Bear Aware

On a long walk within a stone’s throw of EEC Forest Stewardship, I came upon this wonderful sign. Tracks are such exciting ecological intrigue. These were large, and other sign along the walk hinted at it’s presence along the trail long before these clear signatures. If you’re looking at the picture above and wondering what the heck I’m talking about, you’re not alone. Here, try the pics below-

front foot
hind foot

Most of us will only ever see a bear from the safety of our living rooms, watching an epic video of one catching a salmon in its great jaw. Some might catch one at a trashcan, but very few of us will have the chance to see one in the wild. Bears are such amazing creatures, and so close to humans in diet, size, and mammalian practice. Often personified as lovable characters like the teddy bear, and Smokey, the bear has become a shadow in living memory, almost mythic. However, these thriving animals are alive and surviving in what’s left of our global woodlands, though threat of habitat destruction still threatens most wildlife around the world.

Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, the cultivation and restoration of native habitat is crucial to any plan for long term sustainability- abundance of the resources all life needs to survive. Several mega-fauna species inhabit our bio-region, which speaks to the overall health of the ecology. But the numbers are not stable, and one, the wolf, has already been driven out by man’s struggle to control the environment to his advantage, at the cost of a fragile natural balance already woven in place and evolved over millions of years. Nature has an auto-correct button for species like this, and 99% of all life on earth till now, has gone extinct. Why not live lightly while we can?

Meanwhile, the bears capitalize on our gluttonous ways, raiding human refuse piles for untapped treasures in caloric gain. At EEC, we make sure our food scraps are properly composted and buried to reduce scent temptations. But sometimes, we set up a trail cam with a few bones to see who is cruising the neighborhood. This Spring (2020), a large female black bear and her two yearlings have shown up. We’re thrilled to see these majestic giants looming out of the darkness- and recognize that we’ll continue precautions around our orchards and livestock.

This beautiful image was captured a few summers ago, along with some great tracks in the mud nearby. I’m wondering if this is the same adult bear. We thought it was a male, because of size, but the female in the night photos above is impressively large, like the day picture above. In the eight years I’ve lived on this land, there have been no bears near the house or barns. We’ve made sure to upkeep a low profile, especially when it comes to manure smells and grain. The land also hosts a dog, who’s sentinel bark is a sharp reminder that approaching the farm house is unwise. In our area, there have been bear problems- trashcan raids, livestock predation, and human encounters. One man fired his gun into the air to scare a bear out of his goat’s paddock. The bear stood its ground, and the man went back into the house and locked his door till the animal moved on.

The post you can see this momma bear leaning against in the still shot above is about 2 1/2′ high. This means the bear is about 3′ at the shoulder. This sow (female bear) seems to have short legs- but that’s only due to her bulky body being so round and full- a great sign this she-bear is getting plenty to eat. Her broad head is also a sign of maturity. If she didn’t have cubs with her, I would think she was a boar (male bear). So far, the family has kept out of sight, coming out at night to forage along the stream- which we encourage. But as the fruit season sets in late summer, the aroma of fresh fruit will become great temptation. At EEC, we harvest apples as they come into season, making sure to pick up any fallen fruit from the ground to prevent more smell buildup.

By continuing our bear aware actions and keeping the farm low profile, we’re teaming up to support the bear, and other wildlife, from becoming a “nuisance” animal. It is encouraging to see the bear population sustaining its self on the edge of human development. Luckily, this sow and her cubs have kept their distance. In return, we get to steward the land and offer a corridor of habitat along our creek for all wildlife, with the intention of continuing to plant more forest of native habitat to cultivate future generations of all walks of life.

Mountains Out of Mole Hills

What are those mounds in the pasture? If you tend grass in any form, you know who these visitors are and what the dirt is all about. Many struggle to keep such “blemishes” off their perfect lawns. I have a neighbor who actually shoots them on the weekend when he has time to sit and wait for one to pop it’s head up out of the ground. Sad, but part of a wider trend to poison, drown, or use any force necessary to remove the lawn “ruiners”. If they only knew how important these little tunnelers were for the soil, grass, and greater ecology of nature’s web.

