Blacktail Hunt 2022

The woods are lovely dark and deep.

-Robert Frost

This year’s deer season was short and bittersweet, but such learning and reward in experience, no matter how brief. Opening weekend, I was at home preparing for my hunt on Monday at Snoqualmie Tree Farm. I took a walk around my own land wearing hunter orange and carrying a long gun, to avail. It was a red dawn, the sun was orange, never quite lightening to a golden white, and by Monday morning, the air was thick with smoke, and the tree farm was closed indefinitely. The cause- a wildfire between Lake Phillipa and a ridge line just above Lake Calligan. I’d spent that summer fishing trout in Calligan and scouting nearby clear-cuts for my hunt later that fall. The area abuts The Alpine Lake Wilderness, offering a large area to hunt in both private and public land. The fire started opening weekend and ended my first week of hunting season with the worst air quality on the planet for three days straight. The fire is still burning a month later, but at least the forest is now open.

During the last day of the season, October 31st, I had a morning to hunt, and spent it at a neighbor’s property where they had sighed a most unusually marked blacktail buck. He had a white nose, which stood out as a unique identifier in the field. He was beautiful, mature, and a great candidate for harvest, but it was not meant to be. I sat listening to him walk through the woods in the falling leaves, sitting in a golden mantel of maple and cottonwood shed. The heavy rains during the night had driven everyone into shelter, and with the coming light, downpour reduced to trickle, and the deer were up moving to eat. I knew I’d catch my buck on a traverse from one larder to another, so I set up a long sit in the young deciduous grove between two pastures. I had a spot in the crossroads of several game trails. My breathing slowed as the sound of approaching hoof falls drew closer. Then, the wind shifted.

The sudden stamp of a stiff leg shattered my ambition as, in the next seconds, I listened to a new pattern of hoof beats pronking away into thicker cover. The moment of success had slipped away in my scent crossing a most attuned nostril a tip white blazed nose. I didn’t even gimps a tail flash as I stood up from the blind of fallen logs. It could have been mindset preemptively, thinking too hard about the animals movement, sending out energetic rings of pressure, alerting the prey animal’s instinct to check the air. The environment we cannot control, nor how we’re perceived within it. Beyond setting intentions and doing my best to blend in, it was merely a shift in barometric pressure which cost me the element of surprise. Standing up did not help, but I was limited for time, even in the final day of hunting deer for the season. Still, hearing the approach, knowing what caused my premature unveiling, that was a good set of lessons learned.

I also helped teach an hunter education class during the week of fire, thus certifying a few more safe hunters for the field, even if I could not be in it. I also saw a lot of bucks along roadways during the rut. We’ll keep our eyes peeled during these colder months and hope to harvest some roadkill to make up for the missed buck harvest. Late season, which is 3 days in a limited area above snow line, I’ll be with gal pals hunting turkey on the east side. It will be worth it, and a lot more good learning in new hunting pursuit. Gratitude for all the learning and opportunity in hunting this year. The deer got a year off, but next season, I’m committed to deer and elk season without interruption, and hope to have a turkey by the end of this year. Thanks to all who mentor and share the hunt.

First Frost 2022

This morning in early November, we woke to a hard frost spread across the landscape, an icy cloak of wonder. The cold seasonal snap sends shivers up spine and stalk alike. Our garden is letting go the last harvest for a while in wilted chard and kale. Our young grape vine finally turned yellow, but still clings to the broad, serrated sun catchers, leafy sails which will turn to parchment in time and drop to the earth. Plant sacrifices of fertility back to soil are a crucial exchange in equal give and take within an abundant ecosystem. Animals give digested vegetation too, no living thing acting within the lifecycle of our planet can take without giving. Even carnivores give back plants, through the flesh of the grazers they consume. Seasonal cycles dictate much of this recycling in all it’s forms. Though plants are most affected by light, and give up more in the fall, reclaiming the sacrifice in spring with new growth, perpetuated through complex nutrient trades in the soil and through sun, rain, wind, and even fire.

The cold signals nature’s shift into quite rest. Almost all plant growth slows to a stop. This morning, all the livestock water troughs were frozen, water- an element of change that can take any form (solid, liquid, gas), chooses it’s hardest form today, which demands the most work out of my chores. Removing ice, refilling water, and maintaining hydration is challenging, but the elemental change freezing water, and the crust of firm resistance strikes back on bare knuckles, I’ve forgotten my gloves. The animals are restless, no one rushes the troughs, but cold also hinders hydration, which means you should drink a bit more if possible, but the animals are waiting. Food drives all the little feet pacing at hay creches, awaiting fresh field fodder. I’ll let the ladies have a few open days of grazing, now that the vegetation in our zone one spaces are retreating, leaving the last forage before a long put-up in the barn.

