Photo: A bald eagle sits on a tree branch.

I knew “sustainability” had become quite the buzzword, however the extent was driven home to me through the routine act of typing the word into my web browser.

Ordinarily if I enter a one word search the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition pops up somewhere in the first search page, usually at or near the top. Type in sustain and the definition is right before you, “strengthen or support physically or mentally”. Type in sustainability and the dictionary definition is nowhere to be found within the first two search results pages.

So I asked for the dictionary definition specifically: “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed: involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources: able to last or continue for a long time”.

beyond definition

Certainly any word is more than its dictionary definition yet I think it might be useful to discern the rhetoric through the filter of the basic meaning of the word sustainability and how it presents itself for us individually. The decisions we make every day at home and at work can be viewed through the lens of sustainability. It is not just someone else’s big idea. We choose the things that sustain us every day.

What sustains us and how do our needs fit or conflict with the needs of the ecosystem we live in? How do those decisions affect the larger community? Basic sustenance, food, is something we all require. Yet the meanings of sustain and sustainable suggest more than that fundamental concern. We have physical, mental and emotional needs and the way we provision those must be able to continue without being depleted or we lose the resources.

Photo: A red fox on a snow-covered field.

My husband and I live and work on an organic farm. We are physically sustained by the fruits of our labor and enjoying the beauty of the ecosystem feeds a deeper emotional need. We adore catching a glimpse of the red foxes in our field and there is nothing grander that watching raptors soar through the sky. These sights fill me with gratitude and awe even though the fox and the hawk’s need for sustenance occasionally results in losing some of our chickens. However predators keep down the vole and rabbit population in our orchard and vegetable beds lessening our losses. Is that a fair trade? Most days our calculation is yes.

 I was in line at the local farm store behind a man buying leg traps to catch the foxes that were killing his chickens. He was understandably upset at his losses but I wanted to tell him how important those predators are to the ecosystem. Without labeling it as such he had made a decision about what was sustainable for him. He could not lose his chickens and the fox just had to go.

We have found if we are vigilant about sealing up the chicken house at night we don’t have trouble with fox. However, during the day when we have allowed our flock to have free-range we lose some to hawks. No one likes the idea of a free-range chicken better than a predator! The trade-off is that we keep our chickens and ducks in a large hoophouse covered completely in chicken wire. They have lots of space and fresh air and are safe from predators both day and night. 

Photo: A bald eagle sits a branch in a large woody tree with most leaves dropped before winter.

Our newest co-inhabitants are the Bald Eagles nesting in a giant Sycamore along our little section of Catoctin Creek. This is the second year “our” Eagles have raised two Eaglets to maturity. We watched with great anticipation as the young Eaglets fledged from the nest. Having two adult Eagles and two adolescent Eagles soaring around the farm is thrilling!

Photo: A groundhog on a grassy slope on a sunny day.

One day we witnessed the mama Eagle as she extended her talons, dropped into our orchard and emerged with a groundhog. This is a wonderful development, we are happy to have that population decline. The groundhogs have done considerable damage burrowing down under the apple trees. But who knew a raptor could lift a full-grown groundhog? We would be considerably less thrilled if our farm kitties came to any harm.

Of course the barn cats have costs along with their benefits as well, they have prevented our barn from being overrun with mice but they do occasionally catch birds. And our Barn Swallows do such a lovely job of keeping the mosquitos under control. If all is in balance this is a fine arrangement. The predators receive sustenance from groundhogs, rabbits and other vermin.  We take care of our cats and they patrol the barn for mice. The cats are wily enough to avoid the Eagle’s talons and the Barn Swallows are swift enough to fly clear of the cats’ claws. Then we can sit out on the barn deck and watch the Swallows clear the air of mosquitos, pet the kitties and watch the Eagles soar.

One small set of sustainable relationships. Yes, this could continue for a long time. 

~Lori Leitzel Rice