A possum has been living beneath our front walk/deck for quite some time, possibly years. It strives to avoid us, and we pretend we don’t know it’s there. Until May 21. My area currently suffers from abnormally dry conditions, and the plants and animals are beginning to be obviously affected by the prolonged absence of rain. True drought is imminent, unless the skies bring us copious rains soon.
The air has uncharacteristically – for this time of year – lacked humidity, so our little front water feature requires regular topping off to keep the growing population of tadpoles happy. I was doing that on May 21 just before noon, also watering the plants that surround the little pool, when the possum ambled from beneath the walkway almost beside me. I think it heard and smelled the hose water. I pointed out that it was violating our agreement and that it should scurry back out of sight, but it just stood there blinking at me.
So I sprayed it with the hose. Not hard, but enough to get it wet. I figured that would send it back to its hiding place. But I was wrong. Instead, it turned its other side toward me as if to say, “Please dampen my other side too.” So I did. When it was thoroughly wet, it returned to its spot beneath the deck and did not re-emerge. It was that kind of week around here. The local wildlife seems to be more comfortable showing itself every day.
Earlier that week for several evenings, a wild turkey hen wandered into our backyard to pick at seeds fallen from the bird feeders. She then wandered up the hill to what I’m calling my Hail Mary Prairie – a tale for another time. Sounding a bit like a chicken, she muttered to herself as she strolled around the yard. We haven’t seen her the last few days, and one of our wildlife cameras showed us why. It captured her escorting six tiny chicks. No more time for solo-muttering for her.
And then there are the turtles. On May 18 after lunch, I headed back to my vegetable garden to complete weeding the onion bed. To my delight, I encountered a River Cooter just a few steps from the garden gate. She was in the middle of laying eggs. This swamp-dwelling species has occupied the adjacent wetland for decades, and every few years we encounter a female laying eggs. They always climb the hill and dig well above the flood zone, no doubt instinctively knowing that the eggs would otherwise drown. I’ve read that often the young turtles hatch in late summer or fall, but remain underground with the eggs until spring, when they emerge. I took a ridiculous number of videos of her while she worked. Also some still shots, which I share here. She was quite tolerant, basically ignoring me as she laid eggs, then compacted the ground. If I hadn’t immediately flagged the spot, I doubt I’d be able to find it after the next rain.
But wait, there’s more! On the afternoon of May 21, Wonder Spouse encountered another species of turtle laying eggs inside our backyard. Interestingly, this one also chose a nesting spot not far from a gate. Significant? Beats me. This was an Eastern Painted Turtle, another species quite common to the slow-moving waters of local wetlands, but one we had never encountered laying eggs before. Like the much larger River Cooter, she tolerated my excited babblings as I photographed and videoed her egg-laying efforts. When she was done and finished compacting the soil above her eggs, she pushed some nearby dried leaves over the spot. If I had not watched her lay her eggs, I would never have known the nest was there. It made me wonder how often I’ve missed egg-laying visits from this species. And, yes, I flagged the spot as soon as she headed back down the hill toward the wetland.
That evening, I casually said to Wonder Spouse, “Well now all we need is an egg-laying snapping turtle to complete the trifecta.” You guessed it, on the morning of May 22 when we checked on a new flower bed I planted two days ago with milkweed seedlings, we encountered a very healthy Common Snapping Turtle finishing up what must have been a night of egg-laying. She found the freshly cleared and moistened milkweed bed an ideal spot for her digging.
By the time we spotted her, she had compacted the soil over a rectangular area, where we assume she had laid her eggs. She appeared to be quite tired and had sort of buried her back end in nearby soft soil. At first we thought she was going to lay more eggs, but as we watched, we decided she was just trying to camouflage herself a bit. Ms. Snapper was far less tolerant of human observation. If she could see me, she stopped moving. If I tried to walk behind her, she’d crane her very long neck around her back to keep an eye on me. Thus, I took mostly still shots of her doing nothing in particular. I had to go into the house before she decided it was safe to head back to the wetland. Of course, I was watching her from a window with binoculars, and when she headed downhill, I ran out and managed to shoot a few videos of her return to the wetland. She remained annoyed with me, refusing to move if I got too close. Finally, she was close enough to tall vegetation and muddy soil that she felt comfortable lumbering along with me trailing her from a respectful distance. Not wearing mud-proof shoes, I watched her bend the tall stalks of marsh grasses as she headed toward the water until I lost sight of her altogether.
