Notes from Windward: #70


A year Observing

the personality of our forest


checking in with Becca

     Like any bit of Earth, when one observes it long and hard enough its character begins to stand out. Each section, each rise and fall is an anomaly. Just like a human, every inch of earth is a chance combination of multifarious elements;

  • Soil, sunlight and water
  • Individuals and species
  • Soil disturbance, wildfires, and freezing rain
  • Symbiosis, competition, life, death and rebirth

     I spent a good half the past year camping out at various places on our land; living out of a tent, sleeping beneath the summer stars, and waking in the twilight hours before sunrise. I have enjoyed immensely the unfolding of a deep love and understanding of this little patch of Earth as I create a home here.

     Gradually I came to know of the almost imperceptibly slow battle for control of different areas of land. Oaks, Pines, shrubs and grasses vie for a place in the capricious nooks and crannies of this plateau. The individuality of the forest began to arise and relate to me its story.

fog along a section of Windward lane

Finding my place in the forest

     I have little to no background in ecology, biology, botany or animal husbandry. At first, I could only paint a description of this landscape in broad strokes and borrowed words. Windward lies somewhere in the transition between the moist temperate forests of the Cascades, and the cold desert scrubland of the interior Northwest. We have a mixture of high prairie, conifer forest, and Oak Savannah; with seasonal streams, and just about everything in between. This landscape is built upon the shallow, rocky, clay soil underfoot.

the edge of the plateau over looking the Klickitat River canyon

     This big picture understanding is important, although it says little about the particulars of the landscape; the essential difference between a depression and a rise, or a slope which faces east verses west.

     Our climate is also awesomely variable. In general we have hot dry summers, cold snowy winters, with a rainy period in between. But every day of every year is unique in its display of the general patterns.

     My first winter here in 2008 was particularly cold and snowy. Last years winter was much milder. It rained often and the snow didn't stick until sometime in January. The following spring was very wet - even into the summer months. For some reason the Oaks did not bear acorns like in years past. Was it too wet? A late season frost? did the trees all decide to take a vacation? Who knows why! But it serves to remind us that every year, every season, every day is a unique expression of potentials.

     I have grown to love this Forest, and appreciate the opportunity to observe and reflect upon its workings. As an Artist too, I have an inspirational relationship with its organic and geological forms. As I learn to listen, and begin to make sense of the language of plants, animals, and the fabric of everything tied together, I am evermore enamored. Everyone seems to be enmeshed with everyone else; As if in a symphony of Physics and Chemistry, it is a veritable masterpiece of living pulsating energy.

as the leaves fall,
a forest of lichen is revealed.

     Getting close with the property is part of my own personal path to becoming a steward, Both as an earthling, and a Windwardian; Weaving my life into the great cycles that are happening all around; and that I so honestly depend on.

     At this point I have come to acknowledge that any creed of stewardship is a moral creed. And that its guidelines are a real and flexible as the environment itself. Such a morality is necessarily predicated upon accountability to a certain place. Based on knowledge of that place from ones close connection and observation of it. A steward's knowledge is contextual; it is knowledge of a place. It is Home knowledge.

     To earn the knowledge of this home ground, I must participate in its vivacious culture; pick up an instrument and play with its ecstatic harmony.

A landscape of pathways

     In this past year I've been paying close attention to how the human activities have impacted the surrounding area, and how our choices play a role in the dance of life. As I pursue ways of integrating grazing animals into the land, I feel morally obliged to listen to what it says about our being living in it.

a forest of relatively young trees

     At some point in the last 100 years, this area was logged. I do not know how long ago, or how extensively. However, in helping Lindsay with her projects in the forest, I grok how this bit of history resonates through every bit of the land; how, it jostled the elders of the living forest, its mature trees.

     I ask myself, what did the land look like before Windward? Before the loggers? Before the Cattle grazed it? Before Europeans crossed the continent to settle in this valley? The answers to these questions are unattainable; there is no going back. But I can rest in the understanding that every action we make has consequences with ripple through everything else, flowing into the future.

some cattle that range in the area

     In more recent history Windwardians have made their mark on the Forest. The paths we travel are laced with memory, or maybe it is the other way around. The paths trace our choices and habits; mark the mental lines we have drawn on the land from one place of importance to another. They are as natural as the game trails that weave around the plateau, from pasture to stream, from interior to plateaus edge; from one place of importance to another.

     The location of buildings and roads in many ways determined areas of foot and car traffic. Roads built in low lying areas have become channels that collect and ferry water and sediments down hill. These compacted depressions are reinforced by the flow of water by the same forces that have carved out Wahkiacus canyon, the water channel which hugs our properties western edge. The compaction and continual stress on these areas has deferred plant growth, and ground the soil into the bare clay subsoil.

walking a path along the southern boundary

     Pathways and disturbances are an inevitable result of habitation. The deer, the coyote, the turkeys, the humans all carve paths in the process of creating a home. The pines, lilacs, and dogbane too occupy a space, and alter it in there quest for life.

     The question then arises, how can our disturbances be as naturally beneficial as that of a Stellars Jay or Garry Oak? How can we weave our values and conceptions of what is important, into what is inherently important and necessary for life here.

     In this particular place, at this particular time, how should I act out my role of steward?

The unassuming expressions of Water

water pooling at the cross roads

     I come from the desert, where the force of annual floods has carved out the hills and slot canyons that sit bone-dry for most of the year. The impacts of water are everywhere, even if at certain times of year its distinctive trickle is absent.

     In all places the form of the earth tells a story of water. How it makes its way from the clouds to the sea. The subtle forms of the earth direct surface water which reinforced the earthen curves and depressions. Along with geologic, climatic and Human activity play, water plays an important role in shaping the skin of Earth.

     The plants communities in any given spot are a unique expression of water dynamics and History. They live only in places with the quantity and quality of water to satisfy them. The climatic, geological and human-derived impacts on the landscape can be read in the plant communities of a given contour.

     The black raspberries that grow out of fallen logs from a fire years ago speak to the water holding capacity of the decaying bodies of trees; The cherries that grow in the mound created by the ditch running along the contour of mailbox canyons western edge inform of the potential for swales and mounds to stop and absorb the water running down hill. Each of these plants are pioneers in the open spaces created by the removal of big trees. The cranberries enter into a land cleared by natural methods, wildfires which periodically spread through these forests. And the Cherries, who take advantage of the north-south oriented alley that Humans cut into the forest; the alleys creation was deliberately human centric, it made room for the infrastructure necessary that make rural electrification possible. But the cherries do not care how the whole in the canopy was made they take advantage of the opportunity regardless.

     The power lines continue south-west into an open pasture. The slight channels of the property lead water from the east facing slopes of the campground across the pasture. A subtle south easterly grade directs water into depressions where it pools and creating a micro habitat marsh species like reed canary-grass and wild-rye. The same phenomenon is occurring around the dams created by the machinery of homesteaders. The canary-grass thrives regardless of who or what created the niche.

     The depressions of the prairie continue downward into a seasonal creek which collects from a watershed extending far north and west. The creek hosts hazel, Himalayan blackberry, black hawthorn and balsam. I do not know where the watershed that feeds the creek begins but I know where it ends; it will descend more than 1,000 feet in the ripples of the plateaus edge as it makes its way to the Klickitat river and eventually merge with the Columbia river. The water that is passing through the spill ways of the small damns I constructed years ago will mingle with the water from the entire Columbia basin as they all flow seamlessly to the Pacific Ocean.

     Shade plays an important role within our water determined xeriscape. The matt of snow berries in the sacred grove reside under a dense canopy of Douglas fir and pine. They relate an intricate relationship. The soil is deep, allowing the conifers to out compete the scrub Oak. The occupied canopy and leaf litter shade the soil which lowers the temperature and slows evaporation; creating the perfect condition for a prostrate snowberry.

the autumn display of snowberry leaves under the conifers

     The south facing slopes of the campground tell the opposite story of shade. It is a dry savannah of loosely spaced Oak and Pine, with little canopy cover. The plants that fill the expanses between each tree are the result of severe adaptation. Each has its own unique story.

     The dry summer blades of bulbous blue grass tell a tale of an immigrant. Originally from the Mediterranean climates of Eurasia and North Africa, Poa Bulbosa cam across the see on some ship in the early part of the 20th century, probably as a stowaway in shipments of alfalfa seed.

     Bulbosa lives like a fire work, and in our climate it thrives for it. As the first plant to produce offspring in the early spring, it makes use of the water when it is available. Because it can produce bulbils, (impetuous seed like bulbs that are genetically identical to the parent), it does not need to spend time pollinating.

     Sometimes more than one generation of plants will germinate in a given season. As the summer drought sets the plant stores away energy in a starchy bulb at its roots, and soon dries out; casting its copious seeds and bulbils. The bulb waits patiently for the next set of rains in the fall.

     The spaces not occupied with Bulbous blue grass and other conspicuous plants are home to an assortment of crypto-biotic creatures; communities of fungi, algae, bryophytes and bacteria forming a living crust on the soil surface. Still a mystery to me, these creatures are probably the building blocks of topsoil on these exposed hillsides. Proof that, regardless of if we care, life is flourishing on scales almost invisible to our human perception.

a community of moss, lichen, yarrow and bulbous bluegrass

     It leads to wonder about the other stories this place has to tell to those who listen?

The path of stewardship

     As I observe and experience, I have come to understand the lessons that this landscape has to teach. And, often I am brought back to our human concept of stewardship. What do I mean when claim to be on a path of stewardship?

     To learn the disposition, limitations and requests of a given place; knowing in the gut that my well-being and the well-being of the rest of the creatures are inextricably entangled.

     To view my actions through a lens of interconnectedness; sacrificing my modern ambitions in order to bring my way of life into alignment with the living fabric that cloths, feeds and houses me. The things that provide for my material well-being.

     As a member of both the human community of Windward, and the living community of the Plateau, I wish to bear witness with my life, to the truth of our interdependence; and live each moment in tribute to the deep connections that make each moment possible.

     To not only participate, but actively contribute to the native culture; to learn the songs, tell the stories and with my creative powers, add to the collective works.

shelf mushroom culture
one of the many cultures of the forest

     Simply put: to become commonplace, to bond, to grow to be just another part of the ecosystem.

     I write these words at a point in an ancient and earthly cycle that my ancestors marked as the beginning and end of the year. The winter solstice is but on point in a continuous spiral of seasons which proceed into future with every revolution.

     Grateful to have lived and learned, watched and wondered, and to have survived to tell the tale; I sit in recognizing that anther iteration of the great spiral is behind me. As I approach the New Year, I am filled with more questions and fewer answers than ever before. Awed by the immensity of the task, I am witness to a deep resolve to celebrate the opportunity of realizing a wholesome and allied home within this place.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71

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