Meadows: From Livestock Feed to Landscape Design Popculture

Gene and Ben in a hay field, Perrys Mills, NY
 Before the meadow experts draw their metaphorical knives, let me first say that I recognize that there are different types of meadows and that I am not an expert in any of them.  I know that there are perpetual meadows from alpine to coastal and everything in between that stand to discredit the title of this blog.  But it seems as though every presentation, every rendering, and every landscape design is clearly discussing what was heretofore known as a hay field.  Clients, unless it is truly a project where a perpetual meadow naturally occurs, or a research facility, or a hardcore Eco-wealthy tycoon, are not going to introduce the types of conditions required to maintain those meadows.  Thankfully it is quite rare that someone would set fire to a field of tall grasses.

Agricultural meadows are not rare on farms in upstate New York where I grew up. There, we just called it "hay" (although the family farm is itself truly becoming a thing of rarity).  If you were lucky and had the right field you got a second or third cut and you didn't leave it in the field to dry for "good winter color".  And, if it was long enough to cut, you cut it for feed.  The winter color near my house was severely stunted by a 6" haircut that was soon covered with snow that was then soon covered with a layer of dried or liquified manure.  The effects of this practice are hotly debated particularly this year in the Champlain Valley where the blue-green algae blooms threaten the life within Lake Champlain, not to mention the tourist and recreation associated with summer fun.

Those hay fields were not described in glowing language meant to sell a design concept.  It was a fact of life and a toilsome one at that.  I was too small to really be involved in the process and did what I could apart from not getting stepped on.  It was a lot of long hours cutting and bailing, loading and unloading, stacking and unstacking and finally feeding and cleaning manure. When it was time to "do hay" my father would climb from what we called the hay mow, an elevated barn attic where bailed hay is stored for the winter, looking as if he had been caught in a heavy rain.  A literal heavy rain, the man was exhausted.

I've described a simple process made romantic in my telling and somehow cheapened by master degree holding esthetes: a club in which I clearly hold a card.  I say that perhaps to assuage the dread that I may be morphing into a griping middle-aged man lost in the noble past.  Maybe I am.  Or maybe I can't help but acknowledge not only the hypocrisy inherent in the sale of a "meadow" as a design element, but that I am, even in my criticism, inherently and inextricably connected to that hypocrisy.  The day I, like so many others of my generation, left the rural homestead to pursue higher education I both forfeited my right to defend the farm life and the right judge others who, like me, are so entirely over educated that they need to rediscover that noble past.

So now we have urban chickens, urban farms, urban bees and urban meadows.  All of which I took for granted and all of which I now see in an entirely different way.  And somehow it irks me that my urban and suburban born friends are becoming enlightened to this fact.  Maybe its because what I wanted most was to have all the things they did growing up.  That I grew up in a way that was different and difficult and somehow that chip is slowly being tipped from my shoulder.

And I feel like I carry another secret: it's that is there is a reason why my generation left those farms.  It's hard.  Beekeeping is hard.  Doing hay is hard.  Putting up fence is hard. Catching cows when they get out is hard.  Keeping chickens alive is hard. The "evil" of  large scale industrial farming is not abstract and the people affected directly by it are real.  Like warriors or athletes it's a lifestyle that makes men and women strong in their youth and wears on them in old age.  Not everyone is cut out for that life and when I hear about concepts deployed by newly minted experts as a weekend warrior activity or a design aesthetic I am somehow on some level oddly offended.

So the dilemma I face isn't the acceptance of agricultural processes as pop-culture (something that has been done more or less since the advent of agriculture), it's that I haven't been able to let that chip fall.

No comments:

Post a Comment