Seasonal Work, Festivals and Forestry on the Ecological Calendar

by Tomi Hazel (aka Tom Ward), Little Wolf Gulch, Southern Oregon

Let’s start by cherishing the goal for us all to deeply realize that we are natural beings on this landscape and that we belong here. That is a big healing for everyone; we’re not necessarily only making messes. We have work to do here and the land misses us because co-evolution is deeply embedded in our genetics and there have been First Nations peoples working on Turtle Island for anything from 13,000 to 250,000 years depending on who you talk to. It’s only very recently, 150-200 years ago that a regular cycle of seasonal stewardship got broken here in the Siskiyous. We can still see the remnants of that ethnobotanical work as we walk around landscapes and find what the First Nations peoples were doing. So it’s not that big a jump to get back into the game.

Paul Shepherd, author of Nature and Madness, and Coming Home to the Pleistocene, says to make sure that the children have full support when they’re infants, full body contact at all times—it’s called continuum parenting. Then from 3-9 years old they should have plenty unsupervised nature immersion. As a child in nature, the brain picks up the metaphors for thinking: the fox, the mud, the lichen, the dark, the light, the rain, the cold, the seasonal flavors, the template for all those symbols is genetically built into our brains. If we have that full complement of natural symbology in our metaphoric repertoire then we have a chance of becoming adults, growing up and being useful. A lot of us are missing parts of that vocabulary.

Way out west near Ashland, Oregon, we have a cohort of three friends who had magical childhoods in the Adirondacks, upstate New York. We all experienced children’s pilgrimages. In our early teens, we took each other to our childhood pilgrimage places, “Oh you’ve got to meet this tree; oh you’ve got to see this rock, you’ve got to climb this hill, you’ve got to jump in this ice cold lake, you’ve got to squish in this mud.” Now that we’re grandparents we think that kids are cute. This is the sequence of the seasons of maturation. We learn how Nature works, we share with new friends, we raise our own children and we care for parents as they move on. As we experience wonder, nurturance and loss, we mature and as the brain ages it can make faster connections and see patterns that help us contribute as elders to the community stewardship.

One vision that fits re-indigenation is a series of cultural festivals through the year. In early February in the Siskiyous, it’s the Manzanita festival because the Manzanita is in bloom and there are all kinds of products that are associated: Manzanita flower wine, Manzanita berry powder (used in a lot of culinary applications), the carved wood of the Manzanita. We can imagine seasonal festivals that are market opportunities for the forest workers’ culture in towns or cities. At these seasonal festivals, many things transpire that help the people remember who they are and remember that they are embedded in a forested landscape. This is the sequence of a re-emerging culture.

I grew up with Social Forestry in my remnant of a Quaker farming village. Every Yuletide in snowy upstate New York, we’d go out and collect two kinds of wreath materials that are Lycopodiums, Wolf Mosses (now threatened and endangered). We’d also gather very specific other forest plants that would be put in the wreath and hung on the front door. You’d walk up to our house and see “we are the people of the forest; we live here; we know what we’re doing; here’s our wreath and look what it’s made of.” And of course we went out and cut our own Balsam Fir Yule-tree. We celebrated the forest by bringing parts of the forest into the Crèche and the warmth of our house at Yuletide.

Another seasonal example is May baskets. The local custom was that on the first of May we’d make May baskets of milk cartons, crepe paper and candy that generations before were woven of forest materials and filled with the first flowers—Anemones, Violets and other early emergents. May flowers they were called. You’d sneak up to people’s front doors, ring the bell and run and hide in the hedge. Of course now they’ve cut all the hedges down. You’d wait for the person to come open the door and watch the surprise when they see the May basket. You’d deliver these through the neighborhood to announce, “It’s spring, come out of your house, here’s the tidings basket.”

These are some examples of celebratory seasonal activities which help us remember who we are, how we live and why we are here. My family also supplemented their diet with foods we gathered from the wild lands near the village. That included summer fishing, some fall hunting and berries, spring greens: the remnants of a local Social Forestry. Let’s imagine a new participatory culture for the places that we are now in.

