The Death of Beautiful Things

4/5/21

Every day during the summer a beautiful juvenile Northern Harrier glides over the fields searching for prey. He circles each field carefully, calling out with his shrill cry, waiting for a response nearby. He looks like he doesn’t have a neck, with a round face a lot like an owl, yet with red feathers and sleek body it is clear he is not an owl. I would wait for the opportunity to hear that call, a special sound no one paid attention to. Like an albatross skimming the surface of the ocean, the Harrier would graze over the fronds of the Johnson Grass looking for the rodents that called our pastures home. 

Dead Bird in Car Oil
Dead Bird in Car Oil

Every spring for years our dog Juni, a deerhound with a free spirit that we couldn’t contain, would uncover a nest of baby rabbits, eastern cottontails all marked with a tiny white teardrop on their forehead. She would kill all but one, ripping off their heads as if they were dolls, leaving me scrambling to try to keep the last one alive. I carefully picked her up, so young that her eyes had yet to open, cradling her in my hand, careful not to hold her incorrectly knowing how fragile their spines are. I would nestle her into a small Tupperware lined with an old t-shirt, kept close to the woodstove. I had learned by then to keep rodent antibiotics, puppy formula and several syringes at hand for situations like this even though the rabbits never lasted the night. I thought it was my job to try to save them since my dog had murdered their family, but that was just nature. I was used to digging graves for rabbits, baby or adult, groundhogs and birds, they would die in my arms and I would send them off with a tiny bouquet of my favorite wildflower, whatever was growing at the time. It was always sad witnessing the death of an innocent being from something man made. Some days I would wake up to find a shining emerald hummingbird lying on the ground, dead from hitting a window ear;y that morning, frozen as if still in motion, an oily imprint left on the grass. It seemed cruel. Or the songbird that drowned in a bucket of car oil my dad left out one day, its life taken by an accident, by something I or my family had done. It looked like mud but so oily that the bird was mummified in a slime that would never come off. I had never seen anything like it. It was a lack of respect as the oil would never allow it to decompose properly and It would never return to the earth as intended. Those accidental deaths felt the worst.

What would remind me of life however were the bats that would emerge at dusk during the summer to eat the mosquitoes and moths that plagued the farm. Their liveliness and swiftness screamed life as they did circles in the dark blue sky, looking like shadows from where I stood on the ground. I never saw them on the ground as that was not their home.

Parasites and Other Itchy Scary Things

3/21/21

Today’s blog post will be a comprehensive list of the parasites, animals and plants that cause humans to be uncomfortable during the warmer months. The minute it stops freezing and I’ve taken a hike in the woods, or layed in the grass for a little bit (a privilege I can enjoy only during the coldest days during the winter) I wake up to find my legs covered in red itchy bumps. If you’ve ever had a mosquito bite they look quite similar yet itch around 10x more, and for some reason arthropods love me just as much as I love them so I’m always the first to harbor the lovely chigger, a mite that loves the taste of humans. The itching lasts a week or two and there’s nothing that helps (clear nailpolish is a myth by the way), it just has to be waited out.

The second of the parasites are of course ticks. On Nisani Farm there are Lone Star Ticks, Dog Ticks, and deer ticks, some of which can be as small as a pin prick. From these kinds of ticks you can get lyme disease, rocky mountain spotted fever and Alpha Gal (a relatively new and increasingly more common protein mutation that causes allergic reactions to red meat after someone eats them, one reason why beyond meat burgers and impossible burgers have gotten so much more popular in rural virginia). To prevent ticks we have a daily regimen of tucking our pants into our socks before leaving to work outside, making sure the grass stays short near the house, and nightly complete body tick-checks. No one in my family has ever gotten lyme disease despite finding five ticks every day during the summer!

And parasites aren’t all! We also have horse flies that take chunks out of your skin, bald heads beware, mosquitos, and sweat bees who mean well but sting you when you accidentally squish them during the lunchtime meal of your sweat where they’ve crawled under your sleeve to indulge on.

We also have the dreaded poison ivy growing literally everywhere. Walking barefoot is never recommended. Poison ivy, or Toxicodendron radicans, is a three leafed plant that grows a hairy vine that is covered in an oil that causes a rash on most people. If you think you aren’t allergic to poison ivy youre likely mistaken and/or lying. We have had interns who had to go to the clinic from severe poison ivy rashes after insisting it doesn’t affect them. To prevent the onset of a rash dish soap immediately does the trick.

And among the venomous there are snakes and spiders. A beautiful black widow spider lives in every pot in one of our high tunnels. We leave them there because we have never had a problem with them and they help with pests, we’re just mindful of their presence! Their beautiful black shiny bodies contrast with the red, and their ballet-like movements gracefully make webs. 

