Hope for the Desert

I am on the 17th week of a 20 week Permaculture Designers Certification Course given by Geoff Lawton of Australia, a highly experienced and passionate teacher who has helped to transform some really degraded landscapes, even deserts. The internet is such a wonderful tool—imagine that I can take a course right in my home offered by such a premier Permaculture teacher located on the other side of the globe! Years ago I saw his video called Greening The Desert, a documentary of one of his projects in Israel, which really inspired me. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xcZS7arcgk)

I think that video even played a role in my coming here to the high, arid, North East Arizona–if Geoff Lawton could bring vitality to such an arid, seemingly hopeless place in Israel, then I am willing to give it a try here. Besides, as I learn to align myself and my desires for the land with God’s Way, I will have the ultimate support for this project.

As part of Geoff’s permaculture course, I am learning many strategies to help heal very degraded land. Not surprisingly, many of these strategies are very similar to what Jesus and Mary taught us in Australia when I was there in 2011-2013, when we had ‘environment’ days at the learning center in Cushni, Queensland, which is also a dry area most of the year.

Ultimately the intent of land restoration is to return diversity and abundance of life back to an area. God creates everything with abundant life, and it is only us humans who have messed that up, and it is up to us to undo that destruction where possible, and correct the causes. By looking closely at my land, one can see that it once had many pine trees and abundant soil.

Two Dead Pines

Two dead pine trees currently on my property stressed by lack of water and overcome by pine bark beetles. There are dozens of these dead pines on the property. I have been dragging their dead branches to nearby gullies to help slow and thus absorb rainwater when it comes.

Erosion

The soil once was above the level of the tree roots, but has eroded away.

And further back in history, I have learned, this land supported tremendous forests. When certain human settlers and their cattle arrived, the plants and soil of this fragile landscape were quickly destroyed. Even today, there is an ‘open rangeland’ policy which allows cows access to all this land unless a property owner spends the time, energy and money to fence them out. Without protection from cows, the forbs and grasses never get a chance to recover. And without these plants, the soil quickly erodes away in the minimal but intense rains of this region.

Erosion rock

I will look more closely at the cow issue later in this post. But first, let’s look at what can be done to help bring vitality back once the cows are kept off the land.

Water, soil, and vegetation are of paramount importance. Water is pivotal. Without water, there is no soil life, and there is no vegetation.  So a tremendous focus will be on all the ways to capture, slow and sink water into the soil, where it will be the most useful. The rainfall in this area is estimated at 6-12 inches (15-30cm) per year, but areas like this are not very consistent. It can be dry for long periods of time, then receive intense rain storms all at once, and because of the current lack of vegetation and thus non-porosity of the soil, most of that rain washes right down the slopes and into the gullies, passing right by the thirsty plants and bringing the massive erosion problems. But this can change. By creating ditches along the contours (called swales), pits, and silt dams, for example, the water has time to sink in, rather than run off. In a desert, water is more efficiently held within the soil, where it can feed microbes, plants and trees, rather than sitting in a pond, where it quickly evaporates.

And once there is water available in the soil, plants and trees can get a foot-hold. I want to encourage as much diversity as possible in the types of trees, shrubs, herbs, and critters. A diverse forested ecosystem, I am learning, not only contains the greatest bio-diversity, it is also the most stable. It will attract the widest variety of species of all living things, and provides for its own perpetual renewal. About 20 miles from here is a ‘Petrified Forest’ national park, where there are remnants of huge forests that once occupied this land. I would love to see that happen again.

A few nights ago, I watched another inspiring film about greening the desert called, The Man Who Stopped The Desert.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dzah_5y65AU

It is a documentary about Yacouba Sawadogo, a peasant farmer from the Sahel region of Africa (the area bordering the South of the Sahara Desert, where desertification is a huge issue) who, as the billing said, ’over the last twenty years has successfully battled against nature and man, to become a pioneer in the fight against desertification.’ I am not so sure he battled nature. It seems more like he discovered how nature actually wanted to work, and did that. It really touched me because he too came up against so much opposition in his life, right from childhood to present day. The emotion of feeling discouraged and opposed is a big one for me. But this man persevered, made mistakes, endured ridicule and attack, and ultimately succeeded in bringing the greatest degree of biodiversity and life back to a previously barren land. Additionally, he taught many others in the region to do as he did, and significantly improved their lives.

I definitely recommend this film. It is less than an hour long, and costs $3.99 to rent.

