Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Reason to Love January

There is something I always look forward to in the New Year, and it's not a new winter reading list, or a new batch of New Year's resolutions. It is a new edition of the Ayers Creek Farm calendar. Everyone who knows Anthony and Carol Boutard, the keepers of Ayers Creek Farm, appreciate more than just their wonderful grains and roots and berries. With each of their harvest newsletters, they share their keen observations of life on the farm, and this has been extended to the photos and captions of their calendar. In years past, they have shared the beauty of speckled eggs camouflaged in a killdeer nest, or the wonder of wild watercress on the banks of the canyon where water drains from their fields. One of my favorite photos came from the 2008 calendar, a deep burgundy head of Rossa di Chioggia radicchio covered with frost, which increases the sugar content of these bitter winter greens. In their own words, the Boutards introduce this years calendar:
When we published our first Ayers Creek Farm calendar in 2005, the text merely identified the various crops shown in the photos. Over the next three years, this simple caption evolved into a short essay about the photo's subject. Last year, we balked at the increasingly formulaic approach of scenic farm pictures, and put together a thematic calendar exploring the various legume crops we grow. This 2010 edition takes us to a level of the farm most people never see.

At heart, we are naturalists as well as farmers. No, we are not that type of naturalist; we remain fully clothed on the farm befitting our straight-laced New England upbringing. We grew up with Golden Nature Guides and the nature writing of Jean Henri Fabre, Rachael Carson, Edwin Way Teale and others. In that spirit, this edition of the calendar will provide a glimpse of the natural history of the farm. We will show you life beyond the fruits, grains and vegetables we sell, the non-monetized and usually unseen world of the insects, spiders, slime molds and fungi at Ayers Creek Farm.

In The Life of the Ant, the Belgian naturalist and playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck, calls these "pastoral ants." They tend flocks of aphids like sheep, protecting them from predators such as syrphid fly maggots. In exchange, the ants draw honeydew from the aphids to sustain the ant colony. One of the ants on the left has collected some honeydew in its mandibles. The aphids are parthenogenic and viviparous through much of their life, that is, producing live young asexually. Like nested Russian dolls, you can open a large aphid and find smaller ones inside, open one of those and yet smaller ones will be found. They molt periodically to increase in size. These aphids have colonized the husks of late ripening corn ears, rich in available sugar and minerals. The last generation of the season's aphids, winged and sexual, will mate and lay eggs. Some of the pastoral ants collect the aphid eggs and store them in their nests, setting them out the next spring to generate a new flock.

The slime mold, fuligo septica, starts life as individual amoeboid creatures, visible only with a microscope. A chemical stimulus brings the individuals together and they fuse to form a new organism. The slime molds aggregate and sally forth in July and August, moving across the ground consuming yeasts, bacteria and fungi. Their movement is determinant, not random, guided by chemical cues released by their food sources. Research has also shown they develop memories, even keeping track of time, and can navigate mazes, wrinkling some of our measures of intelligence. Despite the name, they are completely unrelated to fungi. In fact, there are three major categories of slime molds that are unrelated to one another. These ephemeral colonies are harmless in every respect. As the food supply dwindles, the slime mold produces spores and collapses.

No, we are not lapsing back into the old plum-in-September formula; the creature upon the violet ovoid is the object of this snapshot. The Pacific Tree Frog, hyla regilla, is found throughout the farm, more often heard than seen. Here one awaits the evening upon a Seneca Prune, over a half-mile from the nearest pond. They need open water only for reproduction. The frogs' coloration is variable, and changes with habitat. Those living in the sweet potatoes assume a distinct purplish hue, while in other crops they are pure green or brown. Less frequently encountered are the Red-Legged Frogs, rana aurora, that live in the canyon bisecting the oak savannah at the heart of the farm.

These are not merely indulgent diversions unfolding like an episode of Planet Earth. At the simplest level, every gardener knows what benefit or harm comes from bugs and critters. Every organic farmer knows that living with these insects and micro-organisms makes up the complex biosymbiosis of a healthy farm, and a way of life that chemicals and fertilizers have not been able to supplant.