There was Supposed to Be a Waterfall

Let me start at the end. We found a waterfall.


Now that you know how the story ends let me tell you how the story begins.

The innkeeper told us it was the first July he could remember that the waterfalls were running and we should make it a point to see them…assuming we were outdoors-types. He found my blog somehow and knew we were.

We decided to start at the waterfall marked on our map furthest from our hotel. Clever, eh? We drove to Burden Falls. There is a small parking lot at the trail head. Ours was the only car. The trail looked nice enough. We were at the top of a hill. Julie and I started on our way. Much of the trail was under dense canopy of a forest that appears to have been planted 30 years (or so) ago.Trail1

The path was nearly covered in places by thick growths of poison ivy and, clever young man that I am, I was wearing shorts.


But we soldiered on through. How far could it be? We followed the trail through the tall trees.


The trail went down and down the hill. Poison ivy everywhere. The path blocked by innumerable spider webs. Julie cut a hickory branch and I used it to knock down webs in our path but eventually the branch became a waving mass of webs and unhappy spiders. The trail worsened. The spiders worsened. And horseflies. Did I mention the horseflies? Oh, there were horseflies. You can be sure of that.


Our only comfort was the few smashed plants in the path, evidence that someone had traveled this path before us, even if days ago. So we continued.


The path just kept on going. No sounds of water falling. No sounds of anything, really. Just more steps to take.


15 minutes. 30 minutes. Should we turn back? Surely we are almost there. Look! A grove of tulip trees!


The path worsened. Still, someone had been here. We continued.


The path worsened again.


The path continued to worsen.


At this point the trail was mixed with a trickle of water rolling down the hill. Not a waterfall. And then the trail became little more than a deer path.


I suggested that it was a joke. They must tell us carpetbaggers to follow the trail to the waterfall. Or maybe it’s a contest. “How dumb are you?” Hidden cameras along the trail as unwitting contestants show how willing they are to overcome poison ivy, fallen trees and dense spider webs to follow a trail to nowhere. Or to big rocks by a stream at the bottom of the hill.


And that’s where the trail ended. Or maybe we missed a turnoff uphill. I don’t know.


There was nothing else to do. An hour into the depths of Southern Hillinois we were unable to continue.


No waterfall.

We spent another hour trudging back up the hill, Julie’s feet wet and blistered. She even found a deer tick on her jeans. The trip uphill took seemingly forever. Was this the way we came? Had we found another path? The way down we chatted. We enjoyed ourselves. We fought off the spiders bravely. On the way back we were quiet.

A minivan full of carpetbaggers pulled up just as we emerged from the trail. They were pleased to see us but looked disappointed when we told them about the poison ivy, spiders, rough trail and complete and total lack of waterfalls.

They were looking at their maps as we left. We drove back the way we came. A mile back down the road we had crossed water in the road. There was a parking lot, a car and the sound of falling water. Not 10 feet from the road was the waterfall pictured at the top of the post and nothing to mark its presence.

Our adventures did not end there. We continued to explore Shawnee National Forest. There will be other stories for another day. I’ll end this by admitting that we noticed, as we were driving away, we could smell ourselves. Ugh.

The Life-Changing Magic of Planting Trees

Mom mentioned some childhood neighbors in a blog comment yesterday that got me thinking about Mrs. Ruth. She lived next door when I was very young. I have only a few memories of her, really: She had a cat, she was a German immigrant and tended to mutter to herself in low German when I was around, she kept candy orange slices in the bottom crisper drawer of her fridge and she had three cherry trees east of her garage.

I remember more than that about Mrs. Ruth but the cherry trees are etched into my mind forever. In fact, I checked Google maps and it looks like the trees are still there. As a kid I would take a break from my sandbox and climb into the mulberry tree in our back yard for a snack and I would tend to stare in the direction of the cherry trees wondering why there were always mulberries but almost never cherries. But on those rare few days when they were ripe we would all help Mrs. Ruth pick cherries.

Buckets of cherries. Cherries in the freezer. Cherries in jellies. Cherry pies. Cherries cooked into a sauce with sugar and poured over ice cream. I don’t even know what else.

And you can’t overlook the reliable mulberry tree in that story.

