Living Lighter on the Land
Last week’s post was about a weed called mile-a-minute vine that is spreading through our forests and killing other plants. I began my last post with the musing ‘what is a weed?’ The word ‘weed’ isn’t technically a botanical term; there is not a group of plants that botanists have described as ‘weeds’. Instead, weeds – or undesirable plants – are only weeds within a certain context. For example, a dandelion growing along the railroad tracks may not be considered a weed, but as soon as it pops up in your lawn it certainly is. Likewise, sugar maple seeds are very welcome to germinate in the forest, but the gardener will rip them up once they sprout among her kale.
|Dandelion, a common weed.|
From these examples you can see that a plant’s context is what makes them a weed and their weediness usually stands in our way of achieving a goal. For example, the gardener is trying to raise some food for her family. Garden=context. Food=goal. Weeds=reduce food production. Once there is a context and a goal is set, weeds take form. Once a person builds a garden and is committed to growing some food, plants like lady’s thumb and sorrel automatically become the weeds, simply because these plants grow quickly in full sun and can crowd out our vegetables. It really has nothing to do with the plants themselves, their weediness is simply a result of our decision to keep a garden. No gardens, no weeds. Simple.
|The mandala garden at the Armstrong House Education Center, where we get our fair share of weeds growing among the desirable vegetables and herbs.|
Lets think bigger than our backyard garden. What are our goals for Pound Ridge’s land? Once we set some town wide goals, our town wide weeds will take form. Believe it or not, conservation is a bit like gardening. Conservationists, just like gardeners, decide what we want to remove from the land, what we want to keep on the land and how we want the land to appear/ work. Of course, its easier to control your backyard garden than something huge and complex like a forest or a watershed, but the principle is identical. Gardeners and conservationists follow the same process: we identify our context, set our goals and manage our weeds.
So I’ll ask you again, what are our goals for the garden of Pound Ridge?
It is safe to say that the people of Pound Ridge have at least one common goal: forests. People move here because of our beautiful trees. Our forests are pleasing to look at, give our homes privacy, provide us with shade in the summer, keep our soil in place, provide food and shelter for hundreds of forests critters and dazzle our eyes in the fall with their colors. Honestly, our honorary membership in Southern New England would be revoked if we didn’t have such forests – the New England states would simply laugh us off stage. Beyond all these reasons, we must admit that there is something magical about forests that touch our soul. Can we all agree, then, that we like our forests?
|An artsy photograph I took of a forest in Pound Ridge, NY. We surely love our trees around here.|
So back to our formula. Context= Pound Ridge. Goal= a forest full of trees. Weed=?
This is easy. The greatest threat to our trees is the cute and fuzzy white tailed deer, period. At their current density, virtually ZERO NEW TREES are being recruited into the forest. Sure, we have trees now (fewer by the storm, mind you) but we will have less in twenty years, far fewer in fifty years and in one hundred years Pound Ridge will be hanging onto its forested past via a few giants. Good bye New England, hello NY metro.
|A white tailed deer browsing a tree branch|
What will our future landscape look like?
In general, the forest will grow older and older and without new recruits, we will see a large gap in the age demographics of the trees. The youngest trees we have now (roughly 10-15 years old), will always be the forest’s youngest trees. Therefore, in 50 years, the youngest trees will be 65 years old, standing over an understory that is open, bare, and sparsely vegetated. Instead of an understory of native trees, we will have extensive shrub thickets of deer resistant invasive plants (Japanese barberry, wine berry, multiflora rose) under an aging canopy.
What’s the gardener to do?
As conservationist/gardeners we have to decide what we want our landscape to look like in 20, 50 and 100 years. Once we set our goals, lets get to work managing our weeds. I, for one, vote for trees.
If you are new to this white tail deer conversation, there are plenty of resources to become acquainted with. See below. If you are a veteran of this conversation, what are you doing to grow more trees? I currently have 40 young trees growing in a small nursery at the Armstrong House Education Center. Soon I’ll have 60. In addition to planting native trees, maybe we should come together as a town and do something about our deer. These weeds are certainly within our power to manage.
