Into the Wild at Knepp Estate

Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell loved to travel from West Sussex to the fauna of wilder places in the world. No longer. They have re-envisioned their ‘backyard’ as semi-wilderness. Some backyard! They own the Knepp estate of 3,500 acres where, until the year 2000, they struggled to keep an arable and dairy farm out of the red, only turning a profit twice despite the tools and chemicals of intensive management.

The land was impoverished after centuries of farming the famously sticky Weald clay (local people have 30 adjectives for the mud). Vagaries in market prices and dependence on subsidies have plunged many small and mid-sized farms into bankruptcy, but they drew back from defeat with an original idea, though it inflamed tradition-bound rural neighbors.

They sold their livestock and farm equipment to let natural processes rule. People grumbled at the eyesore and wicked waste of food production, but over the next two decades the experiment in land ecology rolled forward to win plaudits. Isabella’s account of the makeover is acclaimed by the Daily Mail as the ‘most inspirational book of the year’ (2019).

The couple was inspired by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera who championed a controversial rewilding project on reclaimed land near Amsterdam, the Oostvaardersplassen. There are other large projects across the continent, but none in England apart from Knepp. Vera dismissed conventional belief in northern Europe under uniform tree cover before human immigration. He imagined a cool savannah with indigenous red deer, wild boar, extinct aurochs and other large herbivores grazing in a mosaic of forest and grassland. Without a tightly-knit canopy it was a more biologically diverse and productive environment.

Knepp estate
Fallow deer

Strictly speaking, Knepp is not rewilded, which is why her book is titled, ‘Wilding’. Regulations, public opinion and feasibility forbade reintroduction of some native fauna. There could be no brown bear, wolf, lynx and of course auroch that might escape into local gardens, and even wild boar and beavers were excluded, though some feral animals already lurk in the English countryside. The environmental entrepreneurs had to find mimics for the original inhabitants: ancient breeds of cattle (English longhorn) and pigs (Tamworth) and they introduced fallow deer. Wildflower seeds were broadcast and Victorian drains were removed to recreate wetland, which would have horrified ancestors. Nature claimed land back rather quickly considering how long heavy hands ruled there. Herds of herbivores became self-sustaining, so much so they had to be controlled by harvesting or transfer to other estates.

Knepp estate
Tamworth pig and Longhorn cattle

Vera predicted browsing herbivores and the shovel noses of pigs would reshape the landscape. Animals and plants that were rare or extinct returned in remarkable numbers, many for breeding, including nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and two of the rarest bats.

Even the more pigheaded detractors have admitted the couple’s courage and fortitude. Government grants were beyond reach, even from agencies founded to promote nature, and the whims of nature offered numerous obstacles and setbacks, but support was won from leading naturalists and ecologists who continue to help the project evolve. The estate is now a place of pilgrimage, safari tours and so-called glamping (glamorous camping). The prime organic meat is in demand and helps to provide economic stability that once seemed a dream.

A large estate with a castle isn’t an ideal model for other farms with marginal land and strained budgets, but Knepp is shining example for them to consider formerly unthinkable options that frighten bank managers. There is no more conservative base than the countryside where people will often resist change by appealing to aesthetics. But the beauty of landscape is in the eye of the beholder and the image of fields clothed in monoculture and hills (called downs) cropped to the dirt by fluffy sheep has changed, and quite perceptively even in my memory from intensive farming. This is a matter of Shifting Baselines, described in a much earlier post. The southern English countryside is more bereft of wildlife and open spaces for spiritual refreshment of local and visiting folk than any European neighbor. It lost wilderness thousands of years ago to cultivation of almost every fertile acre.

Young people were always a source of hope for a brighter future and more daring imagination. There are many more today who want to reset our relationship with nature, shifting from the absolute domination of enslaved land to a gentler and more sustainable partnership. Some people ask if this moment of history in a pandemic is an opportunity not to be missed. It is a work in progress, like the Knepp project, and to that I say, Amen.

Photos courtesy of Knepp estate

Death of a Lawn Mower

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald knew that Americans find public expression of their successful lives in a neatly groomed lawn. Jay Gatsby was so horrified at Nick Carroway’s ragged lawn next door that he sent his gardeners over to mow the offending sward. As the nation was more prosperous by the 1920s and homes were set back from the road, owners mimicked the greens of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the great estates of 17th and 18th century Britain and France. Inventions of mechanical and powered mowers to replace laborious scything offered much encouragement.

A lawn is an expensive investment, but realtors know the kerbside appeal of perfectly manicured grass helps house sales. It is a sine qua non for the modern suburbanite. Impressions of something familiar we grow up with are hard to budge, and when lost we feel bereft, but if we can step back mentally, it may be seen in new light. When I look at a ‘perfect’ lawn now my mind toggles between lawn and desert (call it cognitive dissonance if you like).

Looks more like a barren landscape on second thoughts

Why desert? Because among nuanced meanings lawns and golf courses are desolate and barren landscapes. If anything tries to nestle in a monoculture of non-native grass it is quickly doused in herbicides and pesticides, which gardeners use even more profligately than farmers. We fight frantically to conquer every weed and bug. Striving for perfection is a virtue better reserved for indoors because outside nature hates uniformity and tidiness.

Nick Carroway is more my kind of guy than his rich neighbor, although I came round lately. I am letting my lawn grow long and wild, like my hair and coronabeard. You might wonder if they are all reactions to the current contagion, yet I argue it is mindfulness and not just a lazy mower.

