INTERVIEWEE: Bill Neiman (BN)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: April 20, 2002
LOCATION: Junction, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2207 and 2208
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re filming on—or taping on—on April 20th, year 2002, and we’re outside of Junction, Texas and have the nice opportunity to visit with Bill Neiman, the proprietor of Native American Seed and one of the pioneers in—in ecosystem restoration and—and I wanted to thank you for the time to visit with us.
1:29 – 2207
BN: Pretty nice of you to come out here and sit with us on the banks of the Llano River.
DT: We usually start these by asking how you began, how you started with this interest in—in conservation or the outdoors? If there might have been a family member or a relative or friend or—or just your own experiences that—that got you started?
1:53 – 207
BN: Well, I’m of the belief we’re kind of all an accumulation of our experiences and it’s what makes every person unique, different and so of course, I have a long list of experiences that leads up to here and now. My there’s two or three things that stand out in my mind though that might be a—a noteworthy that I’ve always had an interest in land and water, as a kid we had a pretty spacious place to live and grow up even though we were on the edge of Dallas. And I had about a three—two or three hundred year old trees to play underneath in our back yard and it was kind of bare dirt and I could build and sculpt and then added water and made little rivers and streams and little hills and
2:58 – 2207
mountains and lakes and learned a little bit about erosion and landscaping okay. Also, I had another a—a lot of the people in my family bring this up ‘cause they remembered pretty distinctly, being a kid in Sunday School where they give you this kernel of corn to sprout, you know, and you wrap it in a paper towel and then you see if it sprout, and then they’d put it in a little cup, you know, and the next week, and the next week and then finally take it home and plant it. So I took mine home and planted it and it grew through the spring and by the end of May, is around when my birthday is, had a birthday party. And you know, a bunch of rowdy, I don’t know how old we were, might have been seven or eight and rowdy boys playing around and chasing and someone broke my corn stalk
4:07 – 2207
down and I cried, you know. It was an important thing to me to have watched this thing start from a dry grain. So, I had a couple of grandmas that both of them in their own ways were really horticulturists of a sort around their home places. My—my inner-city grandma was into her yard and house plants and ferns and hanging things and all of that, caladiums and you know. And then I had another grandma that was out in rural, the edge of town, Duncanville. She was one of the first residents of Duncanville, and she had big place and it was like a garden of food and, you know, hoeing and chopping and armadillos in the yard and some nature stuff happening around. So I was encouraged by watching them to keep my hands on plants and o—on the land. My dad was raised in a farm-type setting and—or rural and had lots of rural connections, family members in the
5:42 – 2207
Blacklands around Elgin and Taylor and Denison and Sherman and Terrell and—but his mom and dad had actually lost their farm in the Dustbowl Depression time and moved into town and ended up doing like a lot of people did and got a job with a big giant corporation that would allegedly take care of their employees. He actually built aircraft and then later on in life ended up building missiles. So—but he was—he’s quite a craftsman and an outdoors and naturalist himself. And I was taught to shoot, hunt and fish real early, real early. He was one of those kind of guys too, if he was going to teach you something, he’d just throw you into it, you know, like how to swim. So, well we did stuff, you know, like chop firewood in Carrollton and hunted doves around Farmer’s Branch. And first time I ever went rabbit hunting in the wintertime with a double barrel 410 shotgun it was on the north shores of Great Vine Lake, which is now Flower Mound,
7:12 – 2207
Texas. All these areas are now totally overgrown with urbanization. It’s hard to bring my own son to a place like that now. I can’t bring him to the places where I used to play and hunt and fish. And I use those words, and today they have a different meaning to most people, though—that is taking something, hunting to take, fishing to take. But my dad was pretty savvy about this, and it’s not like we really took, as much as we came to be in the hunt or in the fish. We came to be part of the life that’s out there, and to begin to appreciate the movements and their—their needs the—and to come to their space, to their habitat and to become part of it. And we never took anything that we didn’t use, and we never used more than we needed. So those kinds of epics were put into me. One of his best friends was a Indian from Oklahoma named Bill Bell, and when my dad couldn’t get off of work, well Bill Bell would take me fishing, and I begged to go fishing every
8:57 – 2207
weekend. Anytime I could get them to take me, I wanted to go. That’s another thing that’s hard for kids these days, when the moms and dads are both working, not to mention, there’s no place to take them. So ‘bout midway through my growing up, ‘round eleven or twelve years old, we moved out west, from Dallas to El Paso, pretty big mindset change, huge difference in ecology and society. But out there, the nights were clear and full of stars, right in our front yard, even in town. And of course there’s eight and ten thousand foot mountains within sight. We did some more intensive and in fact more I guess natural outdoor things, once we got out west like that. In fact, just to get an example as every year, my dad would take me fly fishing up in the Gila Wilderness. I don’t never if you’ve ever been there, Dave, but no motor vehicles are allowed. The first
10:42 – 2207
wilderness area ever set aside by in fact the father of the Prairie Restoration Movement, Aldo Leopold, back in the thirties. The Gila Wilderness, it’s the headwaters of the Gila River and the birthplace of Geronimo. We would drive to the place where the road ended and then walk in to the wilderness and carry all we needed. And stay for several days. And when he—my dad wasn’t the kind of guy that when you went camping, you’d—we never had a tent. We just slept on the ground. In fact, I never stayed in a hotel ‘til I left home. I was probably twenty years old before—I left earlier than that, but I never had the money to stay in a hotel. But our family just wasn’t hotel kind of people. But we could go out into that Gila Wilderness and catch our food, not only from the trout, but also berries,
