April 2017

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Spending time in natural areas helps us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  Giving our effort in accordance with the health of our environment can further relax our sense of separateness.  Being outside can come as a privilege or hardship in passing swells, and returning to the reality of our work as an integrated and continuous aspect of the whole of the land can calm these beguilements.

The old borrow pit pictured above was just treated with a seed drill containing 55+ species of native herbaceous plants.  It has been bare for decades, and several springs emerge from this slope during exceptionally wet periods.  That is a long time for a wet site to stay bare.  The seed drill breaks the soil crust while it plants the seed, but if nothing takes, some sort of organic material or soil amendment may be due.

Seeding in April, though perhaps a little behind the curve, is not without its advantages.  By this time of year, many sites that have at least some vestige of an appropriate seed bank have already started to green up, and so those bare patches in greatest need of additional seed call loudly out to us from across the property.  “Over here, dumb@#$!”

When we seed in the winter, we allow some time for cold stratification and seed coat-weathering (which may or may not matter for a given species or in this particular central Texas clime).  Perhaps most importantly, we also allow some time for cool-season (C3) species, like Bluebonnets, Cutleaf Daisy, Texas Yellowstar, Melicgrass, and Canada Wild Rye, to take full advantage of mild weather at the turn of the seasons.

A risk of seeding in the winter though, is that prior to spring green-up, we might mischaracterize which sites our seed will have the best chance of surviving in.  Seed banks can contain thousands or tens of thousands of viable seeds per square meter, so another handful of our stuff might not have much of a chance.  Seeding in the spring can help with this problem.

There are a few species that we leave out of our general seed mix, such as Switchgrass, which can establish from seed on sites radically unlike their native niche, and dominate those sites at the expense of diversity.  There are others that we include in the mix despite that we anticipate only a few of the seeds will establish, like Inland Sea Oats, which requires more shade than many (but not all) of the sites we seed.

We also include species that can establish well outside of their niche, but that do not seem to be invasive (and thus not to hamper diversity).  This is maybe the most interesting thing that happens when we seed a site with our high-diversity wild-harvested mix.  A few years ago, we learned that Melica could behave this way.  Recently I discovered a dry, rocky hilltop we seeded a couple of years ago after a summer burn that reduced canopy cover substantially.  The area was sparsely populated with bushy bluestem (a strictly riparian species, under normal circumstances).  Then I found a seasonal head-water seep on the south facing slope of the hill:

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A half-acre stand of bushy bluestem growing under half-charred oaks.  This doesn’t happen often.

These kinds of occurrences are most interesting because of the questions they beg: after establishing broadly, will they persist?  Will they eventually contract to the part of the site that is most like their native niche?  Will they migrate to the nearest occurrence of their niche (in this case, down-drainage)?  Why did they establish where they did and not elsewhere?  Was it random?  Or the work of some unknown series of filters?  A little odd, but still so neat.

This time of year, late March into mid-May, is perhaps the best time of year to manage non-native invasive species.  Let me count the ways:

  • Plant metabolisms are highly active as they transition out of winter dormancy.  The movement of fluids makes plants vulnerable to treatments that work on vascular tissue, like girdling and herbicide.
  • Plant species become easier to identify as they put on new growth and even flowers.
  • If you are working on finding and treating them as new foliage and flowers develop, you can get to them before they produce ripe seed, which will be helpful in  follow-up treatments.
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Tune-in for next month’s post, which will include some photos that will help identify non-native invasive plant species before ripe seed develops.  In the meantime, enjoy this photo of Antelope Horn Milkweed with Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly and a black bug of unknown taxon.

March 2017

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Nolina in bloom.

On the first day of daylight savings time, judges tend to give harsher penalties.  More people crash their cars.  Uncomfortable pauses last 30% longer.

This winter had near average rain, with a bit more than usual per month but with about three-week-long drying stretches between storm events.  Many warm days and steady monthly rains since November caused some extent of early green-up on many sites.

A late February burn seemed more active than normal: recent rain and warm temps may have set a low expectation.  It seemed that Junipers could have started to take up moisture, in which case the fire might not perform well, however, live fuel moisture data from after the burn revealed that Junipers were still in their slow winter metabolic phase, and thus dry despite the rain.  Even still, they seemed to burn a little brighter than from a normal winter burn, and I suspect the flames got a taste of those essential oils that Junipers produce to evade herbivory.  They also make them more flammable.  It has been written that these oils are richest in early spring and that they should make the plant more flammable during this time of year, but local practitioners do not talk about this.  It may be that these oils are sometimes not abundant until the winter burn season is over in the humid eastern Hill Country because the grass gets too green by then and won’t carry fire.