Deer related resources:
Background ecological information
Local conservation groups measuring the effect of deer on plants
Deer hunting in Pound Ridge, NY
Conversations about effective control measures
I didn’t always know that any plant could be considered a weed. I thought that all weeds shared a similar physiology, evolution or life cycle which united them into an unpopular class of plants. This is not true. A weed is just a plant that, for some reason or another, people don’t like: its perceived as useless, clogs underground plumbing, costs us money, mires our farm equipment, out competes more desirable plants, poisons our livestock, shades our crops, etc. What’s more, a weed in one location – intentionally killed, uprooted, and criticized – may be coveted elsewhere. A plant’s weediness really all depends on who you ask and what they want.
So ask an ecologists what they want and they will say ‘diversity’. Diversity is coveted by ecologists because, by definition, it suggests that many organisms are alive and well and it ensures an ecosystem’s productivity and resilience. Essentially, if extinction is the enemy, diversity is our greatest ally. Ecologists, as well as anybody, know about weeds. Here in the forests of northern Westchester there are weeds which threaten to decrease its diversity. You may have heard them referred to as ‘invasive species’. Today’s post is about one in particular: mile-a-minute Vine (Persicaria perfoliata).
|A great poster showing all parts of the mile-a-minute vine. Learn how to identify this weed in the field.|
Aptly named, this plant from Asia can grow, grow, grow over everything in its path. With its little barbs (see picture) it can successfully hang onto the leaves, stems, and stalks of other plants as it rapidly grows up and over them. Through research it has been shown to decrease local diversity…very weedy indeed. Its an annual plant which means that it overwinters as a seed; the plant’s vegetative parts do not persist for multiple years. To stop this plant from spreading we need to halt its production of seeds.
Right now, the third week of August 2012, the mile-a-minute vine on the Armstrong Preserve are about to flower – I can see their swollen flower buds ready to erupt. Remember back to elementary school biology – first come the flowers, then come the seeds. In order to stop this plant from spreading we have to kill it before it makes seeds. In other words, we have to kill it now.
Removing mile-a-minute vine is not necessarily difficult. Using work gloves, you can easily pull the plant out of the ground. BE SURE TO PULL OUT THE PLANT’S ROOTS. If you break the stem, plant material left in the ground will begin to grow again. It is inevitable to miss or break some vines, so get in the habit if revisiting sites a week or so after you pull vines, just to clean up any remaining plants. After you pull the plant out of the ground you have to put it some place where it will desiccate and die (on a stone wall, driveway, etc.).
|A patch of densely growing mile-a-minute vine|
What do you do when your feeling run down? Some people need comfort food or a warm bath. Others sleep more or pop a packet of ‘Emergen-C‘. As we mature, we all learn how to alleviate our own exhaustion. We are not the only thing that gets run down and exhausted; we are a lot like soil in this respect. As it turns out, our health and the health of soil are both influenced by the relative amounts of vitamins, carbon and water we contain. When one of these gets thrown out of balance, bad things can happen. To a gardener, exhausted soil looks like poor fruit production, sickly and discolored plants, and erosion. The question then – and the topic of today’s post – is: how do we recharge our soil? How do we restore its vitality so that our crops thrive and be bountiful? There are many soil conditioning methods, but one way in particular honors this month’s thread of ‘partnerships‘. Cover cropping.
|A sick girl. Like us, our soil can become run down and unhealthy. Unhealthy soil needs attention and conditioning.|
|This book is commonly referred to on the internet. It is geared toward larger gardens and farms yet is still very informative and worth consulting if you are interested in managing your soil with cover crops.
This spring and summer at the Armstrong House Education Center we used three cover crops to rejuvenate our garden’s soil.
1) Peas (Pisum sativum). Peas (along with the common clover, alfalfa and soybeans) are in the fabaceae or ‘pea’ family. Like most plants in the fabaceae, peas are capable of taking gaseous nitrogen out of the atmosphere and converting it to a form of nitrogen usable by plants in a process called ‘nitrogen fixation’. You may have heard of this famous group of agricultural plants commonly referred to as ‘nitrogen fixers’ which actively increase the amount of nitrogen in the soil. These plants provide us with an alternative to store bought, synthetic fertilizers, which have been shown to enter waterways and negatively effect aquatic ecosystems.
|The flower of our pea cover crop. Not only does this plant add nitrogen to the soil, it produces edible pea pods.|
2) Oats (Avena sativa). These are called ‘nurse’ plants because they help the peas get established and grow. The oats grow very quickly and suppress weeds while the relatively slower growing peas can develop and also act as scaffolding for the pea vines to grow upon. After they die, the oats add carbon and nitrogen to the soil. The peas and oats came together in this package.
3) Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum). This fast growing plant suppresses weeds and is good at scavenging soil phosphorus and calcium, thereby keeping it from being washed away. I have found that many insects are attracted to the white flowers of buckwheat. On warm summer days I was amazed to see well over a dozen species of flying insects working the buckwheat flowers. Among them were the Armstrong honeybees, which will be supported into the nectar-limited fall by our abundant beds of buckwheat. We currently use buckwheat from Botanical Interests.
How to manage cover crops?
Each cover crop is managed differently. How/where/when to sow crops varies among the plants, as does growing time and method for killing. Generally, we sow cover crops from seed allow them to live for a preferred amount of time and then kill them. The plants themselves are either left to decompose in the garden or composted.
At the Armstrong House garden, I allowed our peas, oats and buckwheat to flower before turning them into the soil (roughly 6 weeks of growing time). To reduce the amount of bulky organic material I had to work in, I cut and composted the top halves and allowed the bottom halves to decompose in place for 2 weeks. After these two weeks, I chopped up the remaining stems into very small pieces and literally raked them into the soil as I sowed a new crop of buckwheat.
Future cover crops?
After the current cycle of buckwheat is ready to turn into the soil we will plant crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) as a winter cover crop. After germination, the clover will over winter in the garden and bloom in the early spring. We choose this cover crop because it is a nitrogen fixer and a source of early spring nectar for our honeybees.
We will continue to use a variety of cover crops at the Armstrong House Education Center as we learn more about our soil’s needs. Think about what causes you to feel sick. You make suffer from the flu, chicken pox, strep throat, arthritis, sciatica, or depression. Each illness is remedied differently. Likewise, in the future we may employ cover crops to perform different jobs such as erosion control, adding nutrients or organic material, honeybee forage or breaking up of compacted soil. Check the blog or come to an event in our garden to see our current cover crop.
Once upon a time, Westchester County’s land was cleared and trees were the exception, not the rule. Trees were sparsely sprinkled across the landscape and grew reliably in only a few locations: shading the farm house, lining the prominent road, marking the property’s corner, bordering the swamp.
|A painting of 1830’s New England.|
If trees were the exception, farms were the rule. Specifically, sheep farms. Oh yes – most of the old rock walls you drive past were erected to keep in place big, silly looking Merino sheep. During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s wool was one of New England’s biggest inland industries. With the opening of the American West by mid-century, the cold rocky soils of New England were abandoned for the cold prairie soils west of the Mississippi. Some eastern farmland was simply abandoned…and thus began the trend of reforesting New England. Starting then, trees became more of the rule and less of the exception.
|A Merino sheep in need of a hair cut.|
|An old field naturally dominated by eastern red cedar trees. As forests in southern New England regrow from cleared land, they often pass through this stage, which remains evident even after the trees die.|
At the Armstrong House Education Center you can still see this early stage of reforestation. Here, like in many other forested parts of southern New England, you will see hundreds of eastern red cedar trees standing dead or dying in the shadows of larger trees. These trees thrived in open, full-light conditions but were slowly killed by the surrounding forest as they were shaded out. Their naturally rot and insect-resistant wood allows them to persist in the forest as dead trees for over a decade. Currently, living cedars are not very common; most of the cedars you will run across in Northern Westchester County take the form of fence post, gates, benches or hand rails.
The Pound Ridge Land Conservancy has entered into a partnership with this tree. The cedar is rot resistant and strong, making it ideal as a long lasting, outdoor building material. Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we use eastern red cedar posts to hold up our garden fence, prop up our mailbox, keep up the shed wall, strengthen the chicken coop and support the hanging branch of an old gray dogwood tree. To say the least, we think very highly of its usefulness.
|Strong cedar posts hold up our garden fence.|
|Four cedar posts act as the central support system to our chicken coop, seen here in progress.|
|A cedar helping to hold up our outdoor work shed|
|A slender cedar post holding up a very old dogwood branch|
So what about this resource in the future? Will our forests provide us with eastern red cedar to build with in twenty years? Not unless we plant some new ones today. And that is exactly what we are doing on the Armstrong Preserve.
Why isn’t eastern red cedar growing in the forests of Northern Westchester County today?
