Archive for category Native Wildlife
Syncing with the Season: Autumnal Equinox
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on September 22, 2022
I can feel it. Can you? The strong push of our first serious cold front arrives later today, abruptly escorting summer out the door, making room for the arrival of the autumnal equinox at 9:03 EDT this evening. It is time to synchronize our systems to this turning of the seasonal wheel.
The natural world has been readying itself for the last month. Leaves have been browning and dropping prematurely, calling it quits early, thanks to a two-month drought. It is impossible to walk anywhere in my yard without risking web face. Mama spiders of all kinds have spread their traps wide to catch as much prey as quickly as possible, fuel for the laying of their egg sacs. Most of the American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) berries are gone, devoured by birds fattening up ahead of migratory travels. American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits still linger, at least until traveling troupes of American Robins spot them.
Late-season wildflowers bloom on valiantly despite the drought. Asters abound as do tickseeds, various sunflower family bloomers, and Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) in the wildflower meadows on my hilltop. Floodplain bloomers continue with enthusiasm. That soil is still moist, thanks to the work of beavers. Here, Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and abundant Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) mingle with Crown-beards (Verbesina helianthoides) and Late-flowering Thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum). River oats seeds dangle in breezes. Swamp Milkweed seeds float on silken parachutes, drifting to unknown destinations.
Great Blue Herons still stalk shallow creek water for fish or frog meals, while a Belted Kingfisher flies overhead, uttering its rattling territorial call. My wildlife cameras tell me the white-tailed deer are gearing up for mating season. Groups of heavy-antlered bucks strut through the dark, sometimes stopping to tussle with each other, antlers locked. A mama raccoon strolls by with two youngsters almost her size following. A solitary opossum waddles past, stopping briefly to dig at something it smells in moist soil. A coyote patrols the dark, seeking unwary victims. All the creatures know it is time to fatten up, secure a winter stronghold, readying themselves for summer’s unwinding into colder seasons.
As I walked my yard this morning, I took a lesson from surrounding flora and fauna. I slowed my pace. I stopped often to savor the beauty of late bloomers, give thanks for abundant walnuts and pecans dropping from laden trees, and the still-ripening sweet Italian peppers in my vegetable garden. Syncing with the autumn season feels good. I am done with summer, ready for a slower time, a fresh start, a dance with gold and crimson fallen leaves in crisp air.
Welcome, Autumn! I am ready for your arrival, grateful for the constancy of the turning of the seasonal wheel, comforted in knowing that winter’s meditative slumber will soon be upon us.
Summer Solstice: A Time for Celebration and Dedication
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on June 21, 2022
Perhaps you are one of the fortunate souls like me who remember childhood summers as times of great joy, when daylight lasted past bedtime, lightning bugs provided nightly fireworks, thunderstorms were welcomed respites from summer sun, and ripe blackberries filled every thicket – ideal snacks to fuel childhood explorations. As much as I missed school (yes, I was one of those children), summer’s seemingly infinite daylight, bird song, humming lawn mowers, thrumming cicadas, and smoky backyard barbecue smells provided ample compensation.
These days, my feelings about the summer season are mixed. Climate change brings excessive heat by mid-spring, and dangerous heat by early summer. Weather patterns are more extreme, alternating earth-parching droughts with flooding downpours punctuated by large hail and terrifying winds that throw trees to the ground. As a child, I never feared thunderstorms. Now I find myself praying for the many giant trees that surround me, asking that they withstand winds that bend them nearly in half during violent storms.
As a lifelong gardener, I do still pray for those storms to come, because my thirsty green charges need the water now more than ever. I’ve learned to start my gardens earlier than I did twenty years ago. Spring crops must be in the ground by mid-February, then protected from late cold snaps by garden fabric tunnels. Otherwise, there is no spring lettuce or spinach, peas, or broccoli. I start the summer veggies in the greenhouse in early March, then nurse the plants within that enclosure until the last wild temperature dive to freezing temperatures is past. This year, that was not until mid-May in my garden.
As soon as any vegetable or flower goes in the ground, it is heavily mulched with the aged compost we buy by the truckload for that purpose. The compost holds in precious soil moisture, slows down weed encroachment, and slowly feeds the plants over the growing season. I cannot imagine trying to grow a vegetable garden in traditional rows with today’s climate. Raised beds full of rich soil, well-mulched plants, and regular, deep watering are gardening essentials.
