Our landscape is littered with signs of metamorphosis. The chicken run is like a slaughter site with so many molted feathers scattered about. Half of our hens look like they were plucked alive.
Soon, though, those heritage poultry will be beautifully re-feathered in time for winter. And for a few months, our flock of majestic matrons will be indistinguishable from spring chickens (until their intermittent egg production gives them away).
The goats are also dropping their summer fuzz in favor of thick winter coats. Their flush of new fur also ushers in that seasonal desire to mate and procreate.
From now until that winter coat is shed in spring (or until pregnant), my does will be vocalizing their demands for dates for a two day period, about once every 23 days. With seven does, all going in and out of heat at different times, goat hill has become a soapbox stage for shouting their woeful wants nearly every time I wander out into the landscape.
Of course, the most obvious signs that nature is a master in the art of reinvention is the spectacle playing out in surrounding wildlands and our cultivated food forests.
Tree tops are painting themselves in shades of gold, peach, ruby, and rust by cutting off the vascular flow of chlorophyll to their leaves. Those resultant color variations — comprised of xanthophylls (yellows), carotenoids (oranges), anthocyanins (reds) — are effectively the death pallor after a leaf has lost its lifeforce.
As chlorophyll wanes, plants can no longer absorb sunlight. Without the capacity to actively intake solar power, loss of torpor gives way to rapid decay. Weak, worn leaves release their hold on the trees that once gave them life.
All those leaf carcasses then drift down and bury each other in a mass, open grave. Piled together, protecting the roots and habitat of the still living trees and soil, they nourish future life with this beneficial act of attrition. This grand, beautiful gesture plays out with dramatic arc in the canopy that encircles our rustic homestead and enables the survival of next year’s population of birds, pollinators, fungi, bacteria, and plants.
Whether the leaves gracefully experience this process as a rite of passage to their next evolution or iteration, or if they fight for life until the very end as many humans do, is one of those mysteries I contemplate every year around this time. Some leaves seem reluctant to let go their lease on life while others dance to the ground at the gentlest of breezes.
In truth, it’s irrelevant what the leaf thinks about fall. The inevitability of the process and the dependence of the ecosystem on it’s occurrence are irrefutable and unavoidable. The leaf has no choice but to become fodder for nature’s cycle of reinvention. Growth, entropy, and transformation are woven together in the fabric of space and time.
Autumn leaf drop is just one example of how nature completely reinvents itself. Other cycles of reinvention are even more dramatic and take place over longer periods of time.
For example, the Blue Ridge Mountains, where our homestead is located, once stood as tall as the tallest peaks in the Alps. They towered so high that even well-adapted Alpine plants, able to survive the harshest mountain conditions, would have fought for breath in the thin air.
Of course, back when the Blue Ridge Mountains were that tall, there would have been no Alpine plants at all. Over 400 million years ago, when our mountain range formed, plant with roots were only an inkling in nature’s imagination. At best, a few shallow, unrooted rhizomes may have called the lower portions of those austere peaks home.
The possibility of using weathered mountains to create underground worlds was still millions of years away from coming into being. The beautiful garden and food forest areas I grow on this mountainside required over 400 million years of nature’s work, about 12,000 years of human reinvention through cultivating and selecting for useful natural adaptations, plus eight years of my contributions to make possible.
It’s humbling and inspiring to realize how completely dependent I am on nature’s capacity for reinvention, and our eclectic human capacity to manipulate nature’s innovations, for every bite of food harvested, flower enjoyed, or leaf admired for its beauty or valued for it’s life supporting capacities.
Nature is truly the mother of all invention and reinvention! But, here on the homestead, we’ve also been doing a little reinventing recently.
At this time of the year, we have to reinvent the garden and our diets. The last of the summer crops are harvested as the first of the fall and winter crops begin to size up. Light fare like roasted veggies gives way to heavier heads of cabbage, cured sweet potatoes, fall harvested potatoes, and fibrous greens like kale, collards, and arugula.
