Fall in Love for Nature this Autumn

Here are some tips to grow a great relationship with your yard and local ecosystem, now that summer has finally flipped off the calendar. While you and I are just proverbial drops, our landscape actions accumulate, and then fill the bucket (our local ecology) with a certain flavour – pollution or purity, resilience or climate change fragility, sharing with other species or taking away from them. Let’s be clear; this is a choice.

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Walking into the sunset in one of the final days of summer.

Leaves. Leave them. Ok, not all of them, because you probably want some lawn and thick leaves on grass will kill it or set it back some in spring. You can shred the leaves. Then add them back to your lawn. It’s free fertilizer and more. Leaves represent many nutrients and minerals that trees have ‘mined’ from the Earth. When trees release leaves back to the Earth’s surface, they are like gold to the topsoil layer. Imagine spending all that energy to rake up, bag, and then ship away the free ‘gold’ that rains down on your yard (then we go and buy fertilizer to replace this loss)?!

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Let it go. Enjoy the leaves. You don’t have to go to all the effort to get rid of them!

Ok, I recognize that while a few like to go lawn-less, most want some green grass. However, without a few yards with leaves on the ground over winter, we would not have many species we enjoy and even revere, like Fire Flies (which are actually beetles) and many others.  Indeed, many others. The Red-backed Salamander is a lung-less amphibian that lives in a few ‘more natural’ yards in Wortley Village. Like the Firefly, it needs this golden, life-giving leaf cover. Another species, which used to live here when we had more floor leaf cover and natural forests, is the Wood Frog. It actually hibernates in the leaf litter. Over 50% of its body mass freezes solid like an ice-cube. Come the warm rains of early spring, this small brown frog with a black mask then thaws and hops into active life again. And leaves, twigs, old seed heads and other organic offerings from the active season are the chief ingredients to grow healthy diverse soils. Soils are the foundation for healthy trees, shrubs, next year’s garden, and more.  A healthy teaspoon of forest soil alone contains millions of important life forms.

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Yes, leaves can be a (golden) mess, but then again, how clean is the rest of life? Messes sometimes are for good reasons!

Another loving thing to do is leave another type of mess – or at least, a perceived mess to some. Dead and dried flowers and seed heads are highly valuable to local wildlife. Yes, sometimes this doesn’t jive with the nice English Garden or Wortley Village Victorian motif some of us have going on. But again, you don’t have to leave all, but leave some. In winter, many birds, like the American Goldfinch, feed on plant seeds from Woodland Sunflower, Pale Purple Coneflower, and others. I recently learned that the juicy, dark purple berries from Pokeweed, or Purple Dangleberry are favoured by Mourning Doves and others. (Homing Pigeons, temporarily blown off course , have been known to show up at yards to feast on Pokeweed berries for hours at a time!). One of the main reasons we spend millions of dollars in the bird seed industry is because we’ve removed natural seed sources from native plants and cut away the few that remain at the end of summer to ‘clean up’ our yards!

If you live in Southern Ontario, you are blessed to live in the region in Canada that has the most number of species of plants, animals, and fungi; this is to say that Carolinian Canada has the highest species diversity. In some of my previous blogs, you may have noticed that I’m really pulling for people to join our http://www.inthezonegardens.ca program. This isn’t a frivolous new trend or the latest gig of some out of touch non-profit.  Returning to our roots with native plant gardening is a whole movement. It’s based on solid science. With due respect, the ‘ground zero,’ the common troubled ground we share, is one that has been assaulted by climate change, heavily impacted by introduced species, and has experienced the complete disregard for the protection of our ancient natural areas that used to ‘have our backs.’ While these big issues need care, attention, and local heroes, the choice before us to make change on our private landscapes is always our own.

Making Southern Ontario Wild Again?

It was a journey a long time ago for me. Wilderness completely surrounded me for hundreds of miles. Sitting on a lichen-covered rock outcrop overlooking the flowing water of a creek, I was in heaven watching a pair of Otters play in the rapids. Ok, in actual fact, I was really enjoying watching these animals, while simultaneously trying to kill several Deer Flies that wouldn’t stop trying to suck my blood!

