Wednesday, December 16, 2009


My wedding present from my maid of honor. Thank you, Jessica.

In the farthest corner of the store, I stare into the automotive section. Hadn't the fabric section been here? I walk on.

A young salesman shelves DVDs. I ask, "Do you have a fabric section?" "Over there."

Two cramped aisles with a counter between them.

A tired out looking mom with glasses and a tight ponytail says, "Yeah, I like this fleece for making jackets. I ran this through my Serger...," as the saleswoman slides 3 yards of brightly patterned fleece across the counter towards her. "My daughter, she likes anything pink," the mom continues in a cigarette husky voice.

Her daughter towers over her, also with a tight ponytail, but her face was a round teenager's face with darkish eyeliner around her bright eyes. She smiles and bobs her head.

The thread pyramid is stacked with colorful, tightly wound spools that roll forward when one is removed. It always looks full, even when only one spool remains. A few zippers, bobbins, a couple models of lightweight machines sit on shelves.

Don't ever change the tension on your machine
, said the repairman - I remember my mother repeating his advice.

There are none of the cheap, short nap velvets that I bought here previously. No slippery rayons. Not enough room. Many bolts of cotton with fine prints, good for machine quilting, crafts, doll clothes. Fleece, and other very inexpensive fabrics. Hardly anything is above $2.95/yard.

You can tell quality on any garment. Look to see if the print lines up.

I look at a couple bolts of 100% cotton, natural, coarse weave. They all look slightly different - color, texture, thread weight, but I realize the bar codes are all the same.

Buy more fabric or thread than you think you need.

I bring a couple bolts to the saleswoman. "Three yards each please."

"Might not have 3 yards of this one." Thud, flip, thud, flip, thud, flip. She undoes the bolt, pinching the edge of the fabric and pulling it to the yardstick inset in the counter. Three and a quarter yards.

She scans a barcode and punches numbers into a clunky 'price gun,' which spits out a price tag.

"Three yards of this, too." Her scissors scrape across the counter as they cut the fabric, a sound so nostalgic. I could not reproduce it with letters.

I ran to the back of the store and hugged the immense rolls of shaggy, fake fur in oranges, blacks, greens and reds. Hey, don't do that, yelled the saleswoman. Never did again.

"Did this section get smaller?"

"Three years ago," snorts the saleswoman as she uses a straight pin to afix the receipt to the fabric. It seems like such an antiquated gesture. Already.

"Oh, people don't sew as much, I guess. Clothes are so cheap."

"Who has time to sew? Women are all working, no time to sew. I never worked when my kids were young." I look at the side of her face. "I sewed."

"I guess that's progress and that was the good old days."

"I'll take the good old days," she replies and glances out to the main aisle.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

FACW

Wetlands, Woodbourne Forest
Endless Mountains, Pennsylvania, June 2009


When searching online for "FACW," the abbreviation for "facultative wetland," these were my results:

Did you mean: face

No, I meant FACW. I am trying to find the definition of FACW. I suggest the USDA PLANTS Database.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Adventure on the lane

Our lane, Sourlands, February, 3, 2009

As we drove, the headlights shone upon her. She looked up, and we saw her drop something in the driveway. Looked like a bone. She started towards us.

Jared hollered, "Dog's here!"

We had just passed the neighbor and one of his dogs walking along the lane. Darkness had just fallen and the temperature had dropped. "Can't find the other dog," he laughed. "Wonder if she found a deer carcass," he said and sighed.

She had found a deer carcass - most of a spine and most of a rear leg. The assemblage was in a eccentric heap, joints were still attached. As we approached, she wagged her tail, sauntered back to the bone pile and grabbed the lower leg. She wagged and stretched her neck out, the bones flopped.

Our neighbor caught up, and we joked about soup bones. He took the bones, and the male dog showed interest. Our neighbor swung the bones behind his back, and the dog leapt after them. We laughed and said goodnight.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Enjoying the Snow


Greenhouse, new fence and hemlock in the first snow of the season, Sourlands, December 5, 2009
What vegetables will survive the temperature drop? Hopefully, the white flies and aphids will not.

Philadelphia, Winter 2002:

Our landlords had been living in the United States for just a couple years. We watched them from our bedroom window on the third floor. Getinet in his black leather jacket, and Tigist, an Ethiopian beauty, were laughing on the sidewalk. They drove away in their small sedan.

The snow was falling quickly - already a foot, and wind sculpted drifts. They returned not long after and walked up the steps still laughing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Good Night in Philadelphia


A cup of tea after good night's sleep on the morning of our first hard frost of 2009, November 11, 2009, Sourland Mountain

When we lived in Philadelphia and New York, we turned on a fan every night before retiring. In the summer we faced the fan towards the bed. In winter, we faced the fan away. It hardly helped to cool off a first floor Queens apartment or a third floor walk up in Philly.