Mulberries. Julie and her brothers didn’t have much experience with mulberries when I met them. Julie and I would walk through the pasture together at her parent’s house (definitely not a date, right?) and eat and talk (cause we are just friends, right?) and hold hands (friends can hold hands, right?). Mulberries were a staple food. They are not too sweet and tend to be a little stemmy but don’t have the pesky seeds of a dewberry or black raspberry. We would pick a few berries in the summer evening, our hands would be stained purple just like in the picture I shared a few years back of picking mulberries while putting up hay…because we always stop to rest in the shade under the mulberry trees in the bottom.


Not all mulberry trees are created equal, btw. Some are more sweet than others and some don’t fruit at all. And having written “btw” I am reminded that mulberries have a good BTU rating (above oaks) and coppice well. And the leaves are a good source of protein for cattle. So these are trees I work to keep around. Although, you don’t have to work too hard as mulberries tend to grow wherever there are birds.

But cherry trees are a different story altogether. There are wild black cherry trees all over our farm. We have picked buckets of these too but the fruit tends to be bitter and thin around the stone. Apparently it makes a good cordial. But a sweet or sour domesticated cherry tree is a real treasure.

My friend Yoichiro came to visit us in 2013. He and I planted a cherry tree together. I think of him every time I look at that tree. I am still happy we shared that experience.

I got the sapling from my friend Steve. They are a small, short-lived sour cherry and they replace themselves readily. He digs up a dozen or so saplings every year. The original sapling came from an abandoned farmstead. He dug it up at some point in the last 20 or 30 years. Here is a picture of it several years ago.


Let’s review. decades ago, Steve and his wife spent an afternoon driving through the countryside looking for heirloom varieties in the yards of abandoned farm houses. Among other things, Steve found a cherry tree that he brought home, planted, cared for and propagated. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Years later we were invited to pick cherries and asked if he could spare a sapling we noticed coming up under the canopy. Early the next spring Steve loaded us up with a trunk full of food, rhubarb plants and a small cherry sapling.

A friend from Japan came to visit in 2013. Together we planted the cherry sapling above promising to meet again someday and enjoy the fruit together. Then my kids and I planted daffodils and comfrey around it.

Steve came by later, inspected the planting and took home some comfrey and some bamboo from my yard.

Do you see how that little cherry tree is intertwined in our relationships? …in our community?

Life changing magic.

I wrote about my grandpa Jordan recently. Last summer my kids and I spent a hot afternoon picking peaches from his peach tree. They were not spectacular peaches…kind of small and spotty. But he planted a tree, did a little maintenance on it and we all ate all we wanted and my kids have a fun memory of standing on great-grandpa Jordan’s cannon while picking peaches…just days before our youngest was diagnosed with cancer.


What is the value of that peach tree? Or grandpa’s grape vines he made homemade wine from?

I have shared about my friend Eileen, her Mutsu apples and chestnut trees. This year we came home with a  trash can of waste apples and a big, big box of chestnuts. The pigs made pigs of themselves.

And it seems obvious to remember Aunt Marian’s apple trees. I have written this before but I would race to prune her trees as fast as I could, doing a portion of each tree each year, because she would catch me pruning and would run me off. But I had her Mutsu in good shape by making a few “accidental” cuts here and there to slowly get the tree in shape. And I got all the apples I could use. And so did the pigs. And aunt Marian had all kinds of stories about each tree in her orchard and where they came from.

picking apples

I’m sure there are other things you can do to build inter-generational memories but trees put down roots. There is a giant burr oak tree in my pasture that my grandpa Chism said was always big. Roots. Ties to previous generations.

What is that worth?

Where are you planting your trees? You don’t need a farm. You just have to stay put for a while.


Apple Drops Galore

Each year we pick up a few bags of apple drops at aunt Marian’s house to help her keep her yard clean. Apparently we have just taken a small portion of the available apples. This year we filled a full pickup truck from one tree. And that was just the start of the drop. So when you wonder to yourself, “How many apple trees do I need?” remember she has three mature apple trees in her yard and it makes this point well: You don’t need a big orchard.

Her Mutsu tree is her prized possession. This is the tree I prune when she isn’t looking. I can usually prune about a quarter of the tree before she gets her slippers on and tells me I have cut too much wood off of the tree. Mainly I try to keep the chimney empty, remove lower and crossing branches and cut out anything dead. The tree is also reaching over to her grape vines so I have been working to shorten its reach over time. She just wants me to remove anything that is touching. So I play this little game. I express my love by pruning her trees. She expresses her love by not staying angry with me.


