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Decade in Reflection Part Two: The Way of Water

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In honor of our ten year anniversary, we’re taking a trip down memory lane in a new multi part series. Through archival photos and retrospective writings, we’ll revisit forest gardening, water management, plant medicine, and other pursuits we’ve explored over the last ten years at Fields Without Fences with the kind of nuance and cosmic humor that only hindsight provides. 

Memory forms in a relational context, and looking back on the past ten years, it becomes difficult to parse apart one moment in time from all that came before it, and all that happened after. In this regard, these reflections do not follow a strictly linear presentation, or timeline of the farm. They are not a list of perceived achievements or failures, but travel instead the way memory does in the mind’s eye, layering and folding in on itself, constantly reconfiguring itself into a cohesive narrative.

I once heard someone say, the past does not generate the present, it streams out behind it. What is, at any given moment, is determined by the position of the observer at present. Spooky action at a distance…

Past and present, as it turns out, is a bit of a to and fro.

Read Decade in Reflection: Part One: Forest Garden Farm

Circa 2013, Johann & Lindsay, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Photo by Sean Walsh.

Everything Began with Water

The water was everywhere. The rains would come and puddles would fill in old tractor tire divots, flood out a small, tilled plot, and brim over every incidental depression in the landscape. And there it would sit, sit for so long, so long it would turn anaerobic, stagnant and stinking of sulfur. If there is one thing I can remember about the early days, it would be the omnipresent quality of water – dotting the fields, drowning the plantings, creating ice sheets on the driveway, and pooling in the basement. 

If flood is the fierce presence of water, drought is the fierce absence of it. The land we were on seemed oriented toward extremity. In long intervals between rain events, the soil would lock up like an adobe brick, dry and compacted, impenetrable to any relief summer storms might bring. The conditions we encountered – impervious hardpan, soil acidification, chronic hydrological dysregulation – are typical of old farmland, and reveal a history of farming practices incongruous with the underlying ecological patterns implicit in the landscape; patterns of life set in motion when the earth was all water.

You can follow water anywhere and wind up right back where you started. It forever moves throughout the circulatory system of the earth, winding its way through the land’s various arteries, dispersing and collecting, shapeshifting into air, and animals, and plants, transpiring through capillary action. Look at any living being and you will see one of the many disguises of water. Look at any patch of land, and you will see a vessel for water. And so it becomes impossible to examine the transmutable nature of a droplet of water, without subsequently exploring the anatomical entirety of the earth. 

The vicissitudes of water are particularly acute in the agricultural landscape where too much, and not enough, can both be painfully existential. The remarkable spectrum between extremities, is a place of growth where water nourishes, sustains, and gives rise to all things. There is a catalyzing quality to water. Its ubiquity is precisely the reason for its exceptionalism; it is everywhere so that anything might be anywhere. For those of us working with the land, growing food, and medicine, stewarding plants and animals, our relationship with water is foundational and essential to all else.

In this way, standing with our feet sunk into saturated muck, everything began with water.

September 30th, 2012, Johann Rinkens, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ.

The spring of 2012 was mild, and curiously dry, as we watched distant rain clouds sweep past the farm along the curve of the river. We had been experimenting unsuccessfully with growing in small plots that would quickly turn into swimming pools, and the mini drought provided the opportunity to pursue some foundational shifts in the landscape through strategic earthworks. 

That season was filled with the special intensity that comes with any major undertaking in which one intends to learn as they go along. What began as an effort to move the stagnant water in the fields, grew into a deep exploration of the behavior of water. And out of which a transformation emerged; our omnipresent obstacle became an inspired opportunity. Encouraged by permaculture’s prodding trope, “the problem is the solution”, and a useful set of practical approaches for working with water in the landscape, we reimagined a farm scape no longer bogged by water, but rather, buoyed by it.

That spring and summer, with my dad’s laser level and the bucket loader of our New Holland, we graded the fields for more complimentary interaction with the contours of the earth, installed a series of swales and interconnected ponds to catch and store water in the landscape, and created permanent raised beds for our plantings oriented off contour, to account for the compaction and nuance of our site. 

