The most precious and important thing about Pebblespring Farm is that it has water. Water rises up in springs on the valley floor, just inside the fence line to the west. The water is always there, no matter how dry the season. Gavin Flanagan, over the road from us, says he have not seen the springs run dry since he has been visiting there as a child in the fifties.
A small stream runs from where it wells up in the ground, first into a little marshy area overgrown with bulrushes (cattails to the American reader) and Poplar trees. Then into a dam that has probably been there since the seventies. When I first came to the farm it was all very over grown. It took me more than a month of weekends to even find the dam. I could see it on Google Earth. I have heard the dam spoken of by the old people, but the bush was so thick than I could not find the dam. I would try hack a straight line through the bush in the direction I reckoned the dam to be from the maps and aerial photos. But I would go off course and miss the dam to the east and come out on the pasture on the other side of the forest, or I would miss the dam to the east and find myself trudging through the marsh and the bull rushes before coming again to the pasture. I began to think the dam had washed away completely in a big flood and that my aerial photograph was just out of date. Eventually though, we found the dam. Cutting through the bush we came to a depression and a bank with a bed or bulrushes in from of us. It looked like it could be the dam we had been looking for, but had to scale a tree on the edge to be able to see over the tall bulrushes to the small patch of open water in the centre of what remained of the dam. Slowly we cleared a path along the dam wall. We were working then with hand saws and garden pruners. I had not yet bought the chainsaw. The going was slow, especially in those places that were thick with brambles that would rip through the skin on forearms and legs. Jeans were ripped to threads at the thigh. I would come home bleeding and exhausted I the evenings.
When the bush was cleared enough, we could see that a donga (erosion trench) had formed through the dam wall toward the south pasture. Soon we were able to do a small repair, adding an overflow pipe. A very practical idea inspired by an Austrian farmer, Sepp Holzer. He refers to this device as a “pope”, basically a vertical length of pipe fitted onto the horizontal piece that is buried under the dam wall. The basic principal being that the water level in the dam can rise only to the level of the “pope”, thus protecting overflow that could damage the dam and cause it to wash away. This temporary arrangement has held. We widened the path on the dam wall enough to take a quadbike and then later to be able to take a car. We currently use this route as our driveway and it has worked quite well. The truth though, is that I have not spent enough time observing the stream and the dam. We have not yet had a big down pour like the one in 2006 or the one in 1968. I can only guess what will happen to the dam wall under those circumstances. I am though aware that my role is to observe how things work. To observe the land as it changes through the seasons and through the years. Out of this observation, it is for me to take guidance from the land, from the farm. This guidance will inform me of the actions that I need to take. Wendell Berry, in A Gift of Good Land, says: “To see and respect what is there is the first duty of stewardship”
This idea of stewardship informs my approach not only to the stream and the dam, but to the forest and the marsh, the pasture and the brush. My approach is to observe. To see where I can help. To see what intervention I must make to assist the land to achieve the fullness of its potential. The role of steward is an important part of the land and of the farm. It is a role that I treasure, but it is a role that is different on Pebblespring Farm to what it would have been on the next door farm or on a farm 100km way or 1000km away. It is a role that is different in every different place because on the significant portion of time that is spent, and must be spent in observation. I spend time observing the pasture, what plants come up at what times of the year? I spend time up on the hill, observing how the water is washing the topsoil in the big rains. I spend time observing the dam, noticing how the water level rises for two or three days after a downpour. I notice how the Tilapia become active on the surface when the water is warm. I observe how the duckweed on the dame looks different when it regrows after the Tilapia have eaten it. I observe how the green algae from the floor of the dam rises to the top after the Tilapia feed at the bottom.
I could not have approached the farm from a distance and with predetermined idea of what to do there. I could not have sent in the bulldozers, flattened everything to achieve what I may have put on paper as a vision for the site. This though is the conventional approach. It is an approach that is forced on us by people with accountant and lawyer minds. It is an approach that separated design from implementation for practical “cost control” reasons. This is the approach that government takes when it takes on developments. This is the approach that corportate sector takes when it takes on development, but it is not the kind of approach that makes sense if we are looking for the most effective response to the challenge. Because it is while I am working that I am observing, and out of observing comes design, and from design comes work. These things flow seamlessly into each other and form each other.
But I am talking here about observation. How critical it is to the farm and how indispensable it is to any project. Whether your attempt is to date a girl, raise a child or win a soccer match. We must immerse ourselves in the observation of the activity. We must begin to see the patterns; we must know the activity intimately. We must give ourselves time to formulate our plans and when we act, we act in such a way as to be able to observe the impact of our actions, and then modify our actions in response. At first glance Law of the farm number 10: “Observe the stream before you build the dam” may seem at odds with the contemporary truism “Go big or go home”. No its not. “Go big” we must. There is no time for pussyfooting around, in relationships, in healing the planet or in business. What I am saying is that, in order to “Go big” you must invest time and effort into observation otherwise there can be little doubt that you will “Go Home”
So, start today. Take time to observe the taste of the morning coffee. Notice how the dog feels when you stroke it when it comes to greet you. Take note of how the bacon smells as it fries in the pan. These are small steps, but trust their significance. Even when the bad stuff happens and some idiot cuts in front of you in the traffic, or spills Coca-Cola on your new white T-shirt. Observe your anger. Notice how it feels in your chest, notice how it migrates to your stomach after a few minutes. Feel the heat as it rises in your face. Just observe it. Take notice of it. Don’t try to stop any of this. Don’t intervene; just get into the habit of observing. The time for action will come and at that time your action will be informed by a deeper level of awareness. Your actions will be reflective of a consciousness that informs them.