Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Riding Eastward to Peer through Death's Door

This is the event that I feared since little girlhood, and this is the train that's taking me there to help, I guess, to see it through. My mother aged ninety years has given up eating; all of us old and younger girls are trading shifts in her apartment where she clings to her intention of 'letting nature take its course.'

A drama of hearts has been roiling, quieting and welling up again all these past two weeks or longer. The train is retracing the courses of so many historical passages, certainly my own, and inevitably more and more whose evidence keeps receding into the ground with ever more accruing human occupation. Everywhere are ruins or defunct things drawing my eyes to them, such as the ornately chiseled end of a stone bridge like something from centuries ago in Italy, tipped on the rim of a ravine. The territory reaching ever eastward could be the surface of a brain bringing back to mind where we have been on one occasion or another. The wheels on the track make a pulse beat; the conductor's horn far ahead is now and again muted unto likeness with a cello, or split into a medley of horns, symphonic, a rudimentary musical theme for the day's travel. We are trailing that undertone, like a far-carrying orchestral tuning-up, across the spreading breadth of the upper Mississippi River Valley.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Not Weeds, but a Whole Neighborhood

Even along the remote highways edging Sax Zim Bog this low-snow February, even yesterday traveling Hwy. 61 toward Grand Marais on a professional errand I've been seeing mowing in process or strips of mowed stubble. Workers are taking out tree seedlings with anything else standing. There's no snow to impede mowers or obscure the temptation to get out, rev up those idle motors and do some good with them, tidy up those overgrown ditches. It's not all meant for keeping a clear passageway below power lines since so many of the swaths don't follow those lines. Nor do they necessarily trace along the shoulder of the road. Where the country is wide open, why not have a screen of saplings along the ditch to stop snow drifting over the road? I suspect this is a local or county-level version of busy work if it's not just private landowners following their preoccupations. It seems especially likely given the urge of so many, many small or large homeowners to keep a neatly mowed yard, people of every description driving a little tractor or taking their exercise behind a push mower. People who work in the realm of road maintenance, much like house cleaning, are trained to impose neatness on whatever shows a ragged edge, certainly on a wild plant community. In another observer's words on this subject, the ancestors of so many Americans were conditioned by the adage that cleanliness (order) is next to godliness, which accounts for the insistence on trimmed lawns even at the expense of so much fuel, air pollution and expensive machinery.

In the middle of last week I attended the monthly meeting of the Arrowhead Chapter of Wild Ones,  whose mission is "To educate and to share information on the benefits of preserving and landscaping with native plants in order to promote biodiversity, environmentally sound practices, and a sense of place..." per their web page. These are people who, bit by bit or all in one swoop, have lost that notion that what's outdoors is invariably, more or less, a threat unless properly and traditionally managed. I wonder what it would take for them to become a majority among suburbanites.

The presentation was a DVD of a lecture by Douglas W. Tallamy on the unsung value of sowing  any acreage at all that's taken up by lawn instead with trees, shrubs and soft-stemmed plants native to that region of our continent. Dr. Tallamy is Professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware. His manner as a presenter was warm and witty; in his thinking he accommodates the basic drive in people to spread themselves out over a landscape. Early in his lecture he demonstrated the vital usefulness of 'corridors' connecting our specks of remaining pristine wild land--and specks they are if you consider the breadth of wilderness that once took up our common space. The corridors are best seen not as belts for winged and legged movement from grove to grove, with the groves necessarily the hubs of all feeding and breeding, but as narrower inter-joining stretches of habitat in their own right.

In his article titled 'Gardening for Life', published in volume 22 of the Wild Ones Journal, Doug Tallamy reminds us that population in the United States is closing in on 306 million, which would be a doubling within my own lifetime (I'm in my mid-fifties) and that the U.S. population keeps growing by 8,046 per day. As a consequence we have four million miles of roads and an estimated forty million acres planted with lawn, which is monoculture, a surface cultivated merely as a porous outdoor flooring for ourselves and a few pet warm-blooded animals. Our human growth as yet has no end in sight, and probably won't till physical limits bump into us in ways that we would rather not examine.

What woods and prairie patches we have left in the eastern and central sections of the country are to a huge extent overrun with trees and flowers that got there via horticulture, the plant nurseries and the public they serve. Examples he gives of alien trees, shrubs or vines, especially familiar to me, include multiflora rose, autumn olive and Japanese honeysuckle. In our suburban expansion we have favored exotic trees and flowers at the expense of what grew here all along. In transforming the landscape to serve ourselves we've--per Dr. Tallamy--"taken ninety-five percent of nature and made it unnatural."

He runs through an accounting of glorious native birds, cherished by a growing sector of our population that pursues birds for enjoyment or maintains feeders. The birds of forest and pasture are declining at rates that suggest room for despair on the part of folk who remember their relative abundance from as recently as the 1960s and '70s. Besides that we harvest whole forest sectors, oil fields and grasslands leaving pavement or rubble behind, we've been taking away a broad range of food from these birds as we select exotic trees or bushes for our outdoor perimeters, if we even bother to plant trees and bushes for ornamentation on the wastelands that are our lawns, by contrast with supportive habitat.

