Light has been hard to come by lately.
Perhaps the message of the longest night of the year is to stop trying to flee the darkness, instead, following the example of the great canopy trees, casting off artifice – the leaves of summer – and spending this season stretching roots into life-giving earth, taking time to deepen my connection to that which sustains me.
I need this quiet season. It brings me back to center after the frenzy of planting, weeding, harvesting, and reveling in the vibrant life that surrounds me during warmer times. Winter precipitation – frozen or liquid – pulls me into contemplation, forcing me to a slower tempo as I watch snowflakes or raindrops fall on brown leaves piled beneath bared branches.
In cold darkness, melodies emerge: the sonorous tones of a barred owl calling its mate, a staccato crash and splash as deer test ice covering the creek, distant howls of hungry coyotes. Winter rhythms slow heartbeats, deepen breathing, center souls.
On this longest night, I will pull warm blankets over my head and dream of swimming in deep oceans, flying soundlessly over frozen moonlit ground, dancing around ancient bonfires, remembering that I need darkness to see the light.
May this winter season bring us all comfort and joy.
Happy Winter Solstice.
I am grateful beyond words for the green world that surrounds me. This morning, just as sunrise colors deepened in silent air, water birds on a beaver-built pond a few hundred yards from my house began to splash and call. One bird I have not yet identified repeated a haunting wail that echoed across the water. It was an exquisite moment, and I am deeply grateful for the privilege of being witness to it.
Between the time I was born and the time I left for college, my family lived in eight different houses in six different cities. From my earliest memories at about age three, one constant held true – the green world. I was lucky enough to be able to seek comfort in a grove of tall pines that sang soft lullabies as they swayed in gentle winds while chipmunks scurried on urgent business among their roots. I played imaginary adventures among the roots of giant white oaks that towered around another home. And I spent countless happy childhood hours riding my bike on dirt tracks that wound through abandoned Piedmont farmland in the process of returning to forest, finding moss-covered creek-side spots ideal for reading the books I always carried and old fields full of persimmon trees with fruits that puckered my mouth until I learned the secret to their sweeter nature – the first hard frost. The green world was my teacher and my safe haven.
I always knew I wanted my adult self to live on land I owned — as much as possible. In 1989 when Wonder Spouse and I found our five acres on a chilly January day with snow still covering parts of what was then a country road, I knew immediately that we were home. The house was adequate; the land was full of promise.
As time sped by and the forests around us gave way to countless cookie-cutter subdivisions, I began to read about nature-deficit disorder, and I saw for myself many school children on tours at the NC Botanical Garden who had zero knowledge of my green world. I’ve met many adults who think soil is dirty – something to be obliterated; all insects are pests to be killed; and just this week, one woman in a nearby subdivision was certain the marbled salamander she had found was poisonous and needed killing.
My heart flip-flops daily between gratitude for my connection to the green world and grief for its annihilation at the hands of plant-blind humans unable to understand they are fouling their home irretrievably, dooming future generations to a world where children will be unable to splash their feet in a clear babbling creek, chase fireflies in sultry summer twilight, or listen to the haunting calls of barred owls hunting in a snow-softened landscape.
I am grateful, because I was lucky enough to be born when the green world in my southeastern Piedmont region was still lush with life. This Thanksgiving, I give thanks for that, and I pray that the children of today and tomorrow will have the chance to find their connections to the green world, because their parents woke up just in time to save it.
The day dawned purple with just a crack of light at the horizon. I see this effect sometimes when rain clouds approach from the west just as the sun begins to push skyward in the east. Past experience has taught me that sometimes such sunrises are spectacular, so I grabbed my camera and stood in the mild air on my back deck to await developments. As I waited, a soft breeze from the west ruffled brown leaves still clinging to trees, killed before they could color by an early hard freeze.
As I had hoped, a hint of pink joined the purple and pale peach painting the backdrop behind trees. A few birds murmured softly, stirred to conversation by rising light.
The crack of light along the horizon widened, leading me to hope perhaps sun would win over promised rain showers. Before I saw it, I heard a deer splash across the creek, then gallop across the dim floodplain.
Brighter pinks began to signal the sun’s approach to the horizon.
Trees bared for winter glowed in firelight colors as the rising sun transformed midnight purples to pale lavenders.