12:11 – 2207
nuts, roots, leaves. We brought a very few things with us, potatoes or dried grains or something, but we didn’t carry our drinking water either, because the water was so clean, you could drink it from the river. My dad used to tell me that they never carried drinking water when they went fishing, even around the Dallas area, anywhere in Texas. The water was clean when he was a kid, everywhere. So that’s hard to say that we cannot show our children this now. Well those are kind of some of the things that led me to my work of wanting to clean up behind the bulldozers. And as soon as I could, I got back to the north Texas area and realized just over a ten year period, how much had changed from the time I was ten to the time I was twenty. And I began to believe that my purpose would be to clean up behind the bulldozers, so I started a nursery and landscaping business. I loved plants, greenhouse production: I began a tree farm and we had container grown plants and built up, starting from nothing, I borrowed a shovel and a rake and a
13:51 – 2207
lawnmower from a friend that had a rural garbage service, and I advertised in his monthly bill, “Total outdoor care.” And got a response, and one thing led to the other and before too long, that grew to—we had forty-five employees and we were doing sizable projects in the DFW area: banks and developments and road medians and apartment complexes and shopping malls and sc—new school grounds, we were doing the entire job. We did the—the earthwork, set up the drainage, controlled the erosion, sculpted the grounds, sprinkler systems, hardscapes, all the walkways and lighting, trees, fountains, all of the icing on the cake as I always called it, with the plants, the grasses and the shrubs and the flowers. But then came the drought of 1980, a hundred days of over a hundred degrees with no rain. And all of these pretty expensive, elaborate, highly intensive to maintain landscapes were withering. It became against the law to water lawns, in some of the
15:36 – 2207
outlying areas such as Highland Village and Flower Mound, Lewisville, Argyle, Bartonville. So these people that had invested a lot of their money into making their homes look beautiful, were asking me what to do. And of course, I couldn’t have that—readily have an answer but I would go back to my home everyday, which I lived out of town a little bit and see that in—what was left of the natural areas, the plants were thriving, perfectly fine, blooming, green, and I came to realize that the native plants that have evolved here over thousands and thousands of years, were not concerned about this worst drought in a hundred years. They—it was within their genes to know how to live here, without any extra care. So I could also see that we were going to have a significant negative impact if we don’t make a change to the next generation by having used up the last of the clean drinking water, keeping our lawns looking better than our next-door neighbors. Seventy-five percent of the drinking water in Texas is used on residential
17:28 – 2207
landscape watering, seventy-five percent. That’s not acceptable. It is said that some of the larger cities in Texas will no longer be able to meet the needs of their citizens in the very near future, to be able to provide clean drinking water, yet still, even in this new millennium, we have yet to turn the corner to the path that will be a simple solution to this. And this isn’t the only thing that this path could solve for us, but it’s definitely a very important part of life, is water. If we could but realize that there are short grasses, such as Buffalo grass, that to an untrained eye looks just about exactly like Bermuda grass, that lives on eleven inches of water a year, grows from northern Mexico to Saskatchewan, Canada. A hundred and ten degrees is not a problem. Minus forty is not a problem. If you never mow it, it gets this tall. Why wouldn’t we be doing this, everywhere? Why doesn’t everyone know this? Why didn’t we know that fifty years ago? It’s not anything new, there’s nothing new under the sun, really, when it comes to working with native plants. They’ve all been here. Just think of the crash of our wildlife
19:19 – 2207
throughout Texas that we’re watching happen right before our eyes. What is it that causes that crash, really? The lack of habitat. It’s come now that because there are so many of us, each of us must become land stewards, even though we, particularly the urban population may not consider themselves a land owner, that’s where all the land is now, a very significant amount of our land has been fragmented into very small pieces, yet the responsibility of our citizens remains as it always has, that each person should be a land steward. If we had used native plants in our landscapes, the habitat would not be so fragmented, and wildlife would be coexisting with us, instead of us pushing the wildlife away. The wildlife depends on the plants. So those two things go together, the water, the wildlife, both depend on the same things, the plants. After this drought happened I came
20:43 – 2207
to this realization that we should be looking at native landscaping. This is in 1980. And it was exceedingly difficult to find a source of native plants, to be able to offer. So that got me onto a new path of discovering how to produce the native plants. And so we became one of the first nurseries in North Texas to pioneer into this area, and it was difficult and not particularly profitable, but we felt very rewarded by our work. And eventually we altogether removed every non-native plant from our nursery, starting with African Bermuda grass, Asian jasmine, Chinese holly, India hawthorn, Japanese boxwood, I mean the list is all very familiar to you. This is more or less been forced to spoon-fed to us, for some reason, we accepted it without even questioning. But the time has come to—
22:23 – 2207
to make this change. I continued ahead for a stretch of eighteen years into landscape and nursery operations until I realized that I could cover so much more ground, instead of working with live potted plants, but instead with seed. In the palm of my hand, I could hold an acre’s worth of seeds. But it’s very difficult to put an acre’s worth of live plants, even into the—into a diesel truck. So the power of seeds kept growing within my mind, of what more I could be doing. And I started trying to find, where would I get these seeds? And I came to the understanding that in my own home place, the Blackland Prairie, the upper Blacklands, .004 remains, four thousandths of a percent. You know what that means? Take a dollar bill out of your pocket, go to the 7/11 and cash for one hundred pennies, take ninety-nine of them out to the parking lot and cast them away.
