Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Contemplations on Farming and Ecology
from Horseback

Bondrup-Nielsen got his first horse at the age of 11. He was living in Denmark then, and was taught to ride by a woman whose barn was cleaner than her home. At 13 he came to Canada and now, several horses later, lives in rural Nova Scotia at the north end of the Annapolis Valley.

It's the perfect setting for a day-long ride.

There are orchards and vineyards and fields of vegetables, patches of forest and salt marsh, dykes and tidal rivers, sandy beaches and crumbling cliffs, and a sizeable basalt ridge that separates Annapolis Valley from Fundy's cobbled shore.

He visits them all and, endlessly curious, muses about nature, farming, riding, and the idiosyncrasies of his horse, Bucephalus. He recalls the excitement of a simulated fox hunt, and remembers that horses in the past wore wooden clogs while working on the dykelands.

Being mounted contributes an extra set of eyes for spotting wildlife and also provides a useful metaphor. A good rider becomes one with a horse, each responding to the other's subtle changes of body position. "To me the relationship with a horse is one of symbiosis. Should it not be so with all relationships?"

That's not the case with large-scale industrial farming, whose practices are damaging soil that took thousands of years to create. Irrigation, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, the destruction of farmland for development (after which it can never be restored), the buying practices of large grocery chains -- all are contributing to the problem.

Our infatuation with economies of scale brings forth this observation from the author:

The most depressing picture I know of is not one of giant smoke stacks pumping out pollution, of extensive clearcutting in the Amazon basin or of urban sprawl, but rather a photograph of a small shorebird, a stilt, trying desperately to incubate an egg much larger than itself.

Yet the tone throughout is genial, not hectoring, and the book itself is a beautiful artifact with thick creamy pages, original pencil drawings, and a textured handprinted dust jacket.

There's interesting trivia -- earthworms are not native to North America, mammary glands are modified sweat glands, oxygen in 3 out of 4 breaths comes from oceans.

And unusual characters -- a Hungarian hussar, a farmer with brass knuckles in his pocket, an orchardist who controls the grass beneath trees by rolling around on it.

And, best of all, examples of successful strategies used by Valley farmers -- going organic, adding value (eg turning apples into cider), bypassing large grocery chains to sell directly to consumers at local markets. "Eat local" is a frequently heard rallying cry.

The disconnect between an urbanized population on the one hand, and nature and agriculture on the other, was underlined at the book launch last week when a teacher in the audience related an anecdote: a student on learning that milk comes from udders vowed never to drink it again.

Soil is irreplaceable. Farmers too.

Think about it.

Author's website

         Back cover                    Without the dust jacket