Living Lighter on the Land

What's in a place?

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…?

What do you see when you look at the forest?

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.  

Other naturalists think in terms of edible and medicinal plants.  When they walk through the forest they first see the roots, buds, leaves, and inner bark of these useful plants which, to them, are the landscape’s building blocks, upon which all other ecological information relates to. 
I am unlike these naturalist; I don’t automatically see underground water and I can’t instinctively assess the medicinal value of a hillside.  I do, however, have my own way of understanding a landscape instinctively repeats as I go from region to region, place to place.  My way was not taught to me or deliberately developed; it just sort of came about.  Here’s my way:  I consider how a place’s 3-dimensional space is shaped and filled.  An ecologist would call this an ecosystem’s ‘structure’.  I instinctively wonder, “Is the forest dense or is it spacious?”, “Are there holes is the forest’s canopy?”,  “What is the topography like?”, “Are there lots of plants growing on the forest floor that make it difficult to navigate and maneuver through?”  As I ask myself these questions and process their answers, I construct a 3-D mental image in my head to help keep track of all the information.
A place’s ‘structure’ is how its contents are spatially arranged.  An example of an uncommon forest structure, the Ossipee Pine Barrens of New Hampsire.  Here, there is a dense mat of lowbush blueberry on the ground and a stand of even age pitch pine trees.  

Why do I focus on a place’s structure?  Why is a place’s structure tell me me?  A place’s structure tells me: 
  • 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.
Yes, all of these little details are foretold to me by a place’s structure– how it is laid out, filled up and arranged.  Instinctively focusing on structure is my way of initially understanding a place.  You can call it my ‘framework’, and you can think of it as my brain’s auto-pilot or mental scaffolding.  It’s the way that I naturally experience my world.

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.   

So now I ask YOU a question.  How do YOU make sense of your surroundings?  What is your framework?  What do you see first?  What makes the most sense to you?  What are the building blocks of your backyard?  How do you arrange the pieces of your landscape?  How do you arrange your thoughts?  How do you arrange your thoughts about your landscape?  Is your framework built around sound, light, angles, bugs, birds, dirt, hills, topography, stone walls, air?  Surely, there is no right or wrong way to understand a landscape–there are only different ways.

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.  

What if I don’t consider myself a naturalist?  Do I still use a framework to understand nature? 

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.

What now? 
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.


The sit spot

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 think about the details of the robin’s life, we realize that we know almost nothing.   

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.

Meet the neighbors

The following is an account of this morning’s activities:
7:01 am.  Rise
7:02 am. Visit bathroom
7:03-7:25 am.  Stretch
7:32 am. Start coffee, step outside, sit on patio.  Observe:  
  • blue skies, no clouds
  • 58 degrees F.
  • humidity low
  • no noticeable scent on air
7:33 am.
7:34 am.
  • 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
7:35 am.
  • 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?)
7:36 am.  Inside kitchen, pour hot coffee, add half and half

My patio and backyard.  Weather permitting, this is where I enjoy my morning coffee and tune into the lives of my (nonhuman) neighbors.  

7:37 am.  Back outside sitting on patio.  Observe:
  • 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
7:38-7:39 am.
7:40 am.
  • take a big sip of coffee
  • two planes overhead, one flying south, a higher one flying southeast
7:40 am. and 30 seconds- 7:43 am.  Walk with coffee in hand to a patch of grass next to the porch.
  • 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
7:44 am.  Back to the porch, sitting.  Observe:
7:45 am.  Inside kitchen to make breakfast…I wonder what else I’ll find today…

Since March 2012,  I have written weekly Blog posts describing specific ways that people can live lighter on the land: ecological landscaping, garden tips, energy efficient appliances, green home-building techniques.  Today’s post marks the beginning of a new thread, and one that is foundational to all the rest – knowing what you are living among.  As stewards of the earth we must first know the earth.  As stewards of your backyard you must first know your backyard.  As I have illustrated above, there are entire worlds taking place in our backyards; rich lives of plants and animals that go wholly unknown.  One of these days– when you’re ready– go out and meet the neighbors.  That’s the first step to Living Lighter on the Land.        

