The Spotted Gray Mass by Brandon Bless

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Disguised as a boulder among trees, you would guess that the spotted gray mass was unearthed centuries ago from its slumber in the Vergennes clay soil. As you look at this spotted gray mass, you think it was undoubtedly carved and deposited by glacial fingers. Nestled in a bed made of countless layers of velvety clay, spread upon it by the tides and recessions of Champlain waters, blanketed in organic matter from countless fallen leaves and storm-damaged trees.
You can imagine the spotted gray mass was woken from its millennia slumber by a farmer, cursing aloud as he hears iron slide and scrape as the plowshare he just barely repaired slams yet another spotted gray mass's hard surface. The farmer's cursing flows immediately into a futile "git up!", as his team of horses balk at the sudden jolt to their collars, like a car engine stalling at an inopportune moment.  The reverse in forward momentum halts his eager tilling and carving through the once-forested and undulating land, which he is eager to make tame and smooth and tillable. Here, he grows crops to sell to market to feed to families so that he can stay and live on this land and, so that one day, his sons will plow the fields with the speed and ease he knows is possible. If only the rocks and boulders were out of the way.
Rockbars in strong hands and weary backs straining, the quarter-ton spotted gray mass must have been pried from its clay-lined bed and rolled into a stone boat for horse-drawn delivery to the nearest rock wall.  The walls were the original "lemons into lemonade", their stones positioned to divide animal paddocks and crop fields.

[Continued from Newsletter]

Surely with these plow damaging, horse injuring boulders swept clean, the fields surrounding the spotted gray mass must have felt the slice of tillage with increasing frequency and speed - year after year after year. The soil, inverted from plows and smoothed by the harrow, transforming to a fine-textured monolith. Vermont spring deluges carrying the seemingly infite soil particles through the waterways, to the riparian areas of Shelburn Pond and beyond - year after year after year.

 Looking at it now, you see the land surrounding this spotted gray mass with trees extracted, rocks and boulders excavated, and topsoil exported. Decades of errosion leaving a foot of soil missing, gradually removed, particle by particle. The slow-motion landslide sloughing nearly one million cubic feet of soil from this mere 20 acres in front of you. Gone with the trees, rocks, and soil went the diversity and abundance of bacteria and birds, fungi and ferns, arthropods and amphibians, subterranean vertebrates and superterranean vertebrates, worms and Wabanaki - not to mention nitrogen and phosphorous, magnesium and calcium, copper and boron, plant productivity and farm profitability.

But looking more closely, you also see the land surrounding this spotted gray mass experiencing a return of young oak, ash, sumac, dogwood. Old friends  re-established within the protective nooks of rock and boulder walls, seedling chestnuts planted orchard-style in the pasture, and restorative grasses and forbs greening a re-undulating landscape.

Disguised as a boulder among trees, you would guess the spotted gray mass was unearthed from its slumber in the Vergennes clay soil centuries ago. But as you look at it now, you see this spotted gray mass stretch and yawn and emerge, not from a geologic slumber but from a siesta nap in the coolness of the oak shade.  


The spotted gray mass stands, and she shakes like a dog to dust off the now dried clay she bathed in during her afternoon wallow.  Her waking sounds alert the dozen or so rocks dozing near her.  They too now spring to life - miniature forms of the spotted gray mass. Hungry sounds from the piglets and soft, encouraging grunts from their mama sow announce that it's time for the sixth or seventh nursing of the day. Mama finds a cozy spot with enough space for all of her babies and begins to gently, slowly lay on her side.  The moment her side touches the ground, each of the piglets is already vigorously nursing.  Mama continues to talk to her babies with encouraging motherly resonants while the piglets greedily compete, shoving and squealing and crying for as much milk as each of them can drink.

Once the piglets are nursed and the shoving and squealing and crying subsides, it's time for mama to find her own nourishment.  You watch her quietly saunter off under the oaks, followed single-file by all her piglets.  The brief, post-nursing quiet is burst apart. Acorns cracking and crunching in strong pig jaws resound throughout the oak-strewn woodland hedgerow.

While the sounder of pigs continues their harvest in the woodland hedgerow, you step back a little to observe, more broadly, the landscape around you. You notice what is clearly the work of the pigs on their micro-migratory path which sweeps across some 20 acres of woodlands and pastures before you.  You track their discreet signs of browsing, grazing, rooting, and wallowing, in an arc that weaves through each woodland hedgerow and moves across the pastures.


In the wake of the pigs' path, you see multitudes of grasshoppers and insects, warming themselves in the direct sunshine, now exposed from the freshly trampled pasture. A flock of heritage turkeys swoops in to these gatherings of sun-loving insects, hunting them with child-like exuberance.  Once the fun is over, the turkeys return to the patches of pasture freshly rooted by the pigs, and begin dust bathing and scratching for worms and seeds. All the while, they gift packets of nitrogen-rich manure back to the land.  Looking farther back along the pig-turkey migratory path, you can see that their combined impact and fertilization, now two weeks past, has yielded grass that regrows faster and greener than the Joneses' lawn.

With a stomach rumble and thoughts of a Blank Page Cafe double chocolate almond cookie, you turn away from this idyllic scene and head back up the ridge towards the Farm Store. On your way, you pass a farmer wearing a bright shirt and a bright smile and carrying a couple 5-gallon buckets. You pause with curiosity. The farmer takes your queue and also pauses, both of you setting aside your missions to feed bellies for a quick chat.


The farmer asks you how the pigs and turkeys are doing. You say they are happily hunting acorns and insects. The farmer smiles and then falters, looking down at the buckets with a sigh. You see that she is a little wistful about something and ask what's in the buckets.