When I describe my current process – how I rise at dawn and only work until 9:00 a.m., when the heat and humidity force me indoors, how I mulch and weed and water attentively – I am frequently asked why I bother. My answer: my body, my heart, and my soul are tuned to and intertwined with the dance of the seasons. I cannot imagine myself not dancing along with them. Yes, the dance has grown wilder, more chaotic, and more challenging, thanks to human-made climate change. But the dance continues.
Despite destruction and disruption by bulldozers, invasive species, and the profligate application of pesticides and herbicides by humans, Mother Earth’s native species are still doing their best to dance with the seasons. Today, in the wetland that adjoins our property, goslings of Canada geese have transformed from yellow fuzz balls to slightly smaller versions of their parents. Tadpoles crowd every puddle – and my front water feature. Frogs chorus at deafening volumes on hot, humid nights. Mother turtles climb out of the wetland to lay eggs on our hill every few days. I finally heard the cowp-cowp call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo yesterday, and the first summer cicadas were tuning up to greet the solstice a few days ago. The wildlife cameras have documented small spotted fawns closely following their mothers. Wild turkeys mutter to each other as they forage for blackberries and ash tree seeds along the creek.
Decades ago, I turned away from the sort of gardening one reads about in horticulture magazines. Except for my vegetable beds, our five acres are jam-packed with native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses planted to encourage and nurture the native animals still valiantly dancing as Mother Earth turns. Pollinator gardens and meadows buzz with winged visitors, but they also frequently host an array of hungry native birds, bunnies, and other wildlife. If they focus too hard on a particular plant, I encourage the plant-nibblers to move along with an application of non-toxic repellant spray. The secret, I’ve discovered, is to offer as much good native food and shelter as possible, so there is enough for all native animals to use without negatively impacting the plantings. It’s a delicate dance, and missteps still happen. For me, it is enough that we are all still dancing.
It is challenging to create such plantings on a scale that can support native wildlife on a small suburban lot – but only if you are the sole gardener in your neighborhood trying to do this. So don’t be the only one. More and more, I hear of HOAs in my area that are adopting policies of only planting native plants in common areas, of encouraging native plantings in home landscapes, educating homeowners about invasive species and how to remove them. More and more groups are joining the dance, and not a moment too soon.
I think of my five acres as a green anchor connected to a network of similar spots all around Mother Earth. Together, we are doing our best to keep the dance going by nurturing the music-makers. I invite you to add your home landscape, your neighborhood, to this critical network by planting and nurturing the native plants and animals that were there before you, and without which none of us will survive for long.
On this Summer Solstice, celebrate the season of fruits, flowers, and flip-flops by dedicating yourself to the dance. Keep the music going by making your yard another green anchor in Earth’s network. For without music, there is no life.
For Earth Day: Gobsmacked by Nature
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on April 22, 2022
I’m finding it a challenge to remain positive these days. Humans seem so full of anger, hatred, and fear. I think I would have trouble crawling out of bed if not for the green world. Living on five acres beside a flourishing wetland guarantees a good gobsmack at least once a day, often more.
I love this British slang term for the feeling of mouth-agape awe (gob is British slang for mouth) that I get when a shaft of early morning sun spotlights the vibrant flowers of native deciduous azaleas – a blooming rainbow for the eyes and a festival of sweet fragrance for the nose.
Two days ago, I found myself standing, mouth agape, at the sight of a Monarch butterfly laying eggs on just-emerging milkweeds in my pollinator gardens. I’ve never seen this species this early before. It is deeply satisfying to have visual verification that my hard work establishing milkweed species on the property is paying off – a gobsmacking moment to be sure.
Sometimes the gobsmacks elicit giggles of delight from this aging gardener, as when while clearing out an overgrown area of wildflowers, my helper, Beth, and I discovered, not one, but three different green tree frogs – all different sizes – living among the chaos. I gently relocated each one to nearby undisturbed areas.
When Wonder Spouse and I set up our front water feature for the season a few weeks ago, the weather had been dry for several weeks, and the temperatures were, I thought, a bit cool for toads and Cope’s Gray tree frogs that sing and lay eggs there every year. But as soon as I began to fill the water feature, a Cope’s Gray loitering somewhere nearby began croaking, greeting the arrival of the water feature with clear enthusiasm. Can it smell the water, maybe hear the hose filling the shallow pool? my gobsmacked self asked.