This slowing of life into literal ice crystals signals hibernation, inward focus through the dark times in preparation for new spring growth only a few months away. It’s a very fast turning cycle of seasons, though we humans often ignore compelling change. Nature is tuned in, offering so much insight into adaptation, resiliency, and balance. I’m also deeply appreciative for the vivid color, vast landscapes, and vistas of each season’s gifts. Frost is fall’s first real shake up, sending plants into stasis wildlife into hibernation. At home, our hearth is lit, bringing the warmth of wood and comfort of fire light in darker times. Outside, the sheep lay close together for warmth, their fleecy coats offering perfect insulation to winter’s coming cold. Katahdins come from Maine, and handle the cold brilliantly, especially with a warm barn full of hay and straw. Lambing is only a few months away, so the ewes are fat and round, showing off the abundance of our fields and forest browsing.

The gardens are on pause, at least most plants are dormant, but some stragglers hold on, and winterize by slowing down, but not freezing out. We’re still picking kale and chard leaves, though some are a bit wilted. A cold frame will extend our plantings, while others will be left to the elements, including seed shed for next spring. Our most successful garden verities reseed each year without our help. Kale and radish are good cold weather self perpetuating examples every lazy gardener should tend. Under the shelter or our porch, potted wild ginger remains active, and some hollyhock on a south wall garden has leafed out with enthusiasm. It might regret this late arrival in another month of freezing temperatures, but rain is due next week, and the temperatures usually rise above freezing when clouds insulate our region. Western Washington remains temperate when the rains stay.

November tends to be our coldest month, with week long freezes and iced over water troughs. But it’s particularly dry this year. We’ve had little rain this month, and the high pressure system seems to stall out over us, keeping the insulation blanket of cloud cover at bay. This leaves the ground cold and frosty by morning’s first light. The crisp outlines of ice on leaf tips catches like a diamond glaze in golden dawn’s bright glimmer. Autumn color in western Washington can rival any, with fiery Japanese Maple and yellow asparagus sprigs. Even red flowering currant sports a splash of red, green, and gold in a post modern mashup that could hang in The Guggenheim. Add frosting and you have a seasonal festive feel that pushes back against the cold with warm pigment and glossy magic. Later, as the sun’s warming rays melt back Mr. Frost’s touch in coils of rising steam, the change remains palpable, numbing fingertips and reddening cheeks in the delight of fall.

Mechanized Mulching

Adding occasional outside inputs keeps the soil recovery going here at EEC Forest Stewardship. This is organic mulch from a vetted source- proper decomposition timing, weed seed free guarantee, and strictly bark composition. This mulch is a weed suppressant and ground cover, mainly for our trees, and their roots near the surface of the ground. We’re also reinforcing weed prevention and moisture retention for perennials in established beds like our herb spiral and keyhole garden. Mulch is a great way to keep soil and plant roots cool and moist, also insulating the ground from extreme temperature changes. Intact forests produce most of their own mulch and compost, along with the contributions of all the other life contributing within the forest floor, from beetles and mycelia to elk and forest grouse.

Because human development alters the forest composition, though removal of the canopy, compression on roads, and the desire for a clean cut lawn, forest debris is lost as an alarming rate. Here in Western Washington, where a once vibrant temperate rainforest evolved within the environment for thousands of years, the landscape relies on a thickly carpeted forest floor to protect against erosion and provides banking of long term fertility to grow healthy trees and diverse understory ecology. Our panhandle has seen the worst of erosion and compaction from vehicles, so we are focused on that area with mulching to renew topsoil for the long term health of some beautiful trees still surviving on the edge. We’re also putting up physical barriers near the bases of these trees to prevent further compaction and erosion. In future, we’ll also plant more understory companions to strengthen the landscape’s adaptation. Already, the roots of this Douglas Fir and Big Leaf Maple, pictured below, are getting some much needed support to their root structure.

We’ve layered the mulch with some well aged sheep manure and straw to add additional nutrients for the soil. It’s a great way to spread biomass where it’s needed most in rebuilding a thriving forest floor. Leaves are the natural builders of fertility, but people see that debris as litter, and want it cleaned up. This is a tragedy for the forest, as over time, compaction of the roots due to a loss of topsoil will kill the trees. Stressed trees are vulnerable to diseases, which hastens the decline of a tree. Leaf blowers add insult to injury, blowing hot air on the exposed roots and drying out soil which then blows away with the leaves and grass cuttings to expose even more of a tree’s delicate root structure. What should you do? Leave the leaves and grass clippings around the trees! And MULCH! By tending your forest floor in this way, you retain the nutrients, biomass, and organic breakdown process of the living soil, which in tern, offers a balanced soil composition for all the other important, often unseen tree allies, like beneficial insects which will predate upon pests to protect the tree.

Mycological support, which I’ve mentioned in other blogs, can only thrive in decomposition. Without the leaves there to breakdown, the decomposition stalls, and bacteria has to work harder, often developing into infection for the tree. Take a walk in any healthy forest and you’ll feel your feet sink into the soft loam under the leaves. In The Ho Rainforest on our peninsula, many feet of debris lay beneath the canopy. hundreds of years of trees shedding needles, branches, and some fallen trees turned into nurse logs cultivate the health of a forest and allow each tree to mature fully into a giant old growth masterpiece- though you rarely find them in high traffic areas due to compaction.

