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Woodlands and Wastes

The Whole Farm


Such resources have been part of every culture that has lived off the
land. American farmers brought some of this sort of knowledge
with them and learned more from the Native Americans they
encountered. But too often the careful, sustainable exploitation of
natural resources gave way to industrial mining of soils, forests,
mineral deposits, and bodies of water. And as farming grew
committed to commodity production on a large scale, woodlands,
woodlots, and wastes were put under the plow or abandoned. Still,
for several centuries most American farming relied as much on the
whole farm as did traditional cultures.
Given the initial size of American farm properties, which
were enormous by European standards at 160 acres for the official
“homestead,” cropped land was but a small portion of the total.
Cropping could grow into forested areas or land still in native
prairie grasses, taking advantage of the first fertility of new-plowed
land and fertility added by burning off the forest and brush cut to
make way for plowing. Meadows and pastures were part of the
farm, ensuring low-cost food for working animals and domestic
livestock meant for market and table. Some farmers learned to use
fire from Native Americans or brought traditions of periodically
burning crop stubble, pasture, even woodlands from their home-
lands. Many kept sheep on wastes and pastures for wool as well
as meat, and some sowed flax or hemp for fibers that would be
turned into clothing. Pigs were fattened on the masts of fallen
hickory and oak nuts in the woods. Orchards and kitchen gardens
provided everyday fruit and vegetables and plenty for longer-term
storage, including, by the late nineteenth century, canning. But
farm families also foraged for edible berries and nuts, cut firewood
for heating and cooking, and hunted and fished on their own land
and that of neighbors. And most of these practices persisted into
the 1950s. In many parts of the country, they persist today.
As forested land gave way to larger and larger croplands,
farmers retained sizable woodlots to supply the firewood they still

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needed. Even on the Illinois and Iowa prairies and farther west,
farmers maintained woodlots and orchards as part of the economic
strategy of the household. This was the way of life of American
farmers, much like traditional farmers throughout the world, with
major commitments to crops and livestock central to their practice,
but with considerable attention paid to the resources available
around them on the larger farm and beyond. New demands and
new opportunities shrank the size of the larger farm, at first gradu-
ally, then rapidly and drastically in the last half of the twentieth
century, as farmers pulled up orchards and cut down the remaining
woodlands and woodlots in the race to keep up with uncertain
economic opportunity.
Some of the old practices had died out long ago in the face
of the new, commercially available conveniences. As early as the
1830s, New England mills turned out inexpensive cloth, first
brought to the West in the 1890s through the Sears catalog. At
first in the East, then increasingly in even the most remote parts
of the country, households gave up locally produced homespun
cloth and leather for commercially produced clothing. Many of the
tools that farmers and householders depended upon were already
manufactured by that time, and eventually metal and plastic would
supplant homemade pots and baskets, buckets and ropes. Propane
would replace much wood heating by the mid-twentieth century.
Even today with the whole farm drastically reduced as it is,
much of the work of the farm household, beyond that directly tied
to production, is woman’s work—and in many cultures, but particu-
larly our own, it’s undervalued, even deprecated and feared. Where
today the “successful farmer has a wife with a job in town” (a wife,
by the way, who also does the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and
whatever garden work may be left on the modern farm), tradition-
ally women played an enormously important role in providing the
resources of the whole farm for the family’s and community’s use.
Witch, hag, and crone were a few of the terms, rich with oppro-
brium, for the village herbalist, healer, and midwife. Women in

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many contemporary farming cultures still fetch the wood, haul the
water, tend the garden, manage small livestock, do the cooking, and
nurture one and all. They may also be farmers in their own right.
In the West that possibility—that women might be property
owners and thus citizens on an equal standing with men—was
already erased in the sixteenth century, as the new property laws
developed (see chapter 4). At the same time, a campaign emerged
on many fronts to limit the public role of women and disparage or
even prosecute their traditional work. The witch hunts were one
side of this movement. Intellectuals like Francis Bacon added a
sinister further twist. Often called a “father of modern science,”
Bacon might more accurately be called the father of scientism,
the unscientific belief that science will lead the human race in an
ever-progressing ascent to the utter dominance of nature. To the
still-potent objections to mining and draining as a “rape of Mother
Nature”—a sentiment reaching back to Roman times—Bacon
countered by referring to nature as “a common harlot” who should
be “put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and
the hand of man” so that humankind could recover the dominion
over nature promised it. Her secrets should be wrested from her
through forceful “interrogatories” and her inner parts “delved and
penetrated” to satisfy our demand for knowledge.11 For Bacon,
agriculture, like all the mechanical arts, was best founded in such
efforts to bind and dominate nature, and only effective through
literally manly exertions.
Women’s arts were submerged in the emerging scientistic
world view. But those arts were essential to the household, whether
urban or rural. Women have traditionally been the herbalists and
basket makers who managed the wild sources for their materials.
They plastered the house with mud or manure and sometimes built
it themselves of local materials. In traditional American farmsteads
women beat the flax, cleaned and carded and spun and wove the
wool, made the clothing, and maintained the household. Whether
men or women milked the cows, women churned the butter and

