Something is Still Sensitive Here. Maybe it is just me.

Almost two months of fairly enforced idleness (gardenwise, anyway) have given me ample opportunity to look out the window at my past labors and think about this land–shortly mine no longer–the health of the forest, and property restrictions in the abstract. 

I have been here just two and a half years, and it is a scant three since ground was broken for this house.  Taking up a slight 1,500 square-foot ‘footprint,’ little more than that 1,500 square feet was cleared to build it: 1,600 square feet, to be exact.  One thousand, six hundred square feet of scrub growth and one almost timberish tree…out of the 54,000 square feet I own.  Not much of this second-growth forest was harmed.  And that is out of the 1,600 or so acres behind my house.  1,600 square feet of impact out of 68,000,000 square feet of forest.  My calculator doesn’t even have enough decimal places to express that as a percentage.

I feel reasonably certain the forest never even knew I was here.  The birds and the ground animals quickly grew accustomed to my constant presence; the larger animals and predators made their spectral rounds; and the Mountain Beavers feasted on the largesse of my plantings.  But overall, while I increased the number of plants in the clearing and ‘wetland buffer’ from the original 289 to almost a thousand and carpeted the ground with moss, my actions have been the merest ephemera in the long action known as the forest cycle.

The restrictions on my property were very real.  The restrictions on me, although I signed papers, had them notarized, and locked away Schroedinger’s Damage Deposit, may have only been empty threats articulated by over-empowered bureaucrats.  I may never actually know.  What I do know is that while I started out only to recover those funds, I wound up actually caring.  Quite a bit, in fact.  As I watch my moss grow and consider the rich interior that is me, the thoughts, impulses, the emotions, the guts and the black stuff, I still cannot precisely figure out why.  I only wanted my money back, with a heaping side helping of being right.


In the deep woods on my property, down near the wetland: a small English Ivy sproutling takes root near a an English Holly start. Both are Class A Noxious Weeds, according to Washington State law, and both are widely grown in the massive subdivisions near this forest, and openly sold in consumer nurseries. These are the last pernicious invasives I will eradicate from this forest.

I still believe that property restrictions–generalized, codified, governmentally-mandated ones–are wrong.  Humanity is a part of any ecosystem it touches, for good or bad.  Trying to keep us out, to keep us off the land, can only prevent an attitude of caring to develop.  Far better, I think, to utilize the existing “restrictions” that come with noxious weed and plant lists.  The State, counties, and municipalities should be out eradicating these plants on their own land, and strongly encouraging private property owners to do likewise.  Those plants known to be invasive, aggressive, and harmful should NOT be sold in nurseries–voluntarily at first, then compulsorily if compliance is poor. These policies should occur in lockstep with making comprehensive information available on sound landscape and ecological process, and provide this information to homeowners, developers, and commercial property owners.  There should be an equilibrium of requirement for ALL property owners, regardless of size or perceived economic value…and that should include government entities themselves.

There is an irony for me in all this (an irony beyond gardening ‘in secret’ while broadcasting my actions to the world), in that my great-grand relatives were the homesteaders, the farmers, loggers, and commercial fishermen, who opened up this region for its proliferate development.  While the idea of denuding majestic Douglas fir forests and pushing Pacific salmon runs to the brink of extinction were not theirs, they certainly participated in these activities; and while being of pioneer stock was once a point of regional pride, the world has changed and now these things are looked upon askance, to say the least. (Although I can say that my family housed and fed your family a hundred years ago.  So there.)  While I may have started out only to get my money back, the notion of being right caused me to get very educated on native plants, forest biology, and prevailing thought VERY quickly.  This self-education then took me on to earth sciences, regional history, generalized and historical botany, humanities and current events, and other rich auto-didactic pursuits which allowed me to consume more printed knowledge in the past two years than in high school and college combined.  So…Politicologists and stupid Mitigation Planner: thanks for that.  I am a more educated person than I was before, and I would not otherwise be so.

