Embarking on an Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design

Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design: Before and After Permaculture Rain Garden USU Moab Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before and After
Permaculture Rain Garden
USU Moab
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before installing our permaculture gardens at Utah State University, Moab, the only birds I observed from my office window were Eurasian Collared Doves and crows. The space is small. It used to consist of concrete and a mono-planted row of juniper bushes. Seven years ago, over 40 members of the Moab community helped us dream up a new vision for the space. We took out a few parking spaces that allowed my building’s roof rainwater runoff to run-in to our garden and into a rock-lined swale and a series of basins. In an area that receives an average of under 10 inches of rainfall per year, our USU Moab permaculture gardens now harvest an estimated 125,000 gallons of rainwater either directly into the garden soil, or into a series of rain tanks for later use.

Alongside planting the rain through water harvesting earthworks, we installed an ecological design with a fruit and shade producing overstory, and an understory of shrubs, plants, and grasses. The understory performs one or more of four functions: pollinator attractors, nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators (which pull nutrients deeper in soil layers towards the surface, becoming available through a chop and drop technique), and soil stabilizers. Now, broad-tailed hummingbirds, spotted towhees, rock wrens and more can be seen and heard as the garden bounty ripens each year. These birds bring color, song, and delight as they contribute to pest control, devouring aphids, grasshoppers and pesky plant eating beetle grubs.

What we have learned through our small urban campus is that with permaculture design, any landscape can undergo a complete ecological transition – even a landscape that is only a few feet wide and was previously partially covered in concrete.

If you are interested in applying permaculture design to your landscape, start by observing your site as it currently is. See how water flows in a rain event. Walk around during the hottest days of the year and feel where the hot and cool zones are. How does the sun move across the site during summer solstice. During winter solstice. What views do you want to take in and block? What species engage in your landscape and what ones are missing? These are the types of questions you can ask yourself. Then, as you begin to think about design ideas, here are some general tips:

    • Ask elders in your community about extreme weather events and other helpful historical information
    • Think about what your landscape is currently doing for you, and what you would like it to do. Then, develop your goals for the site. This will help you determine what is and is not currently working
    • In the desert, as a general rule, place your paths high and dry, plants low and wet (or at least wetter)
    • Discover what plants might work well together in what is called a guild. For example, if you have a nitrogen dependent shrub, plant nitrogen-fixing plants around it.
    • Harvest as much rainwater as possible through active systems like rain tanks, and passive systems like earthworks that slow, spread, and sink rainwater
    • Plant your high-maintenance plants in your most-frequented areas – alongside the pathway between your house and chicken coop, for example.
    • Birds and humans appreciate diversity in heights, species, and food-producing plants
    • Start small
    • See failures as opportunities for learning

    For Utah State University Extension Sustainability and the Department of Environment and Society, this is Roslynn Brain McCann and I’m wild about Utah!

    Images: Courtesy and copyright Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and copyright Kevin Colver
    Text:     Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Utah State University Extension Sustainability
    Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster
    Additional Reading:

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Rainwater Harvesting, Wild About Utah, October 19, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/rainwater-harvesting/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Permaculture, Wild About Utah, May 23, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/permaculture/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Three-Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata), Wild About Utah, November 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/three-leaf-sumac-rhus-trilobata/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Dandelion, Friend or Foe?, Wild About Utah, April 4, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/dandelion-friend-foe/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Edible Weeds: Lambs Quarters and Purslane, Wild About Utah, March 27, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/edible-weeds-lambs-quarters-and-purslane/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Yellow-bellied Marmot, Wild About Utah, September 21, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/yellow-bellied-marmot/

    The Sun Still Shines in the Snowfall

    The Sun Still Shines in the Snowfall: Winter Courtesy Pixabay Joerg Vieli, Photographer
    Courtesy Pixabay
    Joerg Vieli, Photographer
    The fresh morning snow teaches me things I didn’t know, and reminds me of that which I had forgotten after a long year living once more with dark, firm soil.

