Yup, it’s January and I’m out on a log in a lake barefoot trying to catch a trout. It’s not warm, but it’s not below 40F and the fish are active, well, sometimes. I did catch a trout that day, but not in the above pictured lake. It took some trolling on another nearby body of similar water to reel in a 1.5lb cutthroat beauty. This is the place for winter joy in the lower 48. Some might prefer a more tropical paradise, but give me 48 degrees and overcast skies to fish, hunt, and even ski if I ascend higher into The Cascades.
The Pacific Northwest is magical, and full of wet wonder for those willing to dress right and embrace the great outdoors. Winter is usually a good time to den up and rest, and trust me, there are days I’m doing just that too- and farming. At the same time I’m skiing, fishing, and hiking in The New Year, lambs are dropping in the barn and bulbs are peeking out from under the black loam in the garden.
Winter is a time of revitalization, and for me, that’s time outside connecting to place where I can, and deepening roots tended here on this land of EEC since 2013. What a place and time to be alive and experiencing this life. Gratitude to all the energies, lifetimes, experience, love, and adventure that brought me to this current place and time.
We unexpectedly lost a loyal friend of the farm yesterday. Muir, our barn cat extraordinaire, and renowned hunter of rodents and rabbits, died of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. It was instant, no pain or suffering, and he had made it to the front porch to rest under one of his favorite chairs. I found him yesterday afternoon, and immediately took him to our wonderful vet for a necropsy to find out exactly how he had died. The exam revealed his broken heart- working too hard with too little blood flow, ultimately leading to a clogged ventricle, which brought on instant death. We were unaware of this congenital defect, and the vet assured us it was hard to find, and that nothing could have been done to fix it. In people with this condition, a heart transplant is required.
Muir lived a heck of a charmed life, freely exploring his domain with ease and joy. He was a great comfort to the other cats, and looked after Marrow, who is still checking the front porch chair for him in the cold mornings. It will be hard for all of us to adjust to life without grey cat. His personality was one of a kind- and indeed, truly kind. He liked to ride on your shoulder, flopping across your neck and lounging while you walked the steeper hills on the farm. He was noble, but approachable and cuddly. Always the first to the front door when we called, his charm and grace won over anyone he met and spent time with. We were so lucky to know him and share a brief, but spectacular time together on this earth. I’m still having a good cry over his loss, but he will be with us in spirit on every forest walk, every morning cuddle, and every sunny day on the porch. So much love to Muir, we will miss him.
An ice and wind event during January brought down a few edge line red alders in the conservation wildlife corridor along Weiss Creek, our Coho Salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch stream. Red alder along these smaller waterways offer shade protection for wildlife by regulating water temperature, especially in summer droughts when aquatic species need cool, damp habitat the most. These areas are native plant restoration spaces, where nature takes its time shaping the landscape, often, with weather events like flooding.
We think of weather as sun, partly cloudy, or showers in Western Washington. Events within weather patterns would be unusual precipitation, like heavy snow in the foothills where EEC resides. Flooding in the valley is an event, but seasonally expected. Drought becomes common each summer, compounded with rising temperatures. These events are becoming more common, and will change the ecological balance and sustainable ecosystems of earth’s connected patchwork.
Trees are a big part of temperate rain forests- which once dominated The Pacific Northwest region. A century of resource extraction without any restoration, lead to catastrophic fertility loss and ecological disruption of crucial terrestrial systems like freshwater habitat- safe drinking water for all living things. These survival musts are all interconnected with the air, soil, and water. Where we draw out production, we must also put back. Instead of letting the ground grow its forest back to ancient old growth, we’ve settle in and kept cutting, up into the steep terrains, above our sources of surface water and aquifer recharge, forests are leveled every 30-40 years. It may seem like a sustainable practice, but not in the long vision of adaptable habitat for humans, sustaining the wilderness as we endear it in Superbowl commercials. In the spirit of consumer needs, including the wood I’m heating my house with right now, EEC Forest Stewardship cultivates forest restoration with integrated productivity, including capitalist earning. We do harvest trees, cutting on a scale much smaller than commercial harvesters, but trees have come down, cleared pastures remain pastures, but some trees are being replanted.
