A SENSE OF PLACE

BRUSH ARBOR FARMSTEAD IN SPRING

Silas cradles a lamb.

A stately oak stood proudly on the west side of the farm, lording the expanse of its limbs over the court of saplings and manzanita below. The oak weathered decades of winter winds and summer swelter, sheltering those beneath from the bite of frost and the sting of the noonday sun. Under the tree’s boughs, grasses grew taller and, from atop their heights, the birds seemed to sing mre sweetly. In the spring, the oak’s cascading, yellowy green catkins were abuzz with bees, and every autumn, it shared its bounty of acorns with pigs and squirrels on the ground.

But a wet autumn was followed by an even wetter winter, and a violent, gusty barrage uprooted the grand tree. A deep moan, followed by a crescendo of snapping and crepitation, marked the end of the towering giant. Where it had once cast its early morning shadow, the massive oak itself now lay broken, breathless.

I mourn the fall of old oaks, the rings of their memories laid bare in death. Admittedly, my personality bends toward the melancholy, and I am easily weighed down by the end of a thing, preoccupied by the finality of loss. So it was that I missed that aged tree along the western fence line and its upturned roots tugged at my chest.

But then, the eloquent book of nature turned a page. Miner’s lettuce and chickweed burst forth from the once shaded ground, now kissed by the spring sun’s rays. Bark crumbled from the trunk, mulching the earth, preserving moisture, and feeding the redworms underneath.

Baa baa black ewe and lambs, how you show off that manzanita!

I mourn the fall of old oaks, the rings of their memories laid bare in death. . . . But then, the eloquent book of nature turns a page.

Ground squirrels and jackrabbits made the hollows in and under the oak their nests. A red-tailed hawk made a nearby snag his new post and awaited the opportunity for his next meal. A yellow-eyed owl kept night watch and swooped upon any field mouse who dared leave the log’s shelter.

Pioneering ants soon colonized the timber and built their endless maze of galleries and tunnels, which, over time, housed microscopic generations of decomposers. Long, twisted oak limbs, still heavy with water, were cut and allowed to cure over the summer; their dense hardwood heated our home through the very season that downed the tree the year prior.

How pointedly nature articulates this truth: that for life to endure, there must be death; that great discomfort and disturbance often precede profound revival and regeneration. And we take heart in a triumphant promise— an encouragement I think we all need after the turbulent year our communities have endured: that the end of a thing is rarely a mere terminus, but rather marks beginning anew.

So here we stand now as the season’s page turns, as winter’s lion surrenders to springtide’s lamb, and what has fallen begets life. The wonder of renewal is no better illustrated than by the book of nature, across its brilliantly sanguine verses of spring. And when farming in tune with the timbre of nature, we are given an even more magnified perspective of this glorious picture.

In spring, neither rabbits nor humans can get enough miner’s lettuce.

I could spend hours picking miner’s lettuce and delivering the greens by the armload to the grateful rabbits to enjoy during the plant’s short lifespan.

IN LIKE A LAGOMORPH . . .

Miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata, northern California’s native gift to greens and the vitamin C-deficient, can both satisfy salad cravings and cure scurvy. The plant has a remarkable ability to grow in shallow soils where least expected, though it thrives at the bases of trees and in mulch where the ground stays moist. Its round, happy face is punctuated by a tiny, white, central flower, and I look forward to its short appearance every spring.

Of all the animals, and humans for that matter, that relish the season’s offering of miner’s lettuce, I’ve found none appreciate it like a lagomorph—the humble rabbit. From the wide leaf to the tip of the stem, prehensile lips draw the roughage through chopping incisors, and in a matter of seconds it’s disappeared into the hindgut fermenter. I could spend hours picking the greens, delivering them by the armload to the grateful rabbits to enjoy during the plant’s short lifespan.

Our does kindle their last litters of kits in the spring, before they take their summer sabbatical. A demonstration of pure instinct, a nesting doe will gather mouthfuls of hay and work for hours to arrange her nest just so. Provided with a large, rectangular box layered with pine shavings and hay, a doe will tunnel into the bedding, then fill it with hair she pulls from her belly. After giving birth to her litter in the small cavern, she will pluck surprising amounts of fur from her underside to completely cover the kits within.

At about ten days of age, when they are fully haired and their eyes now open, the kits emerge from their fluffy refuge and begin to follow the doe. By three weeks, they’re healthy competition for the doe’s servings of freshly harvested greens.

And at six weeks, the young rabbits are ready to wean and transition to the mobile pasture pen to forage on their own. During fall and winter, the rabbits produce a tremendous amount of manure, which would be a problematic sanitation concern if it were not so useful. What at first glance may seem like a mound of waste is actually a strategic source of refreshment for the soil, especially in the garden. Unlike other manures, rabbit droppings do not require composting before applying. So we carry wheelbarrow loads from the rabbit hutches to the garden and spread them evenly over the mulch, where they act as time-released capsules of fertilizer throughout the growing season. Dross from one constituent of the farm contributes vitality to another.

When rains come, ewes keep lambs warm and dry by sheltering them in the brush.