    This year’s fresh snow has taught me that two deer are regulars in my driveway, browsing on the wilting greenery which bends beneath the subtle weight of Utah snow, and stripping bark off of a scraggly bough, exposing the green and peach inner flesh. Their hooves leave an imprint which mirrors two thumbs pressed together. They have a story. Which neighbor’s yard did they come in from, and into whose they trekked back. That they walk side by side, the smaller towards the easiest escape down the driveway, just in case. That they don’t linger too long.

    I have learned that a stray cat prowls the same tracks as the deer, perhaps looking for the voles who are yet to find purchase beneath the nivean earth. It descends from a cedar fence onto the ground, sticks to gliding silently by the unnatural straight angles of buildings and fences, until it finally makes a direct charge for a nearby hedge littered underneath with duff and good hunting. I wonder if it’s the one from the missing posters stapled to posts by all the town stop signs.

    Small birds hop beneath one of my feeders even by night. Winter is not the time to play by strict diurnal rules. They tidy up after their dayshift ilk, stripping seed from sunflower husk, and banking ball bearing millet under the cover of darkness. Perhaps that cat watches. Perhaps the birds watch back.

    The snow is the perfect communicator. It does have the pitfall of many, who talk a lot, say very little, and do even less. It instead has rare idle chatter, lets its messages be silently heard by those who know how to listen to the indentations upon the void, and itself creates a strange world which, for just a few months, finds magic in the authority of its mirk. The world of nivean wonders is that of a temporary rebirth, a do-over, where the millennia of soils are lost to the fickle weather of the night, where our snow forts are washed away by the rising tide of the Utah sun, and which strips leaves from trees, leaving them bare as if still blissfully in Eden. All is renewed by the ablution of the snow.

    Its power comes from its ability to rejuvenate our dreams as well. In winter, my mornings start slower and evenings burn the dim orange oil of cozy comfort. I learn to be less restless, to relearn stationary arts, to affirm the joy of simple chores done quickly in the shattering cold.

    This winter, remember, too, that the sun still shines in the snowfall. Remember that the world still rolls forward even as we sleep. Remember to continue to learn, even from those things which seem as ephemeral and fickle as the morning’s fresh snow. What will you find upon this seasonal canvas framed in time and stretched by silence?

    I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.

    Images: Image Courtesy Pixabay, Jörg Vieli(Sonyuser), Photographer
    Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin, Technical engineers, Utah Public Radio
    Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org/
    Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

    Additional Reading

    Greene, Jack, I Love Snow, Wild About Utah, November 16, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/wildlife-winter-climate-change/

    Greene, Jack, Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change, Wild About Utah, January 15, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wildlife-winter-climate-change/

    Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, January 26, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/


    Petrified: Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
    Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood
    Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
    “Charlie climbed onto the bed and tried to calm the three old people who were still petrified with fear. “Please don’t be frightened,” he said. “It’s quite safe. And we’re going to the most wonderful place in the world!”

    Author Roald Dahl uses the word petrified as being motionless, stonelike, frightfully frozen, as he describes Charlie Bucket’s puzzled grandparents and his own excitement about a trip to Mr. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Utah’s San Rafael Swell rates as one of the most wonderful places in my world, and not because of an abundance of chocolate or gleeful oompa loompas. Beneath the towering spires on my bucket list-quest to see desert bighorn sheep in the wild, I’ve wandered among the petrified wood fragments scattered in the desert sand, so many that I almost forget to appreciate them for what they are. Petrified wood is a fascinating fossil, colorful evidence that what is now desert was once lush forest. We’ve set aside places like Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and Utah’s own Escalante Petrified Forest State Park boasts something like five and a half million tons of fossil wood.