Insulating your hot water heater


Imagine…its a cold February morning and the dog needs to be walked.  Overnight lows were in the teens and you slept to the sound of a hard winter wind nipping at the house.  Anyone that has experienced a good, cold winter knows that getting up and out the door in the morning requires a fair bit of technical planning; there's the long underwear, thick socks, snow pants, turtle necks, wool sweaters and to top it all off, a big jacket (down parka or stylish ski jacket, perhaps).  As the dog crosses his legs, you apply the appropriate armor.


Now imagine…you're on a summer vacation at the ocean (use your imagination…Hawai'i, maybe Florida?).  The shade from your umbrella is the only thing keeping you from melting away in the blazing sun.  You dig your feet into the sand to a depth that is still moist and cool.  You grab a cold soda from the cooler and it immediately starts to sweat.  Instinctively, put it in a 'coozy' (see picture below).  That coozy – that little piece of decorated foam – is the only thing keeping your drink from turning into a hot mess.    


A Simpsons-inspired 'beer coozy'.  

What do these two scenarios have in common?  That's right – INSULATION!  When I was younger I didn't fully understand how insulation worked; I thought that there was something warm inside my turtle neck.  I thought that there was heat produced from my down jacket.  Now, after knowing a little bit more about the universe, I understand the true role of an insulator.  An insulator's job is to merely act as a barrier between an internal environment (for example, your body) and an outside environment (for example, the cold January morning).  The down jacket doesn't produce the heat (your body does), but it keeps the heat near your body.  The coozy doesn't produce the cold (the ice in the cooler makes the soda cold), but it keeps the cold near the soda.  Amazingly simple and effective technology, really.


Now on to the Armstrong House, which – like most houses- has a hot water heater.  How do we keep the heat in the hot water heater?  We put a removable 3.2 inch thick foam insulator around our tank to constantly trap its heat.  Think about it.  Your hot water tank is usually hot (or at least warm) and whenever its temperature exceeds that of the outside air (essentially all the time) it is releasing heat.  Every minute, every hour, ever day the average home owner is heating up water only to loose some of it as waste heat to a cold room.  Take a look at our water heater's insulator, essentially a giant beer coozy. 

The removable 3.2 inch foam insulator for my hot water heater.  Just one of the steps toward energy efficiency at the Armstrong House.  



Our insulator and the tank it was specifically designed to fit, were manufactured by Schuco, a German company specializing in solar power, high insulating windows and 'solar hot water' systems (the topic of a future Blog post).  You can see from the picture that the insulator fits snugly and even has windows and little detachable pieces to facilitate the tank's service.  You may be saying, "Well that's great for you, you bought your insulator and tank together so you know they fit perfectly.  But how do I insulate my standard water tank?"  There is hope.  There are companies out there that make insulators to fit your tank- whatever the style, size or model.  See this video about do-it-yourself tank insulation part 1part 2.            

What about savings?  Energy and $$$?  The amount you will save depends on many factors, including the size and current insulation value of your tank and how hot you keep it. Here is a website from the United State Department of Energy that quotes annual energy savings and payback period.  


Remember- part of Living Lighter on the Land is about reducing our use of energy.  By incorporating energy efficient appliances and technologies that – each – save a little energy, we will see a big difference over the long haul when they are integrated.  This gets me thinking…what else can we insulate?


Reusing the energy in hot water


Question: How hot is the water that comes out of your shower head?  Answer: Somewhere between 105 and 120 degrees F (depending on your preference).  Question: How hot is that water as it goes down the shower drain?  Answer: Still hot, perhaps 90 degrees F.  Question:  What happens to that energy in that water?  Answer:  Usually it is completely wasted- at the Armstrong House, the energy is reused.  Question:  How?  Answer:  I'll explain the process in a bit, but first:


Think of boiling a pot of water on your stove.  Have you ever tried to boil a pot of water that started out really really cold?  Once in Maine I had to fetch water from a spring that had frozen over the night before.  I had to break the ice to get to the liquid water and when I returned to the cabin with our cooking water it had chunks of ice floating in it.  That morning, it took more time and energy to boil the  near freezing water.  Similarly, it takes less time and energy to boil water that is already hot- like when you reboil a kettle that was recently boiled.  


