Living Communally

At EEC Forest Stewardship, the evolution of co-housing has traversed many ecosystems, and will continue to develop around the concept of community. What that looks like might surprise many, disappoint some, and be a lesson for most. This land can support 8-10 people comfortably. At present, 5 are in residence. We offer seasonal housing as well, including tent camping, wall tent living, single rooms, and a Mongolian Ger which, in Mongolia, hosts 8 comfortably, but generally, hosts one more adventurous occupant. The main house is divided up a bit to offer tenant common space and full bath on one side of the house, while offering my partner and I a private other half. It is important for me to have my own living space, complete with kitchen, bath, and living room for running a healthy and balanced life working where I live. Though when this experimental living project started almost a decade ago, habitation layout was quite different, and sadly, much too idealistic to succeed in current times.

Communal living means a lot of different things, as I said, but the evolution of EEC began with a common dream, that morphed through a nightmare phase, into growing pains, followed by the balancing out- which we’re still in. After purchasing the property, I lived alone on the land for a month to settle in before inviting friends to come join me in building a permaculture farm housing intentional community. This setup was unbalanced from the start- I was the “owner”, had the majority financial and mechanical responsibility for the land, buildings, and people. Though blessed with some leadership qualities, I quickly became acquainted with founder’s syndrome, then realized my excellent communication skills did not always align with those of my housemates. They were financial contributors, investors, and labor pool for big land projects, but there was a looming power dynamic which would never offer balanced risk and return.

The other major hurdle encountered in the initial housing structure, was a lack of shared vision. Sure, we all talked about our passion for land, growing things, and being together, but the actual task and toil of making such things work meant just that- a lot of work. 20somethings may be hard workers, but they are often not rooted in long term commitment yet. This is certainly true of the white suburban majority living together at EEC. I was 31, fully invested, the only fully invested, this is important to recognize in this particular setup. Below I share a truly group/village model of cooperative living which has equal investment and is the best way to properly found community living, but it’s not the only way, nor is it perfect. Still, take a moment to look at what could be for some. EEC was never meant to be a large scale community living space. I opted for full control and investment, leaving me with a rentier relationship with tenants. This model operated more effectively when you are offering short term living accommodations with a wonderful rotation of people bringing their gifts, but not rooting in. This is the main type of living style which works for what I see as an undeserved population.

So much of life now must be transient. This is the new norm for a growing generation of non-home owners, unmarried, and often seasonally employed. They do not have the capitol to buy in, but can pay month to month for affordable accommodation. Originally I planned the property to house 8 full time farm workers cultivating the land, growing enough food for themselves, with extra to sell, and an additional 2 seasonal spots for summer workers, usually employed in another nearby farm, or at our local wilderness summer camps. There was a lot riding on work trade- people would put in the labor and time needed to establish productive gardens, livestock infrastructure, human infrastructure, landscape, earthworks, and forest stewardship. The list of job opportunities were endless, and some did work, though no one put in as much time as me, because I was responsible for everything in the end.

Delegation is great when you are already working in a collective. EEC is individually owned, and that’s important for financial liability, though community investment in large scale developments would certainly be better for those looking for establishing village. I know that I am not looking for a village, that EEC is ultimately returning to forest, with a small dwelling and/or educational structure. That’s a bit of a change from the working farm with 8 full time community members, but that’s the reality I’ve run into, and it’s ok. Right now, not many people need to farm, work land, and especially work land they don’t own. At the same time, so many people I talk with dream of “the good life” on a piece of property they can grow their own food on. Quaint, but far from the reality.

Katahdins flock with wall tent in the background

Without reliance, there is no reason to invest. This is the true economy we operate in, and it’s often confused with community. Teamwork is possible, though limited to a game that lasts a few hours. Living together, sharing risk, investment, failure, and triumph. We have not cultivated a society that seeks this experience. Instead, we’ve turned on screens and tuned out. Maybe because life is very hard to live in when you do not invest in it. What are we invested in? As this language suggests, money, profit, the bottom financial line. That’s just it, the bottom, and we’re scraping an almost empty barrel, forcing scarcity. So why did I not buy into community co-housing? After all, the example in Ithaca started in the 90s. Here in Washington State, there are many housing opportunities where I could have invested in village modeled living. However, I was not seeking a village, I already have Duvall and a greater area of community connections that feed my need for socialization.

I’ve always wanted to grow food, tend land, and root. That was the core of my vision, and folding in housing for others to be connected, but not obligated, is the current working title at EEC Forest Stewardship. I’ve learned that maintaining a more formal rentier relationship helps tend clear boundaries with the people who live here. This seems strait forward, and many of you might be asking why I didn’t just do that to begin with. Well, I had thought I could transcend the issues of ownership by offering generous opportunities and lots of potential. King County is wealthy, there are a lot of good job, economic growth, and progressive civic engagement. This land is unincorporated, meaning camping, wall tents, primitive living, and farming can thrive. We’ve hosted tiny houses, RVs, and home made tent structures. Most of these alternative living situations have gone swimmingly. The location allows rural living within a few miles of town, and a small hop to Seattle. Well, the public transit is coming, to within 20 minutes of our doorstep, if you can drive to the light rail station, but that’s progress.

Recognizing that short term affordable housing was more realistic at present, than a farming cooperative, was an important step. There are not a lot of people looking for hard labor occupation these days, and farming is hard labor, it’s also little financial reward unless you’re industrial, and EEC is not, and never will be. That was never the intention, but agriculture was, still is, and it has been sustaining its self since we established livestock production a decade ago. We’re now hosting a viable Katahdin flock of meat sheep and dual-purpose chickens. The farm operation also includes fruit and nut trees, a number of small kitchen and herb gardens, stream restoration project, forest stewardship project, and participation in The Public Benefit Rating System. We still focus on forest restoration, and work to return the majority of this land to temperate rainforest.

Affordable housing is part of our financial plan for the land and the long term financial stability of our infrastructure. Over time, we’ll gradually deconstruct buildings, taking away structures as they become obsolete, and consolidating form and function while reducing the human footprint across the landscape. We are not building a village of collective housing long term. The City of Duvall is building massive housing developments including apartment complexes, duplexes, and multi-unit town homes. Not much of it is affordable housing, so our modest offer of a few under market rental price rooms is important. We don’t have to charge high rates because the land is bought and paid for, so no interest mortgage specter haunting our investment. We’re also not looking to sell, hence the PBRS participation and forest restoration goal. Our land value has dropped considerable, but that also makes the King County taxes more affordable. Still, the rentals provide financial stability where the farm creates food and fertility on the land its self.

Though tenants have their own kitchen and bath accommodations, we still pass each other on the land and connect in social activities like farm dinners, game nights, and general porch hangout time. There is a sense of community without obligation, and that’s a lot easier to facilitate. In the frist few years of navigating social dynamics in a multi renter household, it was sometimes a struggle to keep facilities clean, maintain communal gathering, and embrace open communication where there was little experience in doing so outside a single family home where usually, a wife/mother figure had maintained things. I found myself opting into a den mother like role to keep the house clean, facilities functioning, and dinner gatherings productive. Once the tenant kitchen, bath house, and hangout spaces were established, I could step back from cleaning up after others, and have some personal space for myself and my partner, who are happy to host seasonal farm dinners without pressure. This is a very successful model for sharing the land and certain facilities, but also maintaining proper boundaries with tenants.

EEC also once hosted WWOOFers. We had great success in hosting international adventurers, but when we hosted students, they often ended up abandoning the farm once they got a real job. The WOOFing situation was merely a stepping stone to getting employment in our region, which can be very lucrative once established. The contract with the farm was not honored beyond the first few months, and our housing has become too valuable to risk on mere work trade agreements. The farm does not offer work trade, but be do offer workshops, consulting, slaughter and butchering classes, forest stewardship support, and general small production system setup strategy. I work with several other local land owners in tending their forests, farms, and land stewardship plans. We have hosted schools, small group farm tours, livestock learning, and rotational grazing demonstrations. The land at EEC continues to host a verity of native plants and forest ecology, restoration farming practices, and we recently wrote a letter of support in regards to mushroom cultivation on small farms.

Though our modern upbringing remains dormant to communal living, there is hope that our instinct to take on shared space and network dwelling will win out in the end. From personal experience in survival training, you want to be with others, not alone. Alone, you’ll end up injured and out of luck, struggling to keep everything afloat- including yourself. I could not happily live and work on the land unless I had others willing to be there as paying renters. In return, I maintain the property and cultivate food. As a collective, most people seek healthy living without undo obligation. This means an exchange of cash for place, rather than expectations of usually unskilled laboring under tepid enthusiasm. There are exceptions, and if you can find skilled labor in trade, you might get a good exchange rate, but in my experience, skilled people already have paying jobs, and usually don’t want to work where they live. Still, change is in the wind.