    When I adventure through and research Utah’s geologic history, it makes sense that the Chinle layer is a major host rock for petrified wood and uranium in the San Rafael Swell. Let’s go back in time to find out why: Over 100 million years ago, an ancient sea covered much of Utah. The San Rafael Swell was a large island where tall conifers lined its riverbanks and dinosaurs slogged through its swamps. Evidently, as understood by radiation specialist Ray Jones in a 1997 Deseret News feature titled “Hot Spot,” “Uranium isotopes dissolved in water tend to bond chemically with decaying material, like branches and logs.” Uranium prospectors in the early 1900s would follow petrified branches in the San Rafael Swell to uranium ore-bearing larger stumps buried with almost Geiger-counter precision. It’s no wonder that uranium mines dot the hills and debate continues about mineral resource rights in the area.

    Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
    Petrified Wood
    Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
    The Greek root petro means “rock,” so petrified wood is prehistoric vegetation “turned to stone.” Permineralization is this process when minerals replaced the organic tree material when the organism was buried in water-saturated sediment or volcanic ash. Without oxygen, the logs, stumps, tree rings, knots, and even bark were preserved, giving paleobotanists clues to relationships between prehistoric plants and those we have today. According to Dr. Sidney Ash, we even find evidence of busy bark beetles in the petrified specimens in the Wolverine Petrified Wood area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    In “Petrified Wood: Poetry Written by the Earth” released by the Myanmar Geosciences Society, I learn there are sacred shrines erected in Thailand’s petrified forests attracting visitors praying for protection. Thai legend states that touching petrified wood will give a person long life. Charles Darwin also mentioned his fascination with prehistoric plants and upright fossilized tree stumps in his naturalist journals during his expeditions, and we know he gathered and catalogued specimens. It may be bad luck, however, to move a petrified fossil from where it lies, a superstition shared by many Escalante Petrified Forest State Park visitors who have ignored the “leave only footprints, take only photographs” warnings. It seems that the park rangers receive packages from petrified offenders returning the fossil shards with apologetic notes, wishing they’d just admired the artifacts in their natural Utah settings. I’ll admit that, had I been able to lift the massive specimen I stumbled upon while I was Behind the Reef this spring, I might have been tempted to take it home. The magic for me, though, is imagining a dense forest once where cactus and rabbit brush now thrive. Whether one uses the word to mean frozen as stone from fear or geologic processes over time, and whether one is searching for uranium or a glimpse into prehistoric biomes, petrified wood is a symbol of long-lasting wonder.

    I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about petrified Utah.


    Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy & ©
    Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
    Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

    Additional Reading:

    Ash, Sidney. (August 2003). The Wolverine Petrified Forest. Utah Geological Survey. https://ugspub.nr.utah.gov/publications/survey_notes/snt35-3.pdf

    Bartsch-Winkler, Susan, et al. (1990). Mineral Resources of the San Rafael Swell Wilderness Study Areas, including Muddy Creek, Crack Canyon, San Rafael Reef, Mexican Mountain, and Sids Mountain Wilderness Study Areas, Emery County, Utah. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1752. https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/1752/report.pdf

    Bauman, Joe. (Nov. 26, 1997). Hot spot. Deseret News. https://www.deseret.com/1997/11/26/19347933/hot-spot

    Gordon, Greg. (2003). Landscape of Desire. Logan, Utah: University Press of Colorado. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/10431/

    Hollenhorst, John. (May 26, 2014). Fossil-theft phenomenon has petrified forest visitors returning ‘keepsakes.’ KSL News. https://www.ksl.com/article/30052683/fossil-theft-phenomenon-has-petrified-forest-visitors-returning-keepsakes

    Htun, Than. (March 6, 2020). P. Wood (Ingyin Kyauk): Poetry Written by the Earth. The Global New Light of Myanmar. https://www.gnlm.com.mm/petrified-wood-ingyin-kyauk-poetry-written-by-the-earth/

    Mickle, D. G. et al. (1977). Uranium favorability of the San Rafael Swell Area, East-Central Utah. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/5292653