Now, think of a picnic on a hot summer day.  The night before you prepared an awesome potato salad and set it in the fridge over night.  Once the picnic is underway and the food is spread, your cold potato salad starts to loose its chill.  After an hour or so, your potato salad has totally lost its chill (and its appeal) so you decide to put it back in the fridge.  What has happened to your potato salad?  More importantly, what does the potato salad and Tate's frozen spring water what have to do with saving energy at the Armstrong House?


At the Armstrong House Education Center we have installed a drain water heat recovery unit, which is a fancy way of saying 'we passively heat up the potato salad so we don't have to boil frozen spring water'!  What the heck am I talking about?


He have one of these:


The Armstrong House's drain water heat recovery unit.  


Notice the copper piping that runs vertically through the photograph- this is our drain water heat recovery unit, which takes the hot waste water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house.  The following two diagrams are of the installed unit that I took from the manufacturer's website.



The waste water heat recovery unit connected to shower and water supply.  



The waste water heat recovery unit in action.  It takes hot water from the shower and preheats the cold water coming into the house. 


But, why is the water coming into the Armstrong House cold?  Like everyone in Pound Ridge, I get my water from a well.  The temperature of well water is governed by the temperature of the earth and rock that it collects in- which for our area is somewhere in the low 50's F.  50 degree water is cold- very cold.  50 degree water must be heated like crazy before you can even think about using it to clean dishes, wash clothes or use in a shower.  With the use of our drain water heat recovery unit, we can essentially split the difference between the hot waste water and the cold water from the ground.  For example, if it comes into the house at 50 degrees F. and the waste water is 100 degrees F. the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  If the water comes in at 60 degrees and the wasted shower water is 90 degrees, the new preheated water will be 75 degrees F.  By using preheated water, we have to use less energy when heating it back up to 100 degrees F (remember the pot of boiling water).  For more information and a formal energy/cost savings review of the drain water heat recovery unit click here.

This is just one of the many ways that we are reducing our energy consumption at the Armstrong House.  Stay tuned for more.

Great success - Soil amending workshop at the Armstrong House Education Center


A garden's fertility and productivity comes from its soil.  Composting has recently gained popularity among lay people, food activists and conservationists so we are seeing an explosion of creative composting methods: composting barrels, worms that eat food scraps, anaerobic bokashiindustrial sized apparatuses, whole cow composting, clean and classy indoor systemshumanure, and- the topics of today's post-  1) 'green manures' and 2) sheet mulching'.  1) Green manures are not manures at all; instead, they are plants- such as the nitrogen fixing clover- which add nutrients to the soil.  Green manures are usually planted in lieu of more desirable plants (vegetables, crops) in order to make the soil better for future growing.  2) Sheet mulching (also known as lasagna gardening) is a way to make compost in the place where it will be used.  Unlike other compost operations that are done 'off site' and brought to the garden, sheet mulching starts and ends right on your garden beds.  The 'sheets' of organic debris are laid down by the gardener in a systematic way and simply left to decompose.  See these websites for examples.


Today at the Armstrong House Education Center, Sarah Bush of Edible Revolution and myself hosted a sheet mulching workshop where participants gained first hand experience in amending soil.  In attendance were eight garden owners from Pound Ridge who all shared one thing in common: they wanted to learn more about how to build and maintain healthy soil.

A demonstration piece from the workshop.  These are the ingredients we used in our sheet mulching (in order).  The ingredients of your sheet mulching may vary depending on their availability and your needs. 