Moles are in house tillers and moisture retainers. They move soil around, loosening hard pack to let roots take hold, and scavenge for insects, eggs, and larva underground, where we humans cannot see. They do not eat plants, though many are blamed for garden raiding which is usually the result of voles. Mole tunnels let in water, and allow it to slow seep underground, where the sun cannot quickly evaporate it. This very slow watering process and water storage is crucial in grasslands, and The Great Plains are suffering now because of the rapid decline in prairie dogs, who once connected underground aquifers to the sky, allowing moisture to rise into rain bearing clouds.

Moles are active everywhere, though we tend to notice them more often on our lawns. In the forest, I took a moment to spread out a mole hill to show you the rich soil brought up from deeper below, where nutrient dense material comes to the surface, feeding your plants and nurturing the aeration of the ground. I’ve watched the mole hills around EEC Forest Stewardship coming up, usually in areas recently grazed by my animals, where flies and other insects lay eggs into the poop. Moles gravitate to these areas of recent activity, often pushing up the most soil in areas the sheep were most impactful. The burrowers seem to know instinctively where the ground need turning most.

Here in The Pacific Northwest, we have a very special mole known and The Star Nosed Mole. Here’s a fun comedic video about this strange looking earth mover (who also swims).

Since we don’t use lawn mowers on the land, or wish to keep the ground flat for a nice putting green, the moles are no issue. Again, they are carnivores, eating insects, not your decorative flowers or the vegetables in your garden. They are aerating the soil, removing pests (like slugs and their eggs) and opening the ground for new plants and water. Without moles, the ground would be a lot more compacted, and unable to direct water deep underground to keep the soil moist and habitable for all the plants. Please remember this the next time you become frustrated with blemishes in your lawn. Perhaps it would be smarter to embrace the moles and begin turning your lawn into a food forest to produce food?

On another note- I use mole hills to plant wildflowers and pollinator species. The ground is freshly turned, moist, and easy to plant into. I don’t have to break sod (a real hassle), to get seeds in the ground. I can also take a wheelbarrow around with a shovel picking up all the mounds as fresh soil to put where I wish. With all the mole activity, is takes little time to fill the barrow for a good replenishment of a raised bed, or the root stalk native plants I’m establishing around the landscape. When you make moles an ally on the land, you’re embracing smart natural systems that have been put in place for good reason. Please remember to take note of the larger holistic system nature already has in place. You’ll find an answer to any stewardship problem in the way nature already works.

Next time you find yourself near a mole hill, take a moment to look more closely at the pile of soil resting on the surface of the lawn. It’s a symbol of healthy grassland. If you don’t like the hill, take a shovel and scoop up the dirt to put in your garden beds, or plant something in the loose soil. The more we fight with natural systems, the more frustrated we become, and the disruption of nature’s systems will ultimately be a loss for all of us. I am grateful to the mole for turning my soil, removing pest insects, and keeping water in the ground longer. I can’t imagine how much work it would be for me to turn all my soil like that, not to mention to disruption to the ecology of my fields if I had to bring in a large tractor to do the work my moles do year around. Thank you for all your work mole!

Patterns

Nature is full of dazzling pattern. The golden spiral, Fibonacci number, nature’s mathematical order within chaos. This surrounding language of creation heavily influences health and happiness. In the current time of pandemic, when many people are “caged” within their own home, apartment building, or for some, the streets; recognition of place in pattern can at least offer some belonging, a glimmer of reason in this dark time of insanity. On the land here at EEC Forest Stewardship, spring is a fantastic time to look deeply into this recognizable order. It’s a reminder that all life is so interconnected; one breath, one exhale at a time.

Stranger than fiction may be the way of the world, but at home on the land, seasonal shifts compel a growing, thriving ecology that could out-compete any stock market through abundance and diversity. Sound planting returns in truly necessary dividends of fruit, vegetable, meat, and mindset. It is this cerebral gift that I wish more people had access to in these challenging times. No matter how much humans attempt to reproduce nature, she manages to hold her own as an irreplaceable part of our psyche. As soon as we step outside, out brain patterns begin to change, finding those familiar patterns scattered all around, in natural “order”, without forced symmetry, like square rooms, cars, and flat screens.

The difference between ridged formality and the organic curves, seeming chaos of nature, are critically important to recognize. While civilization hails its self as the great modernizer, order, safety, reliance, predictability, and stability; it is a dangerous false claim. Right now cities across the world are experiencing shortages. When there is a disruption in any one of our supply lines, the seeming abundance rapidly dries up. We’ve not been taught to layer our necessities in a rich tapestry of interconnected harmony. Instead, we’ve compartmentalized our needs and wants into uniform measurements of output. Each chain of industry is suited to its self. Even academia teaches separate disciplines, withholding the possible fertility of shared research and design (I have heard this is changing though).