The Mutsu ripens later in the season. This summer has been cool and the apples are already sweet if you can stumble through the drops to pick one from the tree.


The tree by the house is an unknown. She ordered a number of trees through the mail some decades ago and didn’t get what she ordered. I think this is one of the wrong trees but it makes a HUGE quantity of sweet red apples every year and seems to be resistant to fire blight.


When she had her roof replaced the roofers took certain liberties with the limbs overhanging the roof. Since I always start with the Mutsu tree, aunt Marian was out there with me and prevented me from doing anything other than cutting out a specific broken limb. The long limb on the left offers additional shade in her dog pen. You should see all the apples in there! Since the limb points down it focuses on apple production. Go read up on training vs. pruning trees.

Finally there is a Johnny Appleseed tree in the corner of her yard. This tree grew out of a compost pile. It makes a mild transparent-type apple but she rarely uses the apples. It has never been pruned short of when she asked me to cut out dead wood last winter. She was surprised and disappointed how much dead wood was in the tree. I think the tree is just about finished. I may gather a cutting or two. Most of the drops from this tree feed the wildlife that venture into the corner of the yard far away from the dog.


I don’t think I’m exaggerating to suggest that I could fill five or six pickup trucks with this year’s apple crop from these three trees…even just the drops.

that's alot of apples

The four pigs and layer flock, it turns out, are only so interested in eating apples. They can have enough. I don’t know what aunt Marian did with them all. We have considered unloading them in rows in the pasture allowing trees to sprout where we think we would like to have them…but who knows. It is important to pick up the drops to keep the apple pest populations lower. We just haven’t really solved the problem yet. And there are more apples rotting on the ground as I type. Ugh. And buckets of apples in my kitchen waiting to become applesauce.

You might consider planting four smaller trees together in a cluster and work to keep them small. This would give you a manageable amount of apples from a variety of flavors spread across a longer harvest. Dad found a roadside apple tree between here and aunt Marian’s house. Just a volunteer tree but loaded with red, knotty, wormy apples. No sign of fire blight though and a good flavor, though they are not quite sweet yet and it is growing and producing in spite of the fact that it has never been cared for in any way. I should get some cuttings of that too…

Adventures in the Jungle

I had a number of things to do Thursday night after dinner and with Julie away for the evening I thought the kids and I could go on a little adventure. I needed a couple of poles for chicken roosts, we were hoping to transplant a pawpaw tree, the last few eggs needed to be collected and the cows needed fresh pasture. It so happens the pawpaw thicket is right next to a stand of tall, thin maples on dad’s farm but we have to walk 1/4 of a mile through the brush and weeds to get there…the jungle!

We better have a little snack before we go. Along the road by my parent’s house we spy some ripe candy. We shoved a lot of berries in our faces before I even thought to get the camera out.


Then it was on down the road. 8′ tall corn to the right, 6′ tall ragweed to the left.


On and on we travel. Deeper and deeper into the thick. Not much poison ivy but here and there it grows against the corn forcing us to blaze a new trail, often pinched between the corn and the steep stream banks. You can see mud on leaves showing how high the water was for a recent flood.


But we must go on. Just a brush axe, chainsaw, helmet and four children. Four children? “Everybody here? Count off.” No count.I arrive at the edge of the stand of maples. This is the place. The kids are somewhere behind me. They’ll catch up when they hear my saw.


Just inside of the edge everything opens up. It is amazingly open in here with a canopy like a hard ceiling…like we are inside a building. Surprisingly cool too. But the mosquitoes are thick. Dad would prefer to remove the maples entirely and reclaim the field. I would like to coppice the stand. These soft maples will coppice well enough but really don’t offer much utility. The wood does not last and has a low BTU value. Maybe I can find a use for it. Maybe I can shift away from the maple and toward the other types of tree growing here; walnut and hackberry. Maybe I could make rustic furniture…lol.


With my poles cut it’s time to walk on to the pawpaw thicket. I don’t think the kids have ever been here. I have come here a couple of times each year since 1993 but I have never picked a pawpaw. I think the raccoons get them all. There must be a hundred pawpaw trees growing here.