Now, of course, I find myself wandering the property a couple of times a day with a sharp eye out for fertile turtles making deposits. I wonder if they somehow knew that high temperatures were in the forecast – perfect for incubating eggs. Or perhaps it was the full super moon that glowed orange in the sky earlier this week. For me, it will be always be an egg moon, named for all the native creatures currently reproducing themselves around me.
Wonder Spouse and I have been enhancing the native microenvironments on our five acres for 32 years now. It is deeply satisfying to know that our efforts have been noticed by many other species, and that they feel welcome to live and procreate beside us, even if a few innocent milkweed seedlings are sacrificed in the process.
Dr. J. Drew Lanham was the speaker for this year’s Evelyn McNeill Sims Memorial Lecture at the NC Botanical Garden. The continuing pandemic required his presentation to be virtual, and I am a bit sad about that, because Dr. Lanham was a lyrical, charismatic speaker even on a video screen. I imagine he would have mesmerized a live audience. Plus, selfishly, I would have loved to have been able to ask him to autograph his book for me. I highly recommend it.
Dr. Lanham is a native of Edgefield, SC. He is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Master Teacher at Clemson University. He describes himself as a rare bird, because he is a black man and a birder and conservationist. His book is titled, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature.
From the very first pages of Dr. Lanham’s book, I knew I was with a kindred spirit. The passages in which he describes the natural world are effortlessly vivid and lyrical. His profound connection to his family’s farm and surrounding lands on which he grew up is recounted beautifully. His love for his parents and siblings combines with his love of their land to create his deep sense of home. This anchor to his home place likely contributed to his resilience navigating the social inequities faced by people of color in the United States. Dr. Lanham does not pretend those inequities do not exist. I think his connection to the natural world helped him survive difficult times.
Dr. Lanham describes his evolution from boy and young man who mostly conformed to society’s expectations to the man he is today, a man more comfortable with who he is, a man who is often more happy in the natural world than the human-built one. He writes, “But I try to live half-wild, not judging, skirting convention and expectation. I spent too many years inside four walls.” I can totally relate.
As is true of many southerners of his generation, Dr. Lanham was raised in the Christian faith, but he was never comfortable with the angry God described in church, the one who was always watching. These days, he writes, “I’ve settled into a comfortable place with the idea of nature and god being the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change, and the dynamic transformation of field into forest nurture me. …There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird.” I am right there with him.
Dr. Lanham has been all over the world, but his home place in South Carolina straddled the Piedmont-Coastal Plain transition zone. He understands both landscapes very well. His description of my beloved southern Piedmont region – a zone that encompasses parts of states from Virginia to Alabama – breaks my heart with its accuracy:
“Things are in pieces here, fragments of what used to be. A bit of forest, a bit of field, a wetland rarely – all surrounded by a sea of cement. Acres and acres of asphalt. Even where I find forest, the trees are often planted like row crops. …In most places, the thin crust of topsoil that remains struggles to hide the gummy clay underneath. When the infrequent rains do come, the Midlands weep erosively.”
Dr. Lanham concludes his book by describing his increasing comfort with his role as a proselytizer on behalf of the natural world he loves. He ponders how to re-connect humanity to the natural world from which it arose, on which it relies. As I wrote here, it is a dilemma I also struggle with. He concludes on a hopeful note:
“Trying to do what’s best by nature is a guessing game with long-term stakes. Good decisions mean that the soil and water will prosper. The trees will prosper. The wild things will prosper. In that natural prospering, all of us will become wealthier in richer dawn choruses and endless golden sunsets. The investment is called legacy. If I can see, feel touch, and smell these things once more on a piece of land I can call my own, I’ll be home again. …Home, after all, is more than a place on a map. It’s a place in the heart.”
In his video presentation for the NC Botanical Garden, Dr. Lanham noted that “It’s important for us to be aware of who we are so that we can be better than the day before.” I think he meant that unless we acknowledge our failings as a society, we cannot change them. We are failing each other, and we are failing our home planet, because too many of us are not aware, and therefore see no reason to strive to be better.
