Caring for and Healing the Earth

Tracker School Caretaker Classes

Nov 2001 Caretaker Class
Post-Class Update - May 2003

The following update has been paraphrased from information supplied by a student who attended this Caretaker Class. They went back for another class at the Tracker School in May 2003. While they were there they examined the areas that this Caretaker class worked on, and spoke with others who were there, including caretakers at the Tracker Primitive Camp.

The Commentary and Analysis was written by Walter Muma, who attended the the first two Caretaker classes at the Tracker School.

Clear-cut Cedar Swamp area at the Tracker Primitive Camp
by a student of the Nov 2001 Caretaker Class

I was so excited to go down to the cedar swamp and see how big our baby cedars were doing.  I suppose I shouldn't have been expecting a whole lot - after all, it had only been one growing season since we'd worked on the area.  My group had the section on the left side closest to the "road".  It was so amazing how many baby cedars we were finding once we started clearing all the slash out of there.  There were hundreds.  I remember when I first started pruning back the deciduous trees, I was cutting them down, rather than off, leaving them about a foot tall, maybe less.  I figured they would sprout and provide winter food for rabbits and such.  The problem with doing this was that someone would inevitably come behind me and "finish" the job, cutting the trees off at ground or close to ground level.  I didn't like this too much, but I ended up following this procedure in the end.  We hauled a heck of a lot of deciduous trees out of that relatively small area - many, many armloads full.  When we looked back, the place was virtually unrecognizable.  I'm sure your area looked the same.  All we could see now were the tiny baby cedar trees that resembled young horsetail plants.  As the old, half-buried cedar slash was pulled out, we started finding areas where water used to pool or even flow.  It was really neat to imagine the life that this area once had and would soon, with our help, have again. 

Well, imagine my shock and horror when I didn't see a single cedar seedling!  Cedars that were a few feet high were tinged with brown and sickly.  There was a little sign of rabbit scat and I think I remember a few deer tracks.  But no seedlings!  I couldn't believe my eyes - I didn't want to.  I felt sick.  I checked out some of the other groups' areas.  Some of the sites on the right side still sported seedlings under the shade of the taller and more densely-growing cedars.  I had an idea what had happened, but I wanted to talk to someone else. 

I spoke to one of the caretakers at the camp to see what he had to say.  What he told me is that last summer (2002) it was extremely hot and dry. The cedar seedlings, without the protective shade of the larger trees were essentially burnt to a crisp. He also mentioned that the deer like to feed on the cedar seedlings.  (Something that rather surprised me.)  It's hard to say if the deciduous trees we cut out would have provided enough protection during an abnormally hot and dry summer, but it sure makes me wonder.  He figured we'd cut too many out.  And, of course, I wonder if having left the deciduous trees pruned rather than cut down to the ground would have helped at all.  I don't remember now what the deciduous situation was when I went back.  I wonder how many seedlings will sprout now? 

There were a couple of other people from our caretaker class there and I took them down to see the site.  They were not very happy about what they saw.  It's definitely a caretaking effort gone bad.  I wonder if Tom Brown foresaw this?  It also worries me that a friend of mine (also in our class) and I embarked on a similar caretaking project when we got home.  It was a spruce and jack pine forest we were working in.  Neither of us had a chance to look at it this year.  I sure hope it's alright.

Culvert Area

The new dirt bike trail through the bush that we had "disappeared" has been opened up again and is looking well used.  The stream that we "unstraightened" and attempted to make impassable has also been reopened and well-used.  As for the "mud bog" where we were in up to our chests digging impassable holes, ditto.  Though maybe not quite as well used as the others, it seems to be getting more use than it had before we "fixed it up".  I think in this area where there are so many people off-roading, these types of projects need to be more than a one-time effort.  They need to be continually monitored, or booby-trapped with thought bubbles, in order to continually deter people from using them.  I did place a thought bubble near the medicine waters during the caretaker class, but I didn't have a chance to go back to there.