Almost above the horizon, sky fire reflected in creek waters below. Red-winged blackbirds resumed their daily harvesting of tiny seeds from thousands of sweet gum balls dangling from a canopy giant. In dawn’s quiet, I could hear their quiet conversations amid the gentle pitter-patter of seeds landing on dry leaves below, where a flock of mourning doves waited to gobble blackbird-released sweet gum bounty.
About a half hour later, I walked out front for a moment. Bright sun dazzled my eyes as fast-approaching western clouds squeezed sunlight into rays spotlighting my quiet woodland. A flock of robins was back at work in a large southern magnolia, making sure they hadn’t missed any succulent scarlet fruits clinging from cones by silken threads.
High above, a flock of seagulls flew in ragged vee formation heading north on their daily commute. Mostly herring gulls, thousands winter well inland from the coast on a man-made lake a few miles to my southeast. The still-rising sun illuminated their bodies from below, transforming them into silent angels winging to their breakfast grounds — large shopping malls closer to nearby cities, where thoughtless humans litter parking lots with discarded purchases from food courts and restaurants.
Pileated woodpeckers began their morning calls amid vigorous drumming. White-throated sparrows whistled melancholy melodies.
As I stood enjoying songs and soft colors, gentle rain began falling even as the sun still fought for dominance. I heard drops rattling dry leaves before I felt them. Two breaths later, the sun lost its battle as rapidly moving rain clouds overran the eastern horizon.
The early bird may get the worm, but the early riser gains a sunrise saga beautiful beyond words and photos — and a reminder to savor the fleeting moments of constant change.
I know I’m not the only person out there who had a rough summer. Trials and hiccups aplenty came at me for many months. I could not wait for the autumnal equinox in September, thinking the season change would bring relief. Instead, it brought the worst drought experienced by my five acres in twenty or so years. Unrelenting heat and the absence of rain left the creek bordering our property completely dry, except for deeper pools, where great blue herons happily devoured fish trapped therein.
The contrast between this September and last year’s relentless hurricane rain flooding could not have been more stark. Climate change smacked me and my land hard two years running.
Substantial Damage to Our Protected North Slope
In June, the antique septic field associated with our 50-year-old house was replaced with a new one. The devastation to my deer-fence-enclosed north acre full of native rhododendrons, magnolias, viburnums, vacciniums, and shade-loving choice wildflowers threw me into a tailspin of depression. Wonder Spouse and I planted these beauties as tiny things – all we could afford – 20-30 years ago. As previous posts here can attest, they have flourished, blooming more wonderfully every year.
Even though we marked off our botanical treasures with flagging tape, even though Wonder Spouse took off two days of work to oversee the trenching, that once-beautiful area was significantly damaged after he returned to his office and I was away at an appointment. On top of that, we were forced to remove a mature water oak before the work began, because it had early signs of heart rot. We couldn’t risk having the tree topple and rip up the newly installed septic field.
That enclosed acre is on a slope, which is great for siting rhododendrons, but when earth is scraped, then compacted, erosion from rare-but-heavy rains quickly created myriad little gullies. Soil washed from hilltop to hill bottom, depositing more than an inch of silty mud. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried for two weeks, mourning the loss of trees and shrubs ripped away by machines, the much-missed shade of the venerable water oak, and the wildflowers obliterated by careless men oblivious to the vibrant beauty before them.
Eradication of Surrounding Forest by Bulldozers
Most of the areas near us that were forest thirty years ago have either already been erased and replaced with monotonous subdivisions, or that devastation is ongoing as I type. Every day, more displaced wildlife from those areas arrives on our land, as evidenced by what our wildlife camera beside the creek captures weekly. A considerable beaver population has been forced on top of the wetland adjacent to our property. Up to now, they had been content to maintain their growing pond on our neighbor’s land, but yet another new subdivision (housing prices starting in the mid-$600s!) has pushed them to expand their dam so that our bottomland is rapidly going under water.
