a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
“Don’t…make war against the world / And its wild appetites …. / For you must learn to live / With neighbors never chosen / As with the ones you chose.”
from “The Farm” by Wendell Berry
The neighbors out here are quiet. Sometimes it takes a child’s observant eye, a life lived closer to the ground, to see them. On a trip around the pond, my six-year-old Alice stops and shouts, “Scorpion! Scorpion!” I scan the stubby grass looking for the poised point of a scorpion’s stinger. Leo, my four-year-old, finds it first: a creature armored in a gray translucent shell, two pinchers held high. An Indiana crawdad.
Out here on the western edge of Monroe County, Indiana, our new neighbors have not come with cookies and conversation but with their quiet gifts of presence. The wood thrush sings in the dark before dawn. The mourning dove hoots in the evening hours. Blue-tailed skinks scurry through the cracks in the chinking beside a fireplace so large my children step inside it to clean out the ashes. In the middle of the road on the way to town I once saw an owl still and stoic on the yellow center line. Thinking it was injured, I prepared to pull over, but it lifted its wide wings and rose. Another time it was a bit of grace to catch the white flash of a bald eagle sitting at the top of a dead pine. We have shy neighbors who have learned not to trust the people around them. Rightly so, for we — my husband and I — are beings capable of great destruction.
Last August, our family moved from downtown Bloomington to a rented cabin ten miles away. We had lived joyfully for nine years as members of the Bloomington Catholic Worker (BCW), an intentional community that offers housing to people experiencing homelessness. We grew gardens, planted fruit trees, raised chickens, birthed children, and hosted many guests. During two years of discernment, as we wrestled with how to respond to the reality of climate change, we decided that starting an interfaith Catholic Worker farm would take us one step further away from the capitalist systems that so skillfully lay waste to the planet. On a farm we’d know the true cost of our energy consumption with every log we’d have to split, the true cost of a ripe tomato with every shovelful of compost. Our friends at the BCW blessed our decision but they did not have the energy to join us nor the desire to relocate to the countryside. So we moved into our friend’s cabin for a year with the hope that it would be enough time to find land and friends with whom to start a new community called Common Home Farm.
Last October, an acquaintance, Amy, took us to visit her ten acres of land in northern Monroe County. She wondered if we’d be interested in starting Common Home Farm there. Ten years ago, she had run a small organic farm on the property, but since that time she had a family and moved into town. After her departure, the land was claimed by snakes and mice, birds, deer, ticks and wasps. The bamboo, the poison ivy, the tree of heaven, the multi-flora rose were all happy to soak up the sun and spread their roots without fear of shovels, loppers, or saws.
Since February, when we formally agreed to start Common Home Farm on Amy’s land, we’ve been making the half-hour trip from our rented cabin to the new land to convert a two-story workshop into a home. We’ve come with our cars, our power tools, and a deed to begin our tenure as stewards of this place. We’ve come with our brush cutter to clear away the honeysuckle choking out the old plum trees in the forgotten orchard. For the tree of heaven, we’ve come to poison the roots: for if you cut it down before it’s dead, it will send up a hundred new shoots. We’ve come to seal up the holes in the house that the snakes have been using as doors. We’ve come to clean up broken glass, drain the old cistern, string up swings from the old maple and claim this patch of earth – to domesticate, to wed, to bind ourselves in labor and love to this land that currently belongs, at least in my mind, to the venomous copperhead snakes.
Most nights I go to sleep dreaming of copperheads; their pattern vivid in the blotches of light and dark behind my eyelids. In the small world that is Bloomington, we met the gentleman who owned this land before Amy. He’s known as Michael Composter, a skinny, mustachioed bike-rider in his seventies who bites into raw onions while in line at the local food co-op. He recently came out to the land, sat under the maple tree and read a book while inside we wrestled drywall above our heads to make a ceiling. “When I lived here,” he said, “the copperheads were plentiful.” He chuckled and the red pompom on his wool beret bobbed. I grimaced.