23:51 – 2207
Take the one penny you have left and go to your garage of your granddad that might still have a hacksaw, cut into one thousand slivers, take nine hundred and ninety-six of those and throw them out in parking lot with the others. Those four slivers is what we have left of our native prairie in Texas. This prairie once covered twelve million acres on some of the richest soil probably on this side of the planet, up to three hundred feet deep, with no rock. Thirty to thirty-five inches of rainfall a year, the grasses grew up to the head of a horse. Only a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, and we have, in a blink of an eye, effectively extincted them down to this small percentage. That’s when I found that instead of cleaning up behind the bulldozers, it would be smarter to get in front of them. I shifted my work out of the nursery and went to the business of finding out where that
25:18 – 2207
four thousandths of a percent remains and finding ways to encourage the seeds and gather them, always leaving enough for the other life forms that may also depending on these seeds, but yet encouraging other people to now take these seeds and help re-grow them. I became intensely interested in whatever information I could find of what all the plants were that belonged here. What was their connection to the big picture? How did the people before us treat these plants, or utilize them without destroying them? How did it come to be that only a short three grandma’s back, there was a whole society living here, long before the white people got here. Some of the oldest bones found in North America,
26:34 – 2207
in fact, came from that same drought where the lakes started drying down and due to the wave erosion over years and years, some of the lakes around the Dallas area, some a—old Indian encampments were washed out. In Lake Lewisville, they found bones of humans that were ten thousand years old, in 1980. Yet, America and the United States of and our Constitution and the July 4th and the 1776 plus two hundred, you know, we’re only two hundred and something years old? It seems difficult to imagine, how could we possibly live here for ten thousand years, the way that we’re living now? So it’s one of those things that you see like the madness of the American people and their concern of saving the rainforest and to the degree that it is now taught in schools, that we must save
28:04 – 2207
the rainforest, the lungs of the Earth. And yet you go to a school and you ask a young person, have you ever been to Brazil? Can’t find anyone that says—that would raise their hand. Okay, do you know anyone from Brazil? Okay, can you just tell me five trees that live in the rainforest, the names? No. How are you going to save the rainforest, when you live in Texas? Wouldn’t it be smarter to take a look and see if we didn’t have our own rainforests around here? And maybe it wasn’t a forest, but in fact, a prairie. And could it be that in fact, there are many lungs on this Earth. When you find a piece of this tall grass prairie that is up to your chest of solid green leaf biomass, it becomes easy to believe that these prairies had the ability to make a lot of oxygen, and convert carbon from the atmosphere and release clean oxygen, just as much as a rainforest. Why don’t we fix our
29:48 – 2207
own backyards? And if everybody was fixing their own backyard, I’ll bet the Brazilians would probably have the rainforest fixed up. Is there anything else you’d like to ask me David? Huh?
DT: Tell me about how—how you went about collecting some of these seeds that you might use to recreate this prairie?
30:45 – 2207
BN: Okay. Well, I studied closely as much as I could, by hand. And would learn to not be afraid of touching the plants. And for example, here is a nice non-native, or an introduced exotic species, common name horehound, which is spread all over the place, which now they consider a whole ‘nother discussion of invasive species. But, let’s say if you want to learn about seeds, what is a seed all about? Where does a seed come from? Comes from a flower. In fact a plant’s—let’s just pick on wild flowers which, we could find some of this prairie verbena out in a more sunnier spot, but we’ll use this. Any—all plants make a flower, even these trees. The purpose of the flower is not to particularly be
31:55 – 2207
beautiful for us to look at, but in fact to make a seed. Some flowers are very discreet, some are big and showy, and those might be for the purpose to attract different types of pollinators. But to learn about seeds, I had to first learn about flowers, and how a flower works. And I had to become less bashful about touching plants and taking them apart, to look, to find this place where the seed occurs. And then, over time, watching as the seasons change and change, that the flower matures, slowly, slowly to a ripe seed. There’s a lot of things to know about seeds. If you cut a plant too soon, before the seeds are ready, they die. If you wait too long, when the seeds are ripe, their purpose it to disperse themselves and they may fall off, and you won’t find them. They’ll all be on the ground. Or other birds or insects or animals may have carried them. So there’s something
39:40 – 2207
to be said about the timing is everything when it comes to seeds and the seeds don’t wait. When they’re ready, if you have gone about your business to be a person that will gather seeds, you must be there. You could take something common like a blue bonnet, the Texas blue bonnet. You cut them too early, they’re green and mushy and will rot on the inside, you cut them too late, and you have empty pods. You have a three to five day window to harvest blue bonnets. Every seed has its own unique condition. Right now, after so many years of working, I only have to offer a hundred and seventy-one species, and each one is different. It’s hard to just generally say that you would just follow this simple step, and you could easily collect all seeds. If you had to make it simple, you would want to think like a plant, just like catching those trouts. If you would like to know
35:10 – 2207
how to fly fish, you would want to think like the fish. Then you put yourself in the right position to know what the fish will do. And it’s the same with the plants. That’s how I found the easiest way to work and learn about each of these species. Now of course being a white Anglo average male, I have this problem, as a lot of us do, as the Marlboro Man, you know, to want to do things bigger. So yes, there is a time when it is appropriate perhaps to use machines to collect the seeds. So you cannot call John Deere and say, I would like to see if you have a harvesting machine for harvesting prairies. They don’t have one. John Deere has machines for harvesting corn and wheat and oats and milo, soybeans, hard, heavy, slick, round, free-flowing grains. We have machines. White men have machines that will do that. But the prairie makes very few seeds that are similar to
36:52 – 2207
these. The seeds are so varied in size and particularly the grasses, which the grasses are what holds the world together. A lot of people see a (?) interest in wildflowers because of their beauty. But you go to any prairie that may appear at a glance to be covered with wildflowers, and you immerse yourself in there, you find in fact, of a percentage of the mixture of plants that are there, eighty-five percent are grass, only fifteen percent might be wildflowers. The grasses by and large, make light, fluffy, chaffy seeds with hairs and things on them that are so much different than what John Deere had in mind for harvesting of corn or soybeans. So it could be most easily said that to start with a machine that is already been invented and got a lot of the issues worked out for harvesting and then begin to modify it, to try and adapt to the needs that I might have for doing prairie harvesting. Some of the components need to be slowed down, some of them
38:27 – 2207
need to be sped up. Some of them particularly, the area that handles the separation of the chaff from the seed, which is done by air, needs to be looked at closely, otherwise you blow all your seeds right out the back. So, these are some of the things that I also had to work with. Beyond the ethics that were instilled in me as I described earlier by some of my family experiences, my dad is an outstanding machinist, craftsman, just exceedingly mechanically inclined and could—he never hired a mechanic to do anything—rebuild engines in the garage. So those kinds of traits were also transferred to me, to where this unusual combination of a understanding of things of life, combined with an understanding of machines and being able to put those two together had been very helpful for me, to be able to do the work I do.
