This time of year the pastures on my farm look particularly bedraggled, with thistle patches thick as the goldenrod used to be, the patches of goldenrod now thin , and burdock plants that, despite being denuded of leaves by the cows and sheep, are ripening their endlessly irritating seedpods. Maybe most of the ground is covered by more grass and clover than I’ve ever managed to grow before, but my eye is nevertheless drawn to the ragged irregularity of the weeds.
The dilapidated appearance of my pastures is heightened by contrasting them with the fields of neighboring farmers. Whereas I look upon a patchwork not just of species but also of growth, with a checkerboard of grass left by the herd’s daily move, the local hayfields are the manicured, homogenous green of a golf course, and the beans and corn are tall enough that they’ve covered the Round Uped (Rounded Up?) remains of bull thistles and parsnip, leaving perfect carpets of emerald.
I’ve read articles by any number of grazers who are better and more experienced farmers than me, and many of them clip pastures with a mower once or twice a year. In some cases there are good production reasons for doing this, particularly on dairy farms, but the longer I work with managed grazing the more convinced I am that the overriding motive for putting in the time, diesel, and machinery is to shape the land into something approximating the aesthetic that predominates on most productive, modern farms.
I certainly feel the pull. Rationally, I know that I grow more forage than the animals on my farm can consume. Rationally, I know that mowing would be a waste of resources and would grant only a minimal return. Rationally, I know I should celebrate the diversity, since deep rooted plants like burdock are doubtless making minerals and nutrients available that grass cannot easily access, and even more so because, now that the animals have learned to eat them, they have value as feed. Rationally, I know my feeling that a big, even, monotonous field of sod looks better than a scruffy profusion of all sorts of growth reflects my milieu rather than an objective truth. Yet part of me still wants to go fire up the tractor.
At bottom the distinction lies between an aesthetic of machines and one of animals. Machines are very good at shaping a landscape so that a single or perhaps a few select species can survive, and then within strict parameters. Animals are more haphazard in their approach, and the results reflect their preferences, human management, the weather and soil, whichever weeds happen to be having a good year, and a whole host of other variables. There is beauty in this imperfect but endlessly complex system, a beauty deeper than a monoculture of corn with perfect leaves taller than my head and gnarled feet stuck into dead, powdery soil. It’s just hard to see while I’m digging a thistle thorn out of my thumb.