I’m a roaming cowboy riding all day long,
Tumbleweeds around me sing their lonely song.
Nights underneath the prairie moon,
I ride along and sing this tune.
See them tumbling down,
Pledging their love to the ground,
Lonely but free I’ll be found
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
Tumbling Tumbleweeds, by The Sons Of The Pioneers.
What if Tumbling Tumbleweeds went from being the title of a classic cowboy song to being the name for an scramble egg recipe? It’s not as farfetched an idea as it sounds.
Tumbleweeds are an introduced species called Salsola tragus, that first popped us in the U.S. in South Dakota in 1877. Since tumbleweeds are widely distributed over the steppes of Russia and Central Asia it’s thought that Ukranian immigrants pioneering the great plains were the most likely vector. Once rooted in the new world the exotic tumbleweeds took care of spreading themselves. The plant is now classed as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department Of Agriculture.
The tumbleweed plant is a tender herb when young, and grows into a stiff round ball of stems that breaks loose from the soil when the autumn winds blow, so that the plant can roll across the landscape, spreading seeds. The following spring the old severed roots sprout new growth, and the tumbleweed’s dispersed seeds sprout in new locations. Tumbleweeds spread so successfully, “Pledging their love” to a virgin continent, that they soon made their way over the Colorado Rockies, all the way to Death Valley, and even into the musical top 40. Maybe the food network comes next.
I’m growing an Italian green called agretti, or Salsola soda in Latin. Agretti is a tender, succulent herb when harvested young, with a pleasing, sour taste. In Italy this herb is used chopped and tossed in salads or sauteed with onions to slip into omelettes. The family name Salsola comes from the Latin “salsus”, meaning salt, because the various Salsola family members can tolerate very salty soil. The tumbleweed’s tolerance of, and even appreciation for, tough conditions, helped the plant spread aggressively across the American West.
The Italian Salsola soda I’ve planted in my fields grows with the vigor of a weed, just like its Russian cousin Salsola tragus. But agretti seeds are hard to find in the States, and costly to import. Young tumbleweeds have a similar texture and flavor to agretti, and are often eaten back home on the steppes, cooked like spinach. I’m going to grow out some of my agretti seeds to maturity and harvest a seed crop so I’m not so dependent on imported agretti seed. I’m also going to drive out to the Panoche Valley, east of Hollister, in the fall and gather the seed of some tumbleweeds as they go tumbling past.
The Panoche Valley is a very quiet spot, hidden in the hills between Hollister and the San Joaquin Valley. I like it. With film, when directors want to suggest loneliness and rootlessness one device they occasionally resort to is to show a tumbleweed rolling across the screen, just as the Country and Western musical group, The Sons Of The Pioneers, used the tumbleweed to suggest a relationship between loneliness, rootlessness, and freedom.
In the ideal Italy of the past, or in the re-imagining of the future that The Slow Food Movement is promoting from it’s base in Italy, food is more than fuel for a restless body. Our daily meals can be reaffirming moments that strengthen our ties to tradition, to family, to seasons and to places. We’re all sons and daughters of pioneers here in America, and we’ve changed our landscape just as it has changed us. Someday we will understand our freedom as the choice to take root and to take responsibility for our behavior in this community of plants and animals that sustains us.
When that day comes, a weed will simply be a plant out of place, instead of any old plant we don’t understand or pay attention to unless it’s to scrape it off the landscape or spray it into submission. It’s an ideal world I’m talking about, I know. But, with agretti, the Italians learned to cook an alkali tolerant weed and transform it into a treat, so why can’t we learn to savor our own landscape? You’ll know that we’ve learned how to “pledge our love to the ground” when a traveler can pull off of I-5 at dawn on the way to or from L.A., and buy a tasty, fresh, local, braised tumbleweed taco for breakfast.
Film reviews aren’t part of my routine, but in the case of the recent release “Miss Potter”, starring Rene Zellweger, I’ll make an exception. Thumbs up! Five stars. Saw it twice!
The story is based on the life of Beatrix Potter, the authoress of classic children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but this isn’t a children’s movie. Instead, “Miss Potter” is a story of how a young woman had the inner strength to overcome the stifling social mores of the Victorian era. After I saw the film with my wife I took my ten year old daughter, Lena. Like young Beatrix, my daughter loves to paint. I thought it would be instructive for Lena to see how women’s roles in society have changed over the years, by seeing the struggles of a woman with whom she could sympathize.
