Friday, March 17, 2017

Something to Do While We're Waiting

Do you remember that old Mr. Roger's song about patience? He sang "Think of something to do while you're waiting. While you're waiting, think of something to do." That sentiment so describes my need right now. Most any gardener, or naturalist, for that matter, finds this time of year a lean one, and this year is even more difficult. We had that teasing taste of spring a week or two ago...enough to cause early fruit trees and magnolias to flower and spring peepers, wood frogs and American toads to awaken and commence their mating songs and activity...And then the bottom dropped out. The flowers froze and, this year, there will be no fruit on those trees or berries on the magnolias. What of the frogs and toads, and the eggs they laid when it was warm? Will there be new generations? Did the parents live through the sudden cold? And what became of the nectar and pollen of the red and silver maples that were flowering at the time of the freeze, first food of the season for bees?

We humans had warning of the coming freeze, and time to make preparations. In my case, that meant a mad dash to plant three new crabapple and two plum trees while I could. In time, the crabapples will form a protective thicket, with plenty of autumn and winter food for any birds that want it. Thanks to the squirrels, we may or may not ever harvest any plums for ourselves, but the leaves will be hosts to various butterfly and moth species who need that genus for reproduction.

In the midst of ice and snow, I realized it was time to start seeds for the spring that I still expect to come, at some point. I sorted through packages of cool season lettuces, kale, spinach and dill, warm season tomatoes, various peppers and lots of flowers, choosing as many as I could fit into my trays and enjoying the feel of dirt on my hands, once again. And thanks to a new propagation arrangement, I had a place to put them afterward, where I can watch those seeds grow into healthy and stocky young seedlings, ready to set out at the proper time. Like the dormant fruit trees, seeding promises hope for the future and stirs the weary imagination into remembering the colors, fragrances and tastes that are yet to come. 

The morning is sunny and the beginning of warmer days ahead and on my early walk, a multitude of robins were singing away, as if spring's temporary setback was just that...a temporary setback. I am watching downy and red-bellied woodpeckers at the suet, cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, chickadees, titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and goldfinches at the feeders and myriad blue jays, crows, white-throated sparrows and squirrels where I have scattered seed and corn, up the hill. I sometimes envy their lack of human ability to look ahead, to fret and worry over what is or is not going to happen, their ability to live fully in the moment, because they know no other way to live. 

And at the same time, I am grateful for promise and for imagination and for being able to plan ahead, after all. I am grateful to be able to sit indoors in the company of potted plants, to dream of flowers and butterflies and bees and to think about what else I can plant for them. I am glad to look forward to the woodcocks resuming their mating flights over the fields nearby, and to hope for the frogs to resume their choruses, when the time is right. While I intellectually know that winter will not last forever, this time of year I need these experiential reminders that it is so. Soon the blessings of new growth and warm breezes, of the fragrance of the earth's awakening and the buzzing of wings will, indeed, come again. May it be soon.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Beneath the Surface

I find late winter, whether it be uncharacteristically warm or unbearably frigid, challenging. My internal store of reminders about the land’s need for cold and rest is about used up. My aesthetic appreciation for the naked woodland’s structure is wearing thin, as is my earlier delight in the myriad grey and brown birds of the season. Amid the drabness of titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, white-throats, song sparrows, mourning doves, and juncos, the astonishing color of blue-jays and male cardinals and bluebirds, seem a thoughtless mistake…or, perhaps, a bit of grace.

And so, in response to the challenge, out I go, a needy seeker longing for late winter’s assurance that spring will come, despite what my senses might initially lead me to believe. I am not disappointed for, as John Muir wrote, “In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” In my case, even with the ground frozen and high winds roaring overhead, I fill a page with observations, writing with chilled, almost immobile fingers, by the end of my excursion.

