Monday, March 17, 2014

Keeping Your Forest Healthy, a presentation by Kesi Stoneking

Preface: I had the opportunity to attend last weekend's Organic Growers' School in Asheville as a volunteer blog writer. The deal was, I got to attend a full day of classes (4 sessions) free of charge in exchange for writing summaries of 2 of the classes for the school's future promotional material. I chose to attend a full day of classes in the "Forestry" track, thereby sitting in the same chair in the same classroom all day. Each of the four classes covered a unique aspect of the very broad category of "Forestry" and offered me a variety of perspectives and new ways to think about being a forest land owner. I walked away with a sense of overwhelm at the responsibilities and possibilities of my sweet 20-acre primarily forested homestead, as well as some specific ideas of additions to the "things to do" list.

Keeping Your Forest Healthy, a presentation by Kesi Stoneking
Saturday, March 8 2:00

This Power Point presentation, delivered by the sensible, knowledgeable and down-to earth Haywood Community College Forestry instructor Kesi Stoneking, was not for the faint of heart! A far cry from the feel-good, heart chakra-massaging nature love circles that were no doubt simultaneously occurring elsewhere at the School, Kesi's talk dove straight into some of the real stresses, threats and killers of our native forests, particularly those who are caused by human activity. She particularly focused on the identity, prevention and control of the most destructive tree diseases, forest insects and invasive exotic plants. To be blount, it was a bit of a dismal lecture, but I agree with the words of Ms Stoneking herself: "Knowledge is a good thing."

To start with, Kesi defined a healthy forest, some of the key features being: the presence of tree and plant species suitable to the site and area, biological and structural diversity, and the following well-functioning ecological processes: water cycle, carbon cycle, nutrient cycle and soil formation. She then moved into a brief discourse of natural and unnatural forest disturbances, defining the different in function of disturbances such as dead trees, fire, wind, ice and native pests and diseases versus pollution, soil erosion and degradation, non-native insects and diseases and invasive exotic plants. In a nutshell, the natural disturbances create regeneration, provide habitats and "edge" environments and renew old forests, while the unnatural (human caused) disturbances disrupt the balance by diminishing diversity, quickly killing off key species and causing wider spread destruction.

The meat of the lecture was the section in which Kesi outlined the most destructive threats to our WNC forests and, when applicable, discussed prevention and control measures. Her selections of top forest destroyers? Here's the moment you've been waiting for. The winners are...

Diseases: Dogwood Antracose, Thousand Canker Disease (on black walnuts)- high threat
               Laurel Wilt, Sudden Oak Death- some threat

Non-Native Insect Pests: Gypsy moth, Emeral Ash Borer, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, Balsam Wooly

Invasive Exotic Plants: lots! but her top two evils were Oriental Bittersweet and Japanese Stilt Grass  

Each of her examples was accompanied with an explanation of the history of the problem, a breakdown of how the disease or insect or invasive exotic plants thrives and destroys, and breath-taking photographs of destruction. In all cases, the species was introduced by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, and able to thrive due to lack of natural predatorial or competitive stress, thereby leaving huge swaths of destruction to native forests and some of their key species. In general, there seems to be little that we as landowner and forest lovers can do to affect the problems on the large scale that they are occurring. Scientists and forestry professionals are seeking biological controls to introduce on large scales to combat some of the insect infestations, and preventative and mechanical approaches are used to slow the destruction.

Want more information? You'll have to take a class. Or perhaps you could read one of the books Kesi recommended on the topic: Insects and Diseases of Trees in the South and A Field Guide for Identification of Invasive Plants in Southern Forests, by Jim Miller and associates. Both are free books available through the Forest Service.

As a landowner, I walked away with a couple of tangible and manageable things that I can do in the face of very large problems which are far beyond any reach of my control.

1. I can get a Forest Management Plan. A trained forester can come to my property, look at all factors, study the history of the use of the land, and spell out a long-term plan for the use of the land, focusing on the health of the forest. This will also give me a tax break.

2. I can bump up controlling the invasive exotic species on my land on my priority list. I do have patches of both Oriental Bittersweet and Japanese Stilt Grass here, and now I have some knowledge and strategy for slowing their spread, and hopefully ultimately eliminating them. Sounds like it might be time for a work party...

Kesi's lectures was not uplifting, or really even inspiring. But someone needs to be the bearer of bad news. And Kesi did it well, even gracefully.

Wild Nuts by Osker Brown

Wild Nuts, by Osker Brown
Saturday, March 8 4:00

"Honestly, I have had ecstatic experiences crawling around the forest floor collecting acorns."
                                                                                                     -Osker Brown

Osker Brown is bonkers over wild nuts. And I don't blame him. Come the fall of the year, I, too find myself growing rather excited with the possibilities of so much protein, fat, caloric value and flavor at my fingertips- free of charge! This past fall I picked every hazelnut my fingers could reach, and I also collected storage tubs of what surely was a bumper crop of black walnuts. In years past I have hoarded Chinese chestnuts to roast and enjoy with winter company, and growing up in the piedmont, I munched on my fair share of pecans foraged from the row of pecan trees growing in the median of the main street in our neighborhood.

My amateur wild nut eating efforts just got schooled and are ready to kick it up a few notches come next fall! Osker Brown, the same guy who blisses out on crawling around in the ground looking for acorns, presented a very organized, well-informed, thorough and cohesive lecture about the logistics of foraging, preparing and eating wild nuts on a serious scale. He and his family live on some wooded acreage in the Mars Hill area which they have named Glorious Forest Farm and apparently are well on their way to figuring out the art of subsisting on a diet largely comprised of wild foods, particularly nuts. He presented the key players to us in order of subsistence importance to him and delivered practical information about identification, nutrition, habitat, harvesting, processing, storage and use of four main types of nuts found in abundance in the Southern Appalachian forests. His selections were: American hazelnut (Corylus americana), acorns (Quercus spp.), hickory (Carya spp.), and walnuts/butternuts (Juglans nigra, J. cinerea).
From roasting and salting, to grinding for flour, to blending for nut milk and pressing for oil, the gamut of uses for these humble nuts is vast and glorious. Osker's talk served to fill in the gaps of missing information about wild nut foraging and preparing needed to make that leap from theoretically cool to tangibly awesome!

With so many of us realizing the joy and importance of procuring our own food supplies, often the whole world of natural fat and protein can seem intimidating, controversial and sometimes unattainable. Even if we are animal eaters, we don't always have the ability to get our teeth into some good, clean wild or well-raised meat. The meat of our native nuts is, in my opinion, an excellent addition to the staples of our clean home-grown veggie staples, for both omnivores and vegetarians alike. For those of us with land, Osker urged us to start planting these native species near the home for future ease of harvest. For the rest, he suggests getting out there into public spaces and finding or creating your own nutty honey-holes from which to collect the collective bounty. I was also proud to hear him suggest dabbling in the enjoyment of some squirrel meat now and then if the nut-collecting competition ever gets a little too steep...

I have pages of precious detailed notes which I can consult later in the year, after the frenzied months of gardening, freezing, canning, and swimming has muddied my memory of that Saturday in March. Come next fall I will be much better equipped to get out there and get my nut on! If you are the least bit interested in nut eating, I suggest you take a gander over to the Glorious Forest Farm website, and sign up to take his class at next year's OGS. In the meantime, you can keep yourself busy with Osker's selected reading: Nature's Garden by Samuel Thayer and Wildflower and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont by Timothy P. Spira. And if you're out and about in the next couple weeks, look for the roadside lovemaking endeavors of the American hazelnuts in all their catkin glory!

American hazelnut with catkins (photo from Glorious Forest Farm website)