He also shared two personal mantras he repeats to himself often. One speaks to the need for awareness of our place on the planet: “Same air, same water, same soil, same Earth, same fate.”
The other mantra is for himself as a writer tied to the rhythms of the natural world: “Watch, revere, write, repeat.” Of course, that phrase sealed my conviction that he and I are indeed both half-wild kindred spirits. I’ve been following that very guidance for decades. It has never felt more pertinent than it does on this Earth Day.
I’ve been having trouble keeping up with the pace of spring this year. Maybe it’s the birthdays that keep piling up, maybe it’s climate change. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Every day I walk these five acres we’ve worked with for 32 years something — usually more than one thing — merits my attention — and my camera. Native deciduous azaleas seem to transform from swelling buds tinged with color to full-blown explosions of flowers and fragrance. As I type this, blooming azalea colors range from yellow to orange-red to pale pink, deep pink, lavender, and white. I am so glad we’re entering a bit of a cool spell tonight. I am hopeful that the blooms will last a bit longer in cooler weather.
Believe it or not, I’m less focused on flowers these days than usual. Animal antics have grabbed most of my attention. I’ve got a pair of bluebirds feeding five nestlings in one of the new boxes we added a few weeks ago, and that is exciting. However, the wood ducks win the prize for captivating us.
I’ve read up on wood ducks lately to try to understand what we’ve been seeing. Did you know wood ducks will nest in tree hollows as high as 50 feet off the ground? The day after the ducklings hatch (up to about 14 usually), mama duck gives them a signal and one by one they leap from the hole and tumble to the ground. Seriously! My reading tells me that the ducklings sort of bounce when they hit the ground. As soon as all are out, mama duck leads her babies to feeding grounds, which can be as far as a mile from the nest. As you might imagine, a lot of ducklings are picked off by predators before they get there. Even if the ducklings make it to the water, predators including large fish and snapping turtles may grab them from beneath the water.
We always see and hear the wood ducks this time of year. Male-female pairs swim up and down our creek. We suspect they feed in the beaver-built wetland on the other side. When the females are startled, they shriek loudly. It’s quite a disconcerting sound when they see you before you see them.
We thought it might be nice to offer a pair a nice new wood duck house, which we mounted about 8 feet off the ground right next to the creek. We figured the ducklings could jump out and land either in or right next to the water, minimizing risk from at least some predators. The box, however, has been ignored. Instead, a mama duck appears to have laid her eggs in a dying old oak in our back yard. Thirty feet up there’s a sizable hole where a branch once grew. One day a few weeks ago just at dusk, I watched a pair of wood ducks fly toward the tree. The male flew right past, but the female dove straight into the hole, barely slowing to soften her landing. It seemed clear that the male’s role was to divert attention while the female dove into the hole as fast as possible. Binoculars in hand, I watched for some time, but she did not emerge before the sun set.
I read that females sitting on eggs fly out at dawn and dusk to feed before returning to the nest. Males don’t incubate the eggs at all. I’ve never managed to see her leave the nest in the morning, but I’ve seen her dive into the hole at dusk several times. Lately, the male hasn’t been with her. I’ve read that after the females begin incubation, the males go off and hang out together elsewhere.
Wonder Spouse and I are trying not to worry too much about the ducklings. The distance from the tree to the creek is about 100 feet. The terrain is overgrown with massive boulders on the far side of the tree. Wonder Spouse removed a section of the fence between the tree and the creek (there to deter beavers), so that the ducklings won’t pile up at the fence trying to get to the water. A pair of red-shouldered hawks is nesting in the area; they sit in trees near the oak often, looking for their next meal. Theoretically, I am supposed to be dispassionate about the fate of the ducklings, but they are in our backyard. Somehow we feel responsible for them. You can bet that if we are around when the ducklings take their big plunge, we will be out there trying to run interference for them.
