Written By Doug Crouch, Temporary Resident of Portugal
While the blame for such a tragic wildfire is swirling intensely already, I first express my condolences to those who lost so much. Life, property, livelihoods, tradition, memories, and so much more. For the ecosystem its tragic as well. The long story of how we got to such a moment is long and twisting and its progression downward on this dangerous path I hope to explain below. And I state here first before that, we are all to
blame. While its easy to point the finger at the Eucalyptus mafia and sign petitions, we must point back to ourselves first. An industry such as that, along with the Pine industry, can not gain such clout to influence politicians without demand. Just as the corn industry dominates agriculture policy and land use in the states, without the demand of cheap meat and sugary beverages, they would not have it. So as I said in my last TreeYo EDU article where I mention Eucalyptus in Portugal, State of the World, even the toilet paper we use is not vegan and that is now more clearly evident than ever before. People died, and have been for many years now, because of our demand for paper and toilet paper, and most importantly, as cheap as we can get it! So as Bob Marley said, “judge not if you are not ready for judgment”. We must all swallow the hard facts that we create the demand, the industry creates the supply, the political legislation opens it up for incestous extractive practices, and the ecosystem and its inhabitants suffer. We live in the age of the consumer, no longer the supplier. So when you go to your supermarkets and buy that super cheap toilet paper, guess what, you bought monoculture Eucalyptus from Portugal.
It starts back in the Roman Empire actually. The Romans traveled to Iberia to hunt, the place was so rich with wildlife from the amazingly abundant forest they went through the long trails to find this bounty. As we know, overhunting can start a dangerous road on ecosystem alteration as often predators of the prey we were in search of also began to decline from hunting. The forests of Iberia began a long tradition of extraction from there, often for war purposes, and began the process of desertification many, many years ago.
The natural oak forests of Portugal are a wonderful creation of a layered approach to growing and creating niches for many different creatures; an inherent food forest. The natural forests have plenty of mast from the oaks, combined with chestnuts in the right microclimates, for wildlife stability. Several fruiting shrubs like Hawthron and Strawberry tree yielded fruits
as well. Vines scrambled, riparian trees stabilized rivers, acorns fed wild pigs, deer foraged on the multitude of native shrubs and trees. It was jungly in a way even with the extended dry periods. The ecosystem would have incurred fire from time to time as all drylands climates have this balance. But the intensity of fires would have been low but the suppression of fires and the altering of the ecosystem created this intense burn we saw again this year in Central Portugal. The greatest indication of that fire was once natural is the magnificent tree itself, the Cork Oak. While most people around the world have had the pleasure of experiencing cork through wine or some other industrial product, most have not walked through a cork forest. The thick, spongy bark that is extracted
for things such as wine stoppers, is in fact an evolutionary response to fire being apart of the ecosystem. Its one that allowed fire to shape the landscape but not bring it to its knees. It slows the fire and keeps it in the lower reaches of the forest rather it being a ladder fuel tree. Ladder fuel canopy trees such as Eucalyptus or pine, would have been much more spaced out in their natural habitats. While both are also adapted to experience fire in their native ecosystems, which humans even enhanced through controlled burns to create more of a savannah for hunting, planting them at this density is ludicrous especially without animal integration. While it does afford economies of scale, which is a cornerstone of modern capitalism, it doesn’t see the system holistically. Thus when fires reach the canopy of such monocultures through ladder fuel of shrubs below and the bark and branches being held up by them, the intensity of fires, the spread of them, the beast that is created is so incredibly dangerous it belongs in a Hollywood Horror movie. But it has been a reality for Portuguese for many years.
In our modern days, the dictatorship of Portugal was one major influencer on the land use. Many trees were cut, especially in inner Alentejo for the production of wheat. One of the main social repercussions of the dictatorship was massive waves of migration out of the country in the years following its collapse. While Salazar did have some great policies, he left Portugal in a tough standing because he wasn’t aligned with the western powers and their system of capitalism. So of course they were far behind when they entered and why not migrate for work to a more advanced one like France, which received many, many Portuguese in the 70’s. It continued for many years after that with high concentrations of Portuguese in Newark, NJ, USA, Chicago, USA, Toronto, Canada, London, Paris, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and spreading back into the colonies they once held. Some say that Paris is actually the second largest Portuguese city with more people from Portugal there than then Oporto.