To ensure that there will be red cedar for the future we grow it in the following sunny places:
1) Our tree nursery, a well-lit fenced area attached to our garden.
2) The Armstrong Preserve’s cliff face. This bedrock cliff is bathed in sunlight and is out of reach from deer.
3) And coming soon, eastern red cedar will grow in our meadow. As part of the Armstrong Meadow Management Plan, we will be establishing a zone of small trees and shrubs around the meadow’s perimeter, which is currently occupied by Japanese Barberry.
|Eastern red cedar growing on a rock cliff at the Armstrong Preserve|
Hey, do you like sweets? Of course you do, who doesn’t? Have you ever thought about the sugars inside your yogurt, muffin or Snickers bar? Do you know where sugar comes from? Here in the United States, sugar commonly comes from either sugar cane or corn syrup. Less common sources of sugar include beets, maple syrup, concentrated fruit juice and honey. The last one – honey – is the topic of this week’s blog. Here at the Armstrong House Education Center we have entered into a partnership with a colony of honeybees; we keep them alive and well fed and in return they produce for us honey and wax. It’s simply beautiful.
|Members of my honeybee school checking on a hive in May.|
|Capped (left) and uncapped (right) honey comb. The bees cap the honey when it reaches the right sugar concentration. It is from this capped form that we harvest the honey.|
|Honey harvest at honeybee school. The class used a hot blade to cut open the tops of the comb. From here, the comb was centrifuged and the honey was released.|
|A blooming almond grove in California. Most of the world’s almonds come from this type of monoculture farming. Hundreds of thousands of honeybees are trucked in to pollinate the trees.|
In the process of extracting nectar from flowers, honeybees carry pollen from one plant to the next. This pollination is crucial to the plant, for without it, the plant can’t produce its fruit. The best way to ensure that your garden is fully pollinated (aka, fully productive) is to recruit the help of a workaholic pollinator like the honeybee. With their help, every flower the garden produces has the best chance of being pollinated and turning into a future piece of food – maybe a tomato or a snap pea.
|Bedford Bee Honeybee Service is a company based in Bedford, NY that provides great honeybee services, including an April-October honeybee school, queens for sale and private hive maintenance.|
I want to keep bees in my backyard, but I don’t want to spend the time taking care of them. Can I still keep bees?
What does keeping bees have to do with Living Lighter on the Land?
The best backyard food producers are dedicated land stewards; they work to retain their property’s natural resources such as rich soil and clean, abundant water and biodiversity. Remember, in these types of partnerships with nature, the energy you put in is rewarded.
Also backyard food production is an ecologically responsible alternative to the large scale, industrial farming that has become common in the United States. For an awesome primer on agricultural trends of the last 50 years, see this. Lastly, producing food in your backyard – be it honey from bees, eggplant, basil or goat milk – cuts out the fossil fuels used in its transportation.
It seems like our world is shrinking. Everywhere is accessible – the Internet picks up where the interstate highway system leaves off. We have lightning-fast, global communications – with a satellite phone you can check your stock quotes from the arctic tundra. Exotic fruit is available all year round – you can buy a star fruit in Shoprite on the winter solstice. Of course, the planet is the same size it has always been, but it is starting to feel less enormous. Among all of this planet shrinking, two things remain: 1) human kind, and 2) the rest of nature. It is no longer an option to separate the two; to coexist we must forge long-lasting partnerships.
Here at the Armstrong House Educational Center, I am doing just that. I am practicing the old saying of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ with nature. I have entered into a partnership with some interesting critters and they have (in a way) agreed to take out my garbage. No, I haven’t trained a troop of chimpanzees to clean my house; I am talking about red wiggler worms. In something called vermiculture or vermicomposting, I use worms to turn my food scraps into compost. In fact, they eat more than just household food scraps – these little suckers can take down my coffee grounds, the New York Times, shredded pizza boxes, plant trimmings, kleenex, egg cartons, orange peels and old bread. It is through this partnership, and others like it, that we can reduce our use of resources and Live Lighter on the Land.
Did Tate say ‘worms’?
Yes, worms. For those of us who don’t have outdoor space for compost, using worms is a great indoor alternative. Did Tate say ‘indoors’? Yes, indoor composting. If managed properly (and believe me, it is easy) these worms don’t produce any foul smells or attract flies. Vermicomposting is very simple – all you need is a worm bin (see below), some organic waste and some red wriggler worms. The worms eat the organic material and poop out ‘castings‘, which can be directly used as compost. Simple.
|A red wiggler worm working its way through a pile of organic debris. They consume food scraps and leave behind castings – a very nutritious growing medium for plants.|
Why not just throw our organic debris in the garbage?
