Archive for category Conservation Corner
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.
[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 recently took a great many photos of final fall highlights of my yard, and I hope to get them posted here soon. I’ve been distracted by the recent addition of two new wildlife cameras, which Wonder Spouse has strategically installed along the creek that borders our property. The quality of the videos captured by the new cameras is impressive, and the recent full moon seemed to stimulate nocturnal activity. I am hoping to create a PiedmontGardener YouTube channel soon, so that I can post some of the more interesting videos we are capturing. For now, here are a few stills I extracted from some of the videos captured just last week. I’ve left the time/temperature information in the photos, because I think they give each shot a bit more context.
In the video from which I extracted the photo above, this buck slowly wades upstream. I love the way the water captures his reflection. I didn’t realize just how many deer are now wandering my area until I saw them in these videos. One night last week, eight does ran one after the other in a line away from the camera, their white tails flashing as they disappear deeper into the forest.
We have seen one eight-point buck in the cameras many times, but we had no idea we have at least two bucks that size. And they wander the night together at least part of the time. These two hung out here for quite a while, sniffing the air, probably because this shallow piece of water is a favorite creek-crossing area for the does.
A growing number of black vultures are spending a great deal of time along the creek, where they bathe in the shallows, then dry their great wings in the sun on the bare branches of still-standing trees killed by beaver-induced flooding. We now are capturing many daytime videos of these great birds bathing and arguing. It is fascinating to watch them wade into the shallow water, then dip their heads down into the water to push it up over their wings.
We have had a couple of rare early morning sitings of river otters that we suspected are now living somewhere along the growing beaver-built wetland adjacent to our property. Our new cameras have now captured them several times. We know there are at least three of them that hang around together, and we’ve seen the area they head into at dawn, where we assume they have a den. But this past week, a camera caught the three of them emerging from the creek to forage on our property. I couldn’t get a clear still shot of all three, but I did get these two as they returned to the creek. One is just entering the water and the other is looking over its shoulder for their companion still lingering on the floodplain out of sight here. You should be able to click on these photos to see larger versions.
This final extracted still shot surprised us. We had no idea that Great Blue Herons hunted in the moonlight, even when the temperatures are quite chilly. What an extraordinary delight!
I love the magical moonlight reflections of these creatures with whom we share our land, and for whom we continue to try to stabilize and enrich their habitat — an increasing necessity as more and more nearby forest is replaced by monotonous suburbs devoid of native biological diversity.
Kermit the Frog’s well-known song about the travails of being green was about the sense of isolation that comes from being different from other folks. I think it applies equally well to the challenges facing the Green World. These challenges are delineated in detail in Douglas Tallamy’s latest book: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard.
In his book, Tallamy’s frustration with humanity is frequently evident. The introduction and first four chapters provide a vast amount of research-based data on how and why Planet Earth’s ecosystems are in imminent peril. His conclusion is inescapable and direct: the actions of humanity are responsible for the destruction of the natural world upon which all life relies.
In the introduction, he categorizes people into three groups: animal-lovers, plant-lovers, and the utterly indifferent. The categories reflect his strategy for reaching each of the groups. For animal-lovers, he explains their critical dependence on plants. He shows plant-lovers why animals, especially insects, are essential to the survival of most flora. And for the indifferent, “the hardest group of all to engage,” he did his best, he says, “to explain why we will lose humans if we don’t preserve the plants and animals that keep our ecosystems healthy and sustaining.”
Dr. Tallamy’s solution to the ongoing demise of life on Planet Earth is a concept he calls Homegrown National Park:
“What if each American landowner made it a goal to convert half of his or her lawn to productive native plant communities? Even moderate success could collectively restore some semblance of ecosystem function to more than twenty million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.”
By restoring functioning native ecosystems to our landscapes, he says, we will be creating a far larger national park system than currently exists, where native animals and plants can flourish. And it is a park we will be able to visit whenever we like by simply stepping outside our homes and offices. It is a wonderful vision, reminding me a great deal of a notion I helped develop and continue to pitch for my region called Piedmont Patch.
