Solution to the Mima Mounds

I wasn’t on some kind of quest to discover the source of the Mima Mounds. The information arrived, and I realized the connections. It is also the story of why I’ve becoming increasingly interested in farming over the course of my life. So this is about the ecology of eating well and the history of a geographical feature. Here is a summary of that journey.

We bought a farm near Menlo. The property has four apple trees, four of which are very old indeed. Picking the bounty last fall I had a moment of sadness that the apples I was picking came from someone else’s labor. Then I stopped to remember that I had planted fruit trees everywhere I had lived, my whole life long. By that calculation, these apples are my just desserts. They tasted great.

I’ve grown vegetables everywhere I’ve been, planted lots of fruit, but never really had a significant relationship with another species. Dogs and I didn’t understand each other, and my goldfish displayed little compassion. Then I volunteered on a goat dairy for a year and slowly eased into the job of being the shepherd browsing the woods with the goats. At first it was just me and 25 does just a few yards from their pen. Since they were accustomed to heading straight for the grain bin when the daily feed was offered, it was easy to come to an agreement on where to go for snacks when grazing got boring. The goats and I trained each other, and soon there were 55 of us on a daily nutrition ramble through the woods, maybe a mile or more. Goats and I are a similar size, but I have the height advantage, being on two legs. It wasn’t like I was the leader. We all decided together. As long as I didn’t have a tight timetable or other absurd agenda, we got along fine.

One day we walked to the alder grove. The grass was nice there. Each goat follows his own mouth towards the next excellent bite, so they eventually get spread out over a large area. It appeared that cohesion was about to become difficult, so I got the attention of a few nearby goats and headed down the path. The rest soon followed, and we’re going down a path about two goats wide. Then one of them realizes where we’re going: that great grassy area with extra salal! Everybody starts to trot in eagerness, and I go along with the program. Then I tripp over a root. On the way down I thanked my lucky stars I was not a cowherd, or I’d be hamburger. Getting trampled by a herd of goats could be painful, but probably not fatal, as it would be with cows. I hit the ground hard. When I looked up, they had all stopped running and were staring down at me, apparently waiting for me to get up and run with them again. I did, and off we went.

Goats are good company. They have sweet breath, and they like to sniff you to find out what’s going on in your life. You can lie down among them and be one of the herd, fall asleep in the sun, legs and bodies tangled.

And they never escalate! If one has something to tell you, it will: Baa, Baa, Baa. If you don’t respond, they don’t get insulted. Two hours later it will sound exactly the same: Baa, Baa, Baa. They’re never impatient, never jump to the conclusion that you are neglecting them intentionally.

I love them. I also eat them. It’s a deal our species made with their species tens of thousands of years ago. Goats have been with man as long as dogs have! We are carnivore shepherds of goats, who can digest brush, blackberries, scotch broom, gorse and very efficiently turn them into meat and cheese to feed their shepherds, the carnivores.

We’ve selected which goats to breed for genetic propensities like ‘kid cuteness,’ ‘likeliness to gambol sideways down the hillside implying spontaneous joy,’ ‘does are easy to milk,’ ‘not likely to get hoof rot,’ etc. They’ve selected us for things like ‘dependability,’ ‘knows when to cut the hay for our winter food,’ ‘leadeth us beside the still waters,’ etc.

They have many endearing habits, and some strange ones.

In rutting season, the buck pees on his own face to make himself smell good and to excite the does and make them receptive. It seems to work for them. Goats don’t usually smell bad, just the buck, and just in season.

Dominance behaviors are another good one: like teens ‘high-fiving’ each other and doing the secret hand shake, goats greet each other by rising on their hind legs and butting heads. No, I don’t think it hurts. The larger or higher animal always wins. The approach is incredibly graceful: they face each other a few feet apart, rise slowly and gently on their hind hooves, pause for up to a few seconds at the top, then aim their head to smack widows-peak head areas with the other animal. The top one wins, it’s over for the moment, and both animals come down hard on their front hooves, a few inches apart, right under where their heads hit. Then repeat, or lose interest and graze.

Goats, sheep, elk, caribou – the behavior is as ubiquitous on that branch of the tree as birdsong. It’s a genetic thing. And these combative goats are the same ones which stopped along the path to wait for me to get up when I fell. I am acquainted with more than one specific gene pool that loves to butt heads.

In the city, information is fragmented. By staring at the urban landscape you might be able to determine that the houses on your hill were built in two different architectural eras, and you might figure out which era was Catholic by counting the average number of bedrooms. You might see that the street used to be brick before it got paved over with asphalt, or that all the holly trees seem to be about the same vintage. Was it a traveling salesman specializing in Christmas greens?

There are things we know about life when we see them in the context of the whole living system. All my life I’ve sought out the Old Growth Forest during trying times. It was reassuring just to be there where everything fit together. The cycles of life, the succession, the continuity! It felt whole, so I did as well. What comfort I found there! Even dying was okay.

Our education is fragmented, too.We’re taught to know things by memorizing them in school using our conscious minds. Other ‘ways of knowing’ are discredited. For years I’ve been trying to remember how to think that other way, to lend credence to my own less conscious thoughts about the world. Most of the garden stuff I know is stuff I never learned. I bend over and reach for a plant in the garden, and I see my mother’s hand in my own, and it informs my actions. I know how to get along with donkeys because of time spent in the field with mom.

And other information is also available. A friendly neighbor brought me his extra currant plants in temporary pots. Now, I had just finished my berry patch, and hadn’t left any room for currants. They seemed to want to be planted in the corner of my front yard chaos flower garden, which was definitely not part of my plan for that area. Every place else I tried to put them just felt wrong, but they needed to be put into the ground soon. Okay. I decided it would be alright to ‘temporarily’ plant them where they begged to be.