Another fallen alder, broken off mid-trunk, leaving a rooted alder and a fallen log, decomposing into nutrients for the smaller trees and shrubs growing in the foreground of the above photo. This landscape was pasture for two generations, and is now part of our CREP planing to buffer Weiss Creek with old-growth temperate rainforest. Many of these young trees are evergreen- from Douglas fir to white pine. There are also some deciduous understory verities, like cascara and twin berry. The edge spaces create the most noticeable change. A flat, open space lifts vertically with sudden force as a wall of canopy ascends, arching over flowing waters vibrant with color and sound. In the case of recent downed treetops, wind howled inland from coastal fronts, massive air shifts moving moisture from Pacific tides up hills and into mountain crests where falling back down as precipitation, snow and ice crack what’s left of compromised branch and neck.
These violent transitions relapse into passive structures of dynamic adaptation. More light breaks through the canopy, while ground crushed beneath timber weight buries nurse log bank- an investment in mycological highways. The infrastructure of forest floor is woven through centuries of debris felting in nutrient dense soil for growing giants of carbon investment- priceless ecological systems we humans still compute in timber feet. The board value of a living tree diminishes its own wealth and productivity into a mere structural product or combustion fuel. These uses are not completely removed from tree possibilities, but a collective system of old growth forest far abounds the value of wood. Still, we need wood at EEC for building, so we harvested some structurally compromised red cedar into milled rough cut timbers for a framing project. These recent fallen red alder tops will offer a few logs for mycological inoculation. We’ll only take part of the wood from these weather harvested pieces of carbon gold, leaving the rest as felting material for an ever complex living forest system in restoration.
Wildlife trails cutting through the young replanted forest shows the quickest rout through eventual undergrowth. Foot paths in a few places to tend plantings are maintained. The far right photo in this triptych snows a subtle trail to the right of the staked saplings. I noticed one young evergreen planting that was much smaller than the firs and pines. Taking a closer look, I noticed the shape of this little tree was very Cypress looking, way more spiny than a typical red cedar. Who is this mysterious seedling?
Sequoioideae is your hint.
Would this be the future wood of our forests? If oak savanna is already in play as a viable forest planting plan here in Western Washington, I think so. It’s a test planting, the only one I’ve found in this restoration so far. There are some more mature cultivars of this variety nearby, but you’d be pressed to find them wild in The Central Cascades. The worsening weather patterns will demand a lot of resiliency from the landscape, which had been adapting quite well over millions of years before human induced change. We’ve so altered the terrain around us, it’s hard to even imagine what once was. We can take a walk into a few special places set aside for our recreational appeasement and awe at nature’s wonder from our cars driving through National Parks. After which, we’ll spend another couple of hours driving through swaths of commercial timber stands, a patchwork of clear-cuts interspersed with aging small farmsteads, or occasional suburban developments creeping ever further afield from urban decay. Which would you choose?
Storms tear down and rebuild, forests grow towards climax, weathering flood, fire, and drought. Our forest here at EEC has not seen fire in 100 years, but the risk remains, moving towards eminent with each passing year of hotter summers and continued drought. The Douglas fir pictured above is well versed in fire ecology, but unless it’s given time to grow into a mature seed bearing tree, its bark cannot grow thick enough to survive a hot burn, nor its top tall enough to avoid crown fire. At the same time, trees that grow too tall, above the average canopy, are susceptible to wind and ice damage. Height also brings a tree closer to heavenly bolts of electrical discharge; lightning strikes. There is no evidence of lightning damage at EEC, but some towering cottonwood trees on a neighboring property tempt the sky with outstanding beacons.
Ice and wind are the most common tree damaging weather here in Western Washington. The trees do tower quite high, but they are also very limber, with branches often bowed over already to accommodate snow loads and generally windy days. It’s when things combine, ice weight and windy shake, which topples weakened timbers through decades of ensuing pressure from storms and grove changes. You’ll come across blow down along recent mature timber harvests. Weaker trees which have been sheltered by a greater stand are suddenly exposed to full exposure of weather events. High winds will quickly bring down the weaker trunks of stringy close growing trees. EEC has no fores type like this, but below is a pictures example from a commercial tree farm where this occurrence is most often to happen, even with planned cutting pictured right.
There’s a very famous old growth grove of trees on Vancouver Island which were left because their tops had been snapped in a wind event, leaving most of the trees with hollow rot or twisted crowns after regrowth. It’s called Cathedral Grove, and even with the damage, the trees were slated to be cut many times, but have been saved time and again, as it’s one of the last ancient groves left on the island. Stands like this remind us of what’s possible when a forest is left to mature and evolve as an intact ecosystem. When a forest is intact, it can better protect its self against weather disruption and other natural disasters, but if we keep cutting, developing, and leaving the land bare, we’ll continue to see rapid degradation on the landscape, making is much more vulnerable to climate caused environmental devastation. Plant habitat today for a more resilient tomorrow. Thin wisely and replant with drought tolerant species for long term success. EEC Forest Stewardship will continue to model evolving forest restoration practices, from our salmon stream to the back pasture, we’re replanting the forest in small, but deliberate steps towards an old growth rainforest with high ground oak savanna.
