Streams & Souls

written by

Drausin Wulsin

posted on

November 4, 2023

The critical piece of equipment for such journey is the hat, creating shade by which to focus on the obvious. Other than that, less is more. 

The first impression is how deep this shallow stream had become. In some places, it is chest-deep, despite a summer and fall of scant rain. I had never seen such pools of water on this farm and couldn't resist their invitation. 
We believe we are tending to the soul of this land by peeling back the channelized streambanks and replanting them in willows and sycamores. This greatly reduces erosion of soil and muddying of waters, enabling aquatic species to thrive. In the picture above, you can see the difference between the two streambanks. We sloped the near side this summer and will broadcast native seeds of herbs and shrubs this winter, with trees to be planted in March. The far side of the bank, left as is, will continually erode and incise, forever degrading quality of water for fish and mussels. We will remedy that problem next summer.
These mollusks showed up during my stroll. It would be interesting to know if we could seed other native varieties, with clean enough water.
Willows are a key species for stream life. Those on the left are three years old and plantings on the right are two years old. Willows are primary feed for beaver, and as you can see, beaver have followed their stomachs and are setting up shop in this willow rich environment. In the past year, five beaver dams have been constructed along 10,000 feet of renovated streambanks, planted with willow livestakes over the past three years. The willow trees are not big yet, but they are obviously big enough to provide material for dams and food. It is amazing to witness how beavers also move rocks and fenceposts into construction of their dams. We don't see lodges, however, and suspect the engineers are lodging in streambanks, with underwater access.
As beavers raise water levels in the creek, they are providing perfect service for our newly planted trees in the uplands above. Capillary action is wicking stream-water uphill, raising the water table to closer reach of roots of trees. 
Beaver dams have tripled the width of the stream, killing some of our new plantings, which is fine. The question becomes how high will beaver build these dams? Will the dams withstand intense rainstorms and runoff? Will they raise the water another 8 feet, which would begin flooding newly planted trees. It is unlikely they will reach that height, but time will tell. 
The opening picture shows about 200 acres of young trees obscured by robust growth of giant ragweed and mare's tail, which are now brown and dessicated. These aggressive wetland weeds dominate when soil has been disturbed by plantings, but gradually lose vigor as trees within rise above. We are already seeing sycamores showing themselves above the ragweed, and are heartened to observe slower growing species thriving within the cover of ragweed. In the meantime, these weeds protect trees from deer and apparently sufficient sunlight is percolating to the understory. Below, Paw Paw is on the left, low to the ground, and Silkey Dogwood on the right.
The topic of reclaiming ecosystems, managing water, and employing natural solutions is existential and fascinating. Recent books of recommendation, along these lines, follow. These were all page-turners for me.

The Book of Wilding, A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small, by Isabella Tree & Charlie Burrell. This extensive handbook builds on the earlier account of their efforts at rewilding on their 3500 acre estate in southern England. One of the challenging propositions they present is forests have always been disturbed by large ruminants, horses, and wild boar, creating openings in canopies that allow for growth of thickets and understory.  How to manage this on a small scale is a challenge. Domesticated species are hard enough, so wild ones would be provoking, but it is a compelling theory to consider. This book validates much of our work with wetlands.

Water, The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, by Steven Solomon. This is a fascinating account of how history has proven the ability to manage water is far more important, in the struggle for power, than the discovery of wealth from minerals. The Mesopotamians, Romans, Northern Europeans, Mayans, and Anglo Americans have all harnessed water to highly effective ends. Their ensuing and inevitable mismanagement of it, however, has also been and is their downfall. 

When The Rivers Run Dry, by Fred Pearce. The era of big dams, diversion of rivers,  and big irrigation systems is coming to a close. They have all proven counter-productive and extremely expensive over time. The American west has been dehydrated by removal of beaver, concentration of water behind large dams, diversion of rivers, and overpumping of ground water from aquifers. We have created the arid extremes from which the West now suffers. Solutions lie in investing in efficiencies of delivery, returning beaver where damage is not excessive, and managing for micro-solutions at local levels. 

Eager, The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, by Ben Goldfarb. This journalist provides extensive research into the life, history, and value of beavers. It is extremely interesting, and makes one wonder yet again why the human species is so inept at providing for its own self-interest. Extirpating beaver was one of the great follies of western civilization, in Europe and the U.S. Ingrained bias against the species persists today, yet reintroduction of beaver is one of the few effective means of reestablishing a sustainable water cycle. 
We receive numerous visitors, in a measured way. Jacob Bartley is the Manager of our wetlands, and his daughter's middle school class, from Community Montessori in Covington, came for a daylong visit. Youth upon the land is as important as young saplings in a forest. We were grateful for their presence.