It did help deaden the noise. Somewhat.

Philadelphia
The sprawling family cackles on their porch all night. A fight between two lovers. A woman on the roof of the porch, wears a t-shirt and underwear, shakes a brush at the man standing in the middle of the street. "Get back here, you p***y!" she yells. A fight amongst the entire clan. A child yells, "Grandma, don't!" Folding chairs are thrown across the porch. Hair extensions on the sidewalk. Grandma, in her black burka, gestures like a opera singer in the street.

Other neighbors have pitbulls and dreary eyes with red circles below. Cocaine? Heroin? They play video games and electronic music through an immense sound system, including subwoofers. Not even foam ear plugs deaden the sound - actually a rumbling feeling. We bang on the door at 2 AM. "Turn it down. I have to work. I'm a teacher." "OK. Here's my number. Call if it's a problem again." He offers his hand to shake, and I shake his hand off because he holds on too long. We call the next night, 2 AM. No answer. Call again. I hear him scream. He picks up and calmly says "Hello?" "Can you turn it down?"

There's an animal scream from the street below. We wake with constricted hearts and crawl to the window. "Get back," he pushes me from the window. For me, duck means look. I come forward again. "Get back. It's our downstairs neighbor beating a woman. He has her against our van." I call 911, and we listen to the animal fighting. 911 is a good invention, but who the hell wants to speak louder when you are afraid your downstairs neighbor will scale the porch and beat you, too?

There's an animal wail from the street below. A kitten is mewing from the wheel well of our neighbor's car. We shine a flashlight behind the tire and try to coax him with food. We tire of hunching by the car, blacktop is imprinted on our knees and palms. We call an animal shelter. "Can't do it. Private property." "It's on the street." "Nope, it's up in the car. Private property. Talk to the vehicle's owner." We are awoken hourly by the cat. Mid-morning we observe a shirtless man is prodding the wheel well with a curtain rod. "Yep. Heard it all night," he slurs.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tunk Lake, Maine, August 2009

It's possible that writing might be more rewarding than producing a correctly proportioned print from Adobe Lightroom on a pokey computer. It's possible that I miss my darkroom, all trademarks and patents long expired. Besseler, Gra Lab, Time O Lite. Kodak, too. I miss my quick easel. I felt nostalgic smelling some terrible chemical odor that reminded me of fixer. It's only possible, because I also remember equipment breakdowns, spills, darkroom dishpan hands and an overpopulated Rutgers darkroom, a sweltering Philadelphia attic darkroom, a noisy neighbors uninsulated floors Philadelphia darkroom, a cramped Queens apartment darkroom, a suburban Michigan bathroom darkroom, a cold and damp Sourlands basement darkroom. Now, I have a slow computer next to the eye-drying woodstove Sourlands lightroom.

***

Balsam fir - the smell of Maine's spruce-fir forest and all the smaller souls that aren't valued by woodland eco-nomics. A single white cranberry blossom, the search for late baked appleberries, the reds of bog plants. Almost makes me forget the gloomy, musty cabin we rented, the chronic cough that we returned home with, the unmatched (I repeat, unmatched population of mosquitos; the bayside trail at Island Beach State Park in 2007 is a distant second) mosquito population at Bartholomew's Cobble, and the feeling that we should have chosen a new place to vacation.

***

I would like to thank the fellow that ran a bookstore out of his garage in Machias, Maine for the sun tea and the recommendation to walk Tunk Lake. We heard a loon call and saw the spruce and fir canopy stretch to the ocean, broken only by the lake and a bog.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Statistical Hawk, Individual Hawk

Solitary hawk, Catskills

Shortly down the road, I realized we had to turn around. I forgot something. Turning around always feels like a jinx.

Halfway up the lane, Jared pointed up. A hawk was perched on a low branch just off the road. We watched, amazed. He was so close. His feathers were ruffled - a red tailed hawk. He flapped to another part of the tree and fought with a 10 foot tall multiflora rose shrub.

Many of his his tail feathers were broken, breast feathers awry and a wound on his beak. We watched him fly laboriously to another tree.

I felt upset, worried. Could a cat have done this? I wondered aloud. I doubted this very much, but the ability to blame a guilty party (a loosed pet cat) seemed like a good way to direct my feelings. No chance, replied Jared. A great horned owl? Perhaps.

A neighbor came by a suggested: Another one of them could have done it. They attack each other. I felt irritated. He went on to talk about an owl hunting his pigeons. I realized "each other" meant all birds. Does a robin think, I'm being chased by one of my own, as the Cooper's hawk's talon grasps his body?

