Nurturing Ecological Sublimity – Part 2
Sacred-Earth Land-Nurturing, a book by Steven D Redman, has been compiled for farmers, homesteaders, land-carers, environmental educators, conservationists and more. It amalgamates the theories and ethics of Permaculture, Land Stewardship and Biodiversity Conservation practices, plus it provides useful templates to help assist with nurturing of the planet.
Each week on Permaculture News we will share with you a snippet from various chapters of the book which is available on Blurb
Todays snippet is a second extract from Chapter 3 – Nurturing Ecological Sublimity
There are so many thousands of wonderful examples of caring land use throughout the world. I would like to point to each of them (like a good ranger), and revel in their life, community and evolution. But my aim is to provoke, not to annoy. In sacred national parks, forests, refuges and historic sites; in state, county, city, and private reserves; on farms, ranches, resorts, gardens, retreats, government, university and school campuses; even in commercial, industrial lands and crowded residential neighbourhoods—loving keepers tend to their vital work. The world needs millions, even billions of these dedicated souls, and it behooves us to encourage them even more, over the next tens of thousands of years and indefinitely.
Let us now paddle into a magical, little cove along the river, and revel deeply in a personal story of land-nurturing. I believe it was in July of 1999, that my wife and I bought what I call The Nessen Ridge Ecological Farm. It’s between Manistee and Traverse City, Michigan, about 20 miles east of Lake Michigan. The original twenty acres that we purchased was clothed in maple, oak, spruce and pine woods. Fortunately, the site seems to be situated in a natural ecotone where sandy oak-pine plains converge with steep ravines where rich soil supports a diverse, native wildflower community under a maple, beech, hemlock and basswood forest. In the southeast quadrant of the great north-south-oriented rectangle of the site, lived a native, red pine (Pinus resinosa) plantation-forest. It’s size, about 2.5 acres, approximately 100,000 square feet, and containing about a thousand trees. The pine trees were about 30 years old in 1999, and 45 feet tall. To the south was maple forest, the west young spruce plantation, to the north oak and maple forest, and to the east grew sandy, grass and pine fields. Thankfully, in the red pine plantation there also grew a couple dozen sugar maple, American elm (No. They are not all dead!), red oak and white ash. It was therefore not a pure monoculture. Still, there is very little undergrowth in such a plantation, mostly just a thick layer of rust-colored pine needles. The trees were up to 15 inches in trunk diameter at breast height (dbh).
Imagine we could paddle back up the stream of time to the year of 1830, nearly two hundred years-ago. We would find, that the mostly Ojibwe people living in the 100 million acres of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, had cultured a wild, paradise there for at least five thousand years. They burned areas to boost game populations and maintain prairie, and there were natural fires, and they surely farmed corn, beans, squash, tobacco, wild rice, sugar maple and other crops, but overall, it was a realm of vast, ancient forests and superb water quality. White and red pine and eastern hemlock grew up to 7 feet dbh. Maple, oak, hickory, elm, chestnut and tulip poplar attained 5 foot dbh. Trees over 300 years old were abundant.
Imagine next, flying over those same 100 million acres in 1925. Ninety percent of it had been clear-cut logged! Trains would spark forest fires that burned huge areas, even killing entire camps of loggers. European settlers were everywhere planting wheat, oats, rye, corn, beans and potatoes. Much of the sacred forest was simply felled and burned to make way for annual grain agriculture. Millions of head of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs were kept. The Great Lakes, inland lakes, wetlands and streams were choked with logs and brown with fresh mud. The wild rice was devastated, the ancient, sacred, waterland wilderness devastated, the few surviving Native people heartsick and weeping!
A huge forest regeneration and wildlife population recovery effort began in the 1930’s and is now ongoing. After the ecological carnage of the American settlement era, many sandy soils were exhausted and could now only support sparse grasses and weeds, pine and spruce trees, aspen and wild cherry and fruit trees. The Traverse City region is now famous for its production of tart cherry, apple and grape. Big farms still exist too, where the soils aren’t so sandy, and grow corn, soybean, rye, sunflower, sugar beets, pumpkin and potatoes. Most of the northern Great Lakes region, however, is best suited to tree farming. In this regard, it has magnificent native biodiversity and vast potential for sustained permaculture.
The continuous clear-cut-and-replant-to-pine-or-spruce-monoculture-forestry-regime in the Great Lakes region and to its east, north and south, however, can hardly be characterized as being sustainable or ecologically-beneficial. Hundreds of thousands of acres of such dreadful, monoculture-excuses-for-native-forests need to be restored to biodiverse, native-type stands and nurtured with ecological forestry principles presently and into the future. Some progress is being made to this end.
Back at the Nessen Ridge Pines, my intent is to do just that. Culture the red pine plantation with very ecologically-sensitive forestry methods that return it to a native-type, red-pine-dominated forest. By November of 2001, I had found a local logging company to thin the stand per my specifications. I spent a year designing the small cut. About 30 percent of the pine canopy would be removed. I hand-tagged each of the 300 trees to be cut. The western edge of the plantation, for two to three rows of trees in, would be mostly left alone to prevent windthrow of remaining trees from the prevailing west winds. The 30-year-old deciduous trees in the plantation would be left undamaged. The little logging-road would come from the southeast and work its way north. The rows of pines had approximately every third tree cut, especially smaller pines, and the scattered cutting was heavier near the temporary access roads.