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Juniper seemed to burn easy on this one.

People are more likely to show up with their flies down.  Freudian slips cause more embarrassing revelations in front of in-laws and between students and teachers on this first day of daylight savings time, than on any other.  Condiments, especially salt and ketchup, are grossly over-applied.

It really is an excellent time for planting; wet soils abound, and I hope we are yet a few months out from with withering levels of radiation.  I have also started herbicide treatments with the lance earlier than last year because late spring heat melts the chemical and causes a mess, so I want to stay ahead of that (and seed production). So far so good.

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This grass isn’t planted deep enough (perhaps someone didn’t get enough sleep?)  Rocks make good neighbors.

It took about 25 hours to screen 100 lbs of wild harvested seed representing about 55 species.  The use of a homespun shaker table, like those used in compost screening, saved about 50% time compared to hand screening efforts in prior years.

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Caution: moving parts, do not operate when drowsy.  That’s a recipricating saw behind the orange bucket.

I am doing a lot of seeding too, though I expect it is later than would be ideal for cool season species.  Everything we burned in February is getting seed in March, and I hope the ash will act like fertilizer.

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Intimate view of the shaker table in action

I apologize for all the “maybe” and “hope”.  Restoration science and practice are both in their infancy, and they shilly-shally around each other in such a way that you can never quite pin down.

Sometimes we get an eager feeling about our work.  We might indict any unexpected outcome as a final failure, or be tempted to trade restoration as a compass for a more convenient paradigm (“novelty“), so that the outcome is fiscally tidy, or can fit into the span of a human life.  Eagerness is no fault, our problems are urgent.  But there is no need to compromise this practice, despite that it is fraught with open questions and interlaced with chaos (recall that it was a  meteorologist that first discovered chaos…).  It took 10,000 years for agriculture to finally achieve yields that could feed the world.  The Anthropocene, when human beings first glimpse the depth of our ability to make and unmake the environment, has only just begun.  The earth is utterly teeming with human beings, and so it is also with awareness.  The problem and solution are thus one.  It is ok if things don’t go as planned, or if we need to leave some problems for the wisdom of future generations.  The land is not going anywhere, and neither are we.  Restoration is never over, it is a continuous practice.

I propose that the first day of daylight savings time be made a holiday.  Not one that we celebrate, though.  Just a lighthearted nob to our foibles on the calendar, supported by a hard biological underpinning in the form of widespread circadian disruption.

February 2017

Can we learn a doctrine of non-harming into the core organizing value-system of society? Of ourselves?

Can our learning a doctrine of non-harming organize society into a system with core values?

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7 or 8 days of 80 degree weather in January 2017.  Who says nothing is new under the sun?  It would be normal to hit 80 once or twice in the first couple of months in the year.  This is not normal.

Learning involves imagination, will, and practice.  Learning is anticipating a correct response.  Ecological literacy involves taking up the land into one’s hands and eyes.

Wind direction is very important to fire planning at the wildland urban interface.  Wind direction is more variable in winter than in summer.  Summer winds prevail from the south under typical high pressure conditions in Austin.  Frontal passages may break this pattern in the summer, but the south winds will return reliably.  In winter, wind direction is much more erratic, with more frequent frontal passages in the absence of a strong high-pressure system to characterize the season.  Fire plans are thus short term.  Where the winter fire season lacks in wind forecast, live fuel moistures in Ashe Juniper are reliably (but not extremely) low.

Anyone can see that the scale of countering habitat loss is beyond attainment.  The same ungraspable number is the pairs of yet available hands and eyes.  To unlearn the conundrum of our species, we have to learn to see ourselves attending to the needs of the land.

Plenty of warm weather, erratic wind, excellent fine fuel loading, and low humidity have left open some pretty prime burn windows in central Texas this winter.  We caught a couple of them in late January, with more of the same anticipated for February.  All of the burn units this winter are on Adobe hillslopes, which are droughty sites that may suffer slow recovery.  This spring we will thoroughly enjoy more-than-usual post-fire restoration work.  Brush berms.  Mulching.  More seeding and planting than you can shake a flaming limb at.  I can’t hardly wait.

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Also planned for February are some planting days at the stock tank blow-out.  No torrential rains yet, so those planted are holding up fine.

Can we prove the equation of ourselves and the earth?  Only together.  The axiom of nature composes every heart beat, with none left out.  The axiom of nature is dangerous, living and beyond living.

