When I was younger, maybe 10 or so, I had this thing for frogs. I wanted frogs, and ponds with frogs. Lots of frogs.
At an abandoned gravel quarry by my house, in the unlikely place of the city of Athens, I would find tadpoles, hundreds of them, in rain puddles every spring. I also learned, weeks later, from the dry deflated specimens etched in the dirt, that when the puddles dried, the tadpoles died. So I decided to save them. I dug a small pond in our backyard, lined it with plastic, and started re-homing tadpoles.
I don’t know how many of them reached adulthood. As soon (or even before) they grew out all their legs they usually disappeared, and I suspect I fed the local birds more than raised amphibians. But through it all I learned. I learned things about frogs (they may have been toads) and ponds and birds that I would not have learned in school books. And I learned things in a way I could not have been taught by a teacher, because I discovered it by exploring on my own.
25 years later, with my face in the mud, I’m trying to make a castle/bunker for toads. Using rocks
I’m designing a super deluxe toad abode, and it suddenly hits me– I’m doing something I always wanted to do as a child.
If you want to learn something, really learn it, I think you need to get dirty, maybe bloody even. If it’s not under your fingernails, in your nose, in your sweat, you will not understand it as well. Reading or hearing about it is not the same. Looking at diagrams in books and on boards, is not the same. You need to get dirty. Engage all of your senses. Get lost, meander, experiment, fail.
Making the choice to return to the land, or whatever we call this, whether it’s because you want to eat better, or you
want to start a business, is not an easy job. And it sure as hell is a dirty job. But it’s one job I think we should
all be doing. In any capacity we can. Even if all you have is 5 plastic pots and a balcony. The global food system, from field to transnational supermarket shelf, accounts for up to one-third of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Our sophisticated technology has given us all sorts of creative ways to squander valuable resources and destroy the habitats and species that keep our planet and us alive. We raze ancient forests to grow beans.
If you decide to return to the land, and I hope you will, you need to get dirty. And you need to make your own mistakes.
But if there are a few things I have learned, it is this:
- Given the choice between a green, brown, or red gardening tool, all else being equal, always go for red. (You can spot a red tool 20 meters away. Anything brown or green will be hiding by your feet like the alien from Predator).
- The internet has a ton of information, but it is unlikely you will find someone who is doing the same thing you want to do, in the same way, with the same parameters and conditions. Cut and paste, then trial and error.
- Talk to other farmers, especially your local farmers. Even those who are farming conventionally. You can learn a lot from them.
- If you find something that works well (a method, a plant, anything) keep it in your repertoire. Every time you change your recipe, you will get different results. But don’t stop experimenting.
- Think it through before you act. It can save you lots of time. Solving problems in your head first is a lot less energy than building, lifting, digging yourself out of them. The best solutions are often the most simple. Back up plans are also good.
- There is a wealth of valuable information kept by very old people–those who grew up in rural farming communities. Find them and talk to them. That information is disappearing fast.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, but don’t spread your eggs out so much you can’t keep track of them.
- Balance is important in all things.
- Take care of your body. You will need it. Multiple trips with small loads may be better than one trip with too much.
- Every new element you add will have an effect or repercussions on your system. It may add more work until you learn how to balance it.
- Don’t cut corners, unless you don’t need those corners.
- Start to trust your instinct. The more you get your hands dirty, the more you should trust it.
- If you need to dig a hole, find a place that needs soil. If you need soil, take it from a place that needs a hole.
- Some medieval tools are better than modern technology. Unless you have a lot of rocks on your land, I have not found a reason why a weed-whacker is better than a scythe.
- There is a learning curve. Don’t worry, you will get better. I promise.
- Try a variety of things. Some will fail, some will be OK, some will absolutely thrive.
- The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. We are just little humans with a few senses of limited range. Don’t let that frighten you. What you need to know, you will learn.
- If you consider yourself agnostic or atheist, forget about it. You will find yourself praying to clouds and leaving offerings to rats (or your local pest). Egyptians once worshiped cats.
- From mistakes comes resilience, the ability to be flexible, adaptable.
- Seminars are good places to get new information, share information, and find members of your tribe–the one you didn’t even know you had. The first seminar I went to gave me new ideas, and even more, it gave me the courage to keep doing what I had started and to not look back.
- If you want to turn it into a business, make a plan. Is there market for it, is it profitable, how will you sell it?
- Enjoy it. You are not stuck at a desk, in a cubicle, in a smoggy, loud city doing something you hate for somebody else. Your body may ache, but you have time to lie in the grass, look at the sky and listen to birds. That in itself is holy.
Books and teachers and classes and websites, they are all very good and necessary. They can save you much time and many mistakes. You do not need to start from scratch; from the very beginning like the first fumbling farmer. However, there is something about having to learn things on your own too, through doing, through failing and trying again and again, that might perhaps be the best education.
So read, ask, take courses, meet others with similar aspirations, and get dirty.