So much gratitude for this learning opportunity and the energy to share. Narrative of place, connection to food, producing it, and enhancing vibrant community through shared abundance- these are foundational principals held at EEC Forest Stewardship. In taking the time to listen- the voices of soil, water, air, and light give and give and give- freely. The cost is cooperation, giving a little back, sometimes a lot, then taking more. So much rings true in this impactful share by Jon Shellenberger, of his ancestral connection to place and people. He offers much in this teaching of lineage and the attempted colonial deconstruction of tribal identity. So much good knowledge of land and food- the deepest survival in us all if we are connected to place in such a way. In this hour long lecture at Washington State University in a geology classroom, a fellow academic, who is also deeply connected to place and treaty rights, explains how these legal constraints make or break his ability to access food his family has been cultivating relationship with in place for thousands of years.
Why a geology classroom? Jon explains with delicate truth how colonial reinterpretation of value in land, dividing it into squares for resource based extraction and the parallels with treatment of the people living there in deep relationship with a complex living system they participated in as part of, and relied on to survive. He walks through land management to benefit resources for human use, management systems implemented by tribes long before colonial “discovery”. Shellenberger weaves the imagery of his ancestry and the connected bands of people throughout what is The Colombia Valley today. These images of the land and its caretakers, people living in a connective community, rather than an individualistic mindset cultivated in western consumerism culture for commercial earnings.
Opening up to this lesson, and others like it, helps broaden understanding of place and people. Thank you all for taking the time with these words and Jon’s offer on the human perspective.
Younger plantings along our hedge edges are ready for laying over to encourage horizontal growth and a hard, natural barrier. The young hedge pictured above has been growing slowly, and finally has a few lead branches ready to pleach over in a partial cut near the base to bring the growth down low to the ground. Suckers will shoot out from the base next year, while the long leader, now laying sideways, also redirects it’s growth to the branches now pointing up as new leaders along the trunk. It is easy to manipulate shrubs and small trees when they are young, shaping the growth to suit your natural fencing needs. There is a pallet fence backing the young hedge as it develops, but that dead wood will collapse and compost soon, while the living fence will strengthen and grow for many lifetimes. The controlled horizontal growth will also create a living wall of food for our sheep, who love browsing broad leaf plants as much as grazing grasses.
In less developed pasture edges, like the one pictured below, I’ve pleachered some more mature bitter cherry trees to mark out a new line for hedge development. Cherries sucker out very well, and by laying these trunks, we’re shaping a fresh hedge line, which we’ll plant into with a variety of other species to diversify the vegetation within our living fence. This hedge will also keep sheep from grazing down a steep hillside beyond, and protect an already replanted stand of mixed broad leaf species like cascara and Sitka alder. Sheep can be quite lazy, and it takes very little barrier of branches to deter them from pressing into the vulnerable forest undergrowth. Ideally, I would have dropped these cherries a few years ago, but life can get very busy here at EEC, and the hedge is still set for replanting down the road.
Hedges can be tight and neat lines on pasture edges, but at EEC Forest Stewardship, we prefer organic, wavy shapes offer up more surface area and space for diverse species. Over time, the hedge will expand and begin creeping into the clearings where in time, more forest will be replanted after grazing animal systems are phased out. A healthy landscape like this should maintain some open spaces for transition from canopy to field, but in time, the trees will grow and shade out open land. By then, many of the hedges will be lost in the folds of evergreen canopy. For now, they build hard edges of habitat.
Some of our ancient apple trees got a trim this year too. Pruning is very important in maximizing fruit production. Since EEC is not about maximizing, but rather, diversifying, we are rather lazy about pruning, and phased out the practice completely in new orchard plantings to allow the tree it’s own selection of growth and shape over rushing fruit harvest. There are some very exciting alternative cultivation success stories with not pruning fruit trees at all. Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution gives a wonderful take on non-pruning in his masterpiece on natural farming. The trees at EEC, pictured below, have been pruned all their life and then neglected for a decade. I’ve been slowly cutting them back into shape, sometimes preforming minor tree surgery- taking off a large branch, to help re-balance the tree’s structure to let in more light and air. But these older trees are in decline, and I’ve begun harvesting cuttings to graft onto new root-stalk to continue already successful varieties on our landscape.