Maybe the single greatest cause of this tragedy is this policy. If you don’t know it and are an EU resident you should learn more. This is where the lands of Portugal really changed and why many secretly despise the EU. It is a system of quotas that stripped Portugal of its cultural identity as a wine and olive producer to a forestry state. The stories are rampant throughout Iberia but heard often in Central Portugal where people were paid to take out Olive trees and vines. Their traditional livelihoods were taken away and people again fled out of the country thus creating even more abandonment. Abandonment is dangerous for lands that have been disturbed for so long because they build up un-cycled carbon resources over time. Humans and Wildlife along with microbes would have actively managed carbon resources and turned them into carbon rich soils thus building a more resilient landscape. With people and wildlife and microbes having been extracted because of the myriad of spiraling chain reactions of cause and effect, the ecosystem declines even more and is ripe for fire to cycle carbon instead.
Thus basically what the EU does is offer a subsidy for a particular crop selection and people jump on it and an industry is developed. Henceforth, when this EU policy was instituted and intensified over the years, what a great solution to no markets for traditional crops or being an absentee landlord. Simply drop some forestry trees in through signing a contract spurred by EU subsidies, wait until the forestry crops were ready years later, and receive fat royalties for doing nothing other than selling out the ecosystem. Thus the industry grew in its power and control as people could not sell land in Portugal because who wanted to move to this forgotten, economically depressed country struggling to catch up with the rest of the world. It’s not like that way now as foreigners are fleeing inwards to these regions for a self-sufficient lifestyle outside of their mainly northern European locales. But the damage was done already before they arrived. Huge swaths of land when you drive North from Lisbon are in this monoculture. As I wrote in my last article, again, monoculture produces disastrous results. We know this, we know the amount of chemicals used in monocultures of corn in the midwest of the states or wheat in Spain. And we know that in Portugal people die every single year, mainly firefighters making less than two euro an hour to fight them. Yet in this moment of tragedy, we will not point the finger back at ourselves and say wow, you know, not everyone in this world has access to toilet paper. Having done an eight month stint in Asia in 2009 I know this well. When you do defecate, or for women urinate, you don’t use toilet paper for hygiene purposes. You use water. While toilet paper is an incredible step up in hygiene, mainly because of its disposability, it does have an effect later downstream. Our instant culture is not a permaculture and we have long waived long-term foresight for short-term gains in convenience. It’s a great paradox we live in, that us wiping our ass causes wildlife to be extinguished by monoculture and in this case a severe and dramatic loss of life has occurred.
First and foremost we need to switch our thinking into a more holistic one, I have offered a model before and I offer it here again (Holistic Model). If we don’t break from our Cartesian Dualism route, the path to extinction for our species has been laid. Yes indeed please sign the petitions to let the politicians know the numbers of people in Portugal who wish to see their national heritage of a diverse landscape be brought back. Pressure politicians but also take action. We need a massive aid package that directs funds into cutting the trees that are left over from this massive fire and laying them on contour so when the rains do come the ash that is left over doesn’t simply wash away. With fires of that temperature and the high silica content laden soils of central Portugal the soils will have turned into glass essentially leaving a lasting degredatory effect on the landscape for years. The only way to prevent this is contour bunding using the trees to slow erosion, trap sediments and ash, and infiltrate water. Essentially its terraces with woody matter.