What would an holistic economy really look like? Though my understandings come from working with the natural world, not financial, the concepts of growth and loss easily cross through these two disciplines. It is by arguing against natural order that we continue to crash as a species. What will it take to learn from these patterns? How do we raise our consciousness, becoming more in tune with the land we stand on? No army can stand without food. No human endeavor works without sustenance (including clean water to drink).

Routine is a blessing and a curse. In every perfection, there is imperfection, so watch out for habit forming- it can lead to deep ruts. We’re in one now as a society; trying to ignore the patterns to force an outcome. Exponential growth is a fantasy, brought on by gluttonous abuse of finite natural resources. Taking continuously without ever giving back leads to desertification. No matter how much this truth hits home, man (and I mean men for the most part) continue to take, take, take. Could it be a general faulty wiring in the male ego? I think so. The pattern there is undeniable. Since written records began, man’s struggle to dominate and oppress has dictated civil development into passive consumption.

When people begin to put there heads down and graze away, not bothering to look beyond the ass in front of them, we fold right into another pattern of human undoing- complacency. We have become a species of consumers, grazing along at a predicable pace, expecting more grass to keep growing in front of us. But then fences went up, pastures were divided into mine and yours, and we were told to breed for the economy of debt slaves needed in these modern times. Wealth is consuming us now, like cancer, and we’ve fallen under the spell of capitalization for too long. It seemed to put more grass in our pasture, but in reality, is was laying down AstroTurf.

How to shift the paradigm? GO OUTSIDE! Even sitting at an open window can influence your brain patterning, allowing connection with your senses, relaxation, and healing. Looking more deeply into natural patterns brings down blood pressure, relieves stress, and strengthens the immune system (read more here). Can’t say enough about looking past the screen and into the lush world of nature. Even while living on Manhattan Island in New York City, I was still able to look out my fire escape window or climb from said fire escape up onto the roof for sun bathing and pigeon watching. Night time in a city is the wildlife action hour. Watch raccoons, coyote, rats, and more moving through the cover of darkness to capitalize on all the refuse of urban decay.

In the long run, nature wins, but right now, for her to revive, many of our old habits and patterns must evolve into more sensible action. When you take, give- even if it’s just a little time picking up trash along the edge of the lane, walking or biking instead of driving, or even just taking a moment to smell the flowers. These pauses in our busy lives allow nature a chance to connect. Imagine all the patterns that are constantly reforming all around us, and take heart in knowing each of us has a place in the greater pattern. Please join me in embracing stewardship of self and place.

Dawn Chorus

looking east down the driveway

First light creeps
slowly reaching over my shoulder
recalling her warm caress
then whispering a lulled breeze
twisting soft curls
gold spun memories, a wide open plane
horizon lines running endlessly away
why I fled the heartland- decades ago

echoing robin’s song fills atmosphere
anywhere a bird can sing on open wing
animals quietly grazing across green velvet
bundles of white flock, drifting clouds
gently culminate into thunderheads
undulating sway of ruminant wonder

pear trees flocked in blossoms of fine white lace
do not compare themselves to sheep
looking only to the stars, reaching up
diamonds shine brightest in blackest night
then alighting gently like glossy dew
refracting deftly along briar’s edge
hands bleeding from holly prick
black pearls on wounded palm

obfuscated colors stick to grey hues
as gasping constellations fade
cold damp loam beneath bare feet
soon warming, like the sky
orange hues streak across heaven
backlit forest sighs into the day
swallow darts from grey to blue
in a flash, dawn erupts into morning

Pruning Paradise

It’s a race to get the fruit trees pruned back before they start budding. Usually, I would do this earlier in the winter, but the weather, lambing, and covid-19 happened. The established orchard on the land is a hectic mess, being in serious rehab after almost a decade of neglect. The branches tangle in chaos, and I’ve spent the last seven years trying to address the overgrowth. After studying and observing these elders for a few years, I started hacking away with little awareness of how to really shape the trees. Now, after a few more years of observation and gentle regenerative care, I’m taking off the last of the larger branches these trees should not have to support.

