An Introduction to Field Biology

Last summer, a friend mentioned in passing that classes are free at Washtenaw Community College for those age 65 and older. Curious, I browsed the class offerings, and came across one that might help Tom and me better understand our land and refine our hopes for restoring it.

And gosh, did I ever hit the jackpot! Professor David Wooten has brilliantly organized this course (Bio 107) to familiarize students with Michigan ecosystems and their inhabitants. Week by week we learned about forests, meadows, wetlands and waterways, mammals, birds, insects, amphibians and reptiles, wildflowers, fungi and trees. Class time – three hours every Tuesday – was exclusively spent outdoors, looking at nature, concentrating on the topic for that week.

Each week’s homework assignment was to spend at least an hour outdoors, in the same spot every week, observing and journaling. Writing about what we saw wasn’t quite enough though; we were asked to also illustrate what we saw. This was a challenge, as in the past I’ve had neither occasion nor motivation to exercise whatever minuscule bit of drawing skill I might have. Yet the requirement to draw brought with it the need to look closely, and thereby to consider carefully a plant or creature.

More fascinating to me than my drawings are the photos I took throughout the semester. My new-found interest in looking more closely at nature actually began last summer when I noticed parasitoid wasp cocoons attached to a caterpillar on a tomato plant. That discovery along with similar finds during the fall made my final paper and presentation topic choice simple (parasitoid wasps! – though, really, I could have happily chosen many other critters or plants: They’re all amazing!).

Tom and I will continue to pursue re-wilding and restoring our land, robustly buoyed by the foundation laid in this semester of learning. Will we ever finish learning about this land? No, never. Will we see the completion of this project? Not likely. But our journey is immensely enriched, inspired and furthered by the amazing teachers, guides and friends we meet all along the way.

Parasitoid wasp
Parasitoid wasp
Parasitoid wasp cocoons
Parasitoid wasp cocoons
Oak gall
Oak gall
Wild grape gall
Wild grape gall
Wild grape gall larvae
Wild grape gall larvae
Ground beetle larva
Ground beetle larva
Blue spotted salamander
Blue spotted salamander
Bee on teasel
Bee on teasel
life along the seasonal creek

A Sense of Place

Springtime at Beacon Springs Farm means tending to the 120 or so fruit trees and berry bushes, to the courtyard native plantings, and to the vegetable garden rimming the terrace.

Yet still remaining are 25 as-yet-uncultivated acres. Other than mowing paths and tackling some Canadian thistle and buckthorn invasions, we’ve left this land to its old field succession.

Last August, taking a first stab at restoring the land, we created three areas mimicking the oak savannah found in parts of Michigan 200 years ago. We anticipate these to eventually be just the right transition from the cultivated area next to the house to the wilder areas beyond.

It’s those wilder areas that are now our focus. We plan to return that land to health, in order to increase plant and animal biodiversity; sequester carbon in vegetation and soil; manage water; and create a sense of place.

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) seeks to foster an awareness of place. Among other LBC requisites,

  • building components must be locally sourced;
  • buildings must foster biophilia: a love for nature;
  • landscaping relies on native plants.

To fulfill those LBC requirements, one must actually locate oneself in the geography and history of the place. In the words of field naturalist Joe Gray in Thirteen Paces by Four: Backyard Biophilia and the Emerging Earth Ethic, “. . . my motivation for writing a whole book . . . about a tiny parcel of land is that knowing a place deeply, in its unique particularity, is part of reverencing the Earth: it both expresses this love and helps fuel it.”

(Compare this to some all-too-familiar “no-places”: newer suburban neighborhoods with little more than grass and occasional ornamental plants. Or consider highway interchanges, filled with strip malls, gas stations, hotels . . . What connects those places, or grounds their inhabitants, to their geographical and historical location?)

A map of vegetation in Michigan in 1800 (section 10, in the center and 5 rows from the bottom) places us in the middle of oak-hickory forest. Not too far away are patches of wet prairie, hardwood swamp and oak savannah.

Our goal is to move this land toward health, keeping its earlier form in our mind’s eye. We can’t re-create what was here 200 years ago – nor is that the ideal, since ecosystems continually evolve. We can, however, foster and add plants that populated the area in that more-healthy past, while working to keep in check alien plants as they threaten the ecosystem balance.

We draw inspiration from the conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold who tackled a similar project on his own worn-out, depleted farmland in Wisconsin ­– now home to The Aldo Leopold Foundation, a “conservation organization that works to inspire an ethical relationship between people and nature.” Leopold explained: “All ethics . . . rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

A Nod to the Past

As we observe the areas around the house, disturbed during house construction and now covered with clover and vetch to begin rejuvenating the clay soil, we can now consider next steps. The expanses of clover and vetch, mowed once or twice each year, are lush and green, but also look unnaturally bare and civilized in contrast to the wild areas beyond. Trees and shrubs are needed to bring biodiversity to the land and interest to the eye.

