By Joe Hogan, MTI Contributor
The fire I’d set was lazy, low temperature and crawling slowly across the floor of the forest. It curled the dried leaves and drew them into the irregular flame front as it advanced, leaving a black mat of ash in its wake. Occasionally it heated a pocket of trapped moisture in downed wood and would pop loudly but it was mostly silent. A small flock of early spring robins swooped from low hanging branches to pluck worms from the soft, smoldering dirt. In the next few days a wide array of foragers would visit the burn patch to peruse through the acorns that had been exposed. Most of them would be too rotted to be desirable but some will have fallen deep enough into the duff to have stayed fresh. March is a hungry time in the Midwest and any freshly introduced food source is worth a visit. Within weeks, fresh shoots of grass would begin to emerge from long dormant seeds in the dirt. I suspected that some wildflowers might also take advantage of the access to sunlight and climb out of hiding. To be honest, I was not sure what might come of this fire but I was lost in imagining the possibilities. I was mesmerized also by the simple pleasure of standing and watching it all. It had been a fairly mild winter but I managed to spend too much time inside anyway and I was only now realizing it.
I could feel myself centering. Relaxing. Becoming present again.
This was the twentieth time I’d watched this woodlot emerge from winter dormancy. The first was when the ink was still wet on the purchase agreement. I eagerly drove the hour and a half from my home simply to walk slowly over the matted leaves and muddy edges and smell the air warming for the first time. It’s always been the season in which the lot is the least aesthetically attractive but the most pregnant with possibilities. The dead and brown landscape holds the promise of migratory birdsongs, neon green buds of plant growth and little rivlets of rain water draining into the creeks. Soon after will come the thick canopy of oak leves that turn the timber into a sanctuary from the summer heat and a hiding place for wobbly legged fawns. Later still will come the sweltering heat and cicadas of late summer days and sunsets spent dragging surface lures across the farm ponds in hopes of tying into one of the largemouth bass lurking below. Then will come the crispness of autumn and the explosion of color that rains down on the deeply worn game trails. The chatter of squirrels and the swooshing leaf sound of an approaching deer that might provide a sorce of meat for our home. And finally the silence of heavy snow that blankets the scene and forces me closer to the woodstove and steamy windows. For the first 17 years of my relationship with this piece of land I had to commute from my home and shelter in a primitive cabin, but I never missed a season. Today I live on the land and experience it daily.
But I’m uncomfortable saying that I own this little parcel of Missouri farmland. It does not feel so much like ownership as it does guardianship. The land surrounding my plot has transformed incredibly in the last 200 years. I know because I’ve looked at the soil and plat maps and have followed the transformation from unbroken prairie and oak savana to a patchwork of small family farmsteads that raised everything from chickens and pigs to sorgum and timber. The graves of those farmers rest on a high point a few hundred yards from my house. And finally to sweeping expanses of purely agricultural acreage cultivated to favor single crops or livestock. Every year the bulldozers push off another thorny fence row to make a wider path for the tractors and combines, leaving behind less biodiversity. The chunk that I bought was mostly being used for firewood with a little section of crops when I came into it but it had been far less altered than the surroundings. It was my dream to not only preserve and protect it but to assist in restoring it to its pre-settlement capacity to harbor wildlife and native plants. At the same time, I had selfish motivations. I am an avid hunter and lover of outdoor recreation. I wanted a place of my own where my family and I could experience these things without beholding to anyone. The only problem was that I had no equipment, no knowledge of forestry and whatever budget I might have had to change that had just gone to the purchase.
I began to read articles about deer management in various hunting magazines. They advanced the notion that a landowner could transform any property into a haven for mature whitetail deer with massive antlers given the proper application of farm implements and heavily marketed foodplot seed blends. They also preached the absolute necessity of targeting only “fully mature” bucks while heavily harvesting does. I spent several years following this advice to the best of my ability but, given what I had to work with, the results were lackluster. My food plots turned into weed patches and no matter how many fat young bucks I watched walk by, big mature bucks remained a rarity. I also lerned that being too aggressive with doe harvest made deer sightings less common overall.
I also attended free lectures put on by various conservation agencies. Most of these were aimed at owners of more suburban properties who wanted to improve their wildflower patches and birdwatching opportunities. Oddly, I found these lectures more enjoyable than the things I’d found aimed at hunters but I still experienced mixed results. When I cut back timber edges to allow for patches of sunlight and native grasses things grew erratically. Nothing failed outright but neither did it turn into a lush carpet of prairie grasses with flocks of migratory songbirds darkening the sky.