We also have brown recluse spiders of which I have never seen hence their reclusive title. They can cause a lot of damage if they bite someone, for example capillary damage. 

Lastly we have snakes. We have lots of non-venomous species like the Eastern Black Rat Snake and Worm Snakes, Carphophis amoenus, a small brown smooth snake that likes dark cool crevices like under logs and rocks. Among the venomous there are Northern Copperheads, Cottonmouths and Timber Rattlesnakes. They usually stay far away from people but I have encountered them while hiking in the woods and when a juvenile Cottonmouth found its way into the living room.

And although not completely harmful, skunks and their sprays are frequent, and nothing gets rid of the smell, not even tomato soup.

An Eastern Black Rat Snake emerging from the duck coop
An Eastern Black Rat Snake emerging from the duck coop

The Plants

3/14/2021 Although we are constantly surrounded by plants, they are living things that are easily overlooked since they don’t move, they simply exist, and they are abundant. I am extremely interested in botany so I pride myself as someone who notices the plants most people ignore. I take walks on my farm, the trails breaching the borders of several different kinds of environments, from wetlands and streams, to forested areas, to pastures, and stop at every new plant, snap a picture and then identify it once I get back to the house. I have since learned a large collection of different plants and fungi, from beautiful showy flowers and bushes, to more subtle but still fascinating plants all of which reside on my farm in Southern Virginia.

During the fall I took a lot of walks and I quickly noticed a few plants that stood out. Strawberry bush was one I had never seen before. It immediately caught my attention since the fruiting bodies are bright fuschia with hanging orange seeds that are just as beautiful as a flower and don’t resemble anything I can think of, they are just strange structures. The Strawberry bush I found was spindly without leaves and around 6 ft tall. The fruiting bodies almost resemble christmas ornaments.

Throughout the summer there were, of course, the showy flowers like Black Eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, Goldenrod, and Milkweed, but one day when walking in the forest, the heat suffocating, I noticed a funky looking flower that resembles those carnivorous flowers you think only appear in tropical rainforests\. It was Jack in the Pulpit, a pitcher shaped flower that attracts flies for pollination and sports bright red berries tucked away on the forest floor, hidden away by its three large leaves. I would have missed it if not for the deep dark purple stripes going from the top to the bottom of the flower.

There are also tons of medicinal plants on my farm, such as Mountain Mint which can be good for menstrual cycle regulation, a plant that has the distinct menthol smell and taste of every mint plant, and it prefers to grow along the edge of our forests. I can spot it from far away as the leaves are sometimes covered in a silvery powder and have delicate purple flowers that bees love. Another plant with silvery leaves is Jewelweed, a very well known “cure” for poison ivy. It’s much more delicate than the sturdy mountain mint, and prefers moist environments right next to streams. In the spring, delicate  spotted orange flowers bloom that attract butterflies. The cool thing about Jewelweed, is that if you try to dunk it in water, there is a coating on each leaf that repels water like a solid silvery force field. It also has spring loaded seeds that shoot at you if you brush up against them like miniature cannons.

Lastly we have invasive plants. The plants that takeover with very little control, plants like Thistle or Johnson grass, the bane of my Mom’s existence, that have large seed heads and deep tap roots making it impossible to kill and stay killed, because if you leave even one tiny piece of tap root you are going to see it again in a few months. The tap roots can go a foot or more in the ground and usually break off if you try to pull them. The grass towers above your head, and yes, it is beautiful, with the purple tint and sturdy stem and the beautiful sound it makes when it sways in the wind, or thistle which creates a beautiful pink flower, although not conventionally beautiful, and painful to touch because of the thorns, it is not worth keeping, because once you have it, it won’t go away. Sometimes I wish I was as persistent as Johnson grass.

Purple Thistle
Purple Thistle

Glaettli, Repp. Piedmont Native Plants: a Guide for Landscapes and Gardens. Piedmont Natives, 2013. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58e25c41e6f2e17ea4cb7766/t/5c7e9fdceef1a1aa5076c56b/1551802341422/Piedmont+Native+Plant+Guide+-+April+2016.pdf 

Mahr, Susan, Written by. “Jewelweed, Impatiens Capensis.” Wisconsin Horticulture, hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/jewelweed-impatiens-capensis/. 

TWC, Staff. “Euonymus Americanus.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, 2018, www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=euam9. 

TWC, Staff. “Arisaema Triphyllum.” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin, 2013, www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=artr. 

The History of Charlotte County and Nisani Farm

2/25/2021

Charlotte County, where Nisani Farm resides, was established 1714 and is full of white human significance.

In 1776 charlotte county voted for independence during the Revolutionary War and French troops stationed at what is now Charlotte Court House (p. 23), only 15 min away from Nisani Farm.