Since the pandemic, our area has seen a great rise in working from home, especially in the tech industry, which is an apex industry here in Western Washington. People who were cramped up in apartments have come to the edge of suburbia and started looking at quality of life in terms of green space and outdoor enjoyment. Some of the best tenants we’ve hosted have worked for big tech, and some have even walked away from it after settling in at the farm and discovering healthier ways to live with less consumption assumption. Even without giving up on tech, tenants discover that things like composting toilets and a short walk outside to the shower house, even in cold weather, is refreshing and connective. Tent living offers new appreciation to hot water and an enclosed kitchen with electric range top cooking in seconds. Passive learning though the use of grey water from that kitchen demonstrates without a lecture, you can walk outside the tenant kitchen and hand pick a few herbs from the garden to flavor your meal, getting a gentle kiss from the sun as you harvest.

Not all those who rent here care about such luxuries, but they pay to support them, and at least have the experiences at hand if they so choose. We do like to find renters who will appreciate our unique setup, but are also careful to look for a diversity of people to live with, and what people say in an interview can look quite different in practice once they’ve settled in. So, rather than weave a tangled web of great expectations, applicants are judged on a first come first served basis through Craig’s List and word of mouth. Our demographic tends to be 20 and 30s because of facility setup- you have to walk to get places and there are stairs. We’re a working farm, so there are not a lot of sidewalks and well lit avenues (none in fact). Again, we’re not a multi-family housing development, but a main house with surrounding single unit accommodations with some shared facilities. EEC Forest Stewardship rents rooms.

two single rooms of our “double cabin”

I’d almost reckon it to a boarding house, but I do not clean up or serve meals. I did try that for a year and struggled to distribute food in a timely way and grew quite bitter about constantly washing a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Tenants did not come to the table at the same time, and even rotating food in the fridge went bad with neglect, as tenants struggled to reheat leftovers or compute meal components, even when they were labeled. In larger communities with food systems build in, there are once or twice a week sit down dinners and a crew of cooks preparing, serving, and cleaning up. In recent years, I’ve noticed a huge drop in use of the kitchen by tenants. It seems less a priority now than ever to cook food. Yes, buying fresh materials to execute a meal in this culture is a privilege. Having the time to do it seems even more the issue today. Though even when I offer fresh, free produce from the garden, few take me up on it. They explain that they can’t cook it in time before it goes bad, or they don’t know how to cook, or prefer microwave only. Eating is not a priority any more.

Well no wonder! Without shared responsibility for the monumental task of prepping three meals a day from scratch is daunting. There are lots of tricks to the trade in large portion prep for multi-day use, some instants like granola and milk, along with occasional take out or quick mix instant foods (our favorite is Annie’s Mac and Cheese). But cooking for an individual is a little empty, and Ii get why so many now opt for single servings, and much of the supermarket world has dialed into single packaging, what a sad nightmare in plastic disposable BS. But I digress, though it’s all pertinent when you step back and look at the divide and conquer strategy now leading consumer culture. Every individual needs their own thing- and hey, from experience in shared living- communal tools for instance- without collective mindset upbringing, which is rare these days, the tools are mishandled, left in the rain, covered in mud till they rust and ruin, then a wooden handle brakes, and someone throws the tool away. Who will pay for a new one?

It is a story like this which turns people off to communal living, and rightly so. We’ll have to make extreme adaptations if necessity ever arises again. Until big changes forces us out of our derisive cocoons, we’re not easily committing ourselves to collective survival. In much the way EEC is a bridge between suburban and wilderness, our collective living remains separated into personal spaces and some shared space when we want it. Still, everyone can retreat behind a door or tent flap, into a personal Shangri-La of their own making, and at this time, especially in a pandemic, that’s not always a bad thing. It’s working at EEC, and allowing social connection on one’s own terms, limited community, because we don’t yet rely on each other in the ways I think it takes to truly cohabit like a tribe. I think that’s the skewed fantasy many think of when communal living comes to mind. Yet the options are endless, and I recommend looking into all kinds of alternative living situations if you are inclined.

Here are some ideas-

Community Roots Housing– urban focused long term housing collectives in Seattle

Modern Housing With Village Virtues– NYT Opinion piece on co-housing

List of cooperative housing near Seattle– lots of local options to look at

PBS spotlight on communal housing– great video on cohousing (including international)

Co-housing Association– great national listing of community housing

Is it Time for America to Bring Back the Boarding House?- article on bringing back Boarding Houses

How Cohousing Can Make Us Happier– Grace Kim TED talk

Common Living– interesting search site for housing

Native Plant Sales

Here in Western Washington, it’s time to think about planting. Yes, it’s only January, but here in the temperate rainforest, things are already budding out and turning back on with the slow lengthening of days. Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, we’ve been transplanting small trees and shrubs since November. As soon as leaves drop, the trees are dormant, and digging up does the least harm. Some of the transplants are natives, and some are cultivars, as EEC is working the human component into the landscape. Though pacific crabapple dominates our fruit tree plantings, there are also many cultivated verities of pear, apple, and various stone fruits.

List of local native plant resources:

King Conservation District Native Bare Root Plant Sale

List of Washington and Oregon Plant Sales

Western Washington Native Plant Resources

Washington Native Plant Society

Bare root plantings need special care to establish a successful plant. Timing is crucial- you must plant during cooler months, preferably when plants are doormat. That’s why most plant sales happen in winter. Late winter here in Western Washington affords dormant plants and wet, cool conditions. If there is snow on the ground, and the soil is frozen, you cannot transplant barre root, so monitor climate patterns around the plan time of planting. Late fall is also an option, though you might expose your plantings to hard frost, which will harm bare roots. In a rush to beat winter conditions in mid December, I spent a day collecting young hawthorns at a generous neighbor’s house, and transplanted them directly into their planned spots in a hedgerow along a property line. The soil was damp, and usually, I would water the new plantings, but a week of very cold weather was about to hit. Any newly introduced water would only freeze around the new planting’s roots, causing harm to the young hawthorns. They are also a drought tolerant species, offering some resiliency.

Plants purchased from bare root sales should spend a few years establishing in a zone 1 area. My kitchen garden offers space with water and good soil for a growing, vulnerable young plant. It’s also a space protected from plant predators like deer or livestock. You can heel-in your plants this way if needed. By taking the time to care for your bare-root, you have a much higher success rate of survival into maturity from initial investment. Buying plants is always expensive, but you can also selectively dig up natives at a neighbor’s house (with permission), or along national forest roads where the young plants (especially trees) will be cut or sprayed to keep the roads open. Note when you do road side collecting, stay within 5 feet of the road’s edge, and know the growth there is likely contaminated by chemical spray in the soil, and vehicle pollution. However, you can also mitigate this in the young plant when transplanting into healthy soil. Plants at a neighbor’s house could also be tainted, so ask about the land’s history before choosing to harvest.

Snohomish Native Plant Sale Orders

Buying plants through your local conservation district ensurers you’re getting native plants, good genetic specimens, and supporting your local conservation district. It’s a good learning tool for what native plants are easy to establish, which ones are critical for restoration in your area, and expands landowner practices and projects to enhance ecological restoration. Conservation and native plant societies also have advanced knowledge about each species they offer, and will usually take the time to talk through any questions you have about plants. These organizations also offer workshops, land walk though and restoration planning, as well as countless other resources for land stewardship and restoration, usually free, or at a reduced cost. The plant sales offer smaller groupings of plants, so you’re not stuck buying a large number of plantings- more than you have space for. Bare root nurseries usually have minimum number purchasing, especially with trees, and those number range from 25-200.

EEC Forest Stewardship has been participating in multiple native plant sales for years, making smaller number purchases to prevent being overwhelmed by plantings, which become too numerous to manage. We’ve also spent the past decade observing the species which seem to do better in our biome. There are so many variables throughout a given habitat where restoration planting goes on. On this forest landscape, we’re planting less water reliant species like Western Red Cedar and Western Hemlock, opting instead for Garry Oak and Douglas Fir. We’re also importing some non-native species like Crataegus monogyna or Cornus florida. Whatever planting you select, keep in mind, the native species are already best suited to your ecology, overall soil chemistry, and climate. They will most likely cohabit well together, establish, and last as long term habitat in the environment. All my fruit trees will be gone in twenty years, but the surrounding native evergreens like Douglas fir, could go on for hundreds of years as a climax species in Western Washington. The fir will also grow healthy and happy without human support, where as the apple need continued pruning and irrigation to thrive.

