The Swail or The Art of Muck Raking

marsh marigold thrives in a swale

The Swale or The Art of Muck Raking

I moved to the farm at Golden Lake, now home of the Sacred Gardener, in December 1999. When the snow melted in the spring, a huge swale ran halfway around the barns and house. A swale is a place where water collects seasonally, into a wide shallow puddle that is slow to move off. The shallow water sat through to late June. It covered a lovely rich piece of land right in front of the house, making it unarable for gardens or trees. And what it did, was make a great breeding ground for mosquitos. We’re already surrounded by wetlands, so I figured the mosquitos could get by without this swale.

That fall I had someone with a back hoe come in. I asked him to follow the natural water course and just make it deeper. I clearly marked out the creek bed to be, along with a few areas of Sensitive Fern and Wild Plum trees, that I didn’t want damaged in the process. He also made a pond and outflow in front of the house.

The effect was amazing. It doubled the land around the house for growing. We made a 30 x 40 foot no-till mulched garden and planted Apple and Apricot trees, in the areas that had been too wet. It cleared out the bug breeding ground and it also gave us an unexpected bonus. Our basement (30m from the dug creek) no longer flooded in the spring. In creating drainage, the level of the spring water table actually dropped.

When the creek was made, it changed the energy of the place for the better. Digging the creek changed the Feng Shui of the land. Where there had been decades of stagnant energy, there was now flow. The moving water Herself and the song of the little creek had far reaching effects. Even that first fall, a few weeks after it was dug, there was a run of what the locals call Mud Pout. These are a small black fish that were traditionally “canned up into salmon”. Which means boiled in the jars, bones and all, with a water a little vinegar and salt to store. The hurly burly path of the creek, over rocks and roots, also purified and oxygenated the water, so I’m sure many insects and fish in or down stream from the creek also benefitted. Because of the increased flow and deeper channel, the creek also now stayed open much of the winter and brought life back to the land very early in the spring. This was of great benefit to all the birds and animals (including cats and dogs) who then had a place they could access clean fresh water, when all their other drinking spots were frozen and under four feet of snow.

marsh marigold growing in the swale

After about five years the creek and pond silted back in about six inches deep. The gradient of the land demanded this. I couldn’t justify or afford to change that. The fruit trees struggled with their wet feet and the basement started to flood again. I wasn’t going to have it re-dug because this would cause too much damage. I’m a luddite at heart, and feel machines should only be used when necessary. And, the creeks and shoreline had completely grow in with perennials I’d planted, all along its 150m course. These plants, like Comfrey, Horse Radish, Spearmint, Day lilies, Marsh marigolds and wild Jewelweed had all spread up and down the creek.

Jewelweed

I decided in late fall, five years after I’d had the creek dug, when that year’s leaves had fallen, that I would rake out the muck and leaves that had built up over the years. I did this as a small gesture towards bringing back the flow, it only took a few hours. Sure enough, once the debris was clear and the flow increased, the water carved deeper still into the silt, to the bottom of the dug creek bed. The basement flooding let up the next spring and the fruit trees started doing better the next summer. So every year now, by hand, I hard-rake the muck out from the creek. I plop the muck on top of the perennials running along side the creek. It’s great fertilizer.

The Navaho, Aztecs and many other people grew their gardens intentionally alongside both natural and hand-dug canals, for water and for the fertile muck. This is an extension of the biomimicry our ancestors practiced in natural flood-plain areas. In flood-plain agriculture, where natural seasonal flooding happens, (which we’ve stopped everywhere we can), nutrients used up by the year’s plant growth and taken away by the grain harvest, are naturally replaced by the silt from the river. Natural flooding and burning were the primary tools used to co-create large scale agriculture, which in turn gave birth to civilization as we know it. These practices have been all but lost.

marsh marigold comes up early, and sometimes there’s a frost after it’s arrival, hence the dark tinge to the leaves

I’m telling my little story about the creek, in part, because it’s not spectacular. It’s just about ‘mucking’ around on the land and figuring things out by paying attention. And then, moving forward in a gentle way. It’s a good humble example of how to work with the Earth.

First, we need to relax and just be receptive, watch and listen to a place for at least a year or two. With time, we can see the land’s Feng Shui and notice what blockages there might be. Then, with experience and good instincts, we can see the problems clearly and know how they can be changed with minimal effort. Often these changes are re-interventions, to correct something caused by previous land use. This was the case with the swale on my land, which was caused one hundred and fifty years ago by deforestation, cultivating the fields and making stone hedgerows. The stone fences acted like a giant shallow dam; then years of backed up stagnation caused a wider swale to form.

Sometimes in our discussion with the land She has Her say, changing back what we’ve done, to the way She wanted it to be. Just like us, She has needs and habits too. When this happens you’ll see if your relationship to the land is a democracy or a dictatorship.

In this conversation, that takes place over years, how we respond, to Her response, is key. Do we hear Her? And if so what are we going to do in response? There’s always at least two choices; ignore Her and bull-doze again, or be co-creative and find another way that works for everyone.

horseradish

Sometimes we incorrectly change something and later realize through this conversation with the land that it would be best to just leave it be, because the destruction and energy invested, to get what we want, is only going to increase. In this case, the venture may be judged as a failure, but it’s actually a success! Because, in the deeper sense, we heard Her and honoured that voice by backing off. We have to be sensitive enough to hear Her side of the conversation. And then, sometimes, through a small tweaking of the landscape we can co-create situations that will benefit both the larger fecundity of land and ourselves.

Sometimes we’re lucky. Through ‘maintenance’, through ‘raking the muck’, we can come up with a way to keep the water flowing, on the land and in our lives. This extra flow, that we had a hand in freeing up, carves out its own deeper channel. If we rake the muck, the water flow Herself does the deeper digging needed to drain the stagnation.

comfrey

We can co-create these grounding and productive relationships in a thousand ways with Her, if we are open to it and paying attention. We need help and it’s there, She’s here for us. If we apply our listening skills, there are always ways to work with Her. And sometimes this means giving up on our big plans. When She is worked with in a co-creative way from the start, then there is no destruction, there is only the beautiful movements of dancing with Her and the grace that follows.

  • The Sacred Gardener School