Nature* is nonlinear. I reminded of this every day on the preserve. It calls to mind the complex graphs that emerged deep into my economics and ecology courses—a dizzying span curves that increased rapidly, intersecting depending on the inputed values, and tangled in their complex exponential behavior. This is my first summer in this grassland- and oak- dominated landscape and it’s all so novel that I feel I myself am flying along those curves, launched with momentum by their steep slopes and totally unaware of when they might plateau or drop off.
The mechanics of grazing are similarly nonlinear. An example of this is how we could graze the same drainages several seasons over, with the herds’ hooves knocking down the sharp edges, sending soil into the dry (or, depending on the season) wet beds below. This is undoubtedly erosion and sedimentation—a concern for anyone who thinks across watersheds.
But then, after perhaps only a couple of years this stops. With enough repeated disturbance a plateau is reached, and in this case almost literally: Having essentially beveled off the sharp edges and knocked soil a few inches down, filling in pockets, the cows create contours that are sufficiently relaxed for seeds to germinate and take hold. This not only ceases the temporary erosion that caused this revegetation to be possible, but seals the banks from further soil loss in perpetuity (barring a major stochastic event like a flooding washout or concentrated grazing on a small stretch of waterway during an especially wet time).
The changes are subtle, but the implications profound, and I consider this terraforming aspect of well-managed grazing to be woefully undervalued. I get it—riparian areas can be fragile, and are exceptionally important for watershed health AND carbon sequestration. But what many ranchers are seeing first hand on their property hasn’t even the faintest twinkle in the literature that many land managers use to inform their management.
Hence, as my conservation ethics and subsequently grazing principles evolve and develop, I have decided to begin prioritizing photo documentation to bridge the divide. So long as the uninitiated can’t see the changes that ranchers and graziers know in their bones to be so apparent and are privy to all the time, the debate will rage on, and slim literature will probably win out.
My concern here is that in some management communities, much like some religious communities, there is a spirit of “we speak where the text speaks, and we are silent where it is silent.” In a planetary hour marred by very rapid (and very nonlinear!) climatic changes, this simply isn’t good enough. We MUST experiment, and we must show our work. Conservation can’t afford to be so conservative anymore.
I am motivated by my notion of the mechanics of change—what creates real shifts in attitude and behavior within individuals and institutions. It seems true that we are psychologically biased towards what we can see and thus easily represent in our minds. So photos matter.
A lot of ranching has been very bad for a lot of the planet for a long time. In California, early Spanish ranches were built and run by the sweat of Native American slaves. Being from the southeast, where many folks run set-stock steer and without many examples of ecologically-oriented ranching, I don’t have a lot of inborn affinity for ranching culture. (Notable exceptions of Mike Jones at MAE Farm and Doc Charles Sydnor of Braeburn Farm, both of whom were extremely influential when I was a teenager first dabbling in agriculture).
Fortunately, things are shifting. I am lucky to be employed by a company with exclusively ecological motivations—the beef is the byproduct that funds the work. And many legacy ranchers in California and beyond are taking the helm of environmental leadership and retooling their operations to account for natural budgets. Good. Given the outstanding heritage, the burden of proof is on us, and we have catching up to do.
This Land Log is intended to be a storehouse for my observations, and not especially outward-oriented. But I’ll make an exception to strongly encourage—nay, implore!—any rancher or grazier reading this to consider how you can document your work and share publicly. Photograph incised drainages that you graze NOW, so that five years down the line you can show how they improve. Manage your photos. Add information to them and organize them so you can keep track of them. It’s a small stretch to incorporate this into your day, mere moments to maintain the habit, and will pay dividends for every grazier and every land manager for years to come.
As suggested by the Preserve Technician here, I recently started using iNaturalist. It’s a powerful app with an even more powerful web platform that allows you to organize your photos according to pre-determined criteria. It stores the photos, full size, on their servers and you can even export it as a KMZ file into Google Earth. It literally couldn’t be any easier, so the bottleneck is ourselves.
I started this intending to write about the large families of deer, rabbit, coyote, turkey, and quail I see every day. I was intending to mention the time I had to wait in my truck for many moments while a combined cluster of rabbit and turkey sorted themselves out, or when a literal flock of dozens of quail composed themselves neatly while running ahead of me down the road. I was going to write about my pow wows in pasture with Jodi Roebuck, an ambitious grazier and biointensive farmer from New Zealand, and or Marie and Brien Brennan of Elder Creek Center for the Land and Subsistoration. But those will have to wait for next time.
*I appreciate the notion that even using the word “nature” signifies something other than ourselves. But I have yet to find a way around this that wasn’t clumsy. Sometimes I use “our planet” in lieu of, say, “the natural world,” because it seems more matter of fact and yet somehow more encompassing. If anyone has any suggestions I welcome them.