Tallamy does not introduce his Homegrown National Park concept until chapter five. His opening chapters provide a brief history of earlier conservation efforts and begin to offer reams of data interspersed with explanations of underlying scientific ecological concepts as he proceeds to build his case according to the standard scientific writing approach. After chapter five, he offers four more chapters full of data-based factoids and solidly reasoned arguments on ways to rebuild carrying capacity and the impact of invasive, non-native species.
Here’s a factoid from chapter six: A massive scientific study called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was published in 2005 and concluded then that by the turn of the century (20 years ago), “we had destroyed 60 percent of the earth’s ability to support us.” That factoid should make anyone who loves their children and grandchildren swallow hard. Alas, it is buried in the middle of a chapter, as are many other staggering bits of information, where only a careful reader will ever see it.
Chapter seven is on invasive non-native plants; he calls them alien plants. As someone who has been sermonizing to anyone willing to listen about the negative impacts of these invaders for 25 or so years, I found this chapter helpful, because Tallamy succinctly dissects every point made by those who would have us believe that these invaders are no big deal, just Nature being Nature. Be assured, I will have his well-constructed arguments at the ready the next time someone tries to persuade me about the “benefits” of invasive non-native plants. Here’s just one of his very helpful explanations on this subject:
“Every time a native plant is removed from an ecosystem, or even diminished in abundance, populations of all of the animals that depend exclusively on that plant are also removed or diminished, as are the natural enemies of those species. In sum, then, at the local scale – the scale that counts ecologically – invasive plants typically decimate local species diversity, and claims to the contrary have not been supported by rigorous field studies” (emphasis mine).
It is not until chapter eight, Tallamy’s chapter on the critical need to restore insect species, that he finally offers a key piece of practical information on helping landowners restore native plants to their properties. He explains the concept of “keystone plants,” the species in a given ecosystem on which the greatest percentage of other ecosystem members rely. For example, when looking at which plants support the most caterpillars, the larval forms of moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), he and his research assistant discovered that “wherever we looked, about 5 percent of the local plant genera hosted 70 to 75 percent of the local Lepidoptera species!”
Tallamy therefore advises that it is essential to plant keystone species appropriate to your area when you decide to restore native plants to your property. His research assistant, Kimberley Shropshire, spent a year compiling a massive database that identifies which insect species rely on which plants. This database has been used by two different conservation organizations to develop free applications for the public to use when planning native restorations of their properties. Tallamy buries this important (to my mind, anyway) bit of information in the middle of chapter eight.
After you enter your zip code, these applications generate lists of native plants suitable for your area, and the lists are ordered, so that keystone species – the plants critical for supporting the most insect species – are listed first, encouraging you to include them in your design. A few pages later, Tallamy explains why this is critical to the successful creation of a functioning ecosystem on your property: “A landscape without keystone genera will support 70 to 75 percent fewer caterpillar species than a landscape with keystone genera, even though the keystone-less landscape may contain 95 percent of the native genera in the area.” In other words, you’ll be planting a pretty native landscape of no use to native birds and other wildlife if you omit keystone species from your design.
The two applications based on Shropshire’s research are:
- Native Plant Finder, developed by the National Wildlife Federation, and
- Plants for Birds, developed by the Audubon Society
In chapter ten, Tallamy explains why he thinks his concept, Homegrown National Park, will work. He suggests that reasoned arguments and education will turn the tide with HOAs, which is what I would expect a man of science like Dr. Tallamy to believe. He’s not entirely wrong. I know of a couple of local HOAs that have been slowly persuaded on the merits of native plant landscapes. Scientific arguments were part of the process, but much emotion-based persuasion was also involved. I believe financial arguments are also critical to persuading HOAs and landowners, and Tallamy ignores this aspect entirely. He also doesn’t mention the need to persuade the real estate and horticultural industries that native landscapes can still be money-makers for them.
