Just a Brush Pile by Jackie Spurlin


Four Farthings for Feathered Friends

Jackie J.

Let me tell you about my business partners and the relationship we have built.  It is actually the result of a very organized process that begins with a hand saw each and every year in early October, and ensues in my backyard food forest with the impending change of the seasons.  Einstein said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”   I have created my own world in my back yard through many years of laborious changes in thought.

I prune early

My tongue in cheek advice to all fellow fruit tree pruners is, “it all starts with a stick and out with the loppers.”  These early spent branches play the most important part of what becomes the open concept semi-fortified domicile for my little back yard flying friends. Sparrows, chickadees, and the occasional dove appreciate the arrangement we have, I know this to be true because I have asked them.  They also know they play the most important part of my greater system: the Jackie J. closed loop back yard food forest system. You see, this progression is a four-stage technique and timing is crucial.  I follow the seasons.

So how does it work?

Autumn: Trim the Limb

In early autumn, I cut and pile the brush which will be home to seventy-five of my perfect pals. This early endeavor goes against every fruit tree pruning expert on the face of the planet’s golden rule. As they will loudly proclaim, true tree dormancy doesn’t take place until January, which in short means, don’t trim until January.  I don’t listen to the experts on when to trim.  It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s just that it doesn’t match my timeline.  Cold birds looking for shelter don’t understand a “vacancy soon sign.” That being said, out with the loppers.

Winter: Hide inside

Before I can even finish the trimming and building, birds move in. Now relinquishing their summer homes in the trees, which were heavily protected by nature’s seasonal greenery.  Through the years of perfecting my system, I’ve come to this scientific conclusion, “birds do what birds do.” Their establishing residency in a pile of sticks comes with a certain natural degree of humor.  This feathered fracas becomes even more evident and amusing on my intermittent broach of the pile to observe the winged chaos dart out like chaff to the wind.

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Spring: Ash is cash

Eviction notices are served.  When the timing is right, I slow-burn the pile to ash and bio char with the incorporated flying friend’s droppings and I spread it all around the base of my trees.  In true gardeners’ language this byproduct is what we like to call, Gold.  There are 62 fruit trees and bushes on my mammoth 1/10th of an acre homestead and everybody gets to share in the gold of any practice I have incorporated into my food forest.  This one is head and shoulders above the rest.  I would put up my tiny beyond organic urban farm’s yield against any other farm’s return per square foot.

Summer: Swipe the Ripe

Literally, I begin to enjoy the fruits of our my labor, collect the largest, freshest, and most wonderful summer fruits, nuts, and berries that I took a part in growing.  The freezing, canning, and eating commence and when that is finished I rest.  It’s an equitable distribution, they get theirs and I get mine.  No man or bird is above the system.  Figuratively of course.

So what happens then?

Well, it starts again, the inevitable cycle repeats with my cutting of the limbs.  I always try to put it in the proper context of explaining that it is not my system, but rather a system I play an active part in.   This is not my gift to nature, rather it is a clear agreement.   I don’t treat the sticks as a bequest, but instead a barter. We trade for both goods and services. It’s really quite interdependent. I give them protection and they give me produce.  I then give them produce in which they are protecting.  It’s so close to perfect.  If only I could get them to pick and preserve.  I am working on it.  

There is one more little double dividend.  I get the pleasure of watching them through the long cold gray sky days, and my little friends also get the pleasure of watching me. I know they watch, because yet again, I asked them.   As I stare at my yard, there becomes a common respect of the process and a mutual understanding and appreciation of the fact that indeed what starts with a stick does in fact become so much more than just a brush pile.


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Jackie J. Spurlin, is a Criminal Justice professor in Joplin at Missouri Southern State University.  He is a master gardener and aspiring master naturalist.  This year he has launched the nonprofit P.L.A.N.T. (permaculture learning and naturalist teaching) in SW Missouri which introduces children into the plant once harvest forever concept.  He can be reached via email Spurlin-jj@mssu.edu.





Posted on March 5, 2018 .