A hungry, hurt hawk. An individual, unlike the statistical birds that are eaten, die of old age or the tragedies that take birds in the modern world. The statistical birds that I don't see, the hungry, hurt hawks that alit just out of view of my rearview mirror as I buzz down the road.

For this individual hawk, I'm wishing him well. An easy meal of a mouse who I don't know so well.

We joked about feeding the hawk one of the squirrels who harassed both of us - separately - when we hunted in the back yard. No, you can't kill the neighborhood squirrel family. You have to go to someone else's neighborhood, and kill theirs.

Wait until we put up the birdfeeders. See what you think then, he said.

Yeah, but then they'll get the mange again. I'll stop being angry at the squirrels. I'll worry about them.

It's complicated. "What you don't know, won't kill you." "Not in my backyard." There are handy ways of manipulating and defining instinct, empathy, justice, fairness.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Balance















Balance.

What would it mean if balance were not, as we often imagine, some static moderate point between frenetic extremes?

What if balance is really the infinite flux, the intricate neverstill place with infinities equally thronging on all sides? If change is the tightrope and time is the walker, now swaying, now poised? If the talons of the hawk the second before grasping hold universes of possibility, and the imminent wounding of the vole coincides with, sways with, the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies?

Then control would be a vain attempt at limiting the infinite. It would be a devil pact, an ultimately barren act, engorged on self-deceipt.

We tend to view productivity as springing from control. Think of the modern cornfield: tilled to a blank slate, sprayed for weeds, sprayed for insects, doused with fertilizers, irrigated with transported water, planted with a monoculture.

Controlled to just a few particular elements. Becoming more devoid every year. More barren. More susceptible, too, to sudden, autochtonous crises, plagues of insects and pathogens and other monstrous particularities, previously held in balance -- that is, embraced in the throes of the infinite.

The devil's contract of control leads to first to outrageous productivity, which ultimately produces only barrenness*:

For most of its history, the Asian longhorned beetle occupied a small, largely unremarkable niche in the forests of China, Korea and Japan. It was not known as a serious pest. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the Chinese government began to plant enormous windbreaks of millions of trees in its northern provinces in response to erosion and deforestation. These windbreaks were composed almost entirely of poplar trees, which mature quickly and tolerate the arid, cold climate of northern China. As it happens, the poplar is a tree favored by the ALB, along with maple, birch, elm and several other hardwoods. The beetle is unique among invasive forest pests for attacking such a broad array of hosts, which is partly why it is so dangerous.

Adult beetles feed on leaves, twigs and young bark. Females deposit anywhere from 35 to 90 eggs, one at a time, in pits they dig in the bark. When the eggs hatch, ALB larvae bore into the cambium, the tissue that ferries the tree's nutrients, and then they move into the heartwood. Over several years, this tunneling chokes off a tree's supply of nutrients and kills it—a death by a thousand cuts.

In the 1980s, as China's poplar forests matured, the ALB population exploded. Within a few years, hundreds of millions of trees were infested, and the Chinese government had to cut tens of thousands of acres of forest to prevent the beetle's further trespass.

Meanwhile, China, along with the rest of the world, experienced a surge in foreign trade. Since 1970, global sea trade has tripled, and today more than 90 percent of the world's goods travel at least one leg of their journey by ship. The United States went from importing 8 million sea containers in 1980 to more than 30 million in 2000. And most of those products—diapers, televisions, umbrellas—are packed in crates or on pallets made of wood. In the 1980s, pallets of infested poplar began to leave Chinese ports, carrying Asian longhorned beetle larvae. A stowaway on the global shipping network, the insect came into nearly instant contact with warehouses across the world.

[from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Invasion-of-the-Longhorns.html]


A parable about control, the particular, and productivity. Why brutally deforest an entire ecosystem and then replant it largely with poplar? Poplar grows fast, all the experts would have recommended it is a quick fix, a straight line to a solution. Ignoring the worlds within worlds which had been destroyed in the deforestation, the balance of myriad poised universes.

Just like the cornfield, productivity was maximized. Until the inevitable slapback of teeming reality, the plague, the pathogen, the monster insect, emerged. Then, all was rendered barren.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that "controlled to just a few particular elements" is balance. Put bugs on one side, chemicals on the other, out comes balance.

Richard Hell sang that "love comes in spurts". Balance comes in universes.

Sometimes in ecology, we act as if there are means and ends. "If we improve plant habitat, we'll achieve higher bird numbers". Plants are the tool, birds the goal.

Ecology is not linear that way, not teleological. Neither is balance.

Let's return to that hawk, talons outstretched. What if she misses, her talons scraping Earth, voleblood vanishing into the unrealized future. Instead, some mud on a claw. In that mud, a seed. Eupatorium fistulosum.

