Idyllic and Pastoral — An Earth Stewardship Surprise and Exemplar

Colleagues Craig Cassarino and Dr. Jean Meade and I visited an east-central Ohio cattle operation owned by friends and associates whom Craig has known for two decades. Because we three are collaborating on a Nature-based, sustainable agriculture-themed education project near Morgantown, West Virginia (Jean’s location), Craig wanted Jean and me to see the property and meet the landowners. Craig flew into Pittsburgh (90 minutes to Morgantown) from New Hampshire to coincide with my travels to the area. We drove over to Flushing, Ohio first thing Thursday, May 17. At this stage I will not reveal the owners’ identity. I want to coordinate telling their incredible Land Legacy Story more fully with them. Theirs is a story meriting recognition and celebration.

Premium Japanese cattle breeds are among Craig’s many interests. He is the catalyst (shall we say “cattle-yst”?) responsible for this operation incorporating Akaushi, what one web site called one of “the most outrageously marbled, incredibly decadent beef on the planet.” The cinnamon-brown bulls below are Akaushi. The operation’s other bull breed is a more common black Simmental, bred on this operation with Black Angus heifers. A Simmental bull grazes beyond the Akaushi in this photo. The family’s home sits atop the hill. A sight (and site) of pastoral splendor, accented and back-dropped by the rising cumulus.

 

Yet 35 years ago a 100-foot strip-mine highwall would have greeted this view of the home. No lush green grass… just bare rock and debris, something like the stock photo below. The cattle operation family metamorphosed from a family-owned coal mining firm. Both husband and wife worked for the coal company, beginning in the mid-70s. He left the family firm in 1990 for a larger nearby coal company, serving as engineer and land manager. When that company sold its 42,000 acres of inactive mined land (and inoperable non-mined land) in 1999, the couple purchased those holdings. They have since divested all but 13,000 acres. We toured the ~1,100 acres of pastureland contiguous with the home site… derived from a combination of family land (a mix of personal and family-owned coal company) and some 1999-acquired company land. The photos within this post belie the land’s strip-mine past. I believe John Denver spoke less than reverently of strip-mining in his Rocky Mountain High:

Why they try to tear the mountains down
To bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

I don’t intend to debate the relative merits of strip- and deep-mining, nor discuss the virtues and sins of our fossil-fuel dependence. My point and purpose instead is to recognize that an action as disruptive and seeming devastating as ripping the Earth asunder to extract coal does not necessarily result in permanent “scars upon the land.”

 

The owners did more than the expedient and minimally expensive to meet the letter of reclamation laws. They acted consciously and deliberately as Earth stewards. Their responsible actions created a landscape of pastoral beauty and productivity. The 16-acre impoundment below supports fish, frogs, and turtles and attracts diverse mammals and birds. I took the photo from the patio of the family’s cabin.

 

A 50-70-foot-high spoils ridge stands behind the cabin (below left). A clear-water spring exits from the hill (below right) from a point near where I stood to take the photo of the back of the cabin and forest.

 

The naturally-regenerated hardwood forest would appear as growing upon undisturbed land to the uninitiated. Yet this stand regenerated on unconsolidated, piled over-burden from stripping.

 

That debris ridge stood already re-foresting when the company rehabilitated the surrounding stripped acreage in 1983. The rolling pastureland where the cattle stand below supports lush forage. Interestingly, native, undisturbed pastureland requires liming to support grass and forbs of this quality. The reclaimed strip-lands include limestone debris, keeping the pH high enough to obviate the need for lime application.

 

No obvious scars upon the land evident in the scene below, where ten Akaushi momma cows and their two-month-old calves came to greet us when we approached on the Polaris ATV.

 

Same for the two views below. The owners care deeply about the land… and it shows.

 

The owners prescriptively manage grazing to ensure healthy forage and cattle. Although I did not probe or shovel beneath the surface, I saw evidence that the site is developing true soil with deep roots and organic matter incorporation. If the landowners agree to composing a Land Legacy Story, I will bring along my soil probe and put my doctoral expertise in forest soils to work.