Culture disincentives greed, and thus makes social life possible for humans, a (the?) top level predator (to end them all?).  American culture is backwards in this respect.  Other top level predators, like lions, protect large, sparsely populated territories.  Other social animals have strict caste systems in which most work tirelessly and never reproduce, as in ants.

True social behavior is the offering of one’s self for the benefit of all.  What is the social atmosphere that most benefits the land?  Ten thousand small, sane decisions, ornately composing our habitat, like the fine weave of so many spiders working diligently through a square yard of low foliage.

Rather than to satisfy greed, the organizing principal of the economy can be to benefit the environment.  How do we pay for it?  With everything we do.  To guarantee a universal basic income is to offer up the work of the land for all.  Conserving, preserving, restoring; the economy was originally conceived to benefit all.

January 2017

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Clouds are an eyelid, birds synapses, wind moods.  What are we?

December had a few inches of rain in the first week, and then a hard freeze mid-month.  The rain offered a decent chance to plant at a dam removal site on an old stock tank, though browse pressure has since been heavy.  The plant list included some highly palatable forbs despite that deer are unmanaged on the 3,400 acre site.  We have enjoyed pretty good luck in the past few years planting relatively palatable species, following the hope that the benefits of an ongoing fire regime will allow us to restore plant species that may have been browsed out with the loss of predators (wolves, pumas, indigenous people) and screw worms (parasite regionally extirpated to benefit livestock).  Fire reduces woody plant cover and grass thatch, so there is more room for herbaceous plant material within browse height, and so more food.  If there is more food available, then deer are less likely to browse palatable species out of existence.  This can only work if population density is determined at a scale beyond that of our site; if the population grows in response to greater food availability, then any benefit in plant diversity is only gained via cultural input (planting), and is then lost when the local population density catches up (1 generation).  However, deer were “managed” on the site for over a decade and spotlight surveys indicated a stable population.  Despite this, the plant community indicated decreased browse pressure (via the increase of soapberry).  Culling then offered a seasonal population decrease, and that was adequate for a sustained plant community response. In the case of fire, perhaps a seasonal increase in food availability (following fire) will also allow a sustained plant community response (restored forb species).  Some of the species planted on this site (a) are a small notch in palatability above those that are already established (b).  The latter category (b) includes Maximilian sunflower, Liatris, Goldenrod, Bitterweed, Ironweed, Plateau Goldeneye, and Golden Dalea, and the former category (a) includes Rosinweed, Echinacea, and Foxglove.  The concept guiding the planting is to develop the site as a seed source for species that either have special value for restoration function ( eg. Texas Cupgrass, high establishment rates on degraded soils), or are uncommon but may not have been historically (Rosinweed, Echinacea, and Foxglove).

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Paracantha sp. on bed liner.

Heavy browse the week after planting lead me to construct some exclusion barriers from salvaged wire and scattered slash.  It has been said that deer will not jump unless they can see where they will land (obvious enough), and also that they will not stick their faces into a tangle of pointy sticks or vines, (for instinctual fear that a small cut will lead to screw worm infection and death).

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The more it looks like a junk pile now, the more it will look like unspoilt primordial wilderness later.  Because deer.

Planting is always of interest, and so is fire.  The hard freezes push target sites towards higher dead fine fuel loading and lower live fine fuel loading (and live fine fuel moisture), and so bode well for burns.  Another hard freeze is already in the forecast for early January, and those huge fine fuel loads are sure looking ready to burn…  The wind was good for it between Christmas and New Years, but nobody is around to do the work at that time of year.

One more seed harvesting date is on the calendar for the Adobe hillslope community (Trinity outcrop soils), which appears to hang on to seed a little longer than the Redland clay community (Edwards soils).  I’m really hoping to find some of that amazing crop of ladies tresses…  they apparently become invisible upon senescence.

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There are no discernible karst recharge features along this losing and travertine-decked reach of Slaughter Creek.

December 2016

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Late November through mid-December is a good time to go seed collecting.  Though some species have already dropped, more species are just right at this time of year than at any other.  It is probably not a coincidence then that seed broadcasting projects also seem to be the most successful at this time of year than at any other.

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White tridens.  Collect seed by stripping the seed head from top to bottom.  Does well in sunny low/wet areas.

A brief fall planting period came in early November with some moderate rain followed by moderate temperatures.  The following weeks were too dry and then later too cold to constitute a quality establishment window where weather conditions are good enough for long enough that we can mostly forget about needing to tend to new plantings.  This fall was without a good establishment window, so it will be good to plan for an especially active spring planting season (if it rains).  Some falls, we get good conditions all month in October and then enough of September and/or November that a new planting of herbaceous species can be trusted to largely care for itself thereafter.  Not this year though.  September and October were awful hot.  We are planting in early December due to some delayed earth moving, and those plants may go dormant right away.

