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This story was his response to an assignment to imagine what each student’s design site would look like over time. To step forward 100 years and then work back to the present. Through this he they could explore how, when, and why to implement various pieces of his design, and that it could carry on once he was no longer part of the process.
Here Matt answers all those questions in an engaging narrative that shows the power of storytelling.
From feedback I’ve received over the years since the initial release of this episode in November of 2013, many of you have connected with the long view that Matt took in considering how his choices now can impact his family for many generations to come. I listen to this piece from time to time, and read the story copied below, as a reminder to slow down and remember that the changes I make today will echo down through history. I have a responsibility to myself and to future generations.
Allene awoke to the sound of the song bird at her window again. The cool spring breeze from that window was beginning to warm with the early morning rays of sun. Carried on the breeze were faint traces of the perfumed blossoms of the fruit trees in the backyard food forest. She got up and quickly dressed as she knew her chores would need to be completed before her mother allowed her to start her studies.
Being self-schooled Allene had read about the educational systems of the past and pitied those poor children in their government schools of long ago. They were never able to delve deeply into the subjects that interested them most – for Allene it was nature.
She threw open the back door of her home and put on her garden work boots before heading to the shed to fill the feed bucket for the hens. Her routine was to carry the feed down to the hen house and exchange it for the day’s egg harvest – hens willing. Along the way she would walk through the “garden” where her dad tended some annuals in amongst the many varieties of perennial food plants. She would pick anything that looked past its prime and add that to her feed bucket as an extra incentive for the one or two broody hens. She had learned to pick her battles.
The hens provided plenty of eggs for the family and the surplus was sold to pay for their feed which supplemented their foraging. But on this land it wasn’t just the hens that enjoyed a bountiful foraging experience. Allene had heard the stories of when her ancestors settled this land over 100 years ago and how they had laid out a plan for building a sustainable homestead that would feed their family for generations. Now, as she looked at the land around her she tried to imagine what it must have been like for her great-grandfather those many years ago.
He had named the homestead Wintershaven – after the family name, and while his original plans had been modified many times by his descendants the overall goals remained the same. Each year at the annual harvest festival when family and neighbors gathered at her home, Allene listened to the telling of the story and stared hard at the pictures on the wall of her family’s dining room. She could almost hear her great-grandfather speaking the story himself.
On her tenth birthday she had been given access to the family archives and had read her great-grandfathers words in his own (sloppy) hand writing. It was from those words that she had found her life’s calling. She realized at that time something she had only vaguely sensed up to that time – that all this was for her.
The laying boxes were empty of hens today as she stood on top of a block her father had placed for her to be able to see in the top boxes. Reaching in to each box she retrieved the eggs, some of which were still warm from their recent laying and placed them gently into her basket. She filled the feeder as the hens scrambled around her feet cackling at her quietly as if to fill her in on the day’s news. They became very excited as she tossed some over-ripe fruit and wilted greens to them and she watched as they worked out their literal pecking order.
Before returning to the house she looked up to survey the trees overhanging the chickens’ yard. There were mulberry trees that were taller than any structure on the farm – their fruits ripening in the morning sun. She knew that as the fruits began to drop into the pen her feed bucket would get lighter as the chickens filled up every day on the bounty dropping from the sky. That had been part of the plan, laid out those many years ago in an effort to address the looming issues of the failing society of which her great-grandfather was a part. Every plant, every structure, every land feature should have multiple functions – he had written.
The mulberries provided shade for the chickens and protection from hawks. Its fruit would feed the chickens in times where feed was hard to come by. The leaf drop would mulch the soil and add to the chicken manure to revitalize the ground when the chickens were shifted to their other paddocks. Wood from the mulberries was used for structures throughout the farm – even her crib had been made of mulberry wood and later recycled as a brooder for baby chicks. Produce no waste had been one of the often quoted phrases in her family for generations.
Past the mulberries she could see that the new understory plantings she had helped her father put in last fall were growing well. The hazels were bright green amongst the many varieties of cane fruits and herbs. Beyond that the older fruiting trees, may haws, paw paws and young pecan trees were now fully leafed out and benefiting from the recent rains. The land beneath these trees undulated gently in a series of catchments that slowed and retained the rain as it fell and moved across the landscape. The term her great-grandfather had used was “swales” when he dug those ditches so many years ago.
Allene had been almost 9 years old before she realized these types of changes to the land’s shape were not natural occurrences. At first it had bothered her that someone would mess with nature in that way, but as she visited neighbors’ farms around the area she noticed the ones doing well all had similar earthworks of differing ages.
The abandoned farms at the end of the road had none of these but the land there was still barren from the 20-year drought her grandmother told her about and no one had lived on those farms since. Several folks had talked of rehabilitating those places but with only shovels and strong backs to work with it would take years to do what her great-grandfather had done in mere weeks – back when the oil still flowed. But it took that drought back in the 70’s and the decline of cheap energy for Allene’s family to realize the value of the land they had inherited.