The workshop was full of enthusiastic energy:  piles of organic material (manure, wood chips, leaves, compost) laid ready to be applied to the existing soil, workshop participants stood with open eyes as Sarah spoke intimately about gardening nuances, and each participant shared their personal story of garden frustration (weeds, rocks, pests) as the others nodded with empathy.  After roughly 30 minutes, the group was driven inside by worsening weather where we continued our discussion over warm tea.  With the help of diagrams I spoke about the mechanics and importance of nitrogen fixation, the microbe- induced process of taking stable gaseous nitrogen and turning it into a usable plant nutrient.  The group continued to share stories, ask Sarah and I questions and take notes on their new discoveries.


Garden designer Sarah Bush teaches workshop participants about making healthy soil.



After my second cup of tea I realized that although the workshop was based on amending our garden soil for the future, it became much more than that.  As most participants left the Armstrong House Education Center, they recognized the community resource we had created for them.  In the classic phenomena of synergy, all of the elements of the day- me (a student of soil ecology), Sarah (an experienced food producer and garden designer), all the workshop participants (with their combined experience and enthusiasm) and the Armstrong House (a prototype for Living Lighter on the Land) – came together to create something special.  Spontaneously and sincerely, the workshop became a very real learning environment- a place where people could share what mattered to them in order to grow and solve problems.  There was a tangible energy in the air.  There were new friendships and partnerships established.  Life experience was passed between near strangers.  Perhaps there was something in the tea.


Living Lighter on the Land is about coming together to solve problems.  As social animals, it's natural to gravitate toward cooperation, partnerships, shared experiences and community, all of which are alive at the Armstrong House Education Center.


Growing food...inside your house


Remember back you your 2nd grade science class…  Your teacher handed out beans which you covered in a wet towel and put in a dark room.  After a few days, POOF, there was life- the bean burst open and a little green stem shot out.  This bean experiment that most kids go through sheds light on the origin of life.


Now, fast forward to your current, non-second grade science life.  Many of you want to produce food at home but the idea of starting a garden is daunting.  We need fresh vegetables all year round even though winter inhibits year-round vegetable growing.  So the question is 'how can you engage your inner 2nd grade scientist to produce a healthy, inexpensive food source for your family?'  Easy, sprout your own beans!


Say goodbye to packages of store bought sprouts.  Now you can do it at home. 

Tap into your second grade imagination to remember that SEEDS ARE AMAZING: they are small yet they contain blueprints for the plant's entire developmental future and they are so unassuming yet they link the plant's past with its future. As you know, seeds are a warehouse of vitamins, minerals and energy to be used by the emerging plant.  Before roots can start taking up minerals from the soil and leaves can start breathing, all of the plant's life comes from the goodness locked inside a seed.  Seeds themselves are often dry and hard so they don't make good eatin', but a sprout is a whole different story.  When the seed germinates and begins to resemble an edible sprout a variety of magical chemical reactions take place: the hard seed becomes soft and palatable, inactive molecules become activated and enzymes, amino acids and minerals become available.  As a great source of protein, sprouts are great for vegetarians.  The benefits of eating sprouts are well known, to start your research see here.


Like this painting suggests, so much is stored in a seed.

How do you sprout your own seeds at home?  Its quite easy- the most popular method consists of just a few simple items:  a jar, a small piece of vinyl mesh, a dark area, water and seeds.  Many different seeds can be sprouted including mung, alfalfa, radish, broccoli, and clover.   You can find literally hundreds of websites online that offer instructions for sprouting seeds at home so I suggest searching for a set up that suits your household.  Here are a few with nice, clear videos to get you on your way.  This video  (9 minutes) is easy to follow and very informative.  This video (7 minutes) shows you how to specifically grow sunflower sprouts.  To really save money it's best to buy dry seeds in bulk and store them in a dry place while you continuously make small batches of sprouts in your home.  The following video is strictly for inspiration.  Happy sprouting!  




