I need to make something clear here at the start. My wife, Jen, gave her consent to this piece. It is a 100% true retelling of a marital event that occurred several years ago. Facebook is full of posturing and perfect false fronts. Our life together is imperfect, but it is real. We aren’t much on airing dirty laundry, but, as you’ll see, some dirty laundry just has to be hung out on the line. So, here’s a basket of ours.
Jen didn’t grow up in the country. She grew up in the suburbs. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. I grew up on a farm in the country. So, in theory, living on a farm in the suburbs should be the perfect environment for us to thrive as a married couple. This is becoming more and more the case with every year. However, the beginning was rough. Like, life threatening rough.
Jen’s parents, Steve & Kathy Smith, (yes, Jen was a Smith who married a Smith) are wonderful people. They are warm, others-focused, generous, and strong. Kathy is one of the sweetest, most encouraging ladies I know. Steve is the smartest, but also the humblest man I know. They are passionate people. They have a beautiful home. They keep a beautiful yard and property. They have a beautiful life. It is not “plasticy,” but it is well-ordered. Jen grew up with a regularly mowed lawn and flowers in the flowerbeds. She did not grow up in an ostentatious manner or environment, but it was certainly a lovely, manicured place.
I come from a ranch in Texas. My parents did a great job keeping our place beautiful in its own right. It has a natural,rustic way about it. The climate there does not allow for the flourishing exterior landscapes seen regularly in the Midwest. If the grass in the yard or pastures is long enough to be mowed our first thought is to stop and marvel at the fact we have that much grass. Our next thought is to figure out how to get cattle there to graze it. Manicure is always third or fourth on the list of priorities when it comes to landscaping.
One afternoon, in the early days of WonderTree, our competing standards for lawn care almost cost me my life.
When we bought our farm it was a corn and beans operation. Converting WonderTree into a pastured farm was both a process and a challenge. It would’ve been easy to just plant pasture grasses and dump fertilizer on everything. But, I was trying to prove a concept. I wanted to prove that herbivores (cows, sheep, goats, horses) in partnership with omnivores (chickens, turkeys, pigs) could create an ecosystem that sequestered carbon, fed microbes, increased organic matter, and fertilized itself. The result of this would be soil rich enough to convince native grasses to come out of dormancy from the ancient, latent seed bank. In other words, I wanted to make grass grow using animals. It works. But, it’s a process that takes a few years.
The first year a bunch of woody, thorny, cockleburish plants grow. It’s ugly. Your dogs have to be picked out and brushed a lot. The next year more tender plants come up. We call these weeds, but they have great purpose. Herbivores will eat them. What they don’t eat turns into a strong litter base of carbon churned back into the soil by hooves. During years two and three a significant development begins. Clover. Soil naturally wants to grow grass. Grass protects soil against weather and erosion. Clover is a sure sign land is making the turn toward pasture. It is a natural source of nitrogen (fertilizer). It is the ground’s way of nourishing itself, turning its biology into a grass-friendly environment. Years three and four are where you see clumps of grass poking out. It’s a beautiful and welcomed sight. Today’s story occurred in the summer of year two.
The pastures were full of weeds. Everywhere. Knee-high weeds. If you were looking at it from a distance, you might think it was pretty. It was approximately green, after all. But, the pasture in front of our house along the driveway was pretty rough. The weeds were differing heights and jagged in appearance. The place looked like a goat ranch. And, it kind of was.
Two of our first purchases on the farm were a UTV (like a souped up golf cart), and a new zero turn lawn mower. Jen and I both wanted a lawn in the immediate areas around the house, so we planted grass there. The mower was for the lawn. And, in my mind, only for the lawn. She was fine with my four year pasture experiment. At least, at first.
One day Jen pulled in the driveway and, understandably, had had enough. She was overcome with disgust at the weeds in the pasture. They were twelve different shades of green, brown, and tan…and thousands of differing heights. Within my self-righteous, land healing, animal-centric vision, this scene held great promise. She thought it was ugly. And it was. So, she asked me to mow it. I declined. I had a tractor with a big, rugged mower on the back capable of doing the job, but, in my mind, mowing would defeat the purpose. Those weeds were going to lay down and become next years carbon source. “Think,” I implored her, “of all of the microbes that will be fed and stirred into action by these weeds, trampled by hooves, and soaked in manure! And all of this without a drop of petroleum!”
Yeah, I know. A man appealing to his wife should probably never make mention of anything being “soaked in manure.” No matter how strong your point is.
I put her off for a very, very long time. There is some defect in a man’s brain that convinces him his wife will forget about something she asks him to do even though her track record is perfect for remembering. She didn’t forget. Then, she started asking if I would teach her how to use the tractor and mower so she could mow it. I made the mistake of saying I would teach her, then never did. So, I was 0 for 2—didn’t mow the pasture, didn’t teach her to mow it. Finally, in a rare moment of defiance, I explained to her gently, but assertively that we were not mowing the pasture…that this was all part of our farm experience…that, as I explained before, the land would naturally transition toward beauty….that she was going to have to get used to it and be patient. End of conversation.
One day I was working in the barn when our daughter, Lydia, walked in.
“Hey sweetie,” I said.
“Hey, do you know where Mama is?”
“Yeah, she’s mowing.”
This wasn’t strange. Jen loves to mow our yard. She says, as a mother of four, that it’s something she can actually complete in a day—with the added benefit of being outside in nature. I looked out the door of the barn closest to the house.
