March 29, 2020
This past week we took off the final runs of sap from the maple trees. Most of the tap holes have dried up and the trees have begun the long process of healing. We are grateful for the bountiful harvest of more than one litre of syrup per tap and how this little project brings the family together in single purpose even while practicing social distancing.
After cleaning up the pails and pan for next year, we know that we don’t need to clean up the forest and fertilize the ground to ensure a good harvest next year.
The ground in the woods has thawed out and tree flower buds will soon open before the leaves emerge. New shoots of hepatica are pushing their way up through the leaf litter and will soon delight us with the first blossoms of spring. Here and there in the woodland, the evergreen partridge berry, Christmas ferns and wood sedges provide greenery on the forest floor. The mourning cloak butterfly comes out of hibernation along with a multitude of other insects that flit about in search of nectar and any remaining sweet sap. Dormancy gives way to awakening, migrators return and the woodlands come alive from the tree tops to below the ground and in pools of water where spring peepers and wood frogs provide music from dusk ‘til dawn.
No one is raking the forest floor or trimming the trees. Moss-covered logs lying on the ground don’t look out of place. You turn one over, and become witness to the community of delightful creatures who live and interact in this small world. There are millipedes, centipedes, sow bugs, earth worms, slugs, snails, ground beetles, springtails and, sometimes, a salamander or newt. White fungus filaments in the log slowly turn it to mush. Nothing goes to waste. The log will eventually become black humus. A mushroom or toadstool emerging from the rotting log sends out spores to populate the forest underworld.
The rich forest floor is further enriched by the forest litter. Underneath the surface, the massive network of fungal mycelia is intertwined with tree roots. It breaks down organic matter and make the nutrients available to the towering trees and saplings above. When you begin to understand this beautiful balance, you understand the folly of meddling with it. Nature has mastered recycling, interconnectedness and balance. Humans are relative newcomers to the natural world. There is no way we fully understand the complexity of what took millions of years to develop.
We go to the forest to relax. The beauty of the forest community, the whispering of the wind in the towering pines, the sounds of birds and chattering of red squirrels lull us into a deep sense of belonging and well-being.
Ironically, when we return “home”, we look at our yards and lament the work that absolutely needs to be done. Leaves have to be raked, the lawn will soon need to be cut, the flower gardens need to be cleaned up and the vegetable garden has to be tilled.
I suggest we take a deep breath and learn from the forest. The fallen leaves that protected the underground world over the winter will now enrich the soil. The tillers of the soil are the earthworms, ants and other burrowers. We best just loosen the soil only where we are going to plant and leave the rest. Allow the perennials to emerge through the natural litter left in the fall. If you do remove the leaves and dead foliage, remember that it should not be carted away and disposed of in a municipal dump. It belongs in the yard. At least compost it or lay it on the pathways in your garden where it will help moderate soil temperature, mitigate erosion during heavy rains and water loss during droughts. In a natural community, litter never builds up. It fulfills its purpose by protecting the small creatures and enriching the soil. The litter layer in the forest is relatively thin and the soil beneath is black.
Our yard is our home, a place to take a deep breath and relax. It should connect us to the universe rather than merely be a showpiece to impress friends and neighbours.