So make sure your lands are infiltrating water, that your biodiversity portfolio is being diversified, make sure you are cleaning your lands with mechanical intervention and biological means. I also wrote many years ago about how animals were being used in one particular case in Portugal. I copy and paste at the bottom of this as it comes from a longer article on the use of biological resources. So invite shepherds back into your land or become one. Enliven this tradition. We must have the nitrogen-fixing shrubs and bushes that grow under the eucalyptus cycled, making sure the shedding branches and bark of Eucalyptus are knocked to the ground where they can be fungus food and animal manures repopulate microbes in these degraded ecosystems. We desperately need livestock to have animal impact especially since the wildlife that did it before has long been extinguished. I have seen two deer in eight years in Portugal. Use companies like Ecointerventions to clean or the firemen services, but take this responsibility on strongly. Invest in green company products and services like the
aforementioned company. If you are a permaculture designer in Portugal every design should have a section on fire. Plant species that are fire-retardant and make sure edges of properties are clean and planted with succulents like agave or shrubs like New Zealand mirror plant. Cycle water and Carbon. If you are an absentee landlord work out leases with young permaculturists/ homesteaders for working your land at a cheap rate and even invest in the property so they have capital to make improvements with. Buy local and Portuguese goods and if you run a tourism project please make sure you are buying biological and local products to support this land use redevelopment. There is so much money in tourism right now and the amount of bullshit supermarket food I have had thrown at me as I travel, even in quite pricey hotels, hostels, and farm stays is astounding. Quit using toilet paper, wash not wipe, use handkerchiefs for your nose. Build community, do permablitz’s for land clearings. Pressure councils to invest in stabilizing the hydrological cycle in a given area and form watershed councils so the movements grow bigger. Plant native species and incorporate non natives in food forests. Pressure Councils to make sure that fire-retardant species are planted along exit roadways as almost all the pictures you see of where people died trying to get out, pine and Eucalyptus were planted all the way to the edge. Such near sighted planning is the cause and the effect is one of great tragedy and drama. The list goes on, but it is indeed on all of us to make sure these tragedies don’t happen again and the people lost are not lost in vain.
Referred to Excerpt on using Animals in the Landscape
Cows can also be used to accelerate the succession of the soil and turn a problem into a solution as I once witnessed at a rangeland in the North of Portugal. It was a steep terrain, classically planted out with Eucalyptus monoculture, which of course makes for a fire prone hillside, which is an extremely dangerous system to create. However, one farmer there began to raise smaller and more agile beef on these hillsides that browsed more like goats than say Angus beef. They were tractored in a sense with electric fence being moved daily or every other day in and amongst the Eucalyptus groves. Part of Eucalyptus’s fire strategy is to constantly shed its bark through its fast growth and drop branches. This adds quite considerably to the fuel load below and what most grows in the understory is a mix of nitrogen-fixing bushes. These are often quite nutritious for animals and the cows primary intake was this fire prone vegetation as well. With the cows ranging in a small pasture, they were able to knock down the branches and bark of the Eucalyptus and chip them up and other organic material with their weight and hooves which drastically cuts the fire risk. The material has a chance to break down biologically instead of oxidatively. The cow manures the hillsides reinserting biology back into the system that was lost during spray, spray, spray implementation which also speeds the breakdown of this newly chipped organic material. Then they are quickly moved on so the ground is not over compacted, the bushes are not overgrazed but the animal impact occurs. He was so successful with his rotation that neighbors allowed him to graze his cattle on their land and was able to increase his herd size and thus profit. He was hoping to phase out his day job in town because of this which would of course result in an even stronger system due to even more refined management.
To conclude Chapter 1, finally, of my online book, TreeYo EDU, I give you the State of the World article. Fitting timing after yesterday. Its a part that every Permaculture Design Course has in it and i offer a patterned based approach to the perspective. Its a pretty fun read i have to say and i hope you enjoy and leave comments on all the great projects that are going on around the world as i ask for in the last sentence. https://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/about/state-of-the-world/
There is something big happening in southern Europe that is not getting enough air time and I believe it requires our attention. Check out my presentation on desertification at Danyadara to find out more. Just add your email and you get a link the talk I did on the topic. Thanks to the folks at Danyadara for putting it into a viewable presentation. http://bit.ly/DougsTalk.