Today, however, the wood duck drama took yet another turn. A few days ago, we saw a male-female pair loitering in an ash tree about 50 feet from the oak tree. Using our binoculars, it appeared that the couple was conversing back and forth while looking intently at the nest hole. This afternoon, they returned to the ash tree, again conversing. Suddenly, the female flew to the nest hole in the oak. I am fairly certain this was not the female I had seen diving into the hole on several occasions. This one clung to the edge of the hole and stuck her neck inside, peering in. Liking what she saw, she disappeared inside, briefly stuck her head back out to say something to her mate still sitting in the ash tree, then disappeared again. About ten minutes later, she appeared again at the entrance to the hole, paused a moment, then flew to join her mate in the ash. They soon flew off together. I believe we had just witnessed wood duck egg-dumping behavior. I’ve read that instead of making their own nest, some wood duck females find another wood duck nest and simply add a few eggs of her own to those already on the nest. Apparently the owner of the nest incubates them as her own. The experts aren’t sure of the adaptive value of this behavior, beyond the obvious notion of literally not wanting to put all of one’s eggs in one metaphorical basket.
Wonder Spouse was able to grab his long lens and grab a few photos. The male was sitting quite still in the afternoon sun, providing a nice photo opportunity. The female never stopped moving at the entrance hole, so her shots are more blurry. Still, I think you’ll get the idea.
I confess I am emotionally invested in what happens next. If I’m lucky enough to witness how this story ends, I’ll be sure to let you know.
For my North Carolina Readers:
Audubon North Carolina is encouraging all native plant and animal lovers to register their support for a bill currently before the NC Senate that would ensure that native trees, shrubs, and flowers are used to landscape all state properties and state-funded projects. If you’ve read my blog much, you can imagine how much positive impact this could have for our native flora and fauna. You can read more details and sign their petition supporting this effort here.
[Note: Photos in this piece were taken in my yard recently but besides serving as evidence of (mostly) native biodiversity, serve no purpose here other than to help you stay awake.]
Most of us probably have memories of favorite teachers. I know I do. During the acquisition of my last master’s degree some 20+ years ago, I was lucky enough to be exposed to four truly gifted, memorable professors. One in particular blew my mind wide open.
I am at heart a practical soul, grounded in earth and flowers. Never have I had an inclination to study philosophy or religion. Frankly, the books – oh yes, I had tried reading a few – always put me to sleep. That changed when I took the late Kalman Bland’s class, Other Worlds and Human Transformations. We read and discussed Plato’s Republic, learned about Thomas Kuhn and the scientific revolution. We read art criticism and the Book of Job, and much more. Dr. Bland never lectured us. Instead, using the Socratic method, he would ask a question and then expect the class to find an answer as he gently nudged us in the right direction. I loved this approach! With each new reading, he subtly steered us to weave seemingly disparate bits into a whole cloth of wondrous colors and insights. The papers he assigned us to write required some of the deepest thinking I’ve ever done for a class.
I am eternally grateful for Dr. Bland’s challenging class, because without it, I would not have figured out what I have been seeking most of my life: The Green Door.
Thomas Kuhn is an American philosopher known for his study of the so-called scientific revolution. He coined a term we all know – paradigm shift. Kuhn invented the term to describe what happens when there is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. As I understand it, paradigm shifts occur when someone re-imagines the fundamentals of their world view, and in so doing, permanently changes how the world is perceived by everyone. For example, when Nicolaus Copernicus created a model of the universe that postulated the Earth moved around the sun, that was a paradigm shift, a fundamental change in how the universe was perceived. No longer was Earth the center of the universe.
The Green Door I imagine is the paradigm shift I believe humanity needs in order to avoid destroying itself by abusing our planet so badly that it can no longer sustain us. Try as I might, I have not stumbled across a fundamental re-visioning of humanity’s relationship to Earth that has the power to electrify human thinking so completely that all are inspired to act to preserve rather than destroy our planet. Yes, many wonderful organizations and people all over the world are fighting to preserve biodiversity in their homelands, protect water and air quality, grow food organically, etc., but they are doing so within an old framework that puts such efforts at a great disadvantage.
In most parts of the world, I believe that humanity views the natural world merely as a commodity to which they assign a monetary value. Consider a phrase beloved by the real estate industry: undeveloped land. Beautiful stands of contiguous native forest, grassland, and even small farms are perceived by the real estate industry only as potential sources of income via “development projects.” Ecological value, much less spiritual value of land — these are not concepts that compute for the real estate industry. I have spent decades wracking my brain, trying to imagine a way to re-wire humanity to view Earth as a partner rather than a mere resource. I have not succeeded. In his book about scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts, Kuhn says such big world-changing notions only come to younger minds, under age 40 or so. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not being able to find a Green Door, a paradigm shift in humanity’s relationship with Earth.