39:59 – 2207
DT: Tell me how you find these native prairies to harvest from, they being so rare?
40:12 – 2207
BN: Well, I used to get out and on the highways and just go looking for them. And of course you can here where some places are, nowadays that it is become a little more awareness about this situation, but back in the late ‘80s, I would drive and sometimes miles and miles, in fact, sometimes all day, and I might not find one place to harvest. And in Texas, where all of the land is privately owned and as the population continues to get so large that the landowners become more and more private about their land, it’s harder and harder to work just from the road of what you can see from the road is so limited. I began back, let’s see, in the mid ‘80s, 1985, learning how to fly a small airplane, where I could then use this as a tool, no different than a truck or a tractor, to look for what
41:45 – 2207
remains in Texas from above. I learned to fly an airplane and got a license in 1986, began using that as a method to scout for places to harvest. I had to make a change though, because of what you see when you get above this, and look at it as a bird may look, and you come to this realization that in fact, it is true, that only four thousandths of a percent is out there. I had to adjust my mind of how I would be thinking about these expanses that we have so dramatically changed in such a short time, because it became, it’s in front of me, as if my whole vision is filled when y—I rise only five hundred to a thousand feet above the land and see what really has happened here. One thing I had done that helps in my work is to learn to look at this more like a neighborhood. I spoke quite a bit about the
43:30 – 2207
Blackland prairie and something about getting in your car and driving around your neighborhood or around the block. Now I can get up above this and go a little bit faster and not have a stop sign, and so my concept of a neighborhood, expanded. And I could easily go from the Blacklands to the Cross timbers, or from the Cross timbers to the Rolling Plains, or back to the Blacklands and then over to the neighborhood of the Edward’s Plateau, or maybe to the Piney woods, or to the Coastal Plains. It became something over time that made sense to me, that in order to do this work, and to fulfill what I would see as a purpose of putting Texas back together, I had to look at it as neighborhoods and that I just have a little bit bigger neighborhood to go across than what a person would be going if they were in their car. But it’s about the same thing. I began to
44:54 – 2207
take the skills I was learning from working in Blackland Prairie restoration and bringing them to other neighborhoods. And found that in fact there are some similarities, some of the plants and there are some differences. So over a period of time now many years has passed, but we’re having a lot of fun, particularly in the Coastal Prairies, even more damaged than the Blackland Prairie. The Edward’s Plateau is an ecological disaster, thin soils, steep, rolling hills, and a very unique positioning where cold fronts from the north come and stall and hit against Gulf moist air and perhaps it might rain ten or twenty inches in one day and causing massive runoff and erosion. All of the brush that is enclosing, that you look at—it’s hard to say, sitting here, where we are at this moment. I
46:17 – 2207
try to help people understand that these trees weren’t always here. It is easy to see the tree behind me has been here for a very, very long time. This might be a seven hundred year old tree. But when you look across a lot of the Edward’s Plateau, a lot of the cedars and mesquites and oaks are maybe this big, five or six inches. These trees were not here fifty years ago, eighty years ago. A hundred years ago this was almost all grassland or savannah, where yes, there were some big oak trees, but by and large, large openings of grass, which are now gone. The people that were here before us, they did not have John Deere tools, mowers and shredders and plows and disks, but they had fire. And they understood that the four legged animal thrived on fresh green grass, and so at the end of every season, in order to attract the next year’s herds of animals, they would light the grass on fire and burn off the old, dried grass in—in a form of land management that
47:44 – 2207
actually evolved over thousands of years. When the white people came and brought with them the concept of land ownership, wooden fence posts, wooden houses, fire was stopped. Animals were confined in barbwire limited pastures and droughts or not, ate every living last blade of grass. Trees sprouted, but no fires would control them. The trees cannot tolerate fire, so the people before us, kept this open (inaudible), but we did not understand, and we used the grass up, we stopped the fires, we let the trees and we watched them just slowly fill in, and now, the debt that is due at the soil bank is very high. We having a covering of cool season exotic grasses, mostly, and in the summer
49:08 – 2207
time, there are no warm season grasses that remain on the Edward’s Plateau. It’s going to be a difficult process to try and return this back. It is also quite possible that as we continue to allow the canopy of junipers to close in, we may see in some of these extensive droughts in the future, fires that we will not be able to stop, something like the one you might see in California, where in fact they could sweep across some of the urban areas. I believe that it would be to our benefit to learn and understand how to use fire as a management tool, where we apply it in a prescribed method to achieve specific results and thereby eliminating this potential future disaster of wildfires. Something like the
50:22 – 2207
whole Yellowstone Park thing that we control the Smokey the Bear, no more fires, and then, one time, it caught on fire and we could not stop it because so much fuel had accumulated that it was a natural disaster that was meant to occur. I can see something like that happening in the Edward’s—on the hill country. Doing prairie restoration in a high rainfall area is something that is very doable. The Coastal Plains in fact even on into Louisiana, we’ve done some work there, very successful plantings, without a very much time, to recreate prairies, but as the rainfall drops off, it will require more time to establish a prairie, and when you get to the west Texas, it may take ten or twenty years from the time you put seeds, before the time you can begin to see your results, just because of the amount of integrity that has already been lost in the landscape and then with the arid conditions.
51:58 – 2207
DT: Maybe you can explain, once you found these prairies and the native prairies that still exist and you harvest some seed, how do you—how do you plant it and—and cultivate it and try and restore some of these areas?
