Caring for and Healing the Earth


Caretaking by Letting the Animals do the Work

by David Schafer

(David Schafer and Alice Dobbs live on a farm near Jamesport, Missouri.)

So there you are – admiring that land which is so special to you. Thankful for the opportunity to be its caretaker. You want to do what is right, so where do you begin?

In the Caretaker class we learned after making a physical analysis of the land to ask Mother Earth what she wants for this piece of land. Four meditations were offered: the Eagle meditation, the Evolution meditation, the Water meditation, and a Wandering meditation to see the bigger picture.


The Evolution meditation Tom taught us was to stand in an area – preferably what we felt to be the spiritual "center" of an area – and observe a while. Then let a mist shroud us and ask the Creator what must be done. "Show me!" Then let the mist clear and observe the changes. Then you may want to ask what is the first step to take.

If possible, involve other people in the meditations – especially objective people. At the Caretaker class our team of eight was unanimous in what we felt the major changes should be for our little area of the Citta Boy Scout Camp.

I have little experience in caretaking woodland, but if part of the landscape tells you it wants to be prairie, savannah or pasture, you may wish to throw into your toolkit domestic stock as suggested in Caretaking Farm Land with Domestic Animals. The animals are willing and joyful caretaking companions if properly guided.  Is this type of project for you?


Cow Myth-Busting

Let’s try to put a few fears to rest. Fear, remember, is nothing more than False Evidence Appear Real. Cows, bless their sweet hearts, have been pretty beat up recently by many special interest groups. If you are to be comfortable using livestock as a tool, you must address and dispel the following myths:

  • Domestic stock erode the land
  • Domestic stock consume insupportable quantities of water
  • Domestic stock pollute our water
  • Domestic stock contribute to ozone depletion
  • Domestic stock consumption will starve the rest of the world
  • Domestic stock consumption is responsible for rain forest destruction
  • Domestic stock consumption is bad for your health
If any of these ring true with you, you are not likely to embrace Mother Earth’s preferred caretaking tool. Therefore, it is important to take the time to bust these myths before going any further.

The job is done with one stroke by admitting those statements are all, very unfortunately, true for the dominant paradigm in domestic stock production, the factory farm – confinement – model. Breathe easy, for none of them are true for the model you are going to practice. The Beyond Beefers and Dieters for a New America simply choose to look no further than the factory confinement models of production.

If you just have an emotional problem with eating meat you could use wool sheep, diary cows or diary goats, lamas or alpacas.

So, not only are you going to be efficiently caretaking, you are also going to be on the cutting edge – providing a model of quality food production which reverses all those harmful side-effects!

The best way to honor the animals is by providing them with an environment which is natural to them:

  • You will treat them as the ruminants they are, providing them with a salad bar of forages (grasses and legumes) as opposed to a concentrated grain ration.
  • You will make sure they are "migrating" regularly.
  • You will make sure they have companions – a herd or flock.
  • You will make sure they can express their instincts such as scratching, rooting, wallowing, lying in the shade, etc.

That is your end of the bargain. To provide them with the best life possible while in your care is the least you can do for the awesome deeds they will be doing for you.

Since ninety percent of all your interactions will be to introduce them to the next pasture, they will be quite fond of you. They will come running to you, wait patiently while you open the gate, then run into the next paddock bucking and romping and snorting and squealing in glee. Happiness is a new pasture.


The Physical Layout

You could become a full time shepherd and not use any fences at all. More likely, you will want some fences. This, like busting the myths, is a hurdle as well. Here’s how to do it simply, economically, and with little impact upon wildlife movement.

Use electric fencing. It is very good these days. It represents a psychological barrier as opposed to the physical barrier of barbed wire or paneled fencing. Use as few strands as possible. One will do in most cases for interior fencing. A great fencing company is Premier, out of Washington, IA. Call 800-653-7622 for a free and extremely informative catalog. Their people can guide you on the details.

Somehow bring water to every paddock. The water source should be within 500 feet of the stock to prevent wearing trails. Store water uphill and use gravity to get it down. Small water tanks are okay for the stock of you have a lot of water pressure; bigger tanks will be necessary if the pressure is low.


Your Goal

The big picture is what you want to accomplish. You may want many trees; you may want none. The land may tell you "bushy area here", or clumps of differing species. Studying permaculture is helpful here because permaculturists are always looking for multiple uses and layering things upon others. For example, a hickory grove can provide wildlife feed, livestock shade and windbreak, erosion control and nutrient diversity from the minerals it is bringing up from deeper layers of the soil. It could also supply a picnic area, "aerial" climbing practice, a sapling nursery for lodge and other construction, a living trellis for grapes…you get the idea.

With the willing aid of your bovine, ovine, equine and/or porcine caretaking friends you can shape the landscape to meet your goal. How? By realizing that succession – that tendency of an area to evolve toward its most stable state – may be advanced or retarded depending on how livestock graze. Let’s clarify this since it is fundamental to your success.

What are the climax states of vegetation in your area? Oak/hickory forest? Pine? Bog? Prairie? Savannah? (Look at undisturbed areas. Read pioneer accounts. Do a meditation to spirit band 5.) Depending upon moisture, soil types, Hellenic and direction of slope, the climax states will differ slightly or dramatically. When taken back to bare earth, all those differing areas evolve through successive communities beginning with pioneering species and ending with the climax community. That is succession.

You will be driving a giant "machine" which advances or retards succession. Succession can generally be thought of as successively higher levels of energy capture and retention. Bare dirt or sand doesn’t capture and retain a whole lot of energy. A thistle patch does better. A corn field is about the same. An alfalfa field captures more. A mixed grass and legume pasture captures even more solar energy. A prairie captures a big bunch as does a forest of ninety foot trees.

Try thinking of the earth as a giant solar collector eager to convert sunlight to carbohydrates. All the life sustaining wealth of the world – the soils and organic matter – was created in this way. Energy capture is what we probably ought to be attempting to maximize on most of the land in our care.

That means plants in active stages of photosynthesis – not "amber waves" but green waves. This is a good place to put to rest the theory that rest is beneficial. Rested land captures energy briefly at the beginning of the growing season when the plants are vegetative. The plants store enough energy to make seed, and at that point they are happy and go to bed. Brown fields of tall grass are not utilizing sunlight; not flowing energy into Mother Earth.

Maybe your short term goal is to build up mouse and rabbit populations so you want to let a few fields "rest" and build up some good wildlife cover. No problem. Just don’t let the fields stay idle too long or they will smother themselves and drastically reduce the number and species of plants (retard succession).

It is my belief that Nature usually wants a perennial polyculture – as diverse as possible, with as many differing species of herbivores grazing it as possible. Diversity = stability. That’s why the prairie is the climax phase of succession on the richest soils of the world.

Don’t get bogged down in perfectionism. You will fine tune the grazing management with time. Play with it. Rotate the livestock daily or every other day, making the pastures small enough so that the stock are just nicely cropping a good percentage of the plants. be flexible with paddock sizing by using temporary fencing (see above-mentioned catalogue).

Overgrazing is a function of frequency of bite, not severity of bite. Animals always take a severe bite. So a good rule of thumb is to rotate pastures fast in times of fast forage growth and slow in times of slow forage growth. This way you will avoid the "second bite syndrome" where you stress out a plant which has used stored root energy to produce more leaves only to have them nipped off. This leaves the plant energy deficient. It may recover slowly if all its neighbours are equally overgrazed, or it may be edged out by unbitten, faster growing neighbours.

For now, just be thankful you will be having a blast raising the world’s happiest and healthiest plants and animals instead of choking on diesel exhaust, compacting the soil and repairing broken mower blades.


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