Did you know, a ghastly little ghost lives amongst us here at peaceful Green Valley Community Farm?
It all began last season...
It was summer, and Kayta and I were marveling at the healthy, green Flint and Painted Mountain corn growing in the fields. "What stalks! What a canopy! What strong roots our corn must have!" thought we, proud of our magnificent horticultural skills.
Summer waned. The corn grew taller and taller.
One late August morning, as we were passing by the beautiful corn, we noticed a couple had fallen over. "Hmmm", we thought, "a strong wind must have blown last night," and continued on our way thinking nothing of it.
A few days later we passed by the corn patch and noticed several more stalks lying flat on the ground. "Wow!" we exclaimed, "What a mighty wind must have blown last night!"
But we both knew the night had been still...
This continued. Every day we'd see a few more fallen stalks. We were perplexed. We analyzed the roots of the fallen and dug around in the soil. Various theories were concocted, but none of them felt like they explained the mystery of the falling corn. Last fall, we harvested a good crop of corn, but the fallen were missed.
Our attention turned to this season...
This year, we changed some things around and headed out of the gates with an even healthier looking stand of corn. But sure enough, in August, the phantom corn slayer returned, felling some of healthiest stalks we'd ever grown. At the same time, in another field, we were watering up our final and largest carrot planting, the fall carrot patch, but for some reason, we could not get a solid stand: It looked like the Death himself had passed over the middle of the beds. Even the weeds were missing.
We mentioned our plight to a visiting farmer friend one day. That was the first time we heard the word symphylan.
We had long been suspicious of these little, almost imperceptible white arthropods that abound in the soil here. We began to ask around. Word spread. We heard horror stories of fields laid waste. Lindsay Dailey, our new neighbor, connected us with Michelle Vesser: OAEC's former garden manager, a farm Medicine Woman, and a symphylan veteran. Michelle wasted no time in coming out.
She came to the farm last Wednesday armed with a manilla folder of literature and b-lined it to the fields. Upon first glance, her countenance brightened. "This doesn't look like symphylans. You still have weeds!" We presented her with a pumpkin and pointed to the swarm of white arthropods underneath. "These don't look like symphylans."
We walked to other problem spots on the farm but found no evidence. I was overjoyed! But in a quiet moment Michelle drifted to the bare spot in the Fall carrot patch. "Let's dig here." We dug up a stunted looking cauliflower and dropped the root ball in a bucket of water. 1, 2, 3.... 15 symphylans floated to the surface, squirming in the sunlight.
The next day I dug up the root ball of a fallen corn and sure enough, there they were.
Garden symphylans are a soil dwelling arthropod that are distantly related to centipedes. Adults are about a quarter inch long and they are very fast crawling. They are endemic to forrest soils, feeding on roots and decaying carbonaceous tissues. They cannot dig themselves, so they thrive in soils with good structure, earthworm holes, and high organic matter: All staples of well farmed soil. In a farm setting they eat the living roots of crops and can cause crop devastation.
But Michelle was generally encouraging: The relative success of our last two growing seasons shows us that we do not have them in great numbers. And there are farmers who have learned to live with ghostly symphylans.
Unfortunately, there is no cathartic ending to this ghost-story for there is no cure for symphylans. This ghost story will likely go on, in parallel to the joyful stories on this farm.
Alas, what are phantoms and ghosts and ghouls if not reminders to be grateful for who we have with us in the land of the living? Aye, the symphylans here will be a humbling reminder of the underworld below, right under our feet...
We'll do what we can, and say our farmer prayers, so that the symphylans here stay under-control. And we will be grateful for the harvests they allow us to reap in our time before we join them in the netherworld.
David and Kayta