Think about your ability to commit to young plantings and what king of long term maintenance you’ll prefer to spend on plants. Make a good plan of where your plantings will go before you purchase them. Keep in mind space and resource demands a plant will need through out its life. A large leaf maple will easily fit into a container garden as a bare root, but after two or three years, it will be twelve feet high and the roots will be pushing to get out of the bed for additional water and soil. There are many types of smaller native plant species that will happily grow in containers, ask your conservation district for more information if needed. Timing is everything- from the moment you pick up your bare root plantings to the moment they go in the ground, you’re loosing plant vitality. Also, each time a plant is replanted, it slows it’s development by about two years. This means a fruiting plant will be hindered in production, and the size of a plant will develop more slowly. When you can direct plant bare root into its forever home, you’re giving it the best chance at success, but if you can’t maintain the watering and predator protection for the first few years, heel-in closer to home.

Urban Bridges

Looking east from Seattle’s I90 bridge across Lake Washington

The majority of people today live in cities around the world. Urban ecology is often defined by dense cement jungles congested with traffic. Green space and safe, clean soil are rare places within densely populated areas, which diminishes quality of life. Though often cut off from wilderness, many developed environments also harbor opportunities to embrace the urban cultivation where you live, or find outings like a day trip into the country or at least across town into suburban neighborhoods with sprawling gardens. Public transit is required to gain most access, and sadly, in many parts of the world that transit is limited, preventing many people a chance to connect with native ecology. Here in Western Washington, King County is continuing to develop more transit access, and our light rail has developed from downtown Seattle, to Redmond, which is only about another 20 minutes to EEC Forest Stewardship.

Location, location, location- where you plant your roots, the soil determines your growth. EEC is located at the mark where development has made its final mark on wilderness. Beyond our nearby town, you climb into The Cascades, and only two main roads take you to the other side of these towering peaks. Within the western foothills, our land straddles a stream which feeds The Snoqualmie River to The Salish Sea, and The Pacific Ocean beyond. Historically, tribes of Lushootseed speaking people lived along the coast and inland, following the rivers and salmon runs seasonally. Today, much of the fish run continues to collapse under human development and pollution pressures, but the waters also offer lessons in how we can better protect and belong to the land, replanting and establishing good setback principals in future conservation recovery, rather than continued expansion and destruction.

In the map above, I lay out the development “rings” expanding out from Seattle. The red zig-zag represents continued space for heavy urbanization development- such as multi family high rise buildings, apartments, and condos. But this urban sprawl can also grow hand in hand with ecological restoration, and I’d like to introduce you to some of the organizations helping to bridge the need for urban development. Not all urban planning means a loss of habitat for nature or people, we’ve just had a mindset of conflict for so long, I think many people loose sight of the green spaces still thriving within our urban jungles. Now, nature restoration and continued education for better community design with quality of life in mind seems to be a theme gaining steam.

Within cities, the first step in bridging towards a thriving environment for land and people together is cultivation. There are many kinds of cultivation, from plants and soil, to communities forming active groups working towards a better future together. Tilth Alliance is a great example of places urban dwellers can go in town to connect with growing food, tending the land, and supporting local food and village. Here is a list of community groups actively bridging in and around Seattle. It is important to recognize that, while EEC offers learning and exploring where we are on the outer ring of human sprawl, we support connection across the greater landscape of King County, and hope readers who live beyond our region reflect on equivalent ways to bridge conservation and community in cities everywhere. You do not need acreage to make change in better land connection and cultivation.

There’s a world wide grass roots movement afoot called Permaculture. This is often a “gateway” (bridge) for people across all walks of life to better understand permanent settlement and land relationship. People are often caught out of context with place, we all reside somewhere, from tents to mansions, human habitat involves settlement on the land. Since we have overpopulated and continue to expand out (for now), this need for literal space has caused massive ecological destruction for basic human needs, but since the military industrialization era in the 1940s, we’ve also embraced consumerism and throw away culture, demanding what’s left of our natural “resources” (finite physical material that cannot be artificially synthesized). In the 1950s, our world population was 2.5 billion, with only a fraction of people living in urban places, even post industrial revolution. Watch this graph to see how quickly urbanization grew in the last 70 years. We are now at over 7.5 billion, with the largest jump in consumer capacity still growing, definitely outpacing our production and the earth’s capacity to maintain under our global extraction impact.

So what do we do? Consolidation is the first logical step- yes, even in a pandemic, and that’s the opposite of what a lot of people did when COVID struck. If you had access to wealth, you moved out of the city ASAP, and found a nice little farm or small village cottage to enjoy. But the urban retreat has been on for a long time, housing becomes unaffordable as gentrification moves in. Seattle has been hit hard by this trend, and as urban pricing rose, developers moved out to EEC’s neck of the woods. Duvall is projected to grow above average in our region, and the recent development of condo sprawl reflects this model. Our small town is starting to look like the perfect place for a new Whole Foods.

The pictures above all come from our little town, and it’s happening all over the country, and has been for many years. Yet, back in the city, other urban growth is happening, and it’s not just in vertical floors. Urban food production, like Beacon Food Forest, is shifting the urban assumptions many of us have regarding agriculture in cities. The revitalization of urban landscape might be some of the most important conservation work happening globally today. Though most of this blog focuses on a small parcel of land an hour outside Seattle, what’s happening in the city is just as pivotal to ecological restoration. Again, you can support ecology anywhere, you just have to open your eyes beyond what sometimes feels like an oppressive concrete mess.

Beacon Food Forest in Seattle, represents food production and green space development in an urban location. This community run permaculture design springs out of what was once decimated land in a high density urban neighborhood. Through hard work and smart planning, people restored this park and focus on organic city farming. Other urban islands of green include city p-patches. These small, personal gardens offer individuals and families a place to cultivate their own plants. King County has an active p-patch community in and around Seattle. Find out more HERE. If you don’t have time to cultivate your own garden in a city, try to find your local parks and spend time in them. By experiencing and relating to green space where you live, nature can still be a part of city life. Here in King County, there are numerous parks and recreational areas accessible to people living in and around Seattle.

Forming connection to your urban landscapes helps protect them. By being in the environment, you care for it, begin to see yourself as part of the natural world, and receive lessons from a living world. You’ll also have opportunities to see wildlife surviving and thriving in your neighborhood, and learn the geography of place. The green walls of vegetation begin to take shape as individual tree species, shrubs of ripe berries, and colorful wildflowers. One particular urban forest I wandered through a few weeks ago was along Thornton Creek. This park is set up as a stream buffer through several urban neighborhoods in north Seattle. There are established footpaths along the creek through a third growth mixed forest with several areas of native under-story replanting. You can follow the trails through this watershed from highway 522 to interstate 5 through a well developed city-scape.

Through much of this park, you can still see houses and hear occasional traffic nearby, but the birds, forest, and flowing stream sooth the soul and calm the spirit as you experience this wonderful green space. There are many entrance and exit spots along the footpaths for shortcuts when needed, but spending a few hours wandering the trails is also possible for more enthusiastic wanderers. Though the city looms all around, these green spaces are bridges into nature without having to travel far. The connection made to rock, tree, and stream weaves into the human subconscious helping to relive stress and bring us into our senses. Please take time to look for the special green spaces near you, even in cities, these landscapes are alive and teaming with nature. They are important bridges for our humanity to reconnect with self, the natural world, and place. Rooting into the soil with plants, animals, and the elements, we make an important connection to the living world. A connection that binds us to an ecosystem we cannot live without.

In trying to re-imagine our city scapes to better understand habitat and our connection to nature, I invite you to watch this wonderful TED talk by an ecologist who is working towards bridging us back to our landscape through mapping what was to help design the future of urban landscape for the betterment of people and our environment. By bridging the pat ecology with present human development, Dr. Sanderson invites us to rethink our cities as living habitats where all living things can thrive. By finding the streams, forests, and wetland lost through mindless development, we can improve our existing city-scapes for a healthier future. His example give me hope for all urban sprawl, and the quality of life for people by reconnecting them to their environment. This is a future I can embrace and look forward to. It is a forward thinking, which encompasses the earth as a whole, rather than people as separate and beyond nature. Find the wild places where you are, form a bond, and look beyond the concrete and see that nature always finds a way. How wonderful it is when we fold ourselves in as part of nature, supporting her restoration for the good of us all.

Red Earth Tracking

This is the land of my birth, a place sacred to many people, a land that became the end place for so many who had their own land taken from them. Oklahoma means “red people”, a term created by some of the first tribes to be relocated here on forced death marches by U.S. Government “treaties” promising new land and no white settlers. The red sandstone was made famous by a human induced ecological collapse in the 1930s Dust Bowl. Indian reservations were eventually subdivided and given away in an 1889 Land Rush. Through all this abusive human history, the soil remains red and sacred, holding many secrets and lessons for those who stop, look, listen, and feel. This landscape of scrub oak, juniper invasion, cottonwood whispers, and rugged cacti strewn hills has always been a place of great exploring for me. As a child I would find and follow great tracks of what I thought were wolves- but really domestic dogs chasing after deer or other wildlife like the rabbit- tracks pictured below.

