There's just no substitute for sitting in the woods...

This week I thought I would digress a bit from the discussions of patterns in forestry and return to a fundamental practice that I've, well, recently returned to.

An important part of my education was spending time at a local environmental education program called EarthArts in Ithaca. From my first visit with a friend in high school I knew there was something special going on at this place. Founder Dale Bryner created what she called and "invisible school," which has no walls, but is everywhere outside as students explore nature and their own self in a number of ways. In this school everything - people, plants, rocks, the landscape - is a teacher.

One of the key tools employed at EarthArts and in many nature awareness programs is called Sit Spot. The goal of this practice is to spend time alone, outside, for 20 or more minutes, focused on taking in your surroundings with the only tools we carry with us at all times; our senses.

The reason we spend at least 20 minutes sitting is because we humans tend to create a chaos of disturbance when we enter the woods. If you've ever watched a cat stalk prey or a blue heron flying across a wetland you gain a new respect for the ability to move with grace and quiet. We have lost that ability, partly because we don't spend time outside, and partly because we just don't have to. If you were constantly worried about a predator around the bend you'd walk softer and slower on the land.

While a mere experience sitting in the woods may not seem to be a profound practice, it truly is. Imagine visiting the same spot, day after day, season after season, to sit and open your eyes, ears, and nose to the events going on around you. This creates a relationship to place, and you can begin to see the subtle changes that nature takes.

While I am so thankful for all the reading and classed I've taken over the years, I feel I have learned more in sit spot, in practicing observation, than I ever could have from people or books.

An important distinction I've made here is the relationship between primary learning and secondary learning. In primary observation WE are directly receiving information and learn from interacting with the elements we are trying to learn about. An example would be learning tree identification by collecting leaf and seed samples, feeling the bark, and observing the landscape habitat where the species persist.

Another example of primary learning; walking blindfolded through the landscape. 
In secondary or mediated learning, we get this information from a book, or from a person. In the tree identification, we'd be working with a diagnostic keys, or someone would be leading us around and telling us about the trees we are seeing. Or perhaps, the best example of secondary learning would be to not be in the woods at all, but to be inside, looking at slides or listening to a lecture about trees.

It's an obvious statement to say that most of our learning these days is secondary, or mediated by something - whether it is a person, book, or the internet. I run into this in all my educational ventures, whether short classes or longer programs. The interesting paradox I've experienced is that most students want "hands-on" or primary learning experience, but very few have any actual skills or experience learning in this way.

A good example of this would be interactions I've had with summer apprentices over the last  few summers. We run a 6 week program through the Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute and host 8 to 10 young and eager apprentices each season. They are often fresh out of college or still attending, and VERY hungry to get their hands dirty, to learn by doing.

One activity we always undertake is planting an annual vegetable garden, in no till beds that are sheet mulched in true permaculture fashion. Each year I get the same questions; "how far apart should we plant the tomatoes?" which I could easily answer. My strategy has been to ask, "Have you seen a mature tomato plant before?" or "What if you planted
them at different spacings and observed over the summer to determine the correct spacing?"

This sort of approach - giving a question to a question, rather than just the answer, is the single most challenging thing for students to grasp. We are all so used to asking a question and getting the answer, but the problem is that is shuts off our brain, and removes the opportunity to form a relationship to the things we are learning about.

The same happens with tree ID, where many students just want to know the name, and once they do, are satisfied they've "learned" the tree.

Instead of telling them the tree name, I ask, "What does the form look like? What shape are the leaves? How does the bark look and feel? What does the tree look like in different stages of life?"

One apprentice in particular was really frustrated with my tomato answer, but now when I see her she always reminds me what a powerful learning that was for her. My questions, or rather my LACK of answer, forced her to look at the plant in her hand, assess her surroundings, and take charge of the situation. It didn't matter if she was right or wrong, but that she was willing to try something, and learning by observing the results of her actions. This is primary learning.

All this touting of primary learning is not to discount or blow off the value of secondary materials - I absolutely love learning from people, and books, and movies. Instead, I want to encourage thinking around the need to tip the balance - to create a world where we each take responsibility for our learning by diving in, and not sitting back waiting for someone to tell us the facts. This is the main way conventional education has failed us.

Back to Sit Spot; I've recently begun sitting in the woods again, practicing exercises to open my senses and take in my environment. I couple this with asking myself questions about the forest as I look around, such as:

"How long has this tree been lying across the creek?"
"What evidence do I see of past humans here?"
"Why is the moss growing on that log and not the other?"  (I learned why from a book, but only after I had asked myself the question!)

