Posts Tagged Thanksgiving

Grateful for Good Earth

About a decade or so ago, scientists discovered convincing evidence that the smell of rich, compost-filled earth stimulates the production of “feel-good” compounds in human brains. Yes, there is a reason that gardeners are happiest when outside playing in the dirt. Beneficial soil bacteria emit gases that stimulate human brains to boost levels of serotonin and norepinephrine – cheaper than medications and with no potential side-effects!

Of course, even if you aren’t getting your hands dirty every minute in your garden, odds are high you feel better when you’re spending time among fragrant and colorful flowers and nurturing an array of vegetables for your table. However, without good earth, flowers and fruits cannot flourish. Sure, you can try dousing them in chemical fertilizers and spraying them with insecticides, but those plants will never be as healthy as ones grown in good earth.

Very few new home sites are blessed with good earth. Any topsoil that was there was scraped off by bulldozers. Exposed clay was compacted by heavy equipment, leaving “soil” unable to receive rainwater gifts. Instead, water rushes downhill to flood intermittent and permanent streams – too much, too fast, and often filled with polluting fertilizers and other chemicals. It takes effort to rebuild these wounded places. But the return on your efforts to create good earth is critical, not only for the gardens you may want to plant, but for all the native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, fungi, and beneficial bacteria that rely on good earth.

The key, of course, is to add as much organic material as you can to your soil. If you don’t have a compost pile, create one. If you are blessed to have a yard with sizable trees and shrubs, cherish every deciduous leaf that falls. Southeastern woodlands left to their own devices build up layers of decomposing leaves that feed every creature in the forest, directly or indirectly. Leaving fallen leaves beneath your trees and shrubs will help heal your damaged soil, rebuilding good earth.

We know that all soils are not created equally. Certain parts of our country are known to be ideal farmlands. Certain parts of my state – North Carolina – are known for their rich farm soils. But all that good earth is disappearing at alarming rates – about a million acres/year – lost forever, replaced by subdivisions and strip malls. Such good earth cannot be recovered. Greed-driven “development” is starving the future of our children and grandchildren.

A number of nonprofit conservation organizations are trying to slow this destruction of good earth by offering farm owners ways to preserve their lands in perpetuity, offering alternatives to the siren song of corporations that only view land as a vehicle for profit, blind to the blessings of good earth. I am grateful for the efforts of these groups, grateful that they understand the blessings of good earth. When you are contemplating your year-end charitable donations during this holiday season, I encourage you to support a land trust near you that is working to preserve local farmlands. There will not be enough food to feed the hungry if the farmlands that grow the food disappear.

This American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the good earth that nurtures our brain chemistry, our stomachs, and our spirits.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!


Grateful for Home

View from our back deck last week.

Where is your heart? I ask, because I’ve been thinking about a familiar cliché – home is where the heart is. I’ve been asking myself that question as I ponder what I am thankful for during this season of blessing-counting. Where is home for me? Where is my heart?

My instant answer is that my home is, above all else, my soul mate, my Wonder Spouse. With him, I am always warm and safe and entirely loved. He is a blessing I try never to take for granted.

Home of Red-shouldered hawks one past spring

Home is also this five acres of land Wonder Spouse and I have nurtured together for over three decades. To the real estate industry and government, we are owners of this piece of Piedmont paradise, but we know better. We are collaborators with all that lived here before us and those who have arrived since. We know the trees do not belong to us, though we do our best to care for them, and always appreciate them. We know the birds, frogs, foxes, and turtles who dwell among us do not belong to us, but we welcome their presence and try to encourage it by creating habitats that are heart homes for them.

Common snapping turtle laying eggs.

Wonder Spouse and I have worked hard to make our five acres healthier and more diverse than when we first arrived. Stripped gradually of human artifices such as lawns and non-native plants that feed no one, this Piedmont patch grows more alive with every passing season. Truly, this land is our heart, our home, our family, and we feel deeply blessed to have found it, joyfully embracing our work to return it to vibrant native diversity.

I know how blessed we are. Many humans around the globe have no home. They are hungry, often cold and afraid. To my mind, the inequities among humans reflect attitudes about all our relationships, beginning with how we treat Mother Earth and all her non-human inhabitants. Perhaps the perpetrators of these inequities rationalize their behavior by believing they are doing it to Someone Else.

