It is about time that I acknowledge maybe the biggest difficulty I have writing, especially about land stewardship; particularly living on the squirrel farm. My office has a large window behind which sits my desk. The heating vent sits on the floor in front of the window. I am sitting here at my desk hot air blowing at my feet staring out the window with geranium plants flanking my face, competing with me for the precious light outside. How can I sit here on such a beautiful spring morning when all I want to do is go outside?
The last frost date for this part of the state is right around May 15th, so it should be no great surprise that the air outside this morning is a frigid twenty five degrees. That same air is really dry, so dry that while we are getting a hard freeze, there is no frost. The sun has risen high enough over the south ridge that at 7:15 am, we are fully bathed in that rich golden sunlight that photographers call the golden hour.
When I am walking the land and losing myself in the small and infinite world around me, I have no notebook to record the experience. Even if a notebook is tucked under my arm, I have no desire to pull it out and lose the moment trying in vane to capture it. This is the paradox of the naturalist, of every erstwhile wander and those watching the robin and peewees plying their trade just outside the window.
Out the door
I am not, by nature, a particularly literate person. I am a landowner who wants to give back some of what the Wisconsin outdoors has given to me. Today, that means pouring another cup of coffee, showering and spraying down my cloths with permethrin before heading out the door. Two days ago, while digging a trench, I acquired my first tick of the season. While that critter was a dog tick, the unwanted harbinger put me on notice that tick season is here. As the mercury climbs, the ticks will become active … and hungry.
By 9:15 am on this spring morning the temperature has climbed to 38 degrees with bright sunshine and little wind. The first bloodroot make an appearance just north of the driveway. Their leaves, nearly three inches across, spread out to grab sunlight and power the impending flower production sure to arrive in a matter of days. Boxelder and buckthorn leaves are opening. The spring sap flow halts dormant season cutting and stump treatment. While dormant trees readily take herbicide like Garlon 4 down into their roots, the emergence of leaves means flow will be moving away from the roots. Any chemical applied now will be pushed right back out.
For the next two six weeks, the only hope of preventing this year’s seed crop will mean cutting the stumps at waist height. I will need to return later in the summer to remove the trunks and treat the stumps once the normal leaf out period is over and the roots are once again ready to take nutrient downward once again.
The aim this spring morning is to take a slow stroll through the woods to see what spring on the squirrel farm wants to reveal about itself. I make my way north from the driveway along an old stone wall. It is only 3-4 feet high, but for most of its length, the wall is wider than it is tall. The road we live on begins to veer away to the west less than 200 feet past the driveway. The area was platted and parcels sold off thirty years ago, but this wall is much older. There are red oak trees growing out of it flanks that first sprouted nearly a century ago.
Making my way deep into the woodland, the wall stays on my left hip. I turn to look over my right shoulder I look directly at our living room window and am reminded that homes and roads here no longer obey cardinal compass directions, as farmers who settled this land did. I pull out my smart phone and open the compass app. Sure enough, that rock way runs directly north and south, and it suddenly clicks in my mind that this is no random wall, it marks the section line that once would have declared the boundary between two settler farmsteads.
Not all surprises are welcome
There is so much more to learn; nearly every step reveals something new. Depending the slope along the wall, my way is blocked by dense black locust saplings. I will need to cut, stack and burn them this fall. Black locust are native to Wisconsin. Oak and hickory savannah covered this land prior to settlement, and black locust were not typically food there. Farmers planted them to harvest as supply of young trees for fence posts. Fast growing, rot resistant and straight, locust posts filled an important need.
Today, their nasty thorns and prolific seed production make them most unwelcome. Because black locust is a legume, nearly every tool I have to control locusts comes with its own drawbacks. Fire stimulates seed germination. Pulling saplings out by the roots opens the soil (encouraging erosion) and causes locust seeds to germinate. Mowing kills top growth, but the black locust simply re-sprout. Most effective herbicides persist in the soil and kill nearby native plants. Getting this problem under control will be a long and unpleasant slog.
Back on what was once a trail leading to the house, nuthatches flit from trunk to trunk, feeding on the newly emerging insects. A pair of wood thrush hop across the lawn near the house. Every walk in the woods so far is a new adventure. I cannot wait to see how the land responds to its new steward. Perhaps the care I provide can begin to match the wisdom the it will impart in exchange.