And a better person, more whole.  To have immersed myself in the regional, cultural, historic, economic, and political pan-bibliography of this area has given me a better understanding of myself and where I ‘come from,’ both historically and in the present.  By giving stewardship to my forest and care for the water that filters out of my swamp and into the lake across the street, and from there into several streams that drain into two large lakes, and from there into the Puget Sound, where all this water converges to form the only wild urban salmon and steelhead runs in the world: I have closed the open loop of family history.  My family’s circle is now complete and will remain so, because caring for this woodland and this wetland is not my job anymore.  In spite of myself, I will miss it.

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6 Responses to Something is Still Sensitive Here. Maybe it is just me.

  1. Deirdre says:

    Sounds ike you learned enough to almost make the hassle they put you through worth it. Good for you.
    Can’t agree with you more about the English ivy and English hollies. I’d add English Laurel to the list of plants that should be banned
    My husband is related to the Dennys on his mother’s side.
    Was at the Dunn garden this morning. Apparently, the mountain beavers are taking out a lot of rhodies by eating all the roots.

    • calvincaley says:

      My Dad always says, It is never as good as you think it is…it also never as bad as you think it is. This whole experience, I have decided, is all only about the experience. “My” Mountain Beavers climb up into rhododendrons and take them down from the top, usually leaving just one or two leaf-bearing branches near the base–just enough for the plant to live, but not enough for it to thrive. I have had SOMETHING that gnawed roots from below, I have thought the animal to be voles going for succulent new roots–it only has happened in summer when water was scarce. When I lived very near to the Dunn Gardens, I had occasional Mountain Beaver problems, they came up from Carkeek Park throught the network of ditches and culvertized streams that runs through that area (I have seen an old map of Northwest Seattle, before the railroad went in at the bottom of the slope and the area was developed, there were over 500 salmon streams. Now they are storm water ditches.) It was usually only one animal at a time, and I would rent a Hav-a-hart trap from Hertz Rent-a-Center on Leary Way and put a slice of red delicious apple in it for bait, and place the trap right next to their hole–which was always very obvious for the fresh throw-back soil. They were very, very easy to get rid of there. The animal is unprotected and unregulated by F&W, you just can’t use a ‘cruel’ trap, per state law. After the animal is in the cruelty-free live animal trap, you can be as cruel to it as you want (Can I let it go in a park? Can I let it go on a freeway median? Can I hit it with a shovel? Yes, yes, and yes.)

      In my clearing, live animal traps would have resulted in a huge annoyance of ‘by-catch,’ so I never pursued that route. I have every knowledge of where their burrows are and the ‘raceways’ they use to travel about under cover–they typically go from place to place under fallen logs and through above-ground “tunnels” of cleared underbrush–looking like miniature arched allees through the salal.

      Google ‘mountain beaver control’ or ‘mountain beaver eradication.’ You’ll find lots of info about how to kill the little em-effers. Unfortunately, most of the information, whether from NFS, F&W, DNR, university forestry programs, or Big Chemical, generally involves carpet-bombing them with flavored and scented strychnine pellets. This might be ok for a replant of a clearcut or a commercial Christmas tree farm; but I never thought this to be a good approach for me, for the by-catch issue, and for the likelihood that some other, larger predatory animal like a fox, coyote, or owl might eat the poisoned corpse of a whatever and start a chain reaction. Bad, bad, bad. I like most of my varmints.

      My plan was to wait until spring, when mating pairs of Mountain Beavers have their young (one pair will contol a 150 – 300 foot radius of territory, producing one offspring per year. The animals will browse heavily during the spring and then generally keep to their burrows until weaning, when they return to our sunlit surface world for intense browsing in mid-ish summer) When the animals were to be likely to remain in their holes for the most part, I intended to lace red delicious apples with D-Con granules and put the poison directly in the holes, blocking the openings with rocks. This wouldn’t have kept them in, they are too active burrowing, but would have likely kept field mice, rabbits, squirrels, and other more innocuous creatures OUT, minimizing collateral damage as much as possible. The difference between carpet bombing and smart bombing, was my thought.