Some of what I read or listened to encouraged me to thin the stem count to allow new growth so I would hack out openings. The next season I would find encouragement to create high stem count pockets of cover, so I would drag the brush I’d cut elsewhere and create piles in a thicket that would be protected from the chainsaw. One year I tried to experiment with a small controlled burn in a meadow which turned out to be somewhat less than controlled. It burned past the grasslands and ate up a few acres of timber understory before I got it stopped. Everything I learned seemed to contridict the previous research and every project I attempted turned out to be different than my expectation. The only saving grace seemed to be that my lack of equipment and skill kept my projects relatively small and thus limiting the impact.
Managing the habitat was only one part of the equation. As a lifelong hunter I was conditioned to adhering to the established bag limits and other regulations but now I found myself looking a layer deeper. Could I tailor my harvests in a way that more neatly fit the specifics of this place? I already alluded to the fact that the dominant philosophy among deer management left me unsatisfied, but it at least demonstrated how hunting practices can impact the way animals use an area. Predator control is a controversial aspect of conservation and I am sensitive to the arguments on both sides. Initially, I considered any large predator to be a legitimate target. I scraped a handful of coyotes out of the resident pack and even killed a bobcat while deer hunting early on. The bobcat bothered me afterward. Coyotes are beyond abundant here and sometime seem to outnumber deer but bobcats are much less frequent. I’ve only seen two others since then and I’ve let them pass unmolested even though they are roaming in search of the turkeys and quail that share the space. Recently I’ve watched an abundance of raccoons, which is suspicious next to a decline in the turkey sightings, so I’ve taken up trapping them. The fur market is gone and I’ve not mustered the courage to eat a raccoon so the experience of trapping them is miserable. In all cases, I’ve yet to devise a predator control strategy that seems to impact the overall game and non-game populations and I take no joy in the work, but I’m watching and learning with every attempt.
Of course my personal life did not stand still in the twenty years I’ve been here. My wife and I made the decision to buy the land in spite of the fact that she’d recently been diagnosed with cancer. The next ten years were defined by her struggle. The woodlot was our sanctuary from it all when she was well enough to be here. She would putter around the cabin and make meals over the campfire on warm spring evenings or walk alone in the woods with her camera. Once she took our daughter camping and managed to bury her car in the mud so she enlisted the help of our Amish neighbor who pulled her out with draft horses. Her death devastated me. I wondered adrift for several years, tearing myself and those around me apart.
The woodlot was always a place that made piecing myself and my relationships back together seem possible. Not that it was magic. The animals and plants did not speak to me or impart any great wisdom. It’s just that it was always a place where the patterns of disruption, death and rebirth continued on in spite of me. It was a place where I could see and feel the gentle hand of time healing what had been wounded.
Eventually I found some stability. My children became adults, I met and fell in love with a woman strong enough to deal with me, and I recognized that a new phase in my life was at hand. I retired young, sold my home and built a little home here on the edge of the woods.
My son, who grew up to be a forrester, was visiting and walking the property with me recently. I was pointing out my patchwork of amateur management projects as we went along, somewhat embarrassed of how they must look to a trained eye. He gently explained that the simplest way to look at my role on the land is to attempt to mimic the disturbances that nature would have made before our arrival. A storm would blow down a few large trees here or a lightning strike would spark a small fire there. A big cat might have moved in, pushed off the coyotes and removed several deer one winter only to move away the next year. The landscape was once a mosaic of micro disruptions to the flora and fauna that created pockets of diverse habitat everywhere. We cannot turn the clock back to that time but we can hold on to what is left of it and foster the conditions that made it.
Twenty years of creating little pockets of disruption and allowing them to heal has made a home for owls, turtles, foxes, sunfish, dragonflies, deer, cardinals, salamanders, quail, and fireflies. The woods and edges team with oaks, raspberry bushes, bluestem grass and hickories. The timber can be thorny and dark but you will walk into areas where sunlight filters down to the floor and illuminates delicate wildflowers. The transitions offer plant life in every stage of growth and decay, offering a home for turkeys roosting in towering oaks to centipedes under rotted logs.
All of these things exist because of, and in spite of, my efforts. The metaphor for my own life is too on the nose to mention but I am sincerely aware of it and it shapes my outlook daily. Life and nature are not separate from one another. No matter how removed we think we are from it, we are bound by its patterns. Our path causes disruption and even destruction but given time, the spaces we’ve altered grow into something even more useful and beautiful.
Joe Hogan is a retired Fire Captain and accomplished naturalist in the Midwest.
Want to be a paid, MTI contributor? Learn more HERE.