 

Nature’s Own Reclamation Methodology

As I write this post, Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is spewing lava… lava that will soon serve as raw material for rich soil as weathering (chemical, physical, and biological) acts upon it. Fact is, all of Hawaii’s land is of volcanic origin. The entire island system and its rich life resulted from severe disturbance. I recall standing at Exit Glacier near Seward, Alaska, reading the interpretive signage chronicling the glacier’s retreat over the past 50 years. Near the current ice front, raw terminal moraines of unconsolidated glacial till stand tens of feet high. At the sign marking the front five years ago, vegetation covers the deposits. By ten years ago, tree seedlings and saplings dominate. Where the glacier face stood twenty years prior, a young forest occupies the site. Nature knows disturbance. Nature pays little heed to whether the cause is human-derived or of her own work.

However, we can assist Nature’s healing and abet her amelioration processes. The Flushing, Ohio landowners returned the land to a near-natural contour. They accommodated drainage and surface water flow to resemble patterns common to this region. The company had stock-piled surface soils and reapplied them to the reclaimed landscape. They re-vegetated quickly and encouraged its growth and establishment. They are conscious of soil formation as a necessary requisite to full and long-term land health and its economic vitality. Land ownership comes with costs (e.g., taxes; access maintenance; protection from fire and trespass; fences); the owners seek a return on their continuing investment of time and resources. They seek an economically viable premium breed cattle operation. They realize that the more responsibly they steward the land, the more viable their operation.

They believe in Earth Stewardship… because it’s the right thing to do and it’s doing things right. As we drove back to Morgantown, we observed many pastures on hillsides that have never been stripped for coal. We saw far too many hillsides bearing the distinctive scars of over-grazing. Corduroy contours of cattle walkways; bare ground where the grasses and forbs no longer constitute a soil-protecting stand; resultant erosion gullies; failed stream banks. Good land practices follow simple and proven treatment sequences and actions. Excellent stewardship can yield exemplary results on land that some would describe as having been decimated, destroyed, ruined by strip-mining. We saw first-hand in Flushing that good stewardship can return such abused land to full (and perhaps better than pre-disturbance) productivity — restoring its beauty, magic, wonder, and awe. In contrast, as we returned to West Virginia, we witnessed that irresponsible treatment of undisturbed land can be a travesty of abuse, devastation, destruction, and ruination without a single bulldozer scarring the land.

 

Broad Lessons for Our Relationship to the Land

I will draw this essay to a conclusion by offering four relevant quotes from a conservation and land ethic giant, Aldo Leopold.

Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac: “All conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” The landowners, my colleagues, and I certainly do not view the property as wilderness yet we do see it as a landscape blend of domesticated and wild. The fish, amphibians, and reptiles within the ponds do not care that their habitat is an artificial impoundment. The critters living within and near the debris-hill forest pay little heed to its origins.

Leopold also wrote that “We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” The landowners may not have referred to their operation as a community. However, they spoke of it in such reverent and respectful terms that they conveyed the same sentiment Leopold expressed. They view the land, their home, and the cattle enterprise as fully integrated… and they see themselves as one with it.

I observed earlier that the landowners reached beyond the expedient in rehabilitating the land. Leopold counseled all of us, with respect to caring for the land and its denizens, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold expressed these thoughts nearly 70 years ago; the Ohio land stewards have been walking the talk for at least 35 years. They have and are doing the right thing.

Even as I quote Leopold, he had his own favorite quote: “My favorite quote: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” May 17, we visited a property cared for by landowners who are clearly citizens of the domain they have the privilege of tending.

