One day years ago in New York City, I passed a small church on the way to work. It was a little stone church, tucked in between more modern, storied buildings, looking like a relic of a past century or two. It was raining slightly, but I paused at the signpost where service times were usually announced to read a pithy piece of folk wisdom: “Failure and other steps to success.” I’d never heard that particular aphorism before, but it obviously made an impression on me. I’ll come back to this observation in a moment.
I don’t come from a long line of farmers, although my father, a successful executive, used to advise me that the best way to ground yourself in an irrational world was to get your hands into some dirt. Let me be clear here, he meant soil, gardening, dirt under your fingernails grounded. Since my wife and I moved to Hillsboro we purchased a small farm in Berrysville — corn, soybeans, blackberries, black raspberries, squash, small time stuff, but very fulfilling and yes, grounding.
But there’s more to it than that. Experience is a great teacher, but I was without the benefits of a seasoned farming mentor. Our first mega garden was moderately successful, that is until the raccoons decided to make a smorgasbord out of it. Even more infuriating was the fact that these masked raiders only ate the sweetest tops of the ears before sliding over to the next stalk and engaging in the same gluttonous indulgence over and over again. The next year I had it wired for high voltage electrocutions, but the critters somehow managed to either dodge the electrons or climb over the bodies of their division’s first assault wave. The year after the fence went higher, and I added two more strands of wire. Same result. I had obviously underestimated the cleverness of these devious thieves.
A somewhat sardonic neighbor said to me, “Why, my friend, are you working so hard to feed the wildlife when you can get all the tomatoes and corn you want at the Amish auction in Bainbridge or at the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market… and I guarantee you it’ll cost you a whole lot less.” Hmm… I guess I just hate to lose. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I heard that aphorism more than once from my mother.
I’ve heard a litany of solutions to my wildlife problems ranging from pots of poisoned Coca Cola, to well-aimed .22 caliber long rifles, to humane traps. But after years of trial and error, we’ve come to well-reasoned and well-seasoned resolutions, albeit our learning curve has been a bit low and slow.
Red-winged blackbirds love black raspberries but are not particularly interested in blackberries. Raccoons and deer love sweet corn but are not particularly interested in acorn or butternut squash. Green beans are a great crop in our neck of the woods, and they don’t seem to attract much attention from the masked bandits. In other words, sow what the creatures will give you and enjoy the sweet corn from West Family Farms at the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market, or some of the many other vendors.
But there’s more to this story than the proverbial, “Sometimes it’s necessary to take one step back to take two steps forward.” My wife and I were walking up from one of our gardens the other day after admiring some plump if not corpulent squash, pumpkins and watermelons, bruised but not beaten by our past failures when she said, “In life you have to celebrate your successes and learn from your mistakes.” My thoughts immediately flew back to the signage on that little stone church in Manhattan. I thought about my career path and hers, and life’s journey of raising a family, and finding a successful pathway through other aspects of life.
From family to farm, I thought, if there were just a one sentence legacy allowed to leave to one’s progeny, maybe it would be just that, “Celebrate your successes, but learn from your failures or mistakes.” It’s a simple precept, but I think a useful and guiding principle, worthy of passing on to those who may be open to advice from one generation to the next.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.