Before Winter Finally Arrived

Prunus mume ‘Peggy Clarke’

Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.

Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.

A honeybee enjoys another Prunus mume cultivar (name forgotten)

The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.

In “normal” winters, the Prunus mume trees dole out their flowers sparingly, a few dozen each time the weather warms a bit. This year’s prolonged warm winter weather caused almost all buds to open simultaneously.

January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.

A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.

Hamamelis vernalis ‘Amethyst’

An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.

Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.

What a short, strange winter it has been.

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Resolution

I’ve been thinking about that word, resolution. This time of year, it gets used a lot as many make lists of what they will do better, or perhaps leave behind. The word has strong connotations: The heroine resolved that she would not let Darkness prevail. That usage implies determination, strength of character, guts.

But the word has other connotations. For example, a blurry image can resolve into clarity. A medical condition can resolve into health. This usage almost implies metamorphosis: A caterpillar resolves into a butterfly.

I’m wondering on this New Year’s Day if we can combine these two connotations into one. Can we determine to bring clarity and healing to our world – resolve to work for resolution? That’s my ambitious prayer for the new decade.

I think we all need to pick our spots, planting our flags, as it were, on the condition/situation/conflict that stirs us most deeply. No more hand-wringing angst. It’s time to walk our talk. This is the year to declare out loud what we are fighting for, and then do all we can to fight for it.

Like most folks, I care about and support an array of causes, but as any of you who read this blog know, my deepest commitment is to the Green World. As I pray daily for the resolution of the precipitous decline in the health of our mother planet, I will be acting locally to try to resolve the vitality of my home ecosystems, and to provide relevant information to my readers.

With the help of Wonder Spouse and an indispensable garden helper, I will continue to work to heal the five acres of land I’ve lived on for over 30 years. As I plant, weed, and mulch, ever watching for non-native invasive species trying to disrupt the harmony of our intentions, I pray that others are doing likewise on their home ecosystems.

I recognize that ecological imbalances are driven by geopolitical/societal imbalances. Every facet of the health of our planet entirely depends on the actions taken by humanity in this new decade. I hope all my readers will resolve to work for resolution of the ills plaguing our blue-green orb. Raise your voices, use your votes, envision Earth’s resolution.

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Dancing with the Dark

Light has been hard to come by lately.

Perhaps the message of the longest night of the year is to stop trying to flee the darkness, instead, following the example of the great canopy trees, casting off artifice – the leaves of summer – and spending this season stretching roots into life-giving earth, taking time to deepen my connection to that which sustains me.

I need this quiet season. It brings me back to center after the frenzy of planting, weeding, harvesting, and reveling in the vibrant life that surrounds me during warmer times. Winter precipitation – frozen or liquid – pulls me into contemplation, forcing me to a slower tempo as I watch snowflakes or raindrops fall on brown leaves piled beneath bared branches.

In cold darkness, melodies emerge: the sonorous tones of a barred owl calling its mate, a staccato crash and splash as deer test ice covering the creek, distant howls of hungry coyotes. Winter rhythms slow heartbeats, deepen breathing, center souls.

On this longest night, I will pull warm blankets over my head and dream of swimming in deep oceans, flying soundlessly over frozen moonlit ground, dancing around ancient bonfires, remembering that I need darkness to see the light.

May this winter season bring us all comfort and joy.

Happy Winter Solstice.

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Grateful for the Green World

I am grateful beyond words for the green world that surrounds me. This morning, just as sunrise colors deepened in silent air, water birds on a beaver-built pond a few hundred yards from my house began to splash and call. One bird I have not yet identified repeated a haunting wail that echoed across the water. It was an exquisite moment, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege of being witness to it.

