Environment

How a Newt Matters

It is hard to capture in words the exact feelings I have about an amphibian.

We all have something… or maybe we had something, in the past sense.

There were certain things or people or places that captured our passions as children. It may have been a specific toy. It may have been a specific celebrity, an actor, or a band. It may have been an amusement park.

Once we grow up, we often look back with fondness at that thing. We may even have nostalgia about it.

But the magic has been lost.

We’ve become adults, and so “we’ve put childish things behind us”.

Me? Not so much.

I am still enamored with almost the same things as when I was a child.

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis

I was never into celebrities. I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. And while I had a few toys I was fond of, nothing captured my interest like the natural world.

Birds, trees, mammals, rocks, fish, space, coral reefs, insects, caves, reptiles, rivers, amphibians.

That was what mattered to me.

And they still get me excited.

But there are a few select animals that still get me, well, giddy, is probably the best word.  I may hide the external manifestations of those emotions, but on the inside… yeah, it’s giddy.

The Red Eft?

That’s one of those animals. For sure.

Adult form of the Eastern Newt.

I remember reading about the Eastern Newt in my copy of the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife book given to me by my grandfather. I read through that book countless times, and I still have that book, worn as it is, sitting on my bookshelf.

But there was something about this amphibian that captured my interest. I think it was a combination of the drastic changes this animal undergoes in its life and the absolutely stunning colors it develops.

In general, newts are a type of salamander with, typically, drier and rougher skin. There are a few other ways in which newts differ from the other salamanders, but even the experts don’t have a consensus.

Specifically, the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives a life of three phases.

In the first phase, they hatch from an egg in the water and live similar to frog tadpoles.

In the second phase, they lose their gills, change their color, and move to the land; this is the “eft” or terrestrial stage of life, and they live similar to lizards. As an eft, they become bright, almost glowing, reddish-orange, and are one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The third and final phase is the adult stage where they turn an olive green and return to the water to live a fully aquatic life once more.

The Red Eft, the terrestrial phase of the Eastern Newt’s life.

As a child, I wanted to find a Red Eft about as bad as a child could want anything.

I spent hours outside whenever I could. Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and wildlife. I found animals of all types.

There were the relatively common Brown and Green Anoles (lizards), large Cane Toads, and Mockingbird chicks found in our yard.

There were the Eastern Mosquitofish, Apple Snails, and baby Muscovy Ducks found in the nearby canal.

Then there were also the less common animals.

For a short time I cared for (with significant help from my mother) a Mangrove Cuckoo with a broken wing, a baby raccoon (which may have actually been an opossum), recently hatched Alligator Snapping Turtles (they went back to the canal pretty quick), a Scarlet King Snake (their bites do not hurt), a Green Water Snake (their bites really hurt), a whole long list of other snakes, a Cuban Tree Frog (it loved to eat cockroaches), and even a Basilisk Lizard (yes… they really can run on water!).

But never did I find a Red Eft.

Fast-forward 25-30 years.

We have now lived on our farm in East Tennessee for about 18 months. We have been slowly repairing an unhealthy landscape that has been overgrazed with cattle and damaged with chemicals. We’ve been seeing a return of life in the soils and pastures. The land has started to heal.

Then a few days ago our current WWOOFer, Jacob, showed me a photo he took of an unknown gecko-type animal.

There it was!

A Red Eft!

The Red Eft found by Jacob, our WWOOFer!

All those exciting emotions I had when flipping over logs and wading in canals came flooding back.

I was giddy.

Unfortunately, the photo was taken hours earlier, and so the animal was already gone. But there was an Eastern Newt on my farm!

In addition to my childhood interests, this Red Eft got me excited for an entirely different reason. It means that our efforts to regenerate the ecosystem on the farm is working.

You see, amphibians are indicators for environmental health. They can be used like canaries in a coal mine. Historically, canaries were brought into coal mines because they are more susceptible to toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, than humans. The canary would die before these gases rose to levels that would kill the coal miners. If the miners noticed the canary was dead, usually because they realized the bird had stopped singing, the miners then had time to get out of the mine before they were killed.

Amphibians breathe and drink through their thin skin, and they are exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxins. As canaries were used to monitor air quality, amphibians can be used to monitor environmental quality. Specifically, the quality of water that runs over and through the forests, soils, pastures, and environments where they live.

In this case, that environment is our farm.

And I now have proof, thanks to Jacob our WWOOFer, that we have newts on our farm.

But I still really… REALLY… want to find one myself!

 

 

For further reading on using amphibians as environmental indicators:

 

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Using Lawn Hay

For many in the world of Permaculture or Regenerative Agriculture or “Green Living”, having a lawn is a sin worthy of excommunication.

