not to eat, but it is hard not to get a bite of something growing in and out among all the plants in the pasture. I noticed the perilla because the horses left it alone, and that announced a job for me. What hospitality is it to open a gate and say, “Head on in, some of those plants don’t belong here and will make you sick, maybe kill you?”
I pulled the plants from the first cluster I’d seen and found they pull easily, with short fibrous roots that have very little hold in the ground. But the plant is wildly aggressive, with stems packed with mint-like blossoms to scatter seed plus underground and aboveground runners easily a foot long that send out new plants every inch. I saw that wherever there was a perilla plant over four inches tall, there were around it short in the grass multiple plants one or two inches tall.
Over days, I removed bucket after bucket full of perilla, three packed gallons at a shot, and felt I’d got if not most at least a lot of the perilla out. Winter came and I paused in perilla patrol.
This summer, I discovered that the perilla had spread, and I gave many hot humid morning hours to pulling it, adding an odd other weed or two to my bucket as I walked up from the bottom where the perilla stronghold grew.
Then while I wasn’t watching, the perilla moved to a different pasture lot, and on my rounds I saw a whole huge very high and blossoming in your face thought you’d beat us perilla patch.
I have been working on the new patch, and the weather has been brutal. Hot and very humid and just nasty, and two days ago, pushing the wheelbarrow (big guns) with the morning’s load, I reached to pull a milkweed plant on my way by and thought whoa, stop a minute – those leaves are being eaten!
Sure enough, examining the plant I found two quarter inch long monarch caterpillars, and I melted with joy and extreme happiness. A monarch had visited us! We hadn’t seen it, but we had left some plants for it, and yes! It came, and laid eggs! Hallelujah!
Then came the question: do I leave these babies out here to take chances with the birds, or do I take them in?
Well, you might guess I took them in.
I have been worrying about the monarchs for so long that I just couldn’t leave them outside to fend for themselves. So now we have six on our dining room table, chomping away and growing growing growing.
It is hard to keep track of the numbers. I thought I had two and then counted three when I looked again. The last three? Don’t know. Maybe they were hiding on fresh milkweed I’ve been bringing in.
It has been a grand week. I saw two more monarch caterpillars outside yesterday and left them, deciding I better just let Nature take care of the rest of the kaleidoscope. She seems to be handling it all pretty well, after all. She led quite a few monarchs to the corner of Virginia where we were hoping they would come, and she is guiding them with the force that evokes awe each time I pause to look at the butterflies developing before my eyes.
Before I came to Virginia, one summer in Wisconsin I worked on a pencil drawing of the monarch hoping my attention would bring support to the endangered bright and beautiful butterfly with whom we share the continent. We put the picture on a bumper sticker with four words, given us by a friend who drove the backroads of rural Wisconsin for many years delivering mail.
“Seen many monarchs this year?” I asked him.
“Not many,” he said, and then he added, “I brake for butterflies.”
I do, too. In fact, I haven’t been in the car all week. And every time I walk by my table of hungry caterpillars I stop, to admire how beautiful they are and to remind them to have courage for the transformations they face before they fly away.
I recall in my childhood that the big front grills on automobiles I saw were frequently plastered with moths and butterflies killed and captured in flight, on the road. I know the bumper sticker on my car is my fantasy, and I like the way it looks. And, bonus, it is easy to find my car in most parking lots – mine is the one with the monarch on the bumper.