Marbled Orb Weaver

However, I believe that anyone with open eyes can see the interrelatedness of everything, from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the food we eat. Equally accessible sustainable ecosystems are necessary for all our families to thrive.

On this American day of thanksgiving when you give thanks for your family gathered round tables laden with abundance, for their health, for whatever other blessings you acknowledge, please consider also giving thanks for the fact that none of those blessings is possible without the blue-green planet that nurtures everything, home to us all. Give thanks for Mother Earth, and consider making a promise with your family to do more for her sustainable health. It is the only way we may be assured of Thanksgivings for many generations to come.

Happy Thanksgiving from our family to yours.


Grateful for the Green World

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.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Grateful for Change


A Thanksgiving vision for the future

Adapt or die – I see that phrase in many contexts. The business and financial realms are especially fond of it. This evolutionary imperative has been on my mind a lot lately. On the minds of many, of course, are the political earthquakes – not to mention the geological ones – shaking many parts of the world, leaving us slack-jawed by the pace of change. I’m more concerned about the impacts of rapid change on my beloved green world.

Around the globe, the natural world has been taking more hard hits to its stability than humanity has ever had to deal with before. Whole ecosystems are disappearing, species extinction rates are soaring, and of perhaps more immediate concern to humans, water availability and potable quality are no longer givens in parts of the world and even my own United States. Arable soils are becoming more rare, air quality more erratic. And increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are creating difficulties for humanity and the natural world.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

Native amphibians are especially sensitive to declining water quality.

One thing seems certain: we can’t go back. Humanity has irretrievably altered the blue-green jewel upon which all life depends. Our choices are clear: adapt or die. Thus, my Thanksgiving meditation this year is to try my best to be grateful for change.

No, this is not some Pollyanna pipedream. I am not suggesting we all don rose-colored glasses. I am suggesting that we recognize that change is almost always an opportunity for growth. New ideas can rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of chaos – ideas that can create doors to new worlds.

Installed Solar System

For the last several months, I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking hard about how I can contribute to a transformation that will permit much of my beloved green world to survive without any remaining wild lands on our planet. A number of good minds are working on this. You can see the evidence in a growing number of places around the world – green roofs that grow food, solar panels generating clean power, wind turbines that don’t kill birds but still generate energy, sustainable agricultural practices. These are exciting developments – and I am grateful for all of them.

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

A native long-horned bee visiting native Joe Pye Weed flowers

But where does this leave native wildlife? Where do the native pollinators – without which our food chain breaks beyond repair – shelter, feed, and reproduce? Where do the native birds that eat pest insects shelter and raise their families? Where will the forests and prairies, the trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses be able to thrive when they are being increasingly displaced by bulldozers and concrete, invasive non-native plants and animals, and climate change?

Many experts believe the answer lies with the force that disrupted the Earth’s natural processes: humanity. But for this to work, all of humanity must agree to change old ingrained habits, replacing them with new adaptations that will improve the survival chances of the natural world – and the humans who rely on it.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

If biological processes are disrupted, human food production will be problematic at best.

“But,” I’ve been asking myself, “I am one plant-obsessed gardener in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States? What can I do?”

I am starting by doing my best to be grateful for change. I am endeavoring to embrace this new reality as an opportunity to advocate for the implementation of a new gardening paradigm that every suburban homeowner, urban condo-dweller, and farmer can adopt. In short, we must transform every speck of green space remaining into actively managed gardens. We can work to make them as self-sustaining as possible, but with the clear understanding that natural processes on this earth are now too disrupted to maintain themselves without at least occasional human intervention. These green spaces will never resemble the wild places of even fifty years ago. But they can serve as the critical refuges needed to maintain the insects and animals we need to put food on our tables, to clean our air and water, to keep Earth’s biological engines running.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be duplicated with non-native species.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be readily duplicated with non-native species.

In future posts, I will describe some of the changes I am planning to make to my five acres of southeastern piedmont. I am basing these plans on some of what I’ve been reading, but attempting to adapt it to work for small landowners. For this change to take hold and work, even suburban homeowners with quarter-acre lots will need to revise their thinking about their landscapes. And the real estate industry, home-owners associations, government regulators, and construction industry must join us in the 21st century, accepting that old practices cannot be sustained in the face of the rapid deterioration of the natural world upon which, ultimately, we all rely.