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Moose sleuthed all around me in the rugged landscape of Georgian Bay in the early 1990s. Not long ago, they used to freely strut their stuff in what is now Toronto. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

All of a sudden, nearby screaming in the opposite direction sent chills down the back of my neck. The Otters scattered. Snapshots of Ravens through the canopy of oaks and maples dappled the sunlight even further, a the shiny black birds scattered the scene.

The screeching stopped as the animal raced through over-sized ferns towards me. I could just see a tall, brown tail shredding the plants as it neared. At the last second before impact, the animal skidded abruptly to a stop. We were face to face for a seemingly long time. It was a Fisher. I was a Human (and still am). In that moment, the small but feisty carnivorous mammal and me stared wide-eyed into each other’s core as one being. It left me with a deep picture of all things. It felt like a miracle view into the connectedness of the rocks, the river, the trees, and animals sharing it all. It was a miracle that likely exists in every moment if only viewed with the proper lens. It was also the kind of experience that deep, widespread nature affords.

It was only a few days earlier that I sat quietly picking Wild Blueberries on the edge of a patch of Sphagnum moss when an Eastern Wolf trotted by with a bear’s paw clutched gently in her mouth.

Forest Creek after Rain

On the road to Georgian Bay, there are many stops in central Ontario that will take your breath away.  Southern Ontario still has a few gems in Carolinian Canada, but we’ve lost thousands of wild treasures that we don’t even know about.

This happened about 25 years ago, in central Ontario’s much celebrated eastern Georgian Bay region, a place that has always had a wild side to it, thanks to the rugged rocky and twisting wetland terrain. While there certainly are development pressures on this landscape, I’m so grateful that in my absence all these years, I know Georgian Bay and all its wildness is still there and likely will be for a long time. It is truly a landscape populated with signature animals that both keep you on your toes, and inspire you deeply at the same time.

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Face to face (face to zoom lense?) with a Black Bear. Photo by Dr. Martyn Obbard.

While Georgian Bay is a biologically diverse, vast, and blanketed by a high percentage of land with habitat (over 75%), it doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the diversity found in Southern Ontario’s Ecoregion 7E. This is the region defined by a trapezoid shaped area covering the landscape from Windsor to Sarnia to London to Toronto and over to Niagara Falls; it is dubbed Carolinian Canada. It’s just about the size of Switzerland. Most of the Carolinian Life Zone’s natural cover has been removed – only 18% of habitat remains in comparison. Even with most of its habitat denuded, it is the richest place in the country for plant and animal diversity, and the dubious winner of the longest list of Species at Risk.

Fishers are few and far between in Carolinian Canada, as are many other larger species that need big tracks of habitat – like Moose, Bears, and Wolves (these three are all fully absent). Maybe 50,000 people live in eastern Georgian Bay, from Midland to Parry Sound. In staggering contrast, about a quarter of the country’s population, or 7 million people, live in Carolinian Life Zone. Similarly, roads are densely webbed in the south, vs. the north that affords much bigger tracts, largely without asphalt and automobiles.

While a few parks are found in The Carolinian Zone, 95% of the lands are privately owned. Georgian Bay and other more northerly areas have is large tracts of publicly owned lands either in Parks or government owned Crown lands.

All of this begs a few key questions; how can we recover nature so that Ontario’s diverse south can provide these types of ‘deep nature’ experiences that inspire, rejuvenate and offer a health-inducing natural landscape? How can we recover rare habitats and missing species in this critical zone when it is largely owned by urban residents in cities and towns, and large farm operations in the countryside? Further, with nature literacy at an all time low, how do we get people familiar with the language and raw experiences of nature? And so, in consideration of all of this, can we ever get back to a largely wild landscape in southern Ontario?

The road to get there won’t be simple, but my five second rule answer (from the guy, not the head) tells me ‘yes’ – we can – get a lot of it back. But as a society, do we really want bears, moose, and wolves in a mix of what may be 10 or 12 million people in the next few decades?