Between the time I was born and the time I left for college, my family lived in eight different houses in six different cities. From my earliest memories at about age three, one constant held true – the green world. I was lucky enough to be able to seek comfort in a grove of tall pines that sang soft lullabies as they swayed in gentle winds while chipmunks scurried on urgent business among their roots. I played imaginary adventures among the roots of giant white oaks that towered around another home. And I spent countless happy childhood hours riding my bike on dirt tracks that wound through abandoned Piedmont farmland in the process of returning to forest, finding moss-covered creek-side spots ideal for reading the books I always carried and old fields full of persimmon trees with fruits that puckered my mouth until I learned the secret to their sweeter nature – the first hard frost. The green world was my teacher and my safe haven.

I always knew I wanted my adult self to live on land I owned — as much as possible. In 1989 when Wonder Spouse and I found our five acres on a chilly January day with snow still covering parts of what was then a country road, I knew immediately that we were home. The house was adequate; the land was full of promise.

As time sped by and the forests around us gave way to countless cookie-cutter subdivisions, I began to read about nature-deficit disorder, and I saw for myself many school children on tours at the NC Botanical Garden who had zero knowledge of my green world. I’ve met many adults who think soil is dirty – something to be obliterated; all insects are pests to be killed; and just this week, one woman in a nearby subdivision was certain the marbled salamander she had found was poisonous and needed killing.

My heart flip-flops daily between gratitude for my connection to the green world and grief for its annihilation at the hands of plant-blind humans unable to understand they are fouling their home irretrievably, dooming future generations to a world where children will be unable to splash their feet in a clear babbling creek, chase fireflies in sultry summer twilight, or listen to the haunting calls of barred owls hunting in a snow-softened landscape.

I am grateful, because I was lucky enough to be born when the green world in my southeastern Piedmont region was still lush with life. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for that, and I pray that the children of today and tomorrow will have the chance to find their connections to the green world, because their parents woke up just in time to save it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Transitions

The day dawned purple with just a crack of light at the horizon. I see this effect sometimes when rain clouds approach from the west just as the sun begins to push skyward in the east. Past experience has taught me that sometimes such sunrises are spectacular, so I grabbed my camera and stood in the mild air on my back deck to await developments. As I waited, a soft breeze from the west ruffled brown leaves still clinging to trees, killed before they could color by an early hard freeze.

As I had hoped, a hint of pink joined the purple and pale peach painting the backdrop behind trees. A few birds murmured softly, stirred to conversation by rising light.

The crack of light along the horizon widened, leading me to hope perhaps sun would win over promised rain showers. Before I saw it, I heard a deer splash across the creek, then gallop across the dim floodplain.

Brighter pinks began to signal the sun’s approach to the horizon.

Trees bared for winter glowed in firelight colors as the rising sun transformed midnight purples to pale lavenders.

Almost above the horizon, sky fire reflected in creek waters below. Red-winged blackbirds resumed their daily harvesting of tiny seeds from thousands of sweet gum balls dangling from a canopy giant. In dawn’s quiet, I could hear their quiet conversations amid the gentle pitter-patter of seeds landing on dry leaves below, where a flock of mourning doves waited to gobble blackbird-released sweet gum bounty.

About a half hour later, I walked out front for a moment. Bright sun dazzled my eyes as fast-approaching western clouds squeezed sunlight into rays spotlighting my quiet woodland. A flock of robins was back at work in a large southern magnolia, making sure they hadn’t missed any succulent scarlet fruits clinging from cones by silken threads.

High above, a flock of seagulls flew in ragged vee formation heading north on their daily commute. Mostly herring gulls, thousands winter well inland from the coast on a man-made lake a few miles to my southeast. The still-rising sun illuminated their bodies from below, transforming them into silent angels winging to their breakfast grounds — large shopping malls closer to nearby cities, where thoughtless humans litter parking lots with discarded purchases from food courts and restaurants.

Pileated woodpeckers began their morning calls amid vigorous drumming. White-throated sparrows whistled melancholy melodies.