I haven’t lost hope. I know a lot of smart young people are working on pieces of this critical puzzle. I just read last week about a new iron-based catalyst that converts carbon dioxide into jet fuel – no petroleum required! I will continue to pray that these smart younger folks are close to a paradigm-shifting breakthrough that will manifest a human partnership with Earth that will allow all the world’s inhabitants to flourish for many future generations.
While I keep watch for a paradigm-shifting Green Door, I will continue to do what I can for my corner of the planet. I continue to add new well-adapted native species to my five acres of green chaos. I continue to support conservation-focused nonprofits working hard to preserve rapidly diminishing biodiversity and water and air quality, and I continue to write about my experiences in the hope that sharing what I’ve learned can lead at least a few souls closer to the Green Door of my dreams.
With that in mind, those of you who are members of the North Carolina Botanical Garden should see the spring edition of their magazine, Conservation Gardener, showing up in your mailbox early next month. The issue’s theme: preserving biodiversity. You’ll see a few articles in there that I wrote, including one on enhancing native biodiversity in your home landscape. You’ll also see articles about people and organizations in my area that are finding creative ways to enhance biodiversity on farms and suburban greenways.
And while we all wait for the weather to warm up and dry out, you may want to sign up for some upcoming webinars from the NC Wildlife Federation, including these:
Now that I’m not on Facebook, I don’t have an easy way to update folks about upcoming events they may find helpful or of interest — unless I do it here. Today’s post will list some upcoming events sponsored by various organizations in my area. All of these events are free and virtual. I see this as an advantage, because if you live anywhere in the southeastern US, most of the talks described below will be relevant. And even if you’re from a distant land, you may well enjoy some of these. I can’t think of a better way to pass the time until the weather improves enough for serious gardening again.
My local chapter of this national non-profit that is, literally, for the birds is a top-notch group of folks. Their Web site is chock full of useful information on native birds, and the section on what they do to promote bird-friendly landscapes is worth a careful read. The blog link covers an array of useful topics, and, yes, you’ll find a couple written by me. I love their monthly meetings that always feature programs by fascinating speakers. Before the pandemic, these meetings (open to all free of charge) were held at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The virtual meetings are almost as good (virtual mingling is just not the same as the in-person version). This past Thursday, we heard from Bo Howes, of the Triangle Land Conservancy and past president of New Hope Audubon, who explained the vital importance of conservation land not only to native wildlife, but also for preserving water quality and provide socially distant recreation for stir-crazy humans. Go here to find recordings of all the virtual meetings since last October. I especially recommend that you check out the presentations by Nick Harper and Lesley Starke. You can listen to these recordings any time.
February 25, 2021, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. — An NC Botanical Garden Virtual Lunchbox Talk in partnership with New Hope Audubon Society
This talk by NC State University Master of Science student Lauren Pharr will describe the effects of urban noise and light pollution on birds. Spoiler alert — the impacts are significant, and not in a good way. All the NC Botanical Garden Lunchbox talks are free, but you need to register at the link above so they can send you a link to the presentation.
Like the New Hope Audubon Society, this garden, which focuses entirely on the native vegetation of the southeastern US, has been offering virtual lectures on an array of topics since last year. Numerous excellent past presentations can be viewed free of charge merely by visiting this link. The Garden is also offering an assortment of classes at reasonable prices, and two more free lunchbox talks are on the horizon:
- Mike Kunz, NCBG Conservation Ecologist, will talk about rare wildflowers of North Carolina on February 11 at noon. Register here.
- On March 11, Misty Buchanan, Director of the NC Natural Heritage Program, will talk about mitigating climate change through NC’s natural and working lands. Register here for that one.
The Garden has two more special free lectures coming up that may be of interest:
- This year’s Darwin Day Lecture will be at noon on February 12: Dr. Senay Yitbarek’s lecture is titled, Spatial Structure as a Mechanism for Diversity: Co-existence, Co-infection, and Pathogen Invasion. For more details and to register, go here.