“I don’t see her, Lydia….you sure she’s mowing?”
“Oh, sorry Dad, I meant she’s out mowing the pasture.”
If you’ve ever been in a situation like this you know how unreasonably angry you can get. I was incensed. I ran out of the barn and jumped into our Kawasaki Mule UTV. Peeling out of the barn lot, I sped through the gate and into the front pasture. Sure enough, there she was. Making her way, bumpingly, back and forth across the north end of the field. I could only see her pretty blond hair shining brilliantly above the weeds in the sunshine. Her long, thick ponytail flapping wildly behind her head to the rhythm of the bumps, like a war flag carried into battle.
And she was definitely ready for battle.
I sped toward her swerving to avoid rocks and dips in the way. As I got closer I started waving my arms frantically and screaming “STOP!! STOP!!” She acted like I wasn’t there. She was wearing giant ear muffs for protection, but there’s no way she didn’t see me. I drove toward the mower and pulled in front of her. Being on a zero turn mower proved to her advantage throughout the entire duel. She spun the mower and drove in the opposite direction. I whipped the UTV around and gave chase, pulling in front of her again. And again, she spun the mower and sped off, fast. I was screaming different versions of “Jen, this isn’t funny…stop right now!” and “you’re going to hurt yourself!!” and “listen to me!!! we’ve gotta talk about this!!….STOOOOOPPP!!” Every time I got close she would spin like a figure skater and speed off, mowing remarkably straight lines through the weeds.
After what seemed like several minutes she broke out of the back-and-forth pattern and we were off, racing through the weeds side by side. Bouncing and shouting at each other over the sounds of our motors. Weaving and jostling across the field like two mean, drunk rednecks at an off-road park.
“I asked you to do this a long time ago…you said you would…then you didn’t…so…I’LL JUST DO IT MYSELF!!!” she screamed.
“Oh NO you won’t! You’re gonna hurt somebody AND tear up our mower….this is OVER!…STOP. RIGHT. NOW!!!!” I screamed back.
“I’m not stopping until EVERY weed in this field is chopped down….you can just forget about it, buddy!!”
This off-road, motorcross, marital feud went on for much longer than I care to admit. She drove, with me giving chase, all over the field with the mower still engaged. A satellite image of the pasture would have sparked rumors of bizarrely shaped, alien-produced crop circles returning to earth. Or, that someone had escaped an asylum and stole a lawn mower. There would be elements of truth to both suppositions. As man and woman, our natures, desires, and thought processes differ like beings from different planets. And, we both acted like crazy people.
I finally found a way to funnel Jen and the mower into a corner up against a fence. I stopped the UTV and got out. She turned the mower about-face, forced the hand accelerators forward, and came straight toward me. “Well, I guess this is it.” I thought. “We’re going to end up like one of those couples with our own tragic headline.” She never veered and never slowed down. At the last minute I jumped to the side, reached out, and flipped the key. The mower muttered to a stop. We were both out of breath. The world seemed eerily quiet with both engines and both of our screaming voices quieted. I looked around wide-eyed, hands on my hips. There was a small herd of cows near us I moved into the pasture the day before. They saw everything. They looked up from their distasteful weed grazing and stared at us as if to say, “you people really should see a professional.” I looked across the fence the other direction. Our neighbor, Wilburn Craft, was standing behind his truck, his neck craned out, his sharp eyes concernedly locked on us. A few days later I went over to his house to try and somehow explain what it was he was watching. Before I could speak, he smiled and asked, “you two going to be alright?” We talked and laughed then he recounted a similar incident he and his wife, Connie, experienced once at their house. With a twinkle in his eyes he drew attention to the element that made our skirmish unique and irresistibly watchable. “Ours wasn’t motorized,” he noted.
Jen and I made our apologies then parked our respective weapons. In the moment it was a crazed flurry of hostility and self-will. When it was over it became an instrument of compromise, and a major source of laughter. I agreed to teach her how to use the tractor and mower if she would agree only to mow the pastures once or twice a year. This turned out to be a benefit to our land restoration vision. Her mowing sped up the process of carbon ground contact. This accelerated the growth of ground humus which eventually turns into healthy topsoil. Now you’d never know there was a time grass didn’t grow on our pastures.
Animals create disturbances on fallow ground that affect soil biology and cause things to grow. Some of the fastest growth in our pastures comes in the days right after we move a herd of trampling, grazing animals off of a paddock. Our high-speed, domestic moment created disturbance in our marriage, forcing us to find a way forward, to compromise, to grow. Standing in our pasture that day, engines off, working through our disagreement, we were responding to our disturbance in the same way we wanted our pastures to respond. We were growing.
There is no growth without disturbance.
Cultural powers have lied to us. They have conned people into believing that disturbance and conflict are signs of death and dysfunction. And, to be clear, they can be. Abuse is an intolerable reality in some relationships. But, I think most disturbances of both land and relationships are moments to be used for repair and healing. Never has our country needed the courage to grasp this more than we do now. Our lives are full of difficult moments to embrace and explore as growth-sources. They reveal themselves when we turn our eyes away from self-feeding, saccharine intoxicated models of happily-ever-after and look, instead, to the patterns of creation and nature as templates for life.
Embracing disturbance is embracing one another.
Jen and I love each other. We are committed to embracing and growing through the disturbances of life moving forward. But, next time, I’m hiding the keys.
February 26th, 2021