As I stood enjoying songs and soft colors, gentle rain began falling even as the sun still fought for dominance. I heard drops rattling dry leaves before I felt them. Two breaths later, the sun lost its battle as rapidly moving rain clouds overran the eastern horizon.

The early bird may get the worm, but the early riser gains a sunrise saga beautiful beyond words and photos — and a reminder to savor the fleeting moments of constant change.

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A Hard Fall

I know I’m not the only person out there who had a rough summer. Trials and hiccups aplenty came at me for many months. I could not wait for the autumnal equinox in September, thinking the season change would bring relief. Instead, it brought the worst drought experienced by my five acres in twenty or so years. Unrelenting heat and the absence of rain left the creek bordering our property completely dry, except for deeper pools, where great blue herons happily devoured fish trapped therein.

The contrast between this September and last year’s relentless hurricane rain flooding could not have been more stark. Climate change smacked me and my land hard two years running.

Substantial Damage to Our Protected North Slope

In June, the antique septic field associated with our 50-year-old house was replaced with a new one. The devastation to my deer-fence-enclosed north acre full of native rhododendrons, magnolias, viburnums, vacciniums, and shade-loving choice wildflowers threw me into a tailspin of depression. Wonder Spouse and I planted these beauties as tiny things – all we could afford – 20-30 years ago. As previous posts here can attest, they have flourished, blooming more wonderfully every year.

Even though we marked off our botanical treasures with flagging tape, even though Wonder Spouse took off two days of work to oversee the trenching, that once-beautiful area was significantly damaged after he returned to his office and I was away at an appointment. On top of that, we were forced to remove a mature water oak before the work began, because it had early signs of heart rot. We couldn’t risk having the tree topple and rip up the newly installed septic field.

That enclosed acre is on a slope, which is great for siting rhododendrons, but when earth is scraped, then compacted, erosion from rare-but-heavy rains quickly created myriad little gullies. Soil washed from hilltop to hill bottom, depositing more than an inch of silty mud. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried for two weeks, mourning the loss of trees and shrubs ripped away by machines, the much-missed shade of the venerable water oak, and the wildflowers obliterated by careless men oblivious to the vibrant beauty before them.

One of the wildflower species destroyed by septic field installers. They were not growing where a line was installed.

Eradication of Surrounding Forest by Bulldozers

Most of the areas near us that were forest thirty years ago have either already been erased and replaced with monotonous subdivisions, or that devastation is ongoing as I type. Every day, more displaced wildlife from those areas arrives on our land, as evidenced by what our wildlife camera beside the creek captures weekly. A considerable beaver population has been forced on top of the wetland adjacent to our property. Up to now, they had been content to maintain their growing pond on our neighbor’s land, but yet another new subdivision (housing prices starting in the mid-$600s!) has pushed them to expand their dam so that our bottomland is rapidly going under water.

Ongoing Radical Transformation of Our Two-Acre Floodplain/Wetland

That was the third strike against our floodplain this year. The first came in April when deadly Emerald Ash Borers were confirmed to be invading the 37 mature (70+ feet tall) green ash trees that dominate the canopy in that area. The second came in late summer when a plant I had never seen before that had spread over most of the floodplain finally bloomed and I was able to identify it as a non-native invasive plant from Asia that, I’m told, has already overgrown all the floodplains of the NC coast and is now moving rapidly into my Piedmont region. It is called Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), and it is a nightmare. I never thought I’d type this sentence, but Marsh Dayflower dominance makes me long for the days when Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) was my biggest problem. Strike three – the beavers – are actually using Marsh Dayflower to their advantage. They rip it up, mix it with mud, and pack it between the logs they cut down to build their dams, making the dams even more impervious to the force of moving water than before. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, because when stem segments of Marsh Dayflower are broken, as for example, when ripped up by beavers, every segment grows roots, thereby multiplying this invader even faster.