Ongoing Radical Transformation of Our Two-Acre Floodplain/Wetland
That was the third strike against our floodplain this year. The first came in April when deadly Emerald Ash Borers were confirmed to be invading the 37 mature (70+ feet tall) green ash trees that dominate the canopy in that area. The second came in late summer when a plant I had never seen before that had spread over most of the floodplain finally bloomed and I was able to identify it as a non-native invasive plant from Asia that, I’m told, has already overgrown all the floodplains of the NC coast and is now moving rapidly into my Piedmont region. It is called Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), and it is a nightmare. I never thought I’d type this sentence, but Marsh Dayflower dominance makes me long for the days when Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) was my biggest problem. Strike three – the beavers – are actually using Marsh Dayflower to their advantage. They rip it up, mix it with mud, and pack it between the logs they cut down to build their dams, making the dams even more impervious to the force of moving water than before. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, because when stem segments of Marsh Dayflower are broken, as for example, when ripped up by beavers, every segment grows roots, thereby multiplying this invader even faster.
After two years of epic landscape destruction/alteration, any illusions I ever had about being able to control what happens on my land are entirely dispelled. I always understood that, at best, I was a design collaborator as I tried to work with the native ecosystems on our land. However, the last two years have convinced me that the native ecosystems are almost as ineffectual as I am at managing changes we were never designed to handle. Wholesale eradication of habitats by bulldozers in combination with a growing number of non-native invasive species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria and the overwhelming introduction of herbicides and pesticides killing wildlife by the millions if not billions, are completely disrupting the natural processes native ecosystems evolved to handle change. We can’t keep up. Species are dying at record rates. It is enough to make a lifelong gardener want to surrender – almost.
A month or so ago, I attended a lecture by a pair of enthusiastic master gardeners from an adjacent county. They described how they transformed their half-acre home lot into a flowering paradise, bragging that 50% of the plants they have added are native to the southeastern US. To justify planting 50% non-native plants, they quoted an “expert” gardener who states that “just because a plant is native, that does not make it better… Choose the right plant for the spot, no matter its origin.” In an exercise of enormous self-control, I did not argue with them. It was their talk, their intentions were good, and it was not the appropriate setting to object.
But I do object, and the last two years on my land are ample reason why. In North Carolina, master gardeners are trained by employees of land grant universities, mostly North Carolina State University. These are good folks with good intentions, but they serve the agriculture and horticulture businesses in the state. Their top goal is to help these businesses be successful. One way to do that is to help the horticulture industry sell plants. Pretty non-native ornamental plants not eaten by native wildlife because they don’t recognize them as food make a lot of money for the horticulture industry.
[NOTE: One of the finest agricultural extension agents I know has pointed out to me that when they work with home gardeners, their goal is only to make those home owners successful gardeners, not help the horticulture business sell plants, regardless of origin. I did not mean to imply otherwise; I think that may, however, often be an unintended consequence of not providing an ecological framework for gardeners. As I responded to her, when agents keep pushing old thinking (right plant for right place regardless of origin) about how to approach home landscapes, they are not helping to save native ecosystems. In my conversations with agents and master gardeners from other counties, it is clear that most don’t understand the role of native plants in ecosystems. They categorize natives as “thugs,” for example, if they multiply assertively, without understanding the ecological role of such plants in nature. In my opinion, such non-contextualized statements do more harm than good. ]
Fifty years ago, this may not have been a terrible thing. But oh how much our world has changed here in North Carolina in the last 50 years. Expanses of forests and fields that once provided buffers and havens for native wildlife and plants are nearly gone in much of the state. Wildlife species are disappearing. Pollinators are dying from poisons; the birds that eat them are also disappearing. Humans need those ecosystems to moderate air pollution, control erosion, pollinate and protect our crops, etc.
We also have hard data from scientists now that demonstrate that landscapes must contain 70% native plant species to adequately feed nests of baby songbirds. That’s seventy percent, not fifty.
This is not a Drill!
We need every patch of native plants we can introduce on public and private lands not covered by concrete and buildings. We no longer can afford the luxury of filling our landscapes with non-native plants that provide no ecosystem services. We can no longer indulge in 50-year-old thinking. This is not a drill, people. Native plants are our only hope of saving what’s left of our native ecosystems, especially the rapidly disappearing wildlife species.
Only a radical shift in the way we think about our public and private landscapes will serve the future now. It is past time to discard old thinking and focus on saving as much as we can. I pray every day it is not already too late. And I’m not just sitting at my computer wringing my hands in frustration. After my initial depression dissipated, I got busy. With the help of Wonder Spouse and my amazing garden helper, Beth, we have planted many new species and introduced existing natives to new sites opened up by the uninvited changes to our land. Our land had a tough summer and a hard fall, but I’m determined to do everything within my power to make next spring a much better season. I’ll describe some of what we’ve been doing in another post I hope to write soon.
