I am Sibylla Brown. I was born in Germany in 1940. In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950. I married my husband, Bill in 1962. Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa. Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land. But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands. We began timber stand improvement in 1993. When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire. These posts share how we found the land and how we made the transition from city-dwellers to country folk.
April is birthday month at Timberhill. Our son Alex and I were both born in April. It has become our custom to combine our celebrations on the same day. This year our celebration coincided with the beginning of the morel mushroom season.
A choice edible these fungi have a limited season, fruiting for only a few weeks in April and May. From early April I watch for the signs that morel season is about to begin. I listen for the constant singing of the tree frogs, watch for the first asparagus spears in the vegetable garden, for the leaves of the silver maple trees to emerge, and the mayapple leaves to open. When the woodlands are fully carpeted with spring beauty, trout lilies, toothwort, and other spring ephemerals I know the time is near.
We never know where the first morels will fruit. Will we find them under the dead cottonwood in our West Creek unit? Or under the silver maple and elms along Brush Creek? In 2011 we harvested early morels in the hickory grove west of our house. Last year we also found them associated with river birch in the West 40. The only sure thing about morels is that they always surprise us.
On April 16 Bill and I found the first specimens fruiting in a patch of mayapples in the hickory grove. But we waited until April 18, the day of our birthday celebration to harvest them. Our sons Chris and Alex were both here. After a breakfast of fruit compote and asparagus and mushroom frittata we walked to the hickory grove and harvested twelve yellow morels fruiting there. (After the first morels appear it usually takes another week for the main crop to fruit.)
We began our birthday celebration dinner with a fresh asparagus appetizer and Champagne J. Lasalle. For the main course I combined the fresh morels with reconstituted dried morels (from last year’s harvest) in a pan sauce for veal chops. We served the the veal chops smothered with morels and pommes de terre macaire. To accompany our spring feast Bill poured a bottle of Saint-Romain Cote d’Or burgundy wine.
My guardian angel must have been looking after me on June 1, 2003. That’s the day that Wayne Peterson and Chris Bair brought Gerould Wilhelm to Timberhill. In the ten years since my husband Bill and I began actively restoring our property we had been searching for someone to advise us. We wanted to know what the mosaic of savanna, open woodland, prairie, and wetland that comprised our property should look like. We attended field trips sponsored by the Iowa Prairie Network, Iowa Native Plant Society, and other groups but nothing we saw looked like Timberhill. We could find no models to emulate.
We also attended prairie and savanna restoration workshops. There we learned that we were not following accepted practices: that we should be burning every three to five years, not annually, that we should stagger our dormant season burns with spring and summer burns, and that we should be planting oak savanna indicator species. We should also be herbiciding non-native plants.
Yet our experience contradicted this dogma. Annual fire was restoring our landscape. Conservative plants were out competing the less conservative. Fire had even restored the yellow lady’s slipper orchids and round stemmed false foxglove. Countless red-headed woodpeckers, a species threatened by habitat loss, had made Timberhill their home. And multiflora rose was dying.
On May 10, 2003 I sponsored a native plant society field trip to Timberhill. Wayne and Chris made the trip from eastern Iowa. They liked what they saw and asked if they could come back with Gerould. The three of them returned on June 1, 2003.
As we meandered through the East Savanna where leadplant, purple milkweed, and prairie coreopsis were just coming into bloom and admired the yellow lady’s slippers clinging to a steep hillside in the south east woodland Gerould wrote down all the plants he saw. I found out later that he noted 206 native vascular plant species that morning. This compared with the best natural areas in Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa.
After the East Savanna meander we drove through the W40 in our utility vehicle. As we followed the trail through the white and bur oak savanna Gerould looked around and said, “Nobody’s doing this kind of thing.”
After we sat down to lunch I was able to ask my questions. “I’ve been told that we shouldn’t burn annually. That we’re doing irreparable damage to the invertebrate community.”
“You’ve got to have fire because fire is what sustains the ground cover matrix. If you look when you burn annually at the scale of an insect, the scale at which they are most likely to be found, the fine fuel is held elevated above the ground. Annual fires are fires that scud, not like the grinding, parboiling occasional fires. The available fuel is always above ground and the heat is always going upward. So the most salubrious circumstance for this woods is to every year burn during the dormant season. That will leave thousands and thousands of unburned patches on the scale of an ant or a beetle.”
“Should I do more thinning? How will I know that enough light is reaching the ground?”
”The plants will talk to you. They will tell you. As long as you’re burning and your biota is coming back and sustaining and you see fecundity it’s okay.” He explained that no one knows what the optimum canopy density should be. “You can have a closed canopy of bur oak get all the light you want. Ecologists come up with a kind of archetypical theory of a savanna and then say this is how a perfect savanna looks. And then they manage towards that goal when it has nothing to do with goals. It’s what is here. The template that’s present. Just study the thing as you have it before you.”
“What about the non-natives? Should we be spraying them with herbicide?”
“The weeds will give up. They will be outcompeted by natives.
