Wonder Spouse and I don’t live in a suburb. Thirty-one years ago, we found five acres on what was then a country road. Now that once-quiet road roars with traffic twenty-four hours a day. Dozens of new subdivisions connect to it; multiple schools were erected nearby; even a fire station is now staffed 24/7, so trucks and ambulances, sirens blaring, pass by at all hours.
Our five acres are a haven of peace amidst the ever-growing chaos, especially because a growing beaver-built wetland adjoins our land on two sides. Wildlife abounds because of the wetland, and because we’ve spent 31 years planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers well-adapted to our land. My brain explodes at the mere thought of trying to count every native species now living nearby or on our land, and that’s a good thing.
One of the ways I know our efforts to build suitable habitats have been successful is by the creatures that visit. Most species that nest in my region nest near or on our land. Waterfowl overwinter in growing numbers in the wetland, and migrating birds stop by in spring and fall to refuel before heading off to complete their journeys.
This spring has been exceptional most notably for the prolonged visits of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. Today makes the nineteenth day in a row that male and female birds of this species have visited our feeders and foraged in our trees and shrubs. These visitors are much more shy than the year-round birds that routinely scold me if I let their feeders go empty. I had been unable to get any photographs of them, so I asked Wonder Spouse to get out his long lens and tripod to capture these beautiful visitors. Yesterday, he set up his camera indoors in front of the window with the best view of the feeders. He got a number of decent shots, but unsatisfied, he eventually took his apparatus outdoors to try for shots unobstructed by a pane of glass. The grosbeaks did not visit the feeders in the same numbers or with the same frequency, but he did get some very nice photos I’m sharing in this post.
While he was outside, Wonder Spouse couldn’t resist photographing some of the abundant blooms currently open these days. I especially wanted him to shoot the Tangerine Beauty Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata ‘Tangerine Beauty’) growing on a sizable loblolly pine and blooming ten feet above my head where my camera couldn’t do it justice. He also couldn’t resist the abundant and colorful water-loving irises blooming on our increasingly wet floodplain. Most of them are Louisiana iris varieties; a few other water-loving types are also blooming happily in the muddy water. I’ve lost track of the variety names of the irises, but who cares? Their vibrant, colorful presence is all I need.
Without further explanation, here are some of the photos taken by Wonder Spouse yesterday. I think we can all agree that his many talents include strikingly beautiful photography. Remember you can click on any photo to see a larger version of it, and that doing so will reveal captions that identify most photos. Enjoy.
Birds Visiting Our Feeders
A Few Blooms
Cool weather in my part of central North Carolina has been uncharacteristically prolonged this spring. Blooms on our native deciduous azaleas and magnolias have lasted weeks instead of days, as did the spring ephemeral wildflowers like bloodroot. The spring vegetable garden has also benefitted from the cool weather. I do mean cool. Just last week, our morning low dipped down to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and low-to-mid 40s have frequently occurred.
Consequently, the summer vegetables I started from seeds at the usual time — mid-March — have been impatiently growing taller within my greenhouse for quite some time. I tried to wait until nighttime lows looked like they would remain in the 50-degree range, but this past week I finally had to plant my summer vegetable/herb/flower charges before I could promise them fully settled weather. They are in no danger of being killed by a freeze — I’m 99% certain of that — but I’ve read of studies that show fruit production of tomatoes is reduced for the lifetime of the plant if they are exposed to temperatures below 50 degrees. However, I’m fortunate; fewer tomatoes won’t impact my household one way or the other; keeping towering tomatoes in the greenhouse, on the other hand, could have risked our entire crop.
As I planted out the summer vegetables, herbs, and flowers this past week, I pondered why it is I feel compelled to do this every year. I have decided the drive lurks within my DNA. Almost all my ancestors on both sides arrived in North America before the United States was born; most clear-cut forest and planted crops for food and profit. Their lives revolved around seasonal cycles, plant productivity, and insect and warm-blooded varmints trying to eat their livelihoods.
As I dig planting holes in beds I’ve been enriching with compost for three decades, I feel the hands of my grandmothers and grandfathers guiding mine. Food-growing is my connection to my lineage and to the land that shares its bounty with me. The sweat and sore muscles I accrue in the process seem a fair trade for what I am given in return.
I took all these photos yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, I finally transplanted the last few flowers I’d started in the greenhouse. Except for sweet potato slips, which don’t arrive or get planted until the end of May, the vegetable garden is planted.
Our Spring Vegetable Garden
I don’t grow carrots anymore. I never thin them adequately, and most years temperatures get too hot for them before they make much progress. Fortunately, many local organic farmers sell theirs at local markets, so we are always well-supplied. I hadn’t tried peas for years for the same reason, but something told me this year would be different. I started the peas in the greenhouse, because seed germination in cold, wet soil can be unpredictable. As soon as the pea sprouts had two sets of leaves, I transplanted them beside their trellis in the garden. Thanks to the cool spring, I see an excellent pea crop in our future — maybe even enough to freeze some for winter soups!