. . . OUT LIKE A LAMB

Lambing season, perhaps my favorite season of all, is a short, few-week period, at the early dawn of spring. A blissful morning for me is one that starts with an early walk into the pasture, met by the low, warm murmur of a mama ewe as she cleans her wet lamb, just minutes old. If I’m quiet enough and advance with slow movements and passive hands, she’ll let me kneel next to her and catch the tottering lamb to give it a quick once over. If my timing is right, mama ewe will turn a little for me to see a second set of downturned hooves, belonging to the twin lamb she’s about to lay down and deliver.

Amidst the aftermath of the winter storms—sloshy soil, fractured manzanitas, tree branches tossed across the ground—hearty, little Katahdin ewes can be found about, with their lambs tucked into the brush, dry and warm. Fallen trees and limbs are no bother to them, as the sheep use them for shelter and feast on their leaves.

More first-time mothers this year than in years past has meant predators killing more young lambs. Experienced ewes are fiercely protective, willing to take on predators that equal them in size. The younger ewes, however, are more easily spooked, less likely to stand their ground in the face of a threat. Thus, their lambs are easier prey, which the bobcats and coyotes have fully exploited of late.

This major vulnerability exposed a harshly evident need to improve the ways we protect the flock. These heartbreaking losses make us assess fencing and want to add to our livestock guardian dog team, and we need to evaluate flock numbers and stock densities.

Most of the farmstead’s eggs come from two breeds, the rust-colored Golden Comets and the Barred Plymouth Rocks (with their feathers in black and white bars).

SPRING’S CHICKENS

At the first sight of buds on the blue oaks’ stark branches, we brace for an explosion of egg production. Coming off their winter hiatus, with feathers regrown and nutritional stores replenished, the hens respond to longer hours of daylight by dramatically upping their laying games. Each hen accelerates laying, from zero to two eggs per week, up to one egg per day. Scant baskets of thirty to fifty eggs collected daily through the winter are now buckets of 120 plus, each afternoon.

Laying hens are incredibly aggressive, omnivorous foragers. In quickly turning over the top inch or two of winter tree debris, they aerate the forest understory and manage bug populations. The eruption of grasses and insects aplenty provides a diet for the hens; the result is that celebrated golden-orange yolk, the quintessential emblem of the “free range” egg. These eggs delight not only the eye, but also the palate and the body, dense as they are with long-chain fatty acids, vitamins A and E.

While the adult hens forage on (and also contribute to) spring’s bounty, we already need to plan for next fall—when the days are growing shorter and the adult lay-dies’ egg numbers naturally decline. Our defense against a complete drought of eggs: raise up a new flock of hens each year, timed so that they begin laying their eggs when summer turns to autumn.

The eruption of grasses and insects aplenty provides a diet for the hens; the result is that celebrated golden-orange yolk, the quintessential emblem of the “free range” egg.

Thus, the brooder houses about 150 cheeping, little hens each April, where they reside until about six weeks of age, warm under the lights and sheltered from the dangers of the outdoors. While in the brooder, the chickens require more inputs than at any other stage of their lives. Every morning, fresh shavings ensure that the floor stays as dry as possible. Feeders are kept full of chick starter ration and waterers are refilled twice daily.

Trays of grit, small gravel particulates from our seasonal creek bottom, are provided for the chicks as well. The chickens eat these small rocks, which collect in the ventriculus (or gizzard), where they act as the teeth of the bird to grind feed. Weeds, garden trimmings, and hay chaff are intermittently delivered to the growing chicks to forage upon, to begin populating their guts with healthy microbes from their future environment.

When chickens are large enough to move out of the brooder, about 250 cubic feet of shavings and bird manure are left behind, still quite dry. A few hours of shoveling will clean out the brooder down to the concrete floor. The mound of shavings is trailered to an area we call the woodchip yard, where hills of chipped wood and shavings are left to compost. Once these piles are transformed into sweet-smelling soil, they are ready to provide nourishment to less fertile areas of the farm.

Barred Plymouth Rock and Golden Comet are the two breeds of chicken we primarily rely upon for our egg-laying flocks. However, we also keep a handful each of Delaware and Ameraucana hens and roosters, which help to keep the flocks balanced with respect to temperament (the Delaware is a very docile chicken) and resiliency (the Ameraucana is pretty savvy in our wooded environment). Furthermore, I adore the variety of egg color we get from the puffy-cheeked Ameraucanas, loving to accent an occasional carton with a green or blue egg. I think our patrons enjoy those colorful little surprises as well.

Time devoted to eggs alone multiplies exponentially in the spring. After collection, they are transferred to washing flats, usually by the little hands of my best helpers. Thereafter, every egg is hand washed by yours truly, then air-dried. Eggs are weighed to determine size and candled to determine grade, then packed into their respective cartons according to size. Labels go on the cartons and into the refrigerator they go to await sale. The eggs I lovingly grade as “wonky”— shaped funny, shells stained, for whatever reason deemed less desirable by the CDFA grading system—go into a basket for our family’s table, appreciated all the same.

We need seasons. We need them in the world tangible and for the soul invisible. It is too easy to ignore the cadence of the ages and thus remain in the winters of life far too long. Witnessing spring, expressed through Nature’s prose, is experiencing life renewed. Upturned roots, manure heaps, and losses of this life are not ends in themselves, but sparks for revival.


This is the third in a series of four articles in which Amanda Bork tells readers about each season on Brush Arbor Farmstead, in Cottonwood, California.