 

Note: I am available for Nature-themed motivational/inspirational speaking and writing… for NGOs, businesses, landowners, agencies, and Nature-oriented enterprises. Contact me at: steve.jones.0524@gmail.com

Land Legacy Stories: This Blog Post is an example of the approach I take to developing Land Legacy Stories, detailed tales of the relationship between caring, informed, and responsible stewards and their land… intended to extend generations forward and linking them to the past. Contact me to discuss your Land Legacy Story

My Premise and Core Belief: Every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature!

 

Responsible Earth stewardship provides a full measure of humility and inspiration, two necessary components of living life fully:

Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum

The Times West Virginian, Fairmont’s daily newspaper, carried a full-banner, top-of-page article October 14, “MCPARC hopes to develop East Side property.” MCPARC is Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission. Rather than rehash the full newspaper tale, I will hit THE Highlight. Recently (we can’t determine exactly when), a rainbow’s end paused along the Monongahela River, east side, within the city limits, adjacent to May Brothers Co on Wabash Street. How do we know? It left a pot of gold!

Forty-six acres of green gold – acreage that Marion County has owned for some time, but that time (and memories of former city officials) had forgotten. Because at heart I am a forester/applied ecologist (I just stumbled into higher education administration), Fairmont, WV community leaders invited me to tour the property and help envision its future. I also viewed that future through my Fairmont State University (FSU) interim president lens. We began with discussion indoors at the MCPARC offices. From there, several of us convoyed to the property. We parked at an old concrete materials-handling pad. The May Brothers buildings, built solidly a century ago, still stoutly anchor the site and the current operations. The buildings, in fact, are senior to the adjacent forest trees. We quickly exited our vehicles, descending a jeep trail into the forest.

What did I see, beginning with the indoor session? First, overwhelming energy and enthusiasm by MCPARC’s John Provins, May Brothers’ Mike Staud and Ronnie Nichols (the proprietors), Main Street Fairmont’s Nikki Lewis, and Northern West Virginia Brownfields’ redevelopment specialist Kate Greene. I saw an emerging dream, one with vision, determination, and a dedication to action. Without those three elements, a dream is merely a fantasy. I saw possibility leaning toward probability. I saw yet another opportunity for FSU to engage reciprocally with business, government, and citizens to ensure a brighter future.

Feeling as though I was playing hooky from Hardway Hall (FSU’s “Old Main”), I spent several hours of an August-like afternoon wandering (and wondering) through a remarkably diverse parcel along the river, and transected by a feeder stream falling from alongside May Brothers. I have held for many years that every forested property has a legacy story… a natural and human history. The remnant infrastructure reminded me of the WWII bunkers, armaments, barriers, and hillside roads remaining on Dutch Harbor, mid-arc on the Aleutians. Recall that the Japanese had occupied a couple of the west-end islands, recaptured with great expense and considerable casualties (1,000 American dead; 2,000 Japanese). Whether military act or industrial development, we leave our mark.

A Rich Legacy

This newly re-discovered (rainbow enabled!) Marion County property (I’ll dub it the Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum (FMCA)) has a deep legacy story. Our too-brief trek served as a teaser, hinting at the possibilities and evidencing the rich past. Two railroads intersected. Long-span trestles bridged the hilly topography, one actually passing under the other. Railroads competed back then. History left palpable traces — no, much more significant than mere traces! The old concrete trestle abutments, disassembled bridge beams, abandoned rail-bed ties still in-place, and even a lovely brick pump-house riverside. All speak to the rich human history. As do the woods paths, dirt/gravel roads, and actual rail beds that as hiking trails will offer easy access to the entire FMCA.

The land legacy story should be told. I’d like to write it. I want to examine old aerial photos that may trace the past 70 years. Photos that will confirm (or challenge) what I might interpret from the land and the current forest. My assumption is that photo coverage will easily reach back to a time when the trains still ran, when the May Brothers site took root, and when the hills supported little forest cover.