Three months later he returned with biologist Laura Rericha. Not only did Laura know all the plants, but she was also an expert ornithologist and noted authority on Midwestern ants and native pollinators. On her first visit to Timberhill she recorded 22 native ant species, an exceptionally high number in a single plant community. I was determined to have them back. Here finally were two people who could tell us what we had and how best to manage it. These were the experts Bill and I had been looking for.
Through the Southern Iowa RC&D we applied for an EPA grant to study the impact of annual fire and thinning on the birds, ants, and vegetation of the remnant woodlands at Timberhill. Our application was accepted. The Wilhelm-Rericha Timberhill report can be found here.
A psychologist once told me that my biggest failing is my inability to see the forest for the trees. Working with Laura and Gerould made me see the forest and realized that our focus should be to document as many flora and fauna as possible. Thanks to Laura and Gerould the Timberhill species lists now include 460 vascular plants, 43 native bees, 57 ants and 86 birds. In 2010 & 2011 Edwin Freese collected beetles and stoneflies adding many more species. Bill and I are currently documenting the butterflies and moths. Anyone out there who would can show me how to find the salamanders?
Over the next three years Dan and Vicki thinned the remaining woodlands and Bill and I continued our prescribed burns, burning most of the east woodland, the prairie openings, and the lower fields each winter. Each successive burn doubled the effect of the previous fire increasing the ground layer plant cover. Fire was maintaining an open midstory, controlling resprouts, stimulating expansion and reproduction of herbaceous plants, and providing germination sites by removing surface litter. As the land continued to heal we were overwhelmed by the natural beauty unfolding before us.
From early spring through late fall there was continuous bloom in the savanna, open woodland, and prairie openings. The growing season opened in late March when rue anemone, bloodroot, and trout lily came into bloom. Virginia bluebells and wild geraniums cascading down moist woodland slopes soon followed. In May hundreds of wild hyacinths and cream wild indigo indicated that spring ephemeral bloom had reached its peak.
June became the month for orchids, milkweeds and butterflies. Large clusters of purple twayblade orchids, strong indicators of a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem, bloomed on every ridge. Even the yellow lady’s slipper orchids bloomed again on the steep moss covered hillsides of the southeast woodland. (My neighbor told me that they hadn’t bloomed since 1925.) Purple milkweeds at the woodland borders were covered with great spangled fritillary and swallowtail butterflies ingesting the sweet nectar. Monarchs nectared and deposited eggs on patches of common milkweed in the south meadow and old fields. Leadplant, pale purple coneflower, and coreopsis completed the June tableau.
July brought scaly blazing star, clumps of blooming June grass, and many colorful ectomycorrhizal fungi including bright red Russulas, yellow Amanitas and blue indigo milky caps. If rainfall continued a variety of bolete mushrooms began fruiting two to three weeks after the gilled fungi. Even on hot, dry summer days one could see the plants respirating, as fine morning mist rose through the open woodland. Plants flourished in dry weather because they were now able to tap into the ground water stored in the rich porous soil. White prairie clover, slender and violet bush clovers, and rough blazing star looked fresh despite the heat and lack of rain.
Fall became the season for false foxgloves including the rare round-stemmed false foxglove and yellow false foxglove. As the temperatures dropped and plants became dormant the delicate sky blue asters signaled winter to come.
Yet we were uncomfortable with the changes. Logic and reason told us we should be controlling/managing the changes. But the changes weren’t logical. There were only lots of surprises. On our daily walks Bill and I often found wildflowers blooming and mushrooms fruiting in unexpected places.
The hard edge of wild plums and hawthorns that had separated the woodlands from the grasslands disappeared, the difference between prairie and woodland becoming less distinct as they coalesced. The land had become a mosaic of heterogeneous plant communities that melded into one another. One certainly couldn’t tell the difference by looking at the plants. Prairie species such as big bluestem were becoming established in the dappled sunlight under the oak trees. Even rattlesnake master, leadplant and blazing star bloomed on the wooded ridges.
Our forester wasn’t much help. On a spring visit after our third burn he looked at the bright green carpet of pen sedge that carpeted the woodland floor and exclaimed,
“Grass! You’re not supposed to have grass in the woods.”
I told him about our prescribed burns. “You should never burn woodlands. Burning can ruin a good woodland. You’re perverting reproduction – fire will kill all the saplings. Besides, it’s too hard to control and you might burn down some valuable trees.” After that visit he began sending “Smokey the Bear” fire prevention leaflets with his annual report.
But we persisted. Annual dormant season fire had become our primary management tool. As long as the diversity of mushrooms, plants, and birds increased each year we were content. With no background in restoration ecology we were hesitant to do more and settled for whatever regenerated from the seed bank and suppressed plants.
As Gregory Cajete advises in his book, Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence, “Intervention in a natural process is taken on only with great care and much consideration. Continual emphasis is placed on ‘being of nature’ or working with its natural flow; listening and looking closely are consistently practiced.” (p. 65-66)
When Bill and I began restoring the Timberhill oak and hickory woodlands we thought it would be enough to thin the canopy trees and remove the underbrush.