- I’m looking forward to this year’s annual Evelyn McNeill Sims Native Plant Lecture on April 11 from 2:30-4:00 p.m. Dr. Drew Lanham will discuss “what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds.” Register here for that one.
The Southern Piedmont Chapter of this organization is teaming with the UNCC Botanical Gardens to provide a free virtual presentation on Feb. 14 at 2:00 p.m.: How to Help Your Tree Live a Long and Healthy Life.
This wonderful non-profit is offering an array of virtual lectures, including their Winter in the Refuges Webinar Series. We missed the first one, but here are your options for the rest of this free virtual series (links take you to relevant registration pages):
- Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 6:00 p.m.
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 6:00 p.m.
- Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, 24 at 6:00 p.m.
Regional chapters of the NC Wildlife Federation are also offering free virtual talks:
- Insects and the Environment, Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m.
- Colonial Nesting Birds of the Lower Cape Fear, Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m.
With Wonder Spouse’s invaluable assistance, I planted 8 new small bare-root trees yesterday — three each of two native species new to our five acres and two of a species we’ve added in the last few years. I hope to share more details about all recent native species additions soon. Meanwhile, please go check out the upcoming talks at the links above.
I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.
Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.
First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!
I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.
Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.
OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.
A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.
For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.
I’ve got a more comprehensive post planned for later today, but I thought I’d share with my readers what Wonder Spouse did for me yesterday. It was a vacation day, and he wanted to do outside chores. My sinuses were not up to dealing with yesterday’s cold wind, but our wonderful garden helper, Beth, came out to try to ensure Wonder Spouse didn’t kill himself. Thank you, Beth.
Wonder Spouse decapitated a non-native Lagerstroemia fauriei yesterday. We acquired it decades ago after seeing some growing at the arboretum in the link. We really loved the bark. As you can see in the link, it is supposed to top out at 30 feet. Ours was at least 40 feet tall and still growing. Without question, the bark was/is beautiful. We decided to cut it down yesterday for two reasons. First and foremost, it was seeding itself widely, becoming nearly invasive. Experts on invasive non-native species will tell you this is something they worry about more with all crape myrtles these days. Second, because it grew taller and wider than we anticipated, it was shading out nearby desirable natives and also obscuring them from view.
Wonder Spouse did not cut the tree down to the ground. If it lives and sprouts strangely, it is welcome to do so. But I will not let the flowers grow taller than my reach, because I intend to remove spent flowers before they can go to seed from now on.
Before I realized what he was doing, Wonder Spouse had tied an extension ladder to the tree, carried his chainsaw with him up the ladder, and began cutting! When I realized what he was doing, I pitched a wifely fit and explained he didn’t need to cut the branches so high up. He was doing it to try to retain some of the tree’s aesthetic value. I hollered, because Wonder Spouse is far too valuable to risk on aesthetics.
The tree stump looks quite sad, but that causes me not a twinge of guilt. We are losing native biodiversity so quickly now that I feel obliged to make sure every plant on our five acres is serving the local ecosystem in as many ways as possible. The only species I ever observed using this tree were non-native honeybees, which seemed to find its fragrant white flowers every blooming season. I never saw any native pollinators on the flowers. Birds didn’t nest in the narrow branches. It wasn’t pulling its ecological weight.
Wonder Spouse is closing in on his seventh decade, and while he is in good shape for a man of his years, he groaned fairly loudly when we woke up this morning. I asked him how he was feeling.
“My lips don’t hurt,” he replied, implying, of course, that everything else did hurt. Thanks to Beth and my hollering, he’ll be his spry self by tomorrow I’m sure. One more task off the infinite to-do list, with, thankfully, no fatalities. Thanks to Beth for the photos in this post.
I’ll share more about that to-do list in another post very soon. Hint: the growing season is closing in on us fast.
Tonight the moon is new. The night sky is dark, save for starlight glimmering between growing clouds brought by warmer south winds. Outside my window, two barred owls — likely mates — call to each other. It is their nesting season, or about to be.
I wonder, do they call to check in with each other? Has one found dinner and now calls the other to share in the feast? One voice is deep, like the lower register of a pipe organ. The other is higher, but still resonant, echoing through the new moon darkness. I love their voices, and rejoice in the fact that their species has shared our land with us through the 3+ decades we’ve been here. I pray their kind will always be able to live here beside a beaver-built wetland full of tasty owl meals and other, much larger, wildlife.
