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The elusive waters of spring are essential for our farm land

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Every spring, as I walk through the woods on my farm, I see the pools of water that appear between and around the trees. They remind me of the wood between the worlds, made famous in C.S. Lewis’s stories about Narnia. By jumping into a shallow pool in the woods, one is able to enter whole other worlds, some old, some new. All linked by the woods where the pools live.

Sylvia Keesmaat, writer-at-large.

In my woods these pools of water always appear in the same places and last for the spring and on into the summer. To be honest, I’m never sure when they dry up, since my walks through the woods become unpredictable once the mosquito feeding frenzy arrives. But every spring there they are again, providing an entry into whole other worlds.

For the vernal pools, or ephemeral pools, as they are sometimes called, create a world of safety and sustenance for many creatures in our woods that need water for part of their life cycle. Wood frogs, with their masked eyes, are born in these pools; blue-spotted salamanders and the nearly identical Jefferson salamander spend their early life in the pools.

The evocatively named fairy shrimp spend their lives there, as do insects and mollusks that need water for reproduction. These amphibians eat and are eaten: they provide food for birds, and they eat many insects, as well as algae and plankton.

Vernal pools also provide a crucial service for our rivers and streams, for they catch, slow and stop run-off that would otherwise deluge our freshwater systems with soil and contaminants. They play a critical role in ensuring that our waterways remain clean.

At the same time that I am noticing the way that the vernal pools are returning to the woods in the spring, I am also noticing the way that snow is melting and water is sheeting as it runs downhill over the surface of my fields. While having fields that are clear and level makes machinery use much easier (there’s nothing like a bumpy field to make it hard to stay on the hay-wagon), such levelling also greatly reduces the ability of the topography to slow and spread water. And water is not only running quickly off the surface. Many farmers also install tiling to drain water quickly from the subsoil as well.

Similar strategies are practiced in gardens, where swampy areas are eliminated and ditches dug to carry water away. In the case of both gardening and farming this is done to enable earlier planting, and to make the land more amenable to whatever crops we want to prioritize (whether they be food or flowers).

But in the long run, do such strategies make sense? Consider how important water is for maintaining healthy bacteria in our soil. The ability of topsoil to absorb water is one of the best indicators of soil health. Water enables decomposition to happen in our soil and nutrients to be released. And, as our summers become hotter and drier, water is becoming harder and harder to retain in our soil.

Which bring us back to vernal pools. These pools provide a small window into how the natural world has always ensured that water would be available from spring run-off into the hotter and drier summer. By catching and storing water during the spring thaw, vernal pools are able to both slow the absorption of water into the ground and release it into the air as moisture as temperatures rise. In so doing, they moderate the amount of water in our landscape, holding it during times of plenty and enabling it be used as the landscape becomes drier.

Our challenge is to learn from these ephemeral gifts of spring. What if we were to learn to read the land around us, find those places where vernal pools still exist and ensure that they are preserved so as to continue to fulfill their crucial role in the landscape? One way to do this is to think twice before we modify our own land; another is to pressure our city to enact legislation to stop the destruction of tree lines, where many of our vernal pools are still found, and where water is still caught and slowed in the landscape.

But perhaps we can no longer find the vernal pools. Perhaps we live in places that contain only flat civilized surfaces that repel water easily. In that case, perhaps we should be exploring strategies for slowing and storing water: digging small vernal pools ourselves, making more permanent small ponds, installing the kind of ditches that catch and slow water on our slopes (called swales), or digging ditches that redirect water onto our land rather than off it. There is a movement called permaculture (from the words “permanent” and “agriculture”), made up of farmers, city dwellers, indigenous peoples and ranchers, all focusing on how these strategies can improve our gardening and farming.

Of course, this isn’t just about soil health, or the productivity of our gardens or our farms.

It is also about those other worlds, the ephemeral worlds of water inhabited by the wood frog, the blue spotted salamander and the fairy shrimp. For one day I hope that my grandchildren will also walk through the woods and be able to enter another world, inhabited by creatures that live where the water is ephemeral.

Sylvia Keesmaat is offering a one-day Introduction to Permaculture workshop on May 9, 2020. Go to www.russethousefarm.ca/events for more information.

Sylvia Keesmaat, who lives on an off-grid solar-powered farm in Cameron, has a diploma in Permaculture Design and a doctorate in Biblical Studies. Every summer she and her husband welcome interns to their farm to learn about resilient gardening and farming, and sustainable living. Sylvia is also an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at the Toronto School of Theology, with a focus on agrarian and anti-imperial readings of the biblical text.

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