An example of rethinking our place on the planet

Here in the east, we have forests.  When the forests were carved up to accommodate human settlement trees were left along road, next to houses, at property boundaries, in cemeteries and in school yards.  Now, years later, we walk amongst these huge trees and connect with our place's past.  I am convinced that our connection with huge trees is not confined to just the naturalist or the botanist- most people have a healthy respect for big, old trees.  We submit to feelings of reverence when in the presence of these giants.  Perhaps we empathize with their long struggle for survival or maybe we remember our grandparents and think it best to merely respect our elders.   How do we think about these amazing organisms after they die?


Standing dead tree, or 'snag'


Here in Pound Ridge, NY very large trees- usually maple, oak, sycamore and sometimes even American elm- sit like centerpieces in many lawns and properties.  On one of my running routes I admire a huge black oak tree that was badly damaged by the Halloween 2011 storm.  The heavy wet snow tore the tree's large crown to bits and left it hanging upside down from the top of the trunk.  The trunk was severed and gashed open.  I always look forward to running past this tree because it stands out from its manicured surroundings.  It looks wild in a sea of tamed.  It reminds me of a hobbled war veteran- proud, but obviously succumbing to his wounds.  There is something about the tree's injured state that is intriguing.  For some reason, the huge gashes in the trunk make it look bigger and even more impressive.  I have more respect for the tree because I can physically see its vulnerability and I know what it has been through.  


The storm that threatened the tree's life also claimed three human lives and left an entire region without power for days.  It is the kind of storm we will tell our children about and will change Halloween in the east forever.  The kind of disaster that brings people together.  


On this morning's run I was slowly making my way up the hill to where the old oak stands.  As I rounded the bend to see the oak I quickly noticed that the tree had been felled over the weekend.  The disassembled tree was sitting quietly in a metal container on the street.  A cleanly shaven stump marked its former place in the lawn.  The property now blended in with the rest of the manicured neighborhood.  The one distinctive organic feature on the street had been removed.  The old war veteran was taken out of his misery.  Instead of withering on a pedestal in front of the neighbors he was quickly removed, destined for the mulch path or the fireplace.  No one wants to look at a broken down old tree.  Or do we?


I challenge the paradigm that says old dead trees should be removed from your property, and for two reasons.  The first reason, rooted in ecology, says that standing dead trees, or 'snags', provide ecological value to the area.  Snags are a useful resource to wildlife.  Woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, bats, hundreds of insect species and songbirds all use snags as places to eat, hunt from, sleep in, or nest it.  Also, as a snag decays it sheds carbon to the ground and soil which is gobbled up by invertebrates, which in turn feed birds and small mammals.  Interestingly, its not just animals that can use a snag for habitat.  Plants and fungus can make their home in or on decaying wood, some of which are nitrogen fixers, which enrich the local soil with usable nitrogen.  Simply stated, snags are a form of natural capital- valuable nutrients, carbon, housing and food for our local ecosystem- that we casually just throw out.  


The second reason I challenge the practice of removing snags from your property has to do with our human culture.  These behemoths stand out against the surrounding young forest and remind us of the stature and glory that is attainable by our local forests.  Every huge tree that is removed from our landscape is a severed tie to our past.  If we take away too many huge trees our children miss out- they won't witness the big trees from the past.


Of course, most of my readers will recall that dead trees can fall on their house or other property. This is absolutely true, and if you have a tree that is threatening your property or your life, you are justified in removing it.  But consider this, a dead or dying tree can have its threatening parts removed while leaving non-threatening parts behind to act as wildlife habitat.  Outstretched limbs can be taken off, and the trunk can be shortened to the point of being benign.


A non-threatening snag.  Only 20 feet high and still valuable to wildlife.  