Before European settlement, much of southeastern Michigan was covered by oak savanna. Groupings of oak trees and native shrubs were scattered across open meadow, with at least 50% of the summer noontime sunshine reaching the ground. Fire was the main factor in maintaining the status quo.

We’ve now planted two groupings of trees and shrubs common to oak savannas. Bur oaks and swamp white oaks are surrounded by sumac, gray dogwood and native plums. We’ll stop mowing those areas and, over time, bring in grasses, flowers and forbs native to oak savannas.

For the time being, this is only a tiny nod to the past. The clover and vetch surrounding our two oak groupings have little to do with oak savannas, and we have no plans to incorporate fire as part of our land restoration. The oak groupings are more akin to permaculture guilds: groupings of plants that support each other’s growth and build soil health.

We expect that birds and small mammals will find cover and sustenance in these thickets as they grow. We’ve found several oaks in hedgerows that appear to be candidates for transplanting to create more such groupings. Blurring the line between “civilized” and “wild” parts of the land (in the midst of old field succession) seems to be a logical next step.

Listening to the Land

For all our interest in and ambitions for regenerative building and growing, neither Tom nor I can claim deep knowledge of our natural surroundings. Our thirty acres are filled with plants, insects, birds and animals with whom we have only a passing acquaintance.

Our 2-1/2-year-old granddaughter Surya, here at the farm two days each week, has this summer been uncompromisingly curious about insects and birds. She spends hours paging through our bird and butterfly guidebooks, insisting on knowing the name and sound of every bird. She hounds us to play and replay birdsongs on our phone apps.

As a result, I now find myself standing for long stretches on our terrace, listening to and recording birdsongs, learning so much and realizing how much more there is to learn.

Similarly, our phone apps – indispensable for untangling the mix of curated native plants and other native plants (otherwise known as weeds) in our “tamed” areas – have led us to discover the names of flowers, shrubs and trees in the untamed areas. What an astounding universe we find right at our doorstep!

A Sustainababble podcast episode I recently listened to brought focus to a current question for Tom and me. The podcasters contrasted rewilding with conservation, using Knepp Estate in England as an example. Knepp has undertaken rewilding – giving nature free reign to develop and change – with the surprising arrival and thriving of the rare purple emperor butterfly. Had Knepp deliberately tried to create purple emperor habitat, the results might have been less effective or sustainable. That approach, of creating an ecosystem and then maintaining it as created, is conservation.

Having established good growing conditions for our 150 or so fruit and nut trees and bushes, we’re now considering what’s next. As we become familiar with some of our resident (and migrant) wildlife, we are more and more drawn to discover what the land itself has to say. Even if no rare or unusual species show up, we’ll be happy to get acquainted with who’s already out there.

Widening Our Reach

In our first few years here at Beacon Springs we have taken on the challenge of shaping and restoring to health the several acres surrounding the house. We created berms and swales as a framework on which to plant 60 fruit trees, 30 hazelnut trees and 80 berry bushes. We spread yards and yards and yards of woodchips and planted cover crop everywhere (white clover, hairy vetch and perennial rye). We enlarged the pond at the east end of the house and dug two more ponds plus a substantial rain garden. The berms and swales and ponds and groundcover work in synchrony to hold water on the land, stop erosion and rebuild soil.

With that project underway, we tackled the jumble of plants in the entry courtyard and around the rim of the south terrace. Countless Canadian thistles, poison ivy vines and garden-variety weeds consorted freely with the carefully chosen native perennials. What a task to sort through it all, removing the uninvited and re-organizing the desired!

Both projects would have been impossible – or at least would have taken far longer – without the help of Patrick Cox, our strong, smart, willing farmhand. We’ll be sorry to see him leave for college in January. Well, of course, we’re delighted for him, and sad for our “loss.”

Maintaining what we’ve accomplished is a full-time task – and we feel ready to expand our engagement to the rest of our 30 acres (we purchased the adjoining fifteen acres to the south a couple of years ago). The question is, what to do with it?

Old-field succession ­– the known progression of nature across abandoned agricultural land – is evident here: first the growth of annual plants, then biennials and perennials, then shrubby plants, then trees. We expect our fields will eventually become forested. Throughout this succession, the land welcomes more insects, birds and animals, and soil is restored to health – good outcomes, all.

