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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Stumping for spring

Though it may seem like our dark and dreary winter will never end, there are rumors of spring in the air.
While bird-watching between rain squalls I thought I saw the smallest bird ever. It turned out to be a mosquito the size of a small bird.
It was a good sign that bug season could not be far off.
Then I observed the first green shoots of the budding Indian plum blossom. That's all it took to get my gardening juices flowing.
Gardening may be a polite term for my primitive methods.  It's a practice anthropologists call slash and burn agriculture. It was called “stump ranching” here. 
In the early years of our history, the forests were considered an inexhaustible obstacle to farming. You might start out gardening with a raw piece of land after the loggers got done with it.
All you had left was a crop of stumps and roots too thick to run a plow through. You could plant between the stumps but they had to go. Techniques for getting rid of the stumps were as varied as the stump ranchers themselves.
I learned from the best.
There was the hog method of stump clearing where you drilled in and around the stumps and poured molasses in the holes. The hogs would root out the stumps to get the molasses. It could take a lot of time and molasses to get your land cleared. 
It's a lot faster but more dangerous to pull the stumps out by mechanical means. In the old days there were horse powered stump pullers. You rigged the team to a contraption of cables and pulleys that could bust loose at any time with tragic consequences for the horses.
It was faster and even more dangerous to blast the stumps.
As luck would have it one of my old stump ranching buddies was a powder monkey. What would be classified as a terrorist threat in the political correctness of our age was considered a helpful neighbor back then.
Still, blasting stumps with dynamite had its challenges. It took a strong nerve to approach a charge that failed to go off for whatever reason.
Waiting for dynamite to go off was not a job you wanted to rush but it was all worthwhile when you achieved ignition and the stump was launched to the heavens. Facing a shortage of hogs, molasses, horses, cable and dynamite I was left to dig and burn the stumps out. 
Unfortunately, I've never been able to find a shovel that fit my hand. 
I only averaged about one stump per year. Then it was time to turn the soil. This proved difficult since the remaining soil was mostly rock.
The powder monkey suggested setting off a series of small, quarter stick charges under a covering of heavy mill canvas that would loosen the rocks and hold whatever soil was left after the blast. Lacking the nerve for gardening with dynamite, I dug the rocks out by hand until there was only a solid layer of clay where the stumps had been. I had to make the soil.
I covered the garden with a layer of spawned out salmon, seaweed and silt.
There's another practice you could be arrested for these days even if you could find enough spawned out salmon to do the job. Unfortunately, most of my stump ranching tips were from gardeners who did their farming early in the last century.
Gardening has changed a lot since then.
Still when I see that first mosquito I get an overwhelming urge to set a stump on fire.

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