The fine red sand catches track patterns with amazing clarity, and our sunny days cast perfect shadows in the prints for human eyes to see. With such perfect substrate, anything moving across the landscape leaves a strong mark on the ground to follow. You’ll see details in a track not often found, which makes identifying the species mush easier- most of the time. Road tracking is always helpful when you’re learning. You can look at a trail for a long way and learn more about an animal’s gait. There’s also an art to how you walk around while you look for and study tracks. Beginners often end up walking over a trail several times, wiping out much of the sign with new, human-made tracks. The road lets you see a trail from a distance and helps you stay off the trail while you track. Walking in the tire treads is the best way to follow a trail.

On a November morning in Western Oklahoma, I visited a very special box canyon I’ve been exploring since about five years old. My Dad used to spend a lot of time at pup-jacks, which were usually located in rural landscapes, firing like continuous Harley Motorcycle backfires, which the machines get their name from, were not welcome near any neighborhood. At this drilling location, where the box canyon coiled quietly like the waiting snakes within, the echoes of machine chaos were dampened by towering bur oak, sugar maple, cottonwood, and black walnut canopy- to name a few species of trees in this off the hook ecosystem. It speaks strongly to the original Caddo people living here and tending the area. They formed a deep relationship with this land and still continue traditional spiritual and cultural rights in the area. Their ancestors cultivated good larders of abundant nuts trees and medical herbs. They hunted animals like deer, bear, and elk for meat, clothing, medicine, and other useful materials like larger bones and antlers for tools.

Meleagris gallopavo, and maybe- Centruroides vittatus (left)

All of these animals still wander Western Oklahoma, but some, like elk have been hunted by colonial descendants, into near extinction. Some how, this amazing canyon avoided major colonial disruption. The trees are ancient, remaining a cathedral of towering majesty and ancient girth. You really don’t see trees like this in Oklahoma, outside an arboretum or centennial neighborhoods in established towns where a few token oaks might stand. Often times, it is the violent wind storms, not people, that fell old trees. In these canyons, the forest remains sheltered by high sandstone walls. Tornadoes cannot form or enter these crevices in the earth, allowing these wonderful trees a chance at old growth. Throughout much of the rest of this state, the ground is scoured continuously by the winds, and most of the shrubby vegetation leans north westward in a permanent bend against seasonal gales.

open hill country with juniper, oak, and tall grasses

Out on the exposed plain, there is still an active landscape with many tracks to follow. Smaller animals are just as fun to track as larger mammals, even more of a challenge in some cases. Insects are very mysterious, but there are some great tracking guides to help to unscramble the cryptic shapes on the ground. There’s also a simple method of narrowing the list of potential species using the tracking funnel. Start with your location and what lives there, then focus on the specific ecology of the place, you would not find a water species in a wind swept desert plain, then look at the tracks themselves and think of size. These mouse tracks below are so small, we know a larger mammal did not make them. These are some of the steps to helping you discover who came through.

The other question to ask yourself is why. What has drawn the animal through the area? Wild creatures are moving towards or away from something, never on a flippant wander for the heck of it. They might be heading for cover, trying to reach a mate, fleeing a predator threat, or most likely seeking food or water. The best way to answer these questions it to follow it out- as in, follow the tracks as far as you can to seek where they went and find out why. This is where the art of tracking really kicks in. You may think following the tracks is easy, you can see them now, but as the substrate changes, the tracks change too. What if you follow them into a rocky escarpment without any sand or mud to see the prints in? What if you loose them in a mess of other tracks? Circle around the obstruction and look for a trail leaving the area, you might be able to pick up the trail further along. If all this trailing seems daunting, take a deep breath and remember that tracking is very personal. You only have to follow it out as far as you wish. Keep it light and fun!

Our eyes cannot always know what to see. The brain works from a catalogue of vocabulary and shape, forming the code before us in visual light and color, texture and form. This action of interpretation takes a lot of brain power, especially when it’s working with less familiar or completely foreign materials. The process of tracking takes a lot of pattern recognition. Even when the shapes and terrain are familiar, the movements are always different in some way, like the individuals who make them, and you’ll find as you track, you become exhausted after a few hours and want to take a nap. With practice, the mind becomes more supple to the practice, and eventually, an afternoon of tracking and trailing will be possible, but start slow- short stints, a walk down a dirt road for a half hour or trailing one animal through easy to read substrate keep most beginners engaged. If tracking becomes a chore, you’ll not enjoy it, and quickly shut down.

Let’s take a moment to practice our sight skills by studying the picture below. Here’s what I’m thinking through as I study the picture- The picture was taken in Caddo County, Western Oklahoma. This is an old oil rig road with trucked in gravel which has almost all been covered with red sandstone and clay substrate. The road is on an east facing, wind swept hillside with surrounding tall grass, sporadic juniper and oak, with a few cotton woods- telling me the area does have water. In fact, there are two catchment ponds within a quarter mile. This area also hosts a network of small canyons filled with good leaf litter from oaks, protected form the wind. They do sometimes flood with storm water during heavy rain events, which are rare in November, the time this picture was taken.

Now, how many different tracks are in the picture? Let’s start with the two most obvious to me. Quick story: I was out on a walk with my partner when I took this photo. He’s new to tracking, but very perceptive, and he was the one who called my attention too these tracks. I had passed over them, as I thought I only saw the coyote print, and blew off the other shapes in the sand as wind blown grasses, a common texture you’ll see around the base of longer grasses in a wind prone area. However, if you take a moment to really study this frame, you’ll see that there is little to no long grass in the picture- we’re on an established road, compaction from long term use, and gravel have made it hard for the sod to return. I think the light and shadow also hindered my tracking sight, the dappled light comes from a cotton wood tree above. So who made the swishing, swooshing, slithering shape across thee road? A snake! My partner had picked out the snake track and I walked right passed it.

Every set of eyes in tracking count, never underestimate a beginner, the sight, the ability to see shapes of animals moving across the landscape resides deeply within all people. I watched my friend’s 1 1/2 year old son toddling along pointing out horse and dog tracks in the mud along a well used trail yesterday. No one had pointed them out to him, or even suggested he look for them at all. It was in his DNA to see the trail and shapes, then follow them. Amazing instinct, we’re meant to see this way and move through the landscape following, it’s part of why we walk on two legs. Tracking is deep folks, worth your time. So back to this picture- we have a coyote- or is it a domestic dog? Or a cat? A bobcat? Cougar? Size matters, this track is too small to be a cougar, but is it a cat? I said Coyote right off the bat, and I knew that because of the oval shape of the paw, it’s tight formation, and a lack of registering claw marks. There are probably claw mark there if I look hard, but they will be small pin holes on the ground, much like a cat, but nothing like the huge honkin nails of a dog.

Dog tracks are also all over the place, as pets are fed a good predictable diet, lending them a lot of energy to romp around and play. Wild dogs are hustling all the time to survive. They store energy by moving in direct lines with little wandering. This profile of coyote has grown in my memory over time, and this animal is common across North America, so I see the tracks often. Domestic dog is even more common, so I have that shape dialed in too. Cat is a little more tricky, and I have been known to see cat tracks in canine tracks more than once. But there’s something rather clear in feline and canine tracks which sets them apart; symmetry. The dog and coyote tracks are mirror images when you draw a line through the center of the paw. Domestic and wild felines are asymmetrical, meaning the toes are more offset, leaving no mirror image when you try to draw a line through them.

There is a lot more going on in the picture above, but in the end much of it is speculation, because in tracking, unless you see the animal as its making the marks in the ground, you are only guessing at what happened and who was involved- granted, it’s an educated guess, but there are a lot of assumptions made in tracking, so recognize you are writing a troy about what you think might have happened, and purposing a situation based on experience. That’s why it’s great to track with others. As a group, you have more perspective, more conjecture, and more critical thinking, as well as multiple sets of eyes. Traditionally, people hunt in groups to increase success. Tracking today does not have ot be about hunting, but it will come in handy when you are on a landscape and exploring. Tracking goes well beyond the animals, you also see plants, terrain, resources, weather, habitat, ecological indicators, and become more intimate with the land as you traverse it. No matter how deeply you choose to engage, the magic of tracks and sign continues to inspire all who take the time to look a little bit closer at the world around them.