Though I spent the first seven years of my life playing in the dry dust of Colorado, plotting my escape from rattlesnakes, I have since been a university-town girl whose trips to the forest have been peaceful. The trees, the clouds, nature has been friendly and inspiring. But as a new inhabitant of the forest I’m charged with figuring out how to share a place with creatures that threaten my family. Though copperhead bites are rare, and rarely fatal, they are more dangerous the smaller you are. As long as our land remains overgrown, the brush pile not-yet-burned, and the holes open in our soon-to-be-home, I will put away my visions of barefoot children roaming the land freely.
“When I was growing up in the county,” my friend Danielle said, “my brother always had a shotgun at the ready when Dad was getting wood from the wood pile.” Another friend advised me to send some pigs under any building that’s up on posts, as his grandfather did in Kentucky. The pigs root out the snakes. We had no guns, nor any pigs, when we started clearing junk from under the back overhang of the workshop. But it was February and we knew the snakes would be sluggish from the cold. Load after load of old windows, rotting doors, black tarps, and discarded steel scraps revealed only the uneven dirt of the ground. The snakes must have been tucked in under the jutting rocks of their forest dens.
Then spring came. The first snake we found fell from the ceiling of the workshop as we pulled down drywall caked with its crusty, black and white droppings. It was a long, black rat snake whose hatched eggs we found in the attic. We hoisted it onto a stick and carried its thick, twisting body outside. A moment after being released, it slithered back toward the workshop, under the siding, and up the corner of the interior wall. This snake continues to live in the workshop, despite the noisy installation of new windows and doors, the pouring of concrete for a bathroom, despite the rockin’ tunes blasting from the radio. My husband, David, said that yesterday it slid right in the open kitchen door, past his feet, and into the dark of the storage room. We’re wondering if it will relocate before we do, or if we might have to help it find a new home.
This is not the snake that worries me. This snake has been controlling the mice population in the workshop and has otherwise minded its own business without threatening my exposed ankles or the short little legs of my children. It was shortly after we met the black rat snake that we also met our first copperhead. A group of eighth grader volunteers were helping us smash up an old concrete pad. A young guy put his hand under a hefty chunk of cement and there below it, coiled neatly, was a small rusty snake with dark chocolate drop patterns. It didn’t strike—just watched and waited. David wasn’t sure what to do so he snapped a picture and called off the workday early. That night, while I was washing up the dinner dishes, he showed me the photo. “This is not what I meant when I said I wanted to live more closely with nature,” I told him, every fearful instinct on high alert.
That fear brought a flash back to being three months pregnant with my first child: Sitting up in bed, my back against the blue wall. I saw myself dying from hemorrhage or infection or some unnamed horrible complication. I saw the baby coming out with the cord around its neck. Just as when I was a diver in high school, and prompted to mentally practice my front double somersault, I inevitably imagined hitting my head on the board. Or the way, as a young girl in Catholic church, I knew that the most inappropriate thing to think of during mass was of the priest standing naked during his sermon. Poof. There he was.
Now I’m imagining Leo, his thirty-two pounds stretched out over skinny legs, joyfully running through the grass at Common Home Farm. Though I’ve told him to keep his shoes on, they are off, of course. And the snake is there, by the rusty old teeter totter, on its way back to its hiding spot when they meet. This is the scene that I play over and over in my mind as I think about nature and our new neighbors. Copperhead bites are rare. Snake bite fatalities are even more rare. These are the only assurances. But you move your family onto a piece of land that is home to copperhead snakes. You’re the newcomer.
A few weeks after we found the first copperhead, a group of high school volunteers from Cincinnati came to work with us for the day. Despite the heat, they heeded our instructions to wear long pants, long sleeves and boots. In our opening introduction we explained about the poison ivy and the copperheads and advised them to keep gloves on, to watch where they were stepping, and to stay out of the tall grass. Our last task before lunch was to remove a pile of sheet metal that had been sitting beside the driveway since February. My gloved hands gripped a long rectangle with rusty holes. It warbled and gonged as I pulled it from the pile. Turning with the sheet metal, I heard behind me excited gasps and a sharp yelp. When I turned back, I saw two young copperhead snakes with their white underbellies and bright orange patterns. They slid quickly toward the shelter of another layer of sheet metal.