Many traditional peasant (paysane: people of the land) cultures based the sequence of seasonal work and celebrations on the pattern dance of the sun, moon and stars across the firmament. The rate of change of the rate of change of day lengths and sun height on the northern temperate band of the Earth is palpable to the people in touch with Nature. The European Celts used solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days to schedule cultural events and work seasons. The quickening of Imbolc (February 2nd) moves us out of long nights with little change (deep winter) to catch the early lambs; the rush of the spring equinox re-awakens us to the promise of fresh greens; the full slipping into the long days of summer at Mayday (May 1st) settles us as we prepare the field crops; the languor of heat and short nights at summer solstice keeps us busy (with naps); the intimation of fall at August 2nd (Lamas) starts the harvest; the great cooling and shortening of days cascades past the fall equinox and hurries in the winter stores; we are “whistling past the graveyard” at Samhaim (Halloween, 31st October) as we enter the feasting season (eat everything that won’t last); we indulge the crafts, theater, singing and decorations to cheer us up through the winter solstice. This is the template wheel of the year and every locale elaborates on this according to the highly variable specifics and specialties of place.

The secret to effective house-holding, horticulture and Social Forestry is perfect timing. Getting ready ahead of the opportunities to practice good sequence and timing is an art. This is when “having too many irons in the fire” pays off. One can sketch a plan and bundle or clump the materials and tools necessary so that when the right guests arrive they can get rolling quick and have rewarding results. Keeping tools sharp, clean and organized means we are ready for quick fixes with exquisite timing and elegant results.

Lists and plans are good practice but mindfulness and attention to principles and patterns facilitates flexible design. Part-time and/or remote stewardship often misses the important windows of opportunity as the workers are not there at the right moment and ongoing observation is weak and spotty. As we are overwhelmed by modern juggling and too much information, managing to notice or remember the contingencies as challenges present themselves means we need to take breaks, open our senses and enter observation (take a walk!) several times daily on site. What with climate weirding, our ability to respond and pivot with unexpected events depends on our sensitive sequence and timing adjustments, a sort of meditative and site centered dance.

A good example of the benefit of perfect timing is the challenge of the narrow “entry window” for working most clay soils. If the clay is too wet one can trigger clumping or collapse of structure by mixing. If the clay is too dry one cannot enter it: the implement bounces. Crumble texture is the goal and if you are forking or double digging (French Intensive, Alan Chadwick) you may have only one or two mornings a year to aerate or work compost into such clays. Clays can be very fertile soils.

Community gatherings at the quarter and cross-quarter days provide distraction from the dizziness and help us focus on the season and its changes. These are the good times for planning, comparing notes and observations, councils and clan visits before guild workers scatter. To better orient ourselves, we socially recall that careful observation and a sense of being embedded in Nature inspires ultimate design.

Keeping the homestead calendar and diary with weather, blooms, pollinators and surprises leaves us records where we can find patterns. The practice of daily documentation keeps our observation skills attuned. Perfect timing is the goal. Although our modern lives may have us scheduled weeks ahead, the best morning to plant or harvest comes on a more immediate moment. This is where extended family or cooperative living arrangements can allow elegant, flexible and effective timing. Elders, for their wisdom and experience, children, for their original minds and folks with limited mobility who watch can all be honored as key councilors as they report and witness.

As a set of examples of accumulated principles for seasonal sequences of work in Social Forestry, here is what we have learned and what we envision in the Siskiyous. As we map our opportunities by season we find something to do in all times and conditions. Everyone can help. Small Organic Farms most often have forested lands adjacent. Spring, summer and fall are taken up with planting, tending and harvest but winter offers timely work in the woods and craft sheds. We can cut and thin fuel loads and convert the wood to fuels: seasoned firewood, charcoal and brown gas (wood gas). The ash should be returned to the forest. Ethically, we cannot replace petroleum with charcoal: many epic eras of human “civilization” (e.g. the Bronze Age) have failed for too much wood cutting and charcoal making. The atmosphere now has enough carbon already; we can grow some back into forest sequestration.

The most cherished harvests are of ceremonial foods, cultural materials, craft goods and biochar that is used to treat production fields. Ash and ramial tissues (small twigs and branches) should remain in the woods or be returned later as compost. Only the surplus carbon fixation can be exported. This is usually wood without bark. Some flowers, saps and essences can be exported but the mash from processing is best returned (perhaps via composting and then nursery trees) to the woods. And of course we export more and better water clear, late and cool.

Willow and other hardwood coppicing is best done December through February. The winter falling of the selected tree leaves a stump that sprouts in the spring from nutrients stored over winter in the root mass. Stumps that have been worked for some seasons become “stools” that are bristled with small cut stems. The right tools and the proper thinning choices will make for better and better wand, withie and rod quality and longer lasting stools.