The next day, she hunts a different wet meadow, plunges, strikes, kills. The seed dislodges and after the sleep of winter germinates. The Eupatorium flowers after two years, is attended by myriad pollinators. That winter, the stem withers and stands brown among the sedges. A vole cuts the plant's root-body, drags it, feasts on its sunbirthed sugars. The vole then awaits the fate of voles: a rapture of talons and blood... and the singing of whales, the orgy of flowers, the collision of distant astral bodies.

There is no means here, no ends. Birds are gardeners of plants, voles are the aftereffect of pollinators. Time is a line if contemplated by a dogmatist, but abuzz with hummingbirds, bees, heat, hunger, beauty, and claws if released to the infinite.

Balance is beyond our control. Monocultures, and mono-cultures, will strangle our reality. When you plant, dance, and do so with sway!



*I borrow this concept, clumsily, from Michael Taussig. See "The Sun Gives Without Receiving" in Walter Benjamin's Grave for more on the ecology of plantations, commodity fetishism, and the devil contract.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Birds on Film


Hermit thrush on blackhaw. Digital zoom through inexpensive binoculars.

The grackles sent the pin oak acorns raining down on the roof. Splat. Their droppings came down on the porch. We saw them thirty minutes later along Montgomery Road in a beech forest. Certainly it was raining beechnuts.


Grackles through two panes of cheap glass.

Over this week, we've watched several species of birds eat fruit. Some observations:

Cedar waxwings ate pieces of the already minute hackberry, rather than eating it whole. Usually crisp, sweet and just a bit dry, this year's crop of hackberries tastes terrible - mealy and bland.

White-throated sparrows peck at blackhaw fruit, eating just a piece of the flesh. A hermit thrush landed nearby and began swallowing the fruit whole. I've had some particularly tasty blackhaw fruits - fleshy and sweet; while other blackhaws bore "tasteless" fruit - much like a lump of snow.

The winter bird season has officially begun. The leaves are mostly down, winter compatriots have joined their mixed flocks, and blurry, through the window snapshots have been taken.

My mom shared with me her own. This afternoon, my mom, who used to dislike birds very, very much, says, "Oh, did I show you my bluebird pictures?" She flips through dear photos of their trip to Alaska on her digital camera (thank you, Jared, for helping my parents learn how to use that machine. My brother and I are grateful), and finds two bluebird photographs taken from the kitchen window. Two indigo bunting and birdfeeder photographs, one towhee and birdfeeder, one towhee under the birdfeeder. We cooed over the pictures, blurry, dulled by a foggy kitchen window.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


A bright green katydid is not well-disguised in a red maple forest in autumn. Here, leaves were shed a month ago.

The time change - leave the dimly lit office and enter into the dimly lit evening.

Recent hikes - many caterpillars, many birds. Golden eagle, osprey, harriers. A male and female harrier took off from the hedgerow. I learned that harriers have a wobbly flight. Golden eagle was mobbed by the dozen crows. We got a good view - ID'ed it as a juvenile. Light-ish head and a strong white tail band. A flock of a dozen meadowlarks.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Spiders, mushrooms, caterpillars, bees, wasps, groundhogs and other maligned creatures and creepers


Forest tent caterpillars don't create tents, like eastern tent caterpillars do. However, they are "gregarious," meaning, they gather in large groups.
June 6, 2009, Catskills, NY.



Pine Barrens fungus. Out of the yellow sand, this mushroom emerged.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.




An insect visits the last blooms of a heath in late October.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.




An unidentified insect made these exit holes more regular than a Singer sewing machine.
October 30, 2009, Franklin Parker Preserve, Chatsworth, NJ.



Dewy spider web.
July, 29, 2009, Sourlands, NJ



A solitary forest tent caterpillar displays its jewel-like markings.
June 6, 2009, Catskills, NY.



I wondered why so many insects congregated on this single goldenrod. Oh, how interesting, a snail, two flies and a few others. What I saw was a day's catch for a well-hidden spider.
October 2, 2009, Creek Road, Frenchtown, NJ


"I like snakes," she said as she showed me around her yard. We were looking for invasive species. We found a few.

"Most people probably don't."

"I do."

She pointed out the various groundhog holes and deer bedding areas (no longer in use since the neighboring lot began to be developed). Pointing at the multiflora rose, she said, "That, I hate that, but the birds eat it."

"Hmm. Multiflora rose, a non-native, invasivvvv drzzz zzz..." I droned. She had an uncanny ability to point out invasives, "This, this is all over. I hate it. I cut it." Autumn clematis, wineberry, mile-a-minute vine.

I was pleasantly subdued by the grey clouds, her European accent and interest in all animals. I joked lightly about groundhogs in my garden, and she said, "Most people find them a pain." I didn't bother talking about the deer overpopulation. This unruly plot was a home for anyone who might come by, regardless of provenance or status.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Painting the House


'Trailblazer Red' on black birch, which is beginning to turn yellow-rumped warbler this week.



I prefer 'Pinesap Red in Afternoon Light.'

Tomorrow we'll look for paint for the living room, a small room with a low, angled ceiling, a woodstove in the corner, a doorway on three of the four walls, a purplish-burgundy couch that harbors a keyboard, Scrabble and Chinese checkers below, a white rocking chair, a sea foam green wooden chair, a homemade Shaker candleholder, a banged up nightstand with small pink roses painted on the handles, a selection of trim, many nail holes, and grey office carpet. Did I mention the walls are dark wood paneling that has been painted off-white?

No paint, not Ralph Lauren Lifestyle Colors, not even the jewel-like tones of The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait under museum lights, can look like the colors in nature.


Sassafras and tupelo leaves amongst last autumn's chestnut oak and beech leaves.

Why? Because the things of nature are many colors. A fresh coat of paint hides all the nail holes (if you know how to spackle well), but it is baldly one color. If you hate it, there's nowhere to look that is not that color. I hate every color I have ever painted any room.

The first room I rented during college was a beautiful yellow (I didn't paint it, my roommate, a fine arts painter did). I have been trying to find that color since then, but I wonder if it was simply that I didn't choose the color and the room had beautiful wood trim and floors.

When we talk about painting rooms, Jared suggests "Wren stomach, let's paint this room the color of Carolina wren stomach." Golden-yellow. Possibly the color of my bedroom in college.


Or was the bedroom painted 'Hayscented fern in autumn'? I think I may buy the wrong color tomorrow.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Wood, wood, wood, wood


The lunch of a irrational person.

"I had no idea you had wood lust. You were so cranky."

Wood lust. It is something many couples have. The weather starts cooling off. The down blanket warms the bed, lengthening each morning's wake up. The sun sets early, sending you to bed early.

"You had wood lust," he repeats.

I pursed my lips to hide a smile. "Hm."

"Can I have some pecans?"

"OK. I've got a granola bar. We can split it."

"Hmm. Nah, I'll have the pecans. You were so cranky, but then when you started down the driveway at ten miles per hour...I had to resist the urge to tell you to hurry up. I started thinking, 'Rachel, the wood will be gone if you don't hurry up.'"


I got a phone call from a friend while I was at the office. "Good wood. Oh wow, look at this burl," he said. "I might come back with my chainsaw."

We said goodbyes, and I thought, "Let me call Jared. Better check in, see how he's feeling." Jared had been knocked out with a dreadful cold. When I left for work in the morning, he was wrapped in blankets. His pale face was edged by an atypical 5 o'clock shadow. Tissues littered the floor. He hadn't even gotten out of bed to wave goodbye when I drove away. Bad sign.

The phone rang a few times, "Hello?" Jared mumbled. "Hi, how are you feeling?" I asked.

Wood, wood, wood, wood.

"Oh, really, that's too bad. You'll feel better soon. I wanted to mention that I heard there was some wood along the road..."

"Uhhh, I'm not really feeling that great."

Wood, wood, wood, wood.

"Oh. It might be there in a couple days. You should rest."

Wood, wood, wood, wood.

The following day Jared collapsed back into bed after breakfast.

"So there's that wood," I mention casually.

"So long as you don't mind doing more than 50% of the work, Rachel, we can get it. I'm still feeling really sick. And, by the time we finish, it will be long after lunchtime." (I get terrible headaches if I skip meals.)

We change into work clothes, grab the chainsaw, gloves, safety glasses, ear plugs, water, leftover hamburger.

I look at the back tire - it was very low. "We need gas and air in the tires."

"Oh, we can wait until we get the wood."

"No, we should get air." I was not aware that wood lust had affected Jared so quickly.

I was certain that the wood would be gone, but we arrive, and it is still there. I am unable to think properly. I start pacing. We have to fit it all in the truck.
We have to fit it all in the truck. We have to fit it all in the truck.

Jared gases the chainsaw, "Well, while you make plans, I'm going to get the saw ready. Damn, who makes these damn things?" Gas shot out of the canister. "Oh, what the hell." Bar oil dribbled on the bar and handle. He tosses his gloves and grabs a rag from the chainsaw case. I recognize it as a sleeves from an H&M shirt that a friend's washer chewed up in Milwaukee.

I continued to pace. Gloves on, gloves off. Poison ivy on the tree. Can we fit it all? Pacing.

Despite the chain's dullness we made a good haul. The work made Jared animated after a couple days in bed.