I loved the farm-life angle to the film’s storyline too. Beatrix Potter painted scenes from the English countryside around her. Her illustrations are so well observed that I can name the breed of animal or the variety of flower or vegetable pictured. In an illustration for The Tale Of Jemima Puddle-Duck it’s clearly a rhubarb plant that Jemima has chosen to hide her eggs under. “She tried to hide her eggs;” Beatrix Potter writes, “but they were always found and carried off.” The farm boy in the picture looks at the silly duck hen confronting him with a reproach, and Jemima looks concerned. Beatrix writes that Jemima was “quite desperate.” The authoress was probably aware that rhubarb is synonymous with words of dispute, like ruckus, quarrel, controversy, debate, disagreement, bickering, fuss, and flap. The picture has a homey tartness that can appeal to the parent reading the story, as much as the sweeter elements appeal to the child being read to.
When foxy gentleman’s house is pictured, later in the same story, there’s a Digitalis purpurea plant in full bloom at the edge of the frame. Digitalis grows well in dank, moist, shady areas, and the most common name for Digitalis is foxglove—another name is “dead man’s bells.” Is Beatrix insinuating that Jemima is a dead duck? Most illustrations for contemporary children’s books feature generic images of nature that are pretty, but iconic and lacking detail. I like all kinds of art, from the religious psychedelia like The Garden Of Earthly Delights by Bosch, to Klimpt’s line drawings of women to Magritte’’ surrealistic businessmen with their faces obscured by large green apples. But I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for super-realistic images of bunnies in britches too, especially when there are shadowy innuendoes drawn in to give the pictures more depth.
The movie “Miss Potter” captures the rustic beauty of the Lake Country,but it doesn’t take us down a saccharin garden path. Beatrix Potter looked deeply into the world around her, and her familiarity with nature bred love. She overcame societal obstacles and personal inhibitions to become a millionairess, and then she invested her money in land to save working farms from destruction. We can still enjoy England’s Lake country because of her. Beatrix Potter was WAY ahead of her time, and her curious, amusing Victorian morality tales are only part of her legacy.
Oceans are rising, the ice-caps are melting, the apocalypse is nigh, and there’s always so much doomed news to dwell on. The fact that Hollywood moguls saw a market for a movie about Beatrix Potter, and then made a movie where love for the natural environment is as important a theme as the search for romantic love—well, it me think that those of us working towards a sustainable, nature based agriculture can hope for a happy ending too! This farmer says “Go Beatrix!”
“I must either command, or be silent!” -Napoleon in exile
When Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a deserted island he survived by catching wild goats to use for meat, milk, and hides. The story of Robinson Crusoe is fiction, but there’s nothing imaginary about the flocks of goats on the scattered islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The island goats weren’t native to the islands, they were feral—descended from the pairs of bucks and does that early Spanish and Portuguese sailors let loose as “shipwreck insurance,” so that non-fictional shipwrecked sailors could hope to wash up on an island where a familiar food source existed.
Since they had no natural predators on these remote, previously undiscovered oceanic islands, goat populations expanded exponentially, and they often turned lush deserted islands into desert islands by eating everything. For example, a Portuguese explorer named Jo o da Nova discovered an uninhabited, heavily timbered isle 1200 miles off the coast of Southwest Africa on the feast day of Saint Helen, May 21st , 1502. He named the island St. Helena, took on water, dropped off several goats, and sailed on.
The existence of St Helena was kept a secret by the Portuguese until 1588, when the British explorer, Cavendish, came across the island and made note of both the goats and the trees. Witnesses say there were still a lot of trees standing as late as 1716, but by the time the famous Corsican megalomaniac was exiled on St. Helena in 1815 the island’s native vegetation had been destroyed. Charles Darwin visited Longwood, Napoleon’s home on the island, in 1836 on the historic voyage of the Beagle. He wrote of St. Helena that, “Goats were introduced in 1502. Eighty-six years later, during the time of Cavendish, it is known they were exceedingly numerous. More than a century afterwards, in 1731, when the evil was irretrievable, an order was issued that all stray animals be destroyed.”
But goats don’t have to be destructive. At High Ground Farm in Watsonville goats are being used to help restore native California plant communities. Laura Kummerer, a grassland restoration specialist working for High Ground Farm, has borrowed fourteen of my goats to help her with her native range rehabilitation project. We released the goats at High Ground Farm last week, and their immediate task was to eat the introduced species like the annual Mediterranean grasses, wild mustard, wild radish, and orchard grass that infest what remains of the native Californian coastal grasslands. Eating these weeds comes naturally to goats—after all, the goats and these weeds all evolved together in the Old World.
