July

Forty acres is plenty.  I used to think a hundred or so would be marvelous: some pasture land, forest, and, ideally, waterfront on a lake or river . . . Perfect.  I imagined the land would take care of itself, and native plants and animals would flourish in a refuge of untouched splendor.  All Nature needed was for humans to stop meddling and balance would be restored.

Perhaps this is true. Given time, (much more than my lifetime), the tide and seasonal floods would return to the fields and drown out ill adapted grasses, shrubs, and trees. In place of pasture grass: cedar, spruce, crabapple, alder, and a myriad of other vegetation would carpet the river valley.  As the tended grass diminished, so too would the horse and cow fade away and be replaced by deer and bear.  In this temperate forest, the iconic salmon could return and spawn in waters that are cool and clear. Instead of a rooster’s call, bird song would spring from the fern fronds and rain down from the canopy.

Ahh . . . Paradise.

But then again, the land might be overwhelmed in a sea of reed canary grass, Japanese knotweed, and Himalayan blackberry.  These introduced species dominate the forgotten corners and neglected hedgerows of my neighborhood.  If it weren’t for diligent maintenance, they would outcompete the native plant species I’ve purposefully planted, such is their tenacity.  I find it hard to imagine what and how many animals might call this triad habitat.  Furthermore, the waterways might choke from the mats of canary grass, clumps of knotweed, and thorny thread of blackberry. (For a time, the beaver, however, would have dam excellent material!)  Already many of our river and stream banks in Snohomish County are braced we these exotics, as they thrive in the region’s wet conditions.

Which brings me to the last case scenario, we’re under water.  Based on Surging Seas Risk Finder, much of our farm may be coastal.  A one foot rise above the high tide mark floods over ninety percent of our fields.  Even at current tides levels, I have seen my back pasture and hayfield flood when the drainage district’s tide gate was stuck open from a log jam.  And this is just under normal tidal conditions.  In the event of the river flooding, much, if not all of our farm could be inundated.  With such frequent wet soil and intrusion from the Puget Sound, the land would become more estuarine, and vegetation would consist of small shrubs, sedges, rushes, and saltwater tolerant grasses.  Shorebirds and waterfowl–not cattle, sheep, or poultry–might call our acreage pasture.

In this last future, forty acres is surely enough, but is it?

To lose?  Yes. Yet, if it’s come to that, if climate change and subsequent sea level has altered the landscape so drastically, is it enough to make a difference?  How much land cultivated, conserved, restored, or given up is enough to set the balance straight?  Do the scales of Nature even work that way?

No they don’t, but unfortunately, human societies do, and we often mitigate the Environment, our Environment, like an amputee.  Just how much can we cut off, pollute, deforest, or plow under before it’s too much?

It’s as if our planet is a game of Jenga and we’re all pulling out the bricks and stacking them higher for the next player, the next generation.  When is this tower of ignorance going to topple?  We think, Hopefully not on my turn, as the aquifer drains, the coral bleaches, the rainforest burns, and the air is made toxic.  Another brick is pulled from the puzzle.  It shakes, sways, yet stands.  Ahh, a collective sigh.  We’re still in the game.

As a species we are still in the game, yet in my opinion we are losing faster than we are gaining.  Don’t let your blip of existence and innovation fool you–much is lost and gone forever.  For instance the extinction rate, determined by http://www.biologicaldiversity.org to have a natural rate of one to five species/YEAR, is now 1,000 to 10,000 times that, meaning we’re losing five to ten species/DAY!

Out of the many worries associated with the planet, I highlight species loss because of it’s relevance to my agricultural experience and pertinence with current events.  In the September issue of National Geographic, (Yes, this is the July post.  Forgive me, I’m a little behind.), Daisy Chung and Michael Greshko report on the “Silent Spring on the Farm”.  In the article they document bird loss on European farmland since 1980.  Not surprisingly, with increased agricultural cultivation, mono cropping, and pesticide use, avian habitat and food sources have gone down dramatically.  In most cases, multiple species of birds are declining except a few types of generalist birds. (These, I imagine, are like the European Starling, Pigeon, and Sparrow that seem so at home at bird feeders, chicken coops, granaries, and other human dominated environments.)

Species diversity requires farm diversity.

Ten years ago we took over 40 acres of grass.  The first time I mowed the hay, I couldn’t tell where the field ended and my lawn began.  (If it weren’t for the levee I might drive clear into the river.)  I don’t remember much of the wildlife, because there wasn’t much to see. Animal life is dependent on plant life and we had a corresponding array of life to match our grass.  For example, we had cows.

Now, I look out the window and I can’t see my hayfields or the river, but I can see small thickets of Willow, Alder, Black-twinberry, Indian Plum, and Vine Maple to name a few.  I can see a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Bewick’s Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Rufous Hummingbird, and other birds perusing the rich layers of vegetation.  Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of a long-tailed weasel, mink, or hear a barn owl screech overhead.  Granted I lost a fraction of my “crop”, yet we benefit from the wind break, shade, fruit, cross pollination, and peace of mind that it fosters life rather than diminishes it.

Really that’s what it all comes down to.  Sure, we’re pulling a brick from under the tower: the land is still worked with tractors, the cows are harvested, the fruit picked, but it’s coming out slowly.  And in its stead, filling the void, are thousands of planted natives, no pesticides, and over two dozen varieties of “shared” animal food.

Forty acres is plenty.  I have some pasture land, forest, and waterfront on a river . . . Perfect.  I imagine the land would take care of itself, and native plants and animals would flourish in a refuge of untouched splendor.  BUT UNFORTUNATELY IT DOESN’T. In this case, Nature needs a lot of human meddling for balance to be restored.

Enjoy a listen of an Avian orchestra below.

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