Swale Willow

New earthworks update and new plantings abound at EEC Forest Stewardship. We’ve been monitoring water across the landscape and establishing new willow stands for future crafts and medicine. In late winter, willow starts- cuttings of stem about 3/4″ thick and about 18″ long are sunk in the swale to establish hold on the upper bank. Over the next few years, we’ll be adding debris in the swale to build up mulch and soil for the plantings. The down hill and south facing sunny side of this swale is planted with a verity of other native ground covers and trees. The next phase of developing this space will be soft fencing- electric mesh, which will be hot when the sheep are in this hard fenced pasture this spring. Guarding new plantings has always been a challenge. Even our LGD Gill is known to dig up a recent planting in fun and mischief. It could also be the alluring odor of fish emulsion often used to bolster starts.

This swale is communicating a lot in its first year; our lack of rain so far this winter, soil compaction and a lack of organic material on the surface of these pasture spaces, and how much runoff comes from the hill above -even with a forest buffer. From water table to runoff, this area of the landscape is a seep in the wet months, and will catch a lot of water in major rain events. But the water is going away fast, stopping and dropping into the soil instead of coursing down to the creek all at once and flooding down to the sound and out to sea. California’s recent flooding was a master class in poor water retention, preventing the recharge of major aquifers. Even in Western Washington, a temperate rainforest, the water is running off the hills and out to sea with similar effect, though we have been slower in discovering this loss because we still get a lot of rain.

More snow in winter might help in addressing some of the harder rains we’ve been experiencing. Hard rains, much like those in California, run off the barren land and into swollen rivers which are diverted and hindered by man’s fool hardy belief in dominion over natural systems that are so complex, we are still trying to comprehend them. Earthworks are manipulations to the landscape, which is already severely altered by clear cutting, and detrimental animal husbandry for a few colonial generation. The swale encourages renewal of natural resources which will ultimately fill in the canopy and encourage enough biomass to support climaxed old growth forest. Where wetlands lay, forests thrive. We can speed up time by mimicking some natural systems- like a fallen log or uprooted tree, which makes a hollow in the ground with a pile of soil on the usually down hill side. These landscape features in a forest are called cradles and pillows.

Dips and mounds across the landscape create more surface area for growth and catchment for moisture. The micro-climate diversity formed by cold sinks and sun traps on south facing slope offer another layer of diversity in ecological possibility. Shore pines tolerate late summer drought while willow will soak up moisture and hold the sloping terrain. You’ll often see old willow in active floodplains laying over on their side, completely re-rooting along the trunk and throwing up countless suckers which develop into new trunks in time. The willow stakes are placed leaning in against the bank they are closest to. This bank is on the north side of the swale, so the willow will want to grow downhill, towards the light and away from the bank, but the initial root set will encourage the trunk of the future tree uphill, into the bank for additional long term rooting. I’ll control this optimal shaping with pruning for the next few years. The plantings in the downhill mound will also grow up and shade out the south side of the swale, forcing the willow up to remain in the light.

After a large rain event, this large swale holds water for a few days, but the continued drought makes our soil very thirsty, and the slowed surface flow has time to sink in. The willow stakes will set in this wet weather, but will also need additional mulch cover by late spring to survive our hot summer drought season. There will also be an electric mesh netting system protecting the young growth of these plants, preventing sheep from grazing them down. It will take a few years to establish the planting, but once the shrubs and ground cover established, the livestock will be allowed through on occasion. The restoration of soil, vegetation, and overall rainforest canopy will take generations of human time, but the long term abundance will sustain even more generations to come.

This is the vision of short term terrain change and seemingly disruptive upheaval. To be clear, we would not dig swales in wetland terrain. It would be a tragedy on several levels to take heavy equipment into soft ground. Machines are utilized on heavily used landscape with long established compaction. Swales break up topography and soil composition. Most earthworks should play a role in restoring long term adaptation for maximized success in natural abundance. This landscape was once capable of fully self perpetuating temperate rainforest, but it took millions of years for the geology to establish, and thousands more for terrestrial vegetation of today. In a few generations, human consumption wrecked ecological systems, converting what was a fully sustainable system for food, water, shelter, local survival and thriving ecology, into a wasteland of catastrophe, which reverberated throughout the greater ecosystem. The Sound is full of once abundant topsoil from the surrounding hillsides. Weiss Creek, on the landscape of EEC, was completely filled in by sediment within two major cuttings of the forest in this area. By the third generation, a dredge and resetting of the stream course revived the small creek’s flow into The Snoqualmie River, which also endured a few generations of man’s hubris.

Black Prince steamboat on the Snoqualmie Cherry Valley Swinging Bridge, Duvall, WA 1909

Imagine log jams like these in The Snoqualmie Valley, carrying the massive biomass out of thousand year old forests, now leveled by human hands and early coal powered engines. There is a very old railroad grade through EEC Forest Stewardship, which once shipped trees from our hill down to The Snoqualmie River, where it was floated to nearby mills. Often times, abandoned logs would jam up the bends along the massive river valley during major flooding events. Try to grasp how much nutrients- by the ton- was sent off the hillsides and down into waterways soon choked with debris. Now long gone, the mass of missing forest has been replaced by pastures, buildings, roads, and fencing. Forests have begun to regrow in some areas, but not enough to replace the canopy. Climax forest is a long way off. We’ll never see the land like it was before industrial tree farms took root, but we can take a trip to The Olympic Peninsula for a glimpse at what might one day be again.

So the swales help return the landscape to abundant forest by slowing water, banking nutrients, and hosting a diversity of vegetation and micro-climates to enhance long term forest growth and natural resource protection. We’re cultivating a giant sponge of debris, fostering the foundation for old growth magic in a few more lifetimes. Plant a tree today, stake willow, dig a modest swale in your yard and fill it with mulch and nice garden plantings- the scale is what you can manage, but in disrupting our continued degradation of place, and renewing those resources, so precious to our own survival, we can do some mending and setting the stage for nature’s abundant return.

1 thought on “Swale Willow”

  1. Your dedication to stewardship of your land is an inspiration to those of us who have had minimal opportunities to do more than caretake a small garden.
    Thank you for taking the time to share what your hopes and dreams are for your footsteps on our Earth


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