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took eggs and butter to town for extra money, and they preserved
food for the winter. In Western cultures and others, women have
been variously alewives, bakers, butchers, market vendors, and
fishmongers. Some of these roles had prestige, others not. But in
much of the work of the larger farm, wherever major emphasis
is put on the productive enterprise, today as in the past, woman’s
work is invisible, except to the extent that she assumes a role in the
business of farming. But the business of farming is only part of the
whole farm economy that we will have to recover if we are to farm
for the long haul.
One example of that ancient economy illustrates the crucial
need to take seriously the practices of the past. The recovery of
traditional herbal knowledge by both women and men over the
last decades promises a return to health care that is sustainable in
the long haul. Pharmaceutical antibiotics and their makers are fast
losing their ability to keep up with pathogens. Herbal antibiotics
and remedies, with their wider spectrum of beneficial effects, don’t
usually have the spectacular quick turnaround of pharmaceuticals,
but they appear to contribute better to the body’s inherent abil-
ity to heal itself. Herbal medicine was driven underground by
the American Medical Association’s campaign against all rival
approaches starting in the late nineteenth century. The campaign
was launched with the explicit promise of increasing the income
of doctors by restricting access to certified medical education and
carried with it a commitment to pharmaceutical drugs as a chief
mode of healing. Hundreds of medical schools were closed, includ-
ing most that educated women.12 Today all state boards of medical
examiners are in the control of AMA doctors, though chiropractics
and osteopathy are still tolerated and acupuncture has gained some
respect. Herbal practice was banned in many states and remains
so unless carried out by an AMA-approved physician or an
acupuncturist. But herbal medicine has made a quiet comeback, as
AMA-approved medicine has failed to deliver on its promises and
drifted out of reach of most people most of the time.

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Woodlands and Wastes

Today as in the past, many herbs are grown in the garden,


but others are wildcrafted. Herbal practitioners are often knowl-
edgeable students of plants, both cultivated and wild. Like their
forebears they practice sustainable harvesting and serve as informal
monitors of the health of woodlands and forests. In rural commu-
nities in particular, they provide everyday healing for millions of
people. They cannot rival surgeons in the extreme cases where
surgery is called for, but for many people they provide health care
that in style and substance is far superior to that of our overpriced,
narrowly educated medical professionals. We cannot now afford
those professionals, at any rate. In the long haul we will have to
rely on our knowledgeable neighbors and the products of our own
wilds and wastes for most healing.
Like the women who draw on the resources of the woodlands
and wastes for everyday subsistence, the whole farm, the ecosystems
beyond cropland and pasture, is generally invisible to productivist
eyes. Yet only farms wholly dependent upon external inputs can
even claim to succeed without regard to the larger environment,
and that claim is specious. The whole farm may be thought of as
a series of ecosystems within ecosystems. It is a “farm without
borders,” as Will Bonsall puts it. Some of the old-fashioned whole
farm ecosystem may be brought in by design when we build
ponds, construct swales, or plant windbreaks and hedgerows. But
the very mentality of “Production first!” tends to render invisible
or marginal the wealth of activities that made up the complete
livelihood of traditional farmers and much of their subsistence
security. In the genuinely resilient farm of the past, today, and in
the future, woodland and meadow, kitchen garden and household
livestock are all part of the whole farm economy. And large parts of
that economy, from woodland soils to field straw, kitchen wastes,
and manure, can contribute valuable fertility to the productive
enterprise itself at little cost. We’ll come back to the economic
and social costs of neglecting the whole farm and the whole farm
family in chapter 9.

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