Horn Farm Blog

As We Are

Many years ago, well before I could comprehend what I was looking at, the forests around me seemed ageless. I could superimpose dinosaurs roaming amongst the trees I couldn’t yet identify. I could feel the pull of an ancient world. These small tracts of land I walked through seemed like primeval relics of a world unchanged since the beginning of time – but you don’t know what you don’t know, until you do.

The full burden of knowledge can crush an unsuspecting student of life. The weight of truth can be unbearable – leaving the cowardly to cower in the corner, oblivious to the mirage we call reality. I was exposed little by little, slowly inoculated with the full breadth of the ecological damage we face.

My childhood was an urban existence. The street trees and derelict lots were my Yellowstone. Pigeons and rats were my wildlife. When I moved to the countryside an acre of trees felt unending. I fell in love with the idea of wilderness instantly. Like a Disney story, it was love at first sight. Only the sight, the love, was for something completely different than what I first thought. Now I look at those same tracts of land, those small chunks of wild surrounded by civilization and I see it as it is:  a sad imposter to the wild spaces that once were, but also a glimmer of hope for the entire world. 

This slow composting of facts and figures, direct observations, and life lessons have formed a deep humus layer of wisdom, learned over and over by countless seekers of truth over eons and human lifetimes. The greatest lesson we learn as observers of wild places is this: We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

That hard truth speaks to the blindness we all have in our own perceptions. I have observed with my own eyes the same tract of land for 20 years. I have watched as a wall of green turned into red maples, box elders and willows. I have seen marks in the soil transform into fox tracks and deer hooves. I have witnessed lichen spread centimeter by centimeter. I have studied with wonder as the girth of a small spindly sycamore sapling grew to an 8 inch diameter.

And through my observation and growing awareness, I have come to recognize the turning of the seasons by a smell on the wind. I have seen the invisible connections become visible. I have begun to understand the connection to space and time: the fertile soil built of limestone bedrock, which once was the bottom of a shallow tropical sea. I have identified the anachronisms in our forest – a lesson born of injury, like so many of life’s deepest lessons. Just as the Mastodon discovered the sharpness of the honey locust, I too, became aware of her power as blood spilled from my own pricked finger.

Lately I have begun to hear the forest, not in words or visions, or even a way I can describe, but a symphony of all I have seen and witnessed. I can hear faint whispers of what the earth is communicating. And with all I have seen, and can see today, it is the ghosts of what once was that haunts me the most. The layers of connections that have been severed are unfathomably complex, like a great spider web that connects all things to all other things. 

What Was Lost

The crushing grief that comes with being haunted can either paralyze you into inaction or drive you to dig deeper: to listen harder, to pay attention to the minutiae. It has empowered me to listen to the land in new ways, to search for the missing pieces and become what was lost – the hands and claws, the hooves and paws that once roamed our forests in abundance.

We are facing multiple existential crises all at once: climate change, biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. The mere thought of things to come is enough to paralyze the most mentally sound. What can one human being do alone? What chance do we have of making a difference?

Then I remember this obscure fact: the small actions of millions of leaf cutter ants working in unison can cause disturbances in tropical forests, the size and scope of which only forest elephants can achieve. Small actions, one on top of another, like stacking bricks to build a wall, can become the foundation for another future we know is possible.

Fulcrum Points

We often run headfirst into tomorrow, ignorant to the hard won lessons of our ancestors: the taste of fertile soils, the feel of your heart beating out of your chest as you run towards your wounded prey, the sound of chanting and dancing in a language born out of the landscape itself, the faith that every action is pulling upon that great web to which all other actions are connected.

I am reminded that small doesn’t mean insignificant. It just means our actions must be more precise. We must find our fulcrum points where our efforts make the most difference, where the culmination of your existence regenerates the landscape in which you reside. Being part of a place is not just blood or historical rights. It is a state of being – one where the ego is composted to feed the ecological systems we rely on for our very existence. 

Consider starting small. Find a spot you can go everyday and sit. No agenda, no journals, no cellphone apps required – just sit and observe quietly. The power of this exercise is not in what you will see but what you will ask: “What is that? Who is singing that beautiful song? Where is the wind coming from? Why does the snow stay in this spot for longer? How does the squirrel climb so fast?

The power in questions is that they lead to more questions – and deeper observations. Until one day the invisible, the connections between the pieces, are as visible as the oak you rest your back on as you sit and watch the seasons change.

Another simple interaction is collecting refuse left in our wild spaces. Often a piece of litter can pull you out of a daydream. Like a text message it rips you away from a state of BEING into a state of thinking, planning, complaining. Simply by picking up trash, we can create a more beautiful world, where our minds can roam with the wild creatures around us.

So go forth into the cracks and crevices – leave the paths for the visitors. Wild creatures use the brambles for protection, they listen to the bird songs to warn them of danger and they dart quickly past the pavement – past the houses and manicured landscapes – into the unkempt. They listen to their gut and instinct as much as their senses. For in wild spaces the ego is destroyed. Slowly but surely, you will remember that you too are a part of the ecosystem – and in that, we come back home.