I invite my readers to join me in this challenging exercise of being grateful for change. You might want to add these two books to your winter reading list. I’ll be writing about both of them in future posts:

The green world has always been a refuge for me. It is where I have always turned to lift my spirits, nurturing me body and soul. It has never failed me. This blog has been part of my way of giving back some of the blessings I have received from my lifelong relationship with the natural word. But now I think perhaps it is time to try to do more, and pray that others will join me.


This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for change, because it has given me the opportunity to do more than merely describe all the aspects of the natural world that I love. Now I have a chance to try to help preserve it. Of course, I may just be a dotty old woman tilting at windmills, but in this adapt-or-die world in which we all now live, I feel obliged to holler “Charge!” and see where this mission takes me.

I know I cannot stop change, nor do I wish to. But perhaps I can help steer the changes impacting the natural world toward less devastating directions. Random change can be terrifying, but metamorphosis is miraculous.

05-9-27chrysalis1 - 2

May we all find ways to create positive transformations for ourselves — and our world.

3 Monarch on Lantana

Happy Thanksgiving.


Grateful for Time

exit_side view

When I was ten, my parents sent me to the best place I had ever been in my life: summer camp. We rose early, ate well, and played outdoors all day – hiking, swimming, archery – I would have happily stayed until school started again. While there, I met the most amazing adult I had ever known. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his job title: Camp Naturalist. He knew the name of every plant or animal I asked about. Not only did he know their names, he knew stories about them – how they lived, where to find them, why they were important. I followed him around the way kids chase teen idols. Before the end of the week, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up – a naturalist. I wanted to know everything he knew – and more.

Tulip Poplar Flower and Bud

Time flew. I studied the natural sciences in college and graduate school, but somewhere along the way, it became clear to me that while my enthusiasm for the natural world remained, my knack with the written word was more valuable in the “real” world. I became a professional writer with an abiding love of the natural world, and an obsession with the art and science of gardening.

Coneflowers galore

That’s why on this day when we Americans count our blessings, I find I am deeply grateful for the gift of time. Often in previous decades when I spotted an interesting flower or animal, I wasn’t able to stop and study it, or even take a picture of it. No time. But now I am blessed with that irreplaceable gift of time, which is why a month or so ago, I was able to be a midwife to metamorphosis.

That’s overstating things a bit. I didn’t actually help, but I did watch for hours on several days for several weeks, as the Monarch caterpillars that decimated the milkweeds I’d planted for them transformed themselves into chrysalises. And one emerald chrysalis successfully transformed herself into a perfect butterfly. I named her Mona.

Today I want to share with you the journey I shared with a pair of Monarch caterpillars. Both became bejewled jade chrysalises, but only one succeeded in the final transformation to butterfly.

September 27

Two caterpillars on my Common Milkweed had eaten it to a stub of its former self. On this day, one of the caterpillars transformed into a chrysalis. I had been checking on it regularly, but I missed the magic moment of metamorphosis. I was determined not to miss that moment when the second caterpillar changed.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

The first caterpillar transformed into a chrysalis when I stopped watching it for a few minutes.

September 28

The second caterpillar attached itself to a stem and hung down just as the other one had, forming what looked like a letter J. I began checking on it every half hour, knowing from my research – and from watching the first one the previous day — that it would likely take several hours.

Late that day, after over 1000 photos (ah, the double-edged gift of time) just as a soft rain began to fall, the caterpillar began swinging back and forth to force the outer skin of its former self up to its anchor point. More swinging freed the skin, which fell to the damp ground, revealing another perfect emerald chrysalis, twin to the one created the day before. (Note: You can click on any image in the gallery to see a larger image and any caption I’ve added.)

October 7 (Day 9)

I read that the change from chrysalis to butterfly usually takes 10-14 days, but I checked on them daily – just to be sure. A friend warned me that his Monarch chrysalises had been the victims of predatory wasps that bored inside and killed them. He suggested I cover mine to prevent a similar fate. I loosely wrapped the milkweed plants where the chrysalises dangled in the light-weight garden fabric I use to protect young squash plants from pest insects. The fabric allowed light and water to pass through, not directly touching them, but enclosing them within a predator-proof shield.

first chrysalis-10-13

October 13 (Day 15)

I could detect no change in my emerald charges. The day after the second caterpillar became a chrysalis, my area saw two weeks of clouds and record rainfall. I wondered if perhaps they were waiting for the sun to return.