Getting one step closer to finishing the patterns chapter with this article for TreeYo EDU online PDC handbook. Its a short one but some pivotal patterns to understand and apply. Excerpt from opening line: As patterns build upon themselves and approach the fractal realm, they become increasingly complex in structure yet equate to simple forms with their subsequent dynamic energetic exchange. https://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/chapter-4-pattern-understanding/overbeck-jet-eckman-and-von-karman/
When I showed up again at Suryalila on April 20th, 2017 I had just finished a one month stint of being on the road in Portugal and felt refreshed to be back there in Southern Andulusia. To my surprise the landscape had already taken on a harsh look and the weather surprisingly hot. There wasn’t much of a spring, which
made the winter crops bolt quickly but the soils still a bit too cold in our new sunken beds for really great growth of summer crops. However we made some mulch, bed prep and watering adjustments and began to plant out the garden further along with farm manager Jacob Evans. And not just him but a wonderful crew that evolved and emerged as a serious squad. I supported them with lots of education and they supported the project and myself with lots of hard work and laughs. And not just outside in the field, but also inside building the association of Danyadara Permaculture further so that a true educational center surrounding permaculture can be lifted up off the ground.
It really didn’t rain much from March 3rd to April 28th, maybe one inch (25mm). That makes life tough when you have so many new growing spaces and young trees. You need that water for the growth of biomass to cycle, for animals to eat, for trees to get established, and crops to be nourished. Watering with well water is just not the same as rainwater, which is what we saw when it finally did come a couple of times during my time there. So we just cracked on with planting, watering, managing cover crops, composting, worm bin maintenance, earthworks adjustments, plant propagation, animal husbandry.… the list goes on and on.
We did some implementation of sunken pits (a form of sunken beds)on the swales we installed in December and on the Moonshala terraces we installed in the PDC in March. We worked hard to get this done by simply creating a small sunken crater and putting seeds of squashes in just before a rain. However the rain ended up being very little amount and the hand watering began. The germination rate was ok and again proves that rainwater is such a quality version of water and with shifting climates this is one of the repercussions, lack of good germination.
However we did get one big three-day rain event exactly one year after the big rain event of May 10-20 that happened last year in Iberia. It wasn’t ten days this time but we worked like mad for days before to install even more growing space in the old wheat field. The wheat field had been subsoiled twice on the
keyline pattern in the last six months and was ready for its next step to happen. With trees planted thus starting the alley cropping and with animals rotated to cycle biomass, it was time to create gardens in the alleys. First we grazed the field in a rush with a couple of horses and the biomass they didn’t eat we harvested for hay for the other animals in different pastures. So we used the subsoiler once more going off contour during the first passes then back on the key line pattern after that to break up the ground further and set the beds. Then we weeded the long rows of the mainly annual vegetation and then tilled. While tilling is not the best for the soil, well, sometimes you got to do it in year one and especially when you are in a hurry. As we were tilling, we were following behind making sunken craters once again to accommodate squash but also with sunflowers. We incorporated manures and then topped the craters up with a light application of compost after the seeds were sown just hours before the rain came. The crew was amazing with this implementation of the wheat field garden with others from the retreat center community coming out to support the final push as well. At the end the beds looked like terraces, following the curves of the valley which contains rich soils.
And the rains came, terraces held water, swales captured water, the keyline pattern cultivation infiltrated water, the sunken beds, the pit gardens, all of that digging and mounding by us and the machines was in full action. Crops grew with amazing speed and biomass was springing forth. It was a sight to see for sure with 2 inches (50 mm) of rain coming over three days. And quickly it got hot so the rush to chop and drop and lock that moisture in through mulch was the next big push. And to get the place looking great for a big yoga group of 60 people that came just days after the rains stopped. Me and Jake gave tours to that group and a sense of inspiration from nature was present. We have indeed transformed the landscape there through so many approaches that I feel quite proud of my work there along with so many people. Furthermore, with the wheat field we planted out a couple of more long rowed beds on this same implementation pattern but mainly just planted on the level ground with tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. It should produce an abundant supply of food if summer doesn’t come too quickly and the crops can shoot after the transplant shock. Overall the wheat field has gone through an enormous transformation in 11 months and am impressed with the speed of progress we were able to achieve.