Pruning lets in more light, encouraging buds to form, which produces more fruit. Pruning a young tree will hasten fruit production, but commands continual pruning every year to maintain the ideal shapes for commercial production. Take industry out of the fruit tree’s development allows the tree to naturally select it’s own shape and production without human ego assuming we can do it better. There are many cultivars that cannot survive without pruning, so be aware that if you choose the lazy rout and let the fruit tree fend for its self, you will loose more trees, but the ones that make it will be a good foundation for future grafting to replace the lost varieties. You’ll have to wait a few more years for un-pruned fruit trees to develop a good fruiting crown, but letting nature work in her own time usually reaps great reward in the long run.
Remember that most fruit trees have been grafted, and come from lineages of heavy cultivation. Apples are not a far cry from Malus sieversii, their Kazakhstan ancestor back in eastern Europe. Varieties today are countless, and have all manner of make and use- from baking to cider. Though the best fruiting varieties are grafted, you can still plant apple seeds and get fruiting trees, but they will most likely not produce very appetizing eating apples- if they produce anything at all. Still, out of every great apple strain there was a tree from seed originally. We’ve lost so many heritage apple strains, but some are being rediscovered here in The Pacific Northwest. In my own research in seed planting, I came across this video by Stefan Sobkowiak, which give a great explanation for planting seeds and what happens. Most domestic fruit seeds behave similarly, you must graft to get a specific type of fruit consistently.
Pruning is a tool for shaping growth of any vegetation, and will impact growth rate too. Pleachering brings out suckers while pruning usually removes them. There are many kinds of shaping techniques beyond these two examples. The action of shaping growth is high maintenance in the short term, but you can also choose to not prune, or pleacher once and let the horizontal growth go. At EEC, we’re always embracing less work, so I do not plan to lay hedges more than once, as the long term vision here it to let the forest return. Fruit trees will get shaded out, and hedges will melt into the forest understory. Being able to picture the development of your tended space through many seasons of growth will help in determining when you should- or if you should make cuts. Most pruning and pleachering happens while the tree is dormant, so plan on an active winter schedule in your orchard or along your hedgerow to have lasting effect and healthy vegetation.
It’s great to visit other local woodlands in the area of EEC Forest Stewardship. Washington State, like many western states, has what’s called a patchwork land development system contrived by the federal government when railroads pushed west. Even in highly developed suburbs of Western Washington, the checkerboard of some parcels still remain forested public land. You can find a great interactive map to learn more about public land in Washington here. The patch wandered today, was once actively logged through the first half of the 1900s, then became an urban park, part of a larger wetland area around a lake. The ecology is indicative of a natural reseeding after two commercial logging endeavors. A lot of wood has fallen in this forest, as no natural thinning activities have occurred- like elk browsing, wildfire, or thousands of years of old growth development, which was disrupted with the first cutting at the start of the 1900s.
Mycology is present, and helping to break down the woody debris laying all around. Mushrooms play a vital role in developing soil in a forest. The fallen logs are full of tough fibers and tannin, which delay molecular breakdown. If the debris sat on its own, even in the wet environment of Western Washington, it would take so long to decompose, most of the nutrients would be lost before turning back into productive loam for the future old growth forest trying to return. In 4th generation timber stands, there is a noticeable lack of topsoil and nutrients in the ground. The industry now pollutes the ground with treated sewage, to replace badly needed nitrogen, to make more trees grow. This mono-culture catastrophe will never recover in that kind of short sighted industrial management. Fungal factories are still hard at work in commercial forests, and can be severely detrimental to profits in these fake forest when mycological outbreaks happen across the anemic stands.
Within this park forest where my wander too place, tale tell signs of fungal infection appear. Laminated root rot is rampant in The Pacific Northwest, partly due to mono-culture, and I believe, partly due to a loss of ecological players, like millions of elk, which browsed across a rainforest mega-complex now reduced to a herd of a few thousand in tens of isolated groups. Megafauna cannot survive in fragmented habitat, current “mature” forests are not even a shadow of what once grew and thrived across The Pacific Northwest. Mycology is trying to correct the strange human induced kerfuffle that still is ecological genocide. There are trees in this suburban park forest failing because of fungal parasites, but not all the trees are infected. Because of profit loss in commercial groves costing mere millions of trees- considering the loss of forest due to logging in The Evergreen State (at least 60 billion board feet in 100 years). 500 board feet is about one “mature” (NOT old growth) tree. Calculating the value of a single old growth tree today is complicated, in the 1970s, at the height of clear-cutting the last large stands of old growth in Western Washington, industry didn’t really care.