In his final chapter, Tallamy gets around to explicitly listing ten steps landowners can take to make Homegrown National Park a reality. It is a short chapter, because, I imagine, he expects that readers have already digested the carefully laid out research and arguments in the previous 204 pages. They are solid, easy-to-implement steps. I hope and pray his notions take hold and sweep the nation.
However, unless many of us who already have a decent grasp of ecology and native plants and animals make Tallamy’s book a jumping-off point for persuasion-based presentations of our own, I fear that the vast majority of Americans in his third category – the utterly indifferent – will not be moved to even read the book.
Let me be clear. In my estimation, there is nothing wrong with the content of Tallamy’s book. His research and conclusions are rock-solid. But as a professional writer and editor of many decades, it is my opinion that this book would have benefitted greatly from a developmental edit that could have shaped its contents into a more persuasive and accessible form specifically targeted to his most challenging audience – the utterly indifferent plant-blind humans who don’t see or appreciate the natural world the way he does, the way I do, the way most of my blog followers do.
Yes, this book gives us Greenies more ammunition for our arguments with HOAs and neighbors; the Frequently Asked Questions section at the back of the book will be especially helpful with that. But will this book persuade the indifferent? I fear it is unlikely.
On this Earth Day and every day, it’s not easy being green, as any plant, hungry caterpillar, or ecologically aware human will tell you. Tallamy’s new book provides us with important information to share with those indifferent to Nature’s wonders. But in my estimation, on its own, it is not a book that will persuade those still blind to the natural world to join the green side. I very much hope I’m wrong.
Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.
Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”
When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.
I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.
On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.
You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.
Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.
Gardeners are time travelers. Our ties to good earth, green plants, and all the creatures that rely on them anchor our bodies while simultaneously transporting our minds through a river of time that flows both ways, forward and back. When we plant a seed or a young tree, we see in our minds what that plant will become. When we see a mature oak, its full green branches laden with acorns, our minds travel back to the time when the acorn that became the mighty oak was planted. As I plant and tend a garden, I slip into the timestream, seeing clearly the ripe tomatoes I will pick in a few weeks, ivory flowers that will perfume the air when a Bigleaf Magnolia attains blooming size, and the berry-eating birds that will flock to the holly and viburnum fruits produced by the shrubs I settle into the ground today.
Experienced gardeners and other adept readers of the land, such as ecologists, slip easily into the Green World timestream as we go about our lives. Visions of past and future landscapes unfold with our footsteps; trees and rocks whisper their stories to us.
Such was the case when I first encountered a gnarled tree with heart-shaped leaves standing stoically beside the pond of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site on the grounds of a small church in Chapel Hill, NC. The vicar of that church was eager to show me the tree because she was deeply attached to it, even though she didn’t know its identity. Her parishioners had wanted to cut it down, but she resisted the suggestion. To her, I think, it represents resiliency; despite its apparent suffering, as evidenced by gnarled branches sporting spindly green shoots and obvious dead branches, the tree had not died. The vicar showed it to me that day hoping that I would be able to give her beloved tree a name.
Heart-shaped leaves narrowed down identity options considerably, which helped. It wasn’t a redbud; leaves and branches were all wrong for those species. It wasn’t – thank heavens – an invasive non-native Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa).
By that time, the vicar had told me the story of the land her church occupied. It was a piece of an old farm; they use the old farmer’s home as their parish house. The small pond was part of the farm too, stocked with fish and regularly visited by local fishermen for generations. The church is committed to maintaining the pond for those fisherfolk, even supplying poles for those who care to stop by and try their luck.
As I listened to her describe the history of the pond, the puzzle resolved. I knew instantly that the gnarled old tree was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Technically native to slightly more southern states, these trees have naturalized in North Carolina, likely in part because humans have been planting them beside fishing holes for generations as bait trees.
Southern Catalpa is the host food plant for the caterpillar of a sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) that is commonly called a catalpa worm. The outer skins of these caterpillars are tough enough to anchor a fish hook, and their insides emit a scent – even under water – that is catnip to catfish and other fish likely to inhabit farm ponds. Practical fisherfolk of earlier generations soon learned to plant Southern Catalpas beside their favorite fishing spots, so that bait would be handy when they got a hankering to toss out a line.