52:20 – 2207
BN: Well, it’s something like the steps that were required to find out how to harvest the seeds, I also had to do some investigating and there’s no books to go find, there’s a little more information now written, but a lot of this has to come from observation. Finding the right kind of equipment, if you’re going to large-scale plantings, that can handle the various types of seeds. And then the method to—do you want to plow and prepare a seed bed, or do you want to use the technology now that seems to make a lot of sense called, no-till drill, where no tillage would be required, that in fact a—a piece of what the—the planter does is to till a little narrow strip that would then place the seed to the soil. The most important thing is in nature of what works: is the seeds have to touch
53:29 – 2207
the earth, the soil, the dirt. You can’t just broadcast them out on top of dried grass, or thatch or leaves, or other weeds. The seeds have to touch the earth. Beyond that, native seeds are such—they know how to live here when the conditions are right. They will come. The thing that the native seeds don’t know what to do with is this invasion of the exotic species that we have unleashed, such as these perennial stand of horehounds, all about us here. If we were to put a no-till drill and introduce native seeds again to an area that is already established in a perennial exotic plant, I have to go back to my rule of thumb of thinking like a plant, or now, let’s think like a seed. What would I need if I was trying to become established here? It would be nice if had at least a even chance to
54:55 – 2207
compete with what might be here. And believe me, even on a plowed field, you would think this is clean, there’s nothing here. We plowed it. There are dormant seeds in the soil. Every time you plow, there are seeds being brought up. Some of them might not even be native seeds. Johnson grass, a native of Pakistan and India, makes up to five thousand potential plants per year, per plant by rhizomes, or by seeds. The seeds of Johnson grass can lay dormant in the soil up to twenty years. So let’s say you want to do a prairie restoration on an wore out, old Blackland cotton farm, and that you plowed it. Don’t you reckon you probably going to find some Johnson grass. So those kinds of conditions exist now, and that is the challenge for doing restoration work, I believe, is it
56:12 – 2207
can be understood for most people that what is required to germinate and sprout and care for a seedling. But the difficult thing is what to do when that seedling is overcome by another, more aggressive species that has been introduced from the other side of the planet that has no balance here, no natural predators, no natural controls. This is now our challenge, the price to pay.
56:56 – 2207
BN: Really, really, you would think, yeah, like Lady Bird.
DT: Would you advocate using herbicides, or fire? How do you control these competitors?
57:08 – 2207
BN: I tell you. I worked—I was never so happy as back in the late ‘80s when Jim Hightower became the Agricultural Commissioner and he put together a set of organic farming standards that exceeded those of California. I never thought such a thing would happen in my lifetime. So, in fact, we were still working our nursery operations. We removed all the chemicals off our shelves and began to do a lot—extensive research in beneficial insects and alternative fertile—fertility issues. We learned all about green algae and seaweed and liquid fish and a lot of the trace elements and microrizae and we offered trichogramma wasp and lacewings and ladybugs and there was—it was pretty exciting, but of course the public needs some help. Just like they don’t know about Buffalo grass; they don’t know that there are a entire wealth of natural balances that occur if things are put together in a holistic format. I have tried to do for instance, prairie restoration on the
58:27 – 2207
Blacklands, without using chemicals to eradicate Johnson grass. I spent three years before I was able to achieve enough of a control to begin to plant the native seeds. This three years required two cover crops per year to be introduced to change the weed cycle and begin to change the fertility that was encouraging these types of weeds. And then the plowing down and replanting, and plowing, and the compaction that comes and then the burning of the diesel and I am not surely clear that there isn’t a price of erosion and a heavy hand of machinery versus the price of an application or two of an herbicide that might fast forward this problem and correct the imbalance that the herbicide may have
59:50 – 2207
brought by reintroducing in—inoculating your soil with beneficial bacterias and r—trying to recharge your soil. I now use a different array of methods, ins—instead of ze—saying there’s only one way, it is now a matter of sizing up which way is the best way. There are many ways to take care of these problems. Some, although I will not say that I would like to advocate the use of chemicals, I do see there are times when that becomes a way that might be used. The place has become so disoriented that when it comes to that time, I do make a way with the land that would say something like, this will be the last time, such a mistake like this will happen. If I know that I am able to put back the land into a—a state of healing and that it will never again be treated like it had previously been treated, there are signals that come back to me from the land that says, proceed ahead. There are other
1:01:21 – 2207
times when it’s not appropriate. If we can see that it is a simple, annual weed that can be easily controlled in another way, we do not just take this mindset that says you have to spray before you restore. There’s a balance in there and y—it would require an open mind that would take consideration of a lot of different options, and then look for the options that make sense, in that particular place.
[End of Reel 2207]
DT: Bill, on the—on the previous tape, we were talking about one of the big obstacles to getting a—a native ecosystem reestablished and that is some of the exotics that have become introduced over the years. Can you tell me about some of the other obstacles that—that you have to deal with in trying to replant and—and get a—a stand of native established?