We chatted as he cruised down the country roads. "Feel better?" "I feel great. I was so sick of being inside." Jared dips his hand into the pecans, "This is lunch. I didn't understand that you had wood lust. What a great haul," he smiles as I take a picture of our sagging truck bed.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fall Flowers

Woodland sunflower at Harry's

There are two places in the region where I know I can see fall flowers, more or less as they're supposed to be. One is a little country road near Frenchtown NJ with very steep banks. The other is at my friend Harry's-- he has about a dozen acres of woods inside a deer fence.

Wreath goldenrod, white wood aster, heart-leaved blue wood aster, turtleheads, woodland sunflowers - I miss the New Jersey I've never seen, where these plants lined every shady roadside, where joe pye weed and sneezeweed and New York ironweed earned their names.

Typical Sourlands Road

Sometimes our roadsides and woods edges are as bland as our lawns, between the depredations of the deer and the erratic mowing of municipal road crews. Slowly the flowers have disappeared from our lives, slowly enough that few people seem to have noticed. Instead, we've taken for granted the impoverished monotony of our surroundings.

Land without flowers: A potentially beautiful dry oak woods at the Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve, which shamefully has no deer management in its entire 2500 acres

I took an interesting walk the other day, at Woodfield Reservation, in Princeton. Along the trails in the mature woods, I was thrilled to see long stems of wreath goldenrood, and the tenacious bright blooms of white wood aster. Looking closer, I saw that the native shrubs and trees had put on good growth during the season as well. Princeton's bold deer management initiative seems to be working.

Wreath goldenrod

Woodfield Reservation has its share of invasive plants - even species barely seen elsewhere have a strong presence here, like oriental photinia, and linden viburnum. Yet, looking around, these non-native shrubs were frequently surrounded by native spicebush thickets. Young invasives were at the same height as recovering maple-leaf viburnum and sapling dogwoods. And everywhere in between, the goldenrod and aster bloomed.

Recovery amidst invasion: shrub layer at Woodfield Reservation

I thought to myself-- maybe this is what recovery looks like. We'll never have "perfect", uninvaded woods again. But, I think I can live with the occasional winged euonymus or linden viburnum if it's flanked by forty spicebush. The multiflora rose and barberry largely get shaded out by a thriving native shrub layer, and the dinky annual japanese stiltgrass is nowhere in sight. Ecological restoration work undertaken in concert with natural recovery will be more effective at healing.

After that walk, I've started to think of white wood aster and wreath goldenrod as "indicator species". If I may be so bold: When our flowers come back, we'll know that the recovery of our natural world is underway.


Turtleheads

New England Aster

Heart-leaved blue wood aster, shielded by boulder, Ridge Road

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Year of the Arrow-Leaved Tearthumb

Polygonum sagittatum

Sometimes we say to each other "Last year, weren't there more New England asters?" or "Isn't it much snowier this year than last?" or "Gosh, I don't remember seeing mosquitoes in February before, maybe it's global warming..."

Just for the records, this was the year in which every modestly wet spot with a dab or two of sun was overrun with... Arrow-Leaved Tearthumb.


Slope (!) near greenhouse, tearthumb higher than blackberry canes


A wave consisting of carpgrass, stiltgrass, and, above them all, tearthumb.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Indian cucumber root, Minnewaska State Park, New York

The black birch is turning red at the wooded corridor of Rock Brook. Wind in the canopy of a red oak sent acorn cannonballs down on us as we ate lunch. The ash tree is decorated with a red boa of Virginia creeper. Red-orange pills hide under spicebush leaves. The white oak began to turn burgundy last night.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Acorns

The red tail was calling to the clouds while acorns and walnuts fall from the trees. They make driving difficult. Like little roadkill their skin is split by grey tires which carry the husks home in their treads. Click, click, click. The acorn's tree intention is spread across the hot road. Their meat browns in the sun and washes away with next rain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Circles

When my car's wheels stopped turning, I couldn't believe I had to prepare dinner, so I stayed outside instead. I kicked off shoes still wet from the morning's dew and ate watermelon (the second one we have ever successfully raised and harvested) left over from my lunch. I hardly enjoyed it, though in between agitated thoughts, I reminded myself to enjoy it.

In the yard, a dark dragonfly chased insects in a small circuit of the backyard. The dragonfly was stunningly black. Thin light colored stripes ringed its abdomen. The flier approached numerous times, making snapping noises.

Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm Hungry

Pick a recipe.


Plink! The first canning jar sealed.

How do I make time (find time?) for all these things that I do and things that surround me?