October 16 (Day 18)

The color of the younger chrysalis now looked wrong, especially compared to the one formed a day earlier. That older one was showing wing color. The time must finally be drawing near!

The first hard freeze of the season was predicted for the following two nights. I worried that the chrysalis showing wing color would freeze before it could transform, so I decided to cut off the stem to which it was attached and move it to my cool greenhouse. By this time, it was clear to me that something was wrong with the younger chrysalis. My research suggested its appearance pointed to a fatal fungal infection.

October 19 (Day 21 – Emergence)


For two days after I moved the chrysalis into the greenhouse, it dangled from its stem while I scrutinized it often, trying to discern any changes in its appearance. But my first visit on this day revealed a distinctive darkening of the chrysalis; brighter orange wing colors glowed deeper within. I knew from my research that transformation was near.

I spent about three hours photographing and staring at it, willing it to metamorphose. Then I got hungry and thirsty, so I decided to run into the house for a quick refueling. In the twenty minutes I was gone, I missed the actual moment the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis! I concluded that real naturalists probably bring snacks to the field.

There she was, dangling from the remnants of her now-abandoned transformation chamber. Determined not to miss another second, I took a zillion or so photos as Mona slowly stretched out her wings and began to dry off. I knew I had a female butterfly from my research. Markings of the two sexes are quite distinctive. Mona the Monarch was definitely female.

Mona didn’t emerge until the sun was about to set. I was worried she wouldn’t dry off before another cold night gripped the area, so I left her in the greenhouse, instructing her to wait for me to come get her after the sun had warmed the air the next day.

October 20 (Day 22 – Independence Day)

It looked to me as if Mona had barely moved overnight. She still clung to the remnants of her birth chamber attached to the milkweed stem I had anchored in a vase too heavy to tip over easily.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

Mona had barely moved overnight.

My greenhouse in the early morning is shaded and cool, and I was growing impatient. The day was autumnal perfection – cloudless deep-azure skies and a bright warm-but-not-hot sun. I decided to carry the vase holding Mona on her perch outside to the sunny south side of my garage – a favorite basking spot of my local lizard population.

Mona responded almost instantly to the kiss of warm autumn sun on her wings. Slowly she opened them wide to catch the full benefit of the sun. Then she closed her wings, meditated a moment, then opened them again. She repeated this process over and over for about twenty minutes, reminding me of fledgling Red-shouldered Hawks I had watched a few springs earlier as they took turns standing on the edge of their nest flapping their wings, testing the air, wakening flight muscles.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were quite big enough to begin flexing their wings.

Red-Shouldered Hawk with two of her chicks before they were big enough to begin flexing their wings.

I was constantly taking pictures during this time, but her decision to take flight was so sudden and powerful that I was unable to focus my camera in time for a parting photograph. Mona shot straight up, heading directly into the sun, reaching the top of nearby canopy trees in mere seconds. She made a decisive turn to the southeast and disappeared from my sight before I could breathe.

Acting like the crazy woman some folks probably think I am, I found myself waving enthusiastically and wishing her a safe journey. Her flight direction would take her to the coast a couple of hundred miles away. Many migrating Monarchs follow the Atlantic coastline south in the fall. Mona seemed to know exactly where she needed to be.

exit_open wings2

Bon voyage, Mona!

Thanks to the gift of time, I was able to fulfill a ten-year-old girl’s dream of watching and learning from the natural world. How blessed am I, I thought to myself as I squinted into the sun trying to follow Mona’s flight path, to have the better part of three weeks to follow a caterpillar through its metamorphic journey?

Since Mona left, I had another occasion to deeply appreciate the gift of time. Wonder Spouse developed a sudden, entirely unanticipated health issue that required surgery serious enough to merit two nights in the hospital. I am delighted to report that he is back to his energetic self, working his usual jam-packed schedule. But there is nothing like sitting in a hospital waiting room while the love of your life is in surgery to make you give thanks for the precious gift of time.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Already back to full speed, Wonder Spouse has resumed his normal activities.

