Tag Archives: ecosystem

A Turn to Spring

No deep thoughts today, and no time to compose them if I did. Instead, a few pictures to document the farm’s turn from a long winter to a slow spring. With opening day this Saturday, we’re happy to see rain instead of snow. Thunder’s rolling as I write. Soon, raindrops will fall.

Six days ago, our yard was covered in snow.

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Today, a freshly tilled field awaits planting.

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The wild plums are beginning to bud. Nothing smells like spring as wild plum blossoms along the ditches.

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We lost many of our daffodils to snow; the more colorful varieties bloom later and survived.

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A peony unfurls like a tropical flower.

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A certain sign of spring is a greenhouse full of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

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The snow gone, John mowed the yard this morning with my Grandpa Short’s push mower.

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And now, the rain begins.

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A January Tribute to Aldo Leopold

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We’re in January, that frigid first month of the year when the sun shines intermittently as snow pellets the already frozen ground. John and I don’t go out much at night in January, but last night we donned heavy sweaters, parkas, and ear grips to attend a small screening of the recent movie Green Fire, a beautiful evocation of the life and land ethic of the early conservationist, Aldo Leopold.

While I appreciated learning more about this important founder of The Wilderness Institute and activist for land preservation, Leopold’s passion for hunting took me aback. When I came home, I re-read some of his essays, not to excuse his killing of animals, but to try to understand his ideas in an historical light. Leopold’s environmentalism evolved from his early days as a forester who approved the killing of game predators like wolves to increase deer for hunters. As a hunter himself, he seemed to view hunters as inherent advocates of wilderness preservation. Later, when overcrowded deer populations devastated wilderness, he realized that such killing only served to unbalance natural ecosystems.Certainly the movie’s use of vintage photo after photo posing dead animals next to men with guns is meant to illustrate the wrong-headed ethic of killing animals with no regard for what their loss means to their environment.

Leopold was also critical of what he called the “artificializing” of the “mass-pursuit” of “trophies” by intensive land management practices that increase the availability of fish and game for “trophy-recreationists,” including by constructing roads into wilderness. Leopold advocated stewardship rather than dominion over the natural world by viewing ourselves as part of that world. The last lines of A Sand County Almanac echo his plea for a change in how humans view land: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

Leopold died at age 61 in 1948 of a heart attack while fighting a fire near his family’s Wisconsin farm retreat. One can’t help but wonder how his conservation ethic would have evolved had he lived another twenty or thirty years to see the birth of an environmental movement and the earth’s increasing degradation by short-sighted human folly.

On this cold January day, with a fire in the woodstove to keep us warm, I want to honor Leopold’s passion for preserving wilderness as wilderness with an excerpt from my forthcoming book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography (Torrey House Press):

Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, like other classic nature writings such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey and Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, combines exquisite detail of his corner of the natural world with an urgent appeal for protecting that world—if it’s not already too late. First published in 1949, Sand County is arranged by months; the February chapter is particularly apt for Stonebridge: “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.

To avoid the first danger, one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.

To avoid the second, he should lay a split of good oak on the andirons, preferably where there is no furnace, and let it warm his shins while a February blizzard tosses the trees outside. If one has cut, split, hauled, and piled his own oak, and let his mind work the while, he will remember much about where the heat comes from, and with a wealth of detail denied to those who spend the week end in town astride a radiator.”

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Here on the Front Range, winter eventually catches up with us. New Year’s Eve is cold and snowy and snowstorms come in waves, diminishing in power but keeping the landscape softly blanketed in white. The nights are frigid, but in the house, we’re warmed by a wood fire, one provided by nature and by John with his chainsaw and his willingness to go outside first thing in the morning for wood. Many years ago, our hot water heating system went on the blink. We were using the woodstove pretty regularly already because we liked the warmth it gave, reaching further into corners than less powerful heat. When the furnace went out, we decided to go all the way with wood.

Or almost all the way. The ceiling-high windows on the south side of the farmhouse provide passive solar heat and we have a couple space heaters for our offices or to warm the cast-iron tub in the bathroom. Primarily, though, the woodstove does the job.