Fungal invasions of today are helping to open up long term old growth areas in the same way beaver, weather events, and geological upheaval do. Clear-cutting is also part of that cycle, if kept to a scale comparable to the other natural cycles it could mimic. Timber industries love to talk about how their forests are renewable. Green washing consumerism teams up with timber industry forest replanting as “plant a tree” carbon offset glitter, and, as the washing implies, it’s not all gold (profit). The cost in biomass lost from the landscape through a century of tree removal is immeasurable. Board feet does not include erosion of silt into streams- unless you want to look at salmon population crashes, but then you have all the hydro power to contend with. What a web! Like the mycelia that brought down the tree below, there are a trail of clues to help us unravel cause and effect. It will be interesting to watch this forest evolve. There could be a logging date in future for this plot, most state land is in a timber harvesting forest plan.
It’s a comfort to know that, no matter what the state of a forest, fungal friends will be at work shaping and remaking habitable space. The lessons they offer in ecological partnership are humbling. Humanity has the adaptability to fold back into the landscape in much the same way. Working within the limitations of environmental factors dictated well beyond our control, evolving in close relationship to place and the layers of intricate cooperation necessary for success. Learning from environment while being in it- bare feet on the ground, cuticles peeling back after immersion in acidic soil. Muddy knees and scraped ankles wading around in blackberry, struggling to get past the edge space, transition from field to forest. The flashes of mycology host knowledge banks about the environment, chemical signatures, decomposition age, geological record, transformation in progress, blueprints of potential. Most of us are just passing by and don’t stop to smell the roses.
At this patch of state land, the clearing is blacktop with neat upper class homes- 1990s build, with park land surround. There’s no blackberry, but cement ecoblocks hold demarcation at one entrance into forested public realm. No camping or large gatherings, it’s a jogging, biking, ride your horse, walk a dog or two on leash setting. At this moment of exchange, after a dry, hot October, the mushroom fruiting was modest, but very much in action through a period known as the mushroom spring. I enjoy coming to this forest location because the ground cover is thick with a range of fallen debris and lots of wetlands to keep the ground saturated, even through drought periods. That’s another reason this forest was not developed. It’s part of a larger wetland area that acts as a drainage catchment for the surrounding neighborhoods where the forest was cut and a lot of infrastructure went in, removing the crucial sponge on the landscape which best worked in a rainy, cool climate. Consequently a lot of rain runs off the buildings and pavement, with no sponge left to soak it up, so overflow is diverted into designated wetland areas.
There are a great set of paths through this wetland area, and most of the trail remains above flood areas. That’s a sign of smart trail design with thought and care, unlike much of our development to date, which sprawls at best. The trail has a main rout through the public land into a greater lake park, with multiple entrances. Winding makes the journey longer, but there’s still a good buffer of forest without much human disturbance- for a suburb. Deer brows through, as they traverse the rest of the neighborhood, but they have to keep moving through, as the patch of forest is a larder stop with finite resources, and somewhat limited verity, but restoration planting has occurred, slowly diversifying the ecology for a more adaptive and productive forest. The diversity of fungus within most forests, boggles the mind, and yet, without old growth, there’s a marked difference in scale. Fruiting fungus- like the capped mushrooms we’re most familiar with, are much larger in old growth settings that I’ve observed. Chantrelles on the other hand, don’t pop up in old growth often, as they prefer younger, disturbed areas, like commercial fir stands, especially the 15-30 year old plantings. So again, every species has its preferred environment. Since this suburban public land forest is mostly fir, 20-30 years old, we’re in a chantrelle habitat, and I’ve found them here in past years, but this season, with the drought still on, it was the surface verities, mostly wood eating verities (not chantrelles), which were blooming in the light rains that had finally come.