And my inner landscape was transformed once more forever. It’s a place where living life in community brings up a lot. It’s practically impossible to escape. And thank goodness because when your eyes and ears are open lessons are abundant. I left with this Mollison quote during my final morning meeting “the greatest change we need to make is moving from consumers to producers. If only 10% of us do this there is enough for everyone, hence the futility of the revolutionaries who attack only with bullets and words, not shelter and gardens.” We became producers of groundwater, of biodiversity, of soil, and of food. The mantras fused into two, lets plant some treesyo in the winter to the spring lets grow some foodyo. But most importantly probably, we were producers of community. It’s the people you remember the most over the years not how many trees you planted or your yields per acre or hectare. And this crew, this epic journey of pushing as hard as I could for four straight weeks, and all the other amazing people I met through the retreat center, well it taught me a lot and reminded me just how blessed I am.
No time to do many updates as spring planting of the veg gardens and taking care of the nearly 1000 trees planted this winter keeps me quite busy. But here is a short video of the main project i am working on these days alongside an amazing cast of characters. What a pleasure to be here in Southern Spain at Suryalila with the non profit association now have been launched, Danyadara.
After finishing the two week PDC at Suryalila Retreat Center in Andalusia spain and then a weeks worth of implementation work, I headed off for a short break to Grenada to rest and recharge. I like to travel a bit to cultural cities as well to have a peak into the past and see cultural development. While I enjoyed the rest I was quickly anxious to get back to Portugal, which I have called home on and off for the last eight years but more full time the last three. With no base anymore I decided to line up a travel through the southern part of the country checking on past students and projects offering a hand and a creative/informative mind. I have always wanted to do a travel like this and not being attached to any base site I was free to do it and have thoroughly enjoyed seeing their progress and am extremely alarmed by the rapidly increasing signs of desertification.
Jacquie acquired this stunning site in the last year along with her partner Neal and have been hard at work in a good pace to clean up the land and settle into a new lifestyle. Jacquie was a student in the December earthworks and food forest Course at Suryalila and has been up to exactly that since. Having added a swale for runoff and planting new trees she is cracking on with complimenting her already existing orchard. The property itself is 7.5 HA and its main feature is the already existing productive trees and also the almost year round quite large stream. It’s a very beautiful aquatic habitat and we discussed improving the riparian buffer to create more natural habitat. You find this a lot in Portugal that the riparian buffers were long deforested and is part of the problems of water this country has. We also looked at the nursery site that might be her future mission after much of her life being dedicated to wildlife rescue and conservation. An obvious pond site was also observed in the two open fields that were once pasture land and have tons of potential for development.
Monte Velho, one of Dereks lands that he bought in the 90’s, is a 132 HA montado (oak Savannah) where myself and Jesus Ruiz implemented a 100 HA keyline operation back in 2015 spring. Derek is not full-time at the site but is moving that way and I am encouraged by his lets just plant some trees and get them drip irrigation and lets see what happens approach. Much of the work he has done in the last few years has been on water retention with four new dams added and the old fifth one renovated. He is going with corridor planting’s and is on the right track. The leftovers of the humid acid fertilizer is still being brewed and put out into the landscape. For sure the pastures where improved by the subsoiling and biofertilization put out. I was amazed at the lushness of the valley’s and how most of the ridges had been improved in their pasture quality. Cows are still being grazed not the land through a lease. Still the rotational grazing plans need set up but he followed my advice on many things like not letting the cattle drink directly from the ponds rather have them piped out to water troughs. I look forward to working with Derek more in the future as he has a 12 HA valley and Ridge just below the ruins that would be a showcase piece for microclimate and tree crop development.
