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Get Dirty and Make Mistakes

toad

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.

acacias

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.

nectarines

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.

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For more information, please visit either here for the seminars or here for the workshops.

5 Comments

  1. My son and I were walking to the bus one warm day after it had just rained, hand in hand, when he turned his little face up to me with great big smile on his face and said, “i just love days like this…..they are so wormy!” I hadn’t really noticed all the worms on the pavement until then. Years later my son was killed in Iraq….and every day it rains, I think worms, and the boy that loved to fish. It’s the little moments in life that matter…..

    1. So sorry to hear about you losing your son. You are absolutely right, it is the little moments that matter. It is all we really have.

    2. I’m deeply sorry for your loss. I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost several friends. Your comment brought tears to my eyes and I am grateful that you have such cherishable moments of your little boy that died, serving his country and humanity, as a man.

      There is so much turmoil surrounding those two wars but please believe; our soldiers made as much of a positive impact on the locals – while we were there – as your little boy did to you with such a simple innocent observation.

  2. Sadly spent a lot of time experimenting were I am at now. Have goats that prefer tumbleweeds over most hay, found ways to use the “duff” from their dry lots to make berms that are long lasting, but have never been able to give them the pasture they so dearly would love. So with divorce and years of experience behind me and small group of goats, geese and chickens we starting over somewhere new, somewhere they can have real pasture.

    Instead of beating myself up, read everything on pasture, rotational pasture, various methods, flerds and many, many different topics as beside them having pasture the idea of a food forest is very appealing. Our new home has a fair number of fruits/nuts already producing and after the fur and feather family is settled in will get to work finding what is at hand. That’s my starting point.

  3. Chloe, what a joyful article. I felt moved and uplifted reading it.

    Your list of what you have learned is so wise and so humble – I hope you don’t mind if I use it as the starting point for my own list…

    There is a lots to be said for mud:

    I grew up next to the most beautiful mangrove swamp. I can still remember the smell and feel of walking barefoot through the earthy mud, oozing with life and teaming with microbes. At night you could see octopus in the shallow channels of water catching fish. And there were blue crabs so big that they would catch chickens from the neighbouring gardens to eat! My brother says they are still there….

    These things feed my soul.

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