I strongly encourage those who are interested in being better land stewards, farmers, foresters, and gardeners to find a quiet spot in a place you can visit daily, or several times a week. Sit there for 20 minutes or more. Make observations. Ask good questions. And don't doubt the benefits of this exercise. Imagine doing this through sunny days, rain storms, and in the snow. Imagine seeing your sit spot waking up from winter, being there when the first green shoots emerge from the ground. Who needs television?

More about sit spot from Wilderness Awareness School


Disturbance can be good (PART 2)

A shorter entry this week as I’m catching up from a vacation I took last week to Washington State, which included hikes in Olympic National Park, kayaking around the San Juan Islands, and an amazing site visit to the Bullock Brothers Homestead, one of the oldest permaculture sites in the USA.
To pick up where the last post left off – disturbance – I mentioned wanting to expand more on the idea that we humans can design and induce disturbance in ecological design to propel a system to new levels of biodiversity, interconnection, etc.
A key element to this notion is that human created disturbance is NOT being proposed on the same scale or intensity we see in natural events. In fact since we are looking at disturbances in the context of systems we are managing for yields, we wouldn’t want to see change happen so drastically. The hundreds and thousands of downed trees up in the Adirondacks from the aftermath of hurricane Irene are going to be felt in the system for a long time to come. I’m not talking about this with our own interventions. 
So what do human-scale disturbances look like? A simple one is the creation of gaps or clearings in small forest stands, which stimulates understory growth, allows for the regeneration of sun loving species, and supports habit for a wide range of birds you won’t find in more mature stands.
A meaningful gap needs to be large enough to get sunlight to the floor – often a few trees won’t be worth the effort. I’ve read and seen the most effective gaps to be two to four times the height of the forest canopy. In other words, if you have an overstory that is 80 feet tall, a good gap would be somewhere between 160 and 320 feet wide.
Gaps could be circular, with a radius of the above figures, but it could also be a linear gap as well. I visited a forest in Delaware County, NY that demonstrated some interesting potential for small strip gaps in forests. The forest had been thinned in 1996 and all along the old logging roads now serving as trails were an amazing abundance of species that were shade tolerant but liked some light, including elderberries, currants, and many ribes species. I noted that the best growth was on the gaps that extended from East to West, giving the longest solar exposure during the warm summer months.
Nature plays out natural selection....slowly.
The size, shape, and location of a cleared gap depends on a lot of factors, including the size of the stand, the slope, soils, etc. One wouldn’t want to clear large areas around streams and in riparian corridors. Clearing nearby to genetically superior species that one wants to see seed regeneration from would increase the likelihood of success.
 Many folks might assume much of holistic forestry would be planting trees. While in some cases this may be the case, but a more effective (and realistic) approach is to create the conditions for regeneration, letting the forest determine the appropriate species composition based on good old natural selection. When I find a White Oak or a Tulip Popular around these parts I often see if a gap is feasible on the South side of the seed tree, to enhance to possibility for regeneration.
It IS appropriate to plant trees in cases where viable healthy specimens are scarce – such as large tracts of old farmland that don’t have excellent seed sources nearby. In this case we can employ another example of disturbance that mimics what nature does – overseeding.
Often when I come across tree planting guides, they emphasize that tress should be spaced to allow for maximum canopy development. So for example, Black Walnuts or Oaks should be give 50 to 60 feet of spacing, which they will eventually fill in.
The problem with this strategy is two fold. First is that likely a decent percentage will die off before maturity; especially when stock is grown from seed and the resulting genetics rather random in their growth characteristics. The other major problem is that a tree in an open field grows OUT as much as UP. I’ve seen several planted fields that, at a certain spacing, produce trees that are attractive but have little timber or wood value. Trees don’t grow without competition in the forest, and that struggle for sunlight is what makes the healthiest, strongest trees.
An important task we need to undertake as stewards of forests is collecting seed from local trees and growing it out, selecting out the inferior trees along the way. We could then re-grow a forest much like it would occur naturally – with thousands of trees per acre winnowing down over time to hundreds of mature specimens. Unless you are paying top dollar for high quality stock that someone else took the time to select out, the only way to do this is to get planting, observe, and make choices.
Close spacing makes these trees nice and straight.
During my trip to St Lawrence nursery Bill McKently showed me a Black Walnut plot he has started from seed he’d collected from some of the best trees he’d found on his property. Because of genetic diversity, he had not idea which of the seed trees would express the superior qualities of the parent and so planted them very close, at a ONE FOOT spacing. The stand was probably 20 years old when I saw it and the trees had gotten to be around 6 feet apart. This method not only allowed Bill to plant a lot of seed in a small space and do good genetic selection over decades, but the remaining trees were absolutely straight and gorgeous.
The only guaranteed way to get 100% superior trees growing is to graft species known to perform well onto rootstock. This method is one used by orchardists who want fruits that are true to the parent. While this method may work for those who have a direct commercial interest in a species, it becomes less practical on a large scale when our main goal is reforestation. In this case we might look for ways to set the system in motion, let nature play it out, and intervene as an agent of disturbance over a longer time scale.
So far we’ve discussed overall thinning, the creation of gaps, and overseeding as methods of human-induced disturbance.What are some examples you can think of?


