Time and Transformation

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming on New Year’s Day

This April, Wonder Spouse and I will have lived on the same beloved five acres for 30 years. When we arrived in 1989, the previous owner had landscaped the property like a park. Naturally occurring large canopy trees were underlain by a carpet of grass. The only understory trees were dogwoods; the only shrubs, Asian evergreen azaleas and forsythias.

We set to work slowly adding in the layers of a Piedmont forest that should have been there. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the grass entirely, and in parts of the yard, the many happy shrubs and understory trees have done a fine job of shading out the grass. As we’ve added native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, exploiting the many microhabitats on the property, native wildlife has responded with enthusiasm. We now share our lush, green (during the growing season) paradise with a diverse array of birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and mammals. This is our happy place, our sanctuary, our haven from human-wrought chaos in the world.

Flood on November 13, 2018

Because about two acres of our property is an active floodplain, terraforming floods have been part of life here. Transformation was always active, but last September, the floods were different. Hurricane Florence dropped over ten inches of rain on us — an amount we had never seen before. Her rains were followed by much, much more rain, resulting in a record rainfall year for my area. Excessive precipitation has continued; our floodplain area has been permanently altered by a transformation so stark that — if I could subtract the water — I might imagine myself treading the surface of Mars.

I was already preparing myself for big changes on the floodplain. This is likely the year that non-native Emerald Ash Borers will find and destroy the stand of 37 canopy-size Green Ash trees that currently occupy those acres. I was imagining the area might come to be more dominated by the wetland wildflowers that have always occupied one edge of the floodplain. Now I wonder if any of those wildflowers will even manage to survive. This is what that area looked like early last summer:

Wetland wildflowers June 2018

This is what that same area looked like on New Year’s Day of 2019:

Same area New Year’s Day 2019

The entire wildflower area had been buried by many inches of sand and silt deposited by repeated flood events.

Here’s what one of my favorite spots in that area looked like last May:

Atamasco lilies and cinnamon ferns

And this is what it looked like on New Year’s Day:

Buried wildflower area, January 1, 2019

I thought I was comfortable with the dynamic nature of our property; I embraced the changes, rolled with Nature’s whims, celebrated the plants and animals that adapted and changed over time. But this — this has been a test of my resiliency, and of the occupants with whom I share this space.

I’ve generally found it helpful that my birthday is in early January. Turning another year older just after the calendar turns magnifies that whole new-year vibe. To put it in the vernacular, transformation slaps me up the side of the head every January. This new year, transformation feels more like a punch to the gut, but I am coming to terms with it.

My birthday gift from Wonder Spouse — a wildlife camera

Early morning deer captured by the wildlife camera

Any illusions I had about being the overseer of my landscape have been permanently cast aside. Like the fish flopping in receding flood waters, I was gasping for air for a while there. But as I watched those fish being gobbled up by patrolling great blue herons and a gang of garrulous crows, I realized that Nature has always been in charge.

I will still grow vegetables at the top of the hill, where floodwaters never reach — if they don’t drown in rainfall. But otherwise, I think this year will be my Year of Watching. I will walk our land often, looking for clues about who is still here, what is thriving, what has disappeared. I will listen to the rattle of kingfishers as they celebrate the expanded wetland. I will watch and wait and ponder what time and transformation have in store for me.

Floodplain sunrise, January 7, 2019

A note for those living near Chapel Hill, NC:

I’ll be teaching a class on nature writing this spring at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Follow this link for details.

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  1. #1 by Julie Higgie on January 9, 2019 - 9:19 pm

    That was a beautiful article. So sorry your wetland got hit. Our wetland, which is wet 90 percent of the time, is very high right now. It looks more like a lake.

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on January 10, 2019 - 11:43 am

      Thanks, Julie. Yes, I think we’re all staying underwater until national weather patterns shift. With climate change disrupting those patterns, I think we all need to expect the unexpected. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. #3 by Barbara Driscoll on January 9, 2019 - 10:18 pm

    Oh, I’ve had a Bushnell critter cam but have not put it out.  I’ve had it for over a year, but for some reason it seemed complicated.  Anyway, I hope that Wonder Spouse is hanging in there.  I know that shutdowns can be stressful.  I’m enjoying your postings, and the amethyst witchhazel is stunning.