In the meantime, if you care about the future of our planet, especially the rapidly urbanizing area of the southeastern US where I and most of my readers live, if you have children and/or grandchildren, I beg you to empty your brain of the old ways of tending your landscape and join me in the radical changes required to salvage as much as we can of our native ecosystems. It will be different, but more beautiful than ever. Most important, it just might help us all hold on to a healthy, balanced, vibrant world – a fitting legacy for those who follow us.
My friend, Leila, died four weeks ago after battling stage four cancer for over seven years. It still seems impossible that she finally succumbed to the disease, so valiantly did she fight, her spirit rarely flagging. She was an extraordinary person, and I will not soon forget her, especially since she entrusted me and Wonder Spouse with her most beloved companion – her 8.5-year-old Japanese Bobtail cat, Rose. Rose has brought big changes to our household, which had been without pets for about a decade, when the last of our very senior cats and dogs finally died.
Change has been the theme of the spring season that ends today. In addition to losing Leila and gaining Rose, the non-native invasive Emerald Ash Borer has found the stand of canopy-sized ash trees currently shading our floodplain. I have been mentally steeling myself for this moment for several years, and we’re implementing a number of strategies to ameliorate the inevitable transformation wrought by the demise of these forest giants. The imminent loss still stings.
On the other side of our house, the nearly 50-year old septic field that has served us for 30 years was pronounced by experts to be failing. A new system will be installed next week, necessitating the disruption of our deer-fence-enclosed north acre that shelters many cherished native magnolias, rhododendrons, viburnums, etc. That work required the preemptive removal of a massive water oak that presided over part of that acre. It was showing early signs of heart rot, and if it fell, the root ball would have destroyed a good portion of the new septic field. Thus, yet another great friend was lost to us.
Despite spring flowers and a growing influx of vegetables from the garden, this spring has brought much darkness as the losses continued to mount. I find myself unable to stomach what passes for news these days – darkness and more darkness.
Even the once-reliable turning of the astronomical seasonal clock feels broken as human-induced climate change roils weather patterns and rampant pollution blackens the blue-green jewel upon which all life on Earth relies. Temperature and rainfall patterns grow increasingly unpredictable. Plants and animals that evolved with those patterns are disappearing, unable to adapt to human-made planetary chaos.
As I thought about all this yesterday while pulling what felt like an endless number of invasive plants from a neglected bed, I remembered the light. That’s what our solstices and equinoxes are really about after all. Yes, those changes in the balance between dark and light once correlated neatly with seasonal changes that are no longer reliable, but the dance between dark and light has not changed, because that underlying rhythm is something humanity cannot easily damage. That heartbeat of light is the truth I choose to hold on to amidst the threat of darkening chaos.
No matter what humanity does to itself and the other inhabitants of Earth, it cannot alter that fundamental dance of dark and light. Both are required to keep Life moving, and just as Winter’s darkness cedes inevitably to Summer’s light, it is my hope that this personal moment of darkness will eventually brighten. I remind myself of that as I stand in Summer sun watching busy pollinators dash from coneflower to blanket flower to Stoke’s aster to Joe Pye Weed and on and on. I remind myself of that as I enjoy lightly steamed pole beans fresh-picked from the garden.
I remind myself that Leila knew about the light from the rigorous training she underwent to become a Buddhist nun, depriving herself of sleep and food until perpetual meditation brought her to a place most of us don’t see until we’ve left this mortal coil. The knowledge of that light never left her, and I know beyond doubt that she revels in it now.
May the light embrace us all. Happy Summer Solstice!
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.
Those of you who have read this blog for a while may remember when I first wrote about the invasive non-native insect called Emerald Ash Borer here. This insect species is killing almost (maybe all) ash tree species in North America — no joke. It started in areas like Canada and Michigan, and has been marching steadily southward ever since. Its occurrence is widespread in North Carolina. Dr. Kelly Oten, Forest Health Monitoring Coordinator for the North Carolina Forest Service, told me that confirmed sitings are reported for every county around me. The closest infestation she knows of is about 10 miles north of my five acres.