Pattern #1 - Disturbance can be good

WEDNESDAY - I've been watching the rains fall hard all day outside the library window as I work, round two of flooding in the region as we receive the effects of Hurricanes moving up the east coast. This is the second series of heavy rains, flood warnings, and fears of considerable damages to infrastructure amongst a time when towns, cities, and states are struggling to pay the most basic of bills.

This past weekend I was in the Adirondacks hiking with my girlfriend Liz and our two dogs and she made a keen observation as we climbed over and circumvented around hundreds (yes, hundreds) of downed trees that were victims to the recent high winds and heavy rains from Hurricane Irene. She noted that from her understanding, the relatively infrequent nature of these disturbances seemed to be a good thing for the forest while proving to be devastating to anything human-engineered; roads, farms, bridges, etc.

This gap is the landing area for a logging operation, and while it may seem destructive is the source of many healthy young trees that are the next generation in the woods.

Indeed when we look at events that change ecosystems dramatically - often referred to as disturbances in ecology - we see that while the impacts may seem detrimental at first, they tend to have a beneficial impact in the long term. Take the blow downs we witnessed in the Adirondacks - should we see them as a devastating loss for the forest, or is it nature's way of thinning out inferior trees, opening up light gaps in the canopy, and feeding the forest floor with an abundance of biomass?

While it may be clear that I am biased toward the latter opinion in this case, by and large the jury is still out. What we do know is that disturbances (fires, floods, ice storms, etc) definitely happen, that certain species and ecosystems are adapted to disturbance and need it to thrive; and that some disturbance appears to be beneficial in increasing biodiversity, while too much of it does not allow for ecosystems to recover and sustain themselves in the long term.

So...all this toward my first attempt at adding a pattern to the language. For more background on the pattern language I am working on you can see last week's post.

Here is my summary of the pattern, named Design for Disturbance (for now...):

PROBLEM: The phenomena of disturbance is often interpreted as having a negative impact on ecosystems, and human-designed ecosystems are mostly devastated by large disturbances. This is due to our short sighted thinking and lack of design which accepts and anticipates disturbance.


1. Disturbances should be accepted as an inevitable part of succession and designed for through building ecosystem resilience. 

2.Disturbances on multiple scales can be human-driven in some cases to benefit the ecosystem in the longer term.

I'll touch on a quick example of #1. While this example touches on #2 we will get into it in more depth next week.

The recent storms in those Adirondack woods were, in effect, a large thinning of inferior species by mother nature, who removed forcibly a number of trees that would likely not live in the long term.

An intervention by thinning out these inferior trees BEFORE the storm hits would have likely increased the number of residual healthy trees. For example, if you had 300 trees on an acre those trees feel an increased amount of stress and competition for light, water, and nutrients as they grow up. Thinning to 100 trees/acre means less overall trees, but that the remaining are able to grow deeper root systems and access all they need to grow. 
Too dense? Just right?

The challenge in thinning is finding that balance between too much and too little. If you overthin a stand, the residual trees may have too much space and the effects of a heavy wind blow could end up devastating the stand. The optimal density depends on many factors, from soil to tree species to the aspect of the site.

A forest with a lot of the same species can also cause challenges. A monoculture stand of plantation pine planted all at the same time is much more susceptible to many disturbances (disease, wind, invasive species) versus the benefits in structure, texture, and resistance to disease with a more mixed species, and mixed aged stand of trees.

Ok, that's all for now. If you come across any readings or research to help develop these thoughts, please pass them my way. 'Til next week...


A Pattern Language for Forestry

This week I'm digging a bit into the archives, to share some writing and an audio recording I did in 2009 as part of my semester work for Empire State College - this was my final project for a class called "Forest Ecology" which was mentored by an amazing local forester, Mike DeMunn.

I remember the first forest walk I did with Mike in the Cayuga Nature Center woods where I was working. He led our permaculture students through the woods, pointing out stumps and trees and telling us stories of history, ecology, and good management. I knew from one hour in the woods with him that my perspective and understanding was being called to change.