I love to watch knee-high stems swaying in a breeze. The sward is too dense for weeds to anchor, except the pretty polkadots of white clover and a few wildflowers on the lawn. Did I say lawn? I can now call it meadow. Deer and cottontail rabbits feed and fertilize; butterflies dance by day and lightning bugs cruise at night; goldfinches cram on seed heads; our dogs love to romp and nuzzle there. And, so, besides aesthetics and entertainment value, new and more abundant life sprouts from the death of lawn.

Ben approves of the lawn transition

It is no longer a source of noise and atmospheric pollution (gasoline mowers produce 10x more per hour than a new car). Clover is a bugbear of lawnists, but the virtuous plant boosts soil nitrogen and protects the crust in drought. Without a sprinkler system no water is wasted (more an issue in the West). Overseeding is natural and spontaneous instead of broadcast by hand from a packet, and better quality because the seeds originated from parents that thrive by natural selection. There are obvious savings from lawn chemicals, and precious time is captured from edging, raking and aerating. No more is surplus phosphate drained into streams that open into the Chesapeake Bay.

Lawns only feed pride, yet their collective acreage exceeds that of any food crop in America. What a terrible waste of resource! There is still no shame cultivating a chemical lawn (not yet!), and some homeowner associations and local authorities levy outrageous penalties when people neglect their front lawn, like the retired Florida man threatened with foreclosure when he didn’t pay fines. Lest my readers worry the lawn police will turn up on my doorstep my experiment is neither overlooked by neighbors nor is it kerbside. But I still need to observe politics at home.

There is another reckoning, however, when land is left fallow, and mine will arrive later in the summer with the scorching Virginia sun. That is the time to mow, and not a light task even with a lean and keen Austrian scythe. But it will be a day for looking back with satisfaction and enjoying a rare kind of pride by mowing as our ancestors did in the great estates of yore. 

My Neighbor's Maple Syrup Sugar Shack

There’s a family I know in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia that has made maple syrup for over a century. As they are now short-handed of youngsters leaving for city work and the retainers get older and frailer, I offered to help this year.

I sat down with Gary in his sugar shack. He is the older of two brothers who manage the operation. They had already checked the network of tubes tapped into sugar maple trees that crisscross the wooded slopes. The sap runs along the plastic channels toward a main line to finally reach a large tank outside the shack.

“In the past we tapped each tree separately,” he told me. “Before we left for school, while it was still dark, we had to bring down heavy buckets full of sap from the woods.”

“I guess winters were harder in those days,” I said. “This is another mild one.”

“Oh yeah. It started snowing in November and the ground was covered until March, even April. Blizzards piled snow high as fence posts.”

His brother Ronnie came inside. As first I didn’t recognize him in the dense steam filling the room.

“Hi. We need the extractor to clear the air,” he said, wafting a hand to clear the fog.

“I’m up for that,” I chipped in. “When your family started making syrup was it to supplement farm income in winter?”

“Not at all.” It was Gary who replied. “What our Granddaddy made was the only source of sweetness for the family. He never bought sugar at the store.”

“Nowadays, we only make it to keep the tradition going, and sales just about cover our costs,” Ronnie added.

Before we fixed the extractor on the tin roof, I brought in some logs from the huge pile they had cut and split last year. It’s cheaper to boil sap over wood fires than use electric or gas heaters. There’s no shortage of wood in and around the Monongahela forest.

Much of their equipment is homemade and looks antique. Harvesting sap doesn’t cost a penny when it runs by gravity and is boiled with local wood, but costly in time and effort. The fluid is fed into a large tank over the first fire which is kept alight around the clock. If it starts foaming Ronnie squirts from a proprietary bottle to raise the surface tension. In the old days they used a piece of bacon. The warmed sap passes to the evaporator, the most modern part of the system, where it bubbles over a second fire and generate clouds of steam. 100 gallons of sap is concentrated to about 2 gallons of syrup. We threw logs on the fires every half hour to keep them hot. Ronnie checked the specific gravity of the liquor with a hydrometer (looking like a long thermometer): the optimum is a narrow band.

sugar shack for making maple syrup in West Virginia

It’s obvious when a sugar shack is making maple syrup. While one chimney smokes from a log fire another belches steam from the evaporator. The process runs for up to a month.

I asked Gary to explain the daily cycle.

“Sap don’t flow at night cos of freezin, but starts when it warm up.”

When a tree gets warmer its interior pressure rises and sap flows up the xylem tubes to drip out of holes tapped through the bark, like blood oozing out of a wound. The sugar synthesized in the leaves by photosynthesis the previous summer has been stored in the tree as starch (a polymer of glucose). As spring approaches it is mobilized ahead of the season of growing shoots and leaves, and very slightly sweetens the sap. The yellow-bellied sapsucker knows this too as it drills holes in smaller boughs. When the bird returns it may find an insect in the sticky sap, and enjoy the protein morsel in a carbohydrate sauce in dead of winter.

During cold weather tree roots remain unfrozen and soil moisture is drawn into them by the process of osmosis to generate “root pressure.” Sap rises up the tree in the xylem. That’s the principle, although plant physiology is more complicated. I love to see a family honoring a time-honored process using equipment and principles I can understand in an era when the technology I use is beyond my comprehension. Besides, making maple syrup is a gentle art that does no harm to trees or wildlife.