Restoration work is a sort of hand-made activity.  Work done with the hands conditions the body and mind of the doer.  Perhaps our orientation shifts towards the land as the residue of this work accumulates in the storehouse of the self.  It cultivates a subtle sort of general or universal feeling of interest-in and caring-for the land.  (Mostly though, the work may lead us to  develop caloric deficits and tend to crave junk food.  Like fries.  Or ice cream.)

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Liatris will provide nectar to those in need during even the driest and hottest depths of late summer.  It is fun to collect and does well from seed.  I’ll put it everywhere, because even a wet spot will act like a dry spot in a dry year, and a shady spot may one day become a sunny one.

 

I love the cool gray relief of December in the Hill Country.

 

November 2016

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A heavy, golden fog of Seep muhly at dusk

There is a whole dang lot of fine fuel up in this place.  Some wizened old fire bros are calling it just about the most they have seen going into winter.  It’s been getting towards dry, too.  Grasses are still green at the base, due to just shy of 4″ in September (mostly near the end of the month), but it only rained a quarter inch in October. If this keeps up, the winter burn season will be a good one.  On the other hand, one good rain in the cool season can stick around all winter, and though Juniper moisture will stay low, a tiny layer of wet, green, cool-season forbs underneath grass thatch can really limit fire behavior.

We are in a cycle of unseasonable warmth and rain chances that do not quite pan out: no reliable signs of a fall planting season are on the horizon.  For the weather to trigger a sane wildland transplanting effort of significant scale, we need to start with good soil moisture, a cycle of near or below average temperatures, and decent rain in the forecast.  If that would mark a shift from current conditions, keep plantings small enough to water or forget about.

Winter fires won’t be as good for breaking up KR dominance or re-sprouting shrub encroachment as summer would have, but they could be near as good for knocking back Juniper encroachment.  Ashe Juniper stays around 100% live fuel moisture all winter- low enough to involve crowns if the fine fuel loads are there (and wind, and RH, and people, and equipment…).

The story here, in sum, is that restoration is all about timing.  Right now, we have lots of great seed to collect.  Just great.  Really GREAT.

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Little Bluestem

Liatris, slim tridens, tall grama…  on and on.  Notably abundant this round are poverty dropseed and meadow dropseed.  The seed heads of these two look about the same, these species can be distinguished by the long, gradually tapering leaves of meadow dropseed compared to the low biomass of poverty dropseed (hence the name).

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Bumper year for Spiranthes cernua

Also notably abundant are ladies tresses.  These may not have any particular value to greater restoration objectives beyond being really neat in their own right.  These spiraling white orchids typically show up in disturbed areas that take overland flow, i.e. upland or roadside drainages that are too xeric to be full of big pushy species like switchgrass.  This year, however, the plant is absolutely common on well-drained, north-facing Trinity formation adobe hillslopes.  This bumper crop may be related to the wet spring, when these ecological sites were marked by thousands of springs that flowed through May and June, or maybe it was the 8 inches of rain we got in August (perhaps more likely), which did not produce as much seep flow, nor for as long, but may have been properly timed for this long-hidden seed bank to finally and brilliantly express itself.  Ladies tresses do especially well from seed, especially in upland drainages prone to bare soil and ephemeral spring flow.

Restoration is hard to do in many ways.  That is why we do it.

One way is how things show up and we better be ready, for they may not stick around long nor return for a while.  Now that this epic crop of seed is available, we can find out if we are really ready.  Restoration projects need some solid core processes to perpetuate themselves, and also some space for scrambling responses when the additional need arises.  These two aspects propel each other into gradual refinement.

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To gather and hold this fluff of creation is utterly addictive.  You will want to fill your pillow with it.

 

 

October 2016

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This is the October of Indiangrass.  Many species are doing well, but Indiangrass is revealing itself everywhere in full golden-headed splendor.

At this protracted transition from summer to fall, we have an opportunity to prepare for planting.  This may include clearing brush, moving earth, killing weeds, installing irrigation, harvesting seed, harvesting plants, scheduling contractors, scheduling volunteers, shopping for supplies…  on and on.