I approached Mike (at left) for this class with the goal of learning more by spending time shadowing his work in the woods. I'll excerpt a bit from my final paper to tell the story:

As we parked on the edge of his property on a cool September afternoon I hardly paid attention to the acres of goldenrod surrounding us. Rather I fixed my gaze to the hardwoods towering above the golden field. This was my first mistake. As we walked through the fields, Mike told me he was working just as hard in this part of his land to encourage regeneration of the next forest.

Mike had planted maybe fifty trees himself, and simply cleared patches in the thick grasses and goldenrod to allow for to establishment of new species. What I found interested was his approach; make a decisive and particular disturbance and let nature fill in the void. It was the squirrels and birds that did most of the work. In a few years the diversity on Mike’s land had jumped from several dozen to hundreds or possibly thousands of species.

As we headed into the woods, I felt the strong presence of a mature and diverse forest. The air was cool and moist, the calls of birds frequent, the vegetation in abundance and dark green in color. “We logged it several years ago, and you can’t even tell,” Mike commented. “That’s the way it should be.”

Mike showed me around and we talked about making impact- that every action carries consequences and that the long term health of the woods was more important than anything else. Mike’s main strategy was to minimize insect and disease problems and thin out trees with poor form. Those byproducts could go to market and turn a profit, but this objective was secondary to improving the health of his woods. I wondered if such priorities could exist in this modern world, but here was a living and breathing example of someone making a livelihood without compromising his values.

The importance of animals was highlighted again as we made our way through stands of oak, maple, and beech. “There’s no point in leaving the oak if you don’t leave a home for the people who plant the oak,” Mike noted. He of course meant the squirrels, and by home he meant the often dead and decaying trees that provided safety and shelter for a creature many consider a pest. Most foresters would consider those trees useless and thin them out, but not Mike. Standing deadwood (also known as “snags”) and these den trees are some of the most important factors to the biological productivity of a forest ecosystem.

This is but one snippet of the vast amount of knowledge I gained working with Mike over the semester. I realized after spending several sessions with him that he spoke a language - a dying language - that was the language of healthy forests and the balance between this and harvesting goals. 

Reflecting on this further, I quickly drew a connection to an amazing piece of work that catalogs a timeless collection of patterns of cities and architecture, written by Christopher Alexander in 1977. My favorite definition of pattern is "a solution to a problem across contexts," who I have heard was attributed to Alexander, though i could find no reference to this in my research.

Here is some thinking behind the book from www.patternlanguage.com:

...Now, a pattern is an old idea. The new idea in the book was to organize implicit knowledge about how people solve recurring problems when they go about building things.

...a pattern language is about patterns being like words. They stay the same but can be combined in different ways like words in a sentence. They can be used as in a network where one will call upon another (like a neuron network). When you build something you can put patterns together to form a language. So a language for your house might have patterns about transitions, light, ceiling height, connecting the second floor to the ground. A community might put together a language including patterns about public and private spaces, cars, pedestrians and parking. Using languages helps you to visualize and think about what will really make you comfortable, really comfortable. 

So, in this vein, I've been thinking for a long time about other systems in my permaculture work that could benefit from such development. Indeed, when Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier wrote Edible Forest Gardens, then included a Pattern Language for Forest Gardening in Volume 2, which my colleague Ethan Roland fleshes out in his own blog post.

An individual pattern is made up of a name for the pattern, a problem statement, and a solution statement. An example from the Forest Garden Pattern Language:

5. Site Repair
PROBLEM: People often build or garden in the most beautiful spot on the land, leaving the rest of the site to its own devices.
SOLUTION: Therefore, leave the most beautiful healthy, precious, and comfortable places on your site alone. Build a garden in those places that need the most repair and attention.

What has struck me is not that any one pattern is particularly amazing or profound; indeed many of them are mostly common sense. But I think there is a usefulness in articulating the pattern and also more importantly in looking for the language that develops as you combine all the patterns together. Ethan and another friend Connor Stedman did some nice work summarizing all the Forest Garden Patterns in this document, although I still recommend checking out the details and drawings in Volume 2 of Edible Forest Gardens to get the whole story.

I'm willing to take the next step and begin offering A Pattern Language for Northeast Forestry as a template for common patterns I have observed and heard observed from others who routinely work the woods. I think a language can help us better understand the important elements of good management and also educate those less aware of forestry in the particulars. Stay tuned for the launch of this project...

I'll leave you with a 30 minute recording I did as my final project, which includes segments from my time in the woods with Mike, as well as some cuts from presentations I attended by Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, and Peter Smallage, who is a NYS extension forester based out of Cornell's Arnot Forest. Listen for the mention of several patterns I heard while documenting these experiences...