A. V. Walters

Better Living Through Chemistry

The other day I woke to the sound of gas-fired weed whackers. It was a relief. We’ve had strange weather this winter. No rain. We rely on seasonal rains to recharge the wells and this season has been dry. Here in Two Rock it’s green; we get a lot of fog coming in from the ocean. The fog (and in this year’s weather, frost) provides enough moisture to keep the ground green, especially in the low-lying areas where the fog settles. Looking across the landscape you can see the contours of where the fog flows by the trail of green it leaves on the hills. But that moisture doesn’t go deep. If you dig, it’s damp down only a few inches. It’s green, but it’s not growing and that makes the farmers nervous. I know on our farm they’re working to keep the sheep moving, rotating from field to field so the sheep don’t damage the grass down to the roots. Sheep can do that. Usually in the winter I have to mow my lawn every week—or at least every ten days. This season I think we’ve mowed only three times.

And then there’s the cold. It’s been really cold here at night, for months now. Really cold for us is low thirties and high twenties. With nights like that the sheep need extra nourishment to keep warm. The days are lovely, with temperatures climbing sometimes well into the sixties. Even with those warm days though, the cold nights and low moisture keeps the plant growth rate down.

There’s a funny thing I learned about cows (and even some sheep) when I moved here. They sometimes suffer from a “the grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. Even if a cow is surrounded by lush pasture, it will lean out through a fence if there’s greenery on the other side. You need to keep grass at the edge of the fence-line short and groomed. If you don’t, the cows will cut their necks on the barb-wire fences trying to lean out for the grass on the outside of the fence. I live next to a dairy, so even though we don’t do cows here, we get to observe what is done in the world of cows. We share an access road and some fences.

A year ago last autumn, somebody decided not to mow (or more correctly, weed-whack) the fence lines along the dairy side of our single lane driveway. I guess someone figured it was faster and cheaper to spray with herbicides. They were certainly effective. Late that autumn they sprayed and everything green along the lane shriveled and died. Stripped of its protective vegetation, the shoulder of the lane soon began to crumble. The seasonal rains fell on that naked dirt and what little roots remained were not enough to hold the soil. Freed up from roots, the gophers made the little gully along the lane their alley and churned the soil mercilessly. More soil eroded into the gully and washed away with every rain. By mid-winter, our undermined road began to crumble at the edges.  To save the lane, they dug the gully deeper to funnel the water away. The gophers dug deeper, too.  The edge was hardpan, barren, clay; its organic matter had flushed away so no new grasses would grow there. Grasses have a fine and broad stabilizing root system. Weeds grew there though, but their long tap roots did little to hold our road edges.

Through our long dry summer the grasses did not return along the lane. A few weeds sprouted, but not many. Last fall they chopped down the weeds. The farmers had to dig another ditch, inboard fifteen feet or so from the fence, to divert the water away from the lane’s edge. The gully along the road edge was eroded and jagged. It could no longer carry excess water along the side of our lane, without causing further road damage. Like I said, it’s been a dry winter and so far the new diverter ditches have not been tested. Here and there, along the lane there are some patches of fog-fed green. We’re hoping they’ll spread, their roots working through the soil to rebuild that mat of living material that holds all that’s good in the soil.

So, in this case the annoying drone of weed-whackers is a relief. It means somebody’s learned a lesson and we won’t be spraying anytime soon. With any luck, the rains expected next week will be gentle and will nurture the right kind of growth to re-stabilize the soil and return our lane to its former secure state.