A Wild Calling

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Story Shannon Bardwell | Photographs Luisa Porter

A short piece down a gravel road hangs an overhead sign where the outline of a barely discernible raccoon welcomes a traveler to Coontail Farms.

After raising their children, Martha and Bobby Watkins left Oktibbeha County for the family’s fourth-generation farm in Monroe County. Bobby had a hankering to retire where he had learned to shoot a BB gun and drive a tractor, where the pine trees grow tall and the dirt is rich. If Bobby is passionate about anything it’s about “managing” nature. It’s his calling.

The Watkins modernized the 1950s farmhouse, retaining its charm. Martha beckons to the house but Bobby prefers his wildflowers.

An avid conservationist, Bobby points out the ever-expanding wildflower plots. “Lawns, like we have today, are not natural,” Bobby says. “Most grasses that we put in our lawns are exotic, not native to our Southern climate.”

Pointing out a field of native wildflowers, Bobby refers to “forbs.” He explains, “A forb produces a flower, like clover, sunflowers and milkweeds, as opposed to grasses, sedges, shrubs or trees.”

Bobby leans close to the earth, “This flower bed is only a year old. I prepared it by tilling constantly, allowing no competition for the forbs. Starting in November I’ll till another three feet out from the flowerbed and continue ’til spring. By keeping the grass from competing with the forbs, the wildflowers will seed and expand. The wildflowers are native and excel in our soil and climate. The goal is to rid the place of plants that are not native, like this invasive honeysuckle.”

Bobby yanks at the familiar yellow vine entangling the landscape like kudzu. “It’s imported Japanese honeysuckle.” Pointing to a red blooming vine his voice softens, “And this is native honeysuckle. The hummingbirds flock to it.”

Near the orchard is a “Three Sisters” garden — a garden of corn, beans and squash, otherwise known in American Indian farming societies as the “sustainers of life.” The Watkins use heirloom seed and plant the garden in a crescent formation. Each plant benefits the other — the corn provides support for the beans, the bean vines shore up the corn stalks against wind, the bean roots add nitrogen to the soil, and the squash leaves are a living mulch, dampening weed growth and preventing soil moisture evaporation.

The farm may be named “Coontail,” but no raccoons are allowed in the grocery garden. “Raccoons have areas they can eat but not here.” Bobby points to a sign that reads, “If you cross this line you’re dead.” There’s a picture of a raccoon encompassed in a red circle. Raccoon tails hanging on the fence warn he’s serious.

“I don’t kill anything we don’t eat. I found a guy that will cook up any raccoon we catch. I caught 23 last year. They’ll wipe out an entire garden in one night.”

Also a collector Bobby keeps an eye out for anything discarded — a fire tower, a ton of old bricks, rusted farm equipment and tree stumps he fashions into yard art.

Bobby is most proud of his handmade outdoor shower. “No use in wasting water,” he says. “It falls free from the sky and is warmed by the sun.”

“For some reason,” Bobby grins and points to his wife, “Martha has drawn a line at using the outdoor shower.”