After a bit of searching we find a small shoot coming up from a root. We cut about a foot of root on either side of the cutting and begin the trek back to the road. Everyone was bug-eaten, tired and dirty but we had a good time. With the kids, tools and poles loaded we head down the road to finish up our chores…after a brief stop at a mulberry tree for some more candy. Maybe when I have grandchildren we can pick pawpaws in the yard but it probably won’t happen before 2020. Worse, I really should go back with a shovel and get a couple more trees. Another adventure awaits us!

A Saturday in the Life of…

A reader asked for a walkthrough of a day on the farm. So I tried to keep track. This is fairly typical of a weekend. The livestock don’t take much time. On weekdays Julie has a schedule for housework, home school, business building and writing. On weekends we tackle bigger jobs.

Today was an odd day. We were up late Friday night as Julie wanted to go on a date. I don’t know why she wants to date again. We have been happily married for 17 years. Maybe there is something wrong. Something I can fix. Something I can do. She says it’s not that simple. Oh well. A night off work.

We had dinner out then came home to watch a movie. If you haven’t seen Ender’s Game, don’t. Just don’t. So that put us to bed around 11:30. I never stay up until 11:30

Today Julie’s phone woke us up at 4:30 alerting us that we were a mere 30 minutes away from the official start time of the day. What a stupid thing for a phone to do. I adjusted the phone’s attitude and slept for another hour to spite it.

At 5:30 I decide I can no longer excuse laying in bed all day so I pop up, brush my teeth and begin planning my day. The sun won’t come up for another hour at least and there is a pile of laundry and a small pile of dishes that need my attention. I responded to a few comments on the blog then got out the door…which is always guarded by cats.


On work days I can check the pigs, feed the cows, check and water the chickens and open the nest boxes then walk to the yellow house to check and feed the broilers and return home in 15 minutes. On Saturdays I tend to stand around and enjoy the scenery a little more. It took me 45 minutes today. I dropped the bale and stood in place surrounded by cows.


That’s kind of fun but it also gives me a good chance to look them over. Good thing too. Remember that date? I get home between 6 and 6:30. By that time we only just have time to drive 30 or 40 minutes to the nearest restaurant for dinner out and still get home at a decent hour. So Julie planned out the day’s pasture and elected not to bring the cows a bale of hay. The day’s pasture is not an issue of square feet. It is an eyeballing of available forage in a given space. She didn’t give them enough to eat as evidenced by Mrs. White.


I had a chicken out of the fence and spent 5 minutes stalking her then clipped her wing. Otherwise the birds were doing their thing. Feed? Check. Water? Check. Nest boxes open? Check.


Then I sharpened a couple of chain saw chains, loaded up my equipment, hooked the trailer to the truck, straightened things up a little bit in the shop and headed in for breakfast at 8:00 on the dot. One slice of bacon, two eggs and half a cup of coffee later and I’m killing time waiting on her to go to the broilers with me. So I decide to build a race car for a Yeti.

AbominableBy 8:40 the broilers were moved, fed and watered (there are currently 3 tractors in the field, just snapped a picture before moving it)…


…and I kissed Julie goodbye. She was going to town to pick up the kids at her mom’s. She didn’t return until 11:00. In the meantime I dropped the trailer off at the brooder so we can haul bedding to the garden later and drove to the day’s main project, cleaning a fence row. The fence has been mostly smashed and buried by falling limbs and time but I need to at least find it. Further, I want to drop the lower tree limbs where I can, stop the trees from reaching into my field and cut out saplings that are inching into my field year by year. Again, I’m all in favor of trees, just not where I have fences. But I really can’t manage the neighbor’s side of the fence…only so much I can do. Finally, there is only so much I’m willing to do today. This is a first effort. Let’s establish a beach head. Lower limbs, nuisance species and encroaching saplings. Next year we’ll do a little more. Maybe.FenceRow1There were really only three tree species in the stand: hedge, elm and hackberry. I’m happy to burn all three but I hate cutting hedge. It is the hottest-burning of our hardwoods but what a pain. Literally. Hedge is covered in thorns. The thorns on the branches cause it to stick together like velcro. When it comes loose the limbs go on the attack. There appears to be something in or on the thorns that causes additional soreness for the next few days…especially joint pain. But there’s nothing else to do. You just have to sort of carve your way into the tree then start pulling it apart. Great fire wood though. And it’s good for bow making. And it’s a cut and come again tree so if I coppice it down to a stool I’ll have a new group of thorny sprouts the next year. That must have happened to this tree some years ago.


