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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Our writer makes a winter trip to Aleksandra and Mieczysław Babalski’s organic farm in the north ...
2020-01-12 09:00:00

Fields of Good Energy
The Life of Soil in Winter

Fields of Good Energy

When the Babalskis’ fields are covered by a featherbed of snow, and the land underneath it is hard as rock, the life of the soil sleeps, and can rest easy until spring. But recently the winters have been warmer and warmer. And the soil really doesn’t like that.

Read in 6 minutes

“The balance gets disturbed,” Farmer Mieczysław explains to me. “I remember how we used to get two to three metres of snow and Pokrzydowo was completely buried. Fortunately everybody had horses, and we’d get around on sleighs. But since the end of the 80s, the winters have been getting milder. Now it can even happen that the ground doesn’t freeze. The weeds germinate, in the spring there’s more diseases, pests; there’s no frost to regulate it. The vegetation is disturbed. That’s the same reason why you can’t touch the soil in the winter. There’s a saying: ‘Who the earth in winter tears, his ground will be ill for seven years.’ Tear it, meaning ploughing it.”

“But Advent ends in December, and the winter’s still going on!”

“Gardeners plant and sow in plastic tents in late January or early February. We don’t sow grains until Holy Week.”

“How do the trees in the orchard cope with these mild winters?”

“During the day they thaw, and at night they freeze, and then their bark cracks. That’s why we paint the trunks with white lime, which reflects the sun’s rays and protects them against thawing.”

“When exactly does winter begin on your farm?”

“Already in November. The fields are cleared, the winter grains are sown, like they should be. The grazing ends, the cows go back home. The first thing is: you have to protect the place where the fruits and vegetables are stored, so they won’t freeze. We have a storeroom near the cowshed. The best temperature is from 1° to 10°C. Warmer and it stimulates the vegetables to sprout, and they start to rot. In the cowshed and the chicken coop you have to plug the ventilation holes with straw. Some people use polyurethane foam on their coops, and on top they put a layer of cement. But if somebody knocks it around and it crumbles, the chickens will start pecking at it right away – they think it’s calcium, and when they eat it, their eggs will have thicker shells. They get fooled.”

“Poor things… Did you used to do that?”

“No. But it’s happened that a piece of foam falls into the run. All the chickens jump on it and it’s gone in a moment.”

“You said the animals come back home. And do they go outside in the winter?”

“Of course. But when the temperature falls below –5°C, the chickens have to stay in the coop. Otherwise they stop laying. It’s encoded in them that the egg can freeze. And the cows don’t like it when wet snow falls – then their skin gets wet and they freeze. On those days, they stay in the cowshed. But otherwise even a deep freeze doesn’t bother them, they have thick coats. They love the sun. I throw straw into the yard for them. They lie down on it and sunbathe.”

“And have you ever heard them talking on Christmas Eve?” I ask, referring to a Polish folk tradition.

“They don’t have to say anything! When you look at an animal, you know everything. When a cow feels bad, she bellows, she has sad eyes, the hairs in her coat stand up. And when everything’s good, her coat gleams, she has bright, shining eyes, she lies calmly and chews. She lives in harmony.”

“What other animals do you have on the farm?”

“Bees. For the winter I change the entrances to the hives, so no pests can get in. When the bees are active, they’d sting it to death right away. But in winter they’re lethargic, so a mouse could handle them. When the temperature falls below 10°C, they start to bunch up in the place where they store nectar. They surround the queen, who has to be kept warm at all times. And they move back and forth – the ones on the inside move out, and the ones on the outside push in. They maintain a constant temperature. Unfortunately, this whole process has been disturbed recently. In the middle of winter the temperature rises above 10°C and the bees wake up. They start to fly out of the hive, clean themselves up.”

“Clean themselves up?”

“There’s no toilets in the hive. They learn to relieve themselves while flying. During the lethargy they don’t have to, because their metabolisms are slowed.”

“What happens next?”

“They think it’s spring. They eat more reserves of honey and they fly out to find some kind of materials, like hazel pollen. They wake up the mother, so she starts to lay eggs. And then the frost suddenly comes back and they don’t manage to form into a ball, to warm up. Then the queen and the young larvae die.”

“Does that happen often?”

“If two or three hives go, that’s bad enough. But half of them? And that happens...”

“What other work do you have to do in the winter?”

“At the end of February we start to prune the trees in the orchard. We don’t shape them like we used to. Now we train them upwards, they have to be cylindrical. That’s why it’s best to cut off one big branch, so the apple tree will renew itself. If we didn’t cut off anything, it would have too many branches and leaves – it would go wild and give small little apples. If the wound after cutting off a branch is up to the size of a two-złoty coin, it will scar over itself. But more than two złotys and we smear it with clay mixed with emulsion paint. We didn’t used to have emulsions; we’d mix the clay with cow dung and add some kind of edible oil. Because the wound needs to scar up. Otherwise water gets inside and the tree will rot.”

“And do you go out in the fields in winter?”

“From Christmas to Epiphany a farmer should go out in the field, to bring in good energy. We always said that if you want to change something in yourself, this is the time to do it. Because that’s when the shortest days are, and after Epiphany they get longer. And a new life energy begins.”

“And after that you don’t go out?”

“You’re always curious what’s happening out there. For example, whether the mice are too active. Lots of birds fly in from Sweden for the winter, like the fieldfares. They show up in the orchard and eat the apples that are left over after the picking. They sing so beautifully, and run around. I walk around and look. I calm the plants down, I calm myself down. Because you’re so calm and joyful, the plants feel good too, they winter well.”

“And isn’t it gloomy in the fields?”

“It is. But there’s also life! You take in energy, but you also transmit it. That’s why you shouldn’t come here being sad, but joyful.”

“The eye of the master fattens the horse! And what are city folk supposed to do when in a snowless winter the world looks all grey and gloomy?”

“Get out of the city into the woods, hug a birch. Here the spiritual world enters into it too. Because everything that’s alive – people, plants, animals – has a soul, an ether. And everything that breathes and is closed also has a spirit. That’s why when a person is born, we say that with their first breath they’ve caught their spirit. When they die, their spirit has departed. We feel the tree, the tree feels us – it feels all of us who are alive.”

“And what can the soul of a tree give us?”

“Energy! Once every person who walked through a field or a forest chewed on a blade of grass, a twig, a leaf – to grab some energy and enrich their gut flora.”

“But if I go to the forest in winter, what am I going to I chew on?”

“Well, pine or fir needles – they’re very tasty! Don’t swallow them, just chew. Taste a little of this wax, the taste and smell of the essential oils. Why are they called that? From the essence, from what’s alive. What’s most important.”

So I go out. I look around, and I chew.

Illustration by Daniel Mróz (from the archives, no. 448/1953)
Illustration by Daniel Mróz (from the archives, no. 448/1953)


Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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