Now that the house is built and functioning as planned, our attention rests on the land. Here follows my recent update to the Ecosystem page on our Beacon Springs website.

Since move-in, in fall 2016, we have worked toward restoring the ecosystem, badly damaged through the years by monoculture farming.

Most of the area disturbed during house construction has now been shaped into berms and swales, with 60 fruit trees, 90 berry bushes and 25 hazelnut trees. All is covered with a combination of red or white clover, hairy vetch and perennial rye, with a thick layer of wood chips. We’re now seeing progress toward health in our clay soil: better water retention and erosion control; pollinator plants and roots in the soil are bringing life into the ground.

Three new ponds – a medium-sized one at the east end of the house; a small one at the southwest base of the terrace slope; and a sizable one a hundred yards to the southwest of the house – provide us with all-night summer serenades from spring peepers and bullfrogs. The largest one played host in the spring to a pair of wood ducks; we had a few visits from Merganser ducks, and many from a great blue heron. Swallows and other birds swoop endlessly across that pond, feasting on insects. Dragonflies fill the air over all three ponds.

We’ve cut buckthorn trees and thistles – too many to count. We’ve cleared trees and brush from several sections of hedgerow in order to see through to our meadows beyond – but have changed our approach after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and The Overstory by Richard Powers. Instead of clearing out all the underbrush, we’re mainly removing the buckthorns, leaving most of the dead and fallen trees in place. Having learned about the rich and long life in a stand of trees, the view to rather than through the trees brings to the fore the energy and majesty of the trees themselves.

About half of our first 15 acres, and all of our newly-purchased adjoining 15 acres, remain mostly untouched. We’ve mowed walking paths throughout, and planted scores of evergreen trees in strategic places to control views. In the same spirit as the two books mentioned above, we’ve been inspired by the work at Knepp Estates in the UK. From their website:

Until recently most of the land was devoted to traditional arable and dairy farming but in 2001 we shifted our focus entirely and embarked on a series of regeneration and restoration projects aimed at nature conservation – or ‘rewilding,’ as it has come to be known. We are still farming, just in a less intensive way – producing organic, pasture-fed meat from free-roaming herds of animals within the Wildland project.”

We’re considering how we might follow Knepp’s example to restore not just the over-farmed soil, but the entire forest-hedgerow-ponds-meadows ecosystem. Knepp has seen the return of insects and birds not seen in that part of England for years and years and years. Whether or not we venture into grazing animals, we hope, as is happening at Knepp Estates, to create excellent habitat for native insects, birds, animals and plants.

Our Living Building project took years to plan and accomplish; this project of restoring the land and creating a truly healthy ecosystem will last a lifetime and more!

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