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Destruction and Restoration at Fern Creek: A Story as Told by Pictures, Mostly

Nearly 20 years ago now, while living and working in Wheaton, Illinois, Mark and I began anticipating a return to our Oregon roots. During one trip back to Oregon Mark found a five acre parcel of land for sale--pasture and forest--that had most recently been used to graze cattle. In 2006, perhaps only a couple of years after the cows had departed, the creek and cistern looked like this:

We became its stewards, and built a house, planted more forest, and apple trees, berries, summer vegetables, hollyhock and daffodils, dogwoods and flowering currents and such. A few years later (2010) we built a gazebo on the other side of the little spring-fed creek, and a bridge to get to it. We gathered with friends and family and enjoyed each other's presence around the fire, reflecting on the goodness of life and this place we call home. In 2010 it looked like this:

In the absence of cows, the snowberry bushes, nettles, ivy, little birch, plum and cheery trees, ferns and blackberries (lots of ferns and blackberries), and so many other unnamed plants returned and flourished. The creek ran clear, the cistern sparkled, and all was well. It came, in time, to look like this:

And then, in 2019 we introduced these lovely little creatures... Nigerian Dwarf goats. Initially we had three, and now Fern Creek is home to six.

They frolic and draw near, and nibble shrubs and the branches of young trees. They nuzzle and bring a sweet calming, yet playful energy to Fern Creek. They make more visible what has always been present in the chipmunks and squirrels, the deer, skunk and raccoon that meandered through and considered Fern Creek home--creatures who relish life, who eat, play, sleep, and procreate when given the opportunity.

Mark appreciated the thought of these gentle foragers chowing down what had, in the absence of trampling of cows, become large blackberry bramble islands. I appreciated that goats meant we'd have babies in the spring, and goat milk for soap and cheese making. All seemed to be well and good.

However, goats don't just nibble blackberries. They consume snowberry bushes, ivy, nettles, ferns, cherry branches, wild hazelnut branches, wild geranium--essentially EVERYTHING and ANYTHING that has green on it. Yesterday I finally let myself fully see the devastation of their seemingly voracious appetites. I should have seen and stopped this months ago. I failed to steward Fern Creek well and do not dismiss that as a small thing. Under my watch the forest shifted from verdant to barren. From this:

to this: (the Exact Same path down to the gazebo).

and also this...

It seemingly happened gradually, but mostly I didn't let myself see it. I didn't admit what was happening, because it would be inconvenient. So I naively "hoped for the best." Because of the heat, I hadn't been down to the cistern and creek for awhile to know just how barren it had become.

When I finally saw it my heart broke a little.

And then I made some changes. The goats are now banned from the lower forest. They will forage only in the upper one, which is mostly pasture, and will have to be satisfied to mostly eat hay. And yes, they will complain because they have become used to, entitled to, eating whatever they want without regard for the cost to Fern Creek. So no, I will not listen, but will rub their ears and give them apples that have fallen from the trees in the orchard.

Today I went and clipped bull thistle and Canadian thistle (about the only thing the goats partly leave alone) so as not to allow these invasive weeds a foothold while other, more timid plants consider returning. I spoke words of apology to the creek, the trees, the land that I have always loved for its abundant wild rich green diversity. I spoke encouraging words to the ferns, and to twigs that had any green on them.

I feel appropriately chastised for not stewarding the forest well, yet I also feel graciously held and forgiven by the Love that holds it all together, and that grants me an enduring kind of hope in Earth's resilience. And so I choose to imagine restoration will come.

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