If we think of our organic debris as valuable material and not just ‘waste’, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to throw it in the garbage. Once we throw it out, it is wasted – buried in a landfill or burned in an incinerator. This organic debris is filled with energy, nutrients and minerals that can be recycled and used again in our gardens. Also, by recycling our used organic material we don’t have to spend money and fossil fuels to transport it. Check out what the United States Environmental Protection Agency says about food waste. According to them, in 2010, food waste accounted for almost 14% of the municipal solid waste stream! Now that’s putting the waste in ‘food waste’.
Where does Tate keep his red wrigglers?
My worms live happily in the corner of my kitchen in a simple plastic container called a ‘Wormcycler’. The Wormcycler is a closed container comprised of a stack of square, mesh bottomed trays. The mechanics are simple – worms and organic debris are placed in the lowest tray. The worms slowly eat the organic debris and once their food supply is exhausted, they naturally migrate upwards to a fresh tray.
|My plastic ‘Wormcycler’ bin. This product was generously donated to the Pound Ridge Land Conservancy by worm composting company Nature’s Footprint. You can see that the Wormcycler sits neatly in the corner of my kitchen.|
Where did Tate get his Wormcycler, and can I get one?
My Wormcycler was generously donated by Nature’s Footprint, a company specializing in vermiculture and home gardening equipment. You can get your very own Wormcycler at a discounted price through Nature’s Footprint’s Create Compost Direct Delivery Program. Ordering is easy, just see the instructions on the poster below.
|A promotional poster. You can buy a ‘Wormcycler’ at a discounted price if you use the PRLC’s special code. See instructions on the poster.|
Where can I get my own red wiggler worms?
There are many places you can buy red wiggler worms online. You can even get them from Nature’s Footprint when you get your Wormcycler. Another fun website is Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm.
How do I care for my worms?
It’s actually pretty easy to keep red wigglers alive. The worms like a slightly moist environment (not dripping wet, but moist to the touch). It is easy to regulate the level of moisture by adding more wet or dry material. These are indoor critters – they like an environment between 50-80 degrees F. If you need specific care information, check the Internet; a quick on-line search will yield dozens of vermiculture websites. To make it even simpler, the Wormcycler comes with its very own easy-to-understand instruction manual that outlines the Do’s and Don’ts of worm husbandry.
Won’t the Wormcycler attract flies and turn stinky?
Your Wormcycler will be fly and odor-free if you follow these two key rules:
- Only feed the worms what they are going to eat. Over feeding attracts unwanted critters
- Make sure you have the right level of moisture – not too dry, not too wet.
Really, if your worm bin is acting up, its because you haven’t paid any attention to it. I check my worm bin roughly once every three days and spend roughly 10 minutes making sure everything is fine and dandy.
What does the inside of a Wormcycler look like?
When you first add your organic material (50% food, 50% bedding), individual food items will be recognizable. Over time, as the worms start to eat the material, the contents of your Wormcycler will become indistinguishable and black. Once all the food is eaten and the worms migrate upwards to another tray, you can harvest your compost. In these pictures, you can see how my food scraps broke down in just one month.
|Day 1 of my Wormcycler. I added bits of food, old leaves from houseplants, shredded newspaper and coffee grounds.|
Wait, Tate said that this was a ‘partnership’. What do the worms get out of it?
In addition to their world-class fame and popularity, red wiggler worms used in vermiculture are provided with an ideal living environment. They are well fed, well cared for and safe. It is in our best human interest to rear large populations of red wiggler worms and keep them as a tool in our waste reduction/ waste recycling. By producing less waste we can literally Live Lighter on the Land.
Today’s post will be the last in a thread about connecting with our surroundings. Through the previous three posts I suggested that effective and long lasting land stewardship should be built on a foundation of intimacy with our environment. Simply stated, how can we protect what we don’t know?
The story of today’s post starts way back when I was in college. I was a student of biology sitting in an english class in northern California. (I was enrolled at my home school in New Jersey, where I entered an exchange program which allowed me to travel to other state schools). About this time, I considered myself rather ‘eco-savvy’. For example, I knew that the South American rain forests were being cut down, I knew that a diet of plants used less land and water resources than a diet of meats and I knew that wildlife all over the world was imperiled. As it turns out, I knew nothing.