When I had my aha moment of identification, my mind carried me back to earlier times – probably at least 50 years in this case – when a time-traveling fisherman planted this Southern Catalpa because he could see that it would grow large beside the pond, be visited by moths that would lay eggs that would hatch into fat catalpa worms, providing irresistible bait for fish caught to feed hungry families.
I pointed out the tree to a fellow plantsman, who was intrigued by its story. He remembered it when he was acquiring plants at a local nursery and noticed in a corner two very pot-bound saplings of Southern Catalpa that the owners were planning to discard. He asked if he could have them, they happily said yes, and he brought them to me to plant beside the pond that has become the home of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Wonder Spouse helped me plant them last year, not far from the gnarled original. They are growing well, and the vicar was pleased that if her old gnarled friend succumbed to time’s travails, its tale would be carried forward by the two new trees.
Fast-forward to late May of this year, when I was visiting the site to slip in some beautiful donated plants from another nursery, lovingly dug up and delivered to me by a wonderful plantswoman who works there. I had finished my work and was taking a few photos of what was blooming on this patch of piedmont that is transforming rapidly, thanks to the addition of over 1000 native plants added this year by volunteers who support this vision of creating a sanctuary of native plants to feed and shelter local wildlife being displaced by the rapid urbanization of the region.
I walked down to admire the young Southern Catalpas, which now stand near a honeybee hive added this past spring – a fortuitous location, given that flowers of these trees – when they are old enough to start blooming — are beneficial to these pollinators. That’s when I noticed that the elder Southern Catalpa had more fresh leaves growing on it than I had seen since I met it two years ago.
When I approached it for a closer look, I realized it was covered in gorgeous flowers! They reminded me a bit of orchids, hanging in pendulous clusters. My mouth gaped long enough that I was lucky one of the nearby honeybees didn’t fly right in.
Of course, I took photos – lots of photos. When I told the vicar, she was astonished. “That tree has never bloomed!” she exclaimed. “How is this possible?”
I can only speculate, of course, but I do have a couple of theories. My first is that perhaps the tree felt valued again when we planted two more of its kind nearby. That is an entirely subjective explanation I realize, but if you want to put a scientific veneer on it, I could offer that perhaps increasing the plant diversity of the site as a result of the Piedmont Patch project somehow enlivened the plants already growing there.
My second theory has no scientific basis, but as a time-traveling gardener, I have to wonder if perhaps this tree slipped into the Green World timestream back to a time when it was more vigorous. Maybe the work of Piedmont Patch volunteers on the site carried it back to more vibrant times, causing it to burst forth in an enthusiastic flower display more typical of past decades.
Transformation is definitely the motif of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Already, every day brings new wildflower blooms, new birds, and a continuous stream of volunteers bearing plants and offering labor to further the creation of this native haven. Already, it is a place of peace, beauty, and above all, hope.
As I travel forward in my mind to envision this site a few years from now, I see volunteers – the Piedmont Patch Stewardship Team – tending the site. As they pull out unwanted plants and add more native species, work to eradicate nearby stands of invasive non-native species, and document the site’s continuing transformation, I see this site serving as inspiration for new piedmont patches springing up in the region. Every patch will be different – as unique as the group creating it and the site upon which it is established. But all will be growing green havens of native beauty that shelter and feed wildlife, from pollinators to birds to lizards, frogs, and cottontail rabbits.
All will be symbols of hope, refuges also for souls of weary humans who too often lose touch with their connection to the Green World. Perhaps these havens will help more of those disconnected souls regain a knack for time travel, to see what a healthy future for the region – and the planet – looks like. As a time-traveling gardener, I hold on to that hope for transformation. How can I not, when I see a seemingly dying tree burst into spring bloom, and a pond-side full of random weeds become a vibrant assembly of native grasses and wildflowers?