Yacouba dug holes all across his landscape by hand and filled them with manure where he would plant his crops or trees. This too reminded me of when I was in Australia, and Jesus taught us to make a much bigger version of this called ‘fertility pits’ where large holes were dug (I think with a back hoe) then filled with whole (opened) bales of cardboard and piles of manure. I am sure there is awesome soil wherever those fertility pits were created. If I can find some places on my property where there is enough soil to dig into, I will be adding fertility pits here as well.

As many of you already know, another great help to hot dry environments is using mulches to cover the soil. But when you live in the high desert, wood chips for mulch are not so easy to come by. If I lived in town and was part of the electrical grid (hooked up to the corporate power supply), I would be able to have the city deliver free chips right on my land from when they prune trees away from power lines. But I live off grid, about ten miles out of town, so I don’t qualify. I have had to pay top dollar to have them delivered. I have to keep reminding myself that God does not consider dollar-cost in decision making. Either something is life-enhancing and worth acquiring, or it isn’t. And you can either afford something or you can’t. So spending $140 for a load of pine chips definitely challenges one of my addictions. But at the moment, I can afford it, and I know how important those chips will be to the land and its inhabitants. Besides, I am here to challenge my comfort zones, so I have plans for many more mulch loads to come. Luckily, there is a man who lives nearby who delivers chips and manure and very much appreciates the business. It is good for me to keep in mind that a resource like money can help far more people than just me if I let it.

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Wood chips protect the soil from erosion by holding the soil in place when it rains, keeping it porous, protect soil from the hot summer sun by shading and cooling, reduce evaporation by making a barrier to the drying sun and wind, provide food and shelter for micro organisms and bugs (which in turn are food for other creatures) and ultimately break down into wonderful soil that by its very construction is rich in nutrients and water holding capacity. SO many benefits!

One thing I can do to help break down the chips into soil (which takes a long time in the desert), is to use certain types of mushrooms. I learned about a mushroom called Stropharia rugosoannulata, (also known as Wine Cap or King Stropharia) and they work on just about any wood to help break it down into soil. Most mushrooms are specific or at least have strong preferences for hard woods, which are very scarce here, but King Stropharia grows well on pine chips as well as straw, both of which I have.

I bought some inoculated saw dust, and when the rains come (usually July), and the June heat is past, I will start planting the spawn, layering it with straw and wood chips. It likes a little shade and moisture, neither of which are abundant here, so I have to choose my locations carefully. Stropharia mushrooms are edible, and I do love to cook with mushrooms, so that is an added bonus.

I mentioned swales earlier, which is one technique I plan to use around the property where appropriate. These ditches run on contour with the dirt thrown to the down-hill side. This creates a catchment for the water to slow it down and spread it across and into the earth instead of washing right down the slope, carrying the precious soil with it.

I made an A frame level and walked the upper part of the land marking out places for swales. But I ran into too many obstacles—junipers and bed-rock. Junipers are considered undesirable trees by many people, but to me they are precious. They protect the soil, capture blown sand, provide wind break, shade, privacy, habitat etc. But to work around them, I would have to change my plan. I would have to modify the swales, making them shorter, and interconnected, so each swale drains into the next. My water capturing just became a bit more complicated. I decided to upgrade my surveying tool, and bought a laser level, so I could make sure each swale is level. I will be doing a lot of this, so I will make good use of the level.

So most of the upper few acres of my property is now covered with marker flags. The neighbors who drive by must be wondering what I am up to. I also decided to experiment with using flakes (called biscuits in Australia) of straw, since I have lots of rotting straw bales from the old shop on the property. This picture is in a fairly flat area between the house and the road, where I would like to encourage a nice stand of hardy pioneer trees.

future flake swales

These flakes of straw will be covered with the dirt as the ditches are dug along the contours. My hope is that with the rains, the straw will get soaked by the water in the swale, and be able then to hold moisture for any trees and shrubs I plant, or seeds I toss out. We will see how it works.

As part of the Permaculture course, I created a map using Google Earth and a contouring site (http://contourmapcreator.urgr8.ch).

Top corner of property

This shows the contours of the property, and eventually I will draw the swales and other earthworks too, as I create them. This map is zoomed in a little to the top left side of the property, where I will start the swales because that is the highest elevation. It is useful to start at the top because then you can slow and sink the water where it is most easily managed… before the flow picks up volume and speed.

Each line on the map indicates a 2 foot drop in elevation from the top left to the bottom right. These lines are helpful, but are a little general, and in reality, the property is shaped more like several stair-steps, rather than a continous contour. You can actually see the color changes in the soil, as you go from one ‘step’ to the next in the landscape. The building with the red roof is my house, the square building below that is the shop which will need a major overhaul, and the white round structure below that is what in 2014 was the dome, which blew apart before I bought the property. This google image was taken in 2014. I can’t wait until the images start to show an increase in tree cover!