One day in English class we discussed ‘place’. I had used the word a million times before, but when my english professor said it, it seemed novel. He said it in such a way that I knew it meant something bigger and different than I previously thought. That day, he administered a simple test. This was not a traditional test; the grade was private–only to be seen by the test taker– and was a personal assessment of their connection to their place. While I don’t have the exact test, I have reproduced a similar version below. It is well worth your time to slow down, pour another cup of coffee and take this test. Look at it this way, you can’t possibly score worse than I did.
1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
2. How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?
3. Describe the soil around your home.
4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?
5. Name five edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.
6. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
7. Where does your garbage go?
8. How long is the growing season where you live?
9. On what day of the year are the shadows shortest wear you live?
10. Name five trees in your area. Any of them Native? If you can’t name them, describe them.
11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.
12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion in the past century?
13. What primary geological event/process influenced the land forms where you live?
14. What species have become extinct in your area?
15. What are the major plant associations in your region?
16. From where you are reading this, point north.
17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?
18. What kind of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?
19. Were the stars out last night?
20. Name some beings (nonhuman) which share your place.
21. Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?
22. How many people live next door to you? What are there names?
23. How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?
24. What energy costs you the most money? What kind of energy is it?
25. What developed and potential energy resources are in your area?
26. What plans are there for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?
27. What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?
|One lunar cycle. There was a time when I gave this very little thought. After taking my first ‘place’ test, I began to take more notice of my surroundings, including the moon.|
I scored poorly on the test, but fell in love with the concept of ‘place’. I was surprised by how much I didn’t know. On what planet had I been living? Had I not been paying any attention at all? Suddenly, my immediate surroundings were unveiled. I saw rays of sun, insects, the direction clouds came from. I started tracking the phases of the moon and learning my plants. I started noticing everything. To me, ‘place’ was the trees planted on my college campus and the food service contracted to feed us college students. ‘Place’ was the human demographics of the area and the selections of beer at the town bar. ‘Place’ was everything!
After the test, I reoriented myself; my local environment became the most important. The importance and allure of far-off places began to wane as I focused on the ecology and culture of my place. Honestly, how could I care about the South American rain forest when I didn’t even know the trees on my college campus?
|An unveiling. After taking the test, the complex nature of my place was unveiled.|
There is one simple reason why the concept of place was (and is) so appealing to me: it assumes that everything in a location is important, human or otherwise. In other words, it acknowledges that an environment is shaped by all of its interrelated parts; culture and nature combine to make a place what it is. For example, by understanding the place of northern Westchester County, we can begin to understand the current density of its white tailed deer herds. The deer density is not simply a function of food, space and deer reproduction. It is influenced by our ecological history, town politics, personal values, forest ecology, trends in landscaping, culture, etc. By being tuned into our place–and all of the thousands of factors that interrelated to construct it–we can begin to understand our environmental problems for what they really are.
Now back to this month’s thread: knowing your surroundings. To be effective land stewards, we must be aware of all the interconnected elements of our natural environment and how they interact. What makes up your place? How does the human environment affect the non-human environment, and vice versa? What’s going on around you? …where does your garbage go…?
Over their working lives, each naturalist adopts and hones a unique way of understanding a landscape. I’ve met naturalists that are instinctively aware of a landscape’s surface and ground water: where its flowing from, where its flowing to, the sediments its carrying and where it is likely to deposit them. To these naturalists, ancient landforms made by water (like deltas, kames or outwash plains) are the building blocks of the landscape; the initial eye-grabbers upon which all other landscape features fit into.
- what animals might live there
- what plants might live there
- how wind might move through it
- how sunlight intercepts it
- where water might be found (which goes on to tell me lots of other things…)
- about past land use
- about past disturbances, etc.
Although it is my framework (and therefor I am a bit biased toward it) I must admit that both the naturalist who thinks of water and the naturalist who thinks of edible plants use their frameworks to deeply understand their natural environment as well. Really, there is nothing special about my framework, except that it is mine. As long as a framework works, it’s as good as the next. The best naturalists slide easily from framework to framework as they construct a comprehensive understanding of a place.
|The way you think about your environment is kind of like mental scaffolding. Mental scaffolding holds and secures your concepts, assumptions, unknowns, fears and past experiences into an understanding.|
Of course you do. Everyone uses a framework to understand nature. The gardener, the painter, the casual hiker, the admirer of sunsets and the dog walker all use a framework to understand their natural environment. Frameworks are a natural part of thinking.