Fruit trees are all about producing fruit right? Well, to keep a tree fruiting nicely year after year, you have to keep them pruned up, otherwise, the tree puts all its energy into branches, growing new wood instead of food.

The plum tree pictured above has been left to it’s own devices for a few years now, and the branches have gone crazy. We’ve had no fruit for three years now, and I’m ok with that, because this is a rogue plum, and I’ve got enough trees to tend as it is, so I let this one go for now. I can always cut it back into shape as it matures. That’s part of the beauty of younger trees, they bounce back. With older wood, you have to do a lot of slow removal to let the tree recover. A good rule of thumb is take no more than a third of the tree in one pruning.

Getting pictures of these trees so you can see the transitions is very challenging. In the picture above, I’ve just finished pruning. You can see a pile of woody material on the ground. It’s definitely less than a third of the tree’s mass. My finger is hovering over the height these trees used to tower at. Fruit trees tend to grow up and then shoot out a new level of branches. These trees were two stories high, and now they are one. You should be able to harvest the fruit easily from a ladder. If you can’t reach the branch to prune from the ladder, you won’t be able to pick the fruit either.

This frost peach is already blossoming out. I managed to prune it and put in another tie back to continue encouraging it towards the wall of the building (late espalier plan). Stone fruit trees can be pruned any time, but taking off branches after buds have formed is going to knock off a lot of your future fruit before it has a chance to develop. Be mindful of your timing. The apple trees were still dormant, and I caught my pears just before blossoms opened, though it was risky, and I might have deformed many of the buds any way. Fruit trees are most vulnerable as they are budding out, so always take care with late pruning.

This photo shows a better perspective of cutting off the second story level of these older apple trees. The tree on left is still sporting it’s upper canopy, where as the trees to the right have been reshaped to a single story. The tree far right is throwing up a tall leader branch, and I’m leaving that 1st year growth to give the tree a crown. All trees naturally reach for the sky, trying to be the tallest thing in the area to receive the most sun. Pruning forces the shape of fruit trees to human advantage, giving us easy reach and many more fruits. However, when you take an entire second story of branches off a tree, it’s natural response is to put up a lot of first year growth the next year, trying to reform a crown. By leaving one or two first growth leads up, I trick the tree into thinking it still has the upper crown started, and hopefully less first year suckers will shoot up.

What’s wrong with first year growth? Well, you don’t get fruit off newly formed branches (first year). Second year wood will produce flowers, but first year only produces new wood and leaf buds, no flowers. On a well maintained fruit tree, you’ll only have suckers (first year) and some minor shaping if larger branches are rubbing or damaged from extreme weather. Pictured above are two frost peaches that have not been checked for three years. They keep going up, not out, and the energy to put on any fruit is hindered by the continued first growth.

The apple tree pictured above has been maintained to produce buds. Suckers are pruned back, and the young tree is tied to maintain certain growth shape against the bush behind it. You can see many 2 inch stubs coming off the upper branches. These are flower buds, and will hopefully produce fruit again this year. Last year I enjoyed a modest crop of large apples from this heirloom verity. This year, I hope to enjoy even more. The rewards of stewarding fruit trees is worth it’s weight in gold. Only this month did we eat the last of our apples. It was the first year we saved enough to enjoy through the whole winter. Several more pounds are stores away as dried fruit too, but there’s nothing like biting into a crisp apple you grew yourself.

More Hard Lessons

Deaths on the farm are always lessons which stick, deep in my gut. Could I have made a change? Yes, and I will now. Did I know better? Yes, and the consequence makes it count. Guilt is natural, but not consuming. This mistake will not happen in this way again, but there will be more hard lessons, that’s life.

This morning was sunny, bright, and cool. The rain before dawn was soaked in, with beautiful diamond dew drops covering every surface. It’s one of my favorite sights here in The Pacific Northwest; forest glimmers, pasture lush with water and green. The lambs leaped into freedom, their wary mother’s braking away as ewes do, forming an undulating mass of herd momentum up the hill. My hens looked fat, plump little birds so generous with their labors. Both on the soil and in the next box; truly, this animal is indispensable to agricultural restoration.

