Painting and planting

Chagall's chicken, Cincinatti Museum of Art

I want to be a farmer, but my wife is not on board with this. When I tell her I would be quite happy to start farming in a modest way—let’s say by growing a crop in our back yard and by purchasing two chickens to eat all of our table scraps and produce free eggs, as well as provide us with all the fertilizer we would need for our tomatoes and lettuce—Nancy does something with her face which I believe they call the evil eye in Italy, where her grandmother was born. I’ve been reading a wonderful book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal, by Joel Salatin, a man who farms in the Shenandoah Valley, and who has appeared as a colorful spokesman for genuine organic farming (not the Whole Foods kind of organic, but real organic, he likes to point out), in documentaries such as Food Inc. He wishes everyone would buy a couple chickens. Live chickens.

In a speech a few years ago, Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, praised Salatin by calling him what Salatin calls himself: a grass farmer. Pollan offered his audience a great summary of what Salatin has built at Polyface Farms, which is essentially a natural topsoil factory. Salatin’s self-contained ecosystem produces beef, pork, poultry, rabbits and—his most valuable product—topsoil. He does nothing to create topsoil other than feed his animals. He fences off a paddock of grass, lets his cows graze on it until it’s been mown down, then, a couple days later—long enough for maggots to form in the manure but before they hatch into flies—he sets his chickens loose in the same paddock, and they eat all the maggots. In the process they add their own fertilizer to the soil as well as breaking up the manure into bits that will dissolve and feed the grass. Because the grass has been eaten down, it sheds roots, to equalize the ratio of “root to shoot,” and the dead roots are then broken down into compost by worms, insects, bacteria, viruses, fungus, all the varied life forms in the ground itself. As a result, the soil becomes richer and richer, with each passing season. The grass is his topsoil factory, fed by nothing but the waste from the cows and chickens.

All of this reminds me of painting.

Salatin always looks for ways to get two or three results from one action. It’s something that operates in a great painting: each element works in various ways as part of a whole image. Any particular line, or form, or color, has its own interest and quality, its own sense of unity, but it’s also integrated into a larger system, a bigger picture. Either as a color element in relation to other colors or in the shape it offers on the surface, or in the way lines both define a given form, in and of itself, and yet seem to complete or extend other lines related to other forms. When Salatin takes his Eggmobile (which Pollan describes as a kind of prairie schooner full of chickens) out into a paddock where the cows have grazed, they aren’t just being fed, they’re also:

1) controlling the fly population by consuming the maggots.

2) fertilizing the soil with their own waste.

3) surviving without anyone needing to provide anything but what’s already there.

Salatin does only one thing: move the animals from one place to another. He tows them or herds them  into the paddock and sets them loose. Then he moves them back into their pens. That’s the extent of his intervention. In the end: grass. Big grass. A crop that would tower over your head if he let it grow, grass you could get lost in, grass that is steadily rebuilding the depleted topsoil in his valley.

I’ve been a gardener for many years, and all this time, I’ve been reminded of painting as I plant and cut and prune and feed. It’s a constant process all through the warmer months of looking and modifying what’s there, making little adjustments, starting something completely new, tossing out what isn’t working. To grow plants you need to keep adjusting and improving what’s already been done as you watch something come into view, exactly the way the image in a painting emerges. Painting or planting, you’re growing something. You’re making little adjustments that slowly enable an image to emerge, the way it happens in the garden, except that it takes less effort to grow lettuce: it emerges on its own, with very little effort, compared to what it takes to create an image of it. Either way, though, it feels as if you’re tending something with a life of its own. And, when it’s going really well, a painting seems to happen effortlessly–the way a plant produces fruit or a flower–in ways you don’t entirely expect. You’re always a little surprised by how things turn out.

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