Many might bulk at the manure pile in their lives, but at Leafhopper Farm, it’s black gold with a few helping “hands”. Our deep bedding method supports manure breakdown with healthy bacteria. To maintain this decomposition, there has to be good air flow in the barn and turning of the bedding. Our chickens are great at turning, which can only be done in relatively dry bedding, so our sheep have to be out on the fields before the chickens can get at it. Once they move in, the compost gets an initial flip, then the fork takes a turn. At this stage, the manure is now broken down with straw and wood shavings to a fluffy mulch. We’ll get a lot of good soil for the gardens, and other planting areas on the landscape. Getting the animal to bedding ratio down is key to a successful deep bedding operation. In our barn, we’ve found that eight ewes is a great overwintering number to allow space and breathability to the straw that’s laid down. When we overwintered 12 ewes, our bedding input was too high, and we struggled to prevent anaerobic breakdown- which creates unhealthy off-gassing of ammonia in the barn. The sheep need dry, clean bedding which is demonstrated in the picture below. There is at least 4 inches of clean, dry straw on the ground for the ladies, allowing hooves to stay dry and clean, preventing hoof rot, encouraging aerobic decomposition with good airflow through the fluffy straw, and providing additional warmth from heat released during proper bacterial decomposition. On top of all that, we get healthy soil full of beneficial bacteria.
Some of our manure mulch is being staged for new native plant beds of shrubs. These now two foot high piles of seeming chaos are actually full of good living things like worms, fungi, and carbon breakdown. The straw, cardboard, and woody branches fold in to add additional carbon to the maturing soil. This spring we’ll spread an initial cover crop into these planting mounds and by fall of 2023, we’ll set root stock of hedge species like hawthorn and bitter cherry. Fruits from these two species will feed our chickens, and wildlife. We’ll coppice the shrubs for more carbon to compost back into the soil or to burn as kindling. There is endless possibility in utilizing manure as compost, folding in the physical work and cooperation with other systems like the chickens and sheep, mimic the restorative cycles of a balanced ecosystem. Elk, deer, grouse, and geese would have all been present in vast numbers playing the same roles. Seasonal migratory patterns would move the animals on, preventing overgrazing and the need for barns.
In winter, when things are wet, the sheep come in to prevent erosion on the landscape. From November to April, the land rests and recovers while the sheep laze in a warm, dry shelter with endless food. On sunny days when they get a little frolic in the field, it’s hard to coax them out of the barn, which speaks to the inside comfort. Manure build up is a consequence of having any animal shelter. It should always be a top priority in any animal system design. Too many times I’ve seen poorly implemented animal systems and the manure is usually a root cause of livestock system failures. Industrial farming is infamous for this. Though capturing and efficient production language is used often, the scale is truly mind boggling, and its long term impact, especially with the effects of climate change. The dairy industry alone has some staggering statistics on environmental impacts. Moving away from large scale would mean shrinking many other scales, including that of humanity.
Scale can flex, has to flex, to survive. In this holistic system, manure cannot outpace decomposition and redistribution within the physical abilities of a single person. In this climate, on less than 5 acres of pasture, 8 breeding sheep are a good balance. We’ve spent 10 years working out ungulate herds in restoration rotation- meaning the land improves with animal impact, becoming more diverse and resilient to climate change. Sheep do work best, though goats are helpful in initial clearing, but will brows lower skirt of trees and debark fruit trees over time. You can tell if a pasture is overgrazed by the health of trees within the pasture, if any still survive. Over time, debarking will girdle and kill trees, leaving a pasture barren of natural shade and shelter. This opens the door to erosion, and on hills like ours here at EEC, the loss of topsoil could be monumental.
The manure and straw has become such an integral part of retaining fertility in the soil while producing topsoil foundation for future forest. Here in Western Washington, where there are intact second growth and old growth forests, the ground is a thick tangle of roots, fallen branches, and nurse logs supporting new baby trees under a protective canopy. The ground is well littered with fertility, building topsoil naturally from intact biomass that has remained in place without erosion damage. For clearcut land without the rich biomass of a forest, the fertility remains bleak, and in active agricultural fields, heavy reliance on costly chemical inputs to revive dead soil enough for crops. Those crops are mono-cultures, destine to be shipped away, removing any fertility that was present, much like the removal of the trees in a forest. The topsoil here at EEC is very thin in some places, so thin a tree trying to root in would find it impossible to break through hard pan after only a few inches of root anchoring, preventing stability for long term old growth development. This is why the manure input is so crucial to restoration of forest. Without the buildup of topsoil, the forest will take many generations of trees growing and falling over each other to repair the ground and replace the thick mat of fertility for large, old growth to return.
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.
