This is me, from the heated cab of the 259D3, plowing…the deer’s path. Why? It has been a hard winter all the way around. While the deer are adapted to survive more than a foot of snow and multiple days of single digit highs and negative double digit lows, it can’t be easy or fun for them.
I love setting the first set of footprints in a fresh falling snow. It is, quite likely, the closest I will ever get to boldly go where no person has gone before. This winter has provide me with ample opportunity.
First, I had to find my snowshoes. With my winter gear? No. In the shed? No. In the attic? No. They were hiding under some dust and cobwebs in my former office, which I evacuated abruptly in March of 2020 due to the pandemic, when snowshoeing season was still happening.
Then I had to sprint-nothing like sprinting in snowshoes to get your heart rate pumping-to beat some skiers to the trailhead. The extraordinary feeling of being the first one on the trail wears off relatively quickly, as that means one is also breaking the trail. It takes roughly three times as long to break a trail as it does to follow one.
This winter I had fresh falling snow and a brand new, yet-to-be-opened trail to enjoy. It was awesome. If you can’t find your snowshoes or don’t own any, the Nature Center will rent some to you to do your own exploring in the winter magic.
January 21 is National Squirrel Day. If you already have a bird feeder, you know that every day is squirrel day. To celebrate squirrels, here are a few more things we can do for our furry friends:
Set out some grapes, cashews, and pecans.
Add a year-round water source.
If it is snowy or wet, put your treats out a board to let the animals have dry feet for a bit.
Add selectively tasty compost scraps, such as sweet potato peels and apple peels.
A year and a half ago, I raised an orphaned grey squirrel, born around July 21, 2019. Later that fall, he vanished. It’s not unusual for young squirrels to move out and establish their own territories. Squirrel kits born late season often overwinter with their mom. As his mom, I had hoped he would stick around. I made him a nice nest box, filled the feeder tray regularly, and visited him at least twice a day.
One morning, he was gone. I said he was on walkabout, experiencing the world. What squirrel doesn’t dream of driving his motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway 1? But odds were equally good he had been taken out by a red-tailed hawk, a great-horned owl, a raccoon, or even a mink.
I went outside to feed the flock on December 23, 2020 and a squirrel came running up and jumped right into the middle of the flock, scattering the birds. It made me laugh, he was so bold. I knew immediately it was Terrence Nutworthy the Third.
This is the point where people say, “uh-huh.”
My case that this really is Terrence:
-Fox squirrels have lived in my woods longer than I have, but I have never seen a grey squirrel in the yard. The grey squirrels are around in the forest, of course, but the fox squirrels keep them out of the yard itself.
-Both Terrence and this squirrel have a little dark scar under their left eye.
-A wild squirrel, when confronted by a human, should run up the nearest branch, and will likely chatter fiercely. This is what my yard squirrels still do, despite generations having grown up with me as a fixture in their lives. A wild squirrel will not literally ask for a human handout. Which this squirrel did. He came right up and ate out of my hand.
As if my day couldn’t get any better, Terrence brought a rare black squirrel with him. Black squirrels are really grey squirrels with different fur color (melanistic subgroup). The black squirrel, being a wild squirrel, wants nothing to do with me.
I immediately purchased an addition for my yard for Terrence:
Winter is hard on wildlife. Obviously, animals have adapted and populations can survive without us. But the heated waterer will make survival a little bit easier, and possibly more enjoyable for everyone, including the squirrels, opossums, deer, mice, song birds, and fox. It may even enable me to get a decent picture of the black squirrel.
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It is impolite to ask a lady her age. It is impossible to ask a tree her age. But as these old, ancient ladies with their lacy leaves have finally fallen, I have been able to ask some of them. In death, they can share with me what they could not share in life.
The 9″ diameter Ohio buckeye: 32 years old
The 28″ diameter honey locust: 56 years old
The 24″ diameter white oak: 124 years old
The 36″ diameter cottonwood: 47 years old
The soil conditions, available sunlight, precipitation, and even genetics contribute to how big a tree gets. Some species simply get bigger faster than others. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It makes it a very challenging thing, when people ask me how old a living tree is. An oak is probably older than you think. A cottonwood is probably younger than you think. Many of the massive trees brought down in the derecho were hollow inside, so we will never know. The massive sycamores and black walnuts growing along Indian Creek predate when the area was logged. So old.
Since August 10th, I have sawn on trees that I planted. I have sawn on trees that I loved for more than 20 years. I have sawn on trees that were growing before women had the right to vote. I have sawn on trees that were growing before Iowa was a state.
I have touched trees that are still in the agony of dying, and I did not have the strength to give them a quick and merciful death by chainsaw. I have cried over and over again.
Trees are strong. Some of the trees I plant today will still be strong 100 years hence. Some I will cut down. Some others will cut down. Some will fall under the pressure from the termites, the buck rubs, the lightening and the wind. Some will remain. The massive old trees we grieve for today were young, once. Someone loved them and gave them space to grow. Nurturing our young trees and creating protected spaces for them to grow is the best thing we can do to honor the trees that have fallen and pay homage to the forest we love.
On August 10, I sent a text shortly after noon to my flatmates:
“Get the chickens in! Shriekies first, as the big ones can get under cover.”
I do not use exclamation points lightly. As things turned out, it was appropriate. I was experiencing the beginnings of a storm so severe it would sever my electronic communication for some time. That was the last dependable text I would be able to send or recieve for days.
The shriekies spent the storm safe inside in the bathroom, the older chickens safe inside in the garage. The forest that I have loved and cared for since 1996 didn’t fare so well.
The rain swept through, being driven by winds at 140 miles an hour for 45 minutes. Straight line winds of such magnitude are known as a derecho, I would come to learn. It destroyed homes (not mine), businesses (not mine), and trees. Many, many trees.
The community estimates that more than 60 precent of the tree canopy is gone. In looking at the broken tops and splintered trunks of the remaining trees, we will lose a lot more in the coming years from this singular event.
One concern I have with the phrase “food forest” is that it implies that the rest of the forest is inedible. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in Iowa. Upland forest canopies are dominated by oaks and hickories, with a handful of butternuts mixed in. The midlands are full of mulberries, black cherries and black walnuts. Even the bottomlands, with their thick stands of silver maples and lindens, are full of edible life.
In most landscapes, I focus on the natural history of the land, and ask what would be here, if we hadn’t cut the trees, grubbed out the roots, and planted corn in the heart of the forest? What is missing from both this particular plot, as well as the surrounding areas? What would increase the native diversity and resilience of the ecosystem?
In a food forest, I narrow that focus to species that 1) are native to the area, and 2) are fairly straightforward for humans to eat. A food forest has a greater concentration of native edible species than you might naturally find in a woodland. Done properly, a guest wouldn’t necessarily notice they were in a food forest; they would simply notice that they were in a beautiful woodland with abundant opportunities for them to forage as they walked. People are so far removed from what is and is not edible without a plastic wrap label and a price tag on it, I’ll probably need to put out signs. There isn’t much point, if people don’t know that the food in the forest is there for them.
The pocket of sunlight we created this winter will be planted to maples this spring. I am locally sourcing Black Maple from Fleming Nursery and Sugar Maple from Hughes Nursery. Just downhill from the clearing is a large silver maple, well-suited to flooding. Mulberry and black cherry are already growing in the area, and we planted butternuts last year.
It was 20 F when we out to tap the maple trees this year, but the wind wasn’t blowing and the snow didn’t start falling until we were wrapping up. When it warms up in a few weeks, it will be too late-the sap will already be flowing.
We primarily set taps in silver maple trees. All of the native maples, including black, sugar, silver, and box elder, produce sap that can be boiled down into maple syrup. We just happen to have a large amount of floodplain, and a corresponding large amount of silver maple trees.
We also tap, to a lesser extent, box elders and sugar maples in the uplands. What difference does it make? Silver maple sap typically has between 1.5%-1.75% sugar in it. Black or sugar maple sap typically has between 2-3% sugar. And box elder sap has 1% sugar.To make syrup, we need to boil the box elder sap twice as long as the the sugar maple sap, and the longer it boils, the darker and richer the caramelization. It boils a long time, because we have to take the sugar concentrations from 1.5% sugar (sap) to 66% sugar (maple syrup).
Maple syrup is the first crop I harvest every year, and tapping the trees for it is my own personal act of faith that spring is about to emerge, in the form of sweet flowing sap from the maple trees.
We took out two leaning black cherries. A third cherry was left, because black cherries, while tiny, are quite tasty. Spit the pits out! Cherry pits contain amygdalin.
We took out a half dozen small scruffy elm trees and mulberry trees. Two large red mulberry trees were left to anchor the southern edge of the forest, because mulberries are also quite tasty.
We took out a box elder, nearing the end of its life. All of the trees we cut were about 40 years old, and one was quite hollow in the middle. Check out the mouse cache of bittersweet berries.
We also removed a variety of impenetrable bittersweet vines, green briar vines, honeysuckle bushes, and blackberry canes. The blackberry canes will come back with a vengeance (as will, regrettably, the others), but we needed a clear space to work in. Underneath that mess, we discovered the old fenceline.
The firewood will be split, allowed to dry for two years, and then used to boil maple sap into maple syrup. It will also be used to heat the pizza oven.
My friend Shannon just left a sack of bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) seeds on my desk. I know it was her, because how many of my friends know what a bladdernut is, much less that nothing would make me happier? A few years ago, Jerry brought home a pappery husk and asked me what it was. It took me a while to identify, because not only were they lacking from our forest, but as a diminutive understory tree, the bladdernut doesn’t make it in to many of the tree guides. The bladdernut is a delightful understory tree with an edible, if small, nut. We’ve only seen the single grove, a small layer in a larger grove of oaks, in the one location. I couldn’t find any one who sells them to plant at Amazing Space.
Next year, this important little cog will be replanted in the ecosystem, replacing a stand of invasive honeysuckles that currently do nothing more than provide a home for a feral cat and a handful of cowbirds.
in 2017 we planted paw paws (Asimina triloba) from Red Fern Farm. Another species once native, now vanished, will yield a mango-tasting, native fruit in coming years. It was likely originally native a bit south of here, but global warming is with us to stay. Ticks are now still active in February.
There are a handful of butternut (Juglans cinerea) trees on the property, but all are heavily cankered. Another friend, Roger, stratified a handful of nuts we collected in 2016, and started them in the spring. If I can keep the seedlings mulched, watered, and weeded, I can worry less about the species dying out here. And nothing is tastier than a butternut pie.
In years gone by, it took a community to manage and harvest the bounty from the forest. Today, it still takes a community to do the same. We just have better shovels (or on lucky days, PTO-driven augers) for planting seedlings and chainsaws for faster tree cutting. This should leave us plenty of time to enjoy a cup of tea by the fire with friends.