From Ourique, I headed coastal to the coastal Alentejo area of Porto Covo/ Villa Nova de Milfontes to visit Josse on his small plot (3000 Sq M). Josse just completed the PDC at Suryalila and was a very gracious host. His house/ guest house had just been completed and was anxious to crack on with the landscaping part. He bought the land a few years ago and when not working in Switzerland spends his time cleaning the land and surfing. With that work already done we did a bit more clearing work but got set up for a mini Permablitx whilst also visiting several other projects that are covered below. We also met up with Sam Millar from the December course at Suryalila as he lives down the road in Sao Luis currently. Him and others from the local community and a couple other people staying with us contributed to the mini permablitz we held on a warm Sunday afternoon. We implemented 2/3 of the sunken bed veggie patch after the morning of designing pathways, building zones and growing spaces. With such a small space its fun exercise in creative thinking on making things multifunctional. He already had done a design at the PDC in his free time so we had already quite a lot to work with. Then when people showed up for the Permablitz we worked diligently to weed a heavily infested bermuda grass patch and do the digging and mounding. His soils are sandy but rich so we just made minor sunken beds ready to be filled with heaps of organic matter. It was great to see what eight people could do in the afternoon which also included lots of people making connections and drinking a few beers. We finished with a great meal cooked by Josse as he is a chef and i look forward to spending more time at his guest house in the future and possibly implementing other features like a bio swimming pool, earthen mound sound break hedge, and food forest development.
As said above whilst at Josse’s we also toured several properties. One nearby in the Sao luis area was Ferry and Francine’s Herded de Lage / A quinta property. Myself and others like Karsten and Dan had implemented the initial design and garden/ terrace infrastructure. Ferry and Francine, along with lots of volunteers, have been hard at work building up the amazing natural buildings since being there in the initial very tough startup point (2014). The most amazing part of my return after so many years of not seeing it but having many past students pass through as volunteers was the growth of the trees. The garden hedge looked great even though it had a minor set back of some goat grazing. Also down on the terraces I was amazed by what I saw in the initial nitrogen fixer plantings that are now three years old going into their fourth. We planted mainly casuarina and acacia and both have put off remarkable growth on the edge of the terraces. The Casuarina were 5-8 meters tall after just three years and the acacia not far behind. It makes for chop and drop to happen soon and also cover for more tree crops. They will be hosting a PDC in May and I look forward to working with them again sometime in the future.
Also on the first day we were at Josse’s he graciously drove us north by a couple of hours to meet up with another student from the PDC at Suryalila called Antonio. Antonio was a past consulting client and came to the PDC to further his knowledge and really sink into the Permaculture movement. He is a well connected fellow and he brought us to his friends place in Sesimbra, just outside of Lisbon on the other side of the River, for a dinner as a retreat group was breaking their fast. We had a small tour of the land mainly in the site where they are planning a raw food festival. Our host were very accommodating and invited us to also stay for a sound journey meditation with a hand drum which was very peaceful. We are in talks now about further consulting/ project development on their beautiful 200 HA piece of land with heaps of potential.
Our last stop was further to the north at Leo and Wendy’s place Monte de Ameira, which is a rolling hills block of 15 HA with lots of cork trees and a small winding stream that runs year round. I went to Leo’s place last year after not seeing him for years to stop by in my travels. Leo and Wendy were students in 2010 and he came to the food forest course last year as well after our meet up. Last year I gave some consulting advice and upon arrival back it was time to crack on with some of those tips. Last year was his first full year of operation in his guest house, which was quite an undertaking with also rebuilding the ruin for their house. Leo is really well integrated into the local community of Portuguese farming community and has earned the name of the Holantejoan; Dutch and Alentejo combined. It’s different than the expat communities that are great to see popping up, especially further to the south in the Sao Luis area. Thus we made a big move in his classical young orchard of straight lines to get to his food forest goals. So we weeded around the trees, added composted goat manure, added worm compost extract and mulched with green then brown material. But then we took it one step further by clearing a 2 diameter circle with a small earthen c-shaped bund at the bottom for water and nutrient mention. With this space created, we then implemented guilds to create the altered approach. We put in a variety of plants that we got from a Portuguese National nursery near Alcacerdo Sal. No tree guild was the same and we manured in between all of those then covered with a light mulch as a broadcast seed was done in between the small perennials. It was stacking in space and time at its finest. It was a great time and I will write more on this one in blogs ahead.