Each year since we let the furnace go, we’ve made some improvements. Because the farmhouse is 100 years old, we had extra insulation blown into the walls. What a difference that made, mostly to keep in the heat from the woodstove rather than lose it out the wood walls. Next we built a wood hut to keep the logs dry and handy outside the back door. Designed by Jon Bell with a scavenged satellite dish for a roof, it makes trips to the woodpile much more pleasant, even in the snow. We’ve lined and improved the old chimney and have it cleaned periodically by a chimney sweep. We also bought, at our friend Peter’s advice, a colored temperature gauge so we could monitor the optimum flame. Yellow is too low; red is too high. We like to keep it “in the mustard,” we say, where the wood burns most efficiently.

The biggest improvement is the wood itself from the trees growing along the three irrigation ditches. For years we burned cottonwood, since it was the most common, but that wood burns like toilet paper—lots of ash, not much heat. Now we’re burning willow, apple, and Russian olive, the latter a weed tree that John has sworn to rid from our land.

I’m glad John doesn’t mind swinging an axe as he’s “let[ting] his mind work the while.” And I’m glad to hear the “thump” in the woodbox in the morning as he drops a load of dry logs for the first fire of the day. It’s good to know where our heat comes from, as well as our food. Leopold would approve.

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Summer Heat

Of childhood vacations on my grandparents’ North Dakota farms, hot, dry winds blow through my memories of our summer visits. Days are long in that northern state; to escape the worst of the prairie heat, we’d run errands in town in the cooler mornings and spend afternoons in the farmhouse reading or playing games and drinking tall glass of iced tea. Most nights, we lay as still as possible in our stifling beds as the sound of the fan whirring in the living room held hope of catching any small breeze through the open window until the northern sun finally set hours past our bedtime.

Summer in Colorado is hot, too, although the worst heat doesn’t usually break until July and August, and hot days are broken by monsoon rains in the afternoons. But this year, May and June have been the hottest on record, with consecutive days breaking unheard of temperatures of 100 degrees, turning June into July with few clouds to shield us from the sun’s battering heat and bringing worries of drought to the state.

Every morning we check our irrigation ditch for water. We’ve received no official notice of an impending shut-down on our senior rights ditch, but rumors have us wondering how long we’ll be able to water the fields. The first thing John does in the morning and the last thing at night is set the pump, watering as much of the day as he can without wasting water to evaporation in the afternoon heat.

With little rain this spring, new grasses and plants in the foothills and mountains have not grown quickly enough to cover last year’s dry thatch, creating quick tinder for lightning strikes that spread through pine-beetle killed timber. Started by such a strike on mountain property owned by friends, the High Park fire has been burning for two weeks north of Ft Collins, destroying 8200 acres of beautiful forest land so far, with less than half of the fire contained. We can see the plume from our farm and smell the smoke, a daily reminder to use precaution in all we do.

Then this morning we woke up to thicker smoke hanging in the air and we knew the fire we’d heard about yesterday in Estes Park had worsened. This fire started in a housing subdivision near the southern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, close enough to threaten western parts of the town. 4300 people, including patrons at our favorite Estes restaurant, The Rock Inn, were evacuated last night; horses from nearby stables were relocated to the fairgrounds. Throughout the morning, the smoke seemed to shield us from the intense heat of the sun as the temperature neared 100. Thankfully, the fire was out by late afternoon, leaving 20 houses burned to the ground.

Now, as the sun begins to set, we can hear thunder and a few small raindrops have fallen. John and I went outside to soak in the cooler air as the wind picked up around us. Without a real rain to soak the earth, the storm may be a mixed blessing. The wind may whip the fire north of us; lightning may ignite a new blaze in the tindered land. Still, the cooldown means we’ll sleep better tonight and that will be welcome. With a week left in June of temperatures forecast in the high 90s, we have another long, hot week before us to meet with caution and care.