It’s possible, but likely not, at least in the next few decades. This may be sad to some, but a major shift of perception in land sharing mentality would have to have been established. Moose aren’t teddy bears. Bears aren’t always as friendly as Elliott Moose. Cougars don’t always respond without retaliation to intense human encroachment. Cities likely won’t get smaller. Very few roads will be closed, or diverted.

But – there is room for renewed hope. While ecological literacy is low, education on climate change is really increasing. Many people now about the benefits of conservation. And after being an advocate for native plants for some time, it’s plain to see how people are resonating with the message of rebuilding nature, one native plant at a time. Thus, it is more than possible to foresee a future in which the cover in Carolinian Canada moves form 18 to 25% in the next few decades.

Whether this means we get our large predators and keystone species like bears and moose or not, it does mean at least our grandchildren will relish in the return of many smaller species. In the context of Carolinian Canada, this is really encouraging and dramatically exciting. There are many small species that dazzle and inspire.

How will we get there? It actually feels like we are moving into a new renaissance of ecological recovery. In recent years, we’ve seen the resurgence of Badgers in and around Long Point and in Brant County. We all watched Southern Flying Squirrels repopulate a tiny national park just outside of Windsor. A pond I observed being hand-dug in the middle of a barren farm field by high school students in the year 2000 quickly turned into one of the top breeding sites for Smallmouth Salamanders (Ambystoma texanum) in all of Canada. The salamanders were not introduced; they found the site on their own.

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The Smallmouth Salamander; Endangered. They recently moved into a pond constructed by high school students in 2000.

And if you try out creating habitat in an urban centre, be prepared for the onslaught; not before long, you may have Screech Owls nesting in your backyard. Not before long, you may see a fox sipping from the water’s edge of your urban pond. Not before long, you will have dozens of warblers stopping in spring to bath and drink from the water trickle of your urban wetland system.

It might not be a bear or a cougar, but it certainly could soon be a Fisher spotted moving along the edge of a creek in a city’s Environmentally Significant Area. The experience of nature back in our midst is real and happening today, piece by piece in Southern Ontario. Yes, it won’t be as rugged and wild as Georgian Bay for quite some time if ever. But if you’re here, certainly feel free to join the tide, and watch the swell grow as we bring back more and more animals, one experience at a time. And for your own good, and that of the people around you, find a relatively quiet spot nearby and sit there regularly. You’ll be amazed at what you experience in solitude in nature and how you will start to wear this calmness and groundedness with you throughout each day.

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After adding about 200 species of native plants to our urban, land-locked yard, Screech Owls nested in an old tree. Returning most years, the diversity of wildlife attracted by native plants has meant a large increase in local wildlife.

*** Two key programs for gearing you up to contribute are In the Zone Gardens (www.inthezonegardens.ca) and the Landowner Leaders Program (see www.caroliniancanada.ca).

 

 

Ten Life Lessons from Ten+ Years Living Off Grid

I lived without utility supplied electricity, water, or sanitation for over a decade. Was it all romance, extensive fanfare, and free living? Not a chance. It was time consuming, high maintenance work requiring constant presence. Living off grid means you are a chief maintenance person, head of parts, repairs and the main author and chief responder in the complaints department. Monitor and adjust you must, the deep-cycle batteries, the climate control for electronic inverter, the daily rodent entry attempts, and many, many more things.

Wind Turbine at Wilds

My Bergey 850W wind turbine and the first pair of solar panels on the battery and inverter shed. Together, with a backup generator (diesel) these formed the hybrid power system for the little cabin that was 300m away, in the edge of the woods. Pelee Island, ON, Canada.

I nevertheless had a golden experience, feeling almost like I was a part of a new renaissance. The metaphors for life in general wrought in the constant struggle were akin to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Ripe for the ages – climate change, species loss, bio-regionalism, permaculture – my noble and yet extremely humbling experience ‘off gridding’ thumped me in the nogggin more than a few times enough to impart some key insights.

Cabin After

The little (13′ x 23′ or 4 x 7.5m x 2 floors) cabin powered by wind and sun, equipped with a composting toilet, a wood burning stove and apparatuses for water collection. The stone chimney took a pal and me just under two weeks to complete, rising at a rate of 1/2m(2′)/day.