I had read about an experimental program Dr. Oten’s office is using to combat the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) — the release of a parasitic wasp species native to the same part of Asia where EAB evolved. I believe the wasps used in NC parasitize EAB eggs by laying their own eggs inside EAB eggs. A couple of wasp species that parasitize EAB larvae also exist, as described in a US Forest Service publication on EAB biocontrols here.
I assumed that my little five-acre patch of Piedmont would be too small for this experimental wasp release program, but a forester friend of mine encouraged me to give Dr. Oten a call, so I did. I was delighted to discover that Dr. Oten was interested in the stand of 37 mature Green Ash trees growing on the floodplain portion of my land. However, she cannot release wasps unless she is certain the EAB is present on my land, because the wasps will die without a food source.
I have seen no evidence of EAB damage in my ashes <knock wood>, such as crown dieback and a yellowing of leaves (Here’s a link to a PDF from the Canadian Forest Service containing everything you need to know about detecting EAB damage.), so Dr. Oten suggested that we set up a couple of EAB traps at the appropriate time. That time is early April, because that’s when EAB egg-laying occurs, and it is EAB eggs that the experimental wasps look for to parasitize.
On the morning of April 11, Dr. Oten arrived with two traps to hang on a couple of my ash trees. The traps are shipped flat in pairs that are stuck together by the sticky fly-paper like glue used to snag passing EABs. In the above photo, she has successfully pulled the two purple traps apart and has begun to fold the one she is holding so that the sticky glue is on the outside of the three-sided trap. The traps are purple, she told me, because research shows this color attracts EABs most effectively, perhaps, it is theorized, because young ash leaves often possess a purplish hue.
Besides the EAB-preferred purple color, traps also contain a bag of scent lure that is hung inside the trap. Dr. Oten is holding one of those bags in the above photo (click on any photo to see a larger version). The scent emulates the smell of an ash tree in distress. Many studies have confirmed that plants engage in sophisticated chemical warfare with their insect enemies. In many plants, when a plant is under attack, it emits a scent signifying its distress, which in turn stimulates nearby plants of the same species to begin producing chemicals that may help them repel invading insects. This doesn’t work for the ash trees with EAB, because North American ash trees did not evolve with this insect; thus, they have not developed any defenses against EAB attacks.
After she attached lure bags to the center of the EAB traps, Dr. Oten used the long extension pole in the photo to attach the traps to sturdy horizontal branches on two ash trees at opposite ends of my floodplain. This turned out to be trickier than you might think, because my canopy-size ash trees don’t possess many horizontal branches within reach of the pole. Dr. Oten’s first attempt to hang the trap was unsuccessful; the sticky trap fell into a stand of bladdernut shrubs, thus becoming adorned with bits of bladdernut leaves and flowers. Her second attempt with a different tree was successful.
In the second photo above, you can see bits of bladdernut leaf and flower stuck to the trap. Dr. Oten said this will not interfere with the trap’s effectiveness in luring EABs.
Next, we slogged through the mud to the far side of my floodplain, where Dr. Oten selected a second ash tree suitable for trap-hanging. This operation went more smoothly than the first, and the trap was soon hung.
Dr. Oten explained that EABs are actively flying and egg-laying in my area from early April until about June. She plans to return to my floodplain in about four weeks to inspect the traps for EABs. If she doesn’t see any, she will add fresh lure bags and return in another four weeks. If no EABs are found on the traps during that time period, it is less likely — but not impossible — that EABs have found my ash trees — yet. If she does find EABs stuck to the sticky glue on the purple traps, she will release parasitic wasps into that area.
Note that the wasps are not expected to stop the demise of my ash trees. My understanding is that the introduction of the wasps is part of a long-game biocontrol strategy that may, perhaps decades from now, yield benefits. It is an entomological shot in the dark, as it were.
For me, helping with this experiment is far better than the two alternatives available:
- Doing nothing but watch the ashes decline as the woodpeckers feast on their dying remains full of EAB larvae, leaving behind a floodplain almost fully devoid of its canopy tree cover.