Wonder Spouse and I love beets. I grow two varieties — Red Ace and Detroit Red. Both make delicious greens that I’ve been popping into our salads for some time. Meanwhile, their delicious bulbs grow fatter in the cool spring weather. I only grew one lettuce variety, because it is so easy to buy organic lettuce from local farmers in my area. The variety I tried this year is New Red Fire; it is wonderfully tasty. Our unfinished basement makes a great root cellar, so we grow onions and potatoes that we store after harvest. Wonder Spouse likes mild, sweet Red Candy onions; I grow them from small bundled plant starts. Mr. Potato Head (aka Wonder Spouse) grows his potatoes in five large grow bags to thwart destructive voles. I know he’s growing two varieties this year, but I don’t remember the names at the moment.
Our Summer Vegetable Garden
This season I exhibited great self-control and only grew/planted three tomato varieties. Sweet Treats will always be our cherry tomato of choice. Picus has become our favorite plum/paste tomato. This year’s experiment with a medium slicing tomato is Rugged Boy. Only Sweet Treats is indeterminate, meaning it keeps growing longer all season. In theory, the other two determinate tomatoes should stop growing taller about mid-season and focus entirely on fruit production. I’ve noticed, however, that in my garden sometimes the determinate tomatoes forget themselves and grow nearly as much as the indeterminate forms. I tie them to either side of a 7-foot-tall trellis. By the end of the season, Wonder Spouse uses a stool to reach the fruits growing beyond my reach (even with the stool).
Peppers are a sweet Italian form, a variant of the traditional Bull’s Horn type that produces fruit half the size of their ancestor — a good thing for us — Bull’s Horn peppers are quite large. We grow a red one (Cornito Rosso) and a yellow one (Cornito Giallo). Because of their high vitamin C content, peppers freeze very well. Their colorful zing adds zip to Wonder Spouse’s culinary masterpieces all winter long.
I’ve had multiple years of success with a Japanese eggplant variety called Millionaire. It has shrugged off flea beetle damage and heat waves to remain productive until hard frost. We have become addicted to having a steady-but-not-overwhelming supply of these fruits all summer long.
I always grow a couple of zucchini plants I start from seed in the greenhouse. When I transplant them out, I cover them in a Reemay tent until they begin to bloom, so they can grow vigorous before I must expose them to the bug varmints of summer. I wrote about my method in detail long ago here. We like a variety called Raven. Its rich, dark fruits contain much antioxidant goodness and excellent flavor.
Because soil temperatures remained cold for so long, I only sowed my summer beans a week ago. After a recent copious rain, seedlings are emerging. Our pole bean of choice is Fortex; no other comes close for flavor and productivity. We love Jade bush beans for the same reason. I’ve taken to growing both on a trellis, allotting half to each variety. I find it is much easier to keep the bush beans upright and productive when I can lean or attach them to a trellis.
I’ve grown borage (Borago officinalis), an annual herb, off and on for years. I love the vivid blue of its flowers, and it is a pollinator magnet. I’ve never used it for its purported medicinal properties, but in researching it today, I learned that “the flowers, candied and made into a conserve, were deemed useful for persons weakened by long sickness.” Perhaps more of us should be growing borage this year to aid those recovering from world-wide sickness.
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.
I am a self-described crazy old plant lady. I am not ashamed of it. I’m not proud of it. It is simply who I am.
My connection to the Green World began when I was very small. That world has been my through-line, the ever-present song in my heart and story in my head that prevented me from tumbling down the dark well of despair more times than I can count or remember.
I am grateful beyond words for the privilege of being able to live on the same piece of land for over 30 years. This is my forever happy place. Years ago when I worked a desk job in an airless office building, I stayed sane by mentally walking around my yard, admiring a current bloomer, or reminding myself that the tomatoes would need picking when I got home. Every bit of effort I have expended on my land has been returned in beauty and story a million-fold.
I start most week days standing outside after Wonder Spouse drives off to his airless office. I listen and smell and watch for the current stories unfolding around me as an ever-increasing parade of vehicles zooms down our once-quiet country road. That traffic noise today was not enough to prevent me from hearing frogs chorusing in the adjacent wetland. Spring peeper songs have grown loud of late, thanks to absurdly warm nighttime and daytime temperatures. A small flock of cedar waxwings, their distinctive whistling calls revealing their presence in a large southern magnolia, flew off when I greeted them; their tight flock formations always remind me of schooling fish.
As I stood watching the waxwings, thousands upon thousands of seagulls that winter on a nearby reservoir flew overhead in ragged vee formations for over five minutes. They scavenge county dumps for food by day and shelter on the lake at night until their internal clocks tell them it is time to return to their coastal summer homes. Today, low clouds that will bring rain by noon – I can smell it in the air – caused the seagulls to fly low enough that I could actually hear them calling to each other, conjuring a memory of the smell and taste of the sea.
The pair of pileated woodpeckers nesting in a sycamore just on the other side of my creek called to each other loudly. They are mostly quiet these days, but when it is time to trade places on the nest, the returning parent calls to the other; the nesting parent replies immediately, sounding to my story-prone mind impatient to go off duty. Woodpecker species are early nesters. They, like the pair of barred owls calling to each other every late afternoon, are supposed to be in reproductive mode in late winter.