I’m told that new moons are ideal times to set intentions, to articulate immediate goals, and perhaps some that will take more than one moon cycle to attain. For me, tonight’s new moon is about seeking ways to embrace change, rather than resist it. I like to think I’ve been getting better at this, rolling with the punches, so to speak. But recent events challenge good intentions.
Current events are undeniably difficult to face. Sickness, death, violence, profound anger, and alarmingly bitter hatred hold many hearts hostage. Surrounded by pain, the reflex to go backwards is hard to resist — back in time, to a moment before events started weighing us down, stone upon stone, until even breathing becomes impossible for hundreds of thousands of us. But I know — we know — only one direction is an option: forward.
My guidepost to embracing change is the Green World. Snakes, like the beautiful ring-necked snake above, shed their skins to reveal their new, better selves. Caterpillars spin cocoons to shelter their transformation into butterflies. Just this past week, Nature sent me a reminder, when my friend and garden helper, Beth, discovered a bright green chrysalis of a Black Swallowtail butterfly suddenly exposed as lingering scarlet leaves on a blueberry bush finally began to drop in deference to winter temperatures.
Gardeners know all about embracing change. In fact, we actively encourage it. In my greenhouse right now are flats full of seedlings. I had set them outside in a sheltered spot to stratify — the process of prolonged cold exposure that some seeds require before germinating. Late fall warm spells that arrived after early cold caused some seeds to awaken early. So, embracing the change, I hustled these flats into the greenhouse to shelter them from returning cold. Now, tiny new plants greet me when I step into that warm, humid space on a winter’s morning.
Perhaps we gardeners can help others struggling to embrace change by sharing our green worlds with them. Do you know a neighbor or a friend who is too much alone these days? Perhaps you could help them plan a small garden to plant this spring. Maybe you know someone who loves to cook and would love potted herbs for her kitchen. Is there someone you could invite on a socially distant walk through a botanical garden or a park on one of the warm winter days we enjoy in the southeastern US?
Many non-gardeners walk through the outdoors unaware of their surroundings. Persuade them to caress tree bark and note the textures, listen to chattering finches and chickadees, admire emerald green moss and soft gray lichens adorning boulders. Nature heals by pulling us out of ourselves, reminding us of the beautiful, vibrant life that surrounds us.
For me, a key to embracing change is remembering to seek out beauty every day. Weather permitting, I am outside even on the coldest winter days to fill bird feeders, check on the greenhouse, admire the ivory bark of sycamores against a backdrop of deep blue winter skies. And every winter morning, I rise early, in the hope that the eastern horizon will be painted by a vivid sunrise. I keep my camera handy, because the color fades almost as fast as it appears.
Standing on my back deck in the frosty air, I wait for creek water to catch sky fire, then try to capture the color in my camera as the rattling call of pileated woodpeckers blends with the muttering of mallards on the beaver pond, and Canada geese rise into the air honking loud enough to out-shout the woodpeckers.
On this new moon night, I hope many of my readers will set new intentions that will help guide them forward through whatever comes. Let your love of gardening and the natural world help lead you. And please consider sharing the beauty with someone whose heart needs lifting. Working together, we can transform all lives.
I’ve lately begun to think of January 1 as the onset of Human New Year, because we are the only occupants of this planet who feel this day demarcates a new beginning. Plants and animals don’t count days at all, but they are affected by daylight length. It drives their reproductive cycles and migration times. Moon cycles are also important to the other occupants of our planet. The wildlife cameras posted along our creek consistently capture an uptick in number and species diversity during full moons, regardless of temperature. Gardening folklore has long documented the efficacy of using moon cycles to guide planting times.
During this long pandemic-induced isolation from my fellow humans, I find myself increasingly attuned to moon and sun cycles, rains, and temperature swings. On winter mornings, I rise eagerly in hopes of a memorable sunrise. It’s the only time of year our eastern vista opens up, thanks to a sleeping tree canopy.