On this blog on past Earth Days, I have mounted what I call my green pulpit to preach about the struggling biosphere on our beleaguered planet. Frankly, I am so discouraged by what humanity is allowing to happen these days that I almost didn’t bother to write anything today. But a recent local event motivated this post.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on the same wonderful five acres for 29 years. Because we live beside a perennial creek with an adjacent wetland, beavers have moved into our immediate area several times. Photos throughout this post are of the current beaver pond adjacent to our property. The transformations they manifest on the local environment are immediate and mostly wonderful. From a human perspective, though, because they cut down and eat trees and raise water levels to flood multiple acres, they are often considered a nuisance.
About ten years ago, the last healthy 1000-acre stand of forest near our house was erased and replaced with a truly enormous subdivision full of houses packed so closely together that I am sure neighbors can hear each other with the windows tightly shut. Yards are tiny and all look alike, adhering, no doubt, to strict HOA rules. Frankly, the place gives me the heebie-jeebies.
But the California company that erected this monstrosity over fierce objections from the local community was clever. They market this massive people prison as “nature-friendly,” because they left alone small patches of forest around creeks and wetlands (where they couldn’t build houses easily anyway). They built trails through it, and I gather it is used heavily by residents. In fact, many of the residents claim they chose to live there because they are “nature lovers.”
One border of this suburban nightmare is less than a mile from my house, so it is no surprise that the creeks that run through it host a healthy beaver population. Recently, beaver activity there covered one of the expensive pedestrian bridges in their trail system, and the HOA voted to have the beavers exterminated, which created such an uproar from some of the residents that their protests gained local news coverage, and the HOA has temporarily halted their extermination plans pending further review of possible solutions to “the beaver problem.”
On this Earth Day, I describe this to you because I am flummoxed by the ability of the residents of this massive subdivision to see trees but no forest. In other words, they pick and choose what bits of the natural world they like and which parts they dislike, oblivious to the reality that nature is a system of complexly interlocking parts that evolved over spans of time beyond their easy comprehension.
These residents have decided they like beavers. But these same residents team up in blocks to get a group rate on poison applications in their yards to kill ticks and mosquitoes. The poison doesn’t outright kill honeybees, but it is concentrated in their honey. More important, the poison, which is sprayed 30 feet high into the trees, also kills aquatic animals like fish and frogs (big mosquito eaters). Imagine what it likely does to nesting birds!
So on the one hand, these beaver-lovers are fighting to save the wetlands created by these industrious rodents, while simultaneously poisoning that environment, all because they want to be able to sit on their patios without being bothered by the insects that are a key food for that aquatic environment.
These same residents trap squirrels visiting their bird feeders and release them elsewhere. This is illegal, by the way, but also demonstrates ignorance of ecology. If you remove squirrels, more squirrels will move into the vacated spaces. I guarantee it.
Another resident of this suburban monstrosity told me of the big argument she had with a pesticide company over not spraying poisons in her house. She told me that it is apparently a selling point of this subdivision that all the homes are constructed with pipes running through the walls. Once a month a pesticide company hooks up its tank of poison to the outlet to these pipes and fumigates inside the walls to kill any insect foolish enough to consider moving in.
As for ticks — which I readily admit are significant disease vectors — balanced ecosystems are less likely to be overwhelmed by them. White-tailed deer and white-footed mice are two key transporters of ticks. Both species are very happy dining on over-fertilized lawns and shrubbery and beneath messy bird feeders. Adding clusters of native shrubs that feed and shelter birds and reducing lawns in favor of, say, small pollinator gardens of flowers would help dwindling insect and bird populations and reduce the need for supplemental bird feeding except during winter months when food is scarce. Small brush piles provide habitat for birds and opossums — known by ecologists as “tick vacuums,” because when they are present, the ticks they pick up are eliminated by their meticulous grooming habits.
