Friday, February 10, 2012

The Backyard Frontier

Originally published February 27, 2011

As most people who follow energy issues or peak oil closely are well aware, the International Energy Agency declared that global production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006 and was unlikely to ever return to those levels. This then represents the end of the historical epoch I have chosen to call the Age of Frontiers, which we can date from 1492 to 2006. Although there are still other, smaller frontiers that will continue to be exploited, none is large enough or expanding quickly enough to offset the effects of the closing of the oil frontier. We are in a new age now, one for which we don’t have a map or blueprint, and for which the assumptions about how the world works that we have taken for granted all our lives will be inadequate. With the end of the Age of Frontiers the changes in the years and decades and centuries ahead will likely be as dramatic and wrenching and unanticipated—although different and more compressed—as the changes of the last 514 years.

History is written at the level of cultures or states or continents or even sometimes of the entire planet, but it is lived at the level of the individual. Each of us in the Americas lives on land that was once a frontier in the economic juggernaut that formed and then swept around the world over the past 500 years. Our home here on the coast of Maine was a part of that frontier in the 17th to 19th centuries. The commodities it offered were wood and pasturage and then wood again. In the years since, the land has been used and abused, the native ecology broken and sold off in parts. 

The story of your land is different in the details, but similar in overall pattern, no matter where in North America you live. In the cities the finely wrought web of relationships worked out over millions of years of adaptation and selection has been paved over and all but eradicated. In the suburbs the ecology has been simplified to varying degrees, with useless monocultures of non-native grass interrupted by scattered trees, foundation plantings, and flower beds the norm. On the farms the same process of simplification has taken place, with the few commodity food plants and animals that speculators find most easily saleable replacing native prairies or forests.

But I don’t intend to turn this entry into an extended song of loss. I want instead to explore the opportunities offered by these degraded landscapes. For as global frontiers close, three consequences will result—are already underway in fact. First, economies will shrink. Second, necessity will force us all to conserve resources as a matter of habit. Third, many of us will turn to internal frontiers, which offer resources too small and dispersed to be of interest to the global economy and frontier speculators, but which can form the backbone of a resuscitation of homestead economies.

The frontier that occupies most of our own time and attention is the one that begins at our front door. Our mostly forested property was last logged in the mid-70s, and at least several times prior to that. When we bought it, it exhibited all the signs of having been integrated into the cold logic of a commodity economy: a severe reduction of biodiversity, too many diseased and dead trees for its young age, a lack of structural and habitat diversity. No one had loved it or woven their lives into its rich tapestry or enchanted themselves with stories about its magic for several centuries. From the time it entered the frontier economy, it was economically useful, no more, no less. Except for the specific details, the story of your land, the place you call home, is probably not that different.

In last week’s post I established the increase in diversity and complexity over the whole history of life on earth as the first principle that structures our understanding of the world and guides our actions. The evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson calls this trend an undeniable form of progress. I have come to think of it as the meaning and purpose of life. I already had this in mind when we moved here eight years ago, but I hadn’t worked out its full ramifications. I still haven’t, and expect that it will be a process that will occupy a part of my thinking for the rest of my life, but I’m further along now than I was then. One conclusion seems obvious: since the record shows beyond any doubt that diversity and complexity are features of resilient, durable ecologies, to the extent that we can integrate our homestead economy (and the broader economy) into that diversity and complexity, it too will be resilient and durable.

From our first year here we’ve used techniques from permaculture and forest gardening to create diverse guilds of layered plantings, and we also put in a more or less conventional vegetable garden. As I’ve described previously, we created habitats for small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. But our understanding of diversity was limited, and we were thinking only in terms of the diversity of plants and animals. But as I did what research was possible—ecology is still a very young field, and the gaps in knowledge are enormous—I realized that it isn’t possible to create an ecosystem anywhere near as diverse as a native one, even if it mimics it in structure and emphasizes a diversity of plant species and wildlife habitats. 

The reason is that native species are already integrated into a network of species, particularly among insects, that are simply not able to make use of alien species in the same way. I owe this insight to the original research of Douglas W. Tallamy and the other primary research he has collected in his outstanding book Bringing Nature Home. He is a pioneer and the work of mapping the relationships that make up biodiversity is still in its infancy. If there’s one tool we desperately need, it’s a map showing the relationships among all the species—which species depends on which other species for survival. We don’t even have a list of all the individual species yet, but what we do know reveals that native plant species support a much higher number of insect species—and therefore a higher number of bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species that eat the insects—than nonnative plant species. Diversity is our first principle, and if we’re committed to restoring it to our land, the only way to do it to the fullest extent possible is to add native species back into the forest ecology. Each native plant species we add multiplies the diversity by 10 or 50 or 100, while non-natives might only multiply it by one or two or three.

So if I plant a native highbush blueberry I am adding much more diversity back into the forest ecology than if I plant an apple. We’ve planted both, but our emphasis has shifted over the past couple of years. Now our first priority is to use natives wherever possible, and then to use non-natives to round out our diet. So as we integrate our homestead economy into the forest ecology, a hierarchy of plants has emerged: 1. Native forest species. 2. Native field species. 3. Non-native forest species. 4. Non-native field species. Here in New England we are blessed with a large selection of delicious native edible forest species, including blueberry, blackberry, grape, huckleberry, raspberry, American plum, beach plum, persimmon, cranberry, serviceberry, currant, elderberry, hazelnut, hickory, walnut, chestnut, at least a dozen mushroom species, and quite a few edible herbaceous and root plants. Planting any or all of these helps rebuild the forest’s plant and wildlife diversity, gives us lots of delicious food, cuts down our food bills, and reduces the need for commercial monocultures and transportation energy. The native plants require much less tending than the non-natives, since the insects that feed on them have predators that are already present in the ecology. 

We take the same approach to shelter and energy, asking first, “How can we get a building and energy from the forest while at the same time restoring its diversity and complexity.” Since we know that dead wood on the ground is an essential component of forest health, and that gardening on forest time means cycles measured in decades and centuries, we want to take as little wood out of the forest as possible. So we build our house to last at least as long as a forest takes to mature. We also build to minimize maintenance and external energy requirements. I want to take these issues up in much greater detail in the coming weeks, so I’ll leave it there for now.

The land outside our front door is no longer a frontier. It is once again becoming an intact, vibrant, diverse ecology; it produces no commodities and attracts no speculators, but it is the wild beating heart of our homestead economy. As we restore the forest’s native diversity and eat its abundant fruits, the line between us and our land is blurring. We are becoming one of the strands in the forest’s rich tapestry of life. We are coming home. 


Although we got another fifteen inches of snow this week, it’s the time of year for ordering tree and shrub seedlings. We rely on three nurseries for most of our purchases: Fedco Trees here in Maine, St. Lawrence Nursery in NY state, and Oikos Tree Crops in Michigan. This last is particularly useful for anyone on a budget or planning extensive plantings, as they offer small seedlings and cultivars at a very reasonable price. They’re also now selling some of the herbaceous perennials associated with forest gardening.

One book I probably won’t get to mention anywhere in the year I have planned for this blog—so I’ll just mention it here because I enjoyed it so much and because it does provide the kind of ecological map I mentioned above—is Mannahatta by Eric W. Sanderson. It’s a recreation of the ecology of Manhattan on the day in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name. This was my home turf for most of my twenties, and I can’t help but note that outside of the parks the ecology today is dominated by humans, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. Draw your own conclusions.

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