About two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse’s sharp eyes spotted a rough-looking nest of sticks high atop a dead snag in the adjacent beaver-built wetland. With the bird scope, we were able to confirm that a pair of great blue herons had begun a nest! That was quite a gobsmack, because herons usually nest in large groups, called heronries. My research, however, did confirm that they are occasionally known to nest without being surrounded by others of their species. We got a bigger gobsmacking surprise this week when we realized a second pair of herons have now built a nest on another tall snag near the nest of the first pair. It appears we have a heronry in the making – a wonderful gobsmacking surprise indeed.
Yesterday, I was sitting on my couch enjoying an early-morning second cup of tea when I noticed movement on the floodplain/wetland. A look through the binoculars revealed a pair of Canada geese strolling around with three small yellow goslings stumbling behind them. The parent geese took their triplets to the narrow streamlet that now dissects our once-dry floodplain, where they practiced swimming in the shallow water. It was a gobsmackingly adorable moment.
The family was back out there today for another early morning walkabout. When the goslings grow a bit larger, I expect to find the family in the thriving wildflower meadow near the garage. Since I planted that area, I’ve encountered geese families there every year – always a gobsmacking moment. We surprise each other as I emerge suddenly from the house and parents herd the goslings quickly back down the hill to the safety of the wetland.
Being gobsmacked by the natural world does not require five acres adjacent to a healthy wetland. When your heart is open, gobsmackery abounds — in suburban yards where tall sunflowers turn their colorful heads to follow the sun, and in patio pots full of fragrant rosemary and mint that provide zing to meals. Gobsmackery is all about being open to wonder. And joy.
On this Earth Day, I ask my readers to open their hearts to Nature’s gobsmacking wonders. Any bit of green can surprise you, when you are paying attention. Perhaps a praying mantis will land on your deck plantings, or a bluebird couple will rear babies in the nest box you erect in your back yard. Every native plant you add to your landscape invites more gobsmackery.
Nature is fighting hard to remain on our planet despite humanity’s continuing efforts to eradicate it. Just this week, I read of a cloud forest in Ecuador that was thought to have been obliterated by tree plantations. Ecologists mourned this area known for its gobsmacking biodiversity, full of rare plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. But recently, ecologists returned to the area and discovered small pockets of intact rainforest where rare plants thought to have gone extinct were thriving. What a gobsmacking moment that must have been!
Imagine how fast our planet’s recovery could be if we all chose to help native flora and fauna instead of bulldozing it into oblivion. Every landowner, large or small, can make a gobsmacking impact. Trust me, if you plant a dozen milkweeds in a pollinator garden, the Monarchs will find them. And the butterflies will return year after year.
On this Earth Day, declare yourself open to Nature’s wonders and walk that talk by finding ways to support native ecosystems every day. Open your children’s eyes to Nature’s gobsmackery. Gently educate your neighbors and HOAs.
Mother Earth is trying, but she cannot do it without human allies. It’s time we all open our hearts, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. I guarantee that abundant spirit-lifting gobsmackery will be your reward.
The Solace of Spring
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on March 20, 2022
I don’t know if it is just me, but spring’s arrival carries a bittersweet note this year. Human suffering seems more widespread than ever. Mother Earth, too, struggles from the burdens of climate change, pollution, and massive biodiversity loss. This beautiful season of hopeful new beginnings feels heavier than past springs.
Then I step outside into my crazy, mostly wild five-acre yard and my heart begins to sing – softly, as the calls of cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, bluebirds, and woodpeckers reach my ears; louder, as the deafening chorus of spring peepers and cricket frogs (with toad descant accompaniment) kicks into full volume.
The sweet, clean fragrance of witch hazel floats on a northern breeze. Sunny daffodils nod in greeting. Thousands of native bloodroots dance together on a rocky slope overlooking the creek, where quacking mallards and shrieking wood ducks paddle up and down for hours.
Five Canada geese have arrived. A small group visits annually at this time, seeking the quiet of the beaver pond to raise a new brood of goslings.
Native blueberry bushes full of blooms are alive with humming pollinators of varying sizes. Buds on native magnolias and azaleas are swelling visibly. The pinxterbloom azaleas will likely be open in another week, if not sooner.