Here is where the quietly exuberant mission of Wild Ones, the various Audubon societies and local native plant societies and bird clubs fits into the picture. For survival's sake we have to remember that we need biodiversity, the diversity of living species, as our own life support not to mention that of our fellow-creatures. We need oxygen that the plants transpire. We need the clean water that their roots filter and their decayed living matter harbors in the form of river and lake beds. We also need topsoil borne of more of that decayed matter, and we need pollination, all services of nature--we need the intricacy of the whole life-support system we have been taking apart on this American continent. And so those of us with a will to help put it back together may as well change our clothes as befits the moment; we have a lot we can be doing to make our surroundings increasingly lively again. For all the variety we will be re-creating in our spaces, it has to fit the region in terms of local climate and soils. Help is out there in the form of native plant nurseries somewhere in your area. And, says Dr. Tallamy, if you replace the native shrubs, trees, grasses and herbs, the insect species that service them and the birds that devour those insects and larva will--as long as we haven't yet driven them to extinction--come back pretty quickly, as if to a banquet.

He attributes the trend within the past couple or more generations to landscape using exotic plants as a measure to starve insects that people had lumped together in their minds as a menace. The imported Eurasian trees, shrubs and flowers have been largely free of insect infestation because they did not evolve here to host the various insects that our own plants do. And if we do not have to sit by the window or on the deck or patio and look at insects or at the leaves they've been damaging then we are somehow...more comfortable? Everything seems more under our own control, our living room extended to the outside of our homes. And of course, many of us have said, the farmers are safer from the insect pests that we would otherwise be helping breed if we just 'let things go.'

His article hastens to explain the relationship between insects and plants in terms of specifics: eons of coexistence between whole families of plants and neighboring insects has allowed those insects the benefit of being able to eat and digest those plants, and only those plants. When the plant hosts are in their prime, so are the insects that eat and lay their eggs on them, right before our fretful eyes. But the native plants supporting the native insects will in turn invite a stream of native insect predators, many of them our diminishing American birds. Quoting from the article: "one bluebird pair brings up to three hundred caterpillars back to their nest every day. You will be hard pressed to find any caterpillars in your yard if you create habitat for breeding birds." It seems we had forgotten about the web of nature; the phrasing just somehow turned into a nerdy cliche, maybe left over from science class or an organized nature hike, for lack of living examples out the windows of too many of our homes.

When I lived in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area I gardened with native prairie plants with great enthusiasm since I still missed the countryside of my secure childhood and of week-ends and holidays. At one point in the suburb of Blaine, which has a lot of light sandy soil, we had three long and billowing plantations, each on one side of our double-wide manufactured home. Even though we were surrounded by Interstate 35W, a state highway and huge parching or mud-slick barrens of trailer park lawn with a ball field, a few planted acacia trees (exotics) and native silver maples, we began attracting migrant birds to the yard that would otherwise have flown over: I remember blackpoll, Nashville, yellow-rumped and Tennessee warblers and a singing Lincoln's sparrow in spring or fall as these functional gardens came into their own. When we moved out I moved with me as many of my favorite prairie plants' rootstocks as I could dig up and transfer in plastic bags. But I never saw them flourish again wherever I was able to relocate them in the city. Could any of them survive to this day, I sometimes wonder, but it's doubtful.

Now I'm blessed to live in this depopulated farming area well to the north, with its high water table assuring plenty of swamp habitat where nobody ever yet did much commercial agriculture. We still have forestland of native firs and spruce, cedar, tamarack and birch, maple, ash, chokecherry, juneberry, poplar and some oak and basswood. We have lesser-known native trees like the nannyberry, and native shrubs like the alder buckthorn and chokeberry. We have a reduced breeding population of warblers, vireos and sparrows in the nesting season. But even among these vestiges of the old wilderness bygone land-holders have introduced herbs from their own far-flung flower beds: common valerian, for example, from roadsides to secluded forest openings and, to my surprise last summer, a sunflower cultivar called Garden Golden Glow, fat and decoratively showy as a rubber flower on a swimmer's bathing cap, over where some Euro-American ancestor or other appeared to have started an apple orchard now gone to weeds. (I call weeds anything growing in once-disturbed soil by accident or happen-so.) Along one forest-lined wild river I should not have been surprised when I discovered the invasive glossy buckthorn above a fishing spot.

For nearly twenty years I've kept painting native plants and landscapes, sometimes with a naturalized alien brought in because it seemed it had developed a profile of its own if only in my sight.

Note Card 4 1/4 x 5 1/2" "Startlement: Harris' Sparrow on an October Shore" features red pine, aspen, birch and a ground cover called Hudsonia--beach heather--found on sparse soils all the way north to the tundra.

               "Bluestems in the Autumn" original watercolor includes big bluestem, Indian grass and bush clover at season's end - card or print available by inquiry

As we fill up and commoditize ever more of our common land, the wildscapes of interdependent plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals of North America deserve all the promoting they can get, in art form, in seed stock and as places to go home to. They can be revived right out our windows, even in an inner-ring suburb or downtown where the pavement breaks off.