Wilson Alvarez - Woodland Steward
Wilson Alvarez, Woodland Steward at the Horn Farm Center

About the Author – Wilson Alvarez

Wilson Alvarez is a certified permaculture designer, inventor, gardener, skilled tracker, bowyer, nature-awareness instructor, and writer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

For the past fourteen years, he has taught classes and workshops on bio-intensive agriculture, regenerative technology, foraging, hunting, trapping, tracking, and wilderness survival. Wilson has studied through the Wilderness Awareness School via the Kamana program, and he received his Permaculture Design Certificate via Susquehanna Permaculture. Wilson currently serves as the Woodland Steward at the Horn Farm Center in York, PA where he is implementing his research on biomimicry through the Reintegration Project. Learn more about Wilson’s work.

Horn Farm Happenings – October 2, 2020

The Amazing Pawpaw by David Dietz

"Asimina triloba3" by Scott Bauer, USDA - USDA ARS Image Number K7575-8. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asimina_triloba3.jpg#/media/File:Asimina_triloba3.jpgThe amazing pawpaw is staging a comeback in American consciousness. This long overlooked fruit has always been with us, growing in the understory of our natural lands, especially in the river valleys and surrounding hills. Scientists believe that it evolved as a food source for now extinct megafauna, such as the giant sloth and wooly mammoth. At one time, Americans were more familiar with this truly American fruit, which is native to the United States east of the Mississippi River, and currently ranges from northern Florida to southern Ontario in the east, as far west as Nebraska and Texas, and as far north as Michigan.

Native Americans cultivated pawpaws as a food source, as it was the largest edible fruit indigenous to the land that is now the United States. In fact, the Shawnee even had a pawpaw month in their calendar. Europeans’ first documented encounter with the pawpaw was from Hernando DeSoto’s Mississippi Expedition in 1841, where one of the chroniclers noted its cultivation by the native people. In addition to the already belligerent nature of the expedition, a far more significant negative effect of DeSoto’s journey was the introduction of European diseases to much of the continent’s native population, resulting in widespread death from diseases against which they had no immunity. Scholars estimate that anywhere from 50 to 100 million native people lived in the Americas prior to European contact, with an estimated 90% of them perishing in the ensuing years. It is not hard to imagine that in pre-contact America, many established civilizations with thriving agricultural plantings covered much of the landscape–a landscape which would eventually revert to wilderness after the devastating epidemics had run their course. While pawpaws and other edible plants now grow wild throughout our lands, it is probable that many are descended from intentionally planted and managed Native orchards and forests.

The pawpaw has been valued by many throughout our history. George Washington claimed it as his favorite fruit, and pawpaws were grown at Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson is said to have believed the pawpaw had potential for cultivation, and sent seeds to Europe as an example of a uniquely American plant. The widespread fruit even proved useful  in feeding  the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark. They subsisted on pawpaws for three days at one point in their epic journey.

Pawpaws, which ripen for a short few weeks in September in our Southcentral Pennsylvania region, are a delicate fruit, not suitable for shipping. Easily bruised, they are not ideal for large scale commercial production. But they have always been a valued source of food for foragers and people living off the land. Throughout our history, pawpaws were a welcome treat for all kinds of people. From enslaved people to Presidents, the pawpaw has provided a delicious, nutritious treat for many. About the size and shape of a mango, the pawpaw contains a custardy flesh that tastes somewhat like a cross between a banana and a mango, interspersed by brown, lima bean-sized seeds.

Nutritionally, pawpaws are loaded with nutrients–they are an excellent source of vitamin C, and are also high in magnesium, copper, iron, and manganese. They are also a good source of potassium, amino acids, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, calcium, and zinc. These nutrients are found in pawpaws to a similar or greater degree than they are in bananas, apples, and oranges, all while containing a similar fiber content.

pawpaws!With a tendency to not be afflicted by pests or disease, pawpaws were a dependable source of food for people throughout history. Early American settlers relied on pawpaw groves for their fruit needs while they established their non-native orchards. The ubiquitous pawpaw provided names for places such as Paw Paw, Ohio, West Virginia, and at least a half a dozen other states. It even inspired folk melodies, such as Way down yonder in the Pawpaw Patch. During the Great Depression, the pawpaw was nicknamed “the poor man’s banana,” as it was an asset for foragers in tough times.

With the advent of supermarkets and the widespread availability of shipped produce after World War 2, the pawpaw receded from popular knowledge, as most Americans grew ever more distant from their once vibrant relationship with wild foods.

Meanwhile, several researchers made efforts to domesticate the pawpaw, and cultivars were developed, beginning around the turn of the century. Pawpaw breeding resurged in 1985, when R. Neal Peterson began a large-scale breeding program with the cooperation of the University of Maryland. Numerous named varieties have resulted from these efforts, and domestic production is slowly taking form. Pawpaw research is still a niche area of study, however, with little research funding available. Aside from private individuals, Kentucky State University is currently the only institution carrying on this work.

