Dusty Trails

Dusty Tracks at the farmAt dawn the air is cool and still at the farm. We haven’t had rain for several months here on Mariquita Farm. The weather has been hot, so everywhere we haven’t irrigated the ground is dry. Where we have irrigated the mud bakes and cracks in the heat so that the silt clay soil curls up like pot shards. On the dirt road that divides the field into blocks for easy management, the daily traffic of trucks and tractors has pulverized the soil to a dust finer than flour. Before the sun warms the air and stirs it into breezes, this blanket of dust on the road can be read for animal tracks like a logbook that marks the night time visitors. Take a walk with me around the farm and let’s see who visited last night.

Those big footprints belong to Captain, my landlord’s dog. See how the tracks are leading straight into the tall hemlock weeds? That’s Pacheco Creek back there behind the brush. Captain is a Black Labrador and he can’t stay out of the water, so maybe he was heading off to take a midnight dip in the pool. Or maybe he heard a coyote and he was going to investigate. One of the nice things about having a creek so close to the field is that the riparian jungle of Carrizo canes, sycamores, nettles, and coyote brush makes good cover for a lot of wildlife. Squirrels and rabbits could become a problem if they were allowed to multiply without limit, but any coyotes in the neighborhood will help keep the population under control.

Look over there at that plume of dust rising up behind the pickup truck that Jose is driving; it’s like a smoke signal telling of loss. Dust in the air means soil is being lost from the earth and clarity is being lost from the sky. On our farm we try to minimize wind erosion by sowing every acre we don’t plant out in vegetables with a cover crop. All this stuff over here that looks like dead weeds is actually last spring’s fava bean straw we’ve left standing as a ground cover and for bird and insect habitat. I don’t use any pesticides, so I count on the birds and on beneficial insects to keep the pest insects under control, and if I don’t give them a place to harbor when we’re turning over a piece of ground with the tractor I’ll lose them all. You know those huge monoculture farms you drive past? They have to spray insecticide, because they don’t have any birds left to keep the bugs down, so life is out of balance, and when they plow their fields they kill all the beneficial insects that moved in. It’s sad. Look here; even bugs leave tracks in the dust. See these tiny little marks all in a row? These are beetle tracks.

Here we are in the corn patch. Pheasants love to take cover in the corn. Those rusty squawks you hear scratching the early morning calm are the pheasants talking to each other in their leafy hideout. These big chicken-like footprints you see crossing the dusty road are the tracks pheasants left when they slipped into the tomato patch at dusk to peck for dinner. Yesterday I found some big, three toed tracks that told me turkeys had wandered through here. I’m always amazed that the turkeys can survive in the wild at all, being as how they’re so big and tasty, but they’re seem to be more of them every year. They don’t do any real damage to the farm, and they are very beautiful.

These little scuffs in the dust are jack rabbit prints, and you can tell by how far apart they are if the hare was running fast or not. Poor Captain tries, but he never even comes close to catching the jack rabbits. We see the jacks every day and Captain takes off after them in a big lather, but as soon as he gets close enough to get his hopes up, the jack just slips into a higher gear and leaves him in the dust.

Yesterday a rubber gasket on our three inch aluminum irrigation pipe blew out and water puddle up before Rogelio was able to turn off the pump. You can see here where last night a raccoon took advantage of the pool to take a drink and maybe wash the dust off some morsel it found where the crew takes its lunch. Those prints that look like little human hands are the raccoon’s front paws, the longer paw prints were left by its back feet. Raccoons are cute but they are fierce like little bears. The smaller rat- like paw prints you see in the road are possum tracks.

Quail like to make their nests in the weeds here along the back of the field. Big families of quail come down off the levee in the evening and cross the road to peck for ants and seeds in the field. These tiny, confused, chicken-like prints were left by them. The inch wide trails worn smooth and straight through the dust are ant roads. Ant armies invade the field too to forage for seeds. Sometimes ants arrive bearing aphids which they put to pasture on our crop plants so that they can milk them for the honey dew they secrete. Where ant trails and quail tracks cross the ants lose. But the karma of biology evens the score. If you look carefully over here you will see weasel tracks.

I saw a little reddish weasel with a spotted tail just a minute ago out of the corner of my eye making a rippling dash from the bell peppers to the tomatoes. Weasel’s bodies are so long and their legs so short they have to comically arch their backs to run. Weasels aren’t funny to the quail; they eat the little birds like popcorn and rob their nests of their little speckled eggs. In the end weasels die too, and then the ants will hollow out their bodies if some thing else doesn’t get to them first.

Did you feel that warm breath of breeze puffing up just now? It’s only nine AM. By one in the afternoon this breeze will be a wind. Already the animal tracks are being sifted away. The animals are all safely tucked away in their nests waiting for the cool of the evening. The day will get a lot hotter as the sun climbs higher. Only we humans are crazy enough to work under the full sun and stir up the dust. When evening comes and we’re long gone home to our dinners and families, all the creatures will emerge again and sniff at our tracks. They’ll want to see who visited their field this hot day and discover what we’ve left behind.

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin

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August 14th Andy and I will be at the Hayes St. Grill 30th Summer celebration at their Tomato Dinner! Join us!

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heirloom tomatoesLadybug Buying Club update  For the convenience of those who want bulk quantities of vegetables and herbs at wholesale prices so they may can, pickle, juice, dry, freeze or otherwise enjoy the summer harvest,  we are planning a series of special deliveries starting next week. The San Marzano tomatoes are still a little ways off, but the Early Girl tomatoes have started, as have the Beefsteak toms and the Cherokee purples, plus we’ll have Padron peppers, tiny Hungarian wax peppers for pickles, limited quantities of small pickling cukes, and Elderberries for pies. If this service looks interesting to you, please sign up to be included on the list of people to get a special email alert. For now we plan to try using different CSA pick up site locations (with the hosts permission, of course!) stay tuned, and thanks for your interest! We hope to start next week…

to sign up:       San Francisco     ||     Peninsula/San Jose/Los Gatos/Sunnyvale      ||      Monterey Bay Area

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