At the end of the first week of January all the ewes are looking good as we move into lambing season here at Leafhopper Farm. Alfalfa ration remains steady with an occasional loaf of organic bread as a treat. All the mature ewes who have lambed before are showing belly. The first years look round, but determining by looks alone is no guarantee. Large sheep operations use ultrasound scanning to check pregnancy. This is important to determine lamb numbers, barren ewes who should be culled, and saving on feed. In a small flock like Cascade Katahdins, bread for good fertility, mothering, and food conversion champions- meaning, these sheep put on weight with minimal inputs- they don’t need grain. Katahdins are independent birthers- meaning humans don’t usually have to lend support. They are also great mothers, rarely refusing a lamb. These qualities make the lambing season a welcome time, with little stress- thank goodness!
As we move through January, appetites grow with belly size and I have fun speculating on twins vs. singles- remember, we don’t scan. But we’re not betting the farm on our lamb production, putting everything on one system, especially finances, is not cultivating diversity of resources, something any growing asset will need. The ewes need a few other minerals, which are crucial outside inputs for raising healthy Cascade Katahdins; iron, sodium, selenium, manganese, and Vitamin E are some of the most important in our region. A red/pink salt block covers most, and additional range blocks every few months add protein to support good lamb development. The sheep could survive without the range block, but optimal health is preferred to survival in a domestic setting. Wild ungulates don’t get salt or range blocks, but also know mineral location on a much broader landscape, and have adapted to life in the environment with what’s available. Copper is toxic to sheep, and you should never feed sheep goat or cattle supplements without first checking the label, because copper is necessary for those species.
Our fist lamb of 2023 comes into the world on January 25th- a healthy ram we named Otis Redding. His mom was a second time mother of a single, which is not optimal breeding, but the ram lamb is turning into a fine looking fellow and we’re happy with her offspring performance. The ewe is only three years old, but her lamb from last year is in the herd with great prospects too. In this herd, production is important, but the health and quality of lambs is just as important. The mother has two teats, and producing two healthy lambs is her optimal design. Single, large lambs are ok, but this ewe may not be in the herd for much longer, unless she produces twins next year. These herd decisions are hard, but keeping productive genetics in domestic animal system is a crucial part of what makes domestication applicable. We’ve optimized the inputs and have to get equivalent out. Wild systems are not held to commercial standards and have unpredictable margins which cause population boom and bust cycles, which humans have struggled to remove themselves from with stability. Domestic systems are stable only with the outside inputs. Have we lured ourselves into too great a false sense of security?
Leafhopper Farm LLC has been hosting successful animal systems for ten years, and the few outside inputs for our livestock have remained constant, even with price fluctuations, political turmoil, pandemics, and climate change. There are weakening links in supply chains, and costs are rising beyond our scale of productivity, but the lasting contributions of these domestic affairs will offer enough foundation to foster the return of temperate rainforest to a small patch of The Pacific Northwest. Dung, browsing, breeding, and becoming food for the community is an honorable life and death of sheep. It’s why we raise them, slaughter, consume, and shepherd Cascade Katahdins here at EEC. Gratitude to our working flock, and all the new life of 2023.
Well, climate extremes continue to escalate around the world. In late December, this satellite image captures the epic storms moving across North America. While we hunkered down for a few days of snow and ice, The Grate Lakes area received record breaking snow and blizzard conditions which killed several people caught in the weather while trying to get home from work. Our own radar reads were not too agro, but the collective patterns are growing stronger, and later in 2023, California began to experience unprecedented storm fronts that keep on coming. What does all this mean for EEC Forest Stewardship? Hold on to your hats folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Our fruit trees were less than productive this year- drought, smoke, and grapple during flowering all played a role. Alfalfa crops were less productive because of late cold and wet spring weather, costing more and causing our reduction in flock numbers. Our chickens didn’t get broody this summer, many native plantings failed, and overall stress from environmental change effected all living things. We’re fast adapters here, but the intensifying storms will continue to erode stability across the planet. The earth is a closed loop system, so what comes our way will keep coming back around with the seasons. Right now, the rain is here, though it took its time in coming. We endured wildfire and 90F in October. November and December were colder than normal, and now we’re in a typical winter, but most of our rain is still somewhere else, and that somewhere right now is California.