Red-shouldered hawks are also early-season nesters. I’ve lately spotted the pair that shares our land with us often sitting in a tall walnut beside my house, and today I was showed why. I stayed out so long watching seagulls and listening to frogs that they grew impatient with me. One flew right over my head calling, I think perhaps as a diversion, because shortly thereafter its mate flew soundlessly overhead beyond the walnut to a small group of towering loblolly pines, a long thin branch dangling from its sharp beak – nesting material! Not long after, the hawk that spoke to me also flew overhead. It stopped briefly in the walnut, I think to see if I was watching. When I pretended to be interested in something else, it joined its mate.
This location will be a tough one to observe – lots of camouflage to obscure their activities. But once over a decade ago, a pair nested just across the creek in a winter-bare sweet gum. Our elevated back deck gave us a perfect vantage point until the trees leafed out, and Wonder Spouse got some lovely photos of still-fuzzy nestlings as they began to move about and stretch their wings.
Strong, possibly dangerous storms are predicted for tomorrow, along with multiple inches of heavy rain. I thus decided to take advantage of this last bit of quiet before the storms to walk around the yard this morning with my camera. As is true for all of my region, many flowers are blooming weeks ahead of schedule. This early in February, a killing freeze is almost inevitable.
So today I walk, inhaling moisture-laden air perfumed by the fragrance of precocious flowers, grateful for my connection to this land and the time I have to appreciate it.
Winter cold finally arrived in my area about three days ago — highs in the upper 30s-low 40s, lows in the low 20s, and a wind chill that hurt skin accustomed to the weather of the previous four weeks, when nighttime temperatures rarely dropped into the upper 30s, and daytime temperatures stayed in the upper 60s and low 70s. During the 60+ years I’ve lived in North Carolina, an occasional winter warm weather interlude has not been unusual, but I can’t recall an entire month of such weather from mid-December to mid-January.
Such a prolonged warm spell caused many plants in my yard to break dormancy far earlier than normal — by at least six weeks. Many birds began displaying signs of territorial behavior as mating instincts awakened. Bluebirds burbled to each other as they discussed the merits of nesting box options. Insects were everywhere, as were the frogs, snakes, and lizards that eat them. It all felt very wrong.
The day before winter cold finally arrived here, I walked around the yard and took a few photos. Now that ice covers the abundant shallow water in channels on the floodplain, I suspect my late winter bloomers that opened four weeks early are probably now brown. I haven’t looked yet; that wind chill is mean. To remind myself of their loveliness, I include a few shots here, along with photos more typical of winter vegetation.
January jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) usually starts blooming in February, a few blooms at a time until March approaches. Many folks confuse them with forsythia, but a close examination makes the differences abundantly clear.
A native late winter bloomer, Hamamelis vernalis, is usually only showing a few petals by now. But the warmth caused the cultivar I grow to open more fully, scenting the air with a light, clean perfume that I always associate with spring cleaning.
An array of winter buds, remnant leaves, and bright moss lush from winter rains also caught my eye.
Late on the afternoon I took these shots, I was on my back deck when I noticed an insect on a window. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I realized it was a Green Lacewing adult, much smaller than the ones I routinely see in my garden during the growing season. It saddened me to know that this delicate-looking beneficial insect would certainly perish soon. If the freeze didn’t kill it, the absence of food certainly would.
I’ve been thinking about that word, resolution. This time of year, it gets used a lot as many make lists of what they will do better, or perhaps leave behind. The word has strong connotations: The heroine resolved that she would not let Darkness prevail. That usage implies determination, strength of character, guts.
But the word has other connotations. For example, a blurry image can resolve into clarity. A medical condition can resolve into health. This usage almost implies metamorphosis: A caterpillar resolves into a butterfly.
I’m wondering on this New Year’s Day if we can combine these two connotations into one. Can we determine to bring clarity and healing to our world – resolve to work for resolution? That’s my ambitious prayer for the new decade.
I think we all need to pick our spots, planting our flags, as it were, on the condition/situation/conflict that stirs us most deeply. No more hand-wringing angst. It’s time to walk our talk. This is the year to declare out loud what we are fighting for, and then do all we can to fight for it.
Like most folks, I care about and support an array of causes, but as any of you who read this blog know, my deepest commitment is to the Green World. As I pray daily for the resolution of the precipitous decline in the health of our mother planet, I will be acting locally to try to resolve the vitality of my home ecosystems, and to provide relevant information to my readers.
With the help of Wonder Spouse and an indispensable garden helper, I will continue to work to heal the five acres of land I’ve lived on for over 30 years. As I plant, weed, and mulch, ever watching for non-native invasive species trying to disrupt the harmony of our intentions, I pray that others are doing likewise on their home ecosystems.
I recognize that ecological imbalances are driven by geopolitical/societal imbalances. Every facet of the health of our planet entirely depends on the actions taken by humanity in this new decade. I hope all my readers will resolve to work for resolution of the ills plaguing our blue-green orb. Raise your voices, use your votes, envision Earth’s resolution.
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.