Didelphis virginiana -to name one in this collage of activity

Snake in December

This place was once a temperate rainforest. It held vast canopies of giants, towering over a rich and thriving ecosystem that provided for millions of species. Then an over developed brain thought it would be a good idea to chop down all the trees for money and put cattle on the open fields left behind. Now the field is turning into a residential rental development. The Oregon grape pictured above was planted as part of a hedged walkway down to the river from the homes. On it rests a young garter snake. I took this picture in early December, learning only recently from a herpetologist friend in Nebraska, that reptiles and amphibians will remain active throughout winter in some regions. I’ve never seen a snake anywhere in North America during the winter. It appears that we’re having a warmer year. For the snake, this must be a confusing time. For me, it’s a little unnerving.

This last summer was the hottest on record, and to now feel similar warming during the winter foreshadows more hot summers ahead. The mountains have some snow now, and skiing enthusiasts are encouraging a late winter boom, but the snake sun bathing here in The Snoqualmie River Valley says otherwise. Though there might be some good snow pack entering The Cascades later this winter, even with that pracipitation, faster spring melt will send most of that water to ocean shores, preventing the slow melt and soak into the soil to feed what’s left of the forests. With so much canopy removed, the sun beats down on exposed soil and rock, evaporating much of the moisture into cloud systems that will dump heavier rains, washing away the top soil too. It’s a dramatic cycle that is only becoming more exaggerated with time, and our species is not adapting to these changes with any enthusiasm.

Here at EEC, we’re trying to cover our soil, slow water runoff, and eventually re-establish the canopy for ecological stability. Many more trees are going to die, even without timber harvesting and land clearing practices. For small land owners like myself, restorative native plant reintroduction is a crucial part of helping to prepare our environment for the dramatic change already happening. The hot summers compel more resilient species of tree like oak and Douglas fir. When the rains do return, they are carrying away the precious what’s left of our soils after decades of logging triggered the initial devastation. The fragments of forest left are stressed by too much heat in summer, and too much rain in winter. Milder winter temperatures lull us into a false sense of security- how much nicer is a 60 degree December? The wildlife seems to flourish.

This Northwest Salamander Ambystoma gracile, is also out and about on a cold December morning. It’s become quite sluggish, being caught out in a cold front as rapid temperature changes happened over night. This sudden change can shock the animal, adding undue stress to a precarious species. Any amphibian is an indicator species- meaning its presence directly correlates to an environment’s health. He’s here, so the ecology is thriving, but he’s out at a less than ideal time, meaning there’s something strange about the weather throwing off his internal clock. It’ happening to plants and animals across the world, environmental extremes are confusing natural cycles and things are not adapting well. Humans are part of the animal adaptation, through our design makes us most able to adjust, and it’s also making it hard for us to see the major change happening all around.

As a farmer, the land tells me there’s change on the wind, and my cultivation practices have to change quickly to adapt, which is possible on a small acreage, but for the industrial agriculture that feeds the world, this climate catastrophe will be as devastating to food crops, as humans have continued wild land decimation to accommodate consumer madness. When the tables turn and nature shuts down on us, we’ll have nothing to fall back on, not even technology. Our industrial ag is on the fritz, and stock market revenue will not feed anyone. Stocks are not crops, and nature’s finite handling will crash exponential insanity. The reptiles and amphibians are messengers sent to warn us of impending change, change that we’re not willing to adapt into quickly enough.

Pasture Practices

Sheep were in this pasture for three days, two weeks ago. We’ll rest it for another week and hope to get a few more inches of growth before putting the sheep back on for another 2-3 days. Our flock consists of 20 sheep and the upper pasture is about 2 acres of pasture and 1 acre of browsing. When it rains regularly, we expect about 2 inches of pasture growth a week during the growing season. Drought stagnates growth to roughly 2 inches a month. We sometimes feed hay in September to keep pasture condition through 3 month summer drought. In winter, we pull the sheep off the ground and rest everything till March of next year. What I’d like to see more of in the photo above? Diversity! We’re broadcasting forb mixes including wildflowers, clover, amaranth, and brassicas where there are patches of open ground, but will need the use of a seed drill for productive replanting.

Most soil here in Western Washington is acidic, and needs regular amending with dolomite lime, which is usually tilled into fields in the fall, but we don’t want to till, so we use our chickens- though it’s a much slower process. Our layers get limestone in their feed, and poop all over the pastures after our sheep move through- which also manages pests that would thrive in the sheep poop and plague us all. While scratching through the manure piles, chickens break down the nitrogen thatch and poop out their own amendment to the soil. This living dynamic of cooperative systems makes the holistic dream come true. Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, the energy of restoration farming continues to enhance our quality and production of both great sheep and chickens, providing lamb and eggs to our surrounding community from thriving pasture on living soil.

Rotational grazing is the key to maintaining pasture production, and soil conditioning with manure, minerals, and aeration is another. Most industrial farms use machines and a lot of expensive commercial fertilizers to force production from the land. Their soil has turned into dead earth full of artificial chemicals. When there is nothing living in the soil, its production will eventually crash. The industrial chemicals used to condition soil kills the living biom, reducing long term productivity. Agriculture across the world is starting to acknowledge this self-destructive pattern, but the damage is done. Even now, with the knowledge we have of how damaging chemical treatment of soil is, farmers in the US are still treating their soil commercially and it’s killing the very soil they want to cultivate. In man’s (gender bias meant here) attempt to enforce his dominion over the earth, he’s killing the very thing sustaining his survival.

There’s not much wild grazing left in the world to study for understanding how nature set herself up for sustaining life on earth, and humans aren’t very good at taking notes from the experts if they are not men in lab coats producing record profits, but the time to pay attention to the natural order of things is at hand folks- Mother Nature has been perfecting soil production for millions of years, and the biological adaptations produce more “profit” than any stock market investment could attain. Mimicking nature yields successful results in time- yes, time, as in- you have to be patient. The universe is on an endless cycle of evolution, time, by human standards of measurement, wants to rush things, and in some ways we can. The numbers of animals in my rotational grazing matters- and the climate, and the soil’s current health. I have to know the history of my soil- from ice age glacial compaction to the last sixty years post clear-cut erosion.

application of anhydrous ammonia on fields in Nebraska

The quality and content of soil varies from place to place, but some basic practices remain the same on pastures in any landscape. You can find lots of plug in equations to calculate how many pasture spaces you need for such number of animals, but to be frank, it’s going to take time and patience to adjust to your land’s pace. The goal is to improve the land- but that improvement varies, and nature can always improve much faster than humans- we are short sighted and assume so much about the natural world. Look at the plants living in the soil where you wish to create pasture. Those species will tell you a lot about the chemical content of your soil and what’s needed to condition it. Animal activity is usually a good thing to introduce- though in some environments, this can be detrimental. Manure is composed of the basic organic materials needed to support living soil- including bacteria, carbon, and nitrogen. It’s the nitrogen that can saturate soil and burn it- which is why too many animals can kill off the living microbes within the soil.

Soil compaction is also a major issue, and too many animals can prevent proper aeration- though the right amount of animal activity can be crucial. Hoof grinding of soil, manure, and vegetation is a necessary part of pasture improvement and long term thriving grasslands. Even the saliva of grazers plays a part in improving pasture growth. The landscape thrives within complex chemical relationships that people have struggled to dictate with simple prescriptions based on industrial demand bearing out an abusive relationship with the land that is costing us any quality of life. I’m sure even the implementation of sheep and chickens on a rotating system of limited depth is doing less help than might returning the space entirely to temperate rainforest canopy right now, but remember, as an agriculturalist, I’m working the land, not just improving it. For the next few decades, the sheep will graze, keeping some of the land open and producing a meat source for the community. The soil being grazed upon will build carbon deposits and long term layers of fertility to host the eventual forest. EEC plans to replant native canopy in time, but there needs to be an abundance of top soil fertility to support the massive trees which struggle to regain their footing across the landscape.

Seasonal rhythms will have great impact on how pastures are treated. As I mentioned before, I take my sheep off the pasture as much as possible in winter. This does not mean they never get out to graze for our 6 month deluge, but the time grazing is limited. In summer, the pasture is divided up into smaller segments with focused grazing- called “stripping“. Note in the picture above, there are plantings in the pasture space, where trees (a fruit orchard in this case) are planted and established for long term silvopasture practices. This picture is also taken in Zone 3 of our permaculture design. I can see this field from my house and have a lot of direct engagement with the systems there- earthworks, irrigation, fruit production, grazing rotation- to name a few. This pasture area will continue to develop into an orchard over time, with more planting to come as the trees establish and thrive. We’re still irrigating to maintain the young plantings, as because of the water investment and direct oversight, this area will be planted out with more production crops, eventually becoming an occasional grazing space, with limited access to allow ground cover and shrubs to establish.