  1. Divvy up. If you’re on your own, you have no choice of being your own hero 24-7. But if you’re with a family or in a group living setup, being a Jill (or Jack) of All Trades is by far the worst approach.  Our houses and the world needs fewer Die Hard Heros, and more collaborative, group-powered successes.
  2. Know when to plug in/consume power. Just because we can use power, or in our era, engaging in smart phones, or laptops, don’t do it. Off grid, when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, one does laundry, uses the computer, and/or has a few lights on. When it’s cloudy and calm, we power down. It becomes time to write in a journal, bask in silence, or chop some wood. In either life style, mindlessly switching into power usage mode not only costs electricity, but our inefficiency from either employing ‘nose to the grind stone’ or ‘distraction mode mentality’ costs us our own personal energy reserves, robbing us from our core brilliance.
  3. Positive charges vs. energy sinks.  Off the grid, things with motors or those that create heat, like toasters, are major energy hogs that can drain a daily electricity budget in a few minutes. What or whom empowers you? What drains you? When we’re present to the subtleties of energy in our bodies, we notice what tasks, or people drain us or give us energy.
  4. Lovingly adopt appropriate technology. If you can do it by hand, do it by hand. High tech items that may appear to save time, money and energy often have hidden costs to the individual, the family, and the environment. Many appliances used by Mennonites or the Amish include hand cranks, foot petals or other contraptions that don’t use electricity and rarely break down. Buying a gadget for every aspect of life enslaves us to driving, electrical consumption, landfills, and loss of free exercise!
  5. Know your daily life cycle. If a battery is used up early in the day, at best you are trickle charging until nightfall. This means the battery just becomes a conduit for energy transfer instead of a vessel for storage. This is sub-optimal at best. If you have to extend yourself when you feel empty, ensure there is a full recharge waiting for you in the form of rest or an energy gaining event.
  6. Make your trips count. Buy your life needs as though you are on a remote island; you can’t just hop in the car and go and buy another ‘one.’ Short, repetitive trips in a car hurt our bodies (excessive sitting), add stress, and are far more polluting to the atmosphere than longer, planned ones. The same is true for the small tasks in our work day. They eat away at us, leaving the big and important tasks incomplete or starving for more quality attention.
  7. Hold, plan and be your own system. When you live off the grid, it’s call an ‘independent home’ because it is self reliant. The minute you stop ‘feeling your system’ and knowing it intimately, and if it happens to break down you are problem solving in the dark. If you fail to hold, plan and be the ultimate you for your family members, irreplaceable missed opportunities amass, loved ones feel less connected to you and seek other friends or devices to meet their attachment needs.
  8. Managing human waste as a daily recipe for life. Off the grid, managing waste is put into our own hands. Composting toilets must be coddled with clear presence and awareness or decomposition is hampered and there’s a nasty mess to contend with, costing much time. What would we do with the extra billions of dollars saved if we all made the choice to stop sending toxins, excessive paper waste, and loads of lint (biggest problem of all) down our drains every day?  We would surely bask and play in a rejuvenated environment.
  9. Water wisdom cultivates more aqua for all. Living off the grid slams home the notion that water is to be treasured, conserved and kept pollution free. After collecting rainwater, I used to hang a 1 gal blag water bag in the sun and then use it for showers in two consecutive days. If you’ve slipped into complacency, remember how difficult water is to cleanse, desalinize and purify? Try going on a highly reduced water budget for a day or two to remember the gift of Earth’s life blood. Like a food fast helps us really value food, absence of anything reunites us with gratitude.
  10. Let conservation become second nature. Turn a light on, turn it off. Lather in between runs of showering water. Turn your heat down at night, draw shades at the appropriate times when it’s hot out. This isn’t to train you in thinking in lack mentality; the world is indeed abundant. However, conservation alone can meet our energy needs without drilling for any more oil, building any more nuclear plants, or erecting any more mega wind turbines, or fields of solar panels.