I know of two accessible hikes where you can find a truly old growth tree right on the trail. Above is a picture of one, a Douglas Fir on West Fork Foss River Trail. This giant is on the edge of the footpath, within a mile of the start of this hike. It’s a great tree to see, and as you take a moment to appreciate the size and age of this wonderful elder, look up to see why this tree stands today. Most stand alone old growth trees found in an otherwise clearcut forest were left because they were already damaged in a way which compromises their timber value, thus making the task of felling them a loss in revenue. The Foss River tree is missing it’s top, common in left behind old growth trees in our region. Other evidence, like this standing dead snag below, show the evidence of a missing top, perhaps already infected with a bracket fungus, and showing signs of heart wood rot 100 years ago when still alive. These are natural ways a tree can fail in time, but cannot be prevented with mulching.

Erosion and root exposure caused by human activity is preventable, both with mulching, and giving a tree more space at it’s base for debris. With enough duff protecting the tree, compaction and erosion will be eliminated all together, allowing a long, healthy life for the tree, and a future forest, if left to seed and grow new young trees, to help restore the ecology of our temperate rainforest home. Bank woody debris around any trees you tend, keep the leaf litter, branches, needles, and twigs to build up future rooting space for a growing network of water retention, mineral exchange, and living soil full of everything a healthy forest needs. With a forward thinking vision of soil production through decomposition, and the help of our fungal friend who break down wood into soil, our forest ecology around the world will thrive.

Forest Mushrooms

Fungal friends are thriving across the landscape at EEC Forest Stewardship. Mushrooms can be found at any time of year here in Western Washington. Western Hemlocks are in evident decline due to extended heat and drought in our once temperate rainforest hillsides. Dead branches, standing snags, and fallen trunks host endless habitat for wildlife and mycological feasts. Bracket fungi, conks- like this Formes fomentarius parasitize stressed trees. It huddles with a Trametes hirsuta? I’m not always sure of specific characteristics, but the orange one is Trametes as much as the grey hoof is Formes. This is mushrooming 101, EEC at the fall equinox, 2022. Our mycological spring is awakening, though these two wood eaters are operating year-round and fruit at any time, many species need cool, damp conditions to bloom out of the forest floor and into our foraging larder. Look to the hills in October after the rains start and you’re sure to see some real mushroom beauty on display. It’s not all culinary, but you’ll be wowed by shape, texture, and color as seasonal wonders of the mushroom spring abound.

Red belted conchs like these, pictured above on a failed western hemlock trunk, are common in the woods throughout all seasons. They feast on dead wood and break down hard wood fibers, hence they themselves are very hard and woody. When they die and begin decomposing, their structure rots like wood, becoming porous and brittle. These beautiful fungi also produce important condensation, which looks like sweat. Fungal exudates conduct minerals and chemicals out of the decomposing wood. Western medicine is studying these liquids for health innovations, such as the treatment of diabetes. Mushrooms hold a lot of medicinal potential within, but the same chemical structures that heal, can, in the wrong amounts, harm. There are also a few deadly toxic species of mushrooms, and countless others that will at the very least, give you terrible digestive upset. This is why mushrooms are best observed, but left to the work they are doing in situ.

Mycology is colonial, communal, social- mycelia is plural in nature. Recognizing the deep interconnected activity of mushrooms in the environment is a model of helpful hints in earth care. Decomposition takes time, and mushrooms are cleaning up forests like other scavengers of the living world. There are fungi which actively harm living trees, and here’s a great webinar on western Washington’s current verities and what role they play. Because of commercial timber mono-cropping, natural cycles of climax and decay over thousands of years is reduced too 40-60 year old continual harvests of young trees. The immune system of the forest is kept working at triage level, weakening the ecology, the complex life systems of nature. Natural protections fade, leaving the young trees vulnerable to disease, and helpless to defend against it. We may have scientific short term solutions, such as more cloning of the trees, but forests, if left to grow and evolve through generations of people, reserve a history of resiliency to protect against infection. Forest products come from logs, the majority of living biomass in a woodland. The majority of the physical biomass, logs, are taken away from the land, and GMO Douglas fir are mass planted for another crop of board feet.

Mushroom personality is often overlooked, and the importance of mycilia networks within the soil of forests are paramount, yet never studied to determine the state of most commercial timber industry stands. Mycological activity within all forests can tell us so much, about nutrient density in the soil and wood, how strong trees’ immune systems are, and what weaknesses they may succumb to. As mentioned above, infected trees are telling more about a larger forest’s health, and in places with continual impact, certain mushrooms cannot survive. In places missing mushrooms, there is less efficient biological breakdown of carbon, less water in the soil, and far less diversity of microbiology in the soil. When soil is less productive, what grows in it will decline, and our pacific northwest temperate rain forests are vanishing. The tree farms are not living forests, they are commercial stands of mono culture. Still, you’ll find mushrooms there.