As I cut my way through I lay firewood-sized limbs aside for later and stack the rest for chipping. It is important to lay all the butts facing the same direction to make it easier on chipper day. I’ll just set up in front of the brush piles and tie into it. I should point out I rent a 6″ chipper but it can not chew through hedge larger than 1″. Hedge is tough stuff. When I say hedge you should read Osage Orange.

LimbButtsBeyond the trees there were a number of unwanted and unpleasant things growing in there. Bush honeysuckle is an invasive monster that’s hard to get rid of but poison ivy is the worst. Especially when it grows in a shrub form. Every time I cut one sawdust flies up into my face. Poison. Ivy. Sawdust.

PoisonIvySo Julie and the kids showed up to help after 11. Julie stopped to gather eggs and check water. The oldest boy fed and checked the broilers. Then everybody helped move limbs into a neat row. We are maybe a fourth of the way down the row after three hours of work. That may be too generous. It’s obviously faster with 6 of us on the job. Well 4 of us. The youngest two mostly sat in the truck out of the cold wind.

BrushWe had lunch at Aunt Marian’s house. Every year for St. Patrick’s day she serves corned beef and cabbage. For some reason we are celebrating late. Delicious anyway. I asked her about the things in her house…who they came from. I was sitting in a chair that uncle French bought 120 years ago and eating from plates that belonged to my great-grandmother and the glasses were jelly jars that uncle Pete gave her.. I think that’s pretty cool.


After lunch the oldest boy and I worked on pruning Aunt Marian’s fruit trees. Aunt Marian and I have radically differing philosophies on pruning trees. In short, she is in her 90’s. She sells her heifers and buys cows because she needs calves now, not later. Similarly, she wants me to prune for apples this season, heck with next season. Same conversations every year. I remove suckers, shoots and dead limbs. Then I start carving out interfering branches and limbs and work to open up the tree. She corrects me saying she has never removed shoots and just wants the dead and interfering branches out. But she defines interfering as just the limbs that have actually grown together. I don’t wish to disobey her. I just want to do a good job. No pictures of the fruit trees. When I removed my poison ivy-covered clothes at lunch I left my phone on the dresser and Julie was inside.

Home again around 3:30 and it’s time for some chores. 6 more layers are out of the fence so I ask the boys to grab the scissors. Then it’s off to build cow pasture, feed a bale of grass hay, do a final egg collection. The oldest boy feeds and waters one last time, we all change and it’s off to church at 4:30. At church I run the video production system. Julie and our oldest run cameras. Pretty cool stuff.


Then a little grocery shopping, head home and chill while watching an episode of Tudor Monastery Farm then it’s off to bed.

That’s pretty much how a Saturday works around here. Normal livestock chores take a few minutes here and there and we try to make progress on some major projects inside or outside. We try to find a few minutes to goof off and look for opportunities to serve. Sundays work at a different pace with a different set of specific tasks and traditions. We clean the horse stalls and clean our toilet buckets. We also have our weekly family meeting and watch star trek. Weekdays we just try to keep up…and apparently go on dates. Who knew?

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.

How we Start a Fire on the First Try

Every morning I light the fire. It is my job…somehow. I have searched high and low for ways to succeed on the first match and I would like to share one thing that seems to work well. Stick bundles. This goes in the firebox above a wad of newspaper and below the split kindling.

Every fallen limb in our yard is regularly gathered up by the kids (mostly maple) and dragged into the house where they cut it to about 10″ lengths, bundle it with others into a 2″ log.

Bundle1I like these better than pine cones for lighting the fire. Not only does a bundle light quickly, it also burns hot and leaves a nice pile of charcoals behind to encourage the remaining wood to burn. And it gives the kids something productive to do with a few minutes of their morning while utilizing more of the wood our farm generates…not to mention the endless sisal twine.

Bundle2So an hour’s worth of work by the kids and we get a week’s worth of easy-to-light fires. I appreciate their contribution both in collecting twigs from the yard and in making the bundles. They appreciate standing behind the warm wood stove on a cold morning. Everybody wins.

Please let me know if you have any other tips to help me light the fire on the first match.

Patronize a Farmer, Save the World

My apologies to the show Heroes for my choice of title. I never saw the show but the marketing still found me. Give that marketing firm a raise!