Five years ago, I wrote an article about how lawns cause a significant waste of time and resources. And I didn’t even dive into all the harmful chemicals used to maintain a lawn.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

But now, five years later, I have a lawn.

Don’t worry, I have not converted to the dark side. I still know there are significant issues with lawns, and I am still not a big fan of them. However, the property that we bought has a large lawn. I have spent the last year trying to determine what to do with that lawn.

I have also realized that there is something deeper that draws us to lawns. I think it may have to do with how we are wired as humans. It may be the same with our attraction to savannas. We prefer some open spaces where we can see potential threats from a distance …but lets not get too deep in this article.

The lawn has provided a great, open place for our kids to run and play. This is obviously, and rightly, a great argument for having a lawn. Where else are you going to play soccer?!

We have also used our lawn to graze our sheep and pigs and ducks and geese and chickens. We don’t do much grazing on it now except for the free-range Guineas and chickens that occasionally make there way to the lawn.

We do not use any chemicals at all on the lawn. We don’t irrigate it either. We pretty much do nothing to it but mow it. But I am not one to waste a potential resource if I can help it, and grass clippings from a lawn are a great resource.

Here are some of our uses for the clippings:

1. We use it as supplemental feed for the animals. I routinely dump the fresh, clipped grass to our pigs and chickens and sheep. They love it. Fresh lawn hay!

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One way we use the lawn hay is as mulch (left side) for eroded areas (seen on the right side).

2. I also use the clippings as a mulch. My father puts it in his garden, and I use it to cover bare soil along our fence line. There were a number of Eastern Red Cedar saplings that had grown up along the fence line over the years before we bought this property. The cedar needles fall from the trees and eventually kill most grasses. This is a great way for nature to convert a field to a forest, but that’s not what I want in my pastures. After we cleared the fence line of the cedars, we were left with many spots of bare soil. This is where I pile grass clippings. In time, the soil will come back to life and grasses will be able to grow there again.

3. As you can see in the photo at the top of the article, I spread the clippings over the driveway to dry. After a few days in the sun with occasional turnings, the clippings are nice and dry. I then use this in the poultry brooders. It works way better than straw; it’s more absorbent. And because it has thin strands,  the little chicks or poults can easily navigate over it.

4. I have also used this dried lawn hay for supplemental feed for our animals as well.

I still plan on converting a large portion of our existing lawn to perennials (trees, shrubs, and wildflowers). But until then, we are going to treat the lawn as a resource.

 

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Spiders Is Good!

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Spiderweb

I don’t quote movies often, but I occasionally will repeat a random quote from a random movie, Fletch Lives. One character, Calculus Entropy (an undercover FBI agent) meets Chevy Chase in a run down house infested with insects. He sagely states, “Spiders is good. They eats the cockroaches.”

I have use that line many times, first because it’s kind of funny, but second because it is so true.

We have been at our farm for just over a year, and I am so excited to see the pastures coming back to life. I went out the other morning, and the pastures looked as if they were decorated with jewels as the sunrise shimmered in the dew on hundreds of spiderwebs.

When we consider the pasture’s food web, we know that there needs to be exponentially more insects (i.e. spider food) than spiders to support these predatory creatures. So when I see hundreds of spiderwebs, I know that there are thousands upon thousands of other insects. This means our pastures are filled with life instead of dead due to chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. And this is a really good thing!

(see my related article: We Have Dung Beetles!)

 

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Don’t Wash Your Hands!

Almost 1 year ago, Tasha Sturm, a microbiology lab technician at Cabrillo College, posted the photo above. It is a bacterial culture of her 8-year-old son’s handprint. She had her son place his hand on a large petri-dish after he was playing outside, and this is what grew! Amazing!

This image has made the rounds on the internet over the last year. The reason I am writing about it today is that it has unfortunately (and almost unanimously) prompted the opposite of the correct response from the people who see it. This is entirely due to lack of information and understanding.

The average person’s reaction is some combination of the following: “Ewww! Gross! I need to wash my hands! I need to wash my kids’ hands! I need some more anti-bacterial soap! I’ll never let my kid outside!”

Now, let’s deal with reality. There are bacteria everywhere. EVERYWHERE! In the dirt. In the air. On our food. In our water. On our skin. In our body! In fact, we need bacteria to survive. Our intestines are filled with bacteria, and hopefully most of it is good bacteria. But you know what? Some of those bacteria on or in us, are bad bacteria… bacteria that could kill us. But do you know why it doesn’t? Because of the good bacteria. The good bacteria entirely outnumber our bad bacteria; they overwhelm them and out-compete them. They give our immune system a fighting chance to beat the bad bacteria. If we didn’t have the good bacteria, we would be dead.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the photo above. Do you know what kind of bacteria are present in this handprint? These likely include Bacillus species, Serratia species, Micrococcus species, Staphylococcus species, and yeast species. All of these microorganisms are normally found in the soil and/or in the water and/or on the skin.