In the early 21st Century, with an explosion of farmers markets, and development of the slow food movement, pawpaws are now becoming more well-known again. Slow Food USA added the pawpaw to its Ark of Taste, further publicizing the nearly forgotten fruit. 

With the Horn Farm Center’s emphasis on native plants, it seemed only appropriate that the pawpaw would find a welcome place in our landscape. About a decade ago, local Slow Food USA member and founding member of the Horn Farm, Richard Bono approached the Center with a proposal to establish a pawpaw orchard at the Horn Farm. HFC agreed to it, and the orchard was planted. It takes about seven years from planting a pawpaw until it bears its first fruit. With this understanding, Bono has faithfully and patiently tended his orchard over the years, and his orchard is finally beginning to bear fruit. Dick and his wife Judy have shared their enthusiasm for pawpaws over the years by organizing hugely popular pawpaw dinners and festivals. Click here for more information on this year’s Pawpaw Festival event at the Horn Farm Center.

The humble pawpaw is once more claiming the respect that it is due. As knowledge of this delightful fruit spreads, our national palette is notably enriched. More and more, pawpaws are being rediscovered and planted by home gardeners, and if you ever get a chance to taste one, you’ll know why. 

“The Amazing Pawpaw” was written by Horn Farm Center Board Member, David Dietz

David Dietz has farmed in Hellam Township for most of his life. Growing up, he helped every summer on his parents’ truck patch farm, and he helped tend the roadside stand on the Lincoln Highway about a mile west of Wrightsville. Always interested in history, David earned a BSE in Social Studies from Millersville University in 1995, and spent several years teaching. Eventually, however, his love of the land drew him back to farming. In 2002, David started vending produce at York Central Market, where he continued until 2017. A founding member of the Horn Farm board, David helped start the Community Gardens and the Incubator Farm Project. Currently employed as the produce and dairy manager at Lemon Street Market in Lancaster, David is now interested more than ever in the challenges faced by local small-scale agriculture in a globalized commodity-driven economy. He is thrilled to see the Horn Farm Center leading with a vision for regenerative practices, learning from and working with nature. David is happily married to Waldorf teacher extraordinaire, Rochelle Dietz, and they have a delightful teenaged son, Gabriel.


Fall on the Farm – Call for Volunteers

farm internship 3

photo: Michelle Johnsen

Eager to get outside and get your hands dirty before the winter months set in? Join Field Manager Andrew Horn for some time on the farm! Every Thursday from 10am-6pm, Andrew will be a holding volunteer field day on the farm. We will spend some time getting to know each other, discussing what’s happening in the fields and on the farm, plus there will be opportunities to pitch in to help with the fall clean-up.

Some of our end-of-season farm activities include:

  • Harvesting Sweet Potatoes
  • Prepping Garlic Beds
  • Planting Garlic Beds
  • Clearing, Composting, Forking, Mulching BioIntensive Beds
  • Clearing, Composting, Forking, Mulching Annual Growing Beds
  • Mulching around Perennial Trees
  • Removing all Ground Pack and Irrigation Lines

Interested in joining us? Sign-up to volunteer for Volunteer Thursdays!


Horn Farm Center is Hiring!

Do you have flawless administrative skills and a heart to change the world from the ground up? Consider joining the Horn Farm team! We are now hiring a part-time Executive Assistant who will help to support the mission of the organization by managing our administrative systems and keeping our team activities organized! 

YOU might be just the professional we are looking for! Click here to learn more about the latest employment opportunity at the Horn Farm Center.


Upcoming Events:
Saturday, September 26: Wild Lands: Shelter Building and Finding Water
Saturday, October 3: Wild Lands: Art of Fire by Friction (sold out!)
Thursday, October 8: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Saturday, October 10: Wild Lands: Foraging, Hunting, Trapping (sold out!)
Saturday, October 10: Foraging Wild Roots for Coffee and More
Tuesday, October 13: Backyard Composting
Thursday, October 15: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Saturday, October 17: WildLands: Advanced Primitive Hunting Techniques (sold out!)
Tuesday October 20: Backyard Composting
Thursday, October 22: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Thursday, October 29: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Thursday, November 5: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Saturday, November 7: The Living Landscape
Thursday, November 12: Fall on the Farm: Volunteer Thursdays
Saturday, December 5: The Living Landscape

See you at the farm!

York County has moved into the green phase for dealing with COVID-19, so we are resuming some on farm classes with modifications. Classes will be held outside and are limited to 10 participants per class. If more than one class occurs on the same day, start times will be staggered to reduce the number of individuals arriving at the same time. Multiple hand sanitizer stations are available. We will adjust as needed as time passes and things change. Participants are required to bring a mask and wear when proper physical distancing cannot be maintained. Except for family members physical distancing of 6 feet must be maintained.