The story of Ravensfield begins with the European settlement of this area in the 1840s and 50s. The rocky Canadian Shield soil was forest-covered: white pine, oak, maple. For the immigrants trying to establish a farm, the mighty trees were a serious problem: they needed cleared land, and the easiest way they knew to deal with the forest was to set fire to it.
This style of agriculture has been practiced since antiquity. From a present day perspective, the ecological cost to the ecosystem is far too great to justify it. But settlers were desperate for food and unable to adapt quickly from the version of agriculture they had known in Europe. So the forest fires in Lanark County burned, some literally for years.
A forgiveness is needed here. As humans we are able to act quickly and have immense impact on ecosystems. Our brains, much as we think so highly of them, seem less capable of foreseeing the consequences of our actions, and our hearts are not always large enough to care about the bigger picture, or the future, or other humans, present and future, or other species.
The settlers soon learned that the soil under the oaks was thin. Rock close to the surface, crops that grew well only for a few years and thereafter dwindled as the soil nutrients were used up. Yet the human imperative continued: a farm of 100 acres was expected to have 12 cows (plus offspring) if the farmer was to be respected in society.
Rain doesn’t come easily to this country, and grass doesn’t grow well. In harder years, cattle were set loose in the bush to find sustenance. Earth was compacted, tree roots damaged by their hooves, trees stripped of leaves and branches so they could not survive: this all led toward desertification. Before the land could recover from the burning of the forest, the dry decade of the 1930s came, and delivered another blow to this land. At this point, farming was in decline, people moved away, and the land had a chance to come back. But by the 1970s, another dry time, farmers who still had cows were busy renting pasturage on disused farms such as this one. Not only did they not have anything to lose by overgrazing the land, it also happened that the 1970s were another very dry decade.
I bought this property in 1981. 200 acres in a long rectangle stretching from east to west. “Time was,” I was once told, “when you could see every part of this place from anywhere you stood on it.” This is a testament as to how far desertification had come to Ravensfield: from a mature forest with trees towering over 100 feet, to land so barren you could see 200 acres without anything to block your view.
I named the place Ravensfield. For some of the native peoples, Raven was the creator and also the trickster. He brought the gifts to the People: food, and a habitat rich in resources to make life easy. But if the people were not good stewards of those gifts, Raven, as trickster, would steal them away again. Raven reminds us that the land is never our own. We live with the land for a short time only, and our first responsibility is tend it in such a way that we honor its integrity and safeguard it for the future.
By 1990, a small barn was built for animals, and a biodynamically run garden that eventually reached a size of 1 1/2 acres was started. A livelihood was assured. The animals were chosen for their contribution to soil redevelopment. Pigs metabolize their food in such a way as to bring iron in the soil back into a living form, which can readily circulate through the food chain. The life processes of chickens can work magic to produce a form of calcium which is very biologically active. Plants likewise were chosen to help conserve and enhance the soil; vegetables are labour intensive but ultimately easier on the soil, so they have come first. The garden was put onto the most run-down field and has reached a level of productivity and soil development that makes me smile.
Perhaps most importantly, the forest has regenerated. It has grown 30 years without significant cutting or trampling or overgrazing, and completely reversed the damage reinstated the forest soil ecology. The upland portion of the property, which I left untouched for so long, can finally be developed into pasture areas, with significant fence-rows left to avoid earlier human errors.
The movement of water has also been improved. In 2004-5, a very large dredging project was taken to re-dredge the creek channel as it runs through the east west axis of the farm. The water runs clear again, and 6 ponds have been added for water species. Geese, otter, ducks, etc are all in evidence, and we are assured a sufficient water supply without having to tap into deep well water. 35 acres of lowland fields are returning to a usable state. They represent the future for the farm, which at present cannot yet supply itself with hay and grain for the animals.
When people support this farm by buying produce and meat, this is what they are supporting. This is not a simple “business” trying to “make money”. It is an effort to find, and live, a new model of agricultural sustainability. It is a striving for respect for the natural world, and that respect carries over into a respect for the sacredness of food, with efforts to provide people with the most nutritious food, so they themselves will be inspired to live lives of extraordinary beauty.