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The Spring: A Story of the Past and the Future

There is a spring on our farm that, according to family lore, has never run dry. It appears from under a wall of shale along Whippoorwill Creek, never gushing but always more than a trickle. The water is clean, cold and just always there.

The shale hill where the spring appears

I am about to turn my cattle into the pasture that contains the spring. Indeed, that water is the only reason I am able to graze them here at all. The creek upstream, above where our land begins, has largely dried up. It is the spring that fills the creek now, not the usual rainfall runoff.

My father remembers to this day, sitting in the yard in 1934 at two years of age during the height of one of the worst droughts of the 20th century. He watched as his father, grandfather and a hired man chopped down trees, virgin timber, on the creek bottom near the spring. It was so dry that all the land's grass had dried up, leaving none for the cows to eat. The cattle were so hungry that they had to continuously be herded away as the trees were felled so that they would not be crushed.

Many of the neighbors lost everything for lack of water, water that we were lucky enough to have on our land.

A mature, old growth forest.

It was the water from the spring and the trees on the surrounding land that saved the cattle herd and the farm during those 'dust bowl' years. The spring has carried on, but the land surrounding it was denuded of it's forest and has been a pasture ever since. No forest has been able to take root since, making it a savannah today, ironically more susceptible to the drought that it had once staved off.

An open field with a few trees in the distance.
The land directly adjacent to the creek where virgin forest once stood.

As I related in an earlier post, we've had a small drought this summer and have not yet fully come out of it. Grass for the cattle is available, but going into winter, we are short of moisture and not much regrowth is happening after the cattle graze. I look into a future filled with climate change and wonder if this spring - this essential water source - will continue. And if it does, will it be enough?

Beth, my sister Andrea, and I have contemplated reforesting this part of the farm. With help from the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service), it could be done, but even with the government's assistance it would be an expensive undertaking. And afterwards, it will be land that we can't legally graze if we use government money.

So would it be economically feasible to bring back these trees, this forest? In truth, I don't think we can do anything else. I believe that it is the future that we have to take care of. We have passed the point where what is best at the moment makes our decision for us.

It is questionable whether climate change is something that Whippoorwill Creek Farm alone can affect, but we must try. For now, I graze the cattle here, but will move them daily to try to keep their impact on the land and water light. We will plant trees each spring and fall to diversify the ecosystem and reduce the impact of the coming heat.

Moving cattle each day means deeper roots

The American culture we have been living thinks too much about the 'now,' about what is good for us in the moment. This 'American way of life' will come to an end, sooner or later. Whether it is ended for us, or if we might still have the time to make the change ourselves and steer it even a little, is unclear, but I believe we must try. If we can learn to live for the future, to put off our immediate wants and desires, perhaps we can save our children's children.

So, I will continue to change the way I graze my cattle, trying to do what's best for the world, not just for me. I will do my best to keep the land healthy and the waterway clean. Soon I will have a new watering system for my cattle fed by a catchment pond that will keep the cattle out of the creek pretty much for good.

But for now, the spring fills the creek, new trees wait to be planted and I still listen for the lost whippoorwill, hoping that I am not too late.

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