My greenhouse is full of vegetable, herb, and flower seedlings. These will be the summer vegetable garden inhabitants. Already, an array of lettuces, beets, onions, chives, garlic, dill, and parsley are flourishing (and delicious!) in their spring vegetable beds.
A few minutes outside reboots my perspective. All around me, plants and animals are busy living their lives, starting a new cycle of growth and fecundity. Their message seems clear. It is time to get to work, find a purpose, and fulfill it.
I’ve been pondering how to apply this message to my own life. I’ve decided that sharing more of my green world is a good place to start. With that in mind, I’ve decided on these approaches.
- I will grow enough summer vegetables to yield extras to donate to my local food bank.
- I am beginning to write a book about my interactions with and lessons learned from working the same piece of Piedmont land for 33 years and counting.
- If there is interest, I plan to offer classes to small groups using my yard as my classroom. I hope to offer detailed descriptions of the classes soon, but if you are local to the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC area and you are interested, please send an email to the address on my About page, and I’ll be sure to put you on my email distribution list.
- I am hoping to find an apprentice or two, who might be interested in working with me here. In exchange for helping me with garden tasks for a couple of four-hour shifts a week, I will offer modest payment, abundant free plants, and as much information download as you can handle about native plants and animals, native ecology, invasive non-native species, and gardening methods from basic to advanced levels as warranted by the experience of the apprentice. I’m hoping to begin this by early May. If you know someone who might be interested, send an email to the address on my About page. I am willing to work with the right candidate(s) on weekdays or weekends, as long as we can agree on a consistent schedule.
Spring’s message for me this year is focused on nurturing – plants and people. Every seedling planted, weed pulled, and vegetable harvested is a prayer for a brighter future free of suffering, a petition for peace.
May this turning of the seasonal wheel bring lighter hearts and happier days to all of Earth’s inhabitants.
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on March 17, 2022
The title is not about rubber sandals, although we’ve already had a few days when that attire would not have been inappropriate. I’m referring to the up-and-down weather swings that increasingly characterize the winter-to-spring transition here in central North Carolina.
Our last snow was on January 29, when we got a light dusting that melted a few hours after this sunrise photo was taken. The week before, we got three inches of snow that stuck around for a few days. January was an unusually relentlessly cold month.
A meteorological switch flipped at the beginning of February. Temperatures soared, ground thawed, daffodils and crocus bloomed with abandon, and the local bird population began territorial displays and nesting site inspections.
I started getting nervous, because I’ve been gardening in these parts plenty long enough to know a hard freeze was nearly inevitable. I walked around the yard exhorting swelling buds to slow down, reminding them that the average last freeze date is mid-April. Alas, I was ignored as sap rose, bird song filled the air, and the sweet fragrance of blooming witch hazels — plants adapted for late-winter blooming — perfumed the air.
Of course, part of the problem is that I long ago planted some lovely early bloomers that are not native to my area. Royal Stars magnolia (Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’) is a gorgeous Asian species with precocious blooms that get at least partially freeze-fried nearly every year. Overnight, gorgeous white petals emitting soft perfume become brown papery blobs. Here are before and after shots of the entire tree.
Another magnolia that gets fried is a cultivar called Butterflies. Its bright yellow blooms are frequently browned by late freezes. This year, the flowers didn’t even get a chance to fully open. But they were open just enough to be vulnerable to one 19-degree night a week or so ago. Here are their sad before and after photos.
This transitional moment is not without visual rewards. Now, just before the canopy trees leaf out and obscure the eastern horizon, I savor every sunrise that paints the morning sky.
Those dawn pastels have been obscured lately, though, as we flip-flop from cold to warm to cold to now wet. Very wet. In the last two weeks, our rain gauge has recorded about 4.5 inches of rain. The last two inches fell last night. The adjacent creek poured over its banks and onto floodplains on either side. As darkness fell this evening, the water had not receded.
Even the floods have their up side. At noon today, we watched five Canada geese take turns riding down a rapidly flowing overflow channel on our floodplain. They would jump in beside the channel’s intersection with the creek, then float happily down the channel until it grew too shallow to float them further. Spring peepers and cricket frogs sing at deafening levels night and day, insisting that it is time to procreate.