Struggling Ecosystems

After two years of epic landscape destruction/alteration, any illusions I ever had about being able to control what happens on my land are entirely dispelled. I always understood that, at best, I was a design collaborator as I tried to work with the native ecosystems on our land. However, the last two years have convinced me that the native ecosystems are almost as ineffectual as I am at managing changes we were never designed to handle. Wholesale eradication of habitats by bulldozers in combination with a growing number of non-native invasive species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria and the overwhelming introduction of herbicides and pesticides killing wildlife by the millions if not billions, are completely disrupting the natural processes native ecosystems evolved to handle change. We can’t keep up. Species are dying at record rates. It is enough to make a lifelong gardener want to surrender – almost.

This native tree frog was in my garden because it found abundant insect food there.

A month or so ago, I attended a lecture by a pair of enthusiastic master gardeners from an adjacent county. They described how they transformed their half-acre home lot into a flowering paradise, bragging that 50% of the plants they have added are native to the southeastern US. To justify planting 50% non-native plants, they quoted an “expert” gardener who states that “just because a plant is native, that does not make it better… Choose the right plant for the spot, no matter its origin.” In an exercise of enormous self-control, I did not argue with them. It was their talk, their intentions were good, and it was not the appropriate setting to object.

But I do object, and the last two years on my land are ample reason why. In North Carolina, master gardeners are trained by employees of land grant universities, mostly North Carolina State University. These are good folks with good intentions, but they serve the agriculture and horticulture businesses in the state. Their top goal is to help these businesses be successful. One way to do that is to help the horticulture industry sell plants. Pretty non-native ornamental plants not eaten by native wildlife because they don’t recognize them as food make a lot of money for the horticulture industry.

[NOTE: One of the finest agricultural extension agents I know has pointed out to me that when they work with home gardeners, their goal is only to make those home owners successful gardeners, not help the horticulture business sell plants, regardless of origin. I did not mean to imply otherwise; I think that may, however, often be an unintended consequence of not providing an ecological framework for gardeners. As I responded to her, when agents keep pushing old thinking (right plant for right place regardless of origin) about how to approach home landscapes, they are not helping to save native ecosystems. In my conversations with agents and master gardeners from other counties, it is clear that most don’t understand the role of native plants in ecosystems. They categorize natives as “thugs,” for example, if they multiply assertively, without understanding the ecological role of such plants in nature. In my opinion, such non-contextualized statements do more harm than good. ]

Fifty years ago, this may not have been a terrible thing. But oh how much our world has changed here in North Carolina in the last 50 years. Expanses of forests and fields that once provided buffers and havens for native wildlife and plants are nearly gone in much of the state. Wildlife species are disappearing. Pollinators are dying from poisons; the birds that eat them are also disappearing. Humans need those ecosystems to moderate air pollution, control erosion, pollinate and protect our crops, etc.

We also have hard data from scientists now that demonstrate that landscapes must contain 70% native plant species to adequately feed nests of baby songbirds. That’s seventy percent, not fifty.

This is not a Drill!

We need every patch of native plants we can introduce on public and private lands not covered by concrete and buildings. We no longer can afford the luxury of filling our landscapes with non-native plants that provide no ecosystem services. We can no longer indulge in 50-year-old thinking. This is not a drill, people. Native plants are our only hope of saving what’s left of our native ecosystems, especially the rapidly disappearing wildlife species.

Only a radical shift in the way we think about our public and private landscapes will serve the future now. It is past time to discard old thinking and focus on saving as much as we can. I pray every day it is not already too late. And I’m not just sitting at my computer wringing my hands in frustration. After my initial depression dissipated, I got busy. With the help of Wonder Spouse and my amazing garden helper, Beth, we have planted many new species and introduced existing natives to new sites opened up by the uninvited changes to our land. Our land had a tough summer and a hard fall, but I’m determined to do everything within my power to make next spring a much better season. I’ll describe some of what we’ve been doing in another post I hope to write soon.