Remember, in places you allow your livestock to graze, many species of under-story plants will struggle to take hold- especially if you are using the stripping method. Eventually, we’ll cut back grazing rotation to minimal contact, maybe an hour at a time gleaning through when spring growth is at its height. At the peak growth rate, the green vegetation stays ahead of the grazers, so long as their impact is minimal. When stock is left on ground for too long, bare spots form, erosion occurs, and the animals end up standing in their own feces and mud. The picture below shows cows in New Zealand and a heifer giving birth in the filth. Not only are these kinds of conditions common on overtaxed landscapes, animals can adapt and survive in them, so producers are unlikely to address these grievances without over-site.

On small hill farms like ours, this muddy nightmare would bring complete ruin to the limited topsoil fertility we manage to retain. This is why hill farms are not rich crop producers, there is not flat ground for tilling, and our precious topsoil cannot be left uncovered. Rain leeches what little fertility is left in the soil, so livestock is a good solution, bringing back that fertility and thriving on uneven ground. Though sheep and chickens play a vital role in the current land setup, our long term goal will see the animals phased out and a forest replanted. Most pastures and fields are not slated to be reforested- it would cause a loss in production for any sane farmer playing the industrial agriculture game. Short term gain using synthetic chemical conditioners in the soil and limited rotational grazing and diversification of species commits long term failure. Maximum output has become our greedy focus as a consumer society at the cost of our land’s stability.

When we learn to see the landscape we’re living in as our selves, perhaps then we can begin to form a relationship that nurtures everything, rather than forcing land to profit without repaying the service. In the same was colonial dominion has failed, this outdated land conditioning for industrial production will also continue to fail, though we’re oblivious to the starvation we’ve reserved for ourselves in abusing our environment. The industrial treatment of soil also directly contaminates our water, and between these two finite resources stand the pillars of our survival as a species. Yet we continue to pollute, pave, and develop towards our own destruction. In these times of insanity, it is up to the smaller farms and ecologically minded cultivators to steward what’s left in hopes that some areas of our planet might dodge complete collapse. If you have the ability to make friends with a local small scale producer, and are willing to pay the true cost of food in support of mindful production, you can help to invest in clean water and soil for the future. Gratitude to all the people who recognize this ambition and support small scale agriculture for long term health and happiness.

Dog Updates

Animal behavior is one of my favorite topics and the working dog relationships at EEC Forest Stewardship are endless discussion. Most of what I share here is direct experience with my two working dogs, and the livestock. Expertise is based off fifteen years of dog training, and ten years of livestock production. Greatest takeaways include knowing that humans are the only thing “at fault” in relationship with animals around them. Yet even with this clear rule of thumb in practice, I still catch myself being disappointed in my animals’ choices from time to time. They also humble me more often than I’d like to admit- especially when it comes to their own development with each other. I’m new to the pack relationship of having two dogs working together with me. Especially two dogs with very different gifts. Valentine, the Australian Cattle Dog mix, has a physical, driving energy. She pushes the sheep from behind, and often amps up the energy of the sheep, causing them to be on guard and take flight- rather than being relaxed and moving slowly from one pasture to another. There are moments when the driving cattle dog energy is helpful. Valley can get the herd unstuck form a corner in the pasture, and works as a wedge for me at fence opening when I don’t want the sheep getting out. But for these first few years of herd “training”- I have not done any formal work with her, I just point and give basic, one word commands. She’s struggled with doing much more than running at the sheep, and through them when I signal her to engage. It’s been a little tedious at times, especially when she runs them in the opposite direction of the barn when I’m trying to get them home in the evening.

The sheep have great habits already imbued in them with the routine of rotational grazing. They know the fresh grass they are moving onto, and like going back to the barn when it starts to get dark- you don’t need a dog to help move them in the right direction during those moments of clear understanding. However, when I need to get the sheep in earlier in the day, or want them to move to a pasture out of sight and not right next door, they can balk, hesitate, and refuse to move with any cooperative spirit. It’s up to me to recognize this hitch in the giddy-up and move to smooth, rather than overexcite and scatter the herd. Valley will settle down with maturity and confidence, and she is thinking hard through our learning exercise. The more time we can spend in the field and engaged, the more she’ll naturally pick up her instincts. However, driving the sheep is not ideal, so there is limited direct contact allowed. To train without the sheep, I work with Valentine on moving around other obstacles like a grove of trees, or around a fence instead of jumping over it. My hand and body gestures are cuing her in a specific direction along a certain rout. She can also understand verbal cues to halt, slow down, or back off, and execute them in the field without the sheep.

Gill is continuing to channel his centuries old instinct bred into The Kangal for sheep care and protection. He spent most of the summer out with the flock in open fields. By August, when we put the flock out, the dog would join them instead of hanging back at the gate with people. Livestock Guardian Dogs should be bonded more to the animals than you, yet able to obey basic commands and defer to your presence when you are there. The dog must be approachable for health and safety reasons, yet aloof and focused on the livestock they are protecting. Working animals in collaboration with people are balanced and happy. It’s up to humans to respect and understand their animal counterparts, working with them instead of projecting onto them. Gill showed me just how willing he is to adapt and collaborate when we had our first vet visit since I adopted him last year.

We were late to our appointment- which also included Valley, and our two cats Lucia and Muir. Gill loaded into the back seat without hesitation, then stayed there while I drove the half hour to Cascade Animal Clinic in Monroe. This vet has been amazing, and I highly recommend the services of Dr. Buchholtz. Gill is leash trained, and people friendly, so we had no problem with social distance hand off to a total stranger at a totally strange place. This might seem like an impossible feat for LGDs, but it’s actually the recommended social standard to keep the breed safe and healthy. Not all breeds are easy to train like this, and Gill was in a household environment through his puppy-hood, once rescued off the streets. He’s taught me that trust means full honest self at all times. I’ve always approached him head on, face to face, with clear intention. If I’m even thinking about trying to pull one over on him his entire demeanor changes and he becomes aloof- rightly so! That’s total instinct honing form those thousands of years the breed has been selected.

A downside to breeding can be genetic predisposition, and for Kangals, ear infections are common. Hanging ears are a vector for dirt and bacteria. Gill is an active digger, roller, and mud wallower. He uses his muddy paws to scratch his big ears and dirt gets in. Taking a 120lb dog by the ears and putting a liquid cleaning agent into his ear canal is a challenge, but Gill knows what I’m doing and lets me because I am honest, gentle, patient, and helping him to avoid infection and pain. Now, he may not grasp all this as I do, but he trusts my actions by allowing me to impart the medicine, even though it’s awkward and uncomfortable. What a guy! Valley is far less accommodating with most health care, preferring to receive belly scratches to claw trimmings. Still, she’s approachable and patient when I groom her, apply tick and flea meds, or check her body condition. Both dogs and cats receive glowing reports from the vet’s office for being handleable, and friendly. That’s one of the most important behavioral skills a working animal can offer.

dog run with a cat gate end

Temperament is very important in working dogs; Gill and Valley are socialized to people and other animals. Australian Shepherds drive stock, but should not harass or chase livestock when not working with a human shepherd. Valley is capable of being called off a deer, which takes some training, and breed genetics. Gill works around territorial boundaries, with high fencing a clear demarcation of his work zone. He kills anything (other than people, sheep, and Valley) trespassing on his turf. This has been a problem with chickens. We’ve lost a few to his jaws. Usually, he plays with them, just trying to have fun, not kill aggressively. The small boned birds do not stand a chance. The behavior is unwanted, and I’m trying to navigate the best answer. Chicken wire is going up along the fence-line, but I would like to train the dog to guard the flock of bird as he does his sheep flock. Again, lots of behavior training to work on, and studying the breed to better approach that training helps focus on strategies that work with the dog’s natural talents.

Overall, this pack is weaving a tight basket of guardianship and herding. Continuous learning and the working relationship engages important instincts. Moving the sheep grows easier as Valley learns to lower her energetic volume, and Gill keeps the coyotes and raccoons away from the stock with a beautiful bark and imposing presence. The pups are also fondly pet on and given lots of yummy treats in thanks for their effort, but I can tell by the tail what really feeds them- and it’s being outside, moving across the landscape, with intention. There are moments, when I’m daydreaming on a walk to the back pasture with the flock and dogs, where I see the ghost of wolves, original canine ancestors moving in a pack through dense rainforest in search of elk herds in the river valley below. Gratitude for this sacred relationship between The People and The Dog Nation.