Why is it important to identify your framework?
Most of my readers are interested in being stewards of their backyards, watersheds and towns. The first step toward stewardship is knowing your natural environment. What organisms do you share your backyard with? What are the animals that have to cross the street in order to breed? Which plants are affected most by the white tail deer? Tuning into your surroundings is key. As you tune in, your framework is dictating which pieces of your natural environment you understand and how you understand them. By identifying your framework (in other words, understanding how you understand nature) your study of nature will be expanded, deepened, illuminated, enlightened and simply, made better. Your framework is working to shape your world 24/7 weather you acknowledge it or not, so you might as well identify it and use it to your advantage.
Go step outside and, as your thoughts start to process the natural world, pay attention to them. Write these thoughts down and organize them into a concept map. Talk about your thoughts with different people. Continue to pay attention to your thoughts, your framework will reveal itself.
My last post was a list of observations I made from my back patio while drinking my morning coffee. It illustrated that wild nature is found everywhere–even in our backyards–and it is our job as responsible stewards to observe and understand it. Today’s post is about a simple technique that will help you observe and understand your wild backyards a little better. The technique is call a ‘sit spot’. A sit spot is simply a convenient place that you return to frequently to sit. Your sit spot can be as simple as your porch, patio or garden bench; you don’t need to seek out an adventurous or otherwise impressive sit spot like a mountaintop or deep ravine. Once at your sit spot, you are only to observe. Anything and everything is fair game: calling squirrels, chirping birds, hiding moths, blowing wind, dripping water, tunneling ants, falling acorns. There is no goal, per se, but the idea is that by sitting in a place again and again the sitter slowly gains insight into nature.
Insight from sitting? Is Tate crazy? Well, let’s take for example the American robin, one bird that almost everyone knows. The American robins can be found just about everywhere you look: farms, small woodlots, cities, suburbs, college campuses. They are present in our various stages of human development– they are the first birds identifiable by children and the last birds forgotten by aging adults. I even found them on the Arctic tundra of Alaska! Yet considering their commonness, can you answer the following questions about the American robin:
- What do robins sound like?
- How deep are their nests?
- How can you tell a male robin is courting a female robin?
- How do robins clean their nest?
- What noise does a robin make when it spots a cooper’s hawk in the forest?
- What do robins eat in the winter?
- What do robins eat in the summer?
- What is typical foraging behavior for a robin?
- From which part of a tree can a robin be expected to sing from?
|The ubiquitous American robin. So common, yet so mysterious.|
When we start to realize that the robin has its own life–outside of our briefly identifying it–we can begin to understand and relate to it. I often use the following analogy:
Think of a good friend. Picture their face and recall their name. Think of some notable experiences you have shared with them. Think of how deep your relationship is. Love. Respect. Openness. Understanding. Now think of all that would be lost if your relationship was instantly reduced to only knowing their name and being able to identity them in a crowd. No more passion or family, history or camaraderie. Just ‘Bob, the guy with a beer gut, glasses and a shaved head’. Wouldn’t that be a shame? Believe it or not, the same goes for your relationship with the robin. It can be as deep or as superficial as you like.
Now back to your sit spot. By visiting your sit spot over and over again, you will begin to see patterns, cycles and changes in nature. The place around your sit spot will take on new meaning and put the rest of your life into a larger context. You can expect to feel a connectedness and familiarity with your sit spot. You will start to see the lives of the trees, bugs, birds, and rocks of your backyard.
You may have some questions.
How often should I visit my sit spot?
As often as possible. Every day is great. Once a week is better than nothing. Less than once a week might make it difficult to build momentum.
Where should my sit spot be?
Very close to your house. Backyard, side yard, front yard, porch, your kid’s tree house– it doesn’t matter as long as you are comfortable and outside. Ideally, your
sit spot should be very convenient– this way you are more likely to visit.
|A yellow Adirondack chair on a back patio. This could be your sit spot.|
How long should I sit at my sit spot?
