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The Warm Green Country, a Different Kind of Rain

Let’s take a few minutes to share about the bioregion we’re now in. The first myth we’ve encountered (in our own minds especially) is that we would be in the Midwest and socked in with cold and snow for the winter. Alas, it’s not true. A few years ago I came here for a December vacation, looking forward to lots of cold and time to read books by the fire, and was startled by what-I-can-only-call Balmy weather. Instead of admiring snow and icicles I found myself gathering bowls of ramps and chickweed to supplement not-so-fresh meals. I kept asking around “Is there something wrong here?” and “What’s going on this winter?” only to find out that it’s normal. Winter storms do indeed hit this area hard, but they are days-long affairs where the temperature might dip into negative-degrees, but not for very long.

Today I put on a jacket before going outside to hang laundry. It was entirely unnecessary as a look at our thermometer read 72-degrees. It’s one week before the Winter Solstice.

I recently learned that northern tribes called this (understandably loathed by them) region ‘The Warm Country.’ During the Poncas truly horrendous relocation here from their native Nebraska, many died. And then when they arrived here many more died, not yet from smallpox but from another sinister killer, malaria. Northern Oklahoma malaria. To my knowledge it’s not a thing here any longer but it does help paint the picture of how different this region is from what Plains Indians were accustomed to.

The second myth is that we’re living in a desert. Again, not true. The average 42-inches of rain here is exactly what we get (or are supposed to?) get in Tacoma. When we arrived here in September it felt so deliciously Wet after the long 2015 drought in Washington that we felt giddy. Untended areas were all green, whereas at home everything was crunchy and dry except under heavy irrigation. On the books at least, it looks nice, rain spread throughout the year. It’s kind of a dream for a year-round, non-irrigated gardener like me.

We haven’t traveled much around the state, but it is said that four major ecologies of the United States are said to meet in Oklahoma, one big ecotone. The northeast corner, where we are, is like the continental east. (This tickles me because it means the hefty second book of Edible Forest Gardens is now imminently useful!) Locally, it’s called the Green Country. The northwest corner of the state is an extension of the great plains, the southwest corner is the desert southwest, and the southeast corner is the ecology of the humid south. We were heartened when Doug Bullock said eastern Oklahoma is the ‘juicy’ part of the state. That means a lot.

But what about the dust bowl? That region is west of here in the Oklahoma panhandle. Let’s be clear: the dust bowl phenomenon is scary and shouldn’t be any less terrifying because that region is now irrigated from the Oglalla aquifer (which will itself dry up in the forseeable future). The dust bowl story could be the classic introduction to why horticulture and permaculture are important, alongside the loss of the ‘Fertile Crescent’ and the Aral ‘Sea’. It was an industrial-technology- made disaster in which extensive plowing and monoculture quite literally killed the ecology of the region, killed any semblance of a livable homestead, and then reached into the throat and lungs of people and starting killing them too. Masanobu Fukuoka rings true “If you throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” Farmers and government agents were brought to their knees to finally admit that the region should have never been farmed, and that the earth without the pasture, was ‘the wrong side up’, (something the tribes and the Spanish-speaking cowboys had been saying all along). What’s scary is that much hasn’t actually changed, and our country’s encouragement of megafarms and monocultures is shooting ourselves in the foot….or the stomach…or the throat, whatever.

Which leads me to the next topic: the different kind of rain. Since Nick and I both grew up in Pierce County, we’re definitely missing our cloudy days. We hear the rain is back en force at home, and I’ll wistfully look out the window at another day of sun and feel kind of anxious and disturbed. Many of you know what I mean. But after many days of heat and sun and “well we might as well keep working outside” kind of days, the garden was up, the basic maps and designs were drawn, and we finally had a few days of rain. It’s like tropical rain, sudden and strong, stormy. The earth quickly becomes saturated, roadside ditches become torrents of water, and walking in the pasture one can easily take a wrong step and sink. Compared to the great mistakes of bare land, what we generally have here are grass, curves, groundhogs, naturalized polycultures, it’s all Right, but it still gets saturated and water quickly gathers into rivulets and streams. (And it’s been a wet year with really nice soil moisture, so it’s not in the realm of flash floods either). As a designer it gives me pause, I’m not sure that either keylines or swales could improve upon the hummocky diverse water-catching terrain that the ground critters have created over the years. The reality might just be that when water is here, Water is Here. It’s like the ephemeral wetland sites at home, only these are of a few-days duration rather than a few-months. To design for year-round gardening here might be occasional taller beds (hugelkultures) that can start crops when other soil is waterlogged.