      I do not feel badly for my intent to eradicate, or at least minimize, the animal by lethal means. Before we people were here, the creature was an integral part of natural forest management. They control their environment, and competitive pressure, by deforesting and making undesirable their range: if it is good, fertile and prolific, they will clear it so no other creatures will want to live there and take what they have (sound like any other species we know?) This process, in a completely wild environment, can keep the forest floor clear of anything but what once were prolific pioneer species like rhodies, alder, and ferns, some of which fix nitrogen, and some of which are allelopathic–rhodies and bracken. These plants are then favored by the MB’s. The process would keep the forest floor relatively clear and easily hunted by lower predators–which would in turn keep the MB’s in check.

      Suburban backyards have a prolific surplus of food, however, and a shortage of lower predators. Mountain Beavers, even though dimwitted and slow to breed, have overgrown their natural tendency to self-limit. In a lush urban or suburban backyard, they will follow their instinct and attempt to clear it. ALL of it. In my clearing, where there should only be one mating pair, maybe two, there is enough Calvin-provided surplus food that I have six primary burrows in a 500 foot radius. This is a man-made problem, to be sure, but unfortunately when we as a species send nature out of whack, it may or even must require that we ‘whack’ nature.

      • Deirdre says:

        “before the railroad went in at the bottom of the slope and the area was developed, there were over 500 salmon streams. Now they are storm water ditches.”

        There are salmon in the stream at Carkeek Park these days thanks to efforts by local schools and groups to clean it up.

        “In my clearing, where there should only be one mating pair, maybe two, there is enough Calvin-provided surplus food that I have six primary burrows in a 500 foot radius.”

        Lucky you. Did the mitigation authorities have a plan for the mountain beavers?

      • calvincaley says:

        When the sockeye were coming in, I used to take my daughter down to the park and watch them splash their way upstream. There weren’t very many–maybe only a dozen or so at a time, but enough to get an idea of what once was. We had her fourth birthday in the shelter on the orchard. I told the story of the salmon forest, complete with a story board of velcroed eagles and crows, moveable salmon and carcasses, and trees of different sizes. I was pretty proud of my board. Also, that I could keep the attention of a whole bunch of four year olds with it.

        The city did NOT have a plan for the Mountain Beavers, I doubt the Master’s Degreed Biologist for the ___________ Company, who developed the ‘plan,’ even knew what one was. The brutal irony of it is that the more plants I added, the more able the clearing was to support more of them–and the less likely they became to enforce their range, or force their young away upon maturity. And the more I improved soil friability, all the better to dig. Most animals have an oddball name for a group of them: a murder of crows, a parliament of owls, a gang of deer. Mountain Beavers don’t normally group up, so I don’t know if they have one. I would lobby for ‘A Malevolence of Mountain Beavers.’ If they were not so stupid, one would suspect them of malice aforethought. Really though, the closer you get to their habitual behaviors, the more they resemble humans. Both species do almost identically the same things, for the same reasons.

  2. croftgarden says:

    Well Calvin the day you stop learning they might as well stake you out for beaver bait!
    There is always a certain irony when it comes to conserving natural habitats as by the very act of conservation we change what we seek to preserve. I also see the irony in that I manage a man made habitat to conserve its biodiversity and that it would be frowned upon if I stopped my grassland management and let it revert to scrub through the natural process of succession!
    Sometimes it is impossible to see the wood for the trees.

    • calvincaley says:

      My wife sent me information for a children’s day camp the other day, and their misssion statement including ‘creating autodidacts.’ I immediately thought, Wow, that has to be a really expensive camp! But as an autodidact, I also wanted her to go there. Ha! My very first day on this property, my argument with the city and the mitigation planner was based upon the idea that the space around and behind the house was a clearing before the house was ever there, and to try to make it anything else was completely wrong-headed no matter what ordinance or advanced ‘education’ was dictating the change. Having the experience of selling homes with beautiful outdoor spaces prior to this, I know the loveliness of the yard is always a driver of the sale. The maintenance of the yard, however, is another thing entirely (even though my previous gardens have been extremely low maintenance). This particular ‘garden,’ however natural looking or composed of native plants it might be, is awfully close to actual nature. I know precisely how difficult striving with god can be. Since I am only moving about 1000 metres away, I will have an occasional front row seat for whatever nature decides to make of it. Fearless prediction: a clearing filled with opportunistic scrub growth.

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