I may find these wild weather swings distressing, but the native flora and fauna are undeterred. I’m thinking there’s a lesson for me in all this. I can’t let a bit of flip-flopping get me down.
Winter Means It This Year
Posted by piedmontgardener in Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening, Vegetable Gardening on January 18, 2022
Winter does not appear to be kidding around this year. As soon as 2021 exited with one of the mildest Decembers ever, January ushered in 2022 with some serious arctic air that shows no signs of leaving for the duration of the month.
Our yard is generally 5-10 degrees cooler than locally reported temperatures, because of the slope down to the floodplain and creek that allows cold air to linger. So far this month, we’ve seen one and only one nighttime low above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most nighttime temperatures were well below freezing.
This January reminds me of the Januarys of my childhood and adolescence in the Piedmont of North Carolina. It was always miserably cold. We often saw bouts of snow (if we were lucky) and freezing rain (when we weren’t lucky). Native plants and animals remained in deep slumber. Pines and red cedars provided the only green relief in the landscape.
Since Wonder Spouse and I moved to our five acres of green chaos almost 33 years ago, we’ve had a few winters with deep snows, and a few very nasty ice storms, but they were usually followed by a spell of warmth that thawed any hint of frozen ground very quickly. Not this year. The ground in my yard is rock-solid. I feel as if I’m walking across uneven concrete — very cold concrete.
The beaver-built pond and wetland is very icy these days. Over two dozen mallards have been dabbling about in the shallow water all fall and early winter, but now that shallow water is frozen. The creek that supplies the wetland with water is deeper, and the water moves, so it has not frozen over. The mallards noticed, and now spend much of the day swimming up and down the deep part of the creek behind our house. Our wildlife cameras captured many videos of mallard interactions on the creek this past week.
Because this temperature trend is forecast to last until the end of the month, including several more predicted bouts of winter precipitation, I am wondering which plants won’t survive another winter. I grow several non-native so-called tender perennials, two of which are salvias — pineapple sage, and blue Brazilian sage. They have been reliably re-emerging in spring for over a dozen years now. Before that, they were killed by winter’s cold, so to keep them around, I always took cuttings in the fall and rooted/overwintered them in my little greenhouse. However, I stopped doing that some years ago, because it was unnecessary. Now I’m wondering if I’m going to regret that decision.
I usually start spring vegetable seeds in my greenhouse in early February, but the unrelenting cold is making me wonder if I should delay a bit. I’m glad I ordered seeds early. Some of my favorite varieties were hard and/or impossible to find. I’m guessing as the weather warms, vegetable seed options will diminish quickly. Seed catalogs are all online now, folks, and given the weather, electronic catalog browsing might be an excellent way to pass the time.
It has been too cold to risk lifting the row covers over my winter broccoli and lettuces, but I’m pretty sure that when I do I will find green mush. Row covers can protect crops down to about 25 degrees, especially if that temperature only lasts a few hours. Our nighttime temperatures have been in the teens every night all night. Gardeners are gamblers. This winter season, I harvested some wonderful veggies in December, which makes the January losses easier to tolerate.
I think the mallards have the right idea. When winter gives you a frozen pond, go dabble in a creek until the weather thaws. When winter gives me frozen ground, I stay cozy in my house, dabbling through catalogs and a pile of books that need reading, dreaming of the new season of flowers and fruits that will likely arrive before my winter napping is done.
We Are Not Alone — And We Like It That Way
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on December 28, 2021
Even though I heard them and often saw their tracks, I did not have a good idea about the numbers and diversity of native wildlife that regularly use the creek we live beside as a busy highway until we invested in some wildlife video cameras. In a typical Piedmont suburb, you may not see all of these species — although it is not impossible. But if you live beside or near water, especially a permanent stream, it is likely that you are sharing the area with a diverse array of native animals. [Note: You can click on any photo to view a larger image.]
Today I am sharing a few stills, in chronological order, taken from videos captured over the last two months. Personally, I never tire of watching my wildlife neighbors as they seek and catch food, argue over territory, or merely pass by on their way to somewhere else. The cameras capture Great Blue Herons fairly often. We’ve even captured some interesting moonlight interactions between them and beavers. I like the recent shot above of this majestic bird with voice croakier than most frogs catching a fish on a chilly morning in early November.
We hadn’t seen foxes since last spring until they began showing up again on the cameras in November. A daylight video of one slurping up creek water during the drought confirms we have gray foxes. Their gait is a subtle prance, and their tails are spectacular.