The language of fungi is still seeking a Rosetta stone for translation, but interest in the properties of fungal chemistry are peaking scientific interest, and as our understanding of mycological complexity grows, we are learning that the mushrooms have much to teach. Our own neurology is plugged into mushrooms, and physiologists are looking into the use of “magic mushrooms” to help heal PTSD, Depression, Eating Disorders, and more. All our medicines come from nature, so it is up to us, as global tenders in deep relation with our world, to see how connected all living things are in sustaining life. Our shortsighted “stewardship” has led to ecological collapse through increasing degradation of natural habitat renamed natural resources, to be extracted for objects. From solar panels to smart phones, our consumption culture will be it’s own downfall. Fungi will be right there with us, though once the forests are gone, we’ll meet them more often in the form of molds.

Gill’s Chalet (first draft)

Ok, it’s no Sepp Holzer, but for a first time build, at no cost in material, I’m happy with the first draft. Rustic is passable award, the construction took only an hour (after 15 min machine dig, pictured below). Logs were gathered, roof was scrap, and dirt sculpted beautifully into bunker. Why this shelter? Our LGD Kangal has been digging holes and establishing his spots on the landscape. K9s like to den up, have a place in the earth to retreat to for shelter, protection, and surprise. Gill has had a year and a half to stake out his territory, view all the vantages, and select a den spot. He chose this area, near a large cedar, next to the gate that’s closest to the barn, and on the high ground. How do we know this is the place? He’s dug in the most, lays there when napping a lot of the time, and we can see it from the house to have direct check in.

After the initial dig, Gill came in and marked the area, dug a bit himself, and spent a lot of time laying in the dirt pile. When I constructed the roof, I put an exaggerated overhang on the north and south sides of the structure, so Gill will have above ground dry space to enjoy when he’s not feeling a den up vibe. This initial roof design might fail in a big wind, so I’m calling this the first draft. I’m also unsure about water flow during a heavy rain event. When the wet weather return, there will be a few more adjustments in construction related to drainage. That’s adaptation! So far, the den is dry and the dog is lounging in the outside dry space. We’ll add straw and see if the additional insulation works to coax him in. But with temperature still in the 50s, Gill’s thick undercoat is more than enough insulation, which might be why he’s still outside the shelter.

Many dogs love a good den up space, underground, with good sight lines. Wild K9 species often dig dens, and need them to survive in bad weather. Though Gill does come into the barn when the weather is extreme, he prefers being out to free range in one of his large fenced paddocks. The trees there offer good summer cover, with shade and low branches to hide under, but in winter, we wanted to make sure Gill had additional hard shelter, and specifically a dug out space to insulate against both cold, heat, and rain. It’s fancy and fun, but practical and cost effective too. If Gill does not take to it, the young lambs next year might, and I know the ewes will explore the new shelter in Spring. We might have to construct additional design to keep sheep out, but allow dog in. Usually, that involved a sized door that is too narrow for the sheep.

If this shelter works for Gill, we’ll plan another in the back field too. Though in winter, the sheep are in the barn and Gill is close to the sheep. I think that’s another reason he’s laying on the north side of the shelter space- the sheep are just north of him in the barn and he can smell and hear them. As this shelter idea evolves, we’ll come back with report on success and added construction to improve on our concept. I think it’s going to be a great habitat for our 120lb four legged security friend. That piece of mind is worth the extra effort to offer above and beyond comfort and care.

Fall Flock Fire

At the end of September, 2022, the land was still green and lush here at EEC. The sheep were browsing happily on blackberries, hazel, reed canary grass, and more. It was peak growth across the landscape, flora and fauna ripe in preparation for harvest. We picked our apples and pears, picked hops, blackberries, and salal; fermented wine, froze gallons of future pie filling, and dehydrated future sweet winter snacks. Then, at the start of October, when the expected rains didn’t come, we set to culling animals quickly, to save pasture and manage limited hay ration for the coming winter. The back pasture is in its final grazing stage, and on October 17th, 2022, we’ll put the sheep in the barn for winter because of pasture shortage, and no rain. This is the second year in a row we’ve had drought caused pasture rest. We’re not letting the landscape turn to moon dust, as many livestock systems often do at this time of year. Grasslands are most vulnerable in drought, as the roots are weak, and grass grazed down to the root will cause the entire plant to fail.

Overgrazing is common in pasture systems with too many animals, but it’s also caused by not adapting to the seasonal extremes now challenging western Washington, temperate rainforest farmers. Where three years ago, in a good mild summer after excellent winter rains, Leafhopper Farm produced 17 lambs and supported 23 sheep. It was a boom year, but by the end of next summer, 2021, the ewes were in the barn with hay at the end of September, and the cost for hay this winter, compels the shrinking of the herd back down to only 8 animals. We can pivot like this to stay within the limitations of our landscape, but many other animal operations do not adapt numbers to suit the environment, they overtax the environment to suit their financial ambitions, or obligations, and do not follow the imperative limitations of finite natural resources.