- Having an arborist inject systemic poisons into the trees. Besides the exorbitant expense (37 60-70-foot tall ash trees), the poisons kill any insect that takes a bite out of treated trees. In his classic book, Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy notes the number of different insect species that rely on native trees for food. For ash species, his number is 150; that’s 150 different insect species that rely on ash trees as a food source. So if you poison your ash trees to prevent EAB invasion, you will also potentially poison at least 150 native species of insects that rely on ash trees. Further, those now-dead insects — mostly caterpillars — would have fed myriad species of nesting songbirds, which also will likely now die from starvation.
You cannot break one link in the chain of life without affecting every other link. I pray every day that humanity figures this out — and acts on that knowledge — before so many links are broken that the chain cannot be mended.
Even before January’s temperatures began to ease out of the deep freeze, the early bloomers in my yard were making tentative moves toward bud opening. As is always the case, the ornamental flowering apricots (Prunus mume) were the first to plump up their buds with color. By mid-January, all three trees were scenting winter air with the perfume of precocious flowers. My neighbor’s honeybees visit these blooms on any non-windy day that reaches 55-60 degrees. It makes my heart happy to see them eagerly gathering pollen.
The first apricot cultivar to bloom has lovely pale pink flowers and a sweet, gentle scent. I have forgotten its name, so I call it Pinky. Most of Pinky’s flowers were fully open by mid-January. A deep freeze turned those flowers brown, but a few dozen buds had not yet unfurled; they are doing so now.
The native witch hazel cultivar I grow has been pushing out occasional flowers since mid-January, but the recent warm spell has encouraged it to go for broke. Lovely magenta strappy petals dangle from bare branches. On warmer days, their clean fragrance is perceptible from several feet away. Eventually, this small tree/large shrub should attain a height of 10-12 feet and become almost as wide. I am so ready for that!
I also grow a hybrid witch hazel that is just beginning to push out its eye-catching flowers. Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ flowers glow like a favorite sunset. When it attains its mature size, I expect to be able to see its blooms from across the yard.
A few years ago, we added two Cornelian Cherry Dogwoods (Cornus mas). These non-native small trees have just begun their typical early blooming period. Flowers adorn every branch in multiple places, and when they are all open, the small trees are visible from quite a distance. Their common name comes from the red fruits they produce, which are beloved by wildlife, and the main reason I added them. However, mine have not yet produced any fruit. Fingers crossed that this is the year it happens.
I grow Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica) for its spectacular bark and breath-taking fall color. This non-native member of the witch hazel family blooms copiously but inconspicuously this time of year. Its small maroon flowers are just beginning to emerge from their buds.
Abundant clusters of daffodils are popping up everywhere, their buds visible, but none is showing color yet. The Lenten roses, however, are full of fat, very pink buds, and deserve a February nod.
Finally, I can’t close this piece on early February blooms without acknowledging the abundant tiny flowers that decorate what passes for a lawn in our yard. I saw a few blooming violets earlier, but didn’t see any today. However, the “winter weeds” called Speedwell and Henbit did pose for me. They are pretty and hold the soil; that’s good enough reason for me to let them bloom in peace.
Winter will almost certainly make its presence felt a few more times before spring wins out, but these blooms, along with the faint scarlet hue of maple flowers in the canopy and the freshly risen spring greens seedlings in my greenhouse are sure signs of a an imminent new growing season. Oh happy day!
My spouse has been a proud federal employee for many years. No one works harder at his job. When he left his private-sector job for a federal position, his previous employer replaced him with three, count ’em, three employees, because that’s how many it took to do what he had been doing. When he is being paid, he is compensated for 40 hours/week, but he never puts in less than 60 hours/week, often more. His drive and energy are phenomenal, and many folks half his age have trouble keeping up with him.
Now try to imagine what it does to such a driven, dedicated man to be told he is furloughed for absolutely no reason, except that politicians refuse to get past their egos. Imagine how he feels to be told that he must turn off the government-owned electronic devices he uses to do his work, and that if he turns them on while being furloughed, he will be breaking the law and can be prosecuted for the transgression.
Imagine trying to find a constructive channel for all that frustrated drive and energy. Wonder Spouse decided to use some of it one day last week to build a wall. I call it the Furlough Wall — irony intentional.
This is a spot beside our house where we have been planning to build a flower bed for about 20 years. It was a low priority, because the slope of the area required that the bed be contained by one of the dry-stacked stone walls that Wonder Spouse builds for such areas. And, frankly, he hasn’t had time in the last 20 years to get around to it.
