Monday, September 1, 2014

An arid food forest

Down the driveway, north of Junction, TX
Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Native American Seed farm, located just north of Junction, TX.  NAS is on the western edge of the Texas hill country, where it meets with the Edwards plateau. Though it only took 4 hours to drive there, it was 260 miles and a world away.  The farm is not especially well marked due (in part) to the fact that it is not equipped to host drop-in visitors. I knew I was in the right place when I drove past a field labelled 'echinacea'.

This dung beetle was having a good morning
I waved to a man on a tractor doing field prep, and then I pulled off into the driveway behind a warehouse to await my hosts. As I got out of the car to get my self together, I noticed a black dung beetle rolling a small ball across the gravel driveway. Dung beetles are creatures with fascinating life ways and they are much loved by ecologists and ranchers alike. Dung beetles are major recyclers in grasslands. They are quite efficient at making the nutrients stored in old dung available to new grass. These insects suffer in urban areas due to a number of factors, but most surprisingly for one reason in particular: light pollution. Many dung beetles navigate by the milky way. If they can't see it they become totally disoriented and unable to find their way home.

Unlike many animals, it is the male dung beetles that are responsible for nest provisioning. Many dung beetles are poop specialists- they'll only eat the dung of a particular family of creatures. This is interesting in light of the fact that, near Junction Texas, escaped exotics from 'wildlife ranches' make up a large portion of the fauna. Axis deer, aoudad sheep, and wild hogs are major players. The NAS farm has both the exotic axis deer and the native white tails. Axis deer are bigger and keep their fawn-spotting for life. They have driven the white tails out of the river bottoms and onto the more marginal habitat of the uplands. We saw abundant axis deer when we toured the richer mesquite and prickly pear forests near the river. The white tails made themselves scarce.

Read more after the jump.

Cultivated field of liatris, a few weeks from bloom
My hosts took me on a golf-cart tour of their facilities. We stopped to look for bumble bees, kept our eyes open for horned toads, and were glad to have the luxury of riding in the cart rather than hoeing the weeds in the hot sun. Golf carts are an excellent way to travel. They are so quiet.

I couldn't help but notice the natural abundance of the south Texas landscape. Due to my work with growers who wish to ameliorate their environmental impact, I've been thinking a lot about sustainable farming. I've picked up a few books on permaculture at the library. I love the idea of semi-natural "food forests", and parts of south Texas already fit that description. 

Almost all of the dominant flora in this part of Texas is edible. Mesquite beans can be ground into flour, prickly pear fruit and nopales are tasty, as are agarita berries. The black fruit of texas persimmons were ever-present and sweet, though they do dye your tongue. Devil's claw, an annual with showy flowers and hooked fruits eaten like okra, is a native crop field weed.

Sometimes you would see one edible plant growing on another. This was the case with the prickly pears growing on the boughs of mesquite. Multi-story cropping with native plants is quite appealing. Mistletoe (non-edible) also grew up in the canopy, contributing to the local arboreal ecosystem. It seemed strange that an eden would be found somewhere so arid, but I suppose humans did evolve in warm savannas. Perhaps this place resembles our native home.

Up in my neck of the woods, agarita and texas persimmon are supplanted by pecans, maypop, wild grapes, and dewberry. Even seemingly unfriendly plants like cat briar and bull nettle are edible- I've eaten the former, but I've been too timid (or perhaps not hungry enough) to dig the tubers of the latter. If I were to develop my own permaculture savanna in north Texas, I'd add the native fruits mexican plum and crab apple to the mix. I might throw in some farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) if the soil isn't too alkaline, some lemon balm (Monarda citriodora), elderberry, turk's cap, sunflower, and yucca too.

When I described this pantry of a landscape to a friend, she suggested that maybe this land had been shaped to suit the people who previously occupied it. She said that back east, native people would burn the forests to keep them open and amenable to human habitation. Newcomers discovered this verdant eden and assumed that it grew that way without human intervention. They stepped into a garden and called it a wilderness.

People have lived in south Texas for thousands of years. It is intriguing to consider the possibility that one might be viewing a legacy of human hands. I do not know the truth of human influence on the south Texas landscape, but it is worth remembering that we (humans) are not separate from the larger ecosystem. There is a place for us here.

Two different arboreal parasites: prickly pear and mistletoe on mesquite

The view back at our golf cart and the dirt trailthrough their 'bottomland forest'
Caterpillar of a Sulfur butterfly on desert senna. Senna is their larval host.
Eryngium leavenworthii, a native disturbance species

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