The logging operation, and its impact on stand health, turned out perfect—just as I had hoped. Virtually no windthrow occurred afterward, despite Michigan’s sometimes brutal thunderstorms and fierce winter blizzards! The stand was now significantly more open. I piled up much of the slash, so that, I could underplant the red pines with native white pine (Pinus strobus) and white spruce (Picea glauca), and to expose the soil for the natural seeding of native hardwood species.
I visited family in Michigan in October of 2016. We had a picnic out in the Nessen Pines one Sunday. The red pines now tower up to 60 feet. Like myself, they are over 45 years old. A thick understory of sugar maple, red oak, beech and hophornbeam exists throughout the stand, and is about 15 feet tall with dbh’s of 2 to 4 inches. There are still few native shrubs and herbs, but some of the white pine and spruce I planted have survived and are eight feet tall, and there is a healthy native fungi community with members like bolete, russula, amanita, puffball and morel. With such thick deciduous tree undergrowth shedding an increasing biomass of sweet leaves each autumn, the soil health and biodiversity must be increasing steadily. Sadly, most of the white ash (Fraxinus americana) who once lived on the land have succumbed to the exotic, invasive emerald ash borer beetle, and now persist as bushes of root sprouts, their boles are bleached snags.
Within six or seven years, I would like to have the red pines again very carefully and selectively harvested. They will be nearly 55 years old then, and will be high quality softwood. At least half the pines will be left standing to become an old-growth, native pine forest. I will never log them all, but may have a few removed every so often. The eventual spacing of the pines could be 20 to 40 feet, just like in a wild-grown, old pine forest. More of the large woody debris can be left on the forest floor at the next harvest, and more white pine and eastern hemlock seedlings can be underplanted. A program of restoring the native shrubs, wildflowers and ferns can then be undertaken also. Twenty to forty years from now and beyond, harvests of hardwoods and underplanted pines can be carefully done.
The Nessen Ridge Pines ecosystem is more than trees, of course. The bird community who lives there include: ruffed grouse, crow, indigo bunting, chickadee, sparrow, mourning dove, robin, warbler, flicker, hawk, turkey vulture, nuthatch, cardinal, junco, bluejay, swallow, kingbird, owl, woodpecker, scarlet tanager, oriole and wild turkey. Bat and bluebird boxes could be placed on the land to provide extra habitat. The resident mammals are squirrel, raccoon, opossum, coyote, pine marten, chipmunk, mouse, vole, mole, shrew, bat, groundhog, porcupine, skunk, bobcat, rabbit, deer, black bear and possibly badger.
We could say that the pine woods and the whole 10-acres we own is a lightly used family-forest reserve. It has rich meaning to me. My late father visited me there between 1999 and 2003. My mother, brothers and their extended families and friends use the land for picnics, hunting, berry-picking, fire-wood gathering, mushroom-hunting, camping and nature-immersion. My step-son partially grew up there. My son was born during the time we still lived there. It is the land of my great grand-parents, and of our Anishinaabe cousins and hosts, and of our native, diverse and shared Great Lakes culture.
There are still more subtle ways in which I honour the sublime gift of the Nessen Ridge Pines. I appreciate the forest when I visit. I could wander, enthralled there, for hours at a time. I deliberate on its ethical nurturing for years and decades, making no rash decisions or actions. I conserve the south half of it, the part closer to the county road, as more domestic, while leaving the north half the more wild. I maintain the Little Field in the northwest part of the pines. Our camp is in the Norway spruce adjacent to Little Field. The gully leading northward from the field, and which drops twenty feet lower than the gentle hills around it, is cherished topography. Two or three red oak live at the edge of the pines around Little Field. Their nuts are vital to wildlife. I will only log in late fall and winter to avoid impacts on wildlife and to reduce insect or fungal damage to the forest. I revere the little, mossy glade near our camp area.
I do so love forests and ecological forestry! It is exciting to be so spiritually related to the amazing beings of this lucky planet! This is exactly why forest ecologists wish they could live 300 years! To taste the near eternity of the sacred, wild ecosystem, and to live to witness and tell about the full story of a forest from seedlings of a few species in an open field to a magnificent old-growth stand with hundreds of plant species, giant, three-foot-thick trees spreading 150 feet up into the sky to catch the sunlight, large stumps and fallen logs encrusted with moss, lichen, fern and fungi, several distinct layers of undergrowth, and with such wildlife diversity as to leave one wide-eyed, alert, alive, heart-warmed, astounded and virtually screaming out—“Thank you so very, very much!” to the surrounding Solar-Earth-Cosmos and its Mystery Spirits.
I strongly encourage your land nurturing plans and actions. I hope this chapter lends great enthusiasm to the numerous ways you can be involved with the responsible care for the Earth. It is such a rewarding and enriching art to practice. Do you suppose that it takes a strong and enduring commitment?