Allene shook her head to clear the daydream she was enjoying as she stood in the chicken yard with hens pecking about her feet. She picked up the egg basket and the feed bucket and headed back to the shed. After securing the shed she brought the eggs in to the summer kitchen just off the back porch of her family’s home and proceeded to clean then sort the eggs. The ones that were uniform in color and shape she would place carefully into well used cartons to take to the neighbors on the mid-week delivery list. The others she left in the basket placed in the indoor kitchen for her mother to use for the day’s meals. Just a few more chores and she could return to reading that “new” old book from her family’s library.
She hurried out the door again and was met this time by a huge hairy monster of a dog that proceeded to “kiss” her all over. Baxter was as excited as Allene was annoyed by his affections. The dog was part of the homestead and a hard worker, but he seemed to like interacting with his human –pack members as much as he enjoyed protecting the feathered ones. After what she thought was a thorough ear scratching Allene continued on her mission up the hill to the solar well house. The pump was humming quietly as the sun tracked higher into the sky and the storage tank was filling nicely. The family used this water for irrigating the kitchen garden in the front yard and it was Allene’s responsibility to open the valve from the storage tank to the irrigation system for 20 minutes each morning (unless it had rained the night before).
The irrigation system was something her great-grandfather had written about but never had the time to implement in his lifetime. In fact, it wasn’t until the electric grid went down for a whole year and the water from the rural water district stopped flowing that her grandfather was forced to install the solar well pump and storage tank. Her father told her he had been her age at the time and complained bitterly at the amount of work he was tasked with. As part of the project they also ran piping throughout the property for irrigation – completing this project just 5 years before the great-drought. It was a large part of what saved the homestead from the fate of so many others at that time. Her father learned his lesson and reminded her of this anytime she complained about hard work.
Her last chore was Allene’s favorite. For the 20 minutes it took to irrigate the kitchen garden she was tasked with the daily foraging walk. Retrieving her big basket from the summer kitchen counter she headed out on a well-worn path that would take her to the back of the family’s property and back. Her fondest and earliest memories as a young child were of toddling along with one or both of her parents as they daily walked the trail around the property to retrieve whatever was in season at the time. Tending a struggling plant here, chopping and dropping some branches there to let in light for the plants below, finding hidden gems of nature everywhere – enjoying the goodness of the land was her favorite thing in the whole world.
Her parents would patiently teach her as they walked together, what plants were good to eat and when, what plants had special needs and how to meet those. She learned the names of the plants and trees and helped transplant out whatever the family had decided to add that year. Most of what they planted was merely propagated from cuttings or seeds collected elsewhere on the property. It was their responsibility, her father had said, to plant the trees that their grandchildren would eat from. But she came to realize early on that planting a tree was not enough to insure its success. She learned about companion plantings and guilds that her family had developed over the years to give each plant a better chance of success by meeting its needs with a nearby planting.
Her grandmother called it, their “garden of eatin’”, and what a garden it was. Chestnuts and pecans formed the upper canopy layer with large old oaks filling in a few gaps. Allene marveled at how those oaks were probably growing here when her great-grandfather purchased the land and began its transformation. Multiple varieties of multiple species of multiple types of fruit trees and nut trees formed the understory. She could see the peaches and plums were already fully in bloom as the bees from her mother’s hives buzzed about lazily. The almonds and the edible dogwoods were just starting to develop blooms.
Climbing these understory trees she could count 6 different types of vining plants including muscadine grapes, hardy kiwi, maypops, and hops that her dad used in brewing his nasty beer. Squirrels darted amongst the vines and up the trees and chattered at her in protest as they did every morning. Shrubs surrounded most of the trees and some of these would produce fruit for the jellies and jams she would make with her mother in the coming months. Below these shrubs there were culinary and medicinal herbs whose Latin names she still struggled with but whose uses she could recite like her life depended on it – and sometimes it did.
Every day there was something new to see or learn about. Many was the day she would spend the afternoon researching some pest or plant she had come across during this morning walk – thank goodness for her family’s extensive library of books about the natural world. Every day she would return to her home with her basket filled with delicious foods for the family meals that day. On many occasions her mother would leave her a note to gather certain medicinal plants to use in her practice as she went about caring for the others in the community. Sometimes her father would have her check his traps along her walk – a job she hated but understood its importance.
As she would grow and learn she would come to realize that these walks were really a walk back in time. For her the path had always been one of provision and sustenance but she knew it had not always been this way. Some of the trees she planted with her parents last year wouldn’t provide food for anyone for 10 years or more. Some of the trees she harvested from were older than her father and had been put here for this very purpose – to provide abundance for her family by those she had never met.
She knew enough about the greater world around her to know that she had been given a gift by her ancestors in the way they had tended this land. She knew it was her duty to continue this tradition for those who would come after her. The weight of that responsibility was lifted each day by the joy she felt as she explored the path laid out before her. Allene hurried along, gathering good things as she went. She was looking forward to getting back home so she could blow the dust off that old book she’d found in the family’s library with her great-grandfather’s hand written notes in the margins. It was a book about a subject called Permaculture, and she was eager to learn what that meant.
(Used with permission from Matt Winters.)