1:35 – 2208
BN: Well there’s a lot of things to consider, David, about what it was that was here, what it went through before we came to this moment of wanting to put it back. And if you can ever find the chance to go to a place that has never ever been plowed, and feel the earth, reach down and find your way through the litter of the organic matter and put you hand into the soil. This is the soil that is supporting this climax prairie. Then come to the place of the sight that you would like to do your ecological restoration, and in you mind you must know that in the late 1800s, the steel plow was invented, and it was pulled at first by mules or oxen or horse, and in order for those animals to be fed, some pieces of prairie were held, because even then, those early pioneers knew the value of a native hay
3:00 – 2208
meadow, it would produce, even when their crops would not. And they needed that hay meadow for those draft animals to pull the plow, but that earth was turned and turned and farmed and farmed year after year. Then the—by the ‘20s or ‘30s, the diesel tractor came along, by the 1930, and it was no longer necessary to pull the plow with the horse. Now that allowed the plowing of the hay meadow. So you can pretty much be assured that anything that could be plowed, has been plowed, since about the ‘30s, seventy-something years. And you must think in your mind that as we harvest our crops, we are hauling away the soil. Nutrients are converted from the soil into the crop, into the grains, the corn or the wheat and taken away. We’re not replenishing these nutrients other than our nitrogen-phosphorus p—p—pot ash in a—and a lot of times those aren’t even looked at, only the nitrogen now is being replenished and it is being replenished in a very unnatural way. In hydrous-ammonia gas is injected into the soil, which when comes in contact with H2O, even a light dew converts into chlorine gas, which kills all living things. It happens to leave this residue of nitrogen that plants—the—the crop plant might be able to utilize. But we are paying prices in the burning out of all of our organic matters from our soils, and as I discussed earlier, some of our soils, were not very thin to begin with, such as on the Edward’s Plateau, very fragile. And the more west you go, lower rainfall, the more
5:23 – 2208
fragile the soil. But basically what people have to ha—overcome is this idea that by simply intro—reintroducing the climax tall grass species onto a minimum eighty—seventy-year old depleted farm field, may—may not be just as easy as you would think. Yes, those natives are very tough, but there are symbiotic relationships between the species and the soil structure that will all culminate into a climax prairie. It might serve us to make more of an understanding of the succession of species that might come into an area that will have been depleted that would begin to make an environment conducive for the more productive species to some a little bit later. Something like what I mean to say is
6:33 – 2208
for instance on caliche, or on the—in Edward’s Plateau, it might be smarter, instead of going to the climax, the little blue-stem Indian grass prairie association that would have been dominant through here, now because of the degradation of the soils, it would probably be more appropriate to begin with some of the very shorter grasses that are much more drought tolerant and not nutrient dependent, such as purple threon, or white tridents, or curly mesquite, or—or the red grama, or the hairy grama, or the side oats grama and get a set of native grasses that then begin to associate with and encourage the beneficial bacterias and microrizae in the soil to begin this conversion with—at which time in the relatively foreseeable future, a more productive climax grasses such as the little blue-stem and the Indian grass could be introduced. It could be said that an
7:53 – 2208
introduction of all of them at once could work. But not to expect that productive prairie to be instant result, but in fact those seeds could be in—all introduced at one time but that you would be very satisfied to have a span of very short early successional species, the pioneer species, that might go in and make an ecological turn on this degraded soil that would begin to prepare for the coming of the little blue-stem and the Indian grass. Do you understand what I’m saying?
8:35 – 2208
BN: There are other native legumes and forbs that are very important in these roles, such as the native prairie clovers, or for instance gayfeather, roots go up to twenty feet deep and it lives in order to hold soil down, together when there is a—an erosive condition. There are other species tha—like the mountain pinks, that you see growing in just pure caliche. Those may be also ingredients that you would want to look at each site individually. And there are always places little micro-habitats, for instance where the slopes level out and that’s where you may have caught some of the soil that eroded from
9:24 – 2208
above, that some of the taller species would—would produce and readily become productive there. My—a—as life is pretty short and people’s attention span is even shorter it seems like, shorter than their life, my approach is that most of the humans that I’ve come across, including myself, are not capable of knowing exactly where each species really would fit on any given one acre site, much less a hundred acres, or a thousand acres. There are so many microelements and little microhabitats that it only
10:18 – 2208
makes sense to me to get as much diversity as possible into your efforts and let nature sort itself out. That’s, I think, instead of spending a bit little too much attention on worrying about this specie or that specie and so much percentage and you get involved with some of the, particularly the Government agencies that will authorize cost sharing of this projects and that they have a little formula and that you must follow this guideline and it must contain these species. You know, it’s going to become more subject to a failure than one that may have included fifty species of forbes and grasses, wildflowers,
11:14 – 2208
legumes, short native grasses. Maybe cattle don’t graze them, but they have a purpose here, in the bigger picture. The—one of the drawbacks I see with some of these cost share programs when the Government agencies, they are designed to—not to particularly restore a prairie, but instead to reclaim a pasture for cattle grazing, and everything is thought of in terms of can it be palatable to cattle? And that’s probably a limitation that I think we would not want to really hold ourselves to that.
DT: Could you explain some of the—the partners that you’ve had in trying to restore some of these prairie sites, whether they’re the people who work with you or the clients that you’ve had, or the Government programs that have helped encourage this?
