Posts Tagged Thanksgiving
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.
Where is your heart? I ask, because I’ve been thinking about a familiar cliché – home is where the heart is. I’ve been asking myself that question as I ponder what I am thankful for during this season of blessing-counting. Where is home for me? Where is my heart?
My instant answer is that my home is, above all else, my soul mate, my Wonder Spouse. With him, I am always warm and safe and entirely loved. He is a blessing I try never to take for granted.
Home is also this five acres of land Wonder Spouse and I have nurtured together for over three decades. To the real estate industry and government, we are owners of this piece of Piedmont paradise, but we know better. We are collaborators with all that lived here before us and those who have arrived since. We know the trees do not belong to us, though we do our best to care for them, and always appreciate them. We know the birds, frogs, foxes, and turtles who dwell among us do not belong to us, but we welcome their presence and try to encourage it by creating habitats that are heart homes for them.
Wonder Spouse and I have worked hard to make our five acres healthier and more diverse than when we first arrived. Stripped gradually of human artifices such as lawns and non-native plants that feed no one, this Piedmont patch grows more alive with every passing season. Truly, this land is our heart, our home, our family, and we feel deeply blessed to have found it, joyfully embracing our work to return it to vibrant native diversity.
I know how blessed we are. Many humans around the globe have no home. They are hungry, often cold and afraid. To my mind, the inequities among humans reflect attitudes about all our relationships, beginning with how we treat Mother Earth and all her non-human inhabitants. Perhaps the perpetrators of these inequities rationalize their behavior by believing they are doing it to Someone Else.
However, I believe that anyone with open eyes can see the interrelatedness of everything, from the air we breathe and the water we drink to the food we eat. Equally accessible sustainable ecosystems are necessary for all our families to thrive.
On this American day of thanksgiving when you give thanks for your family gathered round tables laden with abundance, for their health, for whatever other blessings you acknowledge, please consider also giving thanks for the fact that none of those blessings is possible without the blue-green planet that nurtures everything, home to us all. Give thanks for Mother Earth, and consider making a promise with your family to do more for her sustainable health. It is the only way we may be assured of Thanksgivings for many generations to come.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
- Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West
- The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben
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.
May we all find ways to create positive transformations for ourselves — and our world.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
- Dirr, Michael A. MANUAL OF WOODY LANDSCAPE PLANTS
- Kirkman, Katherine L., Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold, NATIVE TREES OF THE SOUTHEAST: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE
- Miller, James H. and Karl V. Miller, FOREST PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST AND THEIR WILDLIFE USES
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Happy Thanksgiving to all.