The west coast experiences atmospheric rivers in winter thanks to our neighbor, The Pacific Ocean, and her weather patterns traveling up from the tropics in what is called “The Pineapple Express“. These rain events can last for days, or weeks. Western Washington is usually ready for these rains, with a temperate rainforest eager to catch moisture and bank it in the soil. This year’s climate change pushed the rains south into Cali, and boy did the heavens open up. Though CA has been in a very bad drought for many years, the rains were more a curse than relief, as the parched land has been unable to cope with the deluge and now, whole cities are evacuating because of floods. From wildfires to raging rivers and landslides, our southern neighbors are on a rough ride. With over one billion in infrastructure damage already, and more rain on the way, you can see how the continued building in catastrophic weather events compounds to overwhelm our vulnerable civilization.
These weather events will continue to compound, and ecology cannot keep up any more than our infrastructure. What’s the plan? Apparently, throwing money at it. However, the money going into “solving” climate does not acknowledge what’s funding climate change. Our developed world will not let go of fossil fuels in time, and I’m right there in the problem, consuming like all used to ease and comfort we enjoy though the rosy glasses of prosperity. Going electric has become the answer, but it’s only another folly, without infrastructure or enough renewables to power all the future cars, homes, and businesses we continue to build and develop. Exponential growth does reach its climax, then erodes away. We are eroding- and the literal ground dropping out beneath us seems compelling, but will not change the outcome of our actions, which are already at work and unstoppable.
More mining will be needed for more solar, wind, and thermal energy development. Plastics are irreplaceable in our daily life, and plastic is fossil fuel. The microplastics are in us already, and won’t be removed. The oceans are acidifying, and currents slowing down, slowing the storms that travel across the planet, allowing rains to stall over the land and dumping those record rains. Hurricane Harvey is a great example of this catastrophic event, which caused over 100 billion in damages. Even the winner of Power Ball can’t afford that kind of expense. Though they could fund the rebuilding of California’s infrastructure from these recent floods.
There is no stopping our current global system from continuing its rampage. We’ve passed that point, so most countries are dropping the idea of curbing emissions– especially the developing ones. Other nations are starting to cry out for compensation. Pakistan was hit with monumental flooding in 2022, then argued that top developed nations emitting the most pollution should pay up for damages. Rightly so on one hand, on the other, economic progress and share holder dividends. If we reported daily cost of climate change like we do the ebb and flow of the stock market, people might better understand the impact- especially financial, this wacky weather has on us all. The markets will not outpace mother nature. It is our financial system which is destroying the earth, so why not change how we operate? Because we can’t, especially fast enough to shift the course we’re on. So why care?
Things are still heading in the right direction. We’re past denying there is climate change (for the most part). America is trying to shift the narrative away from big oil. People are less violent now than ever, and more willing to cooperate in crisis. Though I’m not wishing crisis on us to make the world a better place. We’ll keep seeing great change in consumer products available. Out little farm is shifting away from livestock in the long run, as input expenses will become unforeseeable, like hay this year. I recommend all farmers look at growing bugs as food in future. Can’t predict, but we can plan ahead and have options to pivot towards as the change ramps up. I know it’s getting hotter in summer, dryer, and colder in winter here. We’ve stopped planting hemlocks and selected oaks. The change in hardiness zones will cause ecological collapse of many species, and it’s already in progress.
Move with the change or be consumed by it. We all die in the end, so live richly while you can and be prepared for the shifts to come. Accept reality, work with it, and be grateful we’re still living in a relatively survivable world. Technology has helped us map the changes, and could offer more solutions, but it’s still based in an extraction economy. What instead? I’m not sure, but here at home, we’re planting as much diversity into the soil as we can, slowing and sinking water for drought resistance, and pitching our roof lines to shed snow. It’s the people who can’t adapt facing the real struggle in climate change. Maybe we do owe Pakistan, and should start paying for our consumption on another level. A climate tax on all luxury goods. No insurance for building in flood prone places- using current climate mapping. Though I heard an argument once by a developer who said because septic systems can now be build air tight, homes could go in on the flood planes. Such madness!
Hey, because we can- we should! No, but the problem is the solution, and flooding brings a lot of very good things to the landscape if we learn to live and work with the gifts of weather, rather than fearmongering. The news was calling Cali’s atmospheric river out like it was some king of new monster coming from the deep. The rains have been monstrous, but the development in California has been too, and the water management poor, so you get serious reactions once flooding begins. Small steps, make small changes to help prepare yourself and your community for these weather events. People in Buffalo died in the cold, many of whom were expected to stay at work or loose their jobs, but they lost their jobs anyway, because they lost their lives. It is these short sighted mistakes, which will be our end if we cannot begin to comprehend the strengthening extremes facing humanity.