Helping Life Thrive at 4th Street Farm

Lexington people have probably seen the gorgeous cover shot on the May, 2014 Chevy Chaser magazine: our neighbors Sherry and Geoff Maddock, with a couple of their hens, radiating health and possibility from their urban demonstration farm. Sarah Jane Sanders took the beautiful photos, and I had the privilege of working with her and the Maddocks to write the story, "From Flame to Farm: How Lexington's Fourth Street Farm Was Born."

I initially suggested 700 words as an article length, thinking readers would find that plenty. The smart people at the Chevy Chaser said "Oh, think about 800," and, yes, they have been in this magazine business awhile—they were so right. Before I finished the article, I had a few thousand words stashed in "Leftovers" files, because each person and idea made me want to write a book, not a paragraph. Even the hens deserve a short book of their own, given their interesting lives. It helps that Sherry Maddock wrote a sweet separate piece for this Chevy Chaser issue,  "A Recipe for a Summer Garden," which Tiffany Mitchell of Offbeat and inspired illustrated.

Since the 4th Street Farm story came out, I keep thinking about two commitments that matter a lot to Sherry and Geoff that got few of my 800 words. The first is a primary permaculture principle, "Observe." As they considered what the lot next to their urban corner house might become, Sherry and Geoff watched what happened on the land across time. They watched the impact of rain, and where water traveled. Within the one-tenth of an acre, they saw tiny microclimates, including frost pockets, spots where cold lingered. They watched light and sun patterns across days and seasons. All this quiet observing gave them information and ideas about what would flourish where. The beauty and sense of rightness one experiences on the Farm surely stem from their wise choices about ways to match specific growing  conditions with best use.

One view of 4th Street Farm, Lexington, Kentucky, summer 2013

The Maddocks' commitment to living lives as "placed people" got even less attention in the article: To stay put. To grow roots in one spot. To know and engage with neighbors, to love them, to pay attention to their interests. To become bound by mutual affection. To share lives. To not move, not uproot, not pull up stakes. This commitment to living life in one chosen place, radical in its impact on any life, runs counter to the United States mainstream, in which around 36 million people—more than one in ten—move annually.

By staying put, living and rearing their son in one place, weathering the negatives of that place and contributing to the positives, Geoff and Sherry Maddock embody the over-riding permaculture principle: to work with nature, and not against it. They learn what works in their place and they build on it. They develop skills in supporting what is good, so it can deepen and spread. What they learn by being in one place across time applies at least as much to the humans in their environment as to the plants, animals, and insects around them. They learn how to help life thrive, including their neighbors' lives.

As a result, 4th Street Farm, young as it is, already functions as an oasis just off the corner of East 4th Street and Elm Tree Lane that rivals any park for beauty, serenity, and its ability to restore and re-energize a weary person. The Farm evolves steadily, as Geoff and Sherry observe more, learn more, understand more what is possible. Across time, and with good fortune, their commitment to be placed just where they are will yield learning, inspiration, food, livelihoods, lives and goodness none of us can yet imagine.

Rona RobertsComment