    Barbara Driscoll Chapel Hill, NC USA  Do something nice for the earth every day!

    • #4 by piedmontgardener on January 10, 2019 - 11:47 am

      Hi, Barbara! Wonder Spouse surprised me with the camera. We installed it together, and it was quite straightforward. The only trick is to get it pointed at a good angle. We tested it by walking in front of it, then checking the photos and tweaking camera orientation accordingly. The Amethyst Witchhazel needs to be smelled to be fully appreciated. It is quite a stunning addition to a winter landscape. I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts.

  3. #5 by tonytomeo on January 9, 2019 - 11:04 pm

    The dynamics of nature are fascinating and fun to work with, except that fire is an important aspect of the dynamics of our local ecosystem. Redwood forests are naturally resistant to fire, but because our region was harvested a century ago, the pioneer growth is quite combustible. Until redwoods regenerate and dominate, we do not like to allow the oaks to become too dense. It will take a lot of vegetation management for the next few centuries. I do not intend to work in my garden that long.

    • #6 by piedmontgardener on January 10, 2019 - 11:51 am

      Welcome, Tony. Understanding and working with the native ecosystems we live with are definitely the keys to maintaining their health. And you are right, the time scales are centuries long. That’s why I say gardeners are time travelers. We know we will not see the completion of the work we begin in our lifetimes, but we can visualize it. So we work as long as we can to realize that vision. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. #7 by Margaret Molyson on January 10, 2019 - 8:30 pm

    We are new to the piedmont. We moved in to our home which backs up to the Yellow River in December of 2017. In the spring we discovered that part of our riparian area was covered with Japanese wisteria! I did not pull it out immediately because It covers over 200 ft. and I had nothing to replace the root system holding onto the soil. I harvested seeds of river oats this summer hoping to be able to replace the wisteria, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. Along comes the flood. It scoured the wisteria, removing the topsoil, leaving the roots exposed. At the same time it deposited up to 4 inches of sand in some areas that it flooded on the flood plain burying our elephants foot and other low growers. I have the river oats seed in moist sand stratification. I’m afraid of putting it out too soon and have it wash away in another flood. I think I’ll try sprouting it and transplanting it, but I’m not sure it takes well to being transplanted. Our flood plain with all the sand looks naked. I’m going to watch for what pops up and try to rip out the invasives id I can recognize them early.
    Good luck with your flood plain. Maybe some seed was deposited with the sand, we’ll see.

    • #8 by piedmontgardener on January 11, 2019 - 8:53 am

      Welcome to the southeastern Piedmont, Margaret!

      It does sound likely that the floods did you a favor by knocking back the wisteria. As I suspect you realize, those pernicious non-native invasive vines are almost certainly still alive. Before you plant your river oats, if you have the ability and time, I encourage you to cut as many of the wisteria roots as you can and paint the cut end going into the ground with an herbicide designed to kill brush. The herbicide will get pulled down into the still-viable roots and kill at least some of the plants entirely. You will likely never have an easier opportunity.

      About those river oats — great minds think alike! The greenhouse manager at the NC Botanical Garden suggested that I try the same native on my scoured floodplain. Like you, I stratified collected seed a month or so ago, and like you, I plan to grow it out before transplanting it to the scoured floodplain when the seedlings look tough enough and the forecast doesn’t predict any imminent flood-producing rains this spring. My friend suggested that, once established, the river oats would give the invasive Japanese stilt grass that covered my floodplain before the floods some significant competition. And, of course, the seeds of the river oats will help feed the growing waterfowl population enjoying the expanded wetland pond created by beavers. I plan to document my progress with the river oats here in this blog. Please keep me posted on your river oats experiment too. Some gardeners despise river oats, because they can spread aggressively, but this native’s vigor is EXACTLY what we need in these situations — and what they are adapted for. Good luck to you!

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