Several important historical figures and places resided in Charlotte County or close to Nisani Farm, including Patrick Henry, one of the founding fathers lived on Red Hill, a property around 10 min from Nisani Farm (Give me liberty or give me death!). Appomattox Courthouse, only 30 min away from the farm was where Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S Grant, ending the civil war in 1865.

Charlotte county was known for antebellum homes and a large slave population to cultivate millions of pounds of mainly tobacco, which Charlotte County produced more than twice as many bushels of corn, wheat and oats. From 1790-1830 the total population in Charlotte County doubled yet the white population stayed the same. The slave population however doubled from 4,816 to 9,433 leaving a 2:1 ratio of slaves to whites (Priddy 29, As cited in the Historic Architectural Survey of Charlotte County Virginia).

After learning all of this information I was curious about exactly what Nisani Farm was used for, or who it was owned by a few hundreds of years ago.

I found two different maps using the Library of Congress, both from 1865. To find who owned the farm during that period I referenced google maps and the designated border of Charlotte County as well as several landmarks. I specifically used the landmark of Cub Creek which appeared on every map making it easy to spot the general area that the farm resides. According to the first map, Maj Pendelborn was the owner of the property although the writing was incredibly hard to read and the google search turned up nothing. 

First map of Charlotte County, Virginia
First map of Charlotte County, Virginia

The second map published in the 1860’s named Gaines’ as the owner of the property. When googling him it turns out Maj William Gaines could be who the first map was talking about. It was difficult finding a reputable source but from what I found Major Gaines was a wealthy plantation owner who owned at least a hundred slaves. I also was able to see that he sent two letters in 1863 about Charlotte County Virginia yet was unable to get access to the letter so that I could read them.

“Letter, 17 July 1863, from R. J. Gaines of Charlotte County to Sallie [Sarah] Gaines regarding her living near the enemy and the losses Confederate armies have suffered.

Letter, 1 September 1863, from R. J. Gaines to William Gaines informing William that there is a place for rent in Charlotte County and providing some family news”

Second map of Charlotte County, Virginia
Second map of Charlotte County, Virginia

I was afraid to start delving into the history of the farm, not sure how I would feel when I found out for sure that our property was owned by a slave holder, which is in fact was. Instead of feeling sad, I feel proud of what this land has become. A black, woman-owned farm where we find preservation of nature and sustainability important is a drastically good change from what the property was used for before. I am excited to do more research about the Gaines family and the slaves he owned so as to possibly track descendants.

  • Bennett, Karen M. “Maj William C. Gaines (1767-1850) – Find A Grave…” Find a Grave, 9 Aug. 2013, www.findagrave.com/memorial/115174744/william-c_-gaines#source. 
  • Hotchkiss, Jedediah. “Map of Charlotte County, Virginia.” Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C, 186AD, www.loc.gov/resource/g3883c.cwh00289/. 
  • Cassell, Charles, et al. “Map of Charlotte County, Va.” Library of Congress, Virginia : Chief Engineer’s Office D.N.V., 1864. Cadastral Maps, hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3883c.la001236. 
  • History.com Editors. “Battle of Appomattox Court House.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 9 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/appomattox-court-house. 
  • Blanton, Alison, et al. “HISTORIC ARCHITECTURAL SURVEY OF CHARLOTTE COUNTY, VIRGINIA.” Charlotte County, June 1998, pp. 1–161., www.charlotteva.com/pdfs/historic_survey.pdf. 

What Goes on at Night

2/21/2021

When city people come to visit Nisani Farm the first thing they notice is the lack of human and machine sounds they are used to. We have human and machine made sounds too, but they are sounds of a different kind. We have gunshots, lumber trucks, chainsaws, and hunting dogs instead of crying babies, dogs barking, sirens, and noisy cars. City folks usually comment on how quiet it is, not able to yet notice the almost deafening amount of natural noises going on, only starting to notice them during the middle of the night. They then suddenly realize how boisterous and raucous the sounds are, preventing their peaceful slumber.

Although more peaceful than the summer and spring, the night time noises during the fall and winter are usually more melodious, consisting of coyotes yipping and howling as one rowdy pack, and  owls calling out in their deep ling tones.

During the spring and summer however, the night noises are deafeningly loud. Choruses of spring peepers croak, sheep toads bleet, katydids and other orthoptera make their presences known throughout the fields, wipo-rwhils sing their shrill song throughout the night, and my least favorite: the juvenile male mockingbird who calls for mates. The farm during the spring and summer is not for light sleepers.