Tasha Sturm stated in an interview, “We have a large number of bacteria that live ‘with us’ that are beneficial. Some aide in digestion, make vitamin K, etc. People who are healthy come in contact with millions of bacteria every day without adverse effect. Coming in contact with bacteria actually strengthens our immune system.”

She added, “Unless your kids have a health condition that requires you to be more vigilant let them have fun and get dirty; it’s what they need to develop a healthy immune system.”

So, how do we strike a balance between good hygiene and developing a healthy immune system? If you touch or may touch something that is known to contain unhealthy bacteria, then wash your hands. If you touch or may touch something that could spread disease or cause infections, then wash your hands. This includes washing your hands after using the bathroom, after touching a dead animal, and before eating. And teach your children to do the same. But seriously, let’s be wise in this and don’t go overboard. Touching an animal that has been dead for a week is different than touching a dead animal you butchered yourself (yes, this is a Permaculture/Homesteading website!).

Also, please use antibacterial soap very sparingly. We don’t want to kill all bacteria in our environment or on our bodies. As a physician, I need to use antibacterial soap on a regular basis in the Emergency Room, but at home, I just use regular soap. Again, I recommend balance.

Tasha Sturm concluded by saying, “As microbiologists, our job, especially in education, is to make the invisible world visible so it’s easier to understand. I think the image of the handprint was a graphic way to show others what’s out there and the beauty of microbiology. I think this image did just that.”

I agree!

 

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We Have Dung Beetles!

Yes, I am excited to see Dung Beetles in our pastures.

Yes, I know that many people may think this is an odd thing to get excited about… but it’s because they don’t understand what it means.

To me, this says our pastures are turning a corner from dying to living. From degenerating to regenerating. It means we are moving in the right direction!

Let me briefly explain. Many farms across the world are dead or dying. Farmers, with good intention but poor knowledge, spray synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. This kills the creatures that live in and off the soil. This ultimately kills the soil, and this ultimately kills the farm. Yes, it is that simple, and it is that vital! As we stop killing the biodiversity on our farms, our soils can come back to life. The pastures become more healthy and more resilient… and the farm follows.

 

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I love seeing Dung Beetles on the farm!

The Dung Beetle life cycle is relatively straightforward. They lay eggs into dung (i.e. manure). The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the nutrients found in the manure. The larvae pupate into adult beetles, and the cycle repeats itself. Some Dung Beetles directly bury the manure; this means the adult beetles dig a hole straight through the manure pile into the soil. They take the manure with them into either shallow holes or deep holes depending on the species. We can identify the presence of direct burrowers by seeing manure piles with a bunch of holes in it. Other Dung Beetles are rollers. They make a dung ball and roll it to another location. Once at their desired location, they dig a hole and bury the ball.

Dung Beetles perform multiple beneficial functions on a farm. They bury massive amounts of nutrient rich manure into the soil. This alone make them hugely beneficial. Also, since Dung Beetles can make a manure pile disappear within a few hours to a few days (depending on numbers and size of the pile), this reduces the ability of other insects, like annoying and disease spreading flies, to use the manure for their reproduction cycle. Dispersing the manure also helps break animal pest and parasite cycles. From an aesthetic viewpoint, when manure piles are quickly dispersed, smells are also quickly dispersed. And walking through pastures with large numbers of Dung Beetles, means guests and kids are less likely to get manure all over their shoes.

 

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Specifically, I think these beetles are Canthon pilularius, known as the “Common Tumblebug”. This is a dung-rolling Dung Beetle in the Scarabaeidae (or Scarab) Family.

Dung Beetles are a fantastic marker of pasture health, and therefore, soil health. They are very sensitive to chemicals sprayed into pastures and used on animals (cattle, sheep, etc.). These chemicals directly kill the adults or indirectly reduce Dung Beetle numbers by destroying eggs and beetle larvae. All the benefits listed above are lost. I can’t tell you how many conventional farms I have been on where there are dried piles of cow manure that have been sitting on the surface of the soil for years. These big, concrete-like frisbees are glaring markers of poor soil health. This is what covered our pastures when we moved to our farm just over a year ago.

Maybe now you can see why I am so excited to see Dung Beetles on our farm!

 

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