Forest Friends

Three Bears at EEC

The trail-cams here at EEC Forest Stewardship show us glimpses of a rich and thriving habitat for our wild forest friends. This Fall, during the slaughter season (we process our domestic animals on site), we do not waste any part of the carcass, placing awful and bones not used out in a safe place on the land for wild creatures to partake of. By safe, I mean a place away from our livestock and living space, down by the creek in the wildlife corridor. There we know cougar, bobcat, bear, coyote, opossum, raccoon, and more thrive and jive. Here are some recent images of the greater community of animals EEC calls neighbors and friends. For some, these wild animals might seem like a threat or danger, but the animals were here long before us, and we have great respect for them on the landscape. Our hope is to work in harmony with all living things in the forest, creating safe space for all things to live in peace.

We do not over-romanticize our relationship with wild things- they are wild, unpredictable, and a potential threat to our livestock. They are also playing an important role in nature, deeply woven into the fabric of this land. The carnivores among them have predated stock on the farm in the past, but I don’t begrudge them, I understand it’s my responsibility to protect my stock and keep them out of harm’s way. We now have strong fencing, a good Livestock Guardian Dog, and have prevented further loss of domestic life with strong boundaries. That also means keeping our livetock out of the wild places on our land. The sheep and dogs do not hang out in the wildlife corridor, allowing wildness to have space of its own on the land too.

Coyotes attacking an Opossum

Our trail cameras allow us to view the wildlife without disrupting it. We’ve been lucky to see a variety of different species, as well as behavioral action that shows us an intimate way of life few people are privy to. By observing the activity of nature all around, we form a closer relationship to the natural world and our own place in it. If you have access to land and the opportunity to set up a trail camera, I highly recommend it- you’ll learn so much about your area and wild neighbors. You might be surprised to discover some of the animals living close, or you might be a little freaked out. Even in urban places, wildlife thrives- or at least, survives right under our noses (or apartment buildings). Here in the temperate rainforest, we’ve got apex predators and flying squirrels, coyotes and beetles, an elaborate collection of living things which make up a complex ecosystem we rely on to survive.

As the season changes from abundance to dark, wet, cold times of challenge, we recognize that wildlife is feeling the pressure of the changing season and taking in the last of the good life before winter’s lean times set in. It’s important to recognize these changes and embrace them too. People today are far less connected to seasonal change, nature’s rhythm of boom and bust, and the cause and effect these cycles create in our living world. Bears are filling up on a feast before the last berries are fallen from the bush. Coyotes are moving closer to the barn, hoping to catch a chicken that strayed too far from the coop and away from the watchful eye of the guarding dog. The opportunistic opossum creeps along the edges sniffing out food scraps and fallen grain, they have also eaten chickens in the past and will again if the coop door is not tightly closed. These are good challenges to work with as a farmer and land steward. When I loos track of these changes, the wildlife will teach me the folly of my ignorance. If only more people would embrace that learning, rather than blaming the predators and seeking revenge.

Raven feeding on sheep rib bones

Every friend in the forest has a special place in our world, and though we are often blind to the full picture, we have an important place in that world too. Every time an animal shows its self, there is information to take in. I am grateful to have a chance with each of these encounters, to reflect on what mother nature is allowing me to see. It is also a pleasure to share these images with you reader. In this time of giving thanks for all our gifts in this life, I am humbled by all the opportunity this land offers, my place in it, and the stories to share.

Ancestry Speaks

On a family visiting trip we had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite prehistoric sites on earth- Tsankawi, part of The Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, NM. This ancient site is home to early ancestors of modern Pueblo People living in The Rio Grande rift. This incredible geological formation of sandstone canyons layered with basalt and pumice from volcanic activity millions of years ago. This magical place awakens such passion in me for understanding human survival and planned settlement within the landscape. Here was a place deeply connected to human life through extended trade- all the way into Central America, diverse natural resources like clay for pottery, obsidian for tool making, and sacred caves weaving together strong spiritual connection to underground ritual. When I step into these cliffs, I see red sandstone like the kind I grew up with in Oklahoma, layered above with white pumice, both soft stones that human tools shaped into dwellings, temples, and other important shelters for human use.

As I child, I would often explore the land in Oklahoma looking for good places along canyon walls to build “forts”. The rough sandstone often relenting to water and wind erosion, shaped into natural overhangs and hollowed out crevices which easily supported stick and debris shelters I erected. At Tsankawi, the land speaks the same language of sheltering in the rock and getting a good lay of the land from the cliffs. Human instinct is on display within these ruins, echoing the struggles of people to survive in a place where harsh conditions eventually drove humans to abandon these sacred places. In walking through these scattered dwellings and rocky paths worn into the rock over time, I sense the importance of location, cultivation, topography, and management of resources. People lived throughout these canyons in large numbers, working together to eek out crops, design water catchment to store as much rain as possible for the drought time, and good relationship with neighbors to ensure peaceful coexistence and support during lean times.

The bottom land below the cliffs channeled water when rains would come, usually catching the heavy storms, only too briefly dumping many inches in a few hours. The rock escarpments shed these rushing torrents in moments, and without planned gathering points along the canyon floor, the water would wash on down the road (so to speak) without offering much refreshment to the small enclaves of human habitation along the way. Rock channels sent the rainwater down shoots along the cliffs and into catchment basins below lined with basalt rock holding back short lived streams to feed meager crops. The narrow canyon floors not only channel water, but also animals for hunting. In a nearby settlement only a few miles away, we watched a herd of white tail does browsing along the stream bed in search of water and lush grass only found along the shaded canyon floor. Again, the topography creates not only shelter and water, but also food. The animals have to approach the water, and the narrow space leading to it offers a predictable path to hunt.

Today it seems we’ve lost out eye for the land and its abundance. Our recent generations have exploited connivance at the cost of longevity. Though our human ancestors who lived in these remorseless places faced far shorter lifespans and little security, they survived, and the evidence suggest, even thrived in these canyons long ago. It was not until mother nature held the rains back, that the people who lived here were forced to move on. What our ancestors left behind shows complex social structures with great connection to place- an understanding and respect for the natural world, and deep gratitude for the close connection with land, wilderness, and the finite resources available. Still, there is evidence of over harvesting for firewood, over-hunting of minimal wildlife on an already taxed landscape, and eventual conflict over food and water. This continue struggle for balance haunts us today- though we ignore these specters with frightening indifference. Here in New Mexico, water is scarse, and getting scarcer by the day, yet people continue to move in, over develop the land, and push strained resources beyond what’s possible to survive. When are consequences felt?

Our ancestors moved as climate changed, and we will be forced on similar paths soon, many people are already displaced by natural disasters, drought, famine, and desperation to survive. Perhaps if more modern day people, especially in economically dominate places like The United States, took time to look back at our past civilizations right here in North America, they would better understand the tough challenges now facing humanity. The ancestors of Pueblo People in The South West are still alive and culturally relevant, though most colonial imports (white people) are blind to their very presence- beyond what Hollywood chooses to romanticize. Right now, the Pueblos are closed to outsiders as a protection against COVID-19. It was a relief to see all the Pueblo gates closed and locked to tourists from the outside. Though the casinos were alive and hopping- welcoming in Those Who Take the Best Fat.

Our lives on this earth are so short- compared to the vast geological time stretching out across the landscape. Fragments of pottery, chips of stone from tool making, even carved shapes on the canyon walls stand as testament to the ingenuity and determined link to survival that all people posses, but without that connection to land, community, the delicacy of nature and her resources, we are doomed to fail in our severance from the earth we rely on. When water out of the tap is no longer safe to drink, when food is full of poison we ingest- growing cancers in our flesh, when greed removes its hideous mask of opulence to reveal horrid face- pestilence and poverty, then it will be too late. Where once people could move on to better pastures, greener places, we will discover- too late- that we’ve poisoned the whole planet, and no place will offer sustenance or sustainability.

The incredible technology and global connection today should be a boon, but our apathetic consumer conditioning, though slipping, remains a mask stuck in place, dimming our vision, hindering cognitive development, and squandering our dignity as the human race. Why have we fallen so far from grace? Nature continues without us, and without us it will recover in time, millions of years in the future, perhaps a new species of people will come across our ancient ruins and wonder at the stupidity of mankind, his blatant abuse of the planet, himself, and his people. Our micro-plastics, polluted landscapes, and cruel handling of each other will not paint a pretty picture on any canyon walls. What have we abandoned in these modern times to maintain comfort and commodity?

