Thursday, July 21, 2005

Star Thistle

My world has changed dramatically in the past few weeks. For one thing, I am no longer in corporate life--instead I can now officially claim to be a full-time farmer. At last, I am without a cause to champion, a dragon to slay, a mountain to climb.

Life is simple and satisfying, interrupted by my own manufactured crusades from which I must learn rhythm and being. My latest teacher: Star Thistle.

This noxious weed competes to win on ground that has been abused: dry, compacted, scraped clean. Here in Lake county, it is often found next to the highway and can be identified by its characteristic prickly star head as it reaches maturity. These points are so sharp that they pierce leather gloves and most clothing (ouch!) While it has not claimed our entire orchard, thank goodness, it has claimed much of the backyard and anywhere else that has seen a bulldozer blade in the past few years.

I decided to battle this weed and immediately began to fret and worry about how it could be done. My neighbor mows and sprays and rototills. His approach not only seems time consuming and expensive, but goes against my desire to work with nature rather than constantly fighting natural systems. Besides, his methods require constant vigilence and his yard has more star thistle than mine --so his approach does not seem to work well in the end.

At first, fueled with zeal and a competitive spirit, I went after the star thistle in a weed-pulling frenzy. At the end of the first few days, I was sore and exhausted and the star thistle still seemed to be everywhere--popping into full bloom and most certainly re-seeding itself. I quickly realized that I needed to find a different way to interact with this plant, my energy toward it seemed counter-productive. So I decided to observe the start thistle for awhile, and think about ways that I could enjoy it.

How could I possibly enjoy this plant? It grew faster than all the others, and with no water or care, could quickly dominate a place. I realized that it had a job to do and that if i were to remove it, I would have to find a more successful way to do its job: repairing the dry, hard ground and creating soil structure where there is none. I noticed where it grew, how easy or difficult it was to pull out depending upon the cirmcumstances it found itself in, how it sprouted if I didn't get the tap-root out, how it resprouted if left on the ground after it was pulled and how all the thistles opened even as it was dying. If I could not enjoy it, I could certainly admire its tenacity!

With a little more observation, I noticed that star thistle did not grow where we had mulched with straw. I also noticed that the whole plant came out easily if the ground was watered the night before but pulled before the plant had a chance to soften to the new water.

I began to enjoy the time spent observing and continued to observe even while I was pulling the star thistle. I found that I enjoyed the satisfaction of working small sections of the garden, where whole plants came out easily after watering, and found that I was no longer worried about the whole yard. I decided that we will have many seasons together, the star thistle and I, and that eventually, with my help, the soil will be moist and healthy and will not need this weed.

My final observtion is this: in some ways, I have been like star thistle: tenacious, hearty, energetic and strong. Heroic even. Now I must cultivate a deeper nature in myself: gentle, patient, enjoying the smaller simpler task of working the soil. With enough gentle care and cultivation, who knows what new life will emerge in this garden?