Working from just beyond the back door, and out into the yard I find plant shoots determinedly emerging, not far out of the ground it is true, but up and ready to spring into exuberant new growth once temperatures are reliably warm enough. Garden phlox, black and brown-eyed Susans, short-toothed mountain mint, smooth beardtongue and arrow-leaf aster are all sprouting an inch or two of green through the previous season’s still-in-place stalks. Short new blades of Pennsylvania sedge peak through last years dried ones, and moss grows abundantly in and through the grass. Tucked under last autumn’s dried leaves, the green foliage of spring blooming Jacob’s ladder, foam flower, golden ragwort, and creeping phlox promise the bright blues, pinks and yellows that I am so missing on this winter day.

Wildlife that remains through the winter is active as well, though finding its evidence sometimes requires more diligent searching. Beetles and borers tunnel just under the bark of dead or fallen trees, in turn drawing in a variety of woodpeckers, who are happy to find and feast upon them. Soft ridges and ripples undulating through the yard are the work of moles, invisibly expanding their feeding tunnels in search of worms and ground dwelling insects, active just below the frost line. Inconspicuous holes in dried mullein stalks are evidence of downy woodpeckers and chickadees, who probe for insect eggs and larvae as part of their winter diet. Goldfinches forage on spiny seed balls high up in sweet gum trees and ground-feeding juncos eat from sycamore seeds that have drifted softly, like snowflakes, down into the grass, often overlooked by human eyes. Here and there, I find small caches of corn, stashed in the grass, by whom, I do not know. Crows perhaps? Maybe squirrels? Possibly blue jays…Winter riddles.

It is at this feeling-empty time of year that I most need to push myself outside and into noticing. I don’t need to leave my yard if I don’t feel like it, for the busyness of winter life is everywhere. Searching is a bit like pilgrimage, a journey made to some sacred place, for it is in the seeking that I find evidences of Life, and of God, just beneath the surface.

Friday, February 10, 2017

February's Invitation

Stillness at sunrise, winter's quiet breath,
rosy horizon and blanketing snow.
Winterberry brightening the season's grayness as
quince and magnolia buds burgeon bravely in the cold

Silence interrupted by the day's beginning...
conversational crows straggling in from their across-the-river roost.
Titmice' single note calls and a red-shouldered's cry,
woodpeckers drilling in the distance and goldfinch's
soft squeak on sycamore balls.

The world roils.
But here, sweet gums against the sky.

Shall I not take it?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Ruin or Restoration?

If you have ever created a garden from the ground up, these thoughts will be familiar. If you have ever worked to bring a cut-over patch of woodland back to health, or labored over a newly planted meadow you already know the dedicated labor and watchfulness required. Living in the social upheaval of our times, and wondering how to bring good out of what seems like chaos, I offer these observations of effective regeneration in the natural world, hoping that principles found there can provide guidance for the human social order, as well.

A few years ago, I was charged with creating a half-acre children's garden from a sloped pasture that had been grazed for as long as anyone could remember. In October, a friend and his tractor plowed three, 100 X 30 ft long beds, the first pass to break up the sod, and a second some weeks later to weaken what grass remained in the clods, hoping that winter cold and drying would finish killing it off. Afterwards, we invited visiting students into the garden, to work the soil with shovels and hoes, pulling out still-living weeds and a large quantity of rocks and, by spring, we were ready to plant and heavily mulch the sections of the garden that were to be in use. In the ensuing years, sections of the garden that were not needed for crops became spots where students learned to use gardening tools, thereby keeping weeds at bay. As the garden caretaker, I was there most every day, keeping an eye on the condition of the planted beds - weeding and watering as needed, picking insect pests off of plants, and doing all that I could to keep what we had created in good order. Over time,however, that job became more taxing, as new weed seeds were introduced from the manure and compost that was brought into the garden, and as pests discovered the bonanza of food to be had there. I continually needed to assess my strategies and make adjustments, as conditions dictated.

A couple of years ago, after moving to the house where we now live, I laid down groundcloth and mulch to kill off some sod in our back yard, wanting to create raised beds for propagating native plants. After some months the sod had died off and, expecting to have a blank canvas in which to cultivate the species I planted, I sowed the seeds in late fall, carefully labeled each row, and promptly turned my back on the beds, knowing that those seeds would not germinate until the following spring. In other words, I got lazy. To my chagrin, if not complete surprise, by early spring the beds had been overrun with chickweed and hairy bittercress, cool season weeds that germinate during the winter, and ground ivy, a pernicious trailing perennial that regrows from the tiniest pieces of root or stem. Had I been more watchful, had I mulched between the rows of sown seeds, and I been prepared to remove weeds as they became obvious, I would now have a more productive propagation garden. 