Two hundred years ago the lands that now make up the fields and pastures of High Ground Farm were part of an intricate web of wet lands and prairies that ran along the shores of Monterey Bay. Elk grazed on the grasslands and deer browsed in the brush. Waterfowl nested in the reeds, and every manner of creature found a niche to exploit and enjoy. Near the top of the food chain, one rung under the Grizzly bear, communities of native Americans lived on the bluffs and took advantage of all the natural riches that the area had to offer.
The Spanish conquest changed everything. With guns at their disposal, the newcomers were equal to the Grizzly bears. Adios osos! The Native Americans were crowded into missions and lectured to about salvation in heaven. No one thought to listen to the Indians to find out if their long tenancy in California had taught them anything about how to live here— our ecological consciousness was still a long time off in the future. The Indians themselves were the first victims of an environment out of balance—many of them died from the diseases that the Spaniards had evolved with and adapted to. The herds of elk were slaughtered. The coastal prairie grasses were over-grazed by long horned Iberian cattle, and the native perennial bunch grasses gave way to the Mediterranean annual grasses that hitchhiked into California as sticker-burrs in the cows’ tails.
When the Americans came the oaks and redwoods were cut down, the fields were ploughed for farming, and the wetlands were drained. When I started farming in Watsonville the rich, peaty soil from the drained marshland was still being strip-mined by fertilizer companies and exported. Finally, and recently, much of what was once wetland habitat for a wide range of native species has been converted into housing subdivisions. But Santa Cruz County isn’t St. Helena Island. We’re not marooned. We’re not in exile, and there’s no palace of mirrors for us to return to. We’re here to make a permanent home, and we’re smart enough (I hope) to learn how to live here gracefully, and not comport ourselves like conquerors who would despoil their own prizes.
For some people the environmental changes of the past and present are of no concern. I have to admit that I’m not sad that the Grizzly bears aren’t prowling outside my door—taxonomists don’t call them Ursus horribilis for nothing. But as we become deeply acquainted with our environment we’re beginning to learn how all the different organisms work together to maintain a stable yet dynamic ecology. Get rid of the coyotes and the rodent populations surge out of control until bubonic plague brings them back in line. Get rid of the nesting areas and the birds that keep the mosquitos in check disappear. Get rid of the mosquitos with chemicals and the birds that depend on them for food disappear, plus a lot of other organisms get poisoned.
As farmers and consumers we’re learning to take responsibility for our actions. Organic farmers have a special role to play in redefining how society interacts with nature. As business people we understand that we can only farm organically if we can make money, but we also understand that not everything that’s of value can be easily quantified in terms of dollars. The checks and balances that count for survival aren’t only the ones at the bank. A healthy, diverse ecosystem where a natural matrix of pest and predator is an agricultural asset. The hawk that floats overhead the field isn’t merely a beautiful bird, it’s also the cheapest and most effective gopher trap a farmer can have.
The hawk needs a tree to nest in. And we need the hawk and the tree to add “interest” to our lives. Our lives are a gift from Mother Nature, and the intelligent thing to do is to show some respect to the old girl. There is so much to learn about how all the different species work together to weave a seamless web of life, but several things seem clear already. Diverse ecosystems are more stable, more resilient to temporary climatic fluctuations, and more beautiful than mono-cultures. We don’t stand outside of nature—we’re an integral part of it. We’re still evolving, and it’s not to late to change. With that sentiment in mind, a number of different groups in Watsonville are working together to restore the Monterey Bay wetlands.
The mining of the Watsonville peat bogs is history, and water is filling the wetlands again. At High Ground Farm seeds from the surviving native perennial bunch grasses have been collected from the pastures and grown out to replant and strengthen the remaining established stands. A handful of cattle have been brought into the pastures because, if properly managed, their grazing habits mimic those of the vanished elk. Native grasses evolved with ruminant grazing as a part of the equation, and they need grazing to thrive. My goats have been introduced because their browsing habits can be an effective control for the introduced Mediterranean weeds that are choking out the native California plants.
The goats got to work right away, wolfing down mustard blossoms like bar flies around a dish of salted peanuts. When the thatch of non-native weeds has been reduced from the rangeland, native wild flowers and native perennial grasses will have an easier time getting re-established. Laura Kummerer monitors the progress that the cows and goats make and moves the animals from paddock to paddock as necessary. When the goats have finished their work for the season they will return home to Mariquita Farm to resume their important “work” eating poison oak brush.