The rugged terrain, which extends from ridge top to river flood plain, provides for a wide range of soils and site productivity. Human influences from industrial activity, to road and RR construction and maintenance, to fuel-wood harvesting and occasional fire, have created a diverse forest… one rich with species and serving as a great base for the FMCA. I tallied nearly thirty tree species on our short hike. We all felt a sense of wilderness, although the tract is far from being “untrammeled by man.” I saw a few non-native species, most-likely naturalized citizens of this riverside plant community. I envisioned a systematic species inventory, perhaps by a botany graduate student. Mike and Ronnie would like to re-purpose their buildings — senior-level or master’s project fodder for our architecture majors. I’d like to see low-altitude, drone photos of the FMCA. Another student project. Opportunities for learning and research are unlimited.

The old railroad beds along this east side of the river stand as one of the unconnected links in a 1,400-mile Rail-to-Trail network. John told us that from one of the bluffs, downtown Fairmont is clearly visible, and surprisingly close. The rails to trail connecting from Prickett’s Fort to Palatine Park transects the FMCA. Ultimately, many thousands of hikers/bikers will visit the Arboretum annually. The FMCA will be one more pearl on a necklace that will make Fairmont and Marion County soar and prosper. Our Fighting Falcon students will bike from campus to FMCA. In fact, we will attract students who otherwise would enroll elsewhere. Same for workers, businesses, residents, and retirees.

One of my FSU Presidential frustrations is that when I bemoan some element or other of FSU’s current situation (e.g., we have one of the lowest percentage out of state students among our peers), I hear reasons (excuses?) for why that is the case. Instead, I want ideas, dreams, innovations, and actions that will inspire and lift us. The same holds for Fairmont and Marion County. Don’t tell me why Fairmont/Marion County doesn’t have nor ever will have an Arboretum. Instead, dream with John, Mike, Ronnie, Nikki, and Kate – make it happen. Invite me back for the ribbon cutting! I ended my Times West Virginian column with those words.

Unfortunately, such contentment-sentiment can infect and stifle innovation and creativity, whether a university, NGO, governmental agency, or business. Once again, Nature offers some sage wisdom and common sense. Recall the tried and true folklore wisdom that only the turtle willing to extend his neck makes progress. Poor old Rip Van Winkle — the world swept past for twenty years as he slept. Remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper. So many North-central West Virginia communities have slumbered. Jobs and workers have out-migrated. Yet this is a region with abundant natural and aesthetic resources. The group I accompanied is following the advice I have oft-repeated in these Great Blue Heron posts. We must Look, See, Feel, and Act. My role is to help them see more clearly what lies before them. To deepen their appreciation and sharpen their inspiration. They are ready to act. I am ready to assist by directing them to expertise and to those who might share their mission and accelerate their action.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

And I can tell the tale that connects the land’s past to a truly vibrant future… one rooted in a commitment to Earth stewardship, conservation, and responsibility to the future. The Fairmont/Marion County Arboretum must be linked to the past, and anchored to Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading. For generations hence, today’s Land Legacy Tale will be extending one day, one year, one decade at a time… and beyond.

As I complete this post, I found and am playing Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow:

“Somewhere over the rainbow way up high
there’s a land that I have heard of once in a lullaby
somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue
and the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
and wake up where the clouds are far behind me
where troubles melt like lemon drops
way above the chimney tops that’s where you’ll find me

Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly
birds fly over the rainbow why then oh why can’t I?”

The lyrics are apt. The FMCA I envision is indeed idyllic. No ruby slippers or witches, yet certainly bewitchingly appealing. Dreams, when dared, pursued, and hard-won, really do come true. Wishing upon a star alone won’t do it. As Louis Bromfield said about his beloved Malabar Farm: “The adventure at Malabar is by no means finished… The land came to us out of eternity and when the youngest of us associated with it dies, it will still be here. The best we can hope to do is leave the mark of our fleeting existence upon it, to die knowing we have changed a small corner of this Earth for the better by wisdom, knowledge, and hard work.”
The FMCA team members are ready to apply the power of their beliefs to the service of translating dream to reality. They are harnessing the power and passion of Nature. Heart, brains, and courage — they have what it takes!