I still have the pair of Carhartts from my farm days. Mostly for sentimental reasons, but also because they are nice, “airy,” work jeans as the holes in the knees are quite substantial. Hoof black, from getting the draft horses ready for the parade, stained a Nike-esque swoosh on one leg. Blood from assisting with countless lamb births is also present. There are grease stains from the tractor, paint from painting the barn, and, honestly, many more.
A perfect ninety degree tear in the cuff shows where I misjudged the height of the barbed wire. The other day, cleaning out closets, I found an old raincoat with T-post connectors for electric fence. I worked on the farm over a decade ago, so I either have way too many coats or need to clean my closets more often!
I loved, and still love, farm work. The connection with the land nourishes me and makes me a better steward. I no longer have to coax cattle into new pastures, toss 400 hay bales into the mow, or spend 10 hours at a time spreading manure on spring fields. I do still garden, raise chickens, and take care of a little plot that I call my own, though truly the land belongs to itself, not me.
Working with the land to grow grass and clover, which in turn grew beef and bacon, made me a better naturalist. Class after class in college can teach you ecological concepts, but animal husbandry and farming will teach the concepts better and make it a reality in a fraction of the time you sat behind a desk. Hands-on learning, seeing it for yourself, having first-hand knowledge is priceless. Some lessons you never forget.
Which is why, on the drive to work the other day, my stomach flipped in a sickening way as I saw the monstrous farm tractors with mowers bigger than I knew existed, cutting hay. Flashbacks to mangled fawns and orphaned turkey eggs haunted me. I know hay is a necessity. I know the weather this week is ideal. I know that spring we’ve had has been great for growing fields. I know that bigger, faster tractors make the work easier.
But I also know that the fawns are too new to get up and run. I know that the hen turkeys are so close to hatching their first broods that they won’t abandon the nest even as the tractor bears down on them. I know that the sparrows, Bobolinks, meadowlarks, and countless other ground-nesting birds have eggs and nestlings tucked safely in the fields. Even fox kits, snakes, and rodents are shaken up by mowing hay even though they retreat to their dens and burrows until the machines are gone.
The tractor does not know what it can do. It is a well-designed instrument of efficiency, made to make the work lighter on the farmer’s shoulders. Perhaps it does that too well in the cases where, in the closed and air-conditioned cab with the radio on, the driver never hears the panicked screams of the fawn’s last cries, the slight hiccup of the machine as it consumes a turkey, or the wingbeats of terrified birds trying desperately to escape. The tractor doesn’t know. But the farmer should.
All landowners should. Brushhogging before July 9 is a death sentence for so much. Even regular mowing can be destructive. I know that before I mow I walk the yard. In my scouting walks I have found nests fallen from trees with baby birds still alive inside, wood frogs hiding in the tall grass, three foot long Milk Snakes hunting voles, and bunny nests. By taking the time to walk first, I wreak less havoc on the animals that also use the lawn.
Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for farmers and the work they do. Honestly, the fact that mowing is happening this week might be a blessing. It is early, yes. But many birds have time to re-nest. Many fawns are not yet born. There is time to start over should the parents-to-be make it out alive. There is always a struggle, a balance, the agonizing knowledge that in harvesting what we need to sustain the farm and keep the livestock alive, we will cause death and trauma to countless other living things. It should be hard. The taking of the land’s produce should give us pause.
Not just for farmers, but for all of us. Every single human lives off the land, takes from it to sustain ourselves. Timbering, gardening, clearing land for a house takes away from the land and the makes the ecological system less efficient. There are kind ways to do all those activities, just as there are kinder ways to farm. In order to truly appreciate each forkful of hay as you toss it over the fence, you need to have gingerly collected a dozen orphaned turkey eggs and tried to hatch them in an incubator. To know the value of an onion, you need to first build a new house for the toad before you unearth him from his burrow in the middle of the onion bed.
We are not the only creatures on the planet, and we are simply a blip in the biological history. Someday humans will be gone and there will be another dominant species. We don’t know yet what that might be, but we should know that we took the best possible care of everything here and helped to nurture the lives that will come. We should drive the tractor slower, with the windows open and the radio off. We should stand in silence at the sight of a new fawn lying in the grass and then come back tomorrow to mow. We should hold onto the lessons we’ve learned that remind us to be better humans. And every once in a while, put on an old pair of Carhartts and recall fond memories when life became richer than you ever imagined it could be.
Visit Audubon Nature Center for a better connection with many living things. The trails are open dawn to dusk, and the building is open 10:00am until 4:30pm daily except Sundays when we open at 1:00pm. Visit http://jamestownaudubon.org for more information or call (716) 569-2345 for upcoming events and information. We are located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist.