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How do we 'read from the book of Nature' if there's no nature left?

 
Cal Edon
Posts: 36
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I live in a small town that is surrounded by dozens and dozens - in some cases, hundreds - of miles of farmland, farmland that was once forest. There is some forest in places, but it's all second- or third-growth. There are no mostly untouched forests anywhere except in some state and national parks, a long ways away. And they're not truly old-growth, as I understand the term.

There are lots of forest plants which I've read about in foragers' manuals and ecological textbooks but never seen, anywhere. As far as I can determine they do not exist here any longer, even in the nature preserve I visit. The closest thing we have to a wildnerness is the local chain of 'mountains' (fairly biggish hills), one is which is ritually climbed by university students before they graduate, another of which hosts the local ski resort and amusement park.

Invasive, foreign plants are everywhere. Yes, even in the nature preserve. Our roadsides are mainly composed of tartarian honeysuckle and poison hemlock. And garlic mustard, of course.

Anyway, to return to the topic: I'd like to be able to observe nature and design gardening techniques which imitated it, a la Fukuoka or Holzer or whoever. But there doesn't seem to be any nature around for me to observe. Not really. The best I can do is read about Native American agriculture in this region - they seem to have been mimicking the ecological succession of lightning-fire forest clearings, possibly. That's as far as I can get.

Any suggestions, Mr. Wheaton?
 
Jason Long
Posts: 153
Location: Davie, Fl
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It sounds like there is plenty to observe from. There may not be old growth forests but there seems to be space where the (newer/ different) forest is taking back. I hear you are saying there are invasive plants everywhere including the nature preserves, but those invasive plants are fulfilling a roll.

Observe the plants that are in these secondary and third growth forests. See what plants are growing in the emergent, canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, fungi, etc layers. Take notes. How are these plants being started? Are the seeds coming from surrounding forests? If so, how did they get there? How are they being dispersed (animals, wind, etc). Where are you seeing these plants/animals/fungi/insects and with what are they living with? What are the rolls all of these plants and species are fulfilling?

Ask the local old timers that are working or have worked the farms, forestry, nature conservancy, ecologists, or that have spent a lot of time hiking about the plants the remember seeing and if they recall where. Go for walks with them, and have them show you the changes that have happened.

Read old ecology books.

If you asked an indigenous being what plants are native and exotic, they wouldn't know what you are talking about. Learn about the history and make observations in the present. With all of the disturbances you have spoken about, it appears that nature is showing you what she needs most right now. Observe the different stages, this will help you design the succession of your food system.

There is plenty to learn about, and you are lucky to even have second growth forests. Some people only have vacant lots to observe from.

Jason
 
Fred Berg
Posts: 6
Location: Connecticut: Zone 6a
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Nature at what period of time? That's the question I've been asking myself. Throughout natural history, pressures, whether human or otherwise,
have determined what species grow in an area. A clear example of that is in Southern New England where I live. Most of our "natural" forests
are actually farms that where abandoned starting in the early 1900's. Because maple trees are so prolific and grow so fast they have become the dominant
species of tree here. In many areas they shade out the understory to the point that not much else grows there. I'm hoping to purchase some "maple desert"
land in the next year or so and would like to restore it to it's natural pre-european-agriculture state. That was a long long time ago though, and I don't
know how to go about researching what the forests were like then. I don't even know if that state of nature would be supportive of the current wildlife in the
area. Pinning down what's "natural" becomes quite tricky when you start thinking about "when." Native Americans cultivated this land long before Europeans
came here. Should their impact be considered "natural?" If so then why not consider European's clear cutting and farming practices as "natural" as well? After all,
we're all just organisms acting on our environment, for better or for worse. Is the introduction of European plant species any less natural than the propagation of
plants by birds? The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that things are always in their "natural" state and all I can do is to change that state to suit my
objectives, whatever they may be.

I realize that that doesn't directly answer your question but your topic brought up something I've been wrestling with for a while now. I hope my rant adds to
the conversation.
 
Jordan Lowery
pollinator
Posts: 1528
Location: zone 7
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The book of nature is always open no matter where you are.
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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Cal, we might be able to be more helpful if we knew where you were coming from...

I have a natural wildlife book that gives lists of plants and animals that were indigenous to certain areas of the US and might be able to help there..also it might help if you can find some really really old people from the area and ask them what plants they remember as children before the farmers came? also observe the roadways and hedgerows that pop up more naturally, they may have a clue to the seedlings that are there naturally, but also will ahve some invasives.

but you don't HAVE to necesarily copy nature anyway..first find out what your soil make up is (clay, sand, wet, dry, ph, etc.) and then go from there..make a list of the food forest type plants that YOU and YOUR FAMILY LOVE TO EAT..and figure out by the zones and climate and soil type ..etc..what ones might grow well in your area and then begin to plan your food forests around the canopy layer that will fill your food need of some sort of fruit or nut trees that will naturally grow in your area and things you love to eat..move on from there putting in your supporting plants of nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, inesectory plants, etc..and then bring in your perennial and annual food crops to fill in the gaps, make notes of what grew well and what failed...and make lists of what you are spending money on at the grocery store that you might be able to plant ..next year

sure it is great to read nature but it isn't the only way
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9435
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Not sure if this is on the topic the original poster intended, I suspect it is not, but in that case it is for others who might find it useful:

Much work has already been done by people for decades about food forestry, so there is no need to reinvent the wheel unless one really wants to. Concepts like ecological succession are pretty well understood and have been applied to the practice of growing food. Some helpful resources are:

http://edibleforestgardens.com/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFbcn06h8w4

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IODbIO8s2M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG_vRG66wkA

http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/smith/treecropsToC.html

http://perennialvegetables.org/

Some states may have native plant databases which list associations of plants as found in nature, which can be helpful in designing guilds in the food forest, check for one in your state, province, etc. Example: http://tpid.tpwd.state.tx.us/
 
Cal Edon
Posts: 36
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I am right smack in the middle of Pennsylvania. There's no way to ask anyone what things were like before farms - there were farms here before the United States was established.

When I started to learn about native and foreign plants, I eventually realized that virtually all of the forbs and grasses and suchlike that I could go out and encounter came from Europe. Our suburban and farm-border ecologies are completely dominated by the plants that were brought over, could thrive in disturbed areas, and happened not to have any biological checks - diseases and predators and so forth. The plants that didn't have such an advantage didn't spread, and those that happened to be vulnerable to something over here died - so what's spread out across the continent is the stuff that's lucky.

There are also the things that are missing. Ever hear of the Franklin tree? It's used for landscaping, sometimes. Named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. It went extinct in the wild in the decade or so after the first biological samples were taken - the samples that eventually became our landscaping option. It's speculated that some fungus spread by farming might have wiped it out, in something like the way the American chestnut was virtually exterminated, and the way the American elm is dying out now.

Did you know North America used to have its own native species of earthworms? Earthworms that were three feet long, white, smelled like lilies, and hissed? No, I'm totally serious. Go look it up.
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 855
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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Knowing how much we have changed the earth is powerful information. The underlying rules remain untouched. Photosynthesis, dispersal, recruitment, disturbance, stress, succession, assembly, life strategy. An Ecologist mentor once told me... 'I believe in photosynthesis'. What she meant was that all the patterns emerge from fundamental processes. Every state is transitory.
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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I believe you can still purchase Franklinia trees from some nurseries..my guess is you are from an area that was likely Eastern deciduous forest..a good chance that it was mostly forested with some sort of aspen tree, likley quaking aspen, as well as willows if you are in a lower area, near water...and likely if you were on higher ground it may nave been an oak and hickory forestation.

I think you can probably bet on white pine, hemlock, beech, basswood, maples, witch hazel, pitch pine, tulip tree, sweetgum, redbud, fl dogwood, spicebush, hazelnut, rhodies, mtn laurel, mayapple, blood root, dutchmans breeches, spring beauty, partridge berry, huckleberry, jack in the pulpit, trillium, violets, goats rue, bittersweet, wild geranium, merrybells, catbrier, ..

the Allegheny National Forest would be a good place to look for natives in your area...unless of course you are in a lower swampier area.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9435
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
163
 
Cal Edon
Posts: 36
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You're missing the point.

Where I live, the original ecological equilibrium was destroyed. And no new one has truly formed - the succession has never been allowed to complete itself, and invasive plants have been taking over niches that were once filled by natives, displacing everything that relied upon them, and erasing the complex relationships that existed between them.

You can't learn much about ecology by looking at a solid understory of garlic mustard, or a dead forest covered in kudzu. Someone using those observations for inspiration would probably conclude that 1) monocultures are normal, and 2) we need to use potent weapons like pesticides to beat back nature, or else it will smother all our crops beneath rampant wild growth.
 
William James
gardener
Posts: 1012
Location: Northern Italy
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Perhaps nature is saying that you, Cal Edon, need to intervene.

When you open the book of nature and things like Kudzu and solid under-stories of garlic mustard pop out, that is nature's way of saying "nobody is giving a shit about me, so I'll let this massive plant overtake everything, make it difficult for humans to get in, and I'll just twiddle my thumbs until it something harmonious like a goat comes to take it out"

That's what I'm reading from your book.

Find a list of plants that "Fit" in your area. That could mean native or non-native. As long as they play nice with the other elements, put them in your system.

I understand your perplexity with being unable to see past the kudzu, but in among that solid understory, there is nature, humming along and doing its thing. A bit hamstrung, but providing for itself nonetheless. One option would be to get in there and see what's really going on.

If you want to take issue with the fact that the book of nature is calling you to intervene, I think the deeper issue is that you see yourself as apart from nature. Externalizing it in the form of a "book" that one can read from is symptomatic of this. Nature is an just assembly of relations, and you are one of those. So, "doing" is in fact "reading".

best,
William
 
Michael Newby
gardener
Posts: 645
Location: Mount Shasta, CA Zone 8a Mediterranean climate
111
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Cal Edon wrote:You're missing the point. ...

You can't learn much about ecology by looking at a solid understory of garlic mustard, or a dead forest covered in kudzu. Someone using those observations for inspiration would probably conclude that 1) monocultures are normal,
- It looks to me like you're intelligent enough to know that the monoculture is due to a disturbance or imbalance which nature hasn't had the time to correct. Many other's are starting to understand that also, although we are definitely in the minority.

Cal Edon wrote: and 2) we need to use potent weapons like pesticides to beat back nature, or else it will smother all our crops beneath rampant wild growth.
- While many will jump to these conclusions spoon fed to them by big ag and big government, luckily there's the beacon of hope that groups like we have here present. There's a good number of people, which seems to be growing pretty rapidly, who are willing to honestly try to observe nature and learn from its solutions. Unfortunately for us, many of nature's solutions take longer than the rise and fall of our civilizations, making it pretty hard for us to observe anything from start to finish. Here's your chance for observing nature in action: study these areas of monoculture and try to identify the successions that are taking place so that we might be able to take advantage of this knowledge. I guarantee that on a long enough time scale with no interference from us nature will begin to balance things on it's own, the question is, would we decide that the solution is acceptable to us.

 
Alex Ames
Posts: 404
Location: Georgia
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I think you will feel better if you plant something and watch it grow. Don't stop this process. What kind of
environment do I want based what I feel is wrong with the world. What can I plant to make the land that I
can control better and more like I think it was intended to be. Pondering your navel will get you nowhere fast.
 
Judith Browning
Posts: 5614
Location: Arkansas Ozarks zone 7 alluvial,black,deep loam/clay with few rocks, wonderful creek bottom!
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Cal Edon wrote:You're missing the point.

Where I live, the original ecological equilibrium was destroyed. And no new one has truly formed - the succession has never been allowed to complete itself, and invasive plants have been taking over niches that were once filled by natives, displacing everything that relied upon them, and erasing the complex relationships that existed between them.

You can't learn much about ecology by looking at a solid understory of garlic mustard, or a dead forest covered in kudzu. Someone using those observations for inspiration would probably conclude that 1) monocultures are normal, and 2) we need to use potent weapons like pesticides to beat back nature, or else it will smother all our crops beneath rampant wild growth.



In my opinion, I think that your point has as much to do with the use of the phrase "read from the book of nature" to describe a solution to the mess we have made of nature, as it has to do with how you personally should approach the problem. Is it a quote from permaculture text?
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