Recent events in the world have probably led most of us to appreciate the gift of time. Even during our happiest days, lives can change in the space of a heartbeat. It seems to me to be an excellent moment to be sure I am using my blessing of time wisely, to share my gift of time with others as well as with that ten-year-old girl who wanted to know the name of every tree and bird she met in the forests she loved.

That summer camp I loved was an Episcopal Church camp. My father was an Episcopal priest, so it was the obvious choice for his children. My feelings about organized religion are — shall we say — mixed, but when I think about the blessing of time, my mind inevitably turns to a benediction my father always recited at the end of every service he led.

He was a trained actor, so the cadences of that short prayer rolled over the congregation like ocean waves, weaving a spell of peace over all. I cannot read the words without hearing his baritone behind each syllable:

Support us, Lord, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in your mercy, give us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last.

This year, I send all my readers prayers for peace – and the precious gift of time.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Grateful for Trees

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

The Northern Red Oak that once sheltered my house.

This year, on this day when we citizens of the United States give thanks for our many blessings, I am grateful for trees – forest canopy giants, colorful understory beauties, and even specimen trees artfully sited in home landscapes to improve “curb appeal.” As far as I’m concerned, any native or non-native, non-invasive tree in the landscape is a win for the natural world.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

Halesia diptera in full bloom.

In the last few weeks, I’ve attended three hour-long presentations by invited candidates currently under consideration for the position of Director of the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG). Up to now, the NCBG has only had part-time directors. As a long-time member and volunteer of this public garden, I am delighted that it will now have the undivided attention of a full-time director. All three candidates are impressive, and all gave wonderful talks, but it is the words of the most recent candidate that remain with me most vividly.

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

Towering River Birch shows off new spring leaves

He spoke at length about an issue I’ve observed often myself – the alarming disconnect between most Americans – especially children – and the natural world. Many causes for this are posited, including the omnipresence of computer games and the increasing urbanization of our homelands. He used a term I hadn’t heard before that I think aptly captures this profound obliviousness to the natural world – Plant Blindness. He defined Plant Blindness as the inability of people to distinguish one green plant from another, or to even notice the plants at all. He cited truly terrifying – to me, anyway – statistics about how many Americans are afflicted with Plant Blindness. I didn’t write them down, but trust me, the numbers are not small.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

Tulip Poplar flowers adorn this towering canopy specimen.

I have trouble wrapping my head around this idea that most folks don’t even see the Green World that I love so deeply. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been thankful for trees. My earliest memories are of specific trees. I still remember the roughness of the blocky bark and the clean, resinous fragrance of a line of Loblolly Pines in the front yard of my home when I was about four years old. That spot and those trees are my first memory. I spent many hours sitting quietly among the brown needles, leaning against a great pine, listening to the wind caress the branches towering above me. It was a soothing, hypnotic sound, not unlike waves of a calm ocean breaking long and slow on a sandy beach. Their gentle Loblolly lullaby made it easy for me to remain quiet enough to encourage resident chipmunks to emerge from their burrows to dash about on what always seemed to be urgent business.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

A tall Loblolly pine in my front yard is laden with abundant cones.

My family moved several times during my childhood, and what I remember most vividly about every home is the yard, especially the trees. To think that children today are growing up without ever becoming acquainted with a special great White Oak or a Southern Magnolia with branches built for climbing truly breaks my heart. But Plant Blindness has dangerous side-effects beyond never giving a child a chance to bond with the natural world.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Because an increasing number of adults suffer from this affliction, they are oblivious to the many benefits trees – and especially forests – provide. Most of the wildlife native to the southeastern piedmont region of the US is adapted to live in forests. They need forests for food and shelter. And the forests need to be healthy. An adult with Plant Blindness won’t see that a forest overgrown with Chinese Wisteria and a dense understory of Chinese Privet and Russian Olive is not remotely the same as a healthy native Oak-Hickory climax forest with an understory of Sourwood, Dogwood, Redbud, etc. They are blind to the difference, but native animals are not.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

About 40 feet tall, this dogwood is probably about 50 years old, maybe even older.