Then we saw the mature copperhead, a camouflaged coil beside a piece of rusty rebar. Its pointy triangular head was raised. We stepped back and waited. I grabbed Leo and picked him up, “Look,” I said, pointing to the snake. “Do you see it?” He nodded. “That’s a copperhead. You never touch a copperhead.” He nodded again and then wiggled out of my arms and ran off.
We are urban folks trying to be country, but we’re not country yet. We weren’t brave enough to try to kill a copperhead on our own. We know that’s how most snake bites happen. We called our neighbor, Dave, a musician and builder, who drove right over. “I had a friend whose daughter, twelve years old, was bit and air-lifted to Indy. It was very touch-and-go. You’ve got kids here, so we don’t mess around.” He asked for a spade, took it in his two hands, leaned over and struck the snake just below its head. Four more were killed that way. Their bodies shoveled into a black trash bag and tossed in a dumpster.
There is an art to living with the rest of the world, but it’s not an art form that I’ve learned well. At the Bloomington Catholic Worker, I learned how to argue with and make peace with all sorts of people. But community out here includes creatures I can’t converse with. I can’t get an agreement from the snakes that they’ll just eat the mice and leave my kids alone. So we’ll try a passive-aggressive approach: encouraging them to leave by clearing all their habitat, getting cats to eat the mice, stacking wood piles up off the ground, and keeping the lawn short. But what if they continue to feel at home on this land that we’re invading, do we continue to be aggressive with our shovels?
Before we moved out of the Bloomington Catholic Worker, we were inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass. She writes of a balanced, reverential relationship with the natural world that fills me with a yearning to similarly know this earth that I call home. To know it means to reckon with its power, with our place in it and our responsibility as a part of it. For days after the snake killing, I felt certain that there would be retribution for our deed. Now, for sure, the copperheads would find my son and bite him. Should we have just left them alone? All my rural-born white friends kill copperheads when they find them near their homes. On the day we found their nest in the sheet metal, our other neighbor, Jerry, came over on his ATV with a shot gun across his lap. “Now that you live out here, you better get yourself a gun,” he said patting the barrel. I wonder what the Miami, the Lenape, and the Potawatomi did when they encountered copperheads and rattlesnakes in these hills, their old hunting grounds? Surely they had a better way.
I’m struggling to understand how to be a good neighbor out here. In the colonial-capitalist world from which I come, we are taught to dominate the things we fear in nature, to overpower them, to eliminate them from our environment, or to avoid them altogether. This is the baggage that I carry with me onto the land. I also carry the habits that come from being urban white middle class: an attachment to convenience, comfort and safety. These habits don’t translate well into becoming a steward of the land for the benefit of all species. And we are lacking proper guides, as the internalized ways of our white ancestors do not lead us where we want to go. These ways must be recognized, named and unlearned. I must replace my fear with understanding, awareness, and caution. I must welcome struggle and sacrifice (and the constant itch of poison ivy) for the growth in spirit and strength that they nourish.
Un-wilding, reclaiming, restoring this farm is a difficult and confusing journey. We have poisoned the tree of heaven to clear land for our gardens. We have killed copperhead snakes to protect our children. We are using our destructive power, sparingly but forcefully, to create a human-friendly zone in the middle of the forest. Our vision seems to require these casualties. Robin Wall-Kimmerer recognizes this dilemma while pulling algae from her pond to make an inviting swimming hole: “It came to me again that restoring habitat, no matter how well intentioned, produces casualties. We set ourselves up as arbiters of what is good when often our standards of goodness are driven by narrow interests, by what we want.” What we want are certain animals and plants to thrive, and certain ones to go away. There is no pleasure in killing a copperhead or poisoning a tree of heaven. There is trepidation and resignation, and the vision of a farm whose ecological balance, whose abundance is the product of a carefully tended but complicated relationship with rest of the living world.