The goats cry out in painful screams for breakfast. I usually feed them last, as they are on the far end of the stall block. I’d taken my time with the sheep, moving fencing into an upper pasture. As I walked back down to the barn, it was tempting to ignore the goats, become frustrated with their nagging, but it was also a pleasure to know they were soon to be fed, and that their hard work in bramble removal was priceless.

Though sunny and nice out, I had already decided to leave them in. Brawnwin, my youngest doe, was expecting her first kids, and had, along with the rest of the herd, not wanted to leave the comforts of the barn. This is typical goat behavior, and I was in no mood that morning to force her and the others on a long march to the far field, where they were currently working. It was a win win, with food and fresh water just a step away. So I threw hay, looked for eggs, and then spotted the horror in the corner of the stall.

Two wet lumps lay motionless in a bed of straw. It was the kids. I could tell from where I stood that they were dead, the realization crushed me. Running around to the door of the stall, thinking they might have just dropped and need support, my mind was racing through solutions. The dry towels in the grain room, a heat lamp, the colostrum formula- then I saw the third little body, under the manger, and my heart sank. It was the oldest, a larger black mass, who she had been able to dry off. It was cold and stiff. As I gently lifted it, I knew all three were lost.

It’s the farmer’s fault, always, and anyone trying to say otherwise has not kept livestock. Without direct human care, feeding, watering, and healthy living environment, death will occur. So what went wrong? Where did I screw up? Usually, a mother to be in the ungulate family of domestics, like sheep and goats, should be given a separate space to birth in. I know this, and was practicing it diligently with my sheep already, who have been lambing for over a month. I knew my goat was pregnant, but had not been closely watching her progress.

First timers often struggle with birth, and can sometimes abandon their new offspring in confusion. Also, social dynamics in the herd can overshadow any mother baby bond. In this case, the dominate two does in the stall were probably upset by the new kids, and butted them around till they were dead. That was the evidence I soon confirmed with more handling of the little bodies. shattered bones and pulverized internal organs, a signature of death by ramming. What hell, and I had let it happen through neglect. It was a mistake, and the gentler side of my conscience knows this, but the inaction was inexcusable too.

So, the solution- cull larger, older goats from the herd. Then stick to small goats, and keep breeding in that direction. A few years ago we lost a new breeding buck because of an injury sustained while sharing a stall with a larger wether (castrated male goat). It was another size related mistake I’ve made in mixing large and small breeds. They can breed, but struggle to live together safely.

Goats have played a huge role in reclaiming ground from blackberry invasion, as a key part of the restoration of forest and pasture at EEC Forest Stewardship. Most of the larger plants have been pulled down by large goats, leaving the landscape about knee height in most places the bramble still persists. Between sheep and dwarf goats, we’ll be able to stay ahead of it from now on.

By culling our large stock, we invite easier handling of our animals- smaller is lighter. My current lead doe can pull me off my feet if she catches me off balance. It’s impossible to ask farm sitters to handle her, or my other large doe safely, so it’s time to cull them. This will make a lot more stall room for the two smaller goats, and we can even invest in one more breeding doe, for a core herd of three, which is perfect for the farm needs. Best of all, the dwarf goats we will now be exclusively working with, cannot jump the electric fencing, and can be released into pastures without tethering. This also adds additional ease of handling, and better quality of life for everyone.

Even though this was a tragedy of mismanagement on my part, and I have paid the price three times over, the lessons will bring good change in the long term. My only hope is that I can keep learning, but in a way that does not cost lives any more. Again, it was my responsibility, and I failed, but I will not let this happen again, and I encourage others to learn what they can from my own failings, to prevent similar mishaps. This year we will have no kids, and have to cull two goats, including the one I’ve had the longest. It’s never easy to slaughter, but I’d never want someone else to do it for me.

Another covenant I keep with my stock is raising them, and slaughtering in a clean and humane way at the right time. This is something I think all stock owners should do, for it would make factory farming impossible, and raise the standards of care for our animals. It would also take most meat out of the gross consumption market, and demand more alternative convenience eating, preferably choices that do not involve animal lives on mass scale. When you support fast food- you embrace animal abuse, and worker abuse too. Please know where your meat comes from. If you choose to indulge, support local small farms. If you live in the Duvall area, and are seeking pasture raised lamb or goat, you can contact this farmer- escocrain@gmail.com. I sell live animals on the hoof, and can help you with slaughter and butchering to fill the freezer with clean, healthy, and humanely raised meat.