A generation or two ago, when woodlands were cut or single trees happened to fall, the newly opened area eventually filled in with the same native tree and shrub species that were already in place. The native seed bank present in the soil allowed for a new crop of trees and shrubs to germinate and begin their journey towards becoming a mature forest.  New seedlings would jockey with each other, vying for space and sunlight, until some would win out and grow on into the canopy, while others, better suited to living in the shade, became the understory and shrub layer.  Such is not the case in many parts of the eastern United States, any longer. Because of the arrival of exotic species that overrun and choke out native ones, forest regeneration is fraught with setbacks and frustrations. As an example, three Decembers ago, our next door neighbor, in defiance of a Park Service scenic easement, clear cut a portion of the woods that obscured his view of the river. Giant yellow poplars and various oak species came crashing down, and were eventually cut into logs, left to lay on the ground. Now, amid and between the logs, Oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy have taken advantage of the light, growing vigorously, each ready to strangle newly emerging tree seedlings. Now, ground that that was once was shaded, is covered with opportunistic Japanese stilt grass, which exudes a substance from its roots that inhibits the seed germination of other species, thereby limiting growth of a healthy herbaceous ground layer.  

In contrast, I know woodland owners who carefully steward their properties, removing invasive vines, working to keep stiltgrass under control and thinning out vigorous native tree species that threaten to overrun slower growing ones on their way to creating an arboreal monoculture. In these landowners' desire to recreate the healthy forests of long ago, they must contend, not only with overly aggressive vines and herbaceous weeds, but also with damaging populations of deer and new tree diseases and insect pests that threaten wide swaths of existing woodlands. These stewards know the need to be vigilant, to provide protection from forces that would negate their best efforts, to nurture both the newly growing and already established forest populations that hold promise.

How might these botanical examples speak to the social needs of our nation, at the moment? I am not a sociologist, but a few seem self-evident. When starting from scratch, or working to rebuild what is damaged, a few precautions will help to grant long term success. If we know what to expect, we can develop plans for countering counter-productive assaults. If we have well-developed goals in mind, we can proactively take steps to steps to limit the damaging forces that might try and destroy what we attempt to create. If we are students of whatever the situation we are trying to rectify, we can learn how to nurture the components that are the most necessary to the health of the whole we are attempting to build. 

As important as those tactics might be, we each need to look to and ask ourselves... What damaging attitudes do I harbor that might overrun my efforts to work with others?  What aggressive threads of self-interest might be lurking beneath my awareness, threatening to choke out the progress I hope to make? What are my natural gifts and sensitivities, those that I can joyfully employ in the bettering of the world in which I live and work? Restoration of any kind is long and arduous work but, when approached with wisdom and determination, the results are satisfying and life giving.  May we all find our place in this seemingly new world in which we live, and contribute our best selves for its highest well-being.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Some thoughts from a few years ago, applicable today.

The seasonal, penetrating cold has returned and, as I looked out on the yard recently, I was surprised to see two bluebirds dropping into the winterberry bushes, foraging on the berries. I see them on my walks and know that they stay the winter, living on the various berries they find and what insects they can glean from the fields but I have not seem them visit my yard in January up till now. Just behind them was a red-bellied woodpecker eating from the suet cake and peanut feeder and I was struck by the contrasts in the two bird species... one larger and one smaller, one rather drab and one vibrant blue, one eating from a man-made food source and one from what the bushes naturally provide. Both were welcomed with what sustenance my yard could offer and both stayed a while and then moved on, leaving only memories behind.

