Dear Friend of Clear Creek Abbey,
Many in our day seek ways of living closer to the land. At Clear Creek we are fortunate to have abundant natural resources in the rugged woodlands God has provided for us. Here follows a description of some techniques we are learning in an effort to make good use of these gifts of Creation. — br. Philip Anderson, abbot
Cherokee County, Oklahoma, is not known as Big Ag country: tractors in these parts (if folks have them at all) are small, and there are no “amber waves of grain” for as far as the eye can see. The harsh climate combined with the rocky soil require a more flexible approach to agriculture, aided by frequent and fervent prayer. Also helpful is an appreciation that “small is beautiful.” Throughout history, monks have often founded monasteries on unpromising sites, but often (over the course of a couple centuries or so), they were able to cultivate something beautiful. There are a number of things we have been working on in the areas of farming and forestry here at Clear Creek Monastery as we make some small attempts at cultivating the desert.
One of the most promising of our forest-agricultural adventures is tree grafting, the process of joining the parts of two different trees, a procedure heartily endorsed by St. Paul (cf. Romans 11:16-25). For example, you might combine the vigorous root system of one tree with the superior fruiting characteristics of another. Our most advanced experiment is with the persimmon. The persimmon is found by the thousands in our region and on our property. In a happy turn-of phrase, one author delightfully promotes it for “its extreme catholicity as to soil.” (J. Russell Smith, Tree Crops, p. 118). In other words the persimmon will grow anywhere—even here.
The scientific name, Diospyros virginiana, is derived from the Greek for “the fruit of the god Zeus,” which gives an idea of the taste—at least when ripe. Because when not ripe, it is astringent to the point of sucking all of the moisture out of one’s mouth. Animals love the ripe fruits and spread the seed everywhere, resulting in widespread seedlings in fields and along fence lines. But these wild seedlings produce small fruits, of various and dubious quality, with many large seeds. Cultivated varieties (or “cultivars”) can be found at plant nurseries, however, which produce fruit the size of golf balls (with fewer and smaller seeds) and without the astringency. We have begun experiments grafting some of the cultivars on top of the wild seedlings, and last year we had our first results from a select group of about twenty trees. The results were encouraging, with the fruits being quite tasty and nutritious. And best of all, the process is fairly simple. All that is needed is a razor blade, grafting tape (similar to scotch tape), and a few twigs of the new variety.
We are also grafting other types of trees, notably pears, chestnuts, and pecans. Pecans also grow wild here, and so provide the rootstock already in place. Varieties of pears and chestnuts, discovered locally where the trees were fruiting heavily, have provided us with scionwood to create trees which are fertile, require no fertilizers, are naturally resistant to local pests and diseases, and are adapted to our climate. Chestnuts are nutritionally similar to corn: think “corn on trees,” but as a perennial grain.
Chickens are a wonderful addition to nearly any agricultural endeavor. Our pasture-raised birds turn grass and bugs into high-protein eggs. In addition, they police the fields after the cattle have moved through, breaking up the cow-pies in search of seeds and fly larvae, thus reducing the fly population for the next round of cattle. In addition to happier, less tormented cattle, the soil is left healthier and more vibrant by the chickens as they scratch and fertilize it. Wherever the chickens pass, the number of worm castings (an indicator of healthy soil) explodes. Healthier soil results in richer, more abundant grass, and the cycle continues. The chickens we raise are Barred Rock and are known as a dual-purpose breed: laying a good number of eggs while also being large enough to produce a fair amount of meat. We have begun breeding them as well, selecting the best and healthiest roosters and hens and incubating and hatching their eggs. Each new generation is stronger and better adapted to the particular conditions of our locale. The abbey has not bought any chicks for a few years now, and egg sufficiency is in sight.
Slowly, the overgrown woods around our abbey are being cleared of diseased and stunted trees, but there is still a fair amount of standing dead timber left on the property. When temperature and humidity combine in the right manner, all of the dead oaks provide the perfect habitat for wild mushrooms which burst forth from stumps and logs in profusion. Using field guides and taking what is known as a “spore print,” we can reach a positive identification of the fungi. We have found, identified, and eaten varieties such as chanterelles, lion’s mane, and oyster mushrooms. So confident are we as to their safe identification that we serve them to Christ, who hides Himself in the persons of the guests and of the brethren, as the Benedictine tradition assures us.
Acorn bread (half acorn flour, half wheat flour) is something which we try to make in the fall, and as long as the acorns can be gathered and stored. The best species of oak tree for this is the bur oak, producing the largest acorns, though we have only a handful of these on the property. Unfortunately, we also have a bit of competition in this regard because the bur oak is eagerly sought by feral hogs, which are invading here as in so many other places in the South and lower Midwest. Feral hogs destroy fences and tear up pastures, ruin habitat for quail and wild turkey nesting sites, and woe to any whitetail fawn they happen upon.
Well, when life gives lemons, make lemonade; and when nature gives you feral hogs, make wild boar bacon and chops, and turn these into Corporal Works of Mercy via the kitchen. Sometimes the hogs win, and sometimes we win. When the hogs win, the quail lose, and there’s no acorn bread; when the monks win, the poor of Christ get acorn bread and pork chops: “I was hungry and you gave Me to eat….” (Matt. 25). Like Rumpelstiltskin, the little man in the fairy tale who spins straw into gold, we are trying to take what is given us here in Oklahoma and turn it into “something beautiful for God.” And as far as I can tell, it seems that the fawns and fences, turkeys, pastures and quail—are cheering for the monks.
– A Monk of Clear Creek