Who Wants to Finish?
“If your life's work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you're not thinking big enough.”
― Wes Jackson
Today’s get-to-do list had seven items.
1) weed the pepper beds
2) harvest the broke-necked onions
3) round up the broken-out lambs
4) finish the “Whole Earth Farming” page on the website
5) pack a sample box for bellevue
6) write the next journal entry
Five items down. Okay. Now, the truth is, we’ll never finish this journal entry. I’ll never finish writing it, and you’ll never finish writing it. In fact, hardly anything ever finishes. Every time I make a to-do list, I always find myself adding on more tasks than I cross off. Eventually I go ahead and start a whole new list, and when that gets too long, I start another. That’s farming for you. Seems like that’s the productive life in general. Each “finish” is another beginning. I love living this way.
We had a guest the other day who took a book down by the river to read. He read for a while, and then he put his book down and just sat, and watched the river while it kept on flowing by.
“What’d the river tell you?” I said, at dinner that night.
Our guest said the river was mighty and he was not. Then he said the river showed him the two opposite poles of existence: the changing and the eternal.
“That river’s been flowing who knows how long. Since before the first farmers started their work back in Mesopotamia. But it’s never the same river, from one moment to the next. There’s always new water flowing in, and old water flowing on. The river is never finished.”
Finishing is rare, and usually an illusion. Usually when we think a thing is finished, we’re just being short-sighted. You can cook a steak to perfect medium rare with pink in the middle, and let it stand for 10 minutes, smelling that mouth-watering scent, and then eat it all and thoroughly enjoy it. Then it’s done, right?
Not quite. That steak is no longer a steak, but everything that was in that steak still has a long journey ahead of it. An infinite journey, as far as we know. That steak is partly assimilated into you, and partly excreted. All of its molecules and energies have broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, for smaller creatures to eat. It’s possible that some of those molecules will someday become steak again, if they become compost to feed grass.
And how about those weeds I pulled out of the pepper beds? That was the first item on my get-to-do list.
The weeds, this time around, were all orchard grass. We try to get them by the roots, because they compete with garden crops for soil minerals. But even if you do get the roots out, a new orchard grass seed will sprout before long. We’ll be weeding those beds again soon enough. So even though I crossed that task off my list, it still isn’t really done. I’m not finished.
That grass is tough, and we’re glad for it. Out in our pastures, where roundup is no longer being sprayed, a lot of seeds are coming up that haven’t had a chance to grow for 25 years. Weeds like horseweed, salsify, and white campion.
Among the five of us farmers, we have mixed philosophies about those weeds, and their seedstocks in the soil:
On one hand, reducing their seedstock (the number of seeds lying dormant in the soil) seems like a good strategy. Fewer weed seeds mean fewer weeds coming up, and fewer weed seeds being deposited in the soil, and so on.
On the other hand, after 25 years of Roundup inhibition, the newly-unsprayed fields are sprouting chock-full of weeds. More and more seeds come in on bird wings and wind. And there could be seeds older than your grandparents out there, waiting for the right conditions to sprout, and grow up, and make a thousand more weed seeds.
Should we worry about the weeds' seedstock? It's difficult to call. Our discussion may never be finished. But we do know one thing. All the evidence from management-intensive grazing shows that once cattle start mob-grazing those pastures, the soil gets healthy, and the good pasture grasses outcompete the “bad” weeds. Clovers, plantains, orchard grass, all lush forage fertilized by the cattle who eat it. Perennial plants, growing stronger and stronger root systems, storing more and more carbon, in a cycle that never finishes.
This is just one early benefit of management-intensive grazing. Nobody has yet found an upper limit to the myriad wonders that managed grazing can create. Over decades, we can keep building and building and building up the soil, and never ever finish.
Not that we would want to. Who wants to finish? Much better to know when to stop, and know where to start, and start, and start again. Be like the water in the river. Be like the grass in the pasture. Even when you're old and you can't work anymore, make your life's work worthwhile for somebody else to carry on.
Get to the seventh item on your to-do list tomorrow, and then add seven more after that, and then—