The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

A goat's eye view of the floodplain

Goat grazing in swamp

I read a lot about forest succession during my misspent youth. But only after spending an hour a day down in the floodplain with the goats have I realized that our very own farm is home to a sister ecological process --- swamp succession.

Dead trees

Yes, our floodplain looks very different now than it did last year at this time. Part of the change is due to dead and dying box-elders and walnuts, leaving only ash and elm trees to thrive in soil that was simply too waterlogged for most of the winter to allow root breathing room. Fewer trees means more light on the floodplain floor, which in turn means lots more herbaceous growth for the goats to enjoy.

Dead spicebushes

Another major shift became visible this spring when most of our spicebushes failed to leaf out. This could be a waterlogging problem as well. But since I've seen dead spicebushes in the woods this spring, I suspect the issue instead was caused by last winter's deep freeze.

Spicebush and sassafras are both tropical plants that moved north from their Central American strongholds a long time ago. Will we lose these odiferous denizens of the forest as our winters become more harsh? For now, the bushes are sprouting back from the roots, but who knows how many similar winters it would take to kill them dead.

Wetland plants

The thing about ecology is that change is neither bad nor good. Change is simply...change. The sunny, wet forest floor is now home to dense stands of sedges, which are mostly ignored by the goats in favor of Canada moonseed, hog-peanut, multiflora rose, and various tree leaves. But once Abigail's belly is 95% of the way full, she'll spend as long as I'll let her picking the brown sedge seeds in the middle of the photo above off their plants. These are the only grains our doe gets in her diet, and she tells me they are delicious.

Yearling goat

This part of the floodplain was open pasture/hay field about fifty years ago, and I can see how that would be a good use for the land now too. In the absence of heavy machinery, though, the goats and I simply go down to frolic whenever I have a spare hour to "waste." I lie atop the swamp bridge or unroll a yoga mat further out under the trees, and our herd grazes happily as long as I'll let them.

Then I call Artemesia's name, or chant "Let's go, girls!" (yes, Lamb Chop is an honorary girl), and all three come running. I no longer even bother to grab Abigail's leash, but instead let our herd queen lead the way to the back door of the starplate coop, where I finally assert my dominance by shutting them all in. I like to pretend I've trained our goats to obey my commands...but sometimes I think they've instead trained me to spend my evenings relaxing in the floodplain and looking at the trees.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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