    Rawson, Peter and Aguirre-Uretta, M. (2009). Charles Darwin: Geologist in Argentina. https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/Archive/October-2009/Charles-Darwin-geologist-in-Argentina

    Van Wyhe, John. (2002). The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/) http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=NHM-408865-1001&pageseq=1

    Viney, Mike. (2015). The Anatomy of Arborescent Plant Life Through Time. http://petrifiedwoodmuseum.org/PDF/AnatomyVineyRevOct2013.pdf


    Juncos: Junco Nest Courtesy US FWS Carla Stanley, Photographer
    Junco Nest
    Courtesy US FWS
    Carla Stanley, Photographer
    I first became aware of dark eyed juncos while doing fieldwork for the USFS in Montana. My young children discovered an active nest on the ground near a mountain stream. This was before my birding days. It occurred to me this was a strange place for a small, sparrow sized bird to build a nest, giving predators the advantage. Yet they flourish, and are among the most common and prolific songbirds in north America.

    Juncos: Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell, Photographer
    Dark-eyed ‘Oregon’ Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell, Photographer
    Now, many years later, I enjoy them at my feeder as they migrate down from the high country to winter in my backyard. I’ve found them to be very chatty with constant vocalizations being exchanged. A friend spent her PhD work on their chatter and discovered 23 sound variations representing different messages. I’m guessing there are many more if one includes nonverbal means of communicating and possible notes beyond our range of hearing.

    Another fascinating discovery was how different individual juncos were as I handled those captured in a mist net for banding purposes. Some were quite belligerent biting and struggling throughout the experience. Others were very docile. I imagined them to be smiling throughout the ordeal.

    The Dark-eyed Junco can be found across the continent, from Alaska to Mexico, from California to New York. A recent estimate set the junco’s total population at approximately 630 million individuals, about double the U.S. human population.

    Belonging to the sparrow family Passerellidae, Junco systematics are still confusing after decades of research, with various authors accepting between three and 12 species. There is a huge range of geographic variation in the Dark-eyed Junco. Among the 15 described races, six forms are easily recognizable in the field and five used to be considered separate species until the 1980s.

    Primarily ground feeders, in winter they become highly social often foraging in flocks, evident as masses attack my feeder, and each other! Their breeding habitat is coniferous or mixed forest areas, ranging from subarctic taiga to high-altitude mountain forests in Mexico and Central America south to Panama. The Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, along with the Slate-colored, are the two most widely known subspecies.

    The oldest recorded Dark-eyed Junco was at least 11 years, 4 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in West Virginia in 2001.

    Juncos are described as “happy, bubbly, little birds that are a joy to watch”. All races and species share a pink bill as well as pink legs, a reminder that no matter how different two things look, they are not all that different on the inside. Please enjoy your juncos and happy holidays!

    Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, and I’m always wild about wild things in Utah!


    Nest Picture: Courtesy US FWS, Carla Stanley, Photographer
    Junco Picture: Courtesy & © Ryan P O’Donnell, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society
    Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster

    Additional Reading:

    Liberatore, Andrea, Dark-Eyed Juncos, Wild About Utah, January 12, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/dark-eyed-juncos/

    Greene, Jack, Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations, Wild About Utah, Nov 9, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/seasonal-changes-amazing-adaptations/

    Atwell, J.W., O’Neal, D.M, and Ketterson, E.D. (2011) Animal Migration as a Moving Target for Conservation: Intra-species Variation and Responses to Environmental Change, as Illustrated in a Sometimes Migratory Songbird. Environmental Law. Vol. 41:289 p. 289-319, http://www.amazon.com/Animal-migration-moving-target-conservation/dp/B005C29H7I

    Alderfer, Jonathan (editor) (2005) National Geographic Complete Book of Birds. National Geographic Press. Dark-eyed junco information available online at: http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birding/dark-eyed-junco/

    Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds: Dark-eyed Junco. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dark-eyed_Junco/id/ac

    History of Name Changes for Juncos. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/News/junco_taxonomy.pdf