Storm clouds are gathering - if it rains, I won't have to water the cold hardy seedlings, but I missed the chance to hang laundry. I halted the decay of a half bushel of peach seconds by canning brandied peaches and making peach salsa, while the remaining batch of peaches sits in a brew of sugar - I will have to finish them tomorrow evening after my Tuesday class. I revived the Mercer C(Plink! Second can of peaches sealed properly)ounty Park NW wild grape sourdough starter and made a nice, moist loaf of whole wheat bread in a stoneware pan. I'm writing this (Plink! Third one.), so I am not fixing a hem in a hand me down silk jacket, framing a print for my parents (will see them in a couple hours), weeding, teethbrushingcombingshowering, looking at the newly germinated seeds (Plink! Done.) in the seedling tray, helping Jared with the greenhouse, reading, watching the warbler migration, building a new bird feeder, nor hiking to the Osmunda fern ox bow along Rock Brook.


Get a few things going at once to create a big, complicated mess.


What can I possibly do to simplify? What can I give up? I'd like to give up some things - items, that is. Stuff that needs attention: fixing, laundering, dusting, straightening, organizing, filing, propping, tying, sweeping. Surely, another magazine, bill, invitation, phone message, plastic bag will blow in the front door and occupy any empty space.

What about everything else? Ideas, places, friends, family. What happens when every slot is filled with an activity and a friend visits from far away. I'll see you after class and before I go food shopping and the library.

I couple weeks ago, I thought, "Prepared food. Prepared food is the answer. That will cut down on dishes and food preparation time."


Note how beautiful and different the plants (ingredients) are.

There are a few problems with that:
1. I shop at a health food store. When I pick up a prepacked box of food, my arm shoots high in the air. I'm not high-fiving my husband. I'm not "Raising my hand because I'm Sure." I'm exerting what I believe to be the force needed to lift a package of food. "0.25 ounces. That's $50 per pound. Can you believe this?!" If I was blind I wouldn't even know there was a box of prepared food in my hand. By now Jared is drifting away to another aisle. He's heard this monologue before, and has probably determined that his time is better spent selecting cheeses and hurrying us to the check out line.

I've already spent a numerous hours of my life exclaiming, "A $50 bag of groceries. Fifty dollars. One grocery bag." I even drifted to sleep this weekend mumbling this to myself.

So, that's three problems - there's no food in the boxes, it's costly, and I don't have enough time to express my dismay that packaged food is costly.

2. Everytime we eat out there are as many dishes as there would be had we stayed home. I do not understand this phenomenon. I had pizza with one middle school and two high school science teachers last night. I should asked them if they have heard of any studies on this issue.

3. I dislike the taste of preservatives, especially those in bread. I just bought the Ohio stoneware baking pan, and I have to use it (they're digging up parts of Ohio to make these things so I can buy one on my vacation in Maine for god's sake). I can't let the native grape sourdough starter die - it's one year old.

How many reasons is that? Taste, environmental catastrophe, personal obligation.


Eat.

4. My husband is a good cook, and he likes it. I'm better suited to canning projects and baking, which constantly occupy every moment of the practitioner. I drift onto other projects while cooking meals, often burning pans and food. So, I like eating the food Jared makes, and it could be assumed that I would burn even prepared foods.

It seems that I should give up sleeping instead of homemade food. I just heard a raven... gotta go!

There's always a little leftover.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Ecology lessons from the vegetable garden?

The strawberry patch, taken over by weeds


Lesson: No matter how many weeds you pull from the vegetable garden, you never exhaust the supply of weeds.

  • As long as there is bare soil (an empty niche as a result of disturbance), weeds will recruit. There are always more seeds - probably hundreds per cubic inch.
  • To fill a niche so weeds don't recruit, a robust desired plant needs to be occupying that niche.

A lot of my work is in invasive plant removal-- as a component of ecological restoration. What lessons are my garden teaching me that might apply to my work? Perhaps, that the supply of invasive plant seeds will never go away. That the only way to really "remove" invasives from the landscape is to prevent their recruitment, by:

  • Having the niche already filled by robust (i.e. not decimated by deer) native plants
or
  • Having the seedbank saturated with native seeds so that recruits after disturbance are at least as likely to be native as exotic. The corollary to this is that the seedlings need to survive, so deer browse must not take place. Also, I've noticed that many native shrubs and herbs are so browsed that they are not producing seed.

Native herbs cover the ground along Maine coast

I just got back from Maine, and the plants there are amazing - robust, densely packed, and producing tons of seeds. So many berries everywhere - we gorged on huckleberries and blueberries and nibbled an occasional bunchberry as well.

I kept asking myself on the car ride back to NJ - is it impossible to get NJ back to being as nice as Maine? Maybe - fragmentation and habitat destruction is much further along here, and all that unfragmented (though heavily harvested!) forest in Maine supports much greater densities of wildlife than here.

But what about our remaining wild areas, of which there are many? Is it impossible that they be as robust as Maine's wilderness? I don't think so... but just pulling weeds won't make it happen. We need to stop creating so many empty niches (bulldozers, thoughtless forestry, critically overpopulated deer). Then, we need to help put some of the missing pieces back. No virginia snakeroot left in Princeton township? Propagate and plant it in suitable habitats.