12:18 – 2208
BN: Yeah, sure, some of them are pretty interesting. Some of them are pretty interesting. The first in my opinion, kind of a landmark thing that we did was began back in 1988, and it was an interesting collection of—of forces that came together. The County is in the Blacklands, the upper Blacklands, Collin County Government. They passed a bond election to set aside an open space program. They saw how Plano had just blown off of the map. The city of Plano which was once a farming community was paved over in a very short period of time and was moving towards Collin County. So there was an interest by the citizens to preserve some open space. The Nature Conservancy had acquired a few small prairies remnants in the neighborhood, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had an interest in forming this partnership between the County, the
13:39 – 2208
State and then the Nature Conservancy was interested in increasing more habitat and allowing their existing resources to become the feed source. All that was missing amongst all the Government and non-Government entities was someone to do the work, which is where—where I came in, I don’t mind working, I enjoy it, I enjoy this work. So we kind of viewed the entire process and got a strategy of how this might occur, no one had really done it before, that we knew of. There was some pretty fun people involved, one old guy, Arnold Davis, who’s no longer with us, he was by the way, instrumental in helping and encouraging me in my early-on days. I spent some time in his garage with a little seed cleaner. With his encouragement I proceeded into the area that I have now found myself. But, we made do, as I said earlier, and made some adaptations, made a lot
15:08 – 208
of our best guesses based on, on the ground observations. There was nothing in a textbook that told us how we were going to really harvest seeds from within ten miles of—of a particular site, and then replant them. But we drew upon the expertise of anyone that was involved and, he was pretty funny. When the seeds—Arnold kind of had some experience on knowing when the seeds would be ripe. He had this thing of carrying a—he smoked a pipe, so he had figured out a Prince Albert Tobacco can with another smaller, like a tomato juice can that fit inside of it, and he put a rubber pad in the bottom that had a grid on it, and then a rubber pad was glued on to the other tomato juice can that
16:17 – 208
flipped ins—we put the seeds, a handful of seeds in the can, and then he’d twist them,
like that, and it would get the chaff off, then he’d pour it out and look and see, were there any grains in there. Another way he would see if the seeds were ripe would be to chomp on them, crunch them, and if it crunched, there would be like a hard grain, you would—you would feel it in you teeth. So there’s a little bit of technology for you. He said the seeds were ready. We moved our combines in and we ended up working twenty-one days straight. As soon as we could get up in the mornings and the dew would let up, we’d get that combine up and going and we’d run ‘til maybe ten at night. And then go to the seed barn, dump the seed out of the day’s harvest and spread it out so it could dry. Then we’d get us a bite to eat, and by the time we got to bed, it’d be about midnight. We stayed up in
17:18 – 2208
this old farmhouse up on the Clymer Meadow, the old Clymer House. And after about three solid weeks, we had completed the harvest. Then the next phase was to clean those seeds and so we rigged up some equipment to—first—my first early efforts was to make all of my equipment mobile, so I could move it anywhere. So we moved our seed cleaning equipment to the barn up in Leonard, Texas that we had rented for this project. And cleaned the seeds and Arnold had us send them off for tests and the tests kept coming back and saying, these seeds weren’t any good. And so he would tell me, you’ve got to clean them again, and I didn’t want to clean them anymore because there’s a sacrifice, every time you make a cut on these seeds, you’re going to throw away
18:26 – 2208
something. And I kept—I tried to clean them without losing diversity, but that’s hard to do. Even the chaff in the straw has got a value of funguses, insect eggs, bacterias that are associated with this prairie. Why would we want to throw that away? Finally after about three rounds of seed testing, it takes about forty-five days to get a seed test done, the way they try and sprout them, and under certain conditions and they have to be in a germinator under the so many hours of sunlight and such and such a humidity for such and such temperature for such and such length of time, and then they go in count them. So for the grasses, it’s often anywhere from thirty to forty-five days. So we lost a lot of time, in fact, it delayed the planting of the seeds, a year. In the interim we planted milo. It was not milo. It was some fast grass sorghum something or other, hybrid something that
19:44 – 2208
you cut for hay. And in the fall of that year that we lost the planting window, we cut the hay and left the stubble and all of the roots in the ground. The field was relatively clean, except for this hay stubble. The next spring, we decided we got to plant these seeds, whether they’re good or not. Let’s plant them. The tests only said they were like, I’ve forgot the numbers now, but something like twelve percent pure live seed. So we put a pretty high seeding rate to overcome that problem. It also said there was maybe six or eight species in there and that was it. The spring came around. We got a no-till drill that was borrowed from the Thompson Foundation up in Montage County, which is over and across Timbers, another interesting project that I came to work with as time went on, and
20:43 – 2208
Arnold also was involved with them. And that place still exists. Interesting place that’s been set aside for the education of wildflowers up in north central Texas. But we used their no-till drill. It was a tie drill, and of course it created and caused a lots of headaches and problems and having to poke at it and it was difficult to calibrate and the seeds wouldn’t flow through right and it didn’t have a good system of tillage in front of it, and—but it was the best we had at those—at that time. So the planting finally was done. And now the anticipation of what were we—the results to be? And because so much time had gone by, it seems like the Parks and Wildlife Department and the County and even
21:40 – 2208
the Nature Conservancy, almost all everybody had lost interest in the thing and went on to some—somewheres else. But I stuck with it, watching it. I still watch it. This was in 1989, I think. There’s a man that ended up doing his thesis, named Jim Eidson, and as time went on, he ended up becoming the land steward for the Blackland prairies of the Nature Conservancy. In fact, he has an office now at the Clymer Meadow House. But he was student at A&M under Fred Smeins in the Rangeland Ecology, doing his thesis on this project and what would the results be? How many species would show up in this pretty bad seed test thing that we had out there? And I’ve always been grateful that this
22:47 – 2208
circumstance occurred that at end of three years, he had sixty-three species established from this seed that was no good. The seed labs don’t know how to deal with this. They can’t identify the natives and they do not have a protocol on how to sprout them. They’re just like the John Deere system: they know all about corn, soybeans, wheat, but they don’t know the natives. So I learned a good lesson there: harvest and maintain your diversity; get it back into your planting site; have faith in those seeds. Have more faith in the seeds than you have in the seed testing laboratory. They cannot identify the—the native species. One interesting handicap that I’ve had to really deal with all these years, is that the American Association of Seed Analysts has a protocol that says, any mixture that
24:01 – 2208
is submitted for testing that contains any components that make up less than five percent of that mixture don’t have to even be counted. There goes your diversity. That’s everything we want is not even counted. Your seed test becomes—it’s your certificate of proof of what you have, and you can’t even rely on it, in the native seed trade. We have a big educational, political, mechanical, structural problem that needs to be ironed out, somehow, to straighten this issue out, if we’re going to really do ecological restoration, we can’t be handicapped by things like that. The value is the diversity of those small micro-components that make up less than five percent.
25:02 – 2208
DT: Speaking of educating these seed analysts, I understand that some of your seed planting efforts have also gone towards educating kids and—and working with schools. Can you talk about some of those experiences?