On what have so far been rare sunny winter days, I walk our five acres in search of revelations. When I slog through the mud that perpetually covers our floodplain-becoming-wetland, the red-shouldered hawks and pileated woodpeckers nesting in disintegrating trees killed by beaver-built ponds greet me with raucous calls. They remind me that I’m treading on their territory. I promise not to linger too long. This part of our property continues to teach me much about natural processes, the power of water, and humility.
Decades ago in my callous youth after reading countless gardening books and magazines, I was confident of my ability to control landscaping outcomes. My facility at assessing site conditions and my knowledge of the growing requirements of many plant species made me cocky. No longer. Thirty-one years (and counting) on our five acres continue to teach me how much I don’t know. I also continue to learn from an inspirational group of younger folks who approach the landscape as an ally, not an adversary. Elsewhere, I wrote about Nick Harper, who pointed out to me that because humans are responsible for most, if not all, changes to native environments around the globe, it is up to us to integrate ourselves into this human-modified world we now all live in.
For example, non-native invasive plant species cannot be blamed for doing what they are adapted to do. Instead of attempting to eradicate them with ecosystem-damaging poisons, Nick believes we need to devise ways to live with the invaders. As I wrote in the link above, Nick aggressively pollarded non-native invasive trees on the cattle farm he managed and fed the cuttings to the cattle, thereby simultaneously preventing the trees from flowering and providing his cattle with free, high-quality summer fodder. When I asked him if he had any familiarity with the invasive plant currently overwhelming my creek and wetland, Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), he said no. But when I told him this is a weed of Asian rice paddies brought to North America by South Carolina rice plantation growers, he advised me to search Asian literature sources on ways they manage it there. It’s a good idea. The plant is a weed there, but clearly isn’t destroying rice crops. Some mechanism must be at play that balances the ecological scales. I just need to find it – another item for my infinite to-do list.
As this new human year begins, I am recognizing how my perspective on gardening and ecology continues to evolve. In the long-ago days, I thought these were two different subjects. Now I realize that gardening without regard to native ecological contexts serves no one.
These days, every plant I put in the ground must feed someone. In the vegetable garden, I feed humans and the abundant native insects, arthropods, soil organisms, birds, and other animals that utilize the organically grown mix of veggies, flowers, and herbs nurtured there.
Elsewhere in our yard, my top priority is serving the native wildlife that lives here. Our “garden” does not look like the images in standard gardening magazines, but to my eyes it is beautiful, lush, and vibrantly alive.
My prayer for a new human year is that this moment marks a transition from humanity’s role as conquering destroyer to an ecologically integrated partner. We are the disease. We must become the cure. Earth’s fate lies in our hands.
The word solstice comes to us originally from Latin and translates as stopped (or stationary) sun, because to humans watching the bright star that powers life here, it seemed that twice a year at the onset of astronomical winter and summer, our star ceased its travels across the sky, pausing as if to collect itself before continuing its annual journey. Following Old Sol’s example seems a wise course to me, and so at these times of stillness, I also try to pause and collect myself.
As I review my time on this planet to date, I recall moments of great personal hardship as well as times of profound joy. For me, the thread that runs through all of it is the Green World. I cannot remember a time when I lost that connection, and I attribute that tie to any semblance of sanity I retain.
As Sol pauses today to welcome Winter and Summer to their respective earthly hemispheres, I will make my Winter Wish, the same prayer I’ve made for decades. I pray that human hearts everywhere open themselves more fully to Light’s return, welcoming with love every soul they encounter, be it human, fauna, or flora.
I invite you, my readers, to still yourselves today, at least long enough to visualize your Winter Wish. Dream big, my friends; these visions will power our future.
My offering to you this Winter Solstice is a small poem that fell out of my fingers when I prepared this post.
Growing Toward Light
As suffering surrounds us,
as isolation limits us to tenuous electronic connections,
it is easy to believe that Darkness is winning.
I promise you, it is not.
Darkness is not the enemy,
merely the other side of Light.
the dance between them powers everything.
Step outside of yourself.
Walk barefoot on cold ground,
inhale pine-scented, rain-chilled air.
Greet the birds by name.
Caress tight-coiled buds of trees
deep in winter meditation.
Feel the centering stillness,
the slowed rhythms of life.
All dwell in Winter’s Darkness
while growing toward Spring’s Light.