Leafhopper Farm has honored it’s lambing contracts for 2022, but has stopped taking deposits for 2023. We’ll still be selling lamb next year, but by invitation only, due to supply limitations dictated by the weather. The Cascade Katahdins remain adaptable and healthy, thriving on a rich mixture of vegetation in the lush times, and browsing what they can from blackberry bramble one the grass dries up. As the shepherd, I make the calls on when these animals come off the pasture, to save the soil and plants. Once rain returns, in gushing torrents more and more in past years, we’ll see flooding, and loos soil on hillsides washes away in heavy rain. This is why it’s so important to leave some protection on exposed pastureland. EEC Forest Stewardship builds up thatch in the fields, and rotates livestock off the grasses before they are grazed down to the root. We adapt these management choices to the needs of the land, not our own assumed profits. This keeps the financial strain on the farm light, and our risks low.

In future, Leafhopper Farm may look very different, without affordable inputs, the sheep system would shrink to a few animals for farm consumption, and our food production focus would shift towards meal worm operations. We would retain some sheep for browsing and grazing, but plant out the back pasture into food forest. We’d start the transition of our middle pasture into food forest with more earthworks prep and mulching. The flock would stay at 3-4 animals, and we might fold a couple of goats back in to help with browsing efforts in the field. Chickens remain a key staple in our restoration agriculture endeavors, producing a lot of good soil turnover, fertile poop, and much needed insect pest management. They also offer eggs and meat at affordable input costs, though with careful planting design to favor grains, the land here could sustain them if we downsized the flock to about 10 birds. Knowing the sustainability of scale within the landscape is key to holistic farming. Environmental change demands fast adaptation in scale, often asking us to rest the land, especially during climate extremes.

It is mid October, 2022. There is a 1,200 acre forest fire in its second day about 15 miles from us. The air has been thick with bitter ash for weeks on end, and I’m inside today as much as possible, with air quality being extremely bad. Living in NYC was not as bad, but close, and all the time, where as with rains on the way, we should have a fresh breath by next weekend. The start of fall has been dry and warm, with temperatures in the 80s last weekend, shattering heat records by almost 20 degrees. Many trees and shrubs stand in brown, crisp, drought stricken shock. This carpet of grey flakes, like a death shroud, finalizes a costume macabre. At least it’s the right time of year in spirit.

Death of one gives rebirth to another, and I can hear morels shuttering at the thought of recently burned forest floor. The ash falling here might encourage mycological unicorns from the soil in coming years. The rains will wash much of it through the soil and into silt at the bottom of Seattle Sound. Hopefully, our swale systems slow and retain some of that microscopic fertility. It’s going to be like this more and more often where we live in Western Washington. Fire is an old friend to this region, ask any old growth Douglas Fir, if you can find one. It will most likely carry scorch marks at its base from past forest infernos. Droughts will continue, and oaks should be planted in place of cedar and hemlock. We’re looking more and more like southern California every year.

It makes we wonder at keeping animals in it, as our flock is breathing that outside air right now and baring it, as there’s not alternative options at the moment, and the back pasture is still plentiful. Grazing is the priority, and maybe there’s a little mineral flavor, like pepper, in the field. We’re also aware that emergency evacuation plans might need to activate, should winds pick up before coming storms. Rain will ultimately quench the fire’s thirst, but there’s a lot of crispy acreage between then and now. Our flock is small enough, both birds and sheep, to pack into the truck and tied in kennels atop my partner’s sedan. We’ll be able to relocate all our stock in the event of catastrophic evacuation, but we’re not packing up now, and don’t see a need to given the forecast, and King County fire protection. It’s a well funded civil service in our region, with good reason.

There are a couple of major river systems between us and the blaze, we’re in the smoke, which is never fun, but we’re not under burn threat. The map below shows the rough distance between us and the fire, we’re north of Carnation. Note all the ridges and water features across this map, all hindrances to fire spreading rapidly. Vigilance is important, but panic is unnecessary. The sheep are chill, chickens are foraging, cats are napping, and dogs are laying low to avoid unwanted exhale in the bad air. We’ve all taken the cue. Hunting is certainly curtailed, though I’ve got everything ready and will sit mornings and evenings here on the land. The fire is in the tree farm where I hunt, which is closed as long as the fire burns. Maybe the wildlife will come this way while avoiding the smoke and cinders? Either way, the habitat destruction will not be good for this year’s herds.

Domestic stock like our Cascade Katahdins, get a good meal in every day, regardless of smoke or fire. That’s the pay off of raising animals in captivity, but it must still remain adaptable to survive. Our ewes that put on the best pasture weight, have twins, and remain easy to handle, are a top priority in herd selection, and those traits remain constant, no matter the change in climate. Superficial traits like color, tail length, and coat condition are unimportant, though if I’m splitting hairs, the less wool in a coat, the better. This relates to flavor and what the body of a sheep puts it’s growing energy into- wool or meat. Lanolin, found in wool sheep, effects taste. Hair sheep have far less lanolin, remaining light in flavor, avoiding that mutton taste often found in adult sheep. Wool production also takes away from meat production in an animal’s body. Meat sheep should be growing a healthy frame of future food, and for Katahdin, that should happen on a diet of vegetation, without grain supplements.

Leafhopper Farm Cascade Katahdins will continue to thrive at EEC, and lessons of holistic land restoration abounds. Sheep add fertility in grazing cycles of manure and vegetation harvest. That natural input is more important to this land vision, than meat production. It’s why we are not registering our flock. We do sell breeding stock for small farmstead and homestead systems, and will focus on producing more sheep to other shepherds in our area as needed, but maintaining a commercial lambing system in current input price inflation has moved to the back burner. It’s another great example of adaptation in these fast changing times. We won’t burn the land with overgrazing, and keep a close eye on the fires at hand.

Earthworks II

EEC Forest Stewardship is getting some surprise earthworks at the end of September 2022. Our luck in having a neighbor with excavator and a week of time to share in helping us get some swales dug in our fenced pastures a decade ahead of schedule. The neighbor has been very generous with his time to come over, and another neighbor was generous enough to let us drive the machine through their property into our back field. Cooperation like this between neighbors is so special, and we’ll continue the generous exchange with pet and farm sitting, labor sharing, and even free consulting in land design and animal system setups. It’s a win win for all involved on the land.

What are these earthworks for? Well, our main goal at EEC is to slow, sink, and save water. Swales are the fastest way to collect large volumes of water sheeting off the landscape, preventing the loss of freshwater from the soil by stopping it’s run down hill. Catchment systems like this store the water in the ground by slowing it’s flow, holding it, and letting the moisture sink into the soil slowly. We’ve got some pasture space where water sheets down hill during heavy rain events, leaving the land and flooding into the creek and away from our soil. When this landscape was covered in temperate rainforest, the rain was sunk and stored by large trees and their elaborate web of roots and forest duff which acted like a huge sponge, soaking up the rain and slowly drinking from it all year. Now, with so much forest removed, much of the rains sheet off the dry soil and leave the ground parched. Swales start the process of retaining water, which supports the planting of new trees on the down hill side of each new earthworks feature.

Swales do not have to be deep too work, but they should always have a berm of the dug out dirt piled down hill of the swale to support the slowing and sinking of the water. Another important design feature of swales is being on keyline in the topography. This means the bottom of the swale should have no real slope along its length. If there is slope, the water falling into the swale will be channeled, forming a current which can erode the ground even more. Swales should not create flow, but slow and stop the water along the full length of the swale. Diversion swales are dug to move water, to drain a wet area, or send water to a larger collection point, like a pond. Keyline design moves water through swales slowly to spread it across a larger landscape. We are not trying to move the water away, so we dug the swales with as little change in the base topography as possible.

Because these earthworks happened on short notice, we did not have time to use accurate measuring systems like an a-frame to accurately map our topography first. This means we’ll be doing a lot of observation this winter to see what the water does when it flows into these swales. If the dug space fills up nicely with no overflow, and the water sinks in, we have dug the swales evenly enough to retain the water, which is what we’re going for. If the swale fills, spills over, and allows the water to keep flowing down hill, we’ll make the swales a little deeper next year and address any low points or slopes sections with better leveling measurements next summer. It’s a bit of a risk, but again, we didn’t dig very big swales or very long ones, so the water should slow, sink, and save in the soil nicely.

We did put in one catchment basin in a seasonal wet space where we want to direct the water away from our road. This swale will move water into its center, which we dug just a bit deeper and wider to collect a larger volume. This winter we will observe how much water fills the basin, and if it’s more than the ground can hold, we’ll plan to put in a culvert to send the water on down to the creek when it overflows. Before putting in this basin, the water would sheet across the landscape here and soften the ground where our road crosses. Though we don’t drive on this land in the winter, we’d like to firm up the road’s base by directing the water into another space nearby. This basin may become a small, seasonal pond with wetland plantings. It’s hard to imagine wetlands here in late summer. All the soil was dry and easy to dig at this time. In future, with the help of these swales and catchment basins, the ground will retain more of that crucial winter rain to counter our growing summertime drought.

One other earthworks feature we implemented was a waterbar on the road, just above a major topographic change into steeper slope. We’re hoping that by diverting the water above the hill, we can prevent it streaming down the road, cutting into the land and eroding the ground where our vehicles drive. I installed another bar above, near the barn last fall. I dug it by hand, and it worked beautifully. We channeled that water into the pond, and prevented more erosion down hill. This waterbar will do the same, though we’re channeling into the woods, where it can sink into the trees of a more established forest with sponge capacity. We’ll still be doing a lot of observing to see how much water is moved, where it goes, and if the forest capacity is enough to slow and sink the flow. If not, we’ll build an additional catchment basin with controlled outflow to prevent future erosion. Again, all of these earthwork features are to catch and keep water on the landscape to strengthen water retention in the soil. If we move it away from one area, we have to have another place ready to receive it.

Working with the landscape like this takes a lot of planning, observing, and mapping of your topography. Moving water across contours can be a tricky thing, that’s why we focus on sinking the water in, not sending it away. There are strict laws here in King County Washington regarding moving water across your land, especially if your sending it off your property onto someone else’s. That’s against the law, and with good reason, imagine what would happen to people living far below someone directing all their water down hill? Flooding out your neighbors is a serious thing, and the laws protecting against it are very important to be aware of- especially in a region with a lot of rain. As the weather becomes more and more extreme, we’re seeing first hand the volume of water increasing across our property. Last year, our well established swales filled to the brim for the first time. Luckily, they are built to overflow into each other and down to the pond, which has never reached it’s outflow capacity. If it does, there is a catchment basin below and a slow meander down to the creek on our land. There is also a backup overflow basin off the pond, which could hold additional flooding in a major weather event. So far, we have not come close to this kind of event, but we’re prepared none the less.

Observing the flow of water into your earthworks is crucial to knowing if they are preforming correctly on your land. If the swales channel water into a torrent of moving erosion hazard, you may be in for some bad flooding. That’s part of why we did smaller swales with limited movement across the terrain. These earthwork features are there to catch and save, or direct minimal flow off roads and into intact forest land that will soak up the excess. If we do note any flow, we’ll map those spots for future swales and/or redesign existing swales to better hold and sink. One other crucial thing to think about in designing swales is access. Once you put in a big ditch on the land, you can’t drive through it any more. If you have livestock, make the swale edges gradual, so an animal can crawl in and out of them without struggle. That’s why our swales are gradual and shallow. We don’t want to trap our sheep in a hole. There’s a lot to think about when implementing earthworks on your land. Laws, terrain, machinery, and access all dictate much of what you can do. Be sure to also map soil types and existing water flow before digging.

Almost ten years of mapping, observing, and planning made it possible for EEC to say yes to earthworks on short notice. We do not recommend just bringing in an excavator and playing around- you might end up with a seasonal stream in your back yard that flows into a neighbor’s basement. Scale is also important- if you have minimal acreage, hand dig your features and create small catchments that cannot flood. Our 10 acre parcel has room to host bigger features, but we still start small and do a lot of mapping to better understand what’s already going on. The changing weather extremes also play a huge part in how our earthworks succeed. We plan all our earthworks to handle the catastrophic flooding potential that could one day become the norm in our region. The sequestering of water in the soil also helps protect against summer wildfire threat, keeping our ground damp and less prone to drought. These advantages and more make earthworks on the landscape a crucial part of our restoration goals here at EEC.

Blackberry Wine

We’re back into fermentation fun here at EEC Forest Stewardship. Blackberry season was off the hook, and we took full advantage of this tenacious invasive bramble to harvest some sweetness. About 20 pounds of berries has gone into the pot with more sugar than I’d care to think about. That’s how you make alcohol with yeast, and we’re glad to get a handle on such simple chemistry to produce some home made drink to enjoy during the long dark nights of winter. It’s been a real challenge to get the chemistry right for best taste. For several years of attempts, I fought to keep the sugar inputs down, and ended up with fizzy juice rather than wine. Other years I’ve tried using only the natural yeast bloom on the fruit, but those experiments also came up short on taste. A recent almost success was kept in cask for 6 years before bottling. A wine expert friend suggested I put a little additional sugar in at bottling, which I did, and that batch was the best yet. Now, following a well reviewed recipe with simple steps of multiple sugar inputs and clear days of waiting between feeding the yeast and final racking, along with some added wine yeast has brought about two batches this year which I have high hopes for.

Blackberry wine is quite a straightforward process, yet its taken almost a decade to fully embrace all the steps and timing in a way to bring out the best success in the brewing process. The biggest challenge this year is temperature. Usually, September remains warmer, thus keeping the yeast active long enough to transform a good amount of the sugar intro alcohol. This fall, things are cooling off sooner than expected, and our fermentation has slown down considerably. The air locks on our carboys have stopped percolating, which signals the lack of fermentation. To counter this issue, we put a sweater on the jug and set it in the warm sun to heat up and start again. It’s working, so we solved that issue, but will probably freeze the berries next year and wait to ferment when the wood stove is going later in the fall. Temperature is so important in any brewing process, and without regulation, your future drinks may end up missing the spike intended. This is true for all fermentation, even food. A few years ago I tried making saki in the summer, not a great idea considering it was so hot out. We ended up with rice yogurt, which was yummy, but not a rice wine.