Because the Plant Blind don’t see trees, they don’t notice the beneficial effects of living beside and within forests. There’s a reason old southern homes are surrounded by towering oaks. Before the days of air-conditioned homes, trees – and forests – provided air conditioning. Transpiration – the movement of water from roots to leaves and into the air – humidifies the air, making the air cooler and more pleasant. On a summer afternoon, transpiration of trees in a deciduous forest will lower air temperature by ten degrees Fahrenheit below the temperature in a shaded area outside the forest. Ten degrees! As climate change continues to create wider summer temperature swings and unpredictable drought cycles, the substantial ameliorating effects of forests could make a critical difference. But the Plant Blind are unable to see the trees or the forests, so they aren’t likely to realize what they’ve lost.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

Trunk of a Water Oak; behind is Bigleaf Magnolia showing off its fall color.

If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve read about some of the many wonderful trees native to our region. Every species plays a role in its native ecosystem. Every species possesses its own unique beauty – fragrant flowers, handsome bark, breath-taking fall leaf color. It boggles my brain that the Plant Blind don’t see this!

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Acer rubrum flowers morph to winged crimson seeds

Thus, on this day of American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for trees, and I invite my readers to step outside after your feast today and appreciate your native landscape. Take your child or grandchild by the hand and go caress the bark of a Loblolly Pine, a White Oak, or a smooth-trunked Beech tree. Appreciate the differences and encourage that child to do the same. Marvel at the recently deposited leaves swirling in November winds, note the Cardinals sitting on bare branches. Practice seeing the natural world in all its infinite diversity and beauty. Teach your children to be thankful for trees.

Some Useful References on Trees

  • Godfrey, Michael A., FIELD GUIDE TO THE PIEDMONT
  • Kirkman, Katherine L., Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold, NATIVE TREES OF THE SOUTHEAST: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE
Exquisite exfoliating bark of Paperbark Maple

Exquisite exfoliating bark of native Paperbark Maple



Grateful for Roots

A mature Bald Cypress with a crowd of its root "knees."

A mature Bald Cypress beside a crowd of its root “knees.”

On this American holiday when thoughts turn to food and family, I find myself thinking about my roots, especially the ancestors who shared my deep appreciation and respect for the botanical world.

My father’s kin were mostly cotton farmers, working the delta soils of the southern Mississippi River states. I imagine most of them saw the plant world as a means to an end, a way to feed their families, a key to survival.

My 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah Ann

My 3rd great-grandmother, Sarah.

No one typifies this tough, determined type of ancestor better than my 3rd great-grandmother Sarah. Sarah spent most of her adult life in a small town in Alabama. Widowed at the age of 24, she never remarried — highly unusual in those days. Instead, she managed the family farm herself, and presided over a town filled with kin who loved her. She brought in her last cotton crop at age 98. When she reached her 100th birthday, the town threw a party in her honor. To celebrate, she plowed a row or two behind a bull. Having proved, I imagine, that she was still a force to be reckoned with, she died later that year. I hope I inherited half of her grit.

My father, Sarah Ann’s 2nd great-grandson, was a dreamer, not a farmer. Perhaps because he grew up watching his kin scratch out hard lives in the fields, he turned his bright, clever mind to more intellectual pursuits, entering college by age 16. Charming, witty, and keenly intelligent, my father regularly teased me about my obsession with the plant world, which was well-established by my early 20s. At that time, he told me he had a black thumb, but I remembered when the gardening bug had bitten him hard.

I was ten or eleven, and my family lived in a small town in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. We had just moved to a newly built house at the very edge of a shiny suburb, a house of which both my parents were deeply proud. My father decided the yard needed more landscaping than the flowers my mother added to the bed around the front entry.

First, he planted a weeping willow tree just at the edge of the hilltop on which our house perched. It was the perfect location, where long trailing branches could dangle artfully, dancing in wayward breezes. He struggled to dig out a decent hole for it in the hard-packed red clay that passed for soil, but he managed it. The tree was still thriving when we moved away three years later.

Even more impressive than the willow tree addition was his determination to add what he called “a proper rose garden.” I can only guess that this was a fanciful, romantic notion from the many books he read. His mother and grandmothers never grew roses. No one without vast quantities of free time and a willingness to use chemicals grows tea roses in the humid climate of my region. But he did it.

First, he carefully marked out two semicircular beds facing each other. Then he dug out the clay to a depth of about three feet. I remember playing in the trenches before he filled them with rich topsoil and compost. He planted six hybrid tea roses in each semicircle, caring for them more tenderly than he did his own children. They were fussed over daily that first year. When they produced beautiful, fragrant blossoms of red, pink, yellow, and ivory, he proudly cut some to put in a vase on his desk at his office.

