HAVRE DE GRACE -- Now it's half-past January, and there's an edge to the wind. On the oaks, the white oaks especially, the leaves of last summer are still clinging to the branches. The tenacity of the dead oak leaves is celebrated; when the wind blows they rustle and rattle, shiver and shake, but they don't let go.
We have a good many oaks of various types around the farm, but the two nearest the house, both white oaks, are the children of Talbot County's famous Wye Oak. I got them from the state as seedlings maybe 20 years ago, when as I recall they were free for the asking and came through the mail.
Now they're substantial young trees, their trunks more than a foot through at chest height. In another 50 years, if they can survive gypsy moths, hurricanes and bulldozers, they ought to be very impressive. I wish I'd planted a few more, but I guess it isn't too late. These trees already produce plenty of acorns, and maybe I'll start some third-generation Wye Oaks.
Just now, though, the sound of the leaves is a reminder that it's past time to spread manure over the underground water lines, get the cows off the big hill down into the calving pasture, bolt the snowplow onto the little tractor, nail a piece of deer meat to a stump for the hawks and owls, and find an old feed tub for Pop's junk mail.
He's gone to Florida, and when the feed tub starts overflowing I box up his mail and send it down to him. I doubt he reads much of it, but on a cold evening I imagine he may burn it. This process accomplishes several useful things. By supporting UPS, it keeps the U.S. Postal Service from getting too cocky. It diverts trash from the Harford County landfills. And it keeps my father and stepmother warm without enriching some Florida utility.
We'd need to burn a lot of junk mail to keep our house warm at this time of year, but fortunately we have something better. We replaced several hundred yards of board fence this fall, and cut the old locust posts and oak boards into stove-length pieces which should last us until spring.
Most of those pieces of stovewood still have nails in them, so when I haul out the ashes from time to time, I have to be careful where I throw them. Usually I strain them through a piece of half-inch-mesh hardware cloth first to collect the nails. Then I spread the ashes on the grass or, if there are still icy patches in the driveway or around the barnyard, sprinkle them there.
As for the old nails, I put them in a bucket. Eventually they'll go to the dump, which seems wasteful. Years ago a frugal farmer would have straightened them for reuse, unless his wife got to them first and spread them around the roots of her hydrangeas, where it was thought they would give the blossoms a richer blue.
On a farm this sort of recycling becomes a way of life. But despite the effusions of the back-to-the-land magazines, it's not a perfect process. In the back of a shed I have a pile of old machine parts, most of which I ought to throw away. There are bolts, screws, odd-sized pieces of steel, scraps of chain, broken pumps, gearboxes and so forth. It's a mess.
But there's a law regarding such things. It says that once you throw something away, especially if it's something out of the ordinary or downright peculiar, within a week or two you'll need it and wish you had it back. And the corollary is that if you haven't thrown it away, and if you can find it when you go looking for it, and if it works as you hoped it would, the sense of vindication is intoxicating.
Another sort of recycling involves manure. Obviously, land which produces crops year after year but gets no organic matter returned to it becomes depleted. So if manure is available it's useful, at this time of year, to spread it on cropland. We've been doing that recently here, working away at two big piles which have been composting all summer and fall.
If there's no manure on the farm, substitutes are available. I have neighbors who, after jumping through various bureaucratic hoops, have been allowed to spread sludge from the sewage treatment plant. This should improve their soil significantly, in addition to helping dispose of unwanted municipal waste.
On the other hand, some land with high animal populations -- feedlots, chicken operations -- produces more manure than it can handle. If the stuff can get to the right place it can be usefully recycled, but getting it there isn't always easy, and often there are public-relations obstacles to overcome.
This is one modern agricultural problem to which non-farmers can relate, especially if they happen to be sanitary engineers.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 1/16/97