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A View from the Woods

By Loni Kemp

Mon, Apr 9th, 2012
Posted in All Columnists

A Checkup for Our Land

When strolling in our woods, I often wonder about what story the land is trying to tell me. What has changed over time? Does evidence remain of past logging, clearing and grazing? Are current farming activities sustainable? What should the meandering course of the river tell me about erosion and flooding? Is wildlife thriving in harmony with the forest?

As a professional environmentalist, I am pelted daily with news about climate change, invasive species, water pollution and soil degradation. Everyone enjoying this spectacularly beautiful but unprecedented early spring has to be a little uneasy about what it means. I want to know, is our hundred-acre Garden of Eden real, or am I merely blind to incremental damage?

On a beautiful spring afternoon, I had the opportunity to walk our land with two conservation experts. This is a free service, of which anyone can avail themselves, courtesy of the Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District. Rick Grooters and Ryan Thesing agreed to tell me of any problems or opportunities that could be addressed. I know from my professional policy work that there are multiple programs available for technical and financial assistance.

We started at the sheep pasture on the hilltop where our garden is. Our neighbor needed more pasture for his sheep and we needed the field mowed once in a while, so a mutually beneficial arrangement resulted. The field and a pathway through the woods to his own pasture is carefully fenced in with electric tape. He monitors the grass so it doesn’t get overgrazed, and his son applied a nice layer of manure this winter, which already shows up in the vigorous green new growth. A former thicket of invasive wild parsnip is gone. No problems here.

Next we walked down through the woods to the “pumpkin patch,” a five acre field we rent to a farmer who rotates pumpkins and corn. The conservationists observed that the field was flat, last year’s corn residues were adequate to protect the soil, and the wooded buffer along the stream appears to be preventing runoff.

After being duly impressed by some very active beavers who had gnawed halfway through some two-foot trees, felled others and created several dams, we looked across the creek to another dozen acres we rent out. These corn-bean farmers use no-till, possibly the best soil conserving practice for commodity crops, because all residues are left on the land without any disturbance in order to protect the soil from fall to spring, when seeds are again tucked into the soil. The land too is flat, well buffered with natural vegetation to protect the creek. No problem there either.

We tromped further on into the forest, entering a gorgeous sunlit wooded floodplain. On this late March morning, the valley floor was covered in lush tufts of wild leeks, with flowery false rue anemone and just-emerging coils of ostrich fern. I encouraged the guys to taste the leeks, as our footsteps released the telltale odor of onions. We looked across an old fenceline to an adjacent area of wooded floodplain on additional acreage we purchased recently. There the trees were smaller and the vegetation was mostly creeping charlie. I’ve heard that the former owners grazed pigs there many decades ago, and the staff mentioned that grazing can be very damaging to a forest.

My biggest concern was up ahead, where the high banks of the creek had slumped and eroded after the 2007 floods. The whole length of the creek is deeply incised, with the water flowing over a stony bed ten to fifteen feet down from the banks. The creek is actively meandering, cutting away the banks on the outer side of the curves and depositing silt on the inner flattened banks. We trudged up and down an abandoned creek bed where the creek long ago broke through a loop and changed its course.

The professionals felt that the creek was flowing on bedrock now and wasn’t cutting any deeper. The eroded bank was partly due to natural freeze-thaw cycles that make the saturated soil slump off of the nearly vertical surface. A meandering stream is a rare thing, given farmers’ tendency to cut ditches to get rid of water quicker. Meandering is nature’s way of slowing the water down, thus reducing erosion during floods. We are lucky to have this land where previous dwellers and owners have all, like us, left the river to run naturally.

On our trek back to the car, we see a couple of deer bounding away, and catch the gobble of a wild turkey.

It has been a day of good news for our land. The three farmers we work with are doing a great job. The forest and the creek that weaves through it are also performing the wondrous functions of nature, ensuring healthy soil, water, vegetation and wildlife.

“We don’t own the land—the land owns us” is a wise aboriginal saying. I feel fortunate to live here and to be a steward of this beautiful landscape.

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