We usually catch bobcats in the spring and fall, but these solitary creatures were always alone — until the camera caught this pair. We hypothesize they may be litter-mates still hanging around together. You can’t see the temperature reading on this one; it was 35 degrees.
Recent forest destruction to make way for yet more suburbs has pushed more deer our way than in recent years, including at least five bucks of varying sizes. The young buck in this capture completely ignored the pair of raccoons across the creek.
Opossums are usually a blur on the video captures, putting to rest the notion that these critters are sluggish. However, this night was so warm that the opossum here was taking its time as it foraged beside the creek.
We are lucky to see and hear Pileated Woodpeckers often, thanks to the dead and dying trees in the beaver-built wetland across from us. However, we had never seen one of these crow-sized birds foraging on the ground until a camera captured this one in action.
The cameras capture raccoons year-round. This recent shot shows a damp one that had just swum across the creek. We often catch them swimming, regardless of temperature. They seem to prefer to use the shortest route between points to get where they’re going, even if that means a dip in cold creek water.
Especially in spring and throughout fall and winter, coyotes patrol the creek nightly. We’ve never seen more than two at once on the cameras, but we hear more than that howling nearby, especially when it is cold.
These last two shots were taken within minutes of each other last week on a very cold night. All the creatures were active, probably because it was so cold and the moon was bright. Despite an array of predators, this camera often captures cottontail rabbits casually foraging out in the open. We don’t know if they are very lucky bunnies, or if there are just so many of them that all can’t be eaten. We were surprised by the brazenness of this bunny that is almost stepped on by a big buck.
Given this final photo taken just minutes later, we think the bunny somehow knew that this buck was not the least bit interested in cottontails. Instead, he was defending his turf against another big buck, as evidenced by this antler-locked tussle caught on video. We expect to start finding discarded antlers soon, given the constant presence of the bucks this year.
The forest around the creek I live beside is the only remaining high-quality wildlife corridor remaining on my road. All the native animals are being squeezed into this narrow corridor which leads to the Haw River nearby. My prayer for this new year is that somehow a way is found to persuade the long-time owners of the forest around this creek to put the land into a conservation easement. This would protect the land from the bulldozers forever. It would create a refuge for all the creatures in my area, and provide a safe way for them to travel to other bits of remaining forested land. If I were wealthy, I’d try to buy out the landowners myself. Alas, that’s not an option.
Barring a monetary miracle, all I can do is what I’ve been doing. I’ll keep adding native food and shelter plants to my side of this critical wildlife corridor in the hopes that the creatures can manage to survive despite their displacement by now nearly ubiquitous suburbs, all of which are erased of almost all native vegetation before humans move in.
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on December 11, 2021
I learned a new ecological term this week. Johnny Randall, the Director of Conservation Programs at the NC Botanical Garden, mentioned it while we were discussing material for an article we are collaborating on for the spring issue of their magazine, Conservation Gardener. Although the term was new to me, the meaning behind it was not unfamiliar.
Three researchers from the University of Tartu in Estonia developed the concept of dark diversity in a paper they published in 2011. Their term was chosen to parallel the notion of dark matter in astrophysics. As with dark matter, dark diversity can be inferred from data, but it cannot be seen or directly measured.
Conservation ecologists, especially those attempting to restore or sustain ecosystems, are using the idea of dark diversity to help them assess the health of the system they are studying. Imagine a healthy ecosystem, one with all its components, where every plant, fungus, insect, bird, etc. that should live there actually does live there. This is almost never true anymore. Humans have fragmented and/or destroyed so much now that nearly every bit of forest, field, stream, coral reef, etc. is missing species that were, until fairly recently, components of those ecosystems.
Thus, these days when conservation ecologists attempt to preserve/restore special examples of ecosystems, often those containing rare plants, they not only must identify the species present on the site; they must also attempt to figure out what species are missing. Species still present can be seen and counted, their viability assessed; this is visible diversity. The absent species, the ones that should be there but aren’t define dark diversity.
I’m oversimplifying the concept a bit, but, basically, ecologists estimate dark diversity by looking at species diversity in the region in which their study site is located. If, for example, a section of forest being restored was missing wood thrushes (one of my favorite summer visitors of our forests), but those birds were known to live in patches of forest in the region, wood thrushes would be identified as part of the dark diversity of the study site – a species that should be there, based on its presence in the region, but is absent.