In the meantime, if you care about the future of our planet, especially the rapidly urbanizing area of the southeastern US where I and most of my readers live, if you have children and/or grandchildren, I beg you to empty your brain of the old ways of tending your landscape and join me in the radical changes required to salvage as much as we can of our native ecosystems. It will be different, but more beautiful than ever. Most important, it just might help us all hold on to a healthy, balanced, vibrant world – a fitting legacy for those who follow us.

Native plant gardens full of life are critical to the welfare of future generations.

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Rhythms of Light

My friend, Leila, died four weeks ago after battling stage four cancer for over seven years. It still seems impossible that she finally succumbed to the disease, so valiantly did she fight, her spirit rarely flagging. She was an extraordinary person, and I will not soon forget her, especially since she entrusted me and Wonder Spouse with her most beloved companion – her 8.5-year-old Japanese Bobtail cat, Rose. Rose has brought big changes to our household, which had been without pets for about a decade, when the last of our very senior cats and dogs finally died.

Rose has embraced our gardening life.

Change has been the theme of the spring season that ends today. In addition to losing Leila and gaining Rose, the non-native invasive Emerald Ash Borer has found the stand of canopy-sized ash trees currently shading our floodplain. I have been mentally steeling myself for this moment for several years, and we’re implementing a number of strategies to ameliorate the inevitable transformation wrought by the demise of these forest giants. The imminent loss still stings.

Emerald Ash Borers caught on a sticky trap hung among my ashes this spring.

On the other side of our house, the nearly 50-year old septic field that has served us for 30 years was pronounced by experts to be failing. A new system will be installed next week, necessitating the disruption of our deer-fence-enclosed north acre that shelters many cherished native magnolias, rhododendrons, viburnums, etc. That work required the preemptive removal of a massive water oak that presided over part of that acre. It was showing early signs of heart rot, and if it fell, the root ball would have destroyed a good portion of the new septic field. Thus, yet another great friend was lost to us.

All that’s left of the great water oak that dominated the north side of our yard.

Despite spring flowers and a growing influx of vegetables from the garden, this spring has brought much darkness as the losses continued to mount. I find myself unable to stomach what passes for news these days – darkness and more darkness.

Even the once-reliable turning of the astronomical seasonal clock feels broken as human-induced climate change roils weather patterns and rampant pollution blackens the blue-green jewel upon which all life on Earth relies. Temperature and rainfall patterns grow increasingly unpredictable. Plants and animals that evolved with those patterns are disappearing, unable to adapt to human-made planetary chaos.

Hurricane Florence-wrought flooding from last autumn.

As I thought about all this yesterday while pulling what felt like an endless number of invasive plants from a neglected bed, I remembered the light. That’s what our solstices and equinoxes are really about after all. Yes, those changes in the balance between dark and light once correlated neatly with seasonal changes that are no longer reliable, but the dance between dark and light has not changed, because that underlying rhythm is something humanity cannot easily damage. That heartbeat of light is the truth I choose to hold on to amidst the threat of darkening chaos.

Embracing light.

No matter what humanity does to itself and the other inhabitants of Earth, it cannot alter that fundamental dance of dark and light. Both are required to keep Life moving, and just as Winter’s darkness cedes inevitably to Summer’s light, it is my hope that this personal moment of darkness will eventually brighten. I remind myself of that as I stand in Summer sun watching busy pollinators dash from coneflower to blanket flower to Stoke’s aster to Joe Pye Weed and on and on. I remind myself of that as I enjoy lightly steamed pole beans fresh-picked from the garden.

Gather ye vegetables while ye may.

I remind myself that Leila knew about the light from the rigorous training she underwent to become a Buddhist nun, depriving herself of sleep and food until perpetual meditation brought her to a place most of us don’t see until we’ve left this mortal coil. The knowledge of that light never left her, and I know beyond doubt that she revels in it now.

Leila’s lilies the first spring after planting, June 2014.

May the light embrace us all. Happy Summer Solstice!

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