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Permaculture: Respecting the role of trees

Posted 1/16/2008 7:20am by Leaf Myczack.

Early accounts of European explorers on the North American continent are laced with descriptions of the seemingly endless forests they encountered. Colonial powers immediately took axe to fell trees for ship building material in order to expand their conquest and empires.

The history of the United States is set against a backdrop of "clearing the land' of those forests. First it was done in the name of agriculture, then it was the mantra of progress that justified the destruction of our woodlands. Today, we have seemingly lost sight of our symbiotic relationship with the trees of the Earth. Forests are viewed as commodities, their value reduced to board feet and metric tons of pulp feedstock.

When we took over as the latest human occupants of this small eleven acre farm, we could count the number of mature trees on two hands. The majority of them were clustered around the farmhouse. The remaining three were down at the lower edge of the farm. The land had been "cleared" for cattle raising, and having been overgrazed and poorly managed, resembled an open, dry wasteland.

Our first priority in creating a sustainable farm was to establish surface water sources (rainwater ponds). In order to maintain this newly introduced water source, we had to re-establish another major component of the hydrologic cycle-trees. It was with this concept in mind that we launched the "Lost Forest" project.

My most memorable lesson in soil building came about from sitting quietly under a woodland canopy. In the silence, I could hear a continual dropping of organic material to the woodland floor. Little bits and pieces of leaves, bark, twigs and insect droppings lightly rained down in what is a perfect example of sheet composting. My thought at the time, sitting in the cool shade on a hot summer day, was that trees are perhaps the most intelligent example of sustainability.

With the "Lost Forest" project, we want to recreate that native intelligence that is so obvious to the careful observer. To that end, we began to plant a mixture of trees that would thrive in a hydric (moist) soil setting. We planted low in the drainage, and we mulched heavily with woody debris in order to mimic a woodland earthen floor. When the extreme drought of 2007 threatened our young saplings, we pumped the liquid effluent from our septic tank onto the woody mulch.

In spite of blistering hot weather, the ground moisture (black water) we introduced gave the trees what they needed to not only survive, but to actually thrive and grow noticeably larger. In three short years, the trees are forming the beginnings of an overhead canopy. They are now capable of shading the root zone, and can produce enough biomass to begin the self-composting that builds a sustainable fertility in the soil.

"Lost Forest" is both a demonstration project and a reason for hope. With today's climate change producing weather anomalies that threaten our ability to sustain ourselves, our interaction with the tree reforestation program indicates that we are not without recourse. It does however, point up the need to rethink our relationship to the trees which make life on the planet possible. To this end, we have vigorously promoted the recycling of lumber as we rebuild the infrastructure of our once crumbling farm.

We heat with wood, build with wood, eat from trees (fruits & nuts), moderate climate with trees (shade and windbreaks), and fence with wooden posts. We are in fact, totally dependent on trees for our livelihood and well being. In order to complete the sustainable circle of give and take, we devote a significant amount of our time and energy to the planting and care of trees. It is a relationship well worth fostering.

farmer leaf