The Thistle and the Forest
Dear Elder Agrarian,
Ten years ago this spring, the neighbours cleared some land. What was once a vibrant forest of beautiful complexity gave way to a barren soil and smoking piles. I played in these woods as a child and was struck by the sudden change. While some saw progress, I saw a terrible loss. For reasons still unknown to me, the owners walked away almost as soon as the smoke cleared. For a decade I watched a transformation I will never forget.
First came the weeds. By the end of that first summer, thistles and other noxious plants had formed a raging green mass. The other neighbours were furious. “Someone has to do something or it’ll spread,” they said. But, no one did.
By the second fall, white and black poplars had suckered back and met my waist.
Two years later, the weeds had been almost entirely replaced by clovers and grasses. The emerging poplar canopy now stood 12 feet tall.
By the sixth year, the birds had returned and their woven nests dotted the dogwood and wild rose like little baskets filled with the promise of renewal. The taste of saskatoons marked year eight, and on the ninth year, I had to hold my breath to squeeze between trunks while harvesting poplar poles for some chicken roosts. They were 25 feet long and straight as an arrow.
From the thistles came a forest, I thought on the 10th year. And as I stood beneath the shaded understory of this towering forest reborn, I was reminded of you, and the transformation you and so many other agrarians began decades ago.
I imagine it began with a hunch. And when you got sick from the chemicals, when others couldn’t make the input payments, or saw the land, grass, and animals whither and fade, questions accompanied that hunch. But, it was too late. In the time leading up to your decision to change, your forest had been cleared and now there was nothing. So you did what you could, and you kept growing, but this time organically. When neighbours had questions of their own, how could you explain? All the “science” was in their favour. All you had was your experience, and a hunch. So you grew, and soon found that nobody likes a thistle. When your friends and neighbours tried to cut you down you were shocked, and hurt. When they did not succeed and finally left you alone, you kept growing. Now, years later, some of the neighbours have different questions, more out of a curiosity this time rather than contempt. And the science is catching up, too. Where once there was only a few thorny pioneers stands an ecosystem burgeoning with life and potential.
Then I came along. Young, eager, full of passion, but short on experience. I saw what you and the others had done: how you took an unspeakable wreckage and began to rebuild. Now, from a weedy mess a young forest is growing.
Sometimes, I feel like one of those young trees. In the shadows –waiting, listening closely, taking courses, joining groups, reading incessantly, and making many, many mistakes. And there I wait, until the soil is ready and opportunity floods into the sheltered understory you have built for me. When that time comes, I will know exactly what to do: to keep growing; to reach for the sky; to take my place amongst the others in our ecosystem who are all doing their part to rebuild the soil and culture for generations to come. You and the others have taught me so well.
But, if for some reason my leaves take a different form, or my fruit a strange colour, know that it is not out of contempt that I differ. I understand only from a thistle can a forest grow and without your work I would not have the soil to stand on – soil rich with potential.
With love, respect and much gratitude,
A Young Agrarian
Takota Coen’s favourite thing about farming is watching the sun set after a long day’s work. The 25-year-old works alongside his parents on their Ferintosh-area farm, Grass Roots Family Farm, where together they market beef, dairy, pork, chicken, eggs, vegetables, grains, hay, fruits, and nuts. On top of being a farmer, Takota is a journeyman carpenter and farm educator.