Overall it was a great journey to see and now I am back at Antonios place in Lisbon looking to further connect with my community here. I have no base but I am not without a network of people who are willing to host. Its time to get more projects further including consulting of several clients in the area. I will also go further with the educational material project I have been working on for years with my dear friend Anita Tirone (PDC 2012). I will also write more on the drastic die off of cork trees that i have been seeing and with the dry spring in Iberia this year it is only going to get worse. But I know there is a growing movement here in Portugal and in our neighboring brothers and sisters of Spain. So we go further with launching sites, green businesses and working towards regenerative and equitable systems. And in conclusion, thanks so much to the hosts who were all gracious and thankful for the drop in.
Written by Doug Crouch
Here is the course blog from the amazing journey that was Suryalila Retreat Centre with an eclectic group and an amazing dynamic trio of teachers with Itai Goldman and Ja Cobo. Thanks so much to all of you for the learning process and the hands-on work we did to give back to the site and the earth itself. Lots of earthworks accomplished, tree planting, hot composting, and natural building. https://treeyopermaculture.com/treeyo/previous-treeyo-courses/feb-march-2017-2-week-pdc-suryalila-permaculture-villamartin-spain/
This TreeYo EDU article helps to build the context of Earthworks implementation as well as the design and project management of it. It covers my years of experience doing this regenerative technique, however only when the context has been built correctly and the resources are there to complete its implementation. https://treeyopermacultureedu.wordpress.com/chapter-9-earth-working-and-earth-resources/earthworks-best-practices-design-context-building/
To implement an earthwork within a landscape can be a rather simple choice when the correct protocol are in place for its inception. Thus in this article we will look at some of those factors and complement it with design principles that help you to select the right earthwork in the right place from a well understood context. While it’s a simple choice, there are many factors involved and this regenerative technique should not be taken lightly, especially when done with the power of fossil fuels and machines.
After 16 years you notice the change. Yes 16 plus years of on and off management of the forest at my families land, better known inside our circle as the lake, and outwardly as Treasure Lake. My family has owned the property since late 1983 and lies just outside the major metropolis ti-state area of Cincinnati, Ohio. I have seen encroachment of the suburbs from all directions over the years but it never really reached this tiny corner of Boone County, Kentucky, USA. So as the ‘burbs grow, forests diminish, water quality drops, and biodiversity is tormented by the invasion of industrialism. But in those last 16 years at the lake, I have seen Paw Paw patches and spicebush thickets on the rise and big trees keep getting bigger. I have been witnessing the dying of random trees, the sprouting of new seeds of hickory and oak, and the changing mosaic as the ash tree dies out. It’s like the paw paw knew the ash were dying as they began to sprout by the weakening trees and now that the canopy break is in full swing, they are popping upwards rapidly.
16 years I have been wielding hand tools and power tools for managing succession in the 40 acres (16 HA) of forest that surrounds the 15 acre (6 HA) lake. It started with clearing old campsites, left over
from the properties recreational area inception in 1947, which had been abandoned at some point as the property changed hands numerous times. We did this initially so we could party out in the countryside relieving us of the monotony of suburban bars, college town forays, and city nights out. It was me and my brother and friends at first in 2000 before I headed off to Southeast Ohio to get my degree in Fish and Wildlife Management at Hocking Technical College in late summer 2001. In 2001, my grandfather had the lake rebuilt as this 1947 Army Core of Engineers dam had burst in 1992, a tough year for the project. With the lake being built and my spending more time out there and wanting to study nature more, but being so clueless on how, my good buddy Andrew Williamson drug me out of the city on a whim to go and study ecology essentially. The day we moved out there was 9/11/01 by chance.