Black Tail Learning

Tis the season for black tail deer, and I’ve been hunting hard for our limited two week season here in Western Washington. The buck pictured above was “shot” by a neighbor’s camera. I have been given the great privilege of hunting their land for this beautiful animal, and so far, he has been MIA when ever I’m around. His harem, on the other hand, has been more than happy to spend time with me while grazing, offering great behavioral observation while I wait patiently for the antlers to arrive. In my GMU (game management unit), you can only harvest bucks- of any age. This mature male has had plenty of years to pass on his genetics, and would be a great source of meat for winter’s cold dark times. The privilege to enter a neighboring property in pursuit of this animal demands the upmost safety and mindfulness in being a good guest. I only hunt in this 40 acre parcel using a 25 yard range shotgun slug. This is not required in this GMU, but should be implemented any time you hunt near a home. Firearms restrictions can be part of a GMUs legal description, but even if it’s not, a responsible hunter should recognize the safety concerns within any location and adapt accordingly.

One of the greatest rewards of hunting is being out in nature. I spend many hours sitting in the wilds, watching, listening, and waiting. I get a chance to sit within the ecology I love, watching the light change across a landscape alive with nature’s mystery. The neighboring property where I’ve been given permission to hunt has two wonderful sit spots where I have spent a bit of time with resident does. The major draw in a ravine near the house is a downed cottonwood tree. It fell in a wind storm last weekend and acts like a bait to the deer. Finding natural attractants in the environment increases your chances of harvesting. In Washington, you can legally put out a certain amount of corn or fruit to bait a deer, but I do not think that’s the most ethical way to hunt, even if its legal. I would hunt in an apple orchard if given the chance, but taking the time to find where the deer are gathering naturally is important in understanding what they need and why.

In hunter education, we teach that wildlife need shelter, food, water, and a close proximity between these resources. Human encroachment into wildlife habitat is taking away the resources wild things need to live, so they adapt to our impacts, roaming pastures, jumping fences, and following roads to gain easier access to what’s left of their ecology. In the fall, deer are hunted because they are heavy with fat put on all summer in preparation for winter. In the autumn, does are not heavy with fawns, and the young born that year are old enough to fend for themselves. The bucks go into rut, and begin marking territory and carving out a desirable space for his harem of does to roam. In fact, the does will go where they please, and the bucks must defend a space already chosen by the does. The buck I am hunting near my house has put his mark on a young alder below as a sign to other bucks that he’s the resident dominant male.

Following deer sign to locate an animal can be tricky. It’s better to look at the bigger picture of a place and seek out active trails and where they lead. You’re often limited by property lines and keeping a safe distance from neighboring houses and active roads. The deer tend to avoid those places too, preferring well stocked larders in abandoned pastures or along hidden trails where they have good cover while moving through a place. It’s hard to hunt a heavily wooded place, but setting up a sit along the edge of a forest can be rewarding. On my second day of hunting my neighbor’s land, I went to explore a lower field and found a field with a calm doe grazing alone. It was a wonderful spot, with several deer trails converging on a field with plenty of good grazing and quick escape routs to get away form any threat. Since I kept my distance and sat down quietly, the doe relaxed back into grazing a while longer and let me observe her. It was the closest I’ve been to a wile animal in a while, and it felt good to connect with her as I settled in.

Deer and full of mystery, and often left unnoticed in the forests and edges all around us. They wander through suburban backyards, urban parks, and even on the shoulders of busy highways. Sometimes they stray into roads and get maimed or killed by brutal automotive impact. For the lucky animals that manage to avoid human induced accidents, the shelter of quiet back fields and third or forth growth forests offer enough forage, water, and cover to thrive. Our neighborhood black tails are habituated to people much more than the deer living further out in the commercial timber forests. These close up pictures and video were taken during an evening hunt. The weather was cool and damp, light showers came and went with breezy wind shifts. The scent of human presence in the wind can turn the deer away from your position, and they will float away without you ever knowing they were nearby.

Deer are silent shadows of the forest, as this doe shows in her amazing ability to suddenly blend in and disappear without a sound. As I sit still, watching her passively while I wait, she turns into a ghost and drifts away into the bramble along a hidden trail I had not yet discovered. This video captures the challenge of even seeing a deer that does not want to be seen. It was tempting to follow the doe on her move up the hill, so I did, and she took me towards the fallen cottonwood where she veered up to the house and I had to step back for safety reasons. Quietly, I took a page from the female ungulate’s book and slowly walked back to the lower field for another long sit. I was sure more deer were bound to move through there, and it would be a perfect place to wait.

Hunting takes time, and the more hours you can put in the field the more likely you are to successfully harvest your food. It’s a privilege to hunt in our country, you have to also have access to a gun of legal regulation, proper attire (hunter orange is required for modern firearm deer season), knowledge of hunting laws, and a Hunter Education Certification from the state. Then there are the hours of time scouting in preparation for your hunt, which start well before hunting season. I’ve spent most years hunting at The Snoqualmie Tree Farm with a recreational pass that allowed me to drive in. This year I did not get a vehicle pass, and instead have been biking in, which is an epic work out before I sit. Still, it’s been another great learning experience, including finding the perfect time to arrive before dawn so I can get to my spot under the cover of night.

Clear cuts offer a great place to have a large field of vision and potential sighting of a deer moving through the landscape. They are open spaces, like fields, which give the deer time to evade predators like cougar, who rely on tree tops to ambush from above, or thick shrubs to pounce from behind. The sun shines down on bare earth, where wildflowers, grasses, ground covers, and bramble become a perfect salad bar for grazers. I’ve been seeing a lot of brows sign on young cotton woods, bitter cherry, and red alder. In a two or three season old cut, the habitat will show obvious deer sign like nibbled young vegetation, tracks, and worn trails. The trails and tracks help you identify where deer are being funneled by the topography. Most animals take the path of least resistance, and you as the hunter, want to find those spots and pick a sit that’s safe to shoot from nearby.

In the picture above, I’m sitting on the up hill edge of an overgrown filed. My field of vision to the west, extends to the other end of the field, and into the woods beyond, which continue down hill for another 100 yards before banking into a wetland and starting up the other hill beyond. I’m using a shotgun with limited 25 yard range, which keeps my shooting arch within the field, but not the forest beyond. I try not to put myself in the woods, because trees block your shot and obscure the deer, not a good combination when you are trying to take a safe, well positioned shot. Another helpful aid in making a clean shot during the hunt is a pair of shooting sticks. The shotgun rests in the cradle of these sticks to steady my long gun when I take aim and fire. Try to always have a brace like this when you’re shooting to improve accuracy. A stump or tree trunk can be used in a pinch, but a pair of good shooting sticks allows you to take a steady shot from almost anywhere.

I’ve mentioned hunter orange and I’m going to mention it again- wear it- even if you’re not hunting, but enjoying the woods during hunting season- please wear hunter orange. The vests are cheap and can be found at most outdoor recreation stores, you can also get an orange vest with reflectors at any automotive store. I don’t wear reflectors when hunting, but if I’m just out hunting mushrooms or exploring the woods, the reflectors are fine. Hunter orange hats are wonderful too, though you’ll still need a vest or jacket to have enough coverage. Yes, hunter pink is also allowed here in Washington. You can mix and match for some of the best color clashing fashion statements ever seen outside a catwalk. Outside of the hunter orange/pink requirements, the rest of your clothing is up to you, but I would highly recommend dressing for the elements. Gloves are always recommended, because if your hands are too cold, you’ll have poor contact on your trigger, so keep the hands warm and dry. Wet/cold feet will also shut down a good hunt quickly, pack an extra pair of socks. Carry a pack with water, snacks, and a med kit too. All this and more hunting pack prep info can be found here.

As the evening of my hunt set in, my slow wander back up to the upper fields towards the house revealed three does moving slowly from the forest cover. They might have been browsing on the downed cottonwood in the ravine beyond. With the waning light, the harem was heading to an open place with good sight lines to avoid predation. My presence, which had been tolerated during the brighter daylight, was now causing unease, and the deer trotted off across the field, staying above me along the hillside until they disappeared into a mowed front yard above. For a few moments more I waited, hoping the buck would soon follow after, offering me a chance to harvest my tag for the season, filling my chest freezer with good wild meat and much gratitude. I was thankful even after the last light faded with the chances to harvest that day.

Though hunting time does not end till 7:15pm, well after dark, I stop hunting when I can’t sight in a deer through my binoculars. That time came around 6:15, a full hour before the legal technicality, but well within the safety limitations of my situation. Again, hunter safety is always relative to the situation, short of fundamental basics like muzzle control. Firearm safety and hunter education are crucial to enjoying a safe hunt. Beyond the rules there are important details to consider which may not be as straight forward as the regulation book. Like mushrooms, hunting takes a lot of learning, and it’s good to have mentors in the field guiding you for the first few years when possible. You can contact Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for clinics and mentor-ships here. Good luck, it takes a lot of time and energy to hunt, but the reward of being nurtured by wild food, and out in nature looking and listening to the world is a beautiful connection to place and what I call, The Sacred. Gratitude to The Deer Nation and all the lessons they offer.