My father, Dr. James Griffin, was a research plant ecologist for the University Of California who did some of the pioneering studies on the re-establishment of native grass communities. His work thirty years ago, and that of his like minded peers, has inspired people like Laura to look at the inter-related issues of habitat management and animal husbandry in new ways. I grew up on a University field station, and as a kid I can remember all the enclosures my dad made around plots of native grasses to study the effects of grazing on regeneration, and I remember the controlled burns he conducted to understand the ways that perennial grasses depended on fire ecologies for survival. Then I grew up to raise goats.
My interest in raising goats may make me seem like an atavistic throwback to a stupider time, but I’m proud to be able to help Laura and contribute to the spirit of father’s work in my own way. And of course I’m proud of my goats for being so “ecologically sensitive” and “politically correct.” Goats are wonderful animals, and we can’t blame them for the deserts. Learning from our mistakes and making appropriate corrections in our behavior is a survival skill, and it’s the only real shipwreck insurance we’ve got.
Photos of Before and After the goats arrived
Photos of some native plants found at High Ground Organics
(Andy’s photo of a local mustard field is below)
Jesus said “the kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed.” A mustard seed is tiny, like the head of a pin. Can heaven fit?
Metaphors that were evocative and illuminating two thousand years ago come across opaque and weird to modern ears. Today mustard is as celestial as a yellow emulsion on a ballpark hotdog. That can be a pretty good experience, but a cultural anthropologist will tell you that mustards were meaningful across the Middle East throughout antiquity, both as weeds and as cultivated crops. Farmers sowed mustard by scattering hand-fulls of the seed on tilled soil. Then the farmers would sit back to wait, and pray, for rain.
People living during the time of Jesus would have gathered tender mustard seedlings from the fields in the spring for salads. As the mustard greens matured they would have picked them for cooking greens. Some form of wild mustard may well have been the bitter herb eaten during Passover. And when the mustards’ flower buds swelled the country people would have plucked them to steam like tiny heads of broccoli. Then, when the plants went to seed, the little brown mustard seeds were pressed for oil. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed he was telling his followers that they didn’t have to look very far to find it.
Heaven in the valley, heaven in the bowl,
Heaven in the belly, heaven in the oil,
Heaven on the hillside, heaven in the seeds,
Heaven in the flowers, heaven in the weeds.
All around the Mediterranean mustard fields come into blazing yellow flower in the spring. From a distance the hills appear to be yellow. But look closely at a mustard plant and you’ll see that the yellow blossom is actually a cluster of smaller flowers, each of which takes the simple form of a four-petaled cross. Botanists have given the mustard family the Latin name of Cruciferae, meaning “of the cross.” Many of our most important food crops, like cabbage, turnips, broccoli, radishes and cauliflower are crucifers. When Jesus said that heaven was like a mustard seed, was he implying that it reveals itself in
full flower tortured on a cross?
Jesus said that mustard, “the smallest of seeds,” when fully grown is “ the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The wild mustard weeds in my farm’s fields stand five feet tall, but I would hardly call them the “greatest of shrubs,” or “trees.” Jesus was a carpenter, so he would have known about trees. Was he engaging in poetic licence, or was he suggesting that the smallest things sometimes contain within themselves the most unforseen ramifications?
Sometimes I wonder if Jesus wasn’t making an empirical observation. We know that there are deserts in Texas now where, before the settlers came, there used to be prairies of grasses that grew taller than a man on horseback. And there were millions of bison swarming across the plains. The skies over my farm in California used to be black with waterfowl, and the fields were crossed by huge herds of elk.. Was the soil in the Middle East richer a long time ago when Caesar Augustus stomped the terra? Were plants more vigorous in The Land Of Milk And Honey before twenty centuries of war, over-grazing and erosion depleted the soil?
The Spanish conquistadores brought Mediterranean culture to California; they brought their religion, their livestock, their crops, their political institutions, their diseases, and their weeds. Today the Spaniard Empire is history and most of the Indian peoples the Padres converted to Catholicism are dead, but California is still beautiful. It’s not for nothing that John Steinbeck titled a book that took place in Central California “The Pastures Of Heaven.” But the California that existed before Cabrilho planted the first cross in 1542 in San Diego can hardly be imagined. Today, our valleys are yellow with
wild mustards in full bloom for Easter, and the fields are covered in crosses.