As I can best understand the concept, by measuring the amount of dark diversity, ecologists can better guess how difficult it would be to restore a given site to full diversity – to bring back all the missing species that should be living on a site but aren’t.
Dark Diversity on Our Five Acres
When Johnny Randall mentioned the concept of dark diversity, it immediately resonated with me, because Wonder Spouse and I have been playing with the dark, as it were, on our five acres for over three decades now. When I first saw this land on a cold January day almost 33 years ago, it was an ecosystem with substantial dark diversity. The previous owner had eliminated almost all the native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees, leaving only towering canopy-level trees and a lawn full of non-native grasses. I could hear birds, but I rarely saw them in our yard. There was nothing for them to eat near ground level, and no good nesting sites.
However, the floodplain forest on the other side of the creek teemed with ferns, wildflowers, and a healthy shrub layer. Bird song echoed across our empty yard from that area. I knew that all of those species should also be living on our side of the creek. Those species not present on our land but living nearby were dark diversity – the missing pieces. I wanted to bring them back.
Through trial and error, luck, and hard work, we have rebuilt much of the species diversity that lived on our property before it was damaged by the previous owner. Fruit-bearing shrubs provide food for an array of species. Dense plantings of shrubs, grasses, ferns, and wildflowers provide food and shelter for insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and an array of mammals.
I am certain that our amateur habitat restoration efforts would not pass muster with the professionals, but I think our results speak for themselves. What once was unseen – dark – is now visible. The species that were nearby but absent on our land have returned. I do not have adequate words to describe how deeply gratifying it has been to bring the dark into light, to bring the missing species home.
Contemplating the dark seems an entirely appropriate occupation as we rapidly approach the darkest night – winter solstice. A wise person recently told me that, when navigating dark times, it is important to trust the invisible. It seems wise folks from astrophysicists to ecologists follow this guidance. Darkness – what we cannot see with our eyes – teems with life, with knowledge. It may well be true that we can learn more from the unseen than from our visible world.
Grateful for Home
Posted by piedmontgardener in Conservation Corner, Native Wildlife, piedmont gardening on November 25, 2021
Where is your heart? I ask, because I’ve been thinking about a familiar cliché – home is where the heart is. I’ve been asking myself that question as I ponder what I am thankful for during this season of blessing-counting. Where is home for me? Where is my heart?
My instant answer is that my home is, above all else, my soul mate, my Wonder Spouse. With him, I am always warm and safe and entirely loved. He is a blessing I try never to take for granted.
Home is also this five acres of land Wonder Spouse and I have nurtured together for over three decades. To the real estate industry and government, we are owners of this piece of Piedmont paradise, but we know better. We are collaborators with all that lived here before us and those who have arrived since. We know the trees do not belong to us, though we do our best to care for them, and always appreciate them. We know the birds, frogs, foxes, and turtles who dwell among us do not belong to us, but we welcome their presence and try to encourage it by creating habitats that are heart homes for them.
Wonder Spouse and I have worked hard to make our five acres healthier and more diverse than when we first arrived. Stripped gradually of human artifices such as lawns and non-native plants that feed no one, this Piedmont patch grows more alive with every passing season. Truly, this land is our heart, our home, our family, and we feel deeply blessed to have found it, joyfully embracing our work to return it to vibrant native diversity.
I know how blessed we are. Many humans around the globe have no home. They are hungry, often cold and afraid. To my mind, the inequities among humans reflect attitudes about all our relationships, beginning with how we treat Mother Earth and all her non-human inhabitants. Perhaps the perpetrators of these inequities rationalize their behavior by believing they are doing it to Someone Else.
However, I believe that anyone with open eyes can see the interrelatedness of everything, from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the food we eat. Equally accessible sustainable ecosystems are necessary for all our families to thrive.
On this American day of thanksgiving when you give thanks for your family gathered round tables laden with abundance, for their health, for whatever other blessings you acknowledge, please consider also giving thanks for the fact that none of those blessings is possible without the blue-green planet that nurtures everything, home to us all. Give thanks for Mother Earth, and consider making a promise with your family to do more for her sustainable health. It is the only way we may be assured of Thanksgivings for many generations to come.