(No, I don’t believe plants talk to me, and I have no idea how that message arrived in my brain.)

They did great there! A few months later I read that currents love to be planted near maple trees, because their roots share microorganisms that facilitate the growth of both plants. Wishing I had a maple to satisfy them, I glanced to where they had been planted, and only then noticed they were under the neighbor’s maple tree.

Just for the record. I don’t believe that story either, but it really happened. That is a happy currant plant to this day.

I also love animals for their manure. Walking the pasture picking up piles of poop is like gathering golden nuggets! I feel rich! I used to feel slightly guilty, as the manure had been made from the grass, and should refertilize the pasture, in all fairness. It is of value in the field, but topsoil will form even without the manure. As the grass is eaten, the corresponding roots decay, adding organic matter to the soil, building humus, and increasing the layer of topsoil throughout the whole root zone.

Increasing the layer is not the same as adding a layer. When soil is built it doesn’t just get spread on top of the existing soil. The whole root layer grows in thickness at every level. The cycle of graze, decay, regrow, graze is the builder of prairies. What is getting added? Carbon from the air, captured by photosynthesis to become plant, then humus.

If I were a gardener for hundreds of years, maybe I could get to the point where I could get raised beds by growing the soil. Tramp between beds, cultivate soil in the beds. We have a similar system of sheet mulching a compost between beds, and every four years we take that compost layer and add it to the growing beds. In the pathways we start with wood chips to inhibit other plants from growing there. They take about 4 years to break all the way down, so we follow with layers of cardboard (which sometimes yields mushrooms native to the eastern hardwoods from which it’s made) or grass clippings, it all works.

At this point you know enough to figure out the answer. To address your few remaining questions, I continue.

Early gradeschool drawing class was not my finest hour. I drew the typical rainbow picture on a blue sky, with two hills intersecting in the middle of the paper. It needed a river, so I drew one coming over the top of the hill. It didn’t sit right with me, but I didn’t figure it out until a few years later. A remnant of that conceptual error persisted in my thinking about how floods arrive. I picture a flow of water approaching the farm. But really, it’s not a wall of water from the broken dike, it’s the water table below your feet getting closer and closer to the surface. If you left your hat in the yard, the water would rise through the surface of your lawn and float your hat. As the flood receded your hat would be lowered to exactly where you left it, assuming gentle winds. The flood can arrive from the ground up, and disappear the opposite way: straight down. In some areas things get moved around by water flow, but it’s mostly a flat phenomenon.

Wikipedia: Prairie refers to temperate grasslands of North America. These are areas of low topographic relief that historically supported grasses and herbs, with few or no trees, having a generally mesic climate. The word prairie is derived from the French prairie (“meadow”,”pasture”).

The first tasty greens of the spring show up on the praries where the sun has the advantage because of the dearth of trees. Migratory patterns track the best nutrition opportunities. It’s not that ‘they go there because the grass is fresh and green.’ It’s that those who didn’t have that propensity and went elsewhere ate something else, maybe even evolved into something else. “Survival of the fittest” isn’t a strategy, it’s a statistical imperative that includes many parts of the web of life, some winners who thrive, some losers who fade from the scene. If ‘eating the prairie’ had resulted in the prarie’s disappearance, the grazers would have shot themselves in the foot short order. It wasn’t a matter of wisdom that they moved on, but a matter of many generations of finding a balance.

The tasty praries drew hungry ungulates from all directions. They came from the Olympics, the Cascades, the Willapa Hills, all headed for the prairie reunion, which is coincidentally in rutting season. Picture the National Geographic photos of tens of thousands of caribou coursing across the tundra. Picture tens of thousands of teenage elk high-fiving each other on the prairie, eager for every last encounter, settling the pecking order by crashing heads.

Now I think you can see it:
Same prairie every year, for maybe thousands of years.
The elk trumpet from higher ground, and a few inches can make a big difference in being heard, and a big difference in who wins the head-crashing contest. A small rise is all it takes.
The prairie is basically flat, but gets torn up by the dramatic landing of the front hooves after the crashing. The landings are all on the low ground, which makes it even lower and which compromises the grass growing there, just like the well-trodden path to the barn. The powerful landing of the front hooves never occurs on the high ground, so the grass there is left to be grazed. Pastures are improved by grazing them. You rotate the grass eaters so that they eat the young very nutritious grasses and move on. Roots and leaves develop in parallel. More leaves means more roots. Eat the leaves (or the blades of grass) and some of the roots die off and rot, adding the humus in all the places where the roots went. Grazing increases the amount of topsoil, and not as a layer on top of the soil, but as an incorporation of organic matter at all the levels reached by roots.

The size of the elk has determined the size of the hillocks. The low areas don’t grow very well and don’t make much new soil. The high areas get grazed, shat upon, regrow, and build topsoil.

The water rises in the flood, but the hillocks don’t erode because the water is moving up and down, not horizontally.

Next year the grass sprouts, the elk arrive, eat, find high hillocks to challenge from, land in the low ground around the mound. Rinse. Repeat.

Our neighbors saw elk crashing in our field. The next day I went to look. There were small hillocks, with heavy hoof prints on the low perimeters.

Now do you believe me?


2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Nancy White said,

    Beautiful post. And yes, I always believe you! Post pictures and stories of the new baby goats, ok?

  2. 2

    Derek said,

    I think Nancy has collected a bucketload of poop off the cow paddock for whatever needs it when you get back from the Music gig – Derek

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