To all these residents who moved here from elsewhere, I ask you to embrace the fact that you now live in the southeastern United States. Our mild climate means insects thrive year-round. We who grew up here know this and long ago adapted to that reality. When you attempt to kill or remove every animal that you don’t like, your choices impact more than just those target species. You hurt the environment you profess to love. You hurt the home of those furry rodents you have anthropomorphized into your friends. This is not an either-or situation. Nature is a system, an orchestra composed of myriad instruments, a chorus of many voices. The richness of the song is diminished every time you exterminate a voice. The viability of the entire system becomes more fragile every time you impose your will onto the environment that supports all of us.
On this Earth Day, I implore my neighbors to embrace all of Nature’s parts, whether or not they inconvenience you. If you can find a way to co-habit with beavers, that’s great. But if at the same time you do not protect the health of the wetlands they create by ceasing to poison and over-fertilize your yards, by replacing biologically sterile lawns with native flowers, shrubs, and trees that support wildlife, by learning the names of all the native plants, animals, birds, and insects in your environment and teaching those names to your children, then you are merely killing your beloved beavers by slower methods than those planned by your HOA.
This Saturday, Feb. 17, the Piedmont Patch Collaborative will host a free lecture in Chapel Hill, NC at 11:00 a.m. Although the warm temperatures have afflicted most of us with spring fever, the weather on Saturday will be an abrupt return to cold, damp conditions — ideal weather for sitting in a warm, dry spot to learn how you can invite native wildlife onto your property by adding native plants.
I’ve been writing about the Piedmont Patch Collaborative for a few months now, most recently in the post previous to this one. We are trying to demonstrate to public and private property owners the benefits of creating patches of native plant sanctuaries wherever they can to help compensate for the devastating losses of native habitat brought about by the rampant urbanization of the Piedmont region. Because most everyone loves butterflies, birds, and flowers, we thought a talk on how to use flowers to attract and feed these native creatures would appeal to experienced, and we hope especially, new gardeners. In central NC, there is no one better qualified to teach about pollinators and pollinator gardens than Debbie Roos. We are delighted that she is the first speaker in our quarterly lecture series that is free and open to the public.
Since 1999, Debbie has been an Agriculture Agent for the Chatham County Center of North Carolina Cooperative Extension, where she is responsible for programming in the areas of commercial vegetable production, organic production, pollinator conservation, alternative agricultural enterprises, forestry, and beekeeping. Debbie is passionate about pollinator conservation and has planted demonstration habitats and developed resources to teach others about the importance of bees and other pollinators to our agriculture ecosystem. Visit her pollinator Web site here.
Despite predicted gloomy weather, we are hoping for a big turnout for Debbie’s lecture. If you’re planning on coming, please bring a friend, especially if your friend is new to the Piedmont region or new to gardening. Come learn about the power of flowers that feed and shelter insects and birds critical to the survival of our food crops and our native ecosystems. The middle of February is the perfect time to start thinking about adding a pollinator garden to your property. You won’t be alone. The Piedmont Patch Collaborative Web site will offer a growing list of resources, including how-to articles and videos, an events calendar, recommended plant lists, and, of course, our quarterly lecture series. The site also lists all the details about Saturday’s lecture, including the location in Chapel Hill, NC.
I have the honor of introducing Debbie before her talk. If you attend and have time, please introduce yourself to me after the lecture. I’m always happy to talk about Piedmont gardening.
The cold, icy winter has been remarkably busy for this Piedmont gardener. In past years, I’ve used such winters to catch up on my reading, plan the new growing season’s vegetable garden, and perhaps do a bit of garden clean-up during “warm” spells. But this winter, the big dream I wrote about here a few months ago continues to occupy much of my time — along with a few other plant-related projects I’ll share with you in another post soon.
The group I’m working with has changed its name slightly. We are no longer the Piedmont Patch Project; instead, we are the Piedmont Patch Collaborative (PPC). This change was needed, because we wanted to convey the essential collaborative nature of this endeavor. We continue to welcome new partner organizations and individuals, who are helping us to dream even bigger as they bring additional resources and expertise to our effort.