The words “In the bleak midwinter, frosty winds made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” are from of one of my favorite Christmas carols, though the images portrayed hit closer to home during these couple of months after Christmas. The earth is hard and frozen right now and it takes all the imagination I can muster to believe that anything will ever spring from it again. And yet even as I look out on the barren landscape I am working on a program about gardening with native plants that includes numerous photographs of gardens ablaze with color. Many of the slides are of my own yard and I am again surprised at what the earth holds beneath its now-unyielding surface. Today snow is in the forecast and to those not botanically minded its coming might seem to forestall the promise of spring's re-blooming. To gardeners, however, snow is welcomed as an insulating blanket, protecting the life that lies in waiting until the time is right to emerge once again.

I sometimes think about seasons of grief and anguish in the same way. The times that seem so hopeless and forlorn can hide away in their depths the seeds of new vision and renewed purpose. Though those seeds seem deeply buried, when the time becomes right and conditions become favorable they stretch out and grow into something unexpectedly glorious if we give them a chance. I was reminded of this contrast during a recent discussion about the relationship between grief and bitterness... an inverse relationship, I should add. I have become convinced that the more genuinely and the more deeply we allow ourselves to grieve our losses and our pain, the more likely we are to come through them with hearts still soft and spirits free from bitterness. It is into such hearts that peace returns and wholeness is restored. If we allow Him, God will come to us in our grief as we admit that we have no control over events or hurts that so affect our lives. Bitterness, on the other hand, pushes God away. It is our vain attempt to deny how seriously we have been wounded and in its determination to protect us from being in such a fearful position ever again, it poisons and imprisons us.

The choice of how we respond to pain is ours alone to make. And in the choosing, unbeknownst to us, we turn towards life in its fullness or a slow erosion of the spirit. Grieving causes us to be confronted with just how vulnerable we really are in this world and yet, in a mysterious juxtaposition, it can bring the freedom to become who we have been created to be. Grieving, and its companion Forgiveness, are the only remedy to a life of bitterness and hardness of heart. Together they create the fertile soil that nourishes our soul and the beauty that lies within us, waiting to be reborn.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

In the Company of Beeches

Beneath the canopy of giants, young and older beeches fill the understory along the trail that runs to the river.
Everywhere, warm tans soften the gray of this raw and rainy winter day, persistent dry leaves whispering in the wind, 
fallen ones cushioning the raindrops that patter against the forest floor.

Great craggy white oaks soar skyward, golden-crowned kinglets and nuthatches searching the loose bark for hidden grubs and overwintering insects.
Mosses skirt the yellow poplars' flanged bases, creeping like fuzzy green stockings along the massive trees' long and winding toes.

Above, red-headed woodpeckers work the dead trees and yellow-bellied sapsuckers the live ones.
Food for all, near at hand, free for the finding.
Below, throngs of white-throats forage in the duff layer beneath the shrubs, disguised in the dry leaves, darting to and fro, like so many winged mice, too intent on their quest to notice me.

Oh, to be a member of this quiet, enfolding community, surrounded by unpretentious beauty in all seasons...roots entwined, branches interlaced, mysterious communication beneath the earth-one species to another, no awareness of the human folly beyond its borders.

Like the imaginary dwellings of my childhood, secret spaces beneath sweeping branches, hidden from the rest of the world, the sanctuary to which I turn when in turmoil...
Peace in the company of beeches.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Rainy, soggy January interlude before the coming freeze,
not what I would call a beautiful day.
But, here I am alive, with faculties to search out beauty
and the bit of green I need to make it until spring.
With chilled hands, cold water running down my back,
I part the leaves to find the treasures.
Foamflower, Jacob's ladder and Virginia waterfleaf,

vibrant against the browns,
winter no match for their tenacity. 

It doesn't look like much, a dried-up flower stalk from a small, last-season planted oak-leaf hydrangea,
reminder of what was and what will be.
Memory stirs imagination to recall the late-summer brightness in the shady shadows of my front yard.
Last to put out new leaves in spring, 

reminder that beneath all appearances,
we hope not in vain.

A few tiny, almost insignificant, catkins,
first of this hazelnut's young life.
Enough to pollinate the even
more obscure female flowers as they open,
a few months from now?
No matter, for growth happens at its
own pace, in its own time. Sometimes faltering, 

sometimes subject to forces beyond its control,
always moving toward the promise of fecundity,
sending its offspring out into the world.