That this design became cohesive at all, had all to do with tapping into the underlying patterns present within the landscape. Our path to which was not unlike the way of water – circuitous, meandering, and at times a volatile deluge. We worked at a breakneck pace to complete the earthworks before the growing season, but wound up spending the better part of the summer scraping and shaping along the contours of the earth, digging a pond – then two more ponds. We did nearly all of this work with the front end loader of a farm tractor and a scrappy can-do-ism that’s easy to wince at in retrospect. My little brother spent weeks hauling around large shale stones we unearthed, like it was the neolithic building of stonehenge. The farm tractor was frequently precariously a’teeter on one wheel during pond construction. The mood was, “white knuckled.” Every time it rained we would study the course of water through the landscape with urgent scrutiny. As the season wore on, those water lines began to ink deeper into our consciousness. One cosmic afternoon, as thick cumulus clouds hovered in the sky, Johann and I mutually disappeared unbeknownst to the other, only to emerge some time later with near identical drawings of a layout for the farm.

Curiously, my most salient memories of that first season were not of water at all, but instead, the absence of it. During some of the more heavy-handed earthworks, parts of the farm looked like a moonscape. Exposed ground cracked in the heat of the summer sun. The color of the earth turned pallid. I remember feeling chronically unsettled, and tremendously relieved when the ponds began to fill with rain.

February 18th, 2012, Center Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Surface water stagnation in the landscape.

Circa 2013, Permaculture Farm Design, fields without fences. Those initial sketches in 2012 would eventually become the “design” vision of the farm.

April 25th, 2013, Southeast Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Our ponds were sized to irrigate the corresponding field in proximity. We used a shallow pump, some piping, and orchard drip tape to run irrigation to our young plantings. As our planting matured, there was a moderating effect on water transference, and we no longer needed to irrigate. We fully stopped irrigating and abandoned the set up by early 2015.

June 3rd, 2015, Travis Gerkens & Johann Rinkens, Southeast Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Over the course of three years, the field grew from bare soil to a multi-storied ecosystem with complex hydrological cycles.

Slow It, Spread It, Sink It

Conventional approaches to water inundation in the agricultural landscape orient toward safely shunting the water out of production areas and draining fields, while limiting its erosive potential. This way of interacting with water is useful for gaining field access during a wet spring, but often forfeits opportunities to store and cycle water for increased resilience during the height of a dry summer.  During this time, farmers rely on deep agricultural wells, the operability of which are chronically threatened by sinking aquifers across the globe. From where we stood in 2012, in the presence of a drought, and the absence of a well sufficient for irrigation, our view of water in the landscape grew more nuanced and concerned not only with movement, but retention as well.

The living world’s material manifestations have a moderating effect on water, as water is absorbed, transpired, captured, and released in an unfolding process that stretches over time. In the presence of hardscapes, hardpans, impervious surfaces, and absence of living material (i.e. plants), the movements of water are accelerated, and gain volatile momentum. In many landscape scenarios that type of sustained interaction can lead to deleterious soil erosion. There are less digressions of disguise for water, less opportunities to meander and settle into deep crevices. Follow the implications of a clear-cut rainforest out to the ocean, and up the coast on the fast winds of a hurricane.

Slow it, spread it, sink it is the popular axiom in permaculture for working with water in the landscape. Just like water carves a naturally sinuous path around the earth, it’s possible to slow the course of water by working with the underlying contours of the geology, and strategically oriented perennial plantings with deep roots systems to keep the soil structure intact. And as water slows, and spreads, it can also be captured and stored in ponds and similar water features, slowly hydrating soil, and recharging underground aquifers as it settles. I watch this process unfold naturally on the wild, sloped hillsides around here as trees grow tall, fall over, and settle along the contours of the land. In their wake they leave a pit for puddles to collect where the root mass once held, and a mound of decaying earth to slow surface runoff where the trunk now rests. 

Useful tropes are succinct in their verbiage and robust in their nuance. There are many ways to slow, spread, and sink water across the landscape, and each unique landscape necessitates a complimentary and site specific approach to form and function. While the underlying contours of a landscape provide a scaffolding for working with water, the relative structure of the soil, intended use of the site, and existing features and infrastructure of a location will determine the appropriate pitch and orientation of swales and terraces, field planting schematics, and pond size. The path of water is written into the bones of land, but also into the tissue as well. In this regard, understanding and working with water involves a holistic awareness, and a considered amount of ground truthing.