I sure wish I had a satellite image from 200 years ago, when there was more soil and vegetation. So, what has brought about the decline of this land? It may appear that cows are the problem in such fragile areas. But we have to ask, Why do we have ranchers and policies that promote cows at the expense of Nature? Because we want our meat. Humans are the problem, not the cows. But let’s go further. Why do we eat meat?

Some people claim that we need the protein. That is simply not true. And there is plenty of data to back this up now. I, for one, have not lost an ounce of muscle since become vegan 7 years ago. There are many fallacies people come up with, but really it is because we, as a race of humans, have become so detuned to God’s Laws of love, that we can no longer feel the truth. Killing an animal is against life and against love, and is, therefore, out of alignment with God’s Way. Simple. And if a person wants to see the truth, there is plenty of evidence of the destruction this choice is having world wide.

I ate meat my whole life until about 7 years ago. So I too am responsible for disobeying Laws and the resulting destruction. Nature and my soul reflect it. I always had an affinity for nature, but I didn’t realize that I was directly destroying whole ecosystems because of my eating choices, until Jesus pointed it out. Then I started looking at the truth of this, and watched movies like, Earthlings and Cowspiracy (please, if you have any desire for Truth, watch them!), and got a glimpse of the severity of the problem.

Now, I realize I had made a big mistake. And God wants us to take responsibility for and correct our own mistakes. That way, we can truly, emotionally, learn from them. That is what a good parent does—there is no such thing as a savior who takes away our sins. Jesus himself has explained that such an idea is simply a lie. We must be responsible for our own errors.

Repentance for our mistakes is a process of which I am only a student. We must see the truth, but we must also feel all the emotions around why we made such a choice and all the harm we have caused, as well as attempt to repair it. Watching Earthlings and Cowspiracy started me with the truth and the emotions. I stopped eating meat. And now that I have this land, I can start to take reparative action. I can stop the cows from harming this land further by fencing them out, and use all the new knowledge and tools to help return life and abundance by encouraging water, soil, and vegetation to return, as described above. The emotional part will probably be on-going, as I slowly sensitize myself to all the ways I am not yet aligned with God. Then, I am hoping, I will be able to demonstrate to others what is possible.

In my permaculture class, there is a lot of emphasis on earthworks as a means for ecological restoration. But there are other ways of enhancing life on the property that may take more time, but, in the long run, may be more permanent. Silt dams fill up, swales in this environment often need re-trenching, and gabions can be washed away. Sometimes a system is installed with great consideration, and it allows Nature to embrace it, becoming a permanent benefit to the land, or allows Nature to take hold strongly enough so the eventual failure of the man-made structures is not problematic. But what if there are more economical ways to work with Nature? I am not talking about economics as in money here, although some critics of earthworks are opposed to the immense amount of money involved. I am talking about economics from a much broader perspective. God does not create with dollars. Yet, Economy is one of God’s principles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kT3q3pfyl6E&feature=youtu.be). God creates perfect systems with no wasted energy, and built-in maintenance. I will constantly be looking for more economical and more efficient ways to assist in the restoration process.

I just started reading a book called, “Let the Water Do the Work; Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels”, by Bill Zeedyk and Van Clothier. The premise of this book is that many of the man-made structures used in land restoration require tremendous resources to build and maintain, and often fail, yet Nature [God’s perfect system] is very capable of repair, if given a chance, and perhaps a nudge here or there to assist Her immense power. And it gives proven recommendations for just how to nudge things toward healing. I look forward to reading and implementing this information.

And, another factor in land restoration that most people never consider, which may be the most important of all, is the soul condition of the person who is responsible for or in care of the land. Jesus has taught us that our human soul has a profound influence on everything around us, particularly living things. If we are in a poor condition, with many errors and emotions that are out of harmony with God’s definition of love, then we will put a great deal of stress on our environment. All people, animals and plants—all of life—are effected by our individual as well as collective soul condition. And God’s Laws hold us accountable for those effects.

little yellows

So the healing of this land is important for Nature, and it is important for my own soul. We are in this together. I believe it is no coincidence that I was so attracted to this arid, degraded land. It really is a good reflection of my own soul condition. But I also feel it reflects the desire and hope that I have for both of us. As I work on the many issues in my soul, as I heal, and grow closer to God in love, so will the land. We have the potential to heal and thrive… God made it that way.