I read a lot of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s work as I read economics information on “the internets”. You know, a man has to have a hobby. I read about global economics for fun. Seriously, if you pay close attention you’ll be in stitches. If it helps, begin by understanding that the world’s financial experts are all idiots. Pretenders. They have no real insight into the future they rarely grasp the present and they learn nothing from the past. But, since they have some prestigious degree, they think they can tell us how to improve – even save! –  the world with (…get this…) interest rates. LOL! I guess if all you have is a hammer…

Anyway. Mr. Evans-Pritchard published an article about dirt. Well, he published an article about a published article about dirt. And I think it’s worth reading. Kind of a validation that I’m moving in the right direction…but not fast enough. Further, he points out that we, as humans, have a tendency to prefer instant gratification over delayed…or even deferred. I mean, we could have acorns for the next 50 years but I need an oak board now. I could avoid diabetes and keep my feet but I really like pie. We could have savings but there is so much cool stuff to buy. We could have had cedars in Lebanon but we needed a desert. We are a short-sighted species. Ripping the soil gives us an immediate boost in fertility…though at the expense of future fertility. “Well, we’ll figure out tomorrow when it comes.”

Now that I have agreed with him let’s look closer at what Mr. Evans-Pritchard actually wrote. I mean, I kind of just picked out the points that make me feel vindicated as I initially skimmed the article. How does he really feel? I think he’s a little confuzzled. How about this quote?

It comes as China and emerging Asia switch to an animal protein diet, replicating the pattern seen in Japan and Korea as they became rich. As a rule of thumb it takes 4kg-8kg of grains in animal feed to produce 1kg of meat.

What kind of meat requires 8-16 pounds of grain per pound to produce!? It doesn’t take any grain to produce 2.2 pounds of beef. Or lamb. Or goat. What about fish? It takes 3 pounds of grain to make a pound of pork on a production hog floor but you can reduce or eliminate that if you park your piggies under oak trees, chestnut trees and apple trees. They also do well on alfalfa and a healthy dose of cow manure. I mean, his article is essentially about how modern row cropping is destroying the earth and goes on, in the quote above, to say that we can only feed animals with additional row cropping. And that, we have established, is bad. So we have to do more row cropping to feed the world grains. And that, we have established, is bad.

But why not just let the cows eat grass? Make beef the new chicken. Close up shop on all those Arkansas chicken houses and twelve-thousand sow farrowing operations in Manitoba. I am suggesting the issue at hand isn’t simply the lost of soil biota brought on by tillage and chemical death but, instead, our continuing use of the wrong paradigm. Stop taking feed to cows. Take the cows to the feed. Ta-da! Stop buying eggs at the store. Keep a few hens and feed them kitchen scraps. Ta-da! Use tree crops instead of annual crops. Make our Coca-Cola with high-fructose chestnut syrup! Ta-da! Just give your HOA the bird and get some chickens. See how easy?

The UNCCD is aiming for a global deal to achieve “zero net land degradation” from 2015, mostly by replanting forests. The body’s environment chief Veerle Vanderweerde says it is not going well. “We know what to do to restore degraded land. It’s not impossible but it takes time, money, dedication, and political will, and there is not a lot political will.”

Where to begin? Political will? I think that means use of force. As in, “we have the guns so you do what we say.” Remember this passage?

Yacouba Sawadogo, “the man who stopped the desert”, began to revive the ancient zai technique thirty years [ago] to stop soil erosion on his little farm in Burkina Faso. It involved digging small holes and filling them with compost and tree seeds to catch the seasonal rains, recreating a woodland of 20 hectares in the arid Sahel. Sadly, local officials then expropriated the land.

So much for political will. Time? Money? Dedication? Whose? If we elect some bonehead to fix our problems…well, I don’t have high hopes that our problems will get fixed. In fact, I have centuries of evidence that our problems become worse as governments become more involved. I don’t need regulation forcing me to set aside forested land as magical and protected so we can have a “net zero land degradation.” We need massively net negative land degradation. And this is something we can do on our own. No guns election required! Stop ripping soil and leaving it bare and exposed for 6-7 months each year. Instead, grow cover crops, graze livestock, rotate polyculture crops through. If you have the time, Gabe Brown has a lot to teach us on this topic. He talks about “speeding up biological time” and says, “Feeding 9 billion people will be not be any problem whatsoever if we change our production model and focus on soil.” I feel he backs up that bold claim.

