One of my favorite pastimes is to take a walk. I like to leave from my farm, choose a direction, and head out into the woods. I’m familiar with much of the terrain surrounding my home but there are always new pockets to explore and discover. Inevitably, I must pass through private property along the way and I suppose it’s a hold-over from my childhood years of exploring the mixture of BLM and private lands along the NID ditches on Banner Mountain, without a sense of wrong-doing, that allows me to think of it as a harmless act.
For me, these walks are a time of reconnection with nature and a quieting of myself. I take slow steps as I tune into my senses. I stay away from houses and people, which is not very difficult in my neighborhood with acreages ranging from five to forty acres. As I walk in this way my body senses open and a subtle harmony comes over me. I feel in connection with nature and as I walk the terrain I feel like I’m in constant communication with my surroundings. My body is trying to tell me the story of the forest; the plants and the animals and the ground underneath.
From place to place I notice different features that become a kernel of understanding in this story. A large cedar stump, blackened by fire yet clearly cut by a chainsaw. That stump, now surrounded by a dense thicket of smaller trees, many with a ladder of dry, dead limbs leading to the canopy stretching towards the sun. Who cut this tree and when? Where is that tree now?
For me, these walks are a time of reconnection with nature and a quieting of myself.
Evidence of an access road is practically indiscernible except for the faint outline of a cut along the drainage. How quickly the structure of the forest can change. In another spot, I notice a series of steep ravines – clearly evidence of water flowing in the past. Knowing the history of mining in my neighborhood, I’m able to piece together a picture of how these ravines were created using flowing water to erode the hillside; chasing old river bed deposits into the hillside until the gold petered out. The staggering amount of soil having been displaced is hard to fathom. The elaborate network of ditches and riveted pipe transporting water to the mining sites alone was a feat. I come across these over-grown and slumped ditches frequently; their tell-tale sign being the near-contour course they take across the hills - allowing them to move great distances from their source. Ravines and ditches in my neighborhood have been reclaimed by vegetation and to the untrained eye might even seem like undisturbed land.
Further along I run into an old section of barbed wire fence. A series of weathered spit rail cedar and locust posts, draped by a few strands of rusty barbed wire. A limb here, a fallen tree there, over time, have rendered this once-sturdy fence a mere tripping hazard. The shadows from the dense canopy above have smothered out the understory and the brittle feel of dry and dead vegetation is heavy on my breath. It’s difficult to walk a straight path through this thicket of a forest and it’s confusing to consider that this barbed wire fence was built to contain cattle. It’s confusing because cattle don’t eat dead trees, and they don’t particularly like living trees either – they eat grass, and grass needs light. Reconstructing the picture in my head of the time this fence was built for cattle, I suddenly see a completely different landscape. It’s no coincidence that the majority of the conifers in much of Nevada County, namely pine, cedar and fir, are not older than eighty years and that much of our forested lands were once used for grazing up until the 1950’s and 1960’s. Grazing animals including cattle, sheep, and goats, will have an altering affect on the landscape’s vegetation and this largely depends on how the animals are managed.
While our food system has gone through a rapid industrialization process over the past eighty years in the post-World War Two era, resulting in the concentration of food production in areas well suited to scale and mechanization, there has been an abandonment of agricultural lands in other areas, like ours. Combine the effects of dwindling agricultural land management with the policy of fire suppression over this same time period and we arrive at the situation we have today. Our forests are over-stocked and dying, species diversity within the forests has declined, and the threat of catastrophic fire is very real. The many benefits of attentive agricultural land management to the health of the land and safety of our communities was taken for granted and now have been largely lost.
As I emerge from the forest and approach the farm my senses are pleased to be home and are greeted by the green of the pasture grasses, the sound of the creek, the pleasant odor of goats and the feeling of sunlight and air flow. This place is alive and as I reflect on the differences between the unmanaged forest land and my farm the word metabolism comes to mind. The vegetation on my farm is being exercised frequently by grazing goats, access to sunlight and water for growth, and occasionally, being harvested or opened further by my own efforts. This exercise is good for the land and creates a healthy metabolism where plants grow strong and healthy and when they die their remains are broken down and released more quickly, providing nourishment for the next life. The word stagnation comes to mind when I think of the unmanaged forested lands. Thickets of trees are at the same time very slowly growing and dying. They reach for the sunlight; packed in tight with their neighbors, blocking light from reaching the forest floor. These same thickets intercept rain and allow less water to penetrate the soil while at the same time pull water out of the earth through transpiration.
Sometimes I think a fire is just what this land needs; to be exercised and refreshed. We need to increase the metabolism of our forests because an active metabolism is resilient. Ultimately, mother nature will find a way to exercise the land - be it though beetle kill pine trees, drought stress die-off, or fire. Mother nature is the ultimate expression of resiliency, the question is, can we follow her example?