June 4th, 2017, Johann Rinkens, Lockatong Preserve, Stockton, NJ.

So much of working with water is rising up to meet it.

Our farm is located at the edge of the Delaware River watershed. Here on the margins of an ancient plateau, water snakes, and flows, and falls through innumerable seasonal creeks, streams, and tributaries as it makes its way through our cliffside to the river in the valley below. The terrain around here is a mix of open farmland, regrowth woodland, and exposed shale that lines the creek beds and canyon walls, over which water rolls, creeps, and rushes respectively. Because water moves with little regard for property borders or state lines, managing water on our farm meant cultivating a larger context for the functionality of our watershed. 

We’ve spent a lot of time wandering the ridges and valleys of this cliffside. Reading the comings and goings of water inscribed on the surface of the stone, upon the headcut of a field, and in the plump and hue of leaves. Learning the ways of water and riding the tide.

And so, all the while we were coaxing the flow of water in our landscape, we were likewise orienting around the presence of it; selecting species (crops) able to tolerate seasonal inundation, planting a medicinal orchard in the form of a shrub swamp ecology, and capturing the spring deluges in a series of ponds, to percolate out into the surrounding landscape during the summer droughts.

On an off afternoon like this one, after a good rain, we’d hike to one of the many falls around here to watch the water rush. There are places on the earth where the quickening of water is essential to the health and vitality of the surrounding ecosystem. Moments for rushing and moments for resting. The mutability of water, the diversity of its expression, are all different sides to one process, the full spectrum of which is essential to understanding.

July 27th, 2018, Center Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Plants have a story to tell about water. The presence of wet “indicator species” like Joe Pye and Goldenrod are common in wet meadows. These plants, and many others like them thrive in our landscape.

April 2nd, 2021, Upper Pasture, fields without fences (second farm site), Frenchtown, NJ. Plant patterning in the landscape can reveal helpful information about water. Here sedges and rushes grow in a distinctly concentrated area of a sloped field. Flagging out the topography with a laser level confirms what we suspect, this is a great location for water catchment in the landscape.

April 5th, 2012, South Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Part of our process in the early days of working with water was identifying “settling” locations, which eventually became pond sites.

June 4th, 2017, Lockatong Preserve, Stockton, NJ. A “pit and mound” process naturally unfolding in a nearby regrowth woodland.

The Problem is the Solution

The water quickly opened up portals to new worlds. By the early spring of 2013, the young ponds were filled with spring peepers, so numerous and cacophonous they would wake us up at night. In my sleepless delirium, I asked Johann at one point in earnest if he thought the neighbors might call the cops on us about the noise?

There was an evolution of life unfolding in real time. As soon as water brimmed in our small depression ponds, zoological life emerged in the form of tiny squirming creatures. Cattails arrived on the wind to grow along the edges, and great blue herons began to visit with some frequency. Dragonflies darted over the water, and tiny flies rested on the surface tension. When we pulled out the irrigation piping for winter, it was covered with freshwater molluscs. Our ducks hatched a clutch on the banks of one of the ponds, and we looked on in horror and surprise as a snapping turtle arose from under the water to devour several of them. We laughed at the bizarre small toy lobster we stumbled upon in the field, until we realized it was not a gag, but a real live crayfish, and the ponds were full of them.

Each morning a fine mist lifted off the ponds and spread out into the surrounding gardens on even the driest summer days. The water in the fields trickled and tumbled and rose up to take the shape of elderberries, currants, and young trees whose long roots stretched a course for water to move deeper into the ground. This interplay and interaction created self renewing micro-hydrological cycles that sustained our plantings without the need for auxiliary irrigation. We irrigated for the last time in early 2015, and have been “dry farming” ever since.

July 9th, 2012, Johann Rinkens, South Field pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. The first pond had only filled halfway with water, and already creatures were beginning to emerge.

August 11th, 2013, South Field pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Blue heron at pond’s edge.

June 3rd, 2015, Johann Rinkens & Yoni Wolf, Southeast Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Harvesting strawberries in the understory, kept moist by the moderating effect the herb and shrub layer have on sun exposure and evaporatory potential.