15 minutes per sit would be great. You would be amazed at what you can experience in 15 minutes. Imagine what you can experience in 30 or 40 minutes at your sit spot. Some days will be longer than others and that’s ok.
What should I do at my sit spot?
Just observe. No observation is too small or unimportant. For example, the number of times the robin called before flying to the ground, the color pattern on a fly’s wing or how a tree bends in the wind– all these things have significance. Here is what you do:
- Allow your body to relax. As you observe things, catalog the experience. Write things down or sketch pictures in a special notebook (don’t worry, if you don’t consider yourself an artist no one else will see it). If you are the diligent note taker, after just a few weeks of periodic sitting you will have a rich set of notes, pictures, diagrams and maps– keep these, they are priceless for understanding what’s around you.
- Catalogue what’s around you. Flowers, trees, bugs, rocks, water, wind–they are all important. Don’t worry if you don’t know the name of a plant or animal. Give them your own names. Instead of naming it ‘highbush blueberry’ you can call it ‘canoe-leaved berry bush’. An organism’s name is not currently important, their lives are important. Their names will come with time. Keep records as organisms come and go through time (for instance, how winter birds differ from summer birds).
- Make a ‘sound map’ (see below). A sound map is an illustrated ‘map’ of the sounds that you are hearing in relation to you. Don’t worry about precision or scale, the purpose of the map is just to organize what you are hearing.
|A sound map made by a child. A sound map like this helps you organize what you are hearing and give it a spatial context. This is a very simple sound map. Yours may have many more sounds on it.|
Can I tell anyone about my sit spot?
Yes, talking about the experiences at your sit spot will help you process them.
Here is an interesting video where nature mentor Jon Young talks about the importance of keeping a sit spot. Although his purposes are a little more sophisticated and advanced than ours, he is tapping into the fundamental power and usefulness of sitting. This is a cute video about keeping a sit spot.
What does sitting have to do with our Living Lighter on the Land campaign? Remember that through Living Lighter on the Land we strive to rethink our place on the planet? Sitting shows us what we never knew about nature. More importantly, sitting teaches us what we didn’t know was even possible to know about nature. With these new tools, we can start to rethink our place on the planet.
- blue skies, no clouds
- 58 degrees F.
- humidity low
- no noticeable scent on air
- crickets calling from herb garden again
- red eyed vireo singing from top of pignut hickory
- multiple white breasted nuthatches calling from black birch tree
- dump truck passes driveway, heading north
- honeybee flies past (where is it feeding?)
- high altitude jet flies overhead, heading south, leaves contrail
- motorcycle speeds past the driveway (probably in 4th gear), heading south
- vireo continues to sing
- nuthatches continue to call
- chipmunk chirps from patch of grass on hill
- wineberry flowers are opening, no bumble bees on them yet
- light breeze twinkles the tops of mature trees next to the house
- single leaf falls from black birch tree next to the clothes line (falling in June?)
|My patio and backyard. Weather permitting, this is where I enjoy my morning coffee and tune into the lives of my (nonhuman) neighbors.|
- unidentified bird (dark colored, compact, slightly smaller than a robin) whistles from the pignut hickory tree, flies to a nearby sugar maple, calls, then flies back to hickory
- nuthatch calls increase and are matched by nuthatches on opposing side of the house
- sip coffee
- nuthatches spread out among four trees and continue to call
- unidentified bird (similar in size to a robin) flies over the house from the south
- American robin calls from the cliff to the south
- vireo continues to sing
- sip coffee
- sunlight shines on eastern redcedar tree, exposing two dead branches
- chipping sparrow flies by with nesting material in its beak (where is his nest?)
- pileated woodpecker calls from the vernal pool
- Eastern towhee sings (‘drink your tea’) from the barberry thicket near the driveway
- take a big sip of coffee
- two planes overhead, one flying south, a higher one flying southeast
- the blue-eyed grass is still closed from the night (I wonder what time it opens?)
- red admiral butterfly is startled and flies away
- the lady’s thumb is in full bloom
- the white clover is in full bloom
- gulp coffee
- nuthatches again congregate on a single tree
- unidentified moth (smaller than red admiral, white wings with black spots near wing tip), flies over the patch of grass and continues toward the flowering dogwood tree
- the marginal wood fern is getting big
- cavity in the white ash tree still not being used by birds. Hasn’t been used since the tufted titmouse raised chicks last month. See video
- vireo continues to sing from the pignut hickory