Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


This Common Ground: Seasons on an Organic Farm by Scott Chaskey


Rating: (Recommended)




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After reading a few pages of Scott Chaskey’s This Common Ground, I was hooked. Chaskey is a poet and the former head farmer of Quail Hill Farm on Long Island in Amagansett, New York. Quail Hill Farm grows food for over two hundred member families in that community who come to the farm and work a few days every week. The land was placed in a trust and when Chaskey started the farm, the land wasn’t very healthy. Under his stewardship and patient guidance, the land has come alive again, and provides organic crops. Here’s an excerpt, from “Summer: A Load of Hay, A Silver Spoon,” pp. 67-70:


With a beekeeper’s quietude he slips into the valley to attend our four hives of honeybees whenever there is a need. We may not be aware of his visits, the bees certainly are. When the frames within the supers are full of honey, Tony, having prepared another box of frames complete with wax foundations, sets another super on top, giving the workers space to move, and space to store more food. Starting in early spring, Tony is at work in and around our farm shop, cleaning boxes and frames, fixing the wax foundation to frames, leveling the sites near the or­chard for each hive. Because of the destructive varroa mite—which, alarmingly, has devastated perhaps 80 percent of the wild bees in this country, and an equal share of managed hives—we have had to replace our hives nearly every spring for several years running. Tony travels to upstate New York, and returns with new queens and colonies. We set them up in their new lodgings, and pray to our dis­tant sun. Worker bees are happy throughout a season blessed with sun—flowers mature over a long period of time, pollen will be plen­tiful, and every day is a working day. In a wet year, however, bees are forced to remain in the hive, unable to gather the dust of flowers, and their need to build a store for winter is frustrated by the fickle weather. According to Tony, our bees have made good use of our helping of bright days.

To keep the Quail Hill bees working into the autumn, we sow buckwheat wherever we can. A member of the Polygonaceae family, buckwheat grows quickly, and comes to flower in just thirty days. Bees and other pollinators adore the white blossoms, which supply pollen for a delicious dark, hearty honey.

Earlier this spring, while observing our hives, I was surprised by a stream of bees winging over my head, to the north of the bee yard. Worker bees are usually quite predictable; they enter and exit by the front door (if a crack ap­pears in the box, they will also be happy to enter by a side door, or a back door). As my eye followed the flight of a single bee—ah, look, in the wild cherry, a swarm!—it was my luck to be in the right spot to discover a recent exodus, by the queen and her attendants, and a crowd of workers, from one of our hives. They were parked for a short time, fastened to a small branch, a mere three feet from the ground as scouts searched surrounding forest and field for a more proper home. A portion of the population of an ac­tive hive may choose to swarm, to follow the queen and abandon the present home, for any number of reasons. Douglas Whynott de­scribes swarming as “a form of group reproduction, or colony divi­sion, like a cell dividing.” When bees depart they collect on a nearby branch or sapling or sunflower stem, where they build a little tem­porary cosmos around the queen.

The first swarm I “rescued” (the terminology reflects a certain hubris) was rather precariously balanced on a tangle of grasses that was precariously balanced on a windy rock headland above Mount’s Bay, Cornwall. The bees nearly leapt into the cardboard box I held beneath them. Likewise, this swarm, a triangular mass half hidden in the small wild cherry, was a gift to a beekeeper. I called Tony im­mediately, and he was at the scene within minutes (good speed for an eighty-year-old). It is wise to act with speed—the scout workers are eager to bring to their queen news of a choice new home. When she receives such news there is no delay—off they go to construct the new hive in the chosen habitat.

We readied a box, complete with ten frames fitted with wax foundations, and slid the box under the branch heavy with bees; then Tony unceremoniously shook the cherry tree. A triangular fist of bees landed with emphasis on the frames, and the air was a cy­clone of flying insect bodies. Yet, within minutes most of the swarm was inching down the wax forms into its new abode.

The success of such an escapade is based entirely on one’s ability to persuade the queen. Wherever she decides to go, even if she is shaken there, all others will follow Ten minutes after our act of per­suasion, we placed our new hive adjacent to the existent working hives, on pallets raised slightly off the ground, facing a wild patch of orchard grass and small cedars. I still think of this as curious; one of our original colonies, with unsolicited, chance assistance, found a new home just a few feet to the east of an almost identical home it had chosen to abandon an hour earlier. Perhaps we should reflect— could restless Homo sapiens discover some advantage in this innova­tive method of house hunting?

It is good fortune to witness any swarm from an existing hive, but this spring I had the luck to happen upon a total of four swarm­ing colonies. We captured three, one with the help of our acrobatic field manager, Matt C. This batch of bees had bypassed the two ad­jacent wild cherries—chosen by swarms one and two—to settle out of reach on a swooping hickory branch. We approached the branch with our Case 495, a tractor fitted with a front-end bucket loader. Then we placed a box full of frames in the bucket, and raised it to just under the thick swarm. Matt climbed a ladder placed near the bucket loader, cut away some smaller branches, and, with authority bounced the hickory branch above his head. Although the air was black and bristling with bees, this maneuver had to be repeated three times before the queen was dislodged from her temporary resting place. Given that she is surrounded by, say, twenty thousand bees, the chance of spotting her is unlikely. Even the most mellow of beekeepers can be rattled by such an event. Although swarming bees are extremely unlikely to sting, the insistent buzzing of swirling insects can jar anyone’s nerves.

The final swarm of the year I encountered at the beginning of summer, the twenty-ninth of June, near enough to July to heed the words of the traditional rhyme:


A swarm of bees in May

Is worth a load of hay.

A swarm of bees in June

Is worth a silver spoon.

A swarm of bees in July,

Let the buggers fly!


Still, I followed them, these brief visitors to the Earth—workers live about six weeks—as they rained up into the sky before swirling and descending to a chosen branch of Russian olive. I waited to watch a few thousand begin to build a circle of motion around their queen, and then I turned to harvest carrots, and to let them fly.


If you participate community supported agriculture, or appreciate a well-told story of the preservation and restoration of land, This Common Ground will provide particular appeal. General readers or city folks, like me, will marvel at the work, the skill and the dedication it takes to preserve and strengthen the land.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2005 issue of Executive Times


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