Cool season cover crops and protective mulches also go in some of the beds that need a vacation from the hard work of producing foods or flowers for us to harvest.
On the spice front, ginger comes out and garlic goes in. Breadseed poppies and mustard seed are fall sown so they can germinate when ready in late winter. Licorice, horseradish, and chicory roots are harvested after a few light frosts sweeten up their flavor. Caraway and biennial fennel also get a late summer start and provide some leafy greens for most of fall until heavy killing frost comes. But don’t worry, they’ll grow again in spring!
My perennialized saffron already flowered. But this year, I also late planted some corms for fun to see how much leeway I have with the timing. The hard part with saffron isn’t getting the flowers, it’s giving them enough time and high quality soil access so they produce large corms for next year.
Experimentation is a critical part in the process of reinvention. So, I am constantly trying new things in the garden to see what’s possible.
Outdoor Living Room Reinvention
On the Epicurean lifestyle front, one of our first projects when we started our homestead was to transform a bit of barren space near the house into a lush, lovely, and practical outdoor living area.
We put in two patios, one for hanging out around the chimenea and one for the dining table. Matt built us a beautiful table from some leftover custom wood cuts that we got at a huge discount from a local mill. The wood was pine and not pressure treated. We sealed it. But we knew that it wouldn’t last forever outdoors.
Over the years it has been an amazing to hang out area and make pizza in the cob pizza oven Matt also made for us. The table was also large enough to seat 14 for the times when I felt inspired to plate up multicourse meals. I also did my farmers’ market packing and a lot of homesteading activities around that table.
Unfortunately, after several epic rain years, decay and insect damage finally took too much of a toll on the table. Without a safe space to sit and eat inviting us to stay for a while, the area lost a lot of its lure. We began favoring other areas of our gardens or the table and bar seating on our porch. But, recently we mustered the will to dismantle the old table and reclaim our living area.
Initially, we contemplated building a new table from local hardwood. To keep it from wearing so quickly we considered protecting it under a massive outdoor shelter. However that would have meant shading out our persimmons, elderberries, honeyberries, and other herbs and ornamentals in our mature edible landscape surrounding the outdoor living area.
Ultimately, we decided to stick with the partial cover we already have and buy outdoor furniture with metal legs and more durable surfaces rather than build with local wood. We also did a little rearranging to create more seating and better flow around the area.
It was hard to say goodbye to Matt’s handmade table. But it’s also wonderful to have our outdoor dining area back in good form so we can fit our friends and family and put our pizza oven to good use again!
On a more personal note, with just one month to go before my 47th birthday, I’m most certainly a member of the “middle-aged” category. And like most people in this age bracket, I’m becoming increasingly aware that my lifestyle choices will impact my long-term future health.
So, I recently had a full physical, with every available test, to find out where I’m at and what I need to work on. Thanks, in large part, to our homesteading lifestyle, I’m in good health. I still have asthma. But it’s manageable with diet and lifestyle. However, I was also shocked to find out my LDL cholesterol was slightly above normal.
In response I had to reevaluate my daily three duck egg breakfasts and add a stick of butter to everything philosophy. I scaled back to one egg a day and using olive oil instead of butter, or skipping some of the fat. I’ve also been hiking 4 to 5 miles a day on our steep woodland trails.
The happy side benefit of these changes is that I feel more energetic and fit than I have in a while. In fact, I feel so kick a** that I let my niece and sister-in-law talk me into a corset (over a tank top) for a costume event. That’s me (in all black below) and them at Thirsty Souls recently.
Okay true confession… those kick a** pants and boots are things I’d wear on a normal weekend. I’m just more of a comfy shirt, than constricting corset kind of gal. But what was actually most amazing about that night was seeing Mount Airy (also known as Mayberry to tourists who come seeking a connection to a non-existent idyllic past) reinvent itself for a Latin/Halloween street festival.
Reinvention can be frightening at times. But, without constant reinvention, none of the things we often take for granted in our present life would be possible!