Our farm scene and our farm, seen

The countryside around our 80-acre farm has tidied up considerably over the last decade. Wild chicory and teasel once nodded over local lanes now bordered with nursery flowers carefully spaced by new homeowners and gardeners.

One after another, hayfields and overgrown pastures have turned into lush green lawns and cultivated gardens. While the visual effect is trimmer, even pleasing in its way, the change jars us a bit.

Driving the tractor, baler, and wagon down the road to put up hay today (Charlie drove, I rode fender, one of my favorite modes of transport), we took in the neatly prosperous lay of the built-up acreage en route.

"Everything's so groomed," Charlie sighed. "There's nowhere to hide."

I knew that he was thinking of the area's wildlife. Deer and their fawns, hen turkeys with their new broods of chicks, coyotes, foxes, songbirds, rodents, insects - their survival depends on hunkering down in some unkempt tangle of brush or amid tall, concealing weeds to feed, breed, and raise their young.

Oases of old habitat still exist in between the new estates, but competition for them is growing keen as old farms are divided up and developed. Admittedly, we've driven wildlife out of their homes ourselves in order to cut and cure meadow grasses into hay to winter our livestock.

But our modest-size farm remains intact, and hayfields grow back. With planning and care we can work around the critical nesting and nurturing needs of resident wild populations. Once a hayfield turns to lawn, however, ecologies shift permanently, and it is all happening far too quickly for us.

OK, we have a lawn, too, but it is a mere patch of mixed grass and tenacious weeds languishing between our bungalow style farmhouse and the road. Presumably it originated with the house (in 1913). It is still attractive to the kinds of wildlife farmyards hosted back then, including moles and the occasional black snake, neither of which seem welcome in newer front yards.

Unmowed and host to one flower species (a scattering of tenacious daffodils), it probably strikes terror in the hearts of dedicated landscapers.

A huge sugar maple provides just the right shade for hostas, ivy, and other sun-shy, eye-pleasing ground cover, but the base of the tree hosts only an apron of cool, dry dirt, soft as talc.

In his younger years, my son brought his toy trucks and soldiers here, patted the dirt into ramps and mountains, scooped out battle entrenchments, and generally gloried in the stuff.

These days, the terrain is managed by our poultry flock; I've watched many a hen rustle down for a rest and dust bath, one wing fanning the powder, the other cushioning her side, her claws making perfunctory efforts to scratch a few millimeters deeper into her bliss. Such reveries are interrupted only by the dogs moving in with similar plans.

In the face of such multiple contentments, how could we ever think of planting the area simply to pretty it up?

Out beyond the maple's canopy, in the full or dappled sun (under the persimmons), whatever decides to grow is left to prosper or yield to whatever grass or weed will. The dogs roll on their backs in the roughage, the hens peck for seeds and insects, and the nanny goat grazes.

Meanwhile, below the scene, moles tunnel to their hearts' content, pushing up their signature sinuous ridges. The resulting yardscape is not for everyone, but it pleases us and ours.

We rarely worry what people make of our unkempt lawn, partly because it is well-hidden from the road by a stand of white pines and oaks - our privacy hedge against increasing volumes of traffic.

The green screen now completely blocks what once served as a sidewalk from the road to the porch steps (visitors without machetes must use the driveway). What remains of the stone walk serves little purpose other than to store warmth on cool sunny days - as the hens and dogs have long since discovered.

The drive lies between two towering trees- a walnut and a tulip poplar - whose combined canopies amply shade the road.

Our rural postman reaches from his truck to our mailbox through lower layers of foliage that all but engulf his vehicle. To collect our letters, we duck under the greenery and push aside the fragrant needled branches of the pines. Not that we mind, especially for real letters.

An unkind take on all this might be: "These folks have really let the place go!" and I expect that thought has crossed the minds of some commuters. What we have done is to let it be - out of preference, not sloth.

Heading back from an errand in town one day, Charlie and I realized close to home that we'd forgotten something we needed. Rather than drive back into town, we continued down the road to a country store nearby.

And so we passed the half-hidden drive, the walnuts, poplar, and pines at road speed - experiencing the farm as a commuter might.

There was a blur of green, a burst of birdsong, one brief glimpse of a grazing goat and scratching hens, the deep, rustling exhalation from the canopy of leaves, a hint of resin.

Charlie glanced at me. "Seems like a nice place to stop in."

"Let's," I answered. Coming back, we did just that.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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