Were we ever wrong! Coralberry and other woody invasives sprouted from the roots. We realized that they would soon block sunlight from the ground layer. At first we tried controlling the sprouts with a clearing saw. When they grew back we sprayed them with Roundup. But Roundup killed everything. It became obvious that fire was the only solution. We tried to hire a contractor to conduct prescribed burns but after a year of fruitless searching, we knew that we would have to do it ourselves.
With fire brooms and drip torches borrowed from the Decatur County Conservation Board and water-filled backpacks Bill, Bill Craig, and I conducted our first prescribed burn in February 1995. We began in the south meadow. That was so successful that we burned the north portion of the East Savanna next. We even burned the woodland west of the driveway and the prairie around the pond. Although flames from the prairie fires reached over 20 feet they were reduced to a few inches in the woodland and stopped at the ditches.
Over confident by our success we looked forward to the 1995-1996 burn season. We began in the East Savanna. Then we moved to the prairie around the pond. While Bill Craig ignited the dried little blue stem grass on the hillside southwest of the pond, Bill drove the tractor with a spray tank uphill of a ditch that we assumed would stop the fire. Meanwhile I was on the other side of a barb wire fence putting out the fire that had spread into a neighbor’s property.
I looked up just in time to see the fire jump the ditch and head toward Bill and his tractor. I tried to scale the barb wire to help but the water-filled back pack was too heavy and I couldn’t move quickly enough. The fire reached the tractor and Bill before I could reach them. Thankfully, it was low enough that neither the tractor nor Bill suffered any damage.
We learned our lesson. Prescribed fire is not for amateurs and we needed expert help. For several years the Leon volunteer fire department and a certified professional crew helped with our burns. Bill and Bill Craig observed and learned from the experts. Each burn event now begins the day before when we go over prescribed fire checklist. On the day of the burn Bill checks the weather conditions specified for the burn. When the crew arrives he goes over the burn plan with them. They drive around the site to check fire breaks and review precautions to prevent escape. The “GoNoGo” checklist is the final step before ignition.
We’ve divided our property into burn units, each with fireguards to contain the fire within the boundary of the unit. We’ve also purchased equipment to make our burns safer and easier: a leaf blower to clear leaves from the fireguard, a pumper unit that slides into the bed of the Ranger utility vehicle, and a spray tank for the ATV.
John H. Weir’s Conducting Prescribed Fires is a comprehensive manual for conducting burns.
Bill Craig not only built our house but he has become an essential part of our farm family. He can figure out how to operate and fix any piece of equipment. When we had the winery he was the only person who could make the Italian wine bottling and champagne corking machines work. In the 22 years we have known him there was no problem he couldn’t solve. His mechanical skills combined with innate intelligence and common sense have made him our biggest asset.
In January 2005 after Dan and Vicki Fogle completed timber stand improvement in 30 acres of the East Savanna Bill Craig came by to fix the automatic garage door opener. Standing in the driveway he looked at the oak and hickory trunks that littered the ground. .
“What are you going to do with all that downed wood? That’s a lot of BTU’S going to waste,” he asked.
“I don’t know. Randy (our forester) told us we should cut and stack it for fuel wood. I bought a chain saw and log splitter, but I’m not sure I can handle them by myself,” Bill replied.
For my husband Bill farming had become an excuse to buy equipment. He had traded his weekend golf for a bright orange Kubota 3350 tractor. The Northern Tool catalog became his bedtime reading and the garage filled up with equipment that Bill thought essential to country living. Besides the tractor, chain saw, and log splitter, he purchased a clearing saw to cut trails, a weed wacker, a snow blower, chaps, and a hard hat with protective visor and ear flaps. There was also a container of fuel for each piece of equipment: plain gas for the lawnmower, diesel fuel for the tractor, gas and oil mix for the two-cycle engines and bar oil for the chain saw. Bill had purchased every piece of equipment he thought we needed. But he had no experience using any of it.
“I could help you, if I can take half of what we cut for my wood stove,” Bill Craig offered.
Our first lesson in woodcutting and log splitting began a week later on a cold, crisp Sunday morning. Despite long underwear, insulated overalls, and winter parkas Bill and I were shivering.
“Isn’t it too cold to be working outside?” Bill asked.
“No. This is perfect for wood cutting. The colder the weather the easier it is to cut and split wood. And it’s hard work. Believe me, you’ll work up a good sweat in no time. ”
I followed Bill and Bill Craig to the East Savanna. While Bill backed the tractor to the edge of the woodland Bill Craig attached a heavy chain to the three point hitch. He then carried it downhill and secured it around a white oak log.
“Okay” he signaled to Bill who pulled the log uphill to an open space along the ridge top trail. They repeated this with another log. Then each of them, chain saws in hand, cut the logs into lengths the size of the chain saw bar. One by one, Bill Craig secured the logs in the cradle and turned on the splitter. Twenty-two tons of pressure quickly drove the sharp wedge-shaped blade through each log. I assisted by clearing away the branch tops and helping stack the wood.
For the first time in years Bill and I were working together, learning skills we never thought we’d need. It was strenuous but satisfying work. Best of all we found that we had to work together to make our life in the country a success.