Wildflower emergence and song bird nesting happens in spring time and we should then be careful of disturbing the woods. No chainsaw work in the spring time! Leave plenty wildlife trees and no-go thickets (clumping pattern!) in any woodlot. Better yet, learn to use forestry hand tools such as Japanese falling saws to allow more social work and less cumbersome safety gear year round.
Burn season timing is critical in the Shasta Bioregion. Broad-scale burns are most effectively done in mid-winter after sufficient rain to preclude catastrophic runaways and before early flowering in February. The goal is a biochar lace net suspended on the stubs of bunch grass clumps with still-green emergent seed-leaves under the net unscorched. The art of proper burn timing is complex and is almost always the province of aboriginal women’s societies. During mid-winter dry periods the fine grasses snap when bent on propitious days. The very best time to burn is at night if the fine fuels are dry enough; the cold air moving down slope carries the fire gently.

Proper timing to avoid the compaction of delicate forest soils is also critical. The use of heavy machinery in the forest reduces reproduction success and recovery time. Pond and road building (where one wants compaction) is best done in the fall after fire hazard is lowered by early rains but before the ground becomes too soft.

The potentially compacting efforts (log skidding and felling) are done first, after fire danger and before soils soften. Where there is a snow pack, logging on frozen ground and packed snow can dodge compaction. The materials yards and decks are thus filled for processing or loading. As the snow line in the Siskiyous drops, on the mid-elevation slopes, the slash is piled for biochar burns in the spring and the charcoal logs are clumped at kiln sites. Working on a snow pack is a bit different but materials are still slid to caches and stashed for later processing.

Woodlots and whole drainage basins need road and skid trail systems laid out on keyline principles with log landings doubling as detention ponds in late winter to build perched water tables. Single tree selection logs can be snaked out of the woods with long cables and break away pulley blocks. Bundled materials can be yarded to roads with temporary chutes or cables down slope. Animal and human drayage is good use of biological intelligence. Bicycles with carts as well as small (alcohol fueled) walking tractors can be properly scaled technology on road sides and along fire break trails. All construction and earthworks in the forest needs to be justified and stacked with multiple functions.

The timing and sequence of Social Forestry processes follows the condition of the soils, water tables and ecologies. Before logging, seed collectors, mushroom and lichen gatherers and craft wood gleaners “high grade” the treatment area, selecting special exports and perhaps doing some seeding and mulching ahead of the heavier disturbances. After the logs have been drawn out and decked, the charcoaliers cut up the slash into graded limb sizes and yard them at the kilns. The remaining ramial tissues (twigs and small branches) are either shredded for mushroom moldering piles or are cut up further for “lop and scatter” to provide forest floor mulch or continuous under-burn fuel or they are piled for the biochar burn and quench crews. Ramial char is a temporary tactic as we prepare to do open burns by reducing overloads.. This biochar should be scattered locally to improve forest soils.

After all this gathering, scattering and sorting, the broad-scale fires creeping down hill, supervised by the experienced fire guild members and tended by the whole community, convert the fine fuels to mineral fertilizer (ash) and biochar. These are cool burns and do not damage the soils or excessively pollute the air shed. Seeds are spread in the hot ashes. Perhaps the next time the treatment area is worked with it will only need to be cool burned again.

The charcoal kilns at the ridge pads and sorting yards can be tended, quenched, unloaded and reloaded with the sorted-by-size wood over and over, long into the winter. The brown gas from the kilns can be filtered and used to run small portable sawmills and drum shredders (Jean Pain). The lean-to shelters host basket makers and bodgers with their spring pole lathes. The mushroom growers tend their big piles of spawn and distribute the compost to plant nurseries and restoration efforts while also producing hot water for worker comforts. Keep water and nutrients as high on the landscape as possible! Return fertility to the forest!

Now we have visited the cycles of our lives, the seasons of the year with their festivals and work, the seasons of our childhood as we build our natural mind, the seasons of our mind as we try to pay attention to the real world and the sequence of Social Forestry in a Siskiyou winter. Next, the chart “Willow Works Project Field Workflow and Products” shows us a sequence over two years as ecological succession is intensified through disturbance regimes toward the reintroduction of under-burning and subsequent species diversity and wild foods abundance. If folks in community are to find continuity and proper sequence with such a social vision we must obtain yields.

The sequences of progress toward our community resilience and prosperity moves through reconnecting to Nature, re-skilling for household development and de-consumerization as we replace our petroleum guzzling madness with slow food and steady state economies. Giving back, storytelling, comforting cycles of seasonal celebrations, honor for all participants, gifts, everyone with something to do. Respect for our elders and emerging place based traditional knowledge supports Keeping it Living (Nancy Turner) in the sequences and seasons of the human epic. Remember the riddle of the Sphinx? We will find our place and position on the Great Mandala in rhythm and with grace.