We also had the privilege of a visit from the leadership team at the Cincinnati Nature Center. Jeff Corney, Connie O'Conner, Cory Christopher, and Jason Neuman came for an afternoon tour. Being with them was like a reunion with old friends. Great conversation and heart warming interchange.
This rewilding effort takes land out of agricultural production, which is a threat to those of us who like to eat! One of our favorite sandwiches is a BELT: bacon, egg, lettuce, and tomato. When feeling adventuresome, we turn it into a BEALT, with slices of avocado. When Tony was here in September, we had a great meal of Pho, as pictured above.

Our strategy underway regarding food production is to reduce its footprint because of the wet nature of our soils, but to expand diversity of production. Grazing livestock will access 150 acres of high ground while 50 acres of low ground will be reserved for vegetables. We have not grown vegetables on a commercial scale before and are looking forward to that advent several years from now. 
It is remarkable that massive trees like this beech have such shallow root systems. Given how long such trees live, one would think the roots would be ten feet deep, forever anchoring them in the upright position. But they are not; the roots are maybe two feet deep, at most. The result is even the mighty and massive are vulnerable. Life is fragile, and assumed security can dissipate with a storm that catches one unaware. There is not much one can do about such storms, except not be surprised when they blow through.

And this brings us back to the soul. The soul is indeed like a stream, in that it flows with and around obstructions, hydrating life forms and frustrating designs of control. It is also like a tree, fragile before squalls, yet resilient in its power to regenerate.

Before closing with reflections about the inspiring picture above, we have two point of business to mention. 

The first is a referral for grassfed meats to our neighbors, Dana Workman & Jesse Stacey, at Grass Powered Poultry & Meats. They are young, bright, hard working, resourceful, and deserving. We need to keep enterprises like theirs alive. They have turkeys coming, so contact them if you are looking for one and for your other weekly needs.

Second, if you can find a way to support Conservation International, as discussed in the last newsletter, this is a reminder to do so. Our donations this year are targeting the Noke Koi Indigenous Association of Brazil, as they are guardians of the forest, and mangrove restoration in Costa Rica, as mangroves are extremely effective at storing carbon. The warblers who migrate through our fields and woods connect us to these distant and essential lands. If we want to behold warblers, those lands must be kept intact. Send a check to me to help do so, made out to Conservation International, to: 610 Frost Rd, Hillsboro, Ohio 45133. I will send in our collective donations together. 

When Tony and I were roommates in college, across the hall from us resided a quiet and charming student by the name of Charlie. Charlie reconnected with me last year and last weekend stopped in for a 24-hour visit. His exquisite intellect and graciously penetrating insight were a marvel to behold. His note afterward stated, It has been wonderful to spend a day with you on the farm that you have transformed and that has transformed you.

I had not previously been conscious of this land transforming me, but I see he is so correct. (The obvious is the hardest to see.) When one is committed to an authentic journey of the soul, one becomes shaped by the process. The forces of discovery are larger than imaginable and outcomes are not predictable. The impeded stream creating new life and the upended tree are reflections of a wild truth that expresses itself in glory and periodically in pain. But in doing so, it endures.

The picture above speaks of transformation quietly underway. The new pond gracefully fits into the landscape and will provide lifeforce to thirsty vegetables in years to come. The tidy green fields in the distance will become wetlands, plant by plant, and the serene savannah will become a chaotic forest over time. Reshaped and replated creekbanks will feed families of beavers, creating dams that hydrate subsoil. All of this is transformational. Helping to shape and observe this phenomenon can't help but make one into a new person. This is the daring reward of the soulful journey. 

In the wonder of streams,

Drausin & Susan

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Key To Life

The key to building a sound dam is the trench beneath it. We are building a 400-foot dam to create a small lake for wildlife and irrigation. Mike, our contractor-artist, explains a dam needs to have a "key" of clay beneath it to arrest percolating water. Water has a mind of its own, and will find the weak spot in a structure sooner or later, unless the seal is foolproof. So, a key is excavated about 3 feet deep to make sure no lenses of sand are lurking underneath the dam. It is then refilled with packed clay, layer by layer, to the height of the dam. This dam will be about 15 feet tall at the lowest point of the topography. It tapers off at each end, as it ties into the two hills it is connecting.