We think of ourselves as regular people, though our goals, actions and beliefs do seem unusually rare. We own a preserve not because we are from wealthy families, though our choice on how to use a decent inheritance has played a role in our story. We are still making payments on the Preserve, and the majority of our non-necessities money has gone into creating a homestead with a restoration and future subsistence focus–rainwater tanks, sheep, border collie, chickens, barn improvements, wood stoves, tree caging materials and the like.
Observing the land who is our home has made us realize that “preserve” is the most appropriate name, for this place is a remnant of a more intact world that existed in much of northern California only 200 years ago. We are trying to get permanent protection for our sliver of oak woodlands primarily out of love for the land. Not just the hills, meadow and creek, but for all the life who makes the land what ew is. We see that unprotected land often means fewer and fewer oaks, and when oaks and the hundreds of species they support are missing, the entire character of the land changes for the worse. De-treeing the land has proven to be the first step to drying out that land, which undermines tens of thousands of years of evolution of a place and all the biodiversity who is that place. We try to embody our respect and love for this place and those ancient relationships in our actions on the land. A big goal of ours is to codify this intention, to legally protect this sacred place for as long as we can.
The Preserve is pretty special when compared to neighboring lands–there are far more mosses and lichens on north slopes, and a great diversity of plant species in general, including over 100 species of forbs, and even black oaks at under 1000’ elevation! For more on the life who is the land, see our Preserve page.
The Preserve is similar in acreage to those properties of the typical retirees in our neighborhood, whose parcels vary from as few as four acres up to over 600, but many are in the 150 to 320-acre range. So for our microregion, our holding is pretty average. When I came here in 2003, my original intention was a single family homestead with gardens, orchard and vineyard for long-term market farming. The original 142-acre parcel is where I built the house and outbuildings.
The process of building code-compliant structures on relatively pristine and biodiverse land was crushing for me. It was a visceral experience of understanding the trap of an ungrounded economic system backed by the threat of state violence. I found himself asking, “Why is it illegal to live in a way that causes so little damage to other beings?” The primary occupier of my time, aside from building, was self-education and planning, which almost always ended with materials lists and purchases of code-compliant products that require sacrifice zones and embody a lot of energy and/or death. Even gardening lost its appeal due to the vast amounts of plastic needed for the drip irrigation and the great volume of water needed to grow fruits and vegetables in a hot, arid summer climate in poor soil. It took me almost five years to realize that the sanest food system for this place was already here–abundant acorn and feral pigs.
It was about this time that Marie came into the picture and her presence speeded the jettisoning of the drip irrigation tubing and helped form the emerging understanding of who the land already was. Sure, the Preserve is still where we have our homestead, but rather than trying to figure out how to get something from the land, we aim for reciprocity– to try to give back to the land at the same time.
Deep exploration of agriculture and its history convinced us that pastoralism, even when done poorly, generally results in a more species-diverse land than does cultivation agriculture. We read that the loss of the megafauna with whom native plant communities evolved meant that large herbivores are needed now to restore the nutrient cycle. This won us over, too. We got some hair sheep and planned to use a holistic management approach to shift non-native plant communities toward more native forbs and grasses while providing us with some of our protein, animal fat and calorie needs. Plus, they’d be good for the fuel breaks needed to prevent wildfires from burning up the valley oak grove and our homestead. And their manure and urine were much needed by the soil, of course.
Pastoralism has expanded our feeling of intimacy with, and sanctity of, this magnificent place. Pastoralism done well, is about respectful relationship, about finding a balance with the life who is the land, while orchards and row crops for example, especially in arid and semi-arid lands, are about removing native species and controlling the land, in essence fighting life. It seemed that well-managed herding is almost always better for the land–for the native plants, animals, fungi and microbes–than any other form of large-scale agriculture. So this is why we are grazing the land with sheep.
Understanding the relationship between humans and domesticated livestock continues to fascinate and challenge us. We like to host discussions on what a truly sustainable and morally defensible diet in this region could look like, as this is core to having reciprocal relationships with all the living beings who make up the land, wherever you live.
And we’ve learned that a critical–even if often invisible to us–component of terrestrial life is the health of those communities that live in, co-create and make up the soil. The primary builders of soil are healthy, deep-rooted perennial plants and their fungal associates. Geologists stand behind this statement because fossil records show that before there was much soil, there were lots of plants breaking down rocks. And not only do plants make soil, they make carbon-rich soil, which really is the foundation of our existence. We’ve learned from Dr. Christine Jones that:
One teaspoon of healthy carbon-rich soil can contain nearly as many organisms as there are humans on the planet, that is, more than 6 billion living beings – and a greater diversity of life than the Amazonian rainforest.
Most lifeforms in the soil are like us. They need good living conditions, oxygen, water and food in order to survive. The ‘food’ comes in the form of carbon compounds obtained directly or indirectly from plant photosynthesis. If the photosynthetic capacity of the groundcover falls and the carbon content of the soil is not maintained, the soil shrinks. Initially some of the 6 billion organisms eat each other in order to survive, but eventually they die. Less carbon = less life.
Beyond this, it is proven that carbon-rich soils hold far more water than do carbon-poor soils. So perennial plants are the foundation of both healthy soil nutrient and water cycles, hence the foundation of our existence. Deep-rooted native perennial plants are adapted climatically and require no extraction of water, no biocides and no fertilizer, unlike the typical orchard trees so abundant in the Sacramento Valley today. So, from every angle that really mattered to us, oaks were clearly becoming our focus. And guess what, we lived on land who was already rich with thousands of them–a preserve!
We’ve come to feel strongly that the only path to a truly sustainable widespread agriculture for this region has to include grazing animals integrated into the land, not degrading biodiversity. We are graziers and conservationists. We work hard to find a balance between human and other-than-human needs, and we are finding pastoralism to have the potential to be a viable option if done well. Our conservation guidelines for the Preserve reflect the lessons we’ve learned on this path of trying to figure out how to live in a place without degrading that place or any others. And we’ve only just begun. We have a lot more to learn.
We do not have deep pockets. Our path, though unusual, is feasible for others willing to make land protection in this way a priority in their lives. For anyone able to buy modestly-priced rural real estate, owning land in interior California who is, or who is trying to be, oak woodland is an obtainable and richly rewarding goal for retirement (or sooner!). Since we are in a culture where land ownership grants privilege, ownership can mean protection and restoration, and we can’t think of a better way to use your life’s savings and energy. We hope our story inspires others to buy, revere and defend oak woodlands.