Kingfisher

April 16, 2018

kingfisher.jpg

There was a small brook I’d pass when I rode my bike to school, and often there would be a belted kingfisher perched on the telephone wire above it. Once I witnessed it plummet headfirst into the shallow pool and emerge a moment later, water spraying from of its pumping wings, in its beak a minnow flashing silver.

Yesterday I saw one on the farm for the first time this year, and I stopped cooking lunch to watch it from my window. The stream has cut a channel about four feet deep where it passes closest to my house, and the kingfisher kept disappearing from view into this ditch, where it would presumably fly along just above the water, because a moment later it would flit up onto a new roost fifty yards downstream.

My best guess is that it was looking for a place to make a nest. The stream’s banks have eroded badly, a process that has likely been ongoing since some previous owner of the farm straightened its course. Ed has been propagating willows in an effort to stabilize the soil, but there are still stretches of bare dirt, and because kingfishers nest in tunnels dug into stream banks my thought is that the bird I saw was examining these. Finally it settled for a while in a wild cherry tree and I got a good look at it. Its spiky crest and outsized beak suggested the cocksure silliness of an adolescent, and the freezing rain that fell intermittently didn’t seem to bother it.

It is a strange existence to consider, diving after fish and digging holes in stream banks, and it is wonderful that the kingfisher does these things with all the certainty of instinct. This radically different inner life, shared (at least in my imagining) by most animals, is appealing in its simplicity. A kingfisher may choose which part of a stream to perch over, but its purpose is settled.

This is one appeal of growing my own food, whether it’s raising livestock or gardening veggies. The means may be varied, but the goal is straightforward, and this ideally would extend to farming. Production farming by its nature is physical, variable and limited, but this places it is so at odds with an economic system that prizes speed, consistency, and most of all cheapness. Meeting these market demands inevitably erodes the ethic of deliberately working with a particular place to yield what it can and no more.

But if this ethic is lost entirely there is no point. Food may as well be grown in labs as in monotonous barren soils. For this reason an agricultural system should be a melding of the carefully managed, the wholly wild, and especially the managed wildness of hedgerows, silvopasture, and streams. A kingfisher plying its trade is more than a pretty sight. It can be a reminder of the wondrous variety and particularity, internal as well as external, that is destroyed by the efficient profligacy of monoculture.

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