Couple allow Mother Nature to return land to natural state


September 20, 2005|By Tom Horton

GREENSBORO — It's been almost 40 years since Nick and Margaret Carter bought the farm here in Caroline County - 33 acres of scraggly cornfield, cutover woods and dry, sandy soils sloping to the headwater swamps of the Choptank River.

Determined to make the land productive, the new owners immediately set about doing ... well, doing precious little, actually. Just patiently letting nature take its course.

In the bay region, where lawns are king, tree farms pass for forests and farmers must wring more from the soil every year, the Carters' chosen path amounts to radicalism - a quiet, resplendent, green protest of the suburbanizing landscape.

They didn't mow, didn't plow, didn't cut, didn't pave, didn't fertilize. And today, all they didn't do over the decades has borne wondrous fruit.

The wind and blue jays spread seeds from nearby pines to cover the uplands. The pines in turn made shade and humidity for oak, hickory, persimmon, gums, beech and other hardwoods to take hold.

After many years, a unique fungus in the soil around the roots of pines and oaks gave rise to a few pink lady's slippers, a rare and delicate showy woodland orchid.

Maryland Public Television filmed a special on native orchids recently, and came to the Carters' neglected farm, where by now close to 1,000 lady's slippers mass in spring on the woodland floor.

Also rattlesnake plantain, cranefly orchid, partridge pea and crowsfoot; bracken fern, inkberry, winterberry, sweetbay magnolia and ebony spleenwort; witches butter, earth tongues and coral fungus.

You meet all of these expressions of unfettered nature during a walk with a class of certified Master Gardeners down paths worn through the woods by Nick, Margaret and their kids while growing up.

Their place has become an informal laboratory and classroom in native plants and natural landscaping. The old farm's annual "crop" now includes 84 species of birds, seven different turtles, eight kinds of snakes, a dozen varieties of toads, frogs and salamanders, and 204 species of flowering native plants.

But head counts and lists just scratch the surface of the Carters' 40-year statement. "Notice how soft the forest floor is," Nick says.

Decades of undisturbed, deep layers of uncompacted organic matter let all but the heaviest rains soak in, reducing runoff that would wash the soil's fertility into the bay, adding to pollution.

The infiltration of rain replenishes the groundwater, which in turn refreshes the Choptank's feeder streams with a flow of cool, clear water in even the driest times.

Nick points this out at a small seep, bleeding crystal clear and a mid-50s temperature on a hot day. Golden club - a low, floppy-leaved shrub - signals superb water quality.

When forest covered most of the bay watershed, storm runoff was 25 percent to 30 percent lower, and the dry-time flows from groundwater were 10 percent to 15 percent higher. It was a cleaner, clearer, more stable system.

One 33-acre patch can't recapture a watershed, but it's a start. And we do have a choice. Close to 1 million acres of the watershed is now in grass - lawns, school yards, campuses and the like.

Imagine the benefits to water and wildlife if we were to start being "un-managers" of our turf like Nick and Margaret.

Ultimately, living in a place like the Carters have, becoming intimate with the natural processes there, has value deeper than any tree roots.

When I first met Nick, he was an environmental regulator, and it was only later that I realized how much he disliked people making rules for him.

I think he has purely enjoyed setting his and Margaret's little patch of the planet free to do whatever it evolved to do best.

Maybe even better is what can arise from the interaction of wild nature and humans, who after all are still part of nature, and still a little wild.

One winter, Nick's old dog ran a three-legged deer into the rain-swollen Choptank. Both animals, pinned against a log, seemed about to drown.

Nick, a fan of wild game, up to and including fresh road kill, waded in, and with his old pocket knife, hacked through the deer's throat. Hauling dog and deer ashore, he went home for a wagon.

His kids, walking the same woods that day, came rushing to the house, hollering about "the maniac loose in the woods" who had slashed a deer to death.

The experience produced fresh venison, but also an amazing poem by Catherine, now an English lit professor - "The Dog and Dagger Society."

Its rather bloody inception

began at my father's listening ear

in the rasp and bleat and yell

of a hounded and wounded three-legged deer...

the dull pocketknife

No way to close the eyes and swipe, no, he must get

two dull dirty inches of blade

into the skin and muscle and vein ...

we howled, the dogs howled

wolves in the fiery caverns of night

Children, father and dogs - we are the latest

members of the old Dog and Dagger ...

What a lot comes from doing nothing - perhaps the hardest thing for us moderns to do with our land.

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