I think it is just as important to learn from our failures as it is from our successes.


Commentary and Analysis
by Walter Muma

The Caretaking exercise at the Clear-cut Cedar Swamp was not very well supervised. People were told to emphasize the tiny cedar trees that had been planted. Although the class had been through a number of exercises in which they were taught how to follow their "inner vision" in order to determine what to do, in many cases the exercise quickly turned into a second clear-cutting session. It was observed by some that there was a lot of ego involved, and very little listening to inner vision or the Earth or the former swamp as to what should be done and how. People were out to prove that they could "fix" things.

As a result, most of the blueberry and other young shrubs were completely removed, as described in the update (above). However, if blueberries are what is growing up there naturally after the clearcut, and they are native plants, then this is the Earth's way of starting to heal this area. Small shrubs provide important cover for young trees to grow, and they help to shade the soil so it won't dry out. This is even more important given the context of the area. Blueberry shrubs are found everywhere that forest cover has been removed. This is what they do: colonize burned over or cut over areas. They thus provide cover for other plants to grow up.

Cover helps to keep the soil from drying out as quickly. It slows the impact of raindrops, so they don't hammer into and compact the soil. It provides shelter as well, allowing smaller creatures (small mammals, insects, amphibians, etc) to live and thrive.

Off to the west and north of the clearcut area there is still a large area of ancient cedar swamp, dark from the shade of the old, tall cedar trees and numerous understory shrubs. The ground is very wet, with frequent pools of water. In stark contrast the ground in the clearcut area is exposed to the drying effect of the sun and wind, as there is no cover whatsoever. Thus the clearcut area has significantly reduced water retention, and thus a significantly reduced chance of becoming a swamp again (at least in the shorter term). In this drier soil, an entirely different plant community will grow up. Completely removing what cover does grow up in the form of small shrubs seriously inhibits the return of wetter conditions.

Additionally, the drying effect present in this area draws water off from the remaining cedar swamp, much like a sponge, thus helping the remaining cedar swamp to dry it out somewhat, particularly at the margins.

Back to the blueberries and the cedars ... As they grow up, they provide important cover for the young cedars to grow. Deer may be less likely to find and eat them. They are protected from the sun's heat. The ground will remain moister. If any action is to be taken, then perhaps some gentle pruning as the cedars grow, to give them room to flourish.

Pruning back ALL the blueberries and other small shrubs in fact only encourages them to "sucker" and produce many shoots where before there was only one. So if removal is the object of the pruning, then it is counter-productive.

There is another, larger issue at work here, which is humankind's desire to control and manipulate Nature. There was a cedar swamp here before it was cut. It was removed. We get tied into labels very easily, by calling this a "cedar swamp". Therefore, in our view, there must be cedars here once again. So we plant them and hope that they will grow up into majestic huge old cedar trees. Well, Nature simply doesn't work that way! A cleared area will grow up in ways that are most suitable for it at the time. It will probably be something completely different than a "cedar swamp". It will become what is best suited to that area, for those conditions. Perhaps someday, hundreds of years from now, there will indeed be a "cedar swamp" here once again. Maybe, maybe not. But we can't plant and "grow" a majestic cedar swamp; plant some trees and "poof" and there's a swamp. And in any case, who's to say that's what is now best for that area?
A swamp, like any forest, is a community of plants and animals, birds, insects, etc. It is not just a collection of a single species of trees.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this whole experience is to be reminded once again of what Caretaking is really all about. It is about assisting Nature, offering an informed and aware helping hand. It is about healing the damage that we have done to the Earth, but it is also all about asking and listening, before doing. It is about allowing Nature and the Earth to run their normal natural course, with minimal interference, and all we humans are to do is offer a guiding hand from time to time.
By the way, this was the central and underlying theme of both Caretaking classes that were taught at the Tracker School. Perhaps it wasn't taught well enough,  and as a result many in the class didn't absorb this central theme.


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