Although maybe not the most preferable place to sleep, the opportunity to observe nocturnal creatures  living their lives while most things sleep is abundant. Even our guests who decide to give up on sleeping and instead try to read using the light of a flashlight or lamp will quickly realize the diversity of insects at the farm. The insects are attracted to the light and start to swarm to every possible surface if they were unfortunate enough to leave the window open. Even with the screens on the windows, tiny green leafhoppers crawl through the screen and decide to feast on you. There is dispute in the entomology community on whether these leafhoppers are even able to bite, but I can assure that they can indeed take a chunk out of your skin while you are reading a book. If I could only let them know just how much I am not a plant. Let’s say you were smart enough to keep the window closed, you will still have an entomologists collection worth of moths batting at your face and Periplaneta americana  or American Cockroaches wanting to read your book too. Everyone who visits during these seasons quickly learns to turn off lights once it gets dark and go to bed early.

As I write these blog posts I will describe just how miserable the farm can be because of the creatures who inhabit it, but I assure you, it is all worth it, as there is more good than misery.

During the late summer this past year I was fortunate enough to step outside to view the stars. The farm is in an area known for its breathtakingly clear skies where you can gaze at the milky way, planets, shooting stars, meteorites, and connect as many constellations as your heart desires. But on this particular day I wasn’t concerned with the stars in the sky, but the stars on the ground. Although not true stars, they looked just like them. The stars are larvae of at least three different kinds of fireflies found on the farm. They glowed a dull green in the grass as they traveled to wherever they wanted to go. If you aren’t familiar with firefly larvae they look more like aliens than something that becomes the nostalgic lightning bugs you probably know from your childhood. They are scaly and brown, moving a little bit like a machine as each segment of their body adjusts to each movement. These remarkably creepy and drab larvae have the power of bioluminescence making them much more interesting than you would think.

A scaly firefly larvae hidden in the greenery
A scaly firefly larvae hidden in the greenery

Some summers I set my alarm late at night just to check on the outdoor light I left on. I have discovered the amazing diversity of Lepidoptera, Hymenoptera, Diptera, Coleoptera and Mecoptera from one porch light. I look out for giant silk moths, or shiny scarab beetles, each night being a fun surprise, the toad that I call Dexter the Deck Toad keeping me company on long nights. Both Dexter and I, looking for bugs. Take some time to figure out what goes on at night outside, there’s another whole world out there.

Dexter the Deck Toad (American Toad) with a moth
Dexter the Deck Toad (American Toad) with a moth

Nisani Farm

Background

Although officially named Nisani Farm, I simply think of it as The Farm. It is a mostly sustainable, Certified Naturally Grown vegetable farm located in a small town in Southern Virginia called Phenix, population of 284.

With 50 historical acres including indigenous history and colonial history that is centuries old, I plan on uncovering some of the mysteries that the farm holds.

When I was eight, my once peace-corps volunteer parents decided to by a rundown “fixer-upper” of a property. This property contained an unlivable farm house, two tobacco drying barns, a pig-stye, chicken coup and three sheds, most of which were built using trees from our property. We ended up spending every single weekend at the farm, driving the 6 hours from the DC area where my sister and I went to school and my parents worked, every Friday night and Sunday morning so that we could create a livable space. This commute lasted for over a decade.

A foggy green spring day at the Farm looking out to an old Tobacco drying barn covered in vines
A foggy green spring day at the Farm looking out to an old Tobacco drying barn covered in vines

We have 30 acres of forest and 20 acres of pasture which we let go “wild” for pollinators. The fields change color throughout the year as new wildflowers come in waves, moving from wild Sweet Peas and green grasses to Black-Eyed Susan’s, and Queen-Anne’s lace, to Goldenrod and yellow Johnson grass. The natural portions of the farm were how I entertained myself as a child and well into my teens and 20’s, trying to learn every plant, insects, fungi, constellation, tree, and animal that I could. I truly immersed myself into this ecosystem every weekend, away from cell service or the internet, only the gardens, the forest, the creeks, the bugs, and books to entertain me.

This past year I spent isolated at the farm, and for the first time I was able to see the progression of the seasons and how the organisms changed from one week to the next.

It is my paradise, a place that I can escape to without many distractions, with endless discovery still to do.

My habitation journal will be on Nisani farm and the two properties surrounding our property, specifically the wetlands up to Cub creek and the poorhouse.

The forests are my escape. In the spring they erupt green from every place I look: Arisaema triphyllum or Jack in the Pulpit nestle close to the ground, displaying drab pitcher shaped flowers that attract flies for pollination, or Oak Galls growing from the stems of large oak trees like large walnuts, letting a cynipoid wasp incubate within that scar of a tree.

Walnut-like Oak Galls
Walnut-like Oak Galls

 These little treasures I find, I collect in the form of photos and knowledge. Researching the intricate and complex system of Oak Galls and learning about their similarities to human embryos, or the evolutionary tactics Arisaema triphyllum use to reproduce. This Is how I connect with my environment, by coming to as much of a scientific understanding that I can for as many things as I can, as if the forest and I share these secrets together.

These secrets I hold dear to my heart, and I search for these treasures like a Bess Beetle searches for the perfectly rotting log.