Feralwood: planting a wilder way

  • fe·ral / adjective (especially of an animal) in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.
  • wood / noun an area of land, generally smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.
As many of you reading this may already know, we were recently awarded grant funding through Farm Hands Charlotte to expand on the Feralwood project at Ardea. With all the buzz that has been generated in our hearts, minds, and bodies by this wonderful gift, we have decided to distill some of this energy into verbal expression. Our highest consideration is always the health of the ecosystem that is Ardea. This comes with a deep embracing of the fact that, as humans animals, we are an integral part of this ecosystem. And by recognizing the immense power we have to destroy and create when making decisions, we are very aware of our role as an emerging keystone species here. Therefore, it is our ecological responsibility to interact with the land where we dwell with rooted respect, humble intelligence, complex awareness, and constant gratitude. In this way we uphold the lives of countless other beings. Our experience here is of an incredibly profound sense of connection, knowing that when we eat from and interact with this land, it is this land that is creating our bodies and molding our minds to this place. Feralwood is and continues to be our most complete expression of this. The Feralwood project begin in 2014, at a time when our main focus was to work within the microclimate at the edge of a forest dominated by the Eastern white oak. This edge, where forest and field meet, is analogous to a backbone or spinal cord. It is a place where signals and messages of both the forest and field are gathered, concentrated, and intermingled before being passed on to elsewhere. Being an edge, it is a narrow swath, smaller than either the forest or field. Yet, it is often much busier than the two it is composed of. Being regularly visited by creatures of both habitats, it generally has greater biodiversity. This is where many birds gather in the branches to sing, leaving their mark on the soil below in fertility, building the richness of the edge. It is the space that brings seemingly opposing realms together, so that they can exchange information about the world that they live in. One could say that the edge is where all else emerges from, and for Feralwood this holds true. Today, along this forest edge, you can see our stewardship in the indigenous perennial plants of numerous functions within the landscape: American hazelnut, groundnut, rabbiteye blueberry, common milkweed, sochan, witch-hazel, elderberry, wild strawberry, pawpaw, aronia, spikenard, sweet fern, new jersey tea…
Since the start of the project we have moved farther away from the edge of the forest, driving our broadfork 16 inches deep into the compaction of a fallow field, setting the soil free. Here we have continued to plant indigenous perennials into a soil once removed of them, repeatedly plowed under, drenched in 10-10-10, and liberally dusted with toxaphene and other agricultural chemicals. Decades later, after a long period of rest, this area is being repopulated with old friends such as American persimmon, passionflower, American plum, and red mulberry, to name a few. The Chinese chestnut finds a home here as an analog species to the blight-stricken American chestnut. The American chestnut was once a dominant canopy tree of the Eastern United States. Each autumn it rained down starch-laden minerals and b-vitamins to keep the beings of the land with a clear, strong mind and well-functioning body through the lean months of winter. This winter and throughout the coming year, with the help of the recent grant funding, we will be expanding Feralwood to stretch its ecological webbing deeper into the forest and farther into the field. Below is a simplified and hand-drawn map of Feralwood. The areas highlighted are aspects of the project that were included in the grant proposal.
And here are the details of what we are obtaining through our proposal:
Forest edge and understory expansion
  • 25 red mulberry (Morus rubra)
    • primary use: tea (mineral rich leaves)
    • secondary use(s): food (greens), fodder (dried leaves 20% protein)
  • 25 northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
    • primary use: spice (berry)
    • secondary use(s): tea (leaves and twigs), medicine (diaphoretic, carminative, stimulating to circulation and digestion)
  • 100 – 200 ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris – cultivar tolerant of hot, dry climates)
    • primary use: fresh vegetable (unfurled fronds of early Spring)
    • secondary use(s): soil stabilizer on forest slope, optimal slug and snail habitat for future duck expansion (duck food)
  • 100+ mushroom logs (various species)
    • primary use: fresh mushrooms
    • secondary use(s): dried mushrooms, medicine (vast health benefits, particularly in concentrated, regular doses)
Field expansion
  • 25 Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum)
    • primary use: tea (antioxidant rich berry)
    • secondary use(s): medicine (cardioprotective), thorns (needles)
  • 10 yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria)
    • primary use: tea (caffeinated)
    • secondary use(s): berries attract wild turkeys and bobwhite quail for hunting, has indigenous traditional use as a beverage in ritual purging
  • 2 – 4 pigs and all necessary equipment to keep them on rotation
    • primary use: tilling and fertilizing compacted soil prior to planting trees
    • secondary use(s): acorn-finished pork, lard, bristles to be used in various brushes
Processing equipment
  • Davebilt #43 nutcracker to speed acorn processing (and pecans, hazelnuts)
  • Materials to construct a solar dehydrator for drying acorns and acorn flour, as well as tea herbs and spices (plans from Appalachia State)
  • Materials to construct stainless steel sieves and screens for processing acorns, as well as tea herbs and spices where appropriate
  • Vitamix 5300 for processing acorns into flour and grind plant material into a size suitable for various tea blends and spices
And here is a linear aid to understanding all of this as a system:
So, as we work within the white oak forest, we will be gathering the acorns for use as food for humans and pigs. In order to plant spicebush and red mulberry within the understory, we will be thinning out young trees such as red maple and using them to expand mushroom production. Red mulberry will be coppiced regularly, never attaining full size. Spicebush is a small tree that will be planted closer to the edge and in gaps within the canopy to obtain optimal sunlight for berry production. Having these smaller trees make up the understory, as opposed to growing full-size trees such as red maple, should increase the acorn production of the white oaks. The ostrich ferns will be located downslope from our mushroom log area. Here they will take advantage of the thousands of gallons of rainwater that will be drained each year from the tanks where we soak our mushroom logs. They will be planted in hugelkultur berms on the contour of a slope that is prone to erosion in heavy rains. Here they will increase soil stability, as well as moisture retention. In the fallow field we will be rotating the pigs using solar-powered polywire. We will be moving them in a timely fashion, leaving them in one spot only long enough for them to do a good bit of tillage and fertilization. After they have done this work, we will follow behind them to seed a soil-building cover crop, and put the yaupon holly and Washington hawthorn into the Earth.
All of this brings us to the processing equipment, which will allow us to transform these ecological interactions into marketable amounts of native tea blends, native spices, acorn flour and baked goods, acorn-finished pork, edible fiddleheads, and log-grown mushrooms. We are enthusiastic to get this new chapter in the Feralwood project underway. Providing for our local community beneath tenets of deep ecology, bioregionalism, permaculture, agroforesty, and indigenous wisdom is something that keeps our hearts strong and our minds at peace. Feral blessings.
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