Monthly Archives: May 2015

Sunk Into The Land, Ripping Up Sod

It’s hard to find solid work in conservation. It’s harder still to find solid work in conservation without being willing to move. And when home is the heart of rural Vermont, well… there are options, but not a lot of them. The world expects me to move, and I have. 15 times in the period since I left for college and now.

We are not going to move again. I am growing roots deep into the cold soil. Our land is only a little over an acre, but an acre can easily fill a full summer life. In the all too short period bookended by maple syrup season and deer hunting season, this place, my home and field shared with my wife… this is our core. It is a place of love… with my wife, my few close friends who live nearby, and the land.

Before we came to this home, the previous owners had deep roots – that even if we live very long lives we will likely not surpass. Over 70 years, an entire life lived here, a family grown and dispersed, a person rooted here deep enough to remain a decade or two after her husband passed away of old age, with whom she had built the house itself. We only met her briefly, and I wish we had found more time to hear her stories, learn of this place and the changes it has seen since 1940. Her family name still clings to nearby landmarks and in the sound the pine makes in the breeze.

They had most recently kept the field as a mowed lawn, probably because for much of their life it was a dairy farm. Lawn here is just what happens if you keep cows around. Back where I grew up, a lawn is a sign of waste, of water dumped on the ground instead of left in the river or used to grow food. I do not like lawn and my wife, having grown up in a cold desert with few lawns, is ambivalent. I spend time ripping up the sod with my bare hands. Anything I can find that isn’t invasive or harmful goes in its place. Apple trees, cherry trees. Blueberry bushes. A huge vegetable garden. Cuttings of red osier dogwood from a plant I found hiding behind the shed. A four level rain garden, Jewelweed, a native wildflower also growing in the strange little refuge behind the shed. Slate stepping stones. Bulbs – tulips, crocuses, daffodils. Native plants from a friend’s land. Native plants bought when I can find and afford them. Native plants that jumped in to sme of the newly open space where lawn was ripped out, including one uncommon orchid that appeared in a wet spot on its own. Birch trees, and a fraction of the maple seedlings that try to grow here (i still have to cull most though it makes me sad). Chives – delicious and also apparently a native species. Oregano that I found growing in the field and spread around. Milkweed – for the monarchs, for the bees, and to displace the ugly hayfield grasses – spread scattered across the field last fall both via me and the neighbor kids tossing fluffy seeds and via me digging up and transplanting their tubers. A copious fire pit – into which goes the cut up buckthorn which i dislike even more than the grass. A scorched spot in the sod where I sat for many chilly spring hours boiling down maple sap. Dead rotten pine wood left to lay on the grass in a wet spot and rot – the insects like it and once I found a salamander hiding under some old rotten firewood nearby. The ubiquitous goldenrod. Mint. Hawkweed, though i watch closely because I hear it is invasive elsewhere. New England Aster. A deep purple plant oddly named “Carpet Bugle” that is displacing the grass in front of our house – it isn’t native but the beleaguered native bumblebees absolutely love it. Anything else that pops up I think a bumblebee might like. Bumblebees can’t use a lawn. Ground ivy, a weed I pull intermittently but have left alone when it’s fighting with the turfgrass. The bees like this too. Innumerable dandelions.

The first year the turf had inertia. Pulling grass up, smothering it with cardboard, flipping it upside down to die, a form of meditation, a mantra ‘less lawn, less lawn’… it seemed endless. The second year the battle continued, though change shined in the cracks and the holes in the sod. This year… this year the grass is yielding. I will grant it a space behind our house where the neighborhood kids like to play, and where if things go as we hope our kids may play some day too. I will allow it to persist around the picnic table and some of the places the snowplow scrapes clean in the winter, though i will grant it no fertilizer or well water. But beyond that.. the grass is yielding both in the front of the house and in the wide field in the back. The difference in how the field looks is noticeable already this year. I expect a flush of goldenrod and milkweed late this summer. Not the sneeze-inducing hay grasses of two summers ago waving in the wind smothering the soil. The buzzing of bees. A monarch, perhaps? Definitely milkweed tussock moths. Moths are the forgotten corner of the natural world, where wonder exists that is only just being rediscovered.

So I pull the plants I don’t want, divide and move and split the plants I do want. I bring in a few plants from elsewhere. There are many more native species I hope to either bring in or entice in with my turf removal. We work in our big veggie garden.. here in mid-elevation Vermont where the growing season is so short we start the plants indoors in March or April. The old timers say don’t plant until memorial day and sure enough the forecast for next Friday calls for a low of 35 – easily close enough that a few hours of clear and calm could send our cold hollow down to 31, 30, perhaps even 29. We hope for a blanket of cloud or frost-mixing wind to protect the few things we have planted, but the rest will wait.

I don’t want to leave our field. I don’t want to go to work sometimes, even though it is field work season, because there is still too much lawn, or because the moneywort is growing into the strawberries again. The sunset however vibrant is a disappointment, though I’ve been known to stay out and dump compost on cardboard covering the grass with a headlamp amidst the fireflies and distant lightning flashes. It continues until the days start to shrink back down, until a few hard frosts zap the maples to glorious reds and oranges, and the field to yellow and brown. Time for preparation – preserving food, deer hunting (this will be my second year, perhaps it will be years before I am successful), and then the resting time of winter. Over the winter I will undoubtedly become reobsessed with creating my video game that I have set aside for the moment… I will become restless and imagine starting a business, or leaving the conservation world for good. One of these days… maybe. Though I’d rather not. Meanwhile, the wood stove needs another log or two…

But tonight the wood stove lays empty. Summer is here, but unlike the maple trees which spend their summer energy on exuberant green leaves, my energy goes towards growing roots.