The title of this post is 'An example of rethinking our place on the planet', but why?  During my run this morning, after I saw that the big oak was removed, I contemplated the ways we think about our ecosystems.  Many people would consider a dead tree unsightly, unnecessary landscape features, a liability, something 'unnatural' amongst a well manicured green landscape.  This perspective neglects to consider other plants and animals, the soil, the area's history, the ecosystem's future and the complete lifecycle* of a mature tree.  Me, on the other hand, think that snags are neat and sexy (see the picture at top of this post).  Someone might say 'a person can remove a dead tree from their yard if they think it is ugly- people can decide for themselves if something is ugly or not'.  Sure, you- as the landowner- can judge for yourself what is ugly or not and you have the freedom to remove ugly features from your property.  My point here is that the criteria many people use to judge if something in nature is pretty or ugly (good or bad, too much or too little) is based on limited perspectives and seriously limited information.  Specifically, the biological and ecological perspectives are completely overlooked.  Why?  The perspectives that relate to us as living organisms in a shared ecological environment are systematically overlooked.  Why?  Its kind of like judging a Vincent Van Gogh  painting while forgetting the artist's setting, philosophy, tools, history and personality.  One can render a judgement but the judgement is not likely to be sophisticated, intelligent, defensible, or even accurate.  *As a side note, the word lifecycle is totally misleading because the life of a tree does not end with its death.  Instead, it stands for decades and continues to react with the rest of the ecosystem*.  This is an example of rethinking our place on the planet because I have taken a common domestic 'problem' (felling a 'nuisance' tree) and expanded what we know about it.  In the course of doing so I have promoted a perspective that considers humans as connected to the rest of nature.  Humans don't live in isolation.  The rest of nature doesn't live in isolation.  We all live together.








The trees in our backyards are animal nurseries


 Tate releasing a rehabilitated red tail hawk in Ohio


Once upon a time I rehabilitated injured raptors (wild eagles, owls, falcons, and hawks).  At the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio roughly 150 injured raptors were brought to us each year and we assessed, cared for and (if appropriate) released the birds back into the wild.  In the wild world of raptor rehabilitation there are seasons you can predictably come to rely on, and these seasons reflect the rhythms of the natural world.  For example, we would only expect to see injured rough-legged hawks in the winter (in the summer they nest in the Arctic), fall and winter would bring us many juvenile birds out on their own for the first time, and our busiest season – spring – would bring us many injured babies.  Each spring we took in dozens of baby screech owls and kestrels, both of which nest in holes in trees.  How do baby raptors get injured?  1) They fall out of their nest or, 2) someone cuts down the tree they were nesting in.


As it turns out people do a lot of tree work during the nesting season- felling trees, limbing trees, pruning shrubs- which means there are lots of unhappy parents out there.  Nesting in trees is not unique to birds either- bats, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, hornets and sometimes porcupines all nest off the ground.  Once separated from the nest, young animals stand very little chance of surviving.  The guaranteed food source from mom and dad, warmth of the nest and the protection from predators vanishes instantly.  Could you imagine spending some quality time at home with the newborn when all of the sudden you start to feel your house rattle?  A loud tool with a smoking motor is slicing into your foundation and causing your house to slump.  Obviously devastating.  



Eastern screech owl in a tree cavity


A crow nest in a tree

To avoid cutting down a tree that contains a nest be aware what's living in your backyard.  Singing birds are a dead give away for an active nest.  Look for physical nests (usually made out of sticks) in trees and if you see tree a cavity, watch for animals coming and going.


Try to work around animal's nesting schedule.  Raptors usually next first, in late winter/early spring.  Songbirds start nesting in the early spring and continue through to mid summer.  Squirrels and bats nest in the spring.  To best avoid nesting critters, the fall is the best time to conduct tree work.      


If you do happen to cut down a tree which contains an animal nest you can call your local rehabilitator for instructions on how to help.  Just google 'wildlife rehabilitation' and your location and you will find a place.  Almost any bird will be taken in by a nearby rehabilitator. Mammals of greater conservation concern like bats (yes, bats are mammals) might be taken in.  Raccoons are not people's favorite so you might not find a lot of resources available for their rescue, but again, call your local rehabilitator.  See what they recently did for a squirrel.


As a result of habitat fragmentation (see post #1) our woodlots, backyards, town parks, old fields, and vacant lots are now the wild places for plants and animals to call home.  Like the baby screech owl that falls from its nests during our spring cleaning, our backyard management could mean a great deal to the critters that live there; sometimes the different between life and death.


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