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Waltham Fields Community Farm (incorporated as Community Farms Outreach, Inc.) is a nonprofit farming organization focusing on sustainable food production, fresh food assistance, and on-farm education. For more information about Waltham Fields check out our website!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Notes from the Field: Solitary Blue

Where I grew up in Maryland, the blue heron stalks the marshlands of the Potomac River tributaries all year long. It is considered good luck to see a solitary blue, standing tall in the marsh grass or flapping ponderously overhead on its way to a better fishing hole. Here at the farm, there are wetlands all around us, and it is not uncommon for us to see a heron, or sometimes two during the spring mating season, flying high from one wet area to another over the fields. Before this year, though, we had never seen a heron land in the fields.

Dan says that in June, he saw a heron walking between the center and the west fields. It startled him, both because it was so huge and incongruous and because it was so calm, unconcerned about his presence and clearly comfortable on the farm. It disappeared as the summer came on, replaced by the single turkey hen who made her home on the farm this summer, and by the noisy coyotes. But this fall, as the season has changed, it has returned. It walks through the pick-your-own fields, pacing up and down the rows of raspberries, pausing to spear a squeaking vole on its beak with lightning speed and gobble it down. It eyes us as we drive by in the farm truck, but does not fly away. It surprises unsuspecting people in the fields, emerging silently out of nowhere, tall as an eight-year-old, head cocked to one side with a hunting eye on the ground. Apparently, it thinks that the farm is a good place to be. Andy says it's been watching us for years as it flies over, and has finally decided that we are harmless and that it is safe here. Dan says that it is evolving before our eyes, learning to eat plump, organically grown voles instead of fish contaminated with heavy metals.

It is possibly a testament to the time of the year that we spend so much time watching the heron; each time it appears, we stop what we are doing, half-finished kale bunches in hands, and just watch for a minute or two. Or, more likely, it is a testament to the heron's power to transfix us with its deliberately unhurried movements and its silent, attentive presence. Heron symbolism in cultures around the world connects the bird with a heightened state of awareness, consciousness, or insight. Seeing the heron is a reminder that patience is a powerful tool, along with the ability to act with decision when the time is right. According to legend, the Iroquois saw the solitary blue, a keen hunter, as a sign that a hunt would be fruitful. Maybe having the blue so close at hand in the middle of this complex and challenging autumn harvest season will give us a little bit of that same patience, decision-making power, and good fortune.

The great blue heron also seen in some cultures as a symbol of the balance between solitude and community. While the heron is almost always seen alone, during mating season many birds congregate in large colonies to raise their young, coming together as a community to do the work that needs to be done. Many farmers, like herons are essentially solitary creatures. We often get into this work because it allows us some time to be alone, connected with the land that we love, with the opportunity to ponder, deliberate, reflect, absorb, meditate -- and then act. The type of farming that we do at WFCF, though, requires us to be in community almost all the time. We are so rarely alone at the farm, and the decisions we make daily impact not only ourselves and the rest of the farm crew, but the more than 500 families who connect with the land every week, eating its food, walking the farm roads, encountering their own blue heron in the rows. A significant part of our job is not only growing the food, but trying to make sure that all of these people know a little bit of its story and have their own chance to reflect and meditate on that story. The food access and education work that we do connects the farm and its farmers even more solidly to the community, drawing in more people to do the work and more people to take in the results. Each week part of my responsibilities as farm manager is sitting in a staff meeting with our executive director, Claire, and education coordinator, Jericho, to make sure all these gears are intersecting the way that they should. The farm from spring through fall is in what seems like an extended nesting season; noisy, changeable, messy, and fruitful, all in the context of community. It's not until these October breezes start to blow and the leaves begin to flutter down that we can lift our heads, take a moment to observe our own heightened state of consciousness, and begin the long series of reflections that take us deep into the winter.

"Our" solitary blue seems to be a relatively social animal, for a heron. While it has not (yet) braved the bustling scene of a CSA pickup, it is not afraid of the farmers or the occasional shareholder. It seems able to make the time and space for its deliberations in the midst of this busy place, and to feel comfortable with the its public nature. It is also unusual in that until now, I have never seen a blue heron without its legs in the water. Those legs are thin, fragile looking, seemingly not strong enough to support the weight of the massive bird. They are graceful as it walks, stepping daintily over the grass, and aerodynamic in flight, but gawky as it takes off, dangling below like awkward landing gear until the big bird is in the air. Some folks say that these willowy legs represent the fact that you don't need massive pillars of stability to support you -- sometimes slim shafts, and a little grace, are enough, even if they seem a little awkward in times of transition. I like to think about this when I get anxious about all the things we don't have control over on the farm -- the vagaries of the weather, the long-term future of the land we don't own, the larger picture of the shifting climate. With a few slim but strong connections, we will be alright. Thanks to all of you who have been those connections for us this season.

Amanda, for Erinn, Dan, Andy, Larisa and Lauren

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