We need the freedom to do the things that were traditionally done before 1950 but leveraging modern technology and new ideas. I need to be free to combine livestock, wildlife, trees, people and time in a carbon-sequestering, soil-building, sustainable and profitable mix. The money will suddenly appear so Mr. Elected Bonehead can have his pound of flesh. Check out Mark Sheppard’s book for a real life example of regenerative forested agriculture. (I could list any number of books that illustrate this well but Mark Sheppard is high on my list. I mean, who can resist a guy who has the …stuff… to lecture for two and a half hours then pull out a guitar to sing a song at the audience?)

Back to the point, there is no need for political will to do this. We don’t have to elect leaders to point guns at us so we will behave. We already know what to do. If you don’t I hope you are sitting down for this. It’s utterly profound. Stop looking at “them“. Stop blaming “them“. What are you doing? How are you saving the world? Where do you buy your food? What system do you vote for each day? We don’t need people signing petitions against industrial ag. What a waste. We need consumers educating themselves…involving themselves. Just go – you yourself – and purchase products from farmers who care about soil health. Farmers who don’t saturate their fields with chemical death. Farmers who enhance life by composting and growing food and building healthy soil. We need agricultural pioneers finding ways to do more with less in spite of existing government regulations and writing narcissistic little blogs like mine about what goes right and what goes wrong. Farmers, not legislators, need your support.

If you are not a farmer (and most people aren’t), find a farm that looks and smells good. Don’t worry about the ugly buildings or the beat-up jalopy in the driveway. Learn what healthy animals look like. Learn what healthy grass looks like (it doesn’t look like a lawn). Look at tree health. Smell the air. Feel the soil. Then invest in the farmer by buying his produce so he can continue to grow.

Patronize a farmer, save the world.

I have a few afterthoughts that really don’t belong in this posting. Don’t worry about peak oil. Peak oil will bring modern industrial agricultural practices to an immediate halt. But not before peak phosphorus brings modern ag to a halt. Unless the lack of humus in our soils enables a drought that brings modern ag to a halt first. There are alternatives. In case you haven’t seen this (how could you have missed it?) I give you this short presentation. May it change your whole life…and through you, the world. Please watch this video. (BTW, note his confession that, as a government agent, he advised his country to shoot 40,000 elephants to “save” the ecology. Made the problem worse.)

I also have to add, if you live near us and are interested in partnering with us in saving the world we can offer you excellent quality and value. If you are inclined to vote, please vote for us.

Today’s Wood Pile

I emptied the cemetery hill of dead standing trees and snags this year bringing down an elm, a couple of oaks, a walnut or two and a juniper tree. Ah, juniper. I limbed out the juniper and carried the pole home on my shoulder…didn’t cut it until today. Oh the smell!

JuniperIt splits well, burns quick and clean but doesn’t really get hot. Perfect for a mild fall day…when I’m feeling lazy…and just want to take a nap by the fire. There is not a lot of juniper on the farm. One tree is big enough to saw, the others are small and are routinely shredded by deer and cattle. This one is a treat. Isn’t it pretty?


Black Locust…Its’ What’s For Dinner

We have a large, old locust tree growing by the garden.  Really, it’s not doing well but it still flowers every spring and throws shoots from its root system.

Locust1I was recently listening to a podcast indicating cows would benefit from pastures planted with as many as 30,000 black locust and black walnut trees per acre.  Chew on that.  Now, I’m not talking about grazing under trees, I’m talking about grazing the trees themselves.  This blog does a good job of explaining and illustrating the concept.

I thought a little verification was in order.  As I said, the black locust throws up a number of shoots on a regular basis.  Since the pastures (including the yard) are being rested between grazings a number of trees have grown about a foot tall.

Locust2Here is another example from a different place in the yard.  Notice the short thorns.

Locust4I identified a couple of trees and turned the cows in while we clamped our bull calf.  It was like the cows had their radar turned on.  The almost sprinted over to the poor locust tree before moving on to a small stand of Johnson grass.  The tree was the first choice.  No wonder I don’t see them sprouting out in the pasture.

Locust3Now we’re looking at transplanting all the shoots we can find to a protected part of the pasture so we can allow them to develop.  Maybe I should plant them at the base of that dry hill…or in rows on contour to the hill.  Either way, I have sufficient confirmation that I’m willing to continue the experiment and propagate more trees.

Speaking of tree propagation, the chestnuts I harvested from Eileen’s house are sprouting in the garden.  Hope more show up.