- Ian Thompson
Forged in Heat
With hardly a cloud in the sky for the past month, the unstoppable summer sun has progressively dried out and heated up the ground. Then one day this week, it finally happened - one of our pastures burst into flames. With the hottest, driest conditions we've seen in a few years, it seems like spontaneous combustion just might become a possibility. This is, of course, not how this week's fire at Nan Awaya came about. With a lot of help from Oaks and Prairie Joint Venture, it happened as a controlled burn that we conducted in one of our pastures. We did this burn to learn more about how to better manage the landscape that we live on.
Anything that is alive changes over time. This is as true for the land as it is for a human face.
If you observe a landscape closely (at least the ones that haven't been paved over) it changes week-to-week and year-to-year. The way that a landscape looks at any given point in time is the result of many different factors and relationships all coming together. Things like drought, human management, fire history, and recovery play a huge role in shaping the landscapes all around us. It's odd and maybe telling that the forces that shape our non-human surroundings, and that ultimately shape our lives too, don't get much practical coverage in school. You have to learn about them in specialized classes, or through direct experience. Once you start learning about the things that shape the land, though, it starts to change how you see the world.
Indigenous communities were intimately aware of the forces and relationships that shape the land. Many communities' traditional lifeways involve managing these forces in sophisticated ways to produce landscapes that support human life. For example, 300 years ago, Choctaw communities intercropped corn, beans, and squash as an edible ecosystem in the agricultural fields. When the soil was eventually depleted, the land could be taken through a series of enhanced stages of ecological succession, which all produced food. Recently fallowed fields soon became wild strawberry patches, where a person could pick half a gallon of strawberries without taking a step. Over time, the strawberry patches transformed into blackberry thickets, producing a fruit so important that a month in the Choctaw calendar was named after it. Still later, the land may have become wild groves or managed orchards of persimmons, sassafras, or pawpaws - trees which were all used for food and other purposes. Later, that same piece of ground could become a grove of hickory or oak, producing important mast crops. After decades or centuries, with the soil fully replenished, the area could become a corn field again. The father of modern soil science observed the end result of the traditional Choctaw system of land management. He described it as infinitely sustainable.
How do we implement something like that at Nan Awaya Farm? Just as it was for the Choctaw, fire was the most important land management tool for the ancestors of the Caddo, who managed the land where Nan Awaya Farm is located for thousands of years before we came along. In February, we experimented with burning three of our pastures, and then broadcasting prairie seeds on the blackened and soon-to-be-snow-covered ground. Walking out in these pastures every day possible since then, and observing how the land has responded has been a great learning experience.
As soon as things greened up after the fire, the Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, and Indian Grass exploded in a luxuriant growth. Dominant plants of the tallgrass prairie, they are also favorite foods of bison and horses. If our animals could have their choice of being anywhere on the farm this year, these burned pastures are the place. This speaks to how fire improved the nutrition in this pasture for the animals (the vigorous regrowth of their favorite prairie plants has significantly higher levels of protein than older growth). The fire cleared out old thatch, and we've seen a lot of our new prairie planting start to pop up (this should only accelerate for the next few years as these plants get more established). Since the fire, we've seen certain fire-loving native species, like yarrow, pop up.
Fringed poppy mallow also came up from seeds surviving in the soil (right). This is the first time we've seen this native wildflower here. In full disclosure, we did have some invasive species pop up in the burned area too, but being out there almost every day, we were able to locate and annihilate them before they could get any foothold. The areas that we grazed immediately after the burn are seeing a lot of ragweed and goatweed, doing their job of holding the soil until other native plants can rebuild. From a distance, the most noticeable change about these pastures is how green they are. With our current weather conditions, these burned areas are the only place in the farm's uplands that is still green.
In the same way that a landscape changes from season to season, the impacts that a fire has on that landscape differ depending on what season the burn takes place. We wanted to try a growing season burn and compare its effects with the burns we did in February. Growing seasons burns are reported to be a good tool for dealing with two challenges we currently face. One of these is that as the summer drags on, the nutrition of our forage drops. With adequate soil moisture, a warm season burn causes a late summer flourish of new growth and nutrition. We've been told an echo of that spike repeats the second year too. Warm season burns in a pasture or two could be a way to raise protein and improve a weak link in yearly nutrition for our heard.
A second challenge we have at Nan Away Farm is thousands of little tree saplings invading our pastures every year. Brush-hogging leaves sharp-pointed stobs, and those stobs regrow the next year with 5 shoots where there had been one. Hand-clipping the shoots and squirting the stobs with glyphosate is more effective, but not very time-efficient on 160 acres. A summer burn could be a better answer. To a greater degree than a burn done in the winter, the heat top-kills the saplings and puts the roots into moisture stress. Implementing systematic summer burns could be much more labor-efficient and environmentally responsible method for keeping our pastures from growing up into shrubby, viney thickets. By doing a controlled burn this summer, we wanted to experiment with these things and more.
With high temperature and lower humidity, summer burns can be dangerous. We conducted ours with the help of Ken and Leah, from Oaks and Prairies Joint Venture. These professionals helped us write a burn plan that laid out safe procedures and conditions for conducting our summer burn. In addition to their experience, they also brought two portable water sprayers on the morning of the burn and directed us in implementing the burn in real time.
To get a summer burn to carry under conditions of safe humidity and wind, requires standing dry plant material. Much of this burn was located in a 7-acre area that hasn't been grazed in 2 years, so it had built up lots of dead thatch. We used our driveway, a road, a mowed fire line, and a still-green lowland seep as our fire breaks. We set fires along the breaks and let them burn together in the middle.
As the green vegetation along the seep burned, the clouds of smoke were thick, ascending high enough into the sky they could be seen for miles. On the drought-parched upland, an updraft created a fire tornado several stories tall. I had read about grasshoppers swarming in front of the summer prairie fires back in the old days, with people coming by later and collecting the grasshoppers that happened to get roasted as ready food. When I ran around to the head of our fire to check on a burn line, there were the grasshoppers by the thousands, fleeing the flames! I didn't try the roasted ones, but I'm sure the birds and mice did. Most of the fire was over in a couple of hours. Some areas of the burn had been covered in brush, growing up around large fallen trees. These were going to be a ton of work to extricate and remove with the hand tools we use. As an unexpected bonus, the fire turned the fallen trees into 30ft-long lines of ash on the ground. The biggest downed tree in the burn, still on fire as I write more than 4 days afterwards, looks like it too will completely disappear into a pile of ash.
Right now, everywhere the fire went appears dead and blackened. With the current drought and heatwave, we may not see much change until the spring. Over the coming months and years, though, I think we'll learn just as much from seeing how the land responds to this summer burn, as we have been from the February burns.
This year, the sweltering dog days summer arrived early. For many weeks, we've literally been wringing the sweat out of our t-shirts as we've worked on the land. When the heat gets a little too ridiculous, we've got a saying we share with each other as melodramatically as possible, "We are forged in heat". It helps to lower the temperature just a bit with a moment of laughter.
The landscape of Nan Awaya Farm, like most of North America, was literally forged in heat - through a cycle of drought, burning, and recovery that goes back as long as people have been managing this land. Even if it takes until the spring green-up, it's for certain the little area we burned last week will recover spectacularly. Burning is an important part of Choctaw traditional culture, one that is in danger of falling out of practice at the family level. Ultimately, we hope to set things up where we can begin to burn 1/4 to 1/3 of the family farm each year, helping to change its landscapes for the better. Ken and Leah, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, and your sweat on such a hot day to make this learning opportunity available us!