One of our revegetation projects for this fall involves earthen dam removal, and due to delays in equipment availability, this project remains stalled after the brush was cleared in early September.  This could be a problem, inasmuch as a cold snap could stress a new planting if we wait too long to plant, much like a hot, dry snap is more likely if we plant too early (though hot and dry keep a hand on the shuttle and loom of the land regardless).  October is the late end if we mean to extend roots prior to winter, which in channels and on slopes, is the plumb aspiration.  If we get a big frog-strangling rain event, exposed soils, further loosened by planting but without the advantage of root development, will move.  It is always possible that a big rain will splash through and spoil our channel stabilization plans.  Our aim is to give the plants a chance to claim the place first, which they will not bother with until spring if we wait too long.

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Stock tank blow out.  10′ high, 50′ wide.  The dam was installed in the 1950’s, we hope to restore the drainage to its original condition.  More in the coming months.

An almanac is offered here to demonstrate the centrality of timing for restoration work.  Perhaps a bit of what human beings tend to do can be done in isolation from the moods of the land, but restoration work is premised upon them in whole.  For society to accept and support restoration, restoration needs to work.  For restoration to work, we must allow it to exist in its own place, according to the fluctuations of the environment.  The focal points of our talent, intelligence, supplies, and labor cannot succeed alone on the vast earth, they must be couched in the spontaneous regenerative capacity of natural processes.  We must time our work to leverage those processes continuously.  Any other approach is so resource-intensive and prone to failure as to undermine the greater project of offering restoration as a viable pathway.

In lieu of delayed earth moving, our focus has been on seed collection and exotic species removal.

Silver Bluestem has been producing harvestable crops for some time, Sideoats Grama is still at peak ripeness, and Purpletop, White Tridens, and Slim Tridens are starting to offer some yield as well.  Tall grama and Indiangrass are notably abundant though not yet ripe, and will drop in late fall and early winter along with many others.

Exotic, invasive species are our welcome guests.  Despite this, and despite that our capacity to eradicate them remains indeterminate, we do work for their utter decimation.

Some emphasize active listening with passive preservation and anti-interventionism.  Some observe that because exotic species undergo biological processes, they are beneficial or benign.  Some believe that the problem is too big, the ends do not justify the means, the cat is out of the bag (or mussel of the ballast)…  All of these are correct, but I do not agree.

The hammered grasslands of Texas have some hidden relict of the deep past humming and whirring within them.  To let a partly native stand that has been gradually attentive to the hard work of organizing  and reorganizing itself  since beginingless time slip under a green and pestilential wave of Johnson grass once and for all is not something we are willing to stand aside and watch. Land stewardship demands that we muster the energy to direct our awareness to the moving parts of nature and respond when the chance arises.

Four years ago,I became aware of a small stand of Johnson grass along Slaughter Creek, less than one acre (from memory, so maybe it way a few acres…).  The adjacent fields had some signs of prior cultivation and were more than half covered with King Ranch Bluestem.  Also, there were  some remnants of old growth prairie.  Today that Johnson grass stand covers forty percent of those fields, with another ten percent dominated by Silky Bluestem, which was at zero four years ago.  The old growth remnants are intact, and the fields were burned this summer under high relative humidity and relatively high fine live fuel moisture, leaving about half of the KR Bluestem dead.  The burn reset the Johnson grass to the soil surface, so in their regrowth was an opportunity to apply herbicides, upon which we seized.

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Johnson grass a few weeks after treatment.

That encroaching stand has haunted me for those four wet years.  The area has not been subjected to additional human-caused disturbance in that interim, yet prior abuses and invasions have left the place unable to respond to a series of wet springs with its own tall grass, which thrive upslope but are known for their slow gait, and so the Johnson grass runs amok.  The wild and upward-leaping song of meadowlark that emanate from this field are born along a mysterious trajectory, parallel to that of the warm heart that now beats within our oscillating chests.  This work is done so that this field may continue to echo endlessly into all corners of itself, and carry forward its own heritage.  We will drill seed into every inch of the place in winter.

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Post-fire game trails.

We are composed of awareness, which unmoored will drift amongst a largely painful succession of events that are broadly referred to as “life”.  These events are thematically linked by enticing, ephemerally viable, and ultimately doomed efforts to avoid pain, seek pleasure, protect us and our kin at the expense of “those people”, and fool ourselves out of our own stark and essential solitude.  This almanac is offered for those that might sometimes prefer to engage their busy hands and eyes with the limitless work of perpetuating those aspects of the ancient earth that otherwise approach their final season.  We might not succeed in countering the  great extinction that is now underway, but in restoring the land, we will ourselves be transformed.  Even a small break from the relentless pursuit of self-interest, exchanged for the more expansive project of tending the land for its own sake, can provide a potent if fleeting form of liberation.  So please return to your work.