As we continue to read and learn, we see other possibilities. Before European settlement, the land around us was hickory-oak savannah: groves of trees surrounded by open fields and shrubland, maintained in that state by large grazing animals. Could we mimic this in some small way without animals, perhaps simply by selective mowing?

The step to bringing in animals seems a large one – though the current pandemic removes some of the “we couldn’t travel” hesitancy. Applying the method at Knepp Wildland of leaving livestock largely to their own devices might be a good solution. Grazing animals maintain the open areas, allowing for growth of the most robust trees, and their waste and trampling enrich the soil. The question then would be which animals – sheep, goats, cattle, pigs.

Aside from the old field succession question, plenty 0f room remains for further shaping of land to collect and manage water. Areas we’ve currently “tamed” (i.e. planted and mowed the cover crop) cry out for populating with judiciously chosen trees and shrubs.

As summer turns to fall and fall gives way to cold and snow, we have plenty consider, by a toasty fire, reference books and websites at hand. Settling into this land is suiting us well, keeping us active and challenging us to learn new things as we do what we can to protect and care for our earth.

swales and trees

Ecosystem Update

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!

A letter from the owners ten years from project inception

Moving this text off the home page, but keeping it here as a reminder, at least to us, Tom and Marti, of what this amazing project is all about: our continuing ideas and goals for what can be done with this house and land.

Sustainable dwelling

Burh Becc is a regenerative building, operating as cleanly, beautifully and efficiently as nature’s architecture. Energy and water use are net zero. Waste, both in construction and in everyday living is handled almost entirely on site, via recycling and re-use. Toxic chemicals in the construction materials have been studiously avoided.

Farm amid oak savannah

The farm at Beacon Springs produces food for the local community, particularly those with limited access to fresh produce, as well as for our own table. Following principles of permaculture, we’re building an ecosystem in which landform, plants, trees and animals work together for abundant and sustainable production of food.

Gathering place

The embrace of Beacon Springs – the living building, with its flourishing courtyard and barnyard animals, combined with the surrounding acres of permaculture gardens and oak savannah – is a balm to the lone poet and a catalyst for lively exchange in larger groups. It is a center of education for the community: architecture students learning about sustainable design; residential building craftspeople and trades professionals learning sustainable construction methods; children learning about barnyard animals and bee-keeping; and permaculture enthusiasts participating in onsite workshops. We regularly welcome family, friends, co-workers and others to our table for good food and dynamic exchange of life.

A special note for our team of designers, engineers, builders and growers, and the extended team members: We hope that each of you, in joining the community responsible for the creation of Beacon Springs, has also received an extra measure of life springing from your contribution to the project. You are always welcome to come for a visit, enjoying with us the fruits of your labors.

—Tom and Marti Burbeck, Ann Arbor, Michigan March 2023

Sustainability for Health

Life takes us in many and unexpected directions – and yet we may never stray very far from our roots. That became clear to me in our interview with writer Drew Moser from the U-M School of Kinesiology’s publication Movement Magazine. You can read his excellent article here.

Of course I’ve always cared about health and fitness and the environment. My love of competitive swimming led me to major in physical education at the University of Michigan, and my learning there deepened my understanding of the connections between environment, nutrition and health. With that grounding, so many years later, the suggestion from our architect to tackle the Living Building Challenge seemed like an obvious next step in life.

It’s logical also that we’ve tackled restoring the life on our thirty acres, mostly worn out after years of monoculture farming. That project, like the house construction, is proving to be a years-long endeavor. We knew that would be the case, so should we be surprised that we’ve already been at it for four years? The project this summer was to build berms and swales down the slope to the southeast of the house and plant those with berry bushes. In that process, we also dug a substantial pond to the southwest of the house, and so reshaped a very large section of land across that entire expanse. How gratifying it is to see the cover crop now fully established, holding and building the soil. The frogs are prolific in the new pond, attracting at least one heron who tries hard to stand his ground when the dogs charge out to say good morning. The hard work and rewards continue!

MAEAP Certification Achieved

Beacon Springs Farm recently completed certification in two of four areas of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP): Farmstead and Cropping. The Farmstead category looks at activities performed on the entire farm with a focus on protecting surface and groundwater. The Cropping category focuses on field-based activities such as water use, soil conservation, and nutrient management.

We’re already at work on the Forest, Wetlands & Habitat certification, creating an action plan for managing and enhancing the land not under cultivation.

Started in 1998, MAEAP is a voluntary program that recognizes farmers who are top stewards of their land. MAEAP helps farmers adopt cost-effective practices that reduce erosion and runoff into ponds, streams, and rivers. MAEAP recognition can be earned in one or more of four areas: Farmstead; Cropping; Livestock; and Forest, Wetlands & Habitat.