Then his fancy turned to something else; the roses were neglected, nearly dead by the time we moved away. My father never demonstrated any interest in gardening or the natural world again. It was as if he needed to prove to himself that he could do it, but it was always an intellectual pursuit. There was no love for plants in him.

My father around age 16.

My father around age 16. A generous cousin shared this autographed photo that my father had given him. Thanks, Bill.

My mother’s kin mostly worked in professions such as teaching and business pursuits. However, many of the women had a love of gardening, especially flower gardens — just like my mother. No one better typified this than my great-grandmother, Etta. Like Sarah, Etta was widowed at a relatively young age (37), and she did not remarry. Instead, her older children and other family members helped support her as she raised her youngest babes to adulthood in a boarding house she ran to earn income. When she died at age 79, her family wrote a loving obituary that ran in the local paper. From that, I learned that Etta was a gifted storyteller, a knack my mother also had, and one shared by her children. But most wonderful to me was this excerpt: “She … enjoyed gardening in her yard as long as her health permitted. Later she was known for the beautiful house plants she grew.”

I had an “aha!” moment when I read this. Perhaps I am blessed with Etta’s plant-loving DNA. Like me, perhaps she couldn’t imagine a life without plants to nurture. Now I have an explanation for my lifelong passion — it’s genetic! Whether that’s true or not, I like to think that Etta smiles down on me from time to time as I wander my five acres, stroking fuzzy magnolia buds and telling the bald cypresses how magnificent their fluted trunks are becoming.

My great-grandparents: Etta and Adolphus.

My great-grandparents: Etta and Adolphus on their wedding day (she was 16).

You may have guessed by now that I’ve been recently working on my genealogical roots. My parents didn’t leave behind many clues about their kin, but kind and knowledgeable distant and close kin have helped me quite a bit. I really hit the genealogical jackpot when I decided to have my DNA tested. Over a thousand cousins, many distant, some close, now prove my roots are deep — reaching back to the forests and fields of Colonial times — and wide — stretching up and down eastern North America, across the deep south, and up the Mississippi River.

Most wonderful to me are the closer cousins who share my interests. From cousins Carol and Tom, who are also writers, to cousin Ruth, a master gardener, and Vicki, who gardens for the hummingbirds.  All my newly discovered kin are kind and generous souls, who have happily shared with me what they know about our common ancestors. Thanks so much, cousins.

So today, more than ever, I am grateful for roots. They hold me in place, stretching deeply through time and space, nurturing me with the gifts of good earth, blessing me with a love for stories, and an abiding passion for all the green world.

Thanks, cousins!

Thanks, cousins!


Grateful for Beauty

Late-blooming Cosmos and friend

This has been quite a crazy year. World economies teeter, revolutions abound. Change is palpable, perhaps more so than usual for many of us.

When the “real world” grows too nonsensical/ugly for me to watch, I turn to my haven against all madness: my garden. Here my world always makes sense. That doesn’t mean the natural world doesn’t occasionally seem cruel. Sometimes it does. But the dances between predator and prey, flood and drought, heat wave and ice storm — they possess a rhythm born of millennia. The constancy of those changes comforts me.

Iris ‘Batik’

Even amidst Nature’s harshest cruelties, beauty can be found — insects immortalized in amber, the greening of scarred land after a forest fire. Breath-taking beauty often manifests in Nature for no obvious reason. Does a flower really need to be so exquisitely colored to draw pollinators? Is it merely a happy accident that the same perfume that beckons bees to flowers also intoxicates the noses of humans?

Ashe Magnolia flower opening

I like to think beauty is part of The Plan. It stops us in our tracks, shakes us from our ruts, reawakens us to our place on this blue-green planet we all share. With that thought in mind, today I am sharing a few of the magnificent photos that Wonder Spouse has taken of our yard over recent years. Readers of this blog will recognize some of the plants. Some I’ve yet to write about.

I believe that beauty is infinite in Nature. It’s all a matter of tuning your eyeballs to see what’s smack in front of you. As we Americans count our blessings tomorrow, I hope you’ll remember to put the abundance and beauty of the natural world near the top of your list.

Bees working sunflowers

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


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