The more I place myself within the network of life that surrounds me the more connected I am to myself, the horses, the land, the trees.
The more connected I am the more I feel my sense of place within this larger ecosystem. This life where we are all related, where we all have a role to play that’s vital to the whole.
Being a good steward for my horses is intimately connected with being a good steward for the land we call home.
We collectively leave a heavy footprint on our small piece of the world. Living in a desert environment has a steep learning curve. The ground is flat where it’s been cultivated. The soil is dense, alkaline clay. The summers are hot and this one is dry as a bone. We are completely dependent on the steady flow of irrigation to keep our pastures green and growing and for our hay supply.
As our state scorches and burns in a heavy drought my thoughts turn to building a relationship with this land I call home. How do I cultivate a healthy relationship with this small piece of Earth? How do I become less dependent on things like irrigation?
In the fifteen years we’ve lived here I’ve not followed the farming practices of those who came before me. You can still see the remnants of the corrugates in what used to be a hay field but is now a pasture where my horses can graze.
At first I thought I was blowing it – my pasture appears to be filled with weeds. Last summer I learned what I actually have is biodiversity. Each and every one of those plants tells me something about the quality of the soil, what the land needs in order to thrive. Each of those plants serves a purpose in either directly creating a healthier ecology in my pasture or in guiding me to what’s needed.
The earth will do it’s best to heal itself and restore balance. I can support and nourish what’s happening but if I meddle too much I disturb the burgeoning balance.
I’m learning to develop a relationship with my little piece of land. All that’s required is simply observing long enough to get a sense of the place, long enough for the life that inhabits this niche to come out and introduce themselves. To help me understand their purpose. Nature seeks harmonious balance. When it’s as far out of balance as it has been here it will go to extremes to restore itself.
Last year I was overrun with earwigs and aphids and other insect life that devoured everything I planted. I was also overrun with praying mantis and lady bugs, beneficial insects who were fed by the bugs that were eating everything. In every disturbed patch of land, every bit of bare earth there are weeds growing. Even the weeds serve a purpose.
This year with so little water has spurred me to take action. To discover what my land is telling me. When I look at the desert around me and see where things grow I notice they grow in the dips and valleys where water can accumulate. They grow in places where the soil has structure and life.
Nothing grows on the flat clay hard pack but the most tenacious of weeds.
Last year I started the process of creating soil that things could grow in. Layer upon layer piled upon the clay. No point in disturbing the soil further. The trick, I’m learning, is to create soil that acts like a sponge, taking in moisture and holding it. This flat clay patch I live on absorbs nothing. What little rain we get runs off in sheets.
The most stable ecosystem is a forest. The mature elm trees that shelter my house teach me why. I used to pick up and rake every branch or twig that fell. No more. What falls becomes mulch that shelters the the soil, provides habitat for life and eventually breaks down to nourish the soil. The trees are teaching me.
The canopy slows the rain fall down so it lands softly on the earth and has a better chance to soak in rather than run off. The dandelions with their deep tap roots open up the clay, allowing water to soak in, oxygen and bacteria to access this packed lifeless dirt. What the plants don’t use replenishes underground aquifers, storing water for use when there is need.
Last year, my first year with new raised beds. Everything I planted died or got devoured by earwigs, ants, aphids and beetles. So tempting to wage war on the nasty insects! Instead I did what I could to beat them back without chemicals. I trusted the process. All the weeds and devouring bugs are a sign of imbalance but also a part of nature trying to restore balance.
By allowing the bad bugs to flourish the good bugs had ample food and were well fed. This year I’ve seen one earwig. My plants are healthier and I’ve had no aphids. There are more signs of healthy life all the time. Butterflies, frogs and birds abound. We have a long way to go but by working with nature instead of against it I can see the beginnings of our oasis in the desert.
Sponge like land that soaks up and stores the water. Plants that can survive and thrive without being dependent on irrigation. Horses able to browse and wander with no need for dry lots because the soil and plants are strong, healthy and diverse. No more metabolic syndrome triggering stressed mono-cultures.
It’s going to be a process but I can’t wait! Healthy soil = healthy land = healthy plants = healthy people and animals.
Horsemanship isn’t just about riding.
I posted on Facebook a while back about my early experiments with reclaiming this land so it can provide for my horse and human family, while we provide for it. There was a lot of enthusiasm and I promised I’d share more of my journey. This will be the first in a series where I’ll share what I learn in hopes of inspiring you to become the best possible steward of your small piece of Heaven here on Earth.
Here are a few of the resources inspiring me on this leg of my journey:
Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner
The One Straw Revolution and Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka
The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds