Isolated and Fragile

I had a chance to visit with an old friend of my father’s I haven’t really seen in 20 years. He was a biologist for the state and is a large part of the reason I have a degree in biology. The last time I saw him was nearly 17 years ago (at my wedding rehearsal dinner (not so much a dinner as a 4th of July party with a bluegrass band at my parent’s house)) and I talked his ears off about the amphibians I had collected the previous week in the Columbia River Gorge (Ask me about dicamptodon or ascaphus!). This time I tried to avoid talking his ears off about grazing cattle.

I did it anyway. He is a polite listener and I really had to pry to get him to talk about his own interests. Marty is now retired and spends his days volunteering to help retain native diversity in Southern Illinois forests. He also is a decade into a prairie restoration program on some land his family owns.

I should have taken notes.

Obviously it is important that we manage for pasture diversity. Marty further suggested that I should be looking for local sources of native grasses to help re-establish those in my pastures. There is a clump of big bluestem that grows in the cemetery. I don’t have the foggiest notion where I could come up with Eastern Gamagrass though. Hopefully, by proper management and resting a portion of my pastures each year, I’ll see some of those natives come back out of the seed bank in the soil. By “proper management” I mean managing my pastures for what I want, not managing to limit what I don’t want. If I want additional native forages and pasture diversity I have to let the natives achieve maturity. Gamagrass may take 3-4 months to go to seed so I can’t just let the cows lop it off every few weeks. So if I want that, I have to plan for it.

Speaking of things I don’t want, I live in the part of Illinois that was recently on the news because of the massive dust clouds coming off of the farm fields in the wind, causing road closures. Some of this is due to drought. Some due to fall plowing. But mostly, it’s because there is nothing protecting the dirt, binding and holding it in place…and few windbreaks. The trees have all been cut out of the fence rows because they shade out the corn. So I invited Marty to dad’s back deck to look into the woods with me. Dad’s house is built in a 15 acres stand of trees near another 20 acre stand of trees. There are clumps of trees all around and a solid, unbroken canopy following a big creek from North to South for miles and miles. Talking to dad, he keeps the woods because he likes the woods. He thinks (and I agree) we need to have areas set aside for wildlife and recreation. But it is difficult to realize the economic advantages of turkey, deer, squirrels, raccoons and coyotes and keeping these areas forces us to operate at some economic loss…loss that is multiplied if we work to manage the forest by cutting out invasive species and removing sick or dead trees. So I asked Marty:

  • What is the economic advantage of retaining these trees?
  • Where is the incentive to cut out invasive species?

Marty survived a career of working for the government. One might think he would be looking for a government solution but he’s not (well, not overtly). Marty volunteers, apparently, massive quantities of time to cutting Japanese bush honeysuckle out of our forests. Marty says if it isn’t done – if we allow Japanese bush honeysuckle and autumn olive and other exotic invasives to persist – we are allowing our forests to decline and die. At this point, we can’t afford to lose our native forests (dominated by oak and hickory trees) so we have to actively destroy the invasives (by using glyphosate) allowing the sub-canopy to regenerate native species. He further said that our part in this process is particularly important because our tree stands tend to be isolated and fragile. (I believe Marty said “fractionated”, not “isolated”…)

600 words into the post and I finally get to the title. There is so much I want to do with those three words. “Isolated and Fragile”. In my head I’m swearing in disbelief like Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. In one little phrase everything falls into place.

I don’t want to be isolated and fragile. That’s why I read blogs. That’s why I blog. That’s why you are reading my blog. That’s why I’m married. That’s why I bought the farm next to my folks. That’s why we are encouraging our kids to work with us. Heck, that’s why we had kids. I don’t want to be isolated when I’m elderly. Beyond social issues, that’s why our farm isn’t our only investment. That’s why my job isn’t our only income.  Isolation leads to fragility.

And that’s the problem with those fields. The dirt is blowing away because there is nothing to hold it down. The soil is fragile. The dirt exists in isolation. There is no polyculture. No grass. No chickory. No dandelions. No clover. No dung beetles. No worms. The crop residue is minimal, most of it has already been digested by the soil. There is no structure to the soil, it was plowed in the fall to help it dry out more quickly in the spring. Just grains of dirt, sitting all alone.

Getting back to Marty, he believes that if the native plants are shaded out by the invasives, we’ll lose that native diversity. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The stands of trees are too isolated and if the seed is not present there is no way a Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid can grow. The isolated stand of trees becomes diminished by the loss of a single species. This can also happen with acorns. If saplings are shaded out or smothered by Japanese bush honeysuckle and the mature trees climax and decline, what will replace them? Pioneer trees may be carried in by birds but how far do acorns get carried? And how many decades will pass before the native oak/hickory stand is again dominant even by way of intervention by man? And how many decades or centuries will be required to return the forest to a condition that will support orchids?

Now, I realize my fellow permaculturists may have a bone or two to pick with the notion that “invasive” species need to be managed…especially the native species that have been labeled “invasive” by the man because they are too good at their job. The argument could be made that they are only growing to fill a void and that cutting them out doesn’t fix anything. I don’t think that’s incorrect thinking…and I shared those thoughts with Marty. I’m not sure Marty was entirely sold on the idea but he repeated that these stands of trees are only a few acres in size. They are isolated. They are broken apart, mismanaged and lacking health. His efforts aren’t to fix a problem so much as retain local diversity. The problem is bigger than Japanese bush honeysuckle and Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid. But that’s where he can help.

So Marty is actively participating in making the world a better place. He’s not roping off a section of forest and letting nature take its course. He’s not lobbying for the government to do something (well, maybe he is…but he’s not stopping there). Obviously I took a lot home from that conversation.

I could go on and on about these ideas but I think you can see what I’m saying here. Isolation and Fragility are things I am working to avoid with my land, with my family, with my finances…but it took a conversation about forestry for me to really acknowledge it.

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3 thoughts on “Isolated and Fragile

  1. Our learning comes when we are not looking to be taught. I read this post twice before writing something. I think I will read it at lest twice more. There are things to be done in all places and your friend Marty seems to have found a key–do what you can, when you can.

    Thank you for the thought provoking post.

  2. We had a forester walk the timber with us when we first bought the place. His report is very interesting. I’m afraid it is so far over my head I haven’t taken the steps he recommended that I did understand. Feel free to look at it. Our forestry people are a great resource and we need to give that report another look.

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