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Along the Farm’s Edge

I went out this afternoon to look for abandoned nests, something I occasionally find this time of year. I felt like a walk to wake up after lunch on this partly cloudy, partly sunny day. Not too bright for photographs, a day when white clouds provide the sky some interest behind the winter mountains. Just a little snow powdered Mount Meeker and Long’s Peak in the distance, with the red of Steamboat Mountain in the foreground.

As I walk along our middle ditch, the Rough and Ready, all the way down to our north property line,

I find the frowsy heads of wild clematis,

 a small bird twittering in a bush,

 

 

 

 

and a few bees buzzing in a hive, 

 

but no nest, so I head back along the east ditch, the Highland, which is a little wilder than the R&R. I walk past the herb garden, middle orchard, iris bed, raspberries, and flower gardens, back into the older orchard, the one with trees we can’t name but that give good apples some years when their budding misses the last frost.

I like this part of the farm. It’s not tidy, the grasses are long, and the trees can’t be called anything but gnarled. Deer sometimes make a path here where the two ditches draw close together and the wild land narrows. But today, I find the path overtaken by cottonwood saplings and tiny grey firs.

Here I spot the yellow-green berries of poison ivy

and the wine-red branches of new dogwoods. 

I’m glad to see the dogwoods spreading along that bank, but I’m not so happy about the poison ivy. As we tell the kids on the farm (and some adults too), “leaves of three, let them be.” The dogwoods and the poison ivy like the moisture between the ditches; I think we’ll let them both be.

I end my walk by the old apple tree that someone girdled with barb wire years ago as a boundary, I suppose. I don’t really know where our property ends up on this bank and I don’t think it matters much. I admire this old tree; half its limbs are lifeless but it still produces new growth. I only know it’s an apple because I found a few dried cores on it years ago, though I haven’t come across another apple there yet.

I’m warm now in my heavy sweater and long underwear so I head back to the house past the chickens. Maybe there’s an egg today. We’ve been getting a few blue ones from our Araucanas since last week. Today, I find the first dark brown egg of the year; one of the cuckoo marans must be laying. We have Welsummers too but their brown eggs are spotted. We lost our cheerful little Red Sussex hen this winter and another chicken to a weasel that tunneled under the chicken house in the fall. I’m hoping our animal-loving young friend will start a few chickens for us this spring, if we promise her mother to take the chicks back when they start to fly around the house.

 

January is almost half gone and I’m a little sad this year to see it going. Without the busy-ness of a new semester, I’m enjoying these long days, especially as the light lengthens each evening. Yesterday we started leeks and onions with friends in the greenhouse. The seeding’s underway, but I’m glad to see the land resting, taking in what moisture we have to revitalize the soil for the coming spring. I’m hoping to find the owl’s nest this year too so my strolls along the edge of the farm will continue as the season comes around again. These cycles provide a new kind of schedule, one offered by nature and accepted with pleasure.

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A First Week of Firsts: 2012

The chickens started laying again this week after a couple months off. We got our first egg on Jan 2 and our second egg on Jan 5, quite possibly from the same chicken, but the others should follow before too long.

We don’t light our chicken house because we think it’s good for the hens to follow their natural cycles and take a break when the days get short. I once asked a group of students what natural phenomenon determines when chickens lay eggs during the year and one thoughtful student (whom I imagine was a woman) wrote, “They start their cycles in the spring and go through menopause every fall”! Imagine menopause on a yearly basis! The answer is the amount of daylight but maybe mini-menopause is accurate in its own way.

Another first this week was spotting a bald eagle over the meadow yesterday. I noticed a very large, dark bird flying overhead with a flash of yellow and pointed it out to Peter and John, who were taking stock of our materials pile for an upcoming building project. John said he thought he saw its white head and Peter, a birder, said it flew like an eagle rather than a turkey vulture and that it would have to be a mature bald eagle to have a white head. I’m not sure whether the yellow flash I saw was its beak or the sun on its head but it was a thrill to know an eagle is circling Stonebridge in this new year.

