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The Sounds of Nature

COVID-19 gave me something I thought I’d never witness while standing on Elmwood Stock Farm: the sounds of nature, no man-made noise of any kind. With the sound of commerce coming to a halt a few months ago, I had the unimaginable opportunity to hear the hum of insects, cows ruminating, songbirds awakening with first light. All at the same time. 

With Hwy 460 bisecting the property and I-75 a mile away as a crow flies, with historic Georgetown and the monstrous Toyota plant just beyond, there has always been background noise out here. Always, until now.

Cows camp out in clusters for security in numbers. They lay down and rest peacefully but are always aware of their surroundings and—having ruminant stomachs, not monogastric—actively chewing their cud. (Their cud is a wad of plant leaves they gorged on to further masticate and fully extract the nutrients and fiber over the next several hours.) Unlike cats and dogs, it’s not a lights-out dead sleep. When all is quiet, a herd of Angus cows, camped out at daybreak, eyes closed, gently breathing with random grunts, gurgles, coughs and moans, brings comfort. These cows are the foundation of Elmwood Stock Farm’s regenerative farming program. To be able to hear the subtle sounds of a herd, not just an individual, was phenomenal. 

The high-pitched, sometimes screeching sounds of thousands or millions of tiny insects announcing themselves to lure mates or chum in food is easily lost in the sound-pollution of prosperity. On these very quiet early mornings, especially weekends, I am hearing various voices from the magnificent insect world. I almost have to stop, close my eyes and train my ear to hear what is actually being said. The shift from nighttime creatures to daytime creatures is almost undetectable and speaks to the biodiversity on the farm. Even bugs need to rest, I guess.

Approaching the blackberry and raspberry arbor, I hear the piercingly concentrated, high-pitched noise of the tree frogs that have colonized this microclimate. The brambles provide shade in the summer and supper, to boot. If I slowly amble between two rows, the noise silences as I approach, then starts back up behind me as I move on. I am no real threat to them, since they are almost impossible to find, even in broad daylight. They seem to go dormant in hot-dry weather yet have been with us for the who-knows-how-many reproductive cycles they have been through since toxic chemicals stopped being applied to this land.

A rooster’s crow is easily distinguished, of course. It’s the quiet cooing coming from the mobile hen houses that brings solace. Laying hens do seem to sleep at night, which is good since they can’t see squat in the dark. Their roosting instinct takes them to the same place in their mobile shelter each evening. If I, or a racoon or owl, were to grab one in the night, the chickens on either side would sit still, hoping to go unnoticed. That’s why we spend countless hours setting up and moving intricate electric netting and contraptions to keep the predators from accessing the birds. The old saying ‘up with the chickens,’ meaning getting up early, is accurate. I think evolution has not caught up with sustainable chicken-farming practices, as the birds come out before daylight, when predators are still active. We have all manner of methods to protect the chickens from their own behavior—another reason our eggs cost more than store bought.

Song birds also get going at first light, almost as if they have been waiting for a while to get started. This spring, as the new wildbird arrivals return from their southern sojourn, it was easier to pick out their calls among those that overwinter here. Seventy-some-odd species of birds have been spotted out here on the banks of the Elkhorn, with a few others only being heard and not officially counted until visually verified. Once the birds get cranked up as dawn progresses, I can hear a dozen or more from any one spot at any one time. It’s awesome.

The volley of red-eye flights from the West Coast travelling to the northeast corridor that pass overhead around 5 each morning completely stopped for a while, yet I saw a few this past week. Do those people really need to be going back and forth so much? Toyota closed for several weeks, meaning all the just-in-time delivery trucks were not running, yet they, too, have begun to roll. With schools out, hundreds fewer cars roll through the farm on 460. What a difference that has made. Apparently, satellite imagery is documenting the lessened impact of us moving around less. 

If we each do our part by consuming locally produced, organic foods, taking all the trucks off the road that haul industrially grown meat produce from afar, the world might be a little better for it. And we can better hear what Mother Nature is trying to tell us. —Mac Stone

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