May 4th, 2016, Center Field pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. A habitat structure we created from natural materials on the edge of the pond to shelter ducks.

April 14th, 2015, Center Field pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. From 2012-2017 we kept domesticated ducks whose presence on the farm during early establishment were essential in keeping the ponds healthy and free of algae.

February 19th, 2014, Center Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. There are interactions with water in the atmosphere, underground, and on the surface of the earth. Here snow counterintuitively insulates the ground from cold, and helps to protect the plants in winter.

June 2nd, 2021, Center Field / North Field transitional overflow pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Cattails made their way to the farm on the wind and you can find them around most of the ponds in specialized habitats. Planted is the aronia in the foreground on the banks.

September 8th & 25th, 2019, Johann Rinkens, Upper Pasture, fields without fences (second farm site), Frenchtown, NJ.

We were not the first farmers to work with water in our fields. At some earlier point, tile drainage was installed on our flagship farm site, and on the second farm, back in the 1960s, a large pond with a dramatically ascendant dam wall was sited close to the house. As we navigate present and future water features on our old farms, we must also contend with existing infrastructure, some of which is failing.

On a sunny fall afternoon I walked out to middle pasture to survey the scene as Johann finished work on repairing an old inflow swale to the existing pond at the second farm. It had been constructed over fifty years ago, and was increasingly dysfunctional. This rebuild, and the mitigation work we were doing on the deep erosive gullies that had formed above the pond, was made possible by a cost share program from NRCS. We were on a deadline to finish the project, and had shifted all manner of priorities to complete it.

I remember being genuinely impressed with how refined the work was, executed with proper equipment, and demonstrative of the skill Johann had acquired during the intervening years of honing our craft. I also remember a creeping irritation with the energy being expended on repair work just to get back to a functional state. I don’t think I mentioned any of this at the moment, I just shouted from afar, “looks good!” before snapping a photo. 

When we first began experimenting with water in the landscape, we followed our intended work out past our lifetimes. What happens to this when we’re gone, when there is no one to do repairs, when the course of time winds its way through entropy and change? These thought experiments are the reason we constructed what are known as depression ponds, rather than dam wall ponds. Over time those small depression ponds in the landscape may fill with reeds, and they may fill in entirely to become the remnants of a wetland, but they won’t blow out or flood a house down slope. For as malleable and ubiquitous as water is, it holds a tremendous power to create and destroy.

Humility and technical expertise go hand in hand.

May 12, 2022, Seasonal stream corridor, fields without fences (second farm site), Frenchtown, NJ. There are many ways to interact with water in the landscape without the use of specialized machinery, including building small check dams with fallen trees and rocks. This series of “check dams” were created naturally as debris was carried and caught during seasonal storm events. We gain inspiration and ideas for ecosystem mimicry by observing woodland dynamics as they unfold.

July 5th, 2014, South Field Pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Water can be a diverse asset on a farm. We sited our unheated high tunnel with the pond to the south. In the early season there is a heat gain from the reflective surface, and in the dry months, the soil within the tunnel is kept moist in part because the area surrounding the pond is so well hydrated.

July 30th, 2012, Center Field / North Field transitional overflow pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. A palpable wince looking back at this photo of an early establishment pond. This “ramp” into the pond was created as a compromise to safely maneuver the farm tractor into the pond after too many near accidents. Digging our first ponds with the front end loader of the tractor was both scrappy and not at all recommended. Though the edges have since smoothed, to this day, we still refer to this pond as “skull pond”.

August 8th, 2019, South Field pond, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Water features in the landscape must always be buffered by appropriate plants. Along the edges of our ponds are a mix of native meadow and emergent grass and flowering species. Here in naturalized plantings we also grow crops like aronia and coppice willow.

By River, By Ocean, By Sky

Water takes the shape of its vessel, orients toward the lowly, bobs along the path of least resistance. And at the same time, water wields the world into being, shapes its shores in an eternal lapping of give and take, and wears away at its rough edges ad infinitum. Even as the world erupts from its wellspring, water wears away at the world, dissolves it into the substrate of futures yet unknown.

For all the potential embedded within the ways of water, there is also an empty quality. The Sky God of early agriculture withheld and punished in times of drought, then smiled and rewarded with the release of rain. But, in practice and process, water flows everywhere, and nourishes all things without lording it over them. It’s a curious conspiracy of cohorts that enables the movements of water to animate all existence, while at the same time, all of existence providing a course for water to move along.