This week has been warm, in the 60s, which is a high temperature for Colorado’s Front Range in January but not terribly unusual. I’ve been wanting to take a little drive in the mountains; with such nice weather, yesterday was the day for my trip. The sky was clear and the afternoon sun on the peaks magnificent. I couldn’t quite capture it because I couldn’t quite reach it—the highway just didn’t take me close enough yesterday. Here’s a pic from the pull-off where tourists stop to take their photos with the Estes Park sign. I thought about erasing the yellow curve markers but that’s the reality of a mountain highway—lots of signs to tell you what to do and how to act in the natural world.

With the warm weather, the ground has thawed a bit so this afternoon John and I dug some leftover carrots for winter meals. They look fresh and will taste good tonight with our lentil walnut burgers.

Walking back to the house, we heard the shriek of red-tailed hawks and then some sounds we hadn’t heard before, like squealing more than cries. We saw a pair of snowy winged red-tails circling each other in what might be a mating dance and then they both dove to the earth, perhaps to “have a moment,” as John said. I don’t know the mating habits of red-tails but I loved hearing their banter on this clear January day.

 

 

Snow comes tomorrow, ending our lovely warm first week. As Front Range farmers always say, we need the moisture, so snow is not unwelcome. John’s laying in wood and I’m taking stock of the New Year, loving the slower pace of a January retired and revitalized for what comes next.

 

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Gluten Free? Try GMO Free

[I wrote this letter for our local papers but want to share it with my readers first because many of you are interested in this topic and I’d love comments.]

My daughter needs a gluten-free diet so I’m used to checking labels and asking at restaurants about gluten-free options. But as an organic farmer in Boulder County, I’m also concerned about the future of our food safety now that GMOs are entering our diets. A recent study in Canada found the Bt gene in the bodies of pregnant women and their unborn babies. Since the women ate conventional diets, the Bt most likely came from corn genetically modified to contain the Bt pesticide. But because GMO foods aren’t even labeled, we’re not allowed to know whether these potential allergens are in the foods we eat, even if we try to avoid them.

In 2003, the Boulder County commissioners held a public meeting about allowing GM corn on leased county open space agricultural land. Speaking in favor of GMO crops, the State Secretary of Agriculture asked the commissioners not to “take away our tools.” When then-commissioner Paul Danish remarked to anti-GMO advocates that GM seeds were already in use so “we can’t be virgins,” organic farmer John Martin brought down the house with “We may not be virgins but we don’t have to be prostitutes.” Despite community concerns, the commissioners decided to allow GM corn on publicly owned land.

Now the county is trying to craft protocol about open space agricultural usage and the biggest debate surrounds more genetically modified crops—sugar beets most immediately—and the value of growing them in our county. On the pro-GMO side are some farmers and chemical agricultural interests like CSU and farm consultants who claim that GMOs increase yields, decrease pesticide use, and are the wave of the future for feeding an increasing world population.

On the anti-GMO side are environmentalists, organic farmers and businesses, and citizens concerned about public health. They argue that GM crops should not be allowed on publicly owned land because GMOS threaten organic agriculture, are predicated on evermore dangerous pesticides as weed resistance increases, and pose devastating risks to health through the introduction of potential allergens. Opponents also point to the terrible track records of chemical companies like Monsanto, the lack of peer-reviewed studies regarding problems to ecosystems and human health, and the inadequate governmental process for determining safety of these new types of organisms.

At a recent panel discussion of these issues, an agricultural consultant echoed the State Secretary of Agriculture by lamenting that government is “taking away our tools.” Yet the reason those tools were taken away is their toxicity. Take DDT: Scientists started raising questions about its horrible impact on natural systems in the 1940s, yet it wasn’t banned until 1972, ten years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring alerted the public to its dangers. Clearly, that “tool” wasn’t a good one to keep in the toolbox.

