Young kids and sticks go together like peas and carrots.
I watch my son, ever precocious in his father’s mind at not two years of age, marching toward our Kubota RTV waving an oak branch crying out, “car, go!” As I watch this boy, the 8th generation to call this property home and the last scion of almost 170 years of family history and tradition, I do so with the melancholic remembrance of doing the same as a youth. I always had a pile of sticks at hand by both doors out of the house, like my boy had my ever present escort of animal friends (with the dogs always being the most loyal) and the joy of running wild through our oak woodlands, marveling at the heights of these stately monsters with their sweeping limbs and gentle magnificence. Those oaks were the castles of my youth, their roots hosts for the chanterelles my father and his friends hunted and their acorns the main food source for the prey animals that ran in abundance through our woodlands and creeks. If I am writing somewhat of a bucolic picture of our property forgive me, it was and is the rock upon which my childhood and my life have stood.
Those forests are gone, the oaks rotting stumps and the few remaining old men of the hills holding on with the quiet desperation of those that know their time is near. With little fire or clearing, bay trees have invaded, slowly and insidiously climbing up the slopes and taking over the ridges and hills once the realm of oaks. Despite myself and my friend’s valiant attempts with chainsaws it seems the bays always grow back more quickly than we can cut them down.
With the bay comes little brown and black spots on their leaves as they march up the hills, the tattoo of sudden oak death (SOD). Bay Laurel (Phytophthora ramorum) is the single most important foliar for SOD and with bay trees resilience to everything but fire SOD has run rampant on our property and the surrounding hills. Gone are the days of wildly abundant chanterelles, and with the oaks’ death and lack of acorns the wildlife has suffered too.
So I wonder what my son William will inherit and how much the landscape, flora, and fauna will have changed when he takes the reigns of this place. The world he will inherit will have its issues, more so for a farmer or rancher than most. The smoke from wildfires will continue to wipe out a season of wine grapes on our ridge with smoke taint, the increasingly dry summers and lack of the thick fog of my youth will continue to provide poorer and poorer summer graze, extreme weather will create increasingly worse conditions for summer pneumonia in our sheep, goats and cattle, rising carbon in the atmosphere will continue to make the grass and brush our animals consume less nutritious, and stronger rain storms and winds will continue to erode the precious topsoil which is the basis on which we survive and thrive.
Before you despair, remember the basics
In my most poignant moment of this apocalyptic thinking I stood on our porch with my son in mid-August 2020 and watched the unprecedented lightning storm that would ignite so many fires across our community and California roll up from the South towards us and then split and pass us to the East and West. We were literally being surrounded with the evidence of a changing climate and its threats in that moment. I sat and I watched and I wondered what kind of world I’d be leaving for the squirming bundle in my arms and what I could do to make the world, and especially our little corner of it, at least a little bit safer, a little bit better, a little bit more resilient.
So we will pivot from the depressing and dour and take a look at our action steps and the possibilities left to us humans to make sure that our children and the generations that come after them have a safer place to call home on this little blue marble.
Cows cut grass
It’s important to address the enduring myth that cows are bad. I manage an environmental nonprofit known as Circuit Rider Community Services. which was founded in the ’70s. I was pleasantly surprised to sit down with some of the management staff from the '70s and ’80s who spoke of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats etc.) as the answer to improving native bio diversity, mitigating nonnative plants, and wouldn’t you know it, fire fuel mitigation tools! Native grasses and shrubs have much deeper roots than invasive species so that as they are grazed down they can continue to draw carbon down into the soil, water up, and outgrow and outcompete species not adapted to our dry summers and wet landslide inducing winter storms. There is an increasingly well researched and extensive body of knowledge that has been building for a generation showing that managed rotational grazing can in fact be wildly beneficial for carbon sequestration, native species diversity and topsoil regeneration.