But time is all he’s got these days, so one day last week, he decided to build the Furlough Wall. I helped him load the stones onto the tractor cart. After we got it to the spot, my job was to brush off every stone and lay them on the ground, so that Wonder Spouse could survey his options. This three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle was a fun challenge for a guy who automatically builds maps in his head as he moves about the world; spatial geometry is one of his knacks.
We were both tuckered by the time he was done, and now I must wait for the next January thaw before I can finish filling the bed with aged compost from an old pile. But, after a 20-year wait, the bed will be ready for plants soon.
When the cold weather arrived, Wonder Spouse turned to writing and calling his congressional representatives. Their responses, as you might expect, have been nothing but political double-talk. Do they not see the heart-breaking stories about furloughed federal employees unable to support their families? Are they not worrying how long unpaid federal prison guards and TSA employees, forced to work as slaves without compensation, will be able or willing to protect the public from harm?
Wonder Spouse and I are using money saved for house-maintenance projects to pay our bills; we count ourselves blessed to have that option. A continuing problem is finding ways for Wonder Spouse to put his drive and energy to productive uses.
We still have some stones left. If this madness continues, I see more Furlough Walls in our future.
This April, Wonder Spouse and I will have lived on the same beloved five acres for 30 years. When we arrived in 1989, the previous owner had landscaped the property like a park. Naturally occurring large canopy trees were underlain by a carpet of grass. The only understory trees were dogwoods; the only shrubs, Asian evergreen azaleas and forsythias.
We set to work slowly adding in the layers of a Piedmont forest that should have been there. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate the grass entirely, and in parts of the yard, the many happy shrubs and understory trees have done a fine job of shading out the grass. As we’ve added native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers, exploiting the many microhabitats on the property, native wildlife has responded with enthusiasm. We now share our lush, green (during the growing season) paradise with a diverse array of birds, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and mammals. This is our happy place, our sanctuary, our haven from human-wrought chaos in the world.
Because about two acres of our property is an active floodplain, terraforming floods have been part of life here. Transformation was always active, but last September, the floods were different. Hurricane Florence dropped over ten inches of rain on us — an amount we had never seen before. Her rains were followed by much, much more rain, resulting in a record rainfall year for my area. Excessive precipitation has continued; our floodplain area has been permanently altered by a transformation so stark that — if I could subtract the water — I might imagine myself treading the surface of Mars.
I was already preparing myself for big changes on the floodplain. This is likely the year that non-native Emerald Ash Borers will find and destroy the stand of 37 canopy-size Green Ash trees that currently occupy those acres. I was imagining the area might come to be more dominated by the wetland wildflowers that have always occupied one edge of the floodplain. Now I wonder if any of those wildflowers will even manage to survive. This is what that area looked like early last summer:
This is what that same area looked like on New Year’s Day of 2019:
The entire wildflower area had been buried by many inches of sand and silt deposited by repeated flood events.
Here’s what one of my favorite spots in that area looked like last May:
And this is what it looked like on New Year’s Day:
I thought I was comfortable with the dynamic nature of our property; I embraced the changes, rolled with Nature’s whims, celebrated the plants and animals that adapted and changed over time. But this — this has been a test of my resiliency, and of the occupants with whom I share this space.
I’ve generally found it helpful that my birthday is in early January. Turning another year older just after the calendar turns magnifies that whole new-year vibe. To put it in the vernacular, transformation slaps me up the side of the head every January. This new year, transformation feels more like a punch to the gut, but I am coming to terms with it.
Any illusions I had about being the overseer of my landscape have been permanently cast aside. Like the fish flopping in receding flood waters, I was gasping for air for a while there. But as I watched those fish being gobbled up by patrolling great blue herons and a gang of garrulous crows, I realized that Nature has always been in charge.
I will still grow vegetables at the top of the hill, where floodwaters never reach — if they don’t drown in rainfall. But otherwise, I think this year will be my Year of Watching. I will walk our land often, looking for clues about who is still here, what is thriving, what has disappeared. I will listen to the rattle of kingfishers as they celebrate the expanded wetland. I will watch and wait and ponder what time and transformation have in store for me.
A note for those living near Chapel Hill, NC:
I’ll be teaching a class on nature writing this spring at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Follow this link for details.