Cultivating Outdoor Life

Much as we love the house with its energy superpowers, it’s still just base camp for what we’re
really doing: enjoying, learning from, and prospering the little corner of
earth we live in. Every day brings new insight—about wildlife, about tools,
about how things grow. And just for the record, for people who keep asking
about volume 2 of my Isaiah commentary: yes, I’m doing that too. Isaiah in the
morning, farming in the afternoon. A good balance.

Recently some neighbors, older
lifelong residents, were telling about the family that owned these acres nearly
a hundred years ago—or maybe more. Two brothers and two sisters all named
Schwein, none ever married. I had found them listed on the 1940 census, along
with their father, who emigrated from Switzerland. Our neighbor remembers
planting corn for them on our house site decades ago. That may have been the
only conventional thing the Schweins did. They owned exotic animals—peacocks
roamed the farm, and their house was filled with cockatiels and other colorful
birds. The last remaining brother sold the place in the 1970s to our
predecessor, who dug the pond and kept the fields neatly mowed.


For years
we’ve cultivated trees, letting some fields grow back into the forests that
used to cover Indiana. When we first planted a patch of oaks and poplars, they
seemed artificial, straight rows of tiny whips. But nature has a way of taking
charge. Now other species, sycamores, pines, cedars, have volunteered
themselves to fill in. Deer, hawks, rabbits find cover there. Every time we
drive in or out, a half dozen trotting turkeys lead the way.

newcomers, we feel wonder at the bullfrogs and turtles, the single chipmunk,
the bossy red-winged blackbird and curious hummingbirds, indigo buntings, great
blue herons, kingfishers; the tadpoles growing in muddy puddles around our
construction site, which the builder’s son and I rescued from a concrete tomb,
and fed in pails until they sprouted legs and jumped away (they eat boiled
lettuce, by the way); the dazzling monarchs and swallowtails, dragonflies,
spiders, lizards, hundreds of ladybugs; elusive snakes and crawdads. One day
this week I glanced outside and saw a single duck swimming in the pond: a
hooded merganser, something we’d never seen here and nearly missed. It all
lends urgency to pay attention.

Carrying on
the tradition of trying the weird, I’ve planted not only lettuce, spinach,
Swiss chard, asparagus, garlic, and shallots in my Hugelkultur mounds, and
several varieties of berries and other perennial fruit in beds around the house.
I’ve also started some mushrooms. On a recent visit, my brother and
sister-in-law helped me harvest some oak logs and drill shiitake plugs into
them, and these are stacked by the barn waiting for the mycelium to inoculate the
logs and begin fruiting.

Until recently, morel mushrooms could not be cultivated, only found wild. We once paid
$25 for a small bag at a morel festival, and found them pure deliciousness. Now some farmers are growing them. There being no consensus
yet on how it’s done, we don’t know what we’re doing. Yesterday, after
tilling a

10’x10’ square under some trees, we spread peat moss, soil with
compost, gypsum, and sand, and then I scooped up and added all the wood ashes I
could find to simulate a burn site, and raked in spores of black, white, and
yellow morels. We’ll see if we grow anything besides a bad case of poison ivy.

When I used
to lead trips to the Middle East, I felt awe at standing in places deemed holy for
centuries and even millennia by residents and pilgrims from all over the world.
But all that weight of glory is burdensome for clashing peoples, especially for
those who lose it in the fray. At journey’s end I was always relieved to return
to fly-over country—to a secret place that only we love. Now I’m content to

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