Five key developments stand out:
- A new partner: New Hope Audubon Society — I am delighted to report that the chapter of the National Audubon Society local to my region has joined the Piedmont Patch Collaborative as an enthusiastic partner. This very active group brings enormous expertise to the PPC, especially with regard to the relationships between native birds and native plants. They actively promote ways to create bird-friendly habitat, even offering a certification program during which they will assess your property and offer suggestions to improve its bird habitat potential.
These are hands-on folks who have already committed to attending our quarterly talks and staffing a table where they can explain their organization and offer information on native birds and plants. They are planning to volunteer on our work days as we begin to add native plants to the landscape around The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, the PPC’s first demonstration project. Most exciting of all, they offered to apply for a grant from the National Audubon Society to fund the acquisition of additional native plants for the site — plants we would be able to acquire and add this year! We’ll know by the end of February if we win the grant; watch this space for updates.
- Continuing help from a partner: North Carolina Botanical Garden — Thanks to the support of the Director, Damon Waitt, and the generosity of the Greenhouse and Nursery Manager, Matt Gocke, the PPC will be able to use an entire bench in the Garden’s greenhouse to grow out plants for our big planting event scheduled for April. I was wondering how and where we were going to grow plants, so this kind offer is truly a boon from heaven.
- Our first free and open-to-the-public quarterly talk on Feb. 17: Debbie Roos on Creating wildlife habitat with pollinator gardens — Debbie is a regionally recognized expert on native pollinators. The demonstration pollinator garden she designed and maintains at Chatham Mills in Chatham county, NC is visited by tour groups from throughout the region. The PPC is very excited that Debbie will be the first speaker in its quarterly series of talks on native plants and animals, because pollinator gardens are one of the fastest ways to improve the native habitat potential of any Piedmont landscape. I hope many people will spend an hour or so with us to hear Debbie’s talk and enjoy her spectacular photographs. The talk will be on Saturday, Feb. 17 at 11:00 a.m. at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, 8410 Merin Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. Please come, and bring a friend!
- Coming soon: a controlled burn of the earthen dam — The earthen dam that contains a one-acre pond on The Advocate grounds is the focus of the majority of the early efforts of the PPC to enrich the landscape with native plants. Our goal is to replace the current mix of invading woody trees (bad for earthen dams), brambles, Japanese honeysuckle, and wildflowers with a mix of native grasses and wildflowers similar to those that naturally occur in Piedmont prairie environments. Ecologically, such environments were maintained by the application of fire, and conservation organizations today often use controlled burns to maintain the ecological integrity of such environments. Experts tell me that the earthen dam is an ideal site for a controlled burn, which should eradicate undesirable plants while not impacting native grasses and wildflowers adapted for those conditions. Our first controlled burn is being planned. Watch this space for updates on the burn and its results.
- Coming soon: The PPC Web site — The group is making steady progress toward the implementation of a Web site that will describe its activities, and offer how-to articles and videos on how to create a Piedmont patch of native plants on landscapes of any size. I’ll post an announcement everywhere when the new site is up and running.
Perhaps you can sense my enthusiasm for this project — a big dream becoming reality before my eyes, thanks to the collaboration of a growing number of groups and individuals who are embracing this vision of teaching southeastern Piedmont dwellers how to create wildlife sanctuaries with native plants, one patch of Piedmont at a time. I think the dream resonates widely, because it empowers us with a way to make a bona fide difference. By acting locally to deliberately create patches of native habitat on urban and suburban properties, we can significantly reduce the dramatic adverse effects on native pollinators and larger wildlife caused by the obliteration of fields and forests by urbanization.
Every new Piedmont patch will help bluebirds, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, butterflies, solitary bees, honeybees, bumblebees, predatory wasps, praying mantises, salamanders, spiders, lizards, toads, snakes, rabbits, mice, foxes, deer — all the native components of the web of life that comprise a healthy Piedmont ecosystem. Does your home landscape feature a Piedmont patch? If not, please consider joining the PPC in making a direct, local impact on the future of the southeastern Piedmont region’s native ecosystems.