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Land Steward Program gives wings to sustainability goals

“If you’re hauling me up this mountain to look at a bug, son, I will slap you nakeder than what you were born with.”

— Barbara Kingsolver, “Flight Behavior,” 2012

In Barbara Kingsolver’s eighth novel, Hester’s son, Cub, is indeed taking his mother to see “bugs” that are living in an isolated stand of pine trees on their property in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Tennessee.

But it is not just any ordinary insect, nor is it only one. In fact, the Turnbows are astounded when they see what looks like a shimmering lake of fire that turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies. For mysterious reasons, the monarchs have deviated from their millennia-old flight behavior, failing to return to the mountain forests of Michoacán, Mexico, to overwinter.

Although Kingsolver made up the massive congregation of monarchs on a Tennessee sheep farm, her message about the effects of global warming reflects real concerns about wildfires, landslides, floods and endangered plant and animal species.

However ominous, “Flight Behavior” is also a hopeful story about a family of farmers who become land stewards. The phenomenon on the Turnbow farm could have devastating consequences for the monarch butterflies, but for the fictional Turnbow family, it inspires a new appreciation for their land and a commitment to keep it intact and healthy for future Turnbow generations. Such plot irony is one reason I’ve read all of Kingsolver’s fiction and nonfiction books, along with her masterful skill at infusing scientific information with engaging characters and witty humor. (She also wrote the bestselling “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” 2007).

Of course, land stewardship is not just the stuff of fiction. Even as a gardener on my suburban lot, I try to manage the land with safety, economics and long-term environmental health in mind. For rural property owners with acreage, their vegetable and flower beds are just one part of a larger interrelated system of plant and animal life. The OSU Land Steward Program is designed to help local owners of small plots and large acreages develop an effective management plan and accomplish their goals.

The Land Steward Program is a unique 11-week course based at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, in Central Point. The 2017 class will meet from noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Sept. 5 through Nov. 14. The program costs $200 for individuals and $275 for couples. Registration continues to Aug. 15; there is a $50 discount for registrations received by Aug. 1. Register online at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/land-steward-program

Rachel Werling, coordinator of the Land Steward Program, says the course addresses a full spectrum of land management considerations from forests to farms, soils, water systems, pasture management, fire awareness, wildlife habitat, stream health and economics. Presentations from professional resource managers and site visits bring the learning alive.

By visiting a variety of local properties, course participants will learn how to increase the health of their land and reduce the risk of damaging wildfires, floods and invasive weeds. Property owners with small farms and rural businesses will share their challenges and successes, including how to troubleshoot rural infrastructures such as septic systems and irrigation ponds. Class members will develop an action plan for their property and receive a wide range of resources, including grant opportunities, to manage their land effectively. After completing the class, volunteers spend time supporting outreach projects related to conservation and land stewardship.

Whether they own one acre or several hundred acres, local property owners don’t need a million monarch butterflies on their property to become land stewards. For more information about the Land Steward Program, contact Werling at Rachel.werling@oregonstate.edu or 541-776-7371.

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.