As an organic farmer, I believe that GMOs “tools” are already proving dangerous and certainly don’t belong on publicly owned land. Farms like ours face potential destruction if GM drift contaminates our crops and we as farmers face lawsuits from biotech companies if GM plants are found on our land. Looking to the future, our farm would never consider selling our land to open space if GM crops might be allowed here some day. Even if the county required GM farmers to carry huge liability policies, I cannot see the possibility of GM and organic co-existing in any long-term relationship because the county cannot protect organic crops from contamination. But beyond particular organic farms like ours, the county is responsible for protecting the health of its open space land and the citizens that live here.

It’s time for Boulder County to take steps away from risky agricultural practices and start down the road to environmentally sustainable policies–which in the long run will prove economically sustainable as well–by banning GM crops, leasing smaller acreages to encourage farming for local consumption, connecting local growers with local organic businesses, and supporting transitions away from chemical dependency through organic practices that increase yields and improve soil for better human and planetary health.

If, like me, you read labels and are concerned about how the food you eat is grown, urge Boulder County to be governmental leaders toward new agricultural practices by emailing them at croplandpolicy@bouldercounty.org.

 

 

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It’s Just Nature

John and I celebrated his birthday with a hike to Bierstadt and Bear Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park. We hadn’t been all the way to the Park for a couple years and were shocked at the advance of pine beetle kill into the Park itself. In some places, the damage looked about 50%, with some whole patches standing dead across the slopes.

The Park now runs shuttles to popular areas in an attempt to cut down on traffic, a terrific idea, so we left our car at the park-n-ride near Moraine Park to catch the shuttle and got off again at the Bierstadt Lake trailhead to stay out of the crowds heading toward Bear Lake. A sign inside the shuttle warned us to watch for falling trees, presumably so we could stay out of their way. With so much pine beetle damage, falling trees must be a more common danger than it used to be, but we wondered how much time we’d have to clear a path once a tree started to fall.

Bierstadt’s a wonderful trail, only 1.3 miles of moderate slope, mainly switchbacks across the side of the mountain. The view of the peaks is tremendous, a panorama of sights from sagebrush to aspen to wildflowers like Indian paintbrush, fireweed, harebells, arnica, sunflowers, and mountain asters.

Once at the lake, we watched a duck diving for food and bobbing on the gentle waves that come with the mountain breezes. Like many small mountain lakes, Bierstadt feels enclosed, like a small bowl of water set down in the middle of jutting peaks. Walking partway around the lake, we found deer tracks on the sandy part of the shore near a sculpture of branches tipied together.

Bierstadt gets overlooked because of its proximity to Bear Lake, but we were glad for the solitude. How infrequently we make moments to sit and rest amidst the mad pace of our comings and goings.  But in nature we remember how the earth surrounds us, even when it’s covered in asphalt and concrete.

From Bierstadt, we had to decide whether to hike back down the switchback trail that we’d ascended or hike over to Bear Lake through the trees, a bit uphill and then down to the lake itself. We knew that the closer we got to Bear Lake, the more people we would see, but we decided to go that way for a change of scenery.

Next time, I think we’ll hike back down the Bierstadt Trail, opting for more quiet and mountain vistas than tourists and trees. I hadn’t been on that section of trail for twenty years and I was disturbed at the graffiti alley of names carved into aspens as we neared Bear Lake. Perhaps the loss of so many trees inspires some people to carve their name into one, but to me the signatures seem too proprietary, a shattering of the tree’s inherent beauty in the ecosystem.

Back at our lodge that night, we asked the innkeeper if they sprayed their trees for pine beetle kill. Yes, for the twenty years she’s been there, they’ve always sprayed. She shrugged her shoulders at our lamenting the loss of trees in the Park.  “It’s just nature, “ she said, and we let it go at that. We are certain that human fossil fuel consumption is warming the planet more quickly than mere natural causes could affect but we didn’t want to enter that conversation with our host. Not after such a beautiful day, a wonderful dinner at the Rock Inn, and the gift of cool mountain air.

But as we drove home, we noted the dead pines along the highway and said to each other, “It’s just nature.” That will be our new mantra, our shorthand way of noting the human refusal to admit our trespasses and the knowledge that nature will react in kind.

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