Fermentation is a great chemistry lesson, and fun way to preserve food. You don’t have to make alcohol, but it’s nice to have some home brew to enjoy and share with others if you drink. Fruit is a great starter in learning the brewing process, though beer kits are easy to find too. Because we don’t grow grains here at EEC, and blackberries are plentiful, wine makes the most sense. Just know there’s a lot of learning curve in perfecting your recipe and we’re still a long way from winning any accolades. However, this year’s batch is decent, good taste for great friends and family to enjoy a little flavor from our land. Gratitude to the bramble nation, the black fruit that comes on in later summer, and the hands that harvest and brew. Special shout out to chemistry, and the nature of fermentation- what an important gift.

Racehorse Creek Landslide Fossil Fields

Fantastic Fern!

A late summer trip to Mount Baker for a fossil hunt. There’s a recent landslide that’s accessible by trail where you can find 50-80 million year old “talking rocks”. Much of the Baker area holds a treasure trove of fossils, in road cuts and flooded down creek beds, these Chuchanut Formation stone strata are revealed most dramatically just above Racehorse Creek on the north side of the mountain. There are great online maps and directions here. The hike is up steep escarpments, so be mobile and dressed to slip and slide on craggy terrain. If you not up for a hike to the slide area, you can hang out along Racehorse Creek at the base of the mountains and look carefully in the creek for fossils- you’ll find them.

What you’ll see, with a good eye, ranged from full palm fronds unfurled several feet wide, leaves that might have just fallen from red alder trees of today, and bits of plant debris frozen in stone. No Medusa magic here, but millions of years compressed into petrified sand, mud, and fine silt. Geology is an active subject here in The Pacific Northwest. Out plate tectonics compel volcanoes and earthquakes on a grand scale. In the case of this landslide, we can visually begin to comprehend tectonic uplift from a distance, and count the layers of time all the way back to when this land was a beach, with tropical jungle located in present day Baja Mexico. That’s right folks, a lot of Western Washington has been moving up from Mexico for millions of years. That’s how tropical plants got this far north. The palms were not growing in The Pacific Northwest, millions of years ago the north west was under a mile of glacier ice. Below is a plate movement map, showing the northern push up from the south- the land from Baja continues a push north into British Colombia.

How it got here is exciting enough to understand- and the geological science is young, so stay tuned for more great evolution in the theory, for more on Washington State Geology and a lot of fun learning check out Nick Zentner of WSU. His Youtube channel is full of great lectures, in the field learning, and special guests sharing up to date theory. The Eocene fossils at Racehorse Creek help unravel the often confusing geology of our region. This area is known for being a hub of tectonic activity, and past slides of much greater magnitude have occurred in this area of Mount Baker before. Recent lidar mapping reveals an older, much greater landslide, and helps geologist forecast future instability in the landscape. It’s also opened up layers of strata to reveal eons of our past. That’s what drew me to this amazing place, and I hope some of you get a chance to head there for some awesome fossil hunting.

Chestnuts!

Yes, our grafted chestnuts are beginning to produce nuts at EEC Forest Stewardship. This fall, 2022, we’ll be acquiring more to complete our back field nut orchard. This deciduous initial canopy layer will offer luxurious protein and a great finishing crop for pigs. Within the next decade, more understory plantings will be implemented, and diversification of plants in our transition from field to forest will be fully established. The chestnuts will eventually be overtaken by evergreen natives and oak. But these cultivars will have a good long run beyond my lifetime. These tree islands are surviving without irrigation or pruning. The protective fencing around each tree allows sheep to graze without predating the young nut tree plantings. New plantings will also need protection, so more small fenced rounds with t-post backing will appear around each baby tree. Companion plantings should also be cultivated- and we’re already planning the transplanting of comfrey out of the established garden beds by the house. Yarrow and red flowering currant will be another good pair of understory plantings also able to out compete grasses.

The back field is our next panned replanting of forest. It’s been a great tent spot for survival enthusiasts and a wonderful back field for our sheep to graze, and will continue to be a pasture and slowly morph into shrubs to brows and a mix of trees, openings, and layered ground covers. Our Cascade Katahdin Sheep are a browsing breed. Many sheep varieties- especially the woolies, graze grass, but struggle with leafy vegetation up off the ground. It’s important to have the right tools for the task, and here in the hills of Cascadia, browsing is a must to properly prune the thick hedges and brush trees. Our Katahdins love shrubs, including blackberry, and adapt well to hot summers and cold winters, like many of the species of vegetation we’re selecting towards here at EEC Forest Stewardship.

Sheep of all kinds also love to eat young trees, so the chestnuts have survived thanks to protective fencing around each trunk. We’re going to keep fencing our young trees so they get a chance to develop into strong towers of nut producing majesty. When it’s time to plant in the native forest around these nut trees, the sheep will be retired out of this field, or at least moved to part time, as the young plantings will need years to establish. A forest does not grow overnight, but it can get a foot hold in during a single lifetime. It’s an honor to be that snapshot in time where forests were invited back home to restore canopy cover here in Western Washington.