Putting the buckets down to rest her arms and shoulders, the farmer reaches into one of them and scoops a handful of grain to show you the tiny root radicals, emerging from the glittering and blackened wheat, oats, and peas. Her smile returns as she cups the sprouted seeds which are coated in biochar and minerals. Seeing your questioning face, the farmer explains that while it would be much easier to buy pre-bagged organic, processed feed, the farm chooses to source locally-grown, whole grains to sprout for the pigs and turkeys. She shares how sprouting makes the grain a living food for the animals, adding digestibility, enzymes, nutrition, and flavor that the animals thrive on. The added multi-mineral and biochar blend contribute optimum animal nutrition, gut health, and, of course, nutrient-dense manure.

While it seems to you like maybe a little too much effort for animal feed, the information she shares also seems pretty well in-line with the thoughtfully managed scene you just witnessed with the pigs and turkeys.

Before she can go on, you offer that the added minerals are likely a much needed supplement, given the mineral-depleted soils of all agricultural fields -- from the pastures you're standing on to the crop fields that grew the grain waiting in the bucket. Somewhat surprised at your knowledge, she beams at you despite the fact that mineral-depleted soil is a sad reality of modern farming. She adds that the minerals will not only feed the animals' bodies, but that excess minerals will pass through their manure to slowly remineralize the soil - year after year after year.

You are quiet for a moment and you feel a shifting in your mind as the definitions of the words "farm" and "farmer" become less firm.

Regathering yourself, you take a pinch of the grain and rub it in between your fingers. It coats your fingertips in a shimmering black dust that you hold up to her eye level in question. She nods excitedly while elaborating. This biochar is a fine-textured wood charcoal,  a biologically-beneficial addition to help balance the animals’ gut bilogy, before delivery to the soil. There, it becomes a magnet for nutrients and soil microbes, while also helping to regulate moisture and relieve compaction. It allows plants to be more productive and the farm to be more profitable - year after year after year.

You nod knowingly, but really, you're not sure she knows what she's talking about and you make a mental note to do a little of your own research. The farmer senses your skepticism, but knows that with patience, the land will speak for her. The farmer reaches into her second bucket and pulls out an apple. She polishes it on her shirt and bites with a satisfying snap. Her happy munching reminds you of the pigs.

The presence of food and the call of the double chocolate almond cookie is starting to make your mind wander back towards the cafe. You tame your cookie-mind for one more question that's been tugging at you since you first told the farmer that the pigs and turkeys were happily hunting. You recall that her smile had faded quickly to a sigh, and ask her why.


By the time you finish your question, she has already finished the apple. That is, except for the seeds which, in a single motion, she drops into a patch of pig-exposed ground and uses her sandaled foot to cover with loose soil, swiftly sowing. Without further acknowledgement of the little act, the farmer tells you that while she is proud give the pigs sprouted grains and locally harvested apples, and loves the work of feeding them, she knows that her true work is in planting species and growing the habitats that will sustain the pigs through their own hunting and harvesting.

She knows that pigs are truly woodland creatures who thrive on fruits, nuts, mushrooms, bugs, worms, tubers, roots, leaves, bark, forbs, and small game. She knows that pigs only now eat grain, in any measurable quantity, because farmers grow it and feed it to them - and farmers only do that because they extracted the trees, excavated the rocks, and exported the soil that otherwise would have fed the pigs for them - for years and years and years.

Her work, and that of the pigs, is to rebuild and remineralize the soil, knit back in the rocks, and replant the trees. In a quick and excited stream of thought, the farmer sketches a picture of regeneration that includes everything you've seen so far, including the boulders and hedgerows and acorns and pigs and insects and turkeys and grain and biochar and minerals and apples and the farmer standing before you. She continues to share how their work to regenerate the landscape continues in the winter, when the pigs live on a bedding system that the farmer builds up with fresh woodchips every few days.  Thus, each winter, the farmer and the animals compost carbon, manure, biochar, and minerals. And, by spring, the winter compost has transformed into 30,000 cubic feet of soil that the farmer uses to build new vegetable and orchard gardens which will re-blanket the 20 acre field you’re standing in.

Gleaming with pride and purpose, the farmer proclaims that it will take her less than 30 years of this work to rebuild the million cubic feet of soil lost over the past few centuries - and that's only the beginning!

In a quick rush, your imagination return to your minds' eye of the farmer plowing and rock picking the treeless fields. But this time, the images appear in reverse order. You imagine this young woman farmer going about her day to day and year to year work, and you see that what she is truly doing is quilting.

She is quilting a mosaic of gardens-grasslands-woodlands-forestlands-wetlands with a diversity and abundance of bacteria and birds, fungi and ferns, arthropods and amphibians, subterranean vertebrates and superterranean vertebrates, worms and People - not to mention nitrogen and phosphorous, magnesium and calcium, copper and boron, plant productivity and farm profitability.

You see this in an instant of exultation; yet you also see that she needs more than the help of pigs and turkeys - she needs your help.

You ask her: how can I help with your work?

Pleased by your question, the farmer responds: to save this place, we have to eat from this place - year after year after year.  So start by trying our pork and go from there.

Her response resonates with you in both its truth and its simplicity. With her way of thinking and seeing the world, we all shape and regenerate our own habitats and food systems. Like the pigs creating niches that allow the turkeys to hunt, and the turkeys offering nutrition for the plants to thrive, and the plants feeding animals for the people to live - people building soil and growing plants and creating niches and harvesting animals can make space for diverse and abundant habitats to re-exist.