From there each summer I would come home and apply the things I was learning and study ecology further through my families forest and lake. My whole education was always put through the lens of going back to my families land and making the property thrive and the business of pay fishing more ecological. So I would rally my friends who were quite keen to get out of the burbs for a bit and come and chop down honeysuckle and multiflora rose (“invasives”) and the like to open the ridge tops that jut out towards the lake. These spaces now are the campgrounds we have on successive ridges pointing south on the northern edge of the property. Since then, I and others have been mowing to keep the edge back but it manages to creep in from time to time on these campground spaces. The place really is a jungle in the growing season with its 12 months of even distribution of precipitation and intensely hot, humid, rainy summers there in the Ohio River Valley. I have also been thinning trees on the edges and valleys to augment the forest composition for biodiversity, to cycle biomass, and to obtain yields of poles in particular.
Thus I have been systematically and continuously cutting back invasives, as they do coppice. I also have been playing with the canopy to invite our native understory plants like Paw Paw and spicebush to emerge into the sub canopy as I remove their bush and bush/vining layer competitors (again bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose) and sub canopy layers like red maple (native but blankets like an invasive), box elder, black locust, and a bit of elm. The ash is dying because of the emerald ash borer and
of course there are deaths of trees from various reasons including the veracious appetite of the climbers that I let take their natural course as much as I can. My grandfather, before his passing, and also to support a tough economic time for the project, elected to harvest about 25 mature trees. I worked hand in hand with the forester to make sure there was not too much taken and it was done well. This created really large canopy breaks in some areas and altered the composition below as well of course. So in essence, I am making this 40 acres (16 HA) of natural food forest into a more cultivated food forest. I have only planted in a few trees like grafted paw paw, persimmon and jujube. That is an area of a broad valley where we dramatically opened the canopy for the harvesting of black locust poles for stage building for Pollination Fest and other pole necessities. We went beyond that initial harvest in 2014 and continued to harvest that and cycle biomass from youngish box elder to open even more light for the rapidly spreading native paw paw patches. I could have done it all in one year, especially with a chainsaw, but one of the keys I have been finding over these years is to go at a more natural pace by using hand tools as much as possible as to not create too much disturbance and invite another invasive in. In my month stint in late fall 2016, I split my time between a chainsaw, a brush clearing ax, and a japanese timber saw to do the work I needed in the forest. I was mainly going back over patches I had cut two to three years previous on steep hillsides, which needed this next intervention so other understory species besides the aforementioned ones could flourish as well like dogwood, redbud, and muscelwood. It’s a much more interesting forest when these native species thrive and the invasives have their little brambly corners to be the habitat they were intended to be when brought to the continent from Eurasia.
So the species composition has changed over the years and that is the feedback loop of watching the same hillsides and valleys for 16 years. It’s a more biodiverse place now with tons of potential for wildlife viewing of all sorts. So even if some of my agricultural experiments have failed, well the forest keeps on growing. I am excited for this years feedback loop as some of the Paw Paw patches had grown so thick I began to cut them back as to give more space to individual trees becoming much bigger. They spread via rhizomes and if they don’t have enough light they don’t produce much in the wild. I tried this in 2014 in one space near the edge of the lake where a patch was growing with basically an open canopy on this south-facing space. It dramatically increased the canopy space of these paw paw and i just reduced that patch, which had already been reduced in numbers once from 8 main trees and 2 smaller ones, to just 5 trees. There is quite a lot of canopy space for them to fill but i think it will happen quite quickly. I also played with this paw paw spacing and canopy opening in about five other paw paw patches, which are all wild. I am curious to see how quick they grow back into a closed canopy as well and wonder when i will have to thin those as well. Imagine having so many wild paw paws that you have to cut some down. I consider that an accomplishment.
This upcoming year i will spend more of the growing season there and will be doing heaps of chop and drop and adding in a few more grafted paw paw to get more pollination possibilities going. They are cross pollinated so this grafted genetics should help since these large patches are often just one tree that has grown rhizominously for years. One day i will top graft numerous varieties onto these existing wild ones and it will be a paw paw paradise. I leave you with that image. Thanks for reading.