We learned our lesson about the rains being different here. Some of the beds we too-eagerly built slightly off of contour, but because they were like fingernails on chalkboard just looking at them, we quickly changed that to so new beds are on contour (so that water is held there instead of running off). But there, erosion happened on the pathways. Keyline design calls for ideally keeping roads, or on our scale, pathways, on the ridges so they strategically gather water. The trouble is that then pathways don’t go where the destination is (!), or at some point the path needs to rise or gain in elevation in order to be able to walk from the door to the end of the yard. Thinking back to the Doherty workshop we took last fall, I’ll try designing future pathways that go off contour to strategically drop water in reservoir areas on nearby beds (a teeny version of a pond). Picture it like small strategic depressions to catch water where we know the path is ushering it. We haven’t had a chance to actually build it that way yet (waiting for the soil to be dry enough) but I’ll be sure to post updates and pictures.

Tip: Also, while an A-frame is great for showcasing how to map with limited resources, in reality using a level as the cross-bar allows me to map the contours even faster than waiting for a line and plumb-bob. Since our first garden beds had such dramatic impact from not being perfectly on contour, I’ve been running contour lines all over this place, then doing sketches of how I hope to deal with it

To zoom in a bit more, the town we’re in, Fairland, is in the Grand Lake (of the Cherokees) watershed, and since that’s man-made, I’d venture to say that before that it was the Grand River Watershed. While there’s plenty of pollution upstream of the lake, that water doesn’t flow past the town per se. An analogy would be if the Puyallup River was heavily polluted, we’re nearby but live in Proctor, in a different watershed that eventually meets up with the Puyallup waters, but not downstream of it directly.

It’s fair to say that the town is aging and dying, it’s boom time long past, which makes us look for ecological reasons why people may choose to stay here rather than let the whole thing decompose. The Ozark foothills start a few miles to the east, it gets wooded and hilly and just really exciting. We have more of a prairie feel here, and one nearby town that was actually moved and incorporated into this when Grand Lake waters rose was called Prairie City. Plenty of trees grow here when people aren’t zealously taking them out for megalawns, thus the town is at sweet crossroads between the Ozark hills and the intermittently forested grasslands.

To seal the deal, the town has (or had) an important spring. The exact current location may elude us until a dry spell makes it more obvious, but history books and old-timer stories all say it’s here. The story goes that the ‘the Cherokee had a camp here’ but the truth may be more that a band of Cherokee, after their grueling travel west, were living in the vicinity of the spring for quite some time. White settlers would have likely dismissed it, swindled land away and rewrote history to please themselves. My family’s land passed through a handful of white hands, but had at one point been a Cherokee allotment. Of course, the land was forcibly taken from the original inhabitants, the Osages.

To end this very long blog post on a depressing note, I’ve often wondered if the town’s reason for existence was as a prominently white town amid a sea of tribal towns. Many towns around us are named for the tribe who’s headquartered or heavily populates the area. Miami, Wyandotte, Quapaw, Seneca, Neosho, Peoria, Tahlequah (not just a ferry dock on Vashon! It’s a Cherokee word for grain). But Fairland’s historical pictures look pretty vanilla. The grain elevator was a big deal. And now?...Empty stores on mainstreet, questionably toxic land, white supremacist holdovers among a diverse collection of tribes, what does it all add up to? Exciting things Are developing though so stay tuned for next new moon…

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