As our planet becomes less diverse in the wake of human development, the course of water is becoming more and more untethered and volatile. In the northeast, our relatively temperate climate is increasingly characterized by water cycles of alternating drought and deluge. Storms are gaining intensity as more water becomes volatilized into the atmosphere, generating severe wind and precipitation events.

And still, the shape of water can take enumerable forms and hold infinite potentials of becoming. I remember walking into a rainforest on a perfectly sunny day, and name-be-damned still experiencing surprise at the fat drops of precipitation raining from the tall trees, steadily pattering atop my head, and dripping down the contours of my brow. Encourage a vegetated world with a diverse and robust ecology, and allow things to take their course.

September 4th, 2014, Johann Rinkens, James Schleppenbach, & Katie Collins, North Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ.

The prolonged summer drought this season (2022) was the worst we’ve seen on the farm. Over the course of three months we received almost no rainfall, and likewise most of New Jersey experienced significant drought conditions. I watched with dismay as portions of the understory browned out and withered to a crisp. The fruit harvest was small and seedy. We lost an entire field of young plantings at the second farm.

When we built our ponds ten years ago, we sized them to support regular irrigation in the event of a prolonged months-long drought that seemed far-fetched at the time. It was only a small handful of years before we experienced those worst case scenario calculations. Somehow after all this time we return to, still and again, water.

In 2014, when I took this photo, we had just set the beds and started the first pond in the distant North Field. Johann was explaining to James and Katie that we intended for that pond to double in size, for another to be installed, and for drainage patterns to be finalized along the northernmost edge before the start of the next season. But, after this photo, the seasons began to change, life happened, and we never finished. We started planting, and overwhelmed with mounting projects and responsibilities, adopted a “good enough?” attitude toward the plot.

As the years stretched on, North Field stagnated. It started to become waterlogged and difficult to traverse even by foot. Trees and shrubs would grow, only to be drowned and frost heaved out of the ground before gaining a true foothold. We kept saying we’d get to it, but never did. This season, after going back and forth about it for some time, we decided to completely overhaul and finally finish (may it be so!) the water system in North Field to ensure the survival and health of future plantings.

As with most responsible management of our shared landscape, the onus falls upon the farmer or steward to invest in the time, energy, and capital costs associated with ecosystem renewal. So while the prescriptions for hydrological enhancement are available in theory, they can be difficult to access in practice in between planting, harvesting, marketing, selling, fixing machinery, and balancing books (among the many other myriad of jobs a farmer is tasked with). Farming in the age of climate change may rely on our ability to pool our collective resources behind our most precious one.

November 13th, 2017, Center Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Mist before sunrise, another view of water in the landscape.

October 24th, 2017, Grand Canyon, Arizona. On a trip to the Grand Canyon, a quote in the visitor center read, “Running water is a puny thing compared to solid rock. Without geologic time, neither sedimentary rocks nor canyons could exist. Deep time gives water dominion over rock…” – J.L. Powell

June 17th, 2016, Lindsay Napolitano (author), local trail along the river, Frenchtown, NJ. Where we live and work, at the edge of the watershed.

October 10th, 2014, Southwest Field, fields without fences, Frenchtown, NJ. Amphibians at home in the various moist environments on the farm. Frogs play a vital role in ecosystem dynamics.

The Consistency of Change

As we move into the next decade, water is top of mind. We have insular plans to install new ponds, water features, and plantings to retain more water in the landscape, and we have expansive concern for increasingly challenging climatic patterns. The experience of water is a collective one. These notes on the ways of water are cumulatively the story of our climate, the history of the earth, and an essential guide to our future food sovereignty. 

I have never lived more than a long walk from a major body of water. And though no singular droplet has ever stayed with me, there is a grounding quality to the consistent ebb and flow of drifting tides and rushing rivers. Whenever I’m asked how to connect more deeply with nature, I advise finding an expanse of water and sky, and watching as the waves and clouds shift into a myriad of forms out of the same source.

Authored by Lindsay Napolitano, 2022

Photos by Lindsay Napolitano & Johann Rinkens

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