25:20 – 2208
BN: Sure, heck yeah. That’s probably my favorite thing. Most rewarding is to work with young people. Talking to adults is kind of like talking to bricks. They listen, and in fact they enjoy it and even almost to the point of being entertained. But when the entertainment’s over, they go right back about the business of their old habits of doing just like they were doing. So when you talk to young people, though, they’re well aware of the destruction of the rainforest, and the ozone pollution, and the dirty drinking water, and the chemicals in the food, and someone in their family’s already got cancer and that a
lot of their playmates have got asthma. There—this is not anything that they take lightly,. It’s their life and they know it. They have a inherent knowledge that their life depends upon their ability to survive these issues. When they find that a clean world has to do with a clean environment, they are very interested in how to build a clean environment. I think it is easy for a young person to make this connection about how our rainforest here is really a prairie, and talk about enthusiasm and a synergy. They don’t like to just sit around and let’s bat—bat some concepts around and give me some hypotheses and let’s—they don’t’ want to—they—they don’t want to talk about it, they want to do it.
27:30 – 2208
Once they have enough information to take action, they’re ready to take it, and they do. If the adults would get out of the way, or even provide some encouragement, this can be turned around pretty easily, if we really want to do it. I think our best hope, and we have hardly begun, in a big way, we’re not even talking about it, that we must instill within the hearts of the next generation a code of land ethics. And until we do that, it’s unlikely that we will be a society capable of receiving restored landscapes, because we do not have a
28:30 – 2208
people ready yet. We’re kind of on the front edge of it, and we’re thinking about it, as those last four slivers are being speculated upon by the highest bidder. Everything’s for sale, including our children’s future. If we can get and raise a generation of people that have a code of land ethics instilled within their hearts, by the time they’re eighteen, they become voters and they begin to work as adults in their lives to make these changes real. That’s when you will see a—a change. That’s where the real work should be right now. We know how to restore the landscape. We need to restore our people now.
DT: Tell me about the Composite Technology site, where I—I think you—you made an effort to instill some of these ethics and…
29:41 – 2208
BN: We’re on our—this is our eleventh year. There’s a hundred fifth graders that go through that project every year. So eleven hundred families have been affected by this. The student learns these issues and takes it home to their family, and their family gets turned on, and the family comes out to the Prairie Project to find out, what is this? Why is my kid so turned on? And I can’t help but have to come and see, what is this? And then pretty soon they bring the grandma and the uncle and you won’t believe what they’re doing right now. They have put together a PowerPoint program and they have showed it to the School Board; they’ve showed it to the City Council, to the Lion’s Club, the Optimist Club, the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Saginaw. The title of it is, “Saginaw Needs a Prairie.” Saginaw is in the Blacklands, almost treeless. It’s probably best known for it’s grain elevators and being a cross road of railroad lines. But these kids have learned that those elevators represent why the prairie no longer exists. All the grains that are produced that are put into those grain elevators came off of good, rich prairie land. And yet, in Saginaw, there’s no prairie. They want to put it back, along the railroad tracks that go right along Main Street in Saginaw. This is the same Main Street that runs right to the Fort Worth stockyards. I’m pretty sure they’ll be successful at this. The beginning of the next generation is already here. (inaudible) invite you to come take a look.
DT: Let me ask one more question.
32:23 – 2208
BN: Sure, Dave.
DT: You’ve been busy landscaping and restoring landscapes and teaching kids about how to do this and why it’s important. When you have the time to—to get away from all this activity, how do spend your time? Is there a—a special spot in the outdoors that gives you some serenity or restoration, yourself?
32:51 – 208
BN: Well, I’m glad you asked me that. I spend a lot of time just above the Earth’s surface, about five hundred feet or so, about the same level as red-tail hawks. And—but that thing’s so noisy, it’s—and I—I brought to one of the places here on—at the farm that’s pretty nice. Sometimes in a quite moment, you’ll find me, or my family right here. I’ve brought my whole family, several times, my kids and my wife on that same exact trail to the same exact camp spot that my dad brought me on the Gila River. That’s probably, if I had to n—only narrow it down to one place, that would be the place I’d—I would go. But I tell you, in my travels and in my work, I know of many sacred places on
34:03 – 2208
the land, these places that have never, ever been plowed. And when, if you are willing to feel or listen to the land, you know those places, and they are all connected. They all are speaking that this—all of this land is sacred. And the only people who don’t know it is the ones that have not become native to this place.
DT: Why do you think it was that—that the Native Americans who lived here for ten thousand odd years, were, I think to a degree, more native to this place and understood the rhythms and the…
35:04 – 2208
BN: I’m pretty sure that they could have easily have built brick houses, if they wanted to. And it wouldn’t surprise me if we find someday that in fact they probably did. And they saw all the foolishness. In fact, they believed that a person who stayed in one place was doomed to poverty, because he would exhaust his resources around him, particularly the Plains, the Great Plains. The Native people that were here before us, that was their underlying principle, to keep moving. But I also think after extensive period of time, we may learn some of those same things. We may also learn that there are two classes of people, the leavers and the takers, and that the takers are the ones that will deplete.
36:10 – 2208
There’s something that’s occurred in my lifetime and yours, Dave, you were a little younger than I was, but I saw it happen, and I’m aware, I—I—it struck me as it happened. When I was younger, we were called producers, and then towards the end of the Nixon thing, or there, somewhere in that era, I’d say the early ‘70s, a new word came out for our people. We were called consumers. Have you ever looked in Webster’s Dictionary, the word “consume?” The first definition is, “to waste.” We are the wasters. We don’t have to do it like this; we really don’t. And when we understand how to stop wasting, we will I think achieve that same balance that the people before us had.
DT: Thank you. (inaudible)
[End of reel 2208]
[End of interview with Bill Neiman]