Posts Tagged floodplain

Time and Transformation

Witchhazel ‘Amethyst’ blooming on New Year’s Day

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

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

Flood on November 13, 2018

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

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

Wetland wildflowers June 2018

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

Same area New Year’s Day 2019

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

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

Atamasco lilies and cinnamon ferns

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

Buried wildflower area, January 1, 2019

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

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

My birthday gift from Wonder Spouse — a wildlife camera

Early morning deer captured by the wildlife camera

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

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

Floodplain sunrise, January 7, 2019

A note for those living near Chapel Hill, NC:

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



Holiday Flood 2015

About 1:00 p.m. Dec. 23

About 1:00 p.m. Dec. 23

That green patch on the left side of this photo? That’s an earthen bridge over a low spot. We use it to get the tractor onto the floodplain — during drier times, obviously. Yesterday, raging creek waters overflowed, cutting it off on both sides, cascading in roaring torrents, filling the air with a dank, heaviness that made it hard to breathe.

I walked just to the edge of the floodplain after the rains stopped for a different view.

I walked just to the edge of the floodplain after the rains stopped for a different view.

Today our temperatures are predicted to rise into the high 70s. This morning I stepped outside to take a few “after” shots. Birds are flying about trying to make sense of the altered landscape. A chorus of spring peepers is being tentatively joined by the calls of a few Southern Leopard Frogs. “Spring already?” they inquire.

Muddy water everywhere.

Muddy water everywhere.

I am fortunate in my little corner of southern piedmont. My house sits above this chaotic scene, so I remained safe and dry as raging waters claimed the eastern and southern sides of my five-acre yard. But what a lesson on the power of water.

What follows are a few “during” and “after” shots. I shot the “during” photos from my back deck while holding an umbrella. These were taken about noon yesterday. I took the “after” shots about an hour ago, also from the deck. I attempted to use the same angles as much as I could, so you can clearly see the transformations. Click on the side-by-side photos to see their captions.

A co-worker of Wonder Spouse saw a crayfish scuttling across their office parking lot yesterday. No doubt it was fleeing the rapidly rising waters of a nearby creek. I hope the wildlife that lived in my wetland made it to higher ground in time. Usually after a flood like this, crows and great blue herons patrol the muddy floodplain, devouring any creature unable to dodge the disaster. I can hear the crows talking outside my window as I type this. I suspect they are waiting for the creek to return fully to its channel before they venture onto the mud.

Where do the frogs hide when floods rage?

Where do the frogs hide when floods rage?

I know that I won’t be venturing out there for several days. Right now, the floodplain is quicksand. It will eat your boots and leave you scrambling for a way to pull yourself out. I’ll be waiting for the sun and drier days before I head out for a closer look. A line of thunderstorms is predicted to pass through here later today, and no real promise of full sun for at least a week.

Until then, I’ll watch from my windows as lichens covering¬†branches grow lush, waiting for mud’s domination to recede with the creek waters.


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Winter’s Last Laugh (We hope!)

We were very lucky on our five-acre patch of piedmont last week. Over the course of about 36 hours, our gauge measured a total of 2.90 inches of rain. And at our house, it was almost all rain, instead of the freezing rain that plagued our neighbors no more than half a mile on either side of us. Although it’d be comforting to believe that Divine Intervention saved us from the ice, I think it was actually a microclimate that protected our trees from bending and breaking, as so many trees did in my area.

We live beside a wetland — at the moment, a very wet wetland — at the base of two ridges and adjacent to a creek. All that surrounding water had been warmed just the day before by balmy sunshine, and I think that warmed water was just enough to prevent the ambient air temperature from dropping low enough to make the rain freeze on the trees. Neighbors not far from me lost power due to fallen trees on power lines, and folks just north of me in the next county were hammered hard. Some still don’t have their power back, and schools remained closed today. They’re continuing to clean up the hundreds of trees pulled down by the ice, so that they can restore electricity to everyone.

As I heard the reports of nearby icy chaos, I began to feel downright grateful as the rain continued to fall, and my floodplain experienced what I would describe as a flood worthy of making our top 5 all-time deluges in the 25 years we’ve lived here. Of course, I attempted to record the event.

By last Friday morning, we’d already received over half an inch of rain. A few hours after sunrise as the rain continued unabated, the creek began sending out watery pseudopods across parts of the floodplain.

Water began to escape the creek boundaries.

Water began to escape the creek boundaries.

By mid-afternoon, as the rain continued — sometimes heavy, sometimes less so — the floodwaters stretched completely across the floodplain and as far as my eyes could see on that side. Lake-front property, if only for a few hours. This shot was taken at about the same angle, so you can appreciate the differences:

Water, water everywhere...

Water, water everywhere…

The birds sat soggy on branches, looking befuddled after they had emptied the feeders.

What's a cardinal to do?

What’s a cardinal to do?

The red-shouldered hawk sat nearby glowering at the water, no doubt frustrated that its hunting grounds had disappeared.

No meals in sight.

No meals in sight.

Before nightfall on Friday, the sun actually peaked out as it began sinking below the western horizon. The water had already begun to recede a bit.

This western sunlight glints on the waters beginning to retreat.

Western sunlight glints on the waters beginning to retreat.

Saturday dawned clear and remarkably warmer. The floodplain was visible again, but covered by newly cut channels, debris piles, and many, many puddles of ugly brown water.

Saturday morning and the creek is back where it belongs -- mostly.

Saturday morning and the creek is back where it belongs — mostly.

Wonder Spouse and I didn’t even try to survey the mess on Saturday. We’ve learned the hard way that it takes another 24 hours or so for the water to drain enough for safe walking. Try it too soon, and you can sink up to your knees in soft, stinky mud.

Sunday afternoon, we took a closer look.

Most of the floodplain looked like this.

Most of the floodplain looked like this.

It was easy to see where the creek had attempted to cut new channels across our floodplain.

Fast-moving water -- even when it's shallow -- has astonishing powers.

Fast-moving water — even when it’s shallow — has astonishing powers.

Wonder Spouse is standing near the creek’s edge in this one:

Note the channel where the water poured out of the creek onto our floodplain.

Note the channel where the water poured out of the creek onto our floodplain.

In past floods, we’ve occasionally found stranded dead fish. But this time, only man-made castaways were found:

It was fully inflated and still bouncy.

It was fully inflated and still bouncy.

We found plenty of evidence that we were not the first creatures to venture back out onto the mucky floodplain.

That's a deer footprint at the top left. We think the lower ones are likely from one of our large raccoons. And the squiggly lines are worm tracks.

That’s a deer footprint at the top left. We think the lower ones are likely from one of our large raccoons. And the squiggly lines are worm tracks.

Despite the mess, Sunday was a day we counted our blessings. The ice somehow detoured around us, our power stayed on, and the spring bulbs seem to have taken the abundant rainfall as a signal to simultaneously explode into bloom. And the vegetable seedlings are progressing well, sheltered safely in the greenhouse. I’ll write more about them soon.

Meanwhile, for my neighbors recovering from what we all hope is Winter’s last little joke, I’ll leave you with some of those enthusiastic spring flowers popping up everywhere out of the mud.

Spring will not be denied!

Spring will not be denied!









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