Starlings & loving wildness

Meet this week’s Mac veggies:

(Picture a photo here.)

  • Fennel OR broccoli — Your choice this week between some delicious fall broccoli or some delicious fall fennel. If you haven’t tried (or haven’t successfully loved) fennel before, this is a great time to give it a go. Fennel’s flavor goes perfectly with tomatoes — try chopping fennel and long roasting it with tomatoes. Serve the results on bread, or puree into a delicious sauce!
  • Sweet peppers — Sweet peppers are one of the gems of the fall garden. They start to ripen a few weeks after the tomatoes, but if the frosts hold off, they can keep ripening through late October or early November. There is nothing more amazing than picking and eating a ripe red pepper on a blustery and cold fall day! We’re not quite there yet for weather (in fact, this week is supposed to bring another heat wave), but the peppers are on!
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots
  • Beets
  • Red potatoes
  • Summer squash & zucchini
  • Sweet onions

I know that I’m not “supposed” to like starlings. These birds were first introduced to North American from Europe by Eugene Schieffelin in 1890, as part of his goal for North America to contain all the birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare.

Descending from those first few dozen birds, there are now over 200 million starlings on this continent, and they are considered a nuisance pest by most — they travel in extremely large flocks, displacing native bird populations, eating farmers’ crops, and causing other forms of damage along the way.

So, yes, as a farmer and a naturalist, I understand that I’m definitely not supposed to like these little black birds.

Yet, I do. In fact, I’m somewhat enchanted by them. Yes, in the spring, I am saddened to find broken blue robin eggshells on the ground — most likely the work of pioneering starlings who take over the robin’s nest by pushing out the eggs.

This time of year, however, as summer turns to fall, the starlings are a source of endless fascination to me. Their enormous flocks fill the sky and dance in unison in movement so utterly reminiscent of schools of fish — moving in one direction, then thousands of birds all at once turning and moving in another. I love watching these dances as we drive home on early Autumn evenings; there is an area just off the island where we always seem to encounter them, and I have to will myself to focus on the road rather than let myself get lost in their hypnotic movement.

But what moves me the most is the sound of starlings filling a tree. Here on the island, whole flocks will land on tall cottonwoods at once, filling the tree with the sound of countless individual bird cries. Individually, starling cries aren’t necessarily beautiful. They don’t sing, but when they are happily roosting in a tree they make varied tinkling or chirping noises. The resulting sound of an entire tree of starlings sounds to me like the loud merry bubbling of water in a creek … or a thousand mellow wind chimes all sounding together. It is a singular noise sensation that can make me stop mid-task just to appreciate.

In fact, I’d say the only element of starlings that I actually dislike is the secondary effect of their role on other farms — that is, the noise of agricultural noisemakers used to keep birds away from fruiting crops. A neighbor with fruiting crops uses an artificial bird distress noisemaker all summer, and soon the hills will fill with the sounds of propane cannons protecting ripening grapes in the vineyards.

Intellectually, I understand why these devices are used, and I logically understand that the noise of them is a “good” thing for crops. I try to keep this important perspective. My emotional side, however, responds oppositely — I involuntarily cringe when hearing the noisemakers and smile when hearing the birds.

It isn’t that I don’t understand pests ­— we have plenty on our farm ourselves, and certainly I understand that such farmers probably think it is better to repel the birds than to shoot them.

There is a common belief or understanding that farmers don’t like wild things. Agricultural noisemakers certainly seem to perpetuate that idea (even if they are intended to bypass actual violence, the noises themselves are usually quite violent sounding!), and perhaps it is true that some farmers today and throughout history have begrudged a natural world that doesn’t always comply with their wishes 100% of the time.

But the natural world and a love of its beauty is one of the elements that drew Casey and me to farming. We feel so blessed to spend our days outside, working with the elements of life: dirt, water, plants, soil microorganisms …

Besides, the longer we farm, the more blurring we see between “wilderness” and human activities such as farming. We are, literally, what we eat, and we see everyday how wild that process of growing food really is — from our perspective, we are not working against the natural world but with it.

We are harnessing those awesome powers of nature (especially the only free energy in the world — the sun) to grow food for nourishing our own physical selves. We are the natural world, so fighting it seems like trying to fight gravity or hold back the tides — impossible and frustrating tasks.

And, as I mentioned, we see such beauty in all of these processes. Sometimes our appreciation is of traditional beauty — red sky sunsets in the evening, deep green cover crop fields, a basket filled with red tomatoes.

But other times we see beauty that can only be appreciated through acceptance and reverence of the natural world … those moments when we could choose to be frustrated by a natural force that is completely out of our control, but instead we accept and appreciate — the power in a windstorm, the crystal ice coating of an early first frost, the music of geese flying in the night (another “nuisance” bird).

We even marvel at weeds, at their determination, ruggedness, and sometimes surprising beauty. One of our most challenging weeds is a low growing ground cover that puts out delicate blue flowers in the midst of winter’s coldest months — what unexpected joy it can bring!

None of this is to say that we ignore problem pests (although by many people’s standards, this is probably true — on our organic certification forms, when asked about pests, one of our answers for how we deal with them is “tolerance”!) … our goal is to grow good quality food for people to eat, and that entails preventing flea beetles from decimating our fall broccoli and cabbages.

But, we do aim to use measures that are healthy and beautiful — or that at least don’t impinge upon our understanding of the beauty in the world. If our future fruit crops are hurt by starlings, we will just have to find a solution that protects the fruit and is consistent with our values and goals.

I’m sure that other farmers would offer different perspectives on how we interpret these things (we do use loud machinery at times, for example), but we spend a lot of time in our fields and we like to enjoy that time. We like being able to smile at what we see and hear, so that we can savor each moment of our life on the farm, whether it be cutting a perfect head of lettuce, having a rousing conversation with a co-worker, or watching the dance of starlings across the autumn evening sky.

We too are wild beings at our core, who live in the world. Starlings may not be native to North America, but then again, by that logic neither am I. We make choices in life — how to farm, how to accept or not accept the things around us, how to be. I realize that it is not the popular opinion, but I plan to keep on enjoying starlings for now.

Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

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