When someone spends every day outside, caring for plants and animals, in fields or woods, streams and rivers, one gets familiar with the natural world. Each ecosystem has its own rythms and cycles, patterns, habits, and rules. they are very different from the patterns of an office or a factory or a city or a highway. Sometimes I am surprised by what my neighbors do not understand but my 2 year old son does. Sometimes I am embarrassed at how little I know of the natural world.
I have spent many days walking the roads of the southeastern U.S. (and the andes of Chile). There is a peculiar ecosystem that is often overlooked between the road and the fence. It can be a place of vibrant life- full of food and medicine for man and beast. Too often it is manicured by man in an attempt to keep the "weeds" off the fence or off the road. These "weeds" are the staple food of many wild critters such as bees. Where we see a snarled tangle of brambles and vines covering an embankment or ditch, bees see a delightful smorgasbord that will provide them with everything they need to feed their family.
Scattered throughout this post are pictures that I have taken of the roadsides and fencelines in my neighborhood as I ride my bike to and from work. they provide beautiful illustrations of the biodiversity that may be found between the road and the fence. (The first photo above is from Pixabay.com).
Some of the species of plants I recognize in the 3 miles between my house and work are; Catnip, plantain, wineberries, honeysuckle, thistles, clover, lillies, bladder-campeon, Dandelions, asparagus, milkweed, mullein, yarrow, St. John's Wort, Jewel Weed, Teasel, Burdock, Elderberries, and of course lots and lots of chicory and queen anne's lace, daisies and black-eyed Susans.
[Elderberries are so good for your immune system! the birds think so too. Birds are probably the reason Elderberries get planted all over fencerows.]
It is the custom of the natives of my region to pay the state to mow the side of the road with giant tractor attachments about 8 feet long, and to spray herbicides along guardrails and other obstacles that would otherwise need to be weedwhacked around. Farmers spray the fenceline to keep the grass and weeds from taking over the fence, and they spray the thistles in their fields with roundup to keep them from spreading. I used to hate thistles myself, until I came to understand how crucial they are to bee livelyhood!
[Don't let your roadside look like this!]
When farmers and beekeepers talk, they talk about the weather. It isn't because they are bored and making light conversation to pass the time. It is because their daily lives and fortunes rise and fall with the weather. Not enough rain or too much rain, or rain at the wrong time, or a cold front at the wrong time could mean the difference between a good year and a bad year- tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours could be wasted with no way for the farmer to control it. That is the kind of year Virginia beekeepers are having- a loss.
[Asparagus is all over the fencelines in my neck of the woods! Thanks, birds! Asparagus is fine gourmet dining]
Nature has always been fickle and unreliable, seemingly uncaring whether we survive or not. Depending on the land for sustentance and income has always been a gamble. Most of our modern devices for industrializing agriculture have come from a desire to minimize risk and loss and to control as many factors as possible, which is understandable if you are familiar with how frustrating and disappointing it can be to lose your crops or livestock after so much hard work. having air-conditioned, GPS guided tractors, sprays, synthetic fertilizers, artificial insemination, Concentrated Automated Feeding Operations that regulate tempurature, humidity, food and water for 24,000 chickens under one roof- these are brilliant in the sense that one man (or woman) can work for an afternoon and get more accomplished than 20 laborers could in three days of back-breaking work fifty years ago.
So it is a reasonable question to ask an eccentric small-scale homesteader like myself; "why do you insist on doing everything the hard way?" and in fact many people do ask me this question. It is hard to know where to begin, but the short answer is this: "Unintended consequences". There is always an exchange for what we want- in order to gain efficiency we have to trade something. In order to get predictability we have to sacrifice something.
[St. John's Wort has been known to cheer those with a heavy heart}
Sometimes it takes decades to realize what the cost is, and then sometimes it is too late to reverse the harm done. For instance, the domestication and selective breeding of bees (and many other species) has effectively selected for a large, docile bee that starts building up early in the spring, continues laying eggs late into the fall, and does not swarm much. When you encounter a colony that has been living wild for generations they are usually more aggressive, smaller in size, swarm frequently, don't bring in as much honey, and stop their population boom around august. This does not give the humans what they need to make oodles of Federal Reserve Notes, but the bees don't care about that. They have something else- instinct. Their immune systems are stronger. they recognize when disease and pests are threatening their existence and will move away to a fresh location. they will remove pests from their nests, and some are even capable of detecting parasites in their infant stages, in a cell with a larval bee, and they will uncap the cell and evict both the baby bee and the parasite, clean the cell out, and start over. When humans select for the traits that make livestock profitable to them, they unintentionally breed out these feral instincts and immune responses. Then people wonder why their hives or flocks or herds etc. are so full of diseases and parasites.
[Wineberries are one of the top 3 most wonderful things in all creation, along with women and yerba mate}
Then the humans have to come up with a solution to the crisis, so their brightest and best hit the laboratories to fabricate a product that everyone will purchase and apply to their sick critters or plants. Usually the well-intentioned applicators of "solutions" use the logic that if 200 mg is good, 400 mg is twice as good.... and before long the whole field or herd or flock is saturated in something that smells very un-farm-like. when new problems arise, we just figure that since the solution did not work last year, maybe we should try 800 mg of it this year! Or at least we should go back to the lab and come up with another solution, because we are probably the animals' and plants' best hope for survival.
[I could smell roundup when I took this picture. YUCK!]
[Don't let them fool you- it kills the good bugs too! and there is no such thing as a Zika threat in the U.S.! get wise, honey- follow the money!]
Masanobu Fukuoka, the japanese scientist turned mad famer, compared the modern scientific mentality to a rice farmer whose paddy wall breaks, letting the water out. He repairs the breach and reinforces the wall. this wall breaks as well, and this time does damages to a nearby home. Next the farmer builds the wall higher and stronger to hold more water, and when this wall bursts open, the whole village is flooded. The question Fukuoka leaves us with is why instead of asking "what can I do to fix this?" do we not ask "what can I stop doing?"
[Jewel Weed is the best cure for poison ivy]
May I make this simple and humble request? If any part of your property borders a road, will you let it grow up? Will you try to keep the DOT or other maintenance crews from mowing or spraying the ditches and banks that lie in your care? Some of my neighbors have signs that say "Do not Mow!" or "Do not spray!" I would like to see them everywhere. Will you leave a wild place for the bees to find food and medicine? thank you.