The Perennial Hope of Spring

View of the Hudson River from the Vanderbilt mansion, part of the FDR historic site

A guest blog from an SCA Alum, Lauren Traylor

After completing my degree in the arid southwest of Colorado, I was looking for a change in scenery when I found my SCA intern position at the Franklin Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York. The Eastern Deciduous Forest seemed like the change I was looking for, and working at the historic rose garden sounded dreamy for a plant-loving gardener like me.

After four days of driving across the country, I found myself in the traditional homeland of the Mohican and Lenape people amongst the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley. This land was purchased in 1866 by the Roosevelt family and it was the childhood home of Franklin Roosevelt, known as the Springwood estate. I arrived in March when snow still covered the ground and, throughout my internship, I witnessed the landscape slowly awakening to spring.

Flowering Spring Tree

Exploring a new landscape was one of my favorite elements of my internship. The oak-tulip forest surrounded me and the Hudson river flowed nearby.

Spring blossoms covered many trees; dogwood, cherry, magnolia, and tulip trees all dotted the historic site and burst into color once the snow melted. In the forest, spring ephemerals welcomed me, and I saw species of fungi, birds, and amphibians that I had never seen before.

My days were spent tending and amending the rose garden under the guidance of my internship mentor Paul. I learned how gardening can be an art form and the skills needed to bring about this art from the landscape. For three months, I lived in solitude. The kind of solitude you have to get used to. So I took this time to further my learning and checked out books from the library about conservation.

The garden at the FDR historic site, designed and grown by Paul Laurelli

A unique part of my internship was that it was at a historic site.

I had the opportunity to learn about the Roosevelts who inspired me endlessly. FDR created many conservation programs for our public lands that we all enjoy today. I celebrated the fact that I was in a program directly inspired by his Civilian Conservation Corps. Furthermore, Hyde Park was the environment that first inspired his life long love of nature and a place that he personally stewarded.

In his lifetime, FDR planted half a million trees in Hyde Park. Eleanor Roosevelt had compassion, independence, and courage that moved me. I learned how she became an advocate for the rights of all individuals. She was dedicated to making her country and the world a better place—all while being the only woman in the room most of the time.

Conservation Books

With the abundance of space and time to think, while being surrounded by the forest and gardens, I thought about the problems the Roosevelts had to solve in the Great Depression—and why the Great Depression happened in the first place. As a senator, FDR supported a bill that launched a program to plant tree seedlings on thousands of acres of depleted New York farmlands.

I wondered, why were the farmlands so degraded in the first place? What I found was that farmers had started planting monocultures and plowing the land. These practices caused a short-term gain in crop production but resulted in the degradation of the soil over time. These practices turned detrimental in the midwest once a drought hit combined with high winds causing what is known as the dust bowl—a major factor in starting the Great Depression. By the end of 1934, roughly 35 million acres of farmland were ruined, while the topsoil covering 100 million acres had blown away.

Tulip Tree Flower

I began to wonder, are there ways to bridge the gap between the human world and ‘the wild’? Can we meet our needs for food, shelter, and clothing in a way that does not degrade ecological health? I found an answer in permaculture.

The simplest way to define permaculture is that “it is a design system that seeks to meet human needs while increasing ecological health.” It has modeled many of its practices after indigenous knowledge and land management practices. Permaculture is a way of understanding whole systems, seeing interconnections, and thinking like an ecosystem. I found that with permaculture we can work to transform the economic underpinnings that drive ecological degradation.

With this in mind, we can start to practice conservation methods on as many lands as possible, expanding beyond our National Parks, Wilderness areas, and other public lands.

Currently over a billion acres of land are used for crops and pasture/grazing (391.5 million for cropland and 654 million for pasture). Most of this land is not managed in a way that protects biological diversity, builds soil, or cleans water.

In 1930, FDR cited the benefits of forests: “They protect the headwaters of our rivers and streams, they prevent the too rapid run-off of rain and melting snow and tend to equalize the flow of streams. They return to the land more than they take from it and maintain its fertility.”

I think we can have farms that perform these same benefits. Maybe even cities too, if they were designed differently. After my internship with SCA, I went on to find ways I could practice this form of conservation on farms and private lands. Now I am back in my home state working on a permaculture farm: Cedar Springs in Hotchkiss, Colorado.

Cedar Springs Farm

Cedar Springs integrates perennial crops (like trees!) to create a biologically diverse savannah ecosystem where animals (cows, pigs, chickens) successionally graze. One conservation method practiced here would be promoting native species.

For example, at this location beavers were a native species and a major part of shaping the natural ecosystem and managing the water. They are no longer in this area, but the farm owners, Jake and Meghan, have dug ponds around their property in a way that mimics how a beaver would dig a pond. Now they are planting willows and poplars in the riparian areas as food sources for the beavers, since they are expecting the beavers to return.

Even though I am not pursuing a traditional conservation career through a public land agency, my permaculture position is because of my SCA internship. I gained so much from the people who worked at the park and living in a new landscape. I would recommend an SCA internship to anyone. The opportunities during an internship may lead you to a whole new place that you may not have known about before.