Although "just pulling weeds" doesn't make the landscape spring back to robust health, here's another lesson from the garden...

Lesson: If you don't pull the weeds, they'll overwhelm your vegetables.

I know that domesticated annual vegetables are not the toughest plants on the block. By contrast, I think our natives could easily overtake many of our invasives, given the chance (again, the deer issue). Nevertheless, I think that an established plant community is very hard to transform without radical disturbance. We see this time and again in the woods when we find slivers of remnant, mature forest. They may be diminshed, but they are frequently not invaded - until a major disturbance comes through (tree mortality, forestry etc.) that is.

Unfortunately, the same is true for non-native plant communities. An "invaded" forest with a shrub layer of oriental photinia and a ground cover of garlic mustard and japanese honeysuckle is likely to stay that way... unless there is a radical disturbance, like a crew of land stewards with chainsaws and herbicide.

The more that invasive plant infestations are allowed to spread, the more chainsaws and herbicide we'll need if we ever want to restore them to native plant communities - and the more patience too, because it ain't gonna be fast or easy, and the soil chemistry and fauna is going to be inhospitable to natives.

Now, I wrote earlier that there are always more weed seeds, and I believe this to be true in central NJ. I think our seedbank is saturated. In Maine, there are many weeds seeds too, but fortunately most of the "exotics" up there are only early successional weeds that get outcompeted as the robust northern forest reclaims disturbed land.

Despite the cut stump, invasives can't recruit in this Maine landscape!

I think our wild area seedbanks are saturated with invasive plant seed, but I don't think every place is yet saturated with every weed. Here's a garden analogy: My mom's garden is absolutely saturated with galinsoga, and every time she goes away for a week, she returns to a carpet of it. Here, we just have a few and I try to grab them as soon as I notice them. Up here the weed that would take over if we abandoned our garden is evening primrose. Not bad, huh?

I think that the same can be said about our invasive seedbank. I've seen "remote" spots in the Sourlands sprout wineberry, barberry, ailanthus just after logging. But, these spots aren't yet sprouting photinia or siebold's viburnum, the way an analogous spot in Princeton would. So, I think there is value to the "Early Detection/Rapid Response" strategy of stewardship. We don't need our seedbank to contain even more competitors with natives, each with slightly varied tolerances. The more of these we get, the fewer niches we'll have where natives are superior competitors, and the more likely we are too see local extirpations and possibly regional extinctions in the future - even if we solve the deer overpopulation crisis and cease disturbing or destroying so much wild habitat.

The native perennial Allium cernuum in the vegetable garden

Thursday, August 20, 2009

August Heat


The artist lives precariously.


The garden? Tomato fungus, groundhog crew cuts on the beans, okra, and squash, deer beheaded asters and Joe Pye weed.

Ruby cherries turning black. This native black cherry was tasty.

The house? A dehumidifier driving up the electric bill and finally drying up the basement flood of two weeks ago. Large invading ants that died all at once and were replaced (briefly) by minute black ants. Mold growing on every surface. Piles of papers, books, ponytail holders, frames, trash picked buck saw and two-man saw, overflowing compost, a sweaty toilet tank, piles of dishes and leftover containers, fern gametophytes, damp sneakers, a very ugly archery target. Some more mold.

Native blackberries yet to ripen. Are they like corn? If not pollinated properly do these fruits become mishapen?

At work? It's hot. I wear linen pants in the field rather than Dickies or denim. My legs raked over and covered in red speckles from multiflora rose thorns. I'm ignoring the herbicide label that recommends wearing a long sleeved shirt while applying. Lots of dead invasive plants. Gratitude to volunteers.

Early goldenrod is more diverse than the R train during rush hour.

In the skies? A dozen and a half cedar waxwings in two flocks met and joined as one. Occasional partial oriole song. Flocks of chickadees and titmice and nuthatches. Woodpeckers calling. Less wood pewee song. Nighttime screech owl in the distance. Flocks of sparrows along the sides of slow country roads. An elderly woman in a sedan stopped in the road in the oncoming lane. Why? She's smiling, mouth open. Why? She's looking up. I've passed her and look in the rearview mirror. A small hawk on the power line. I'd like to turn around and gape, too, but I know the hawk will fly. She's still stopped. The hawk is still there. I have a good feeling.

In the meadows? Joe Pye, ironweed. Sweetflag is fading. Shrubby dogwoods in fruit. A small patch of phragmites surprises me with beautiful purple flowers (over it once I see the male model in the Urban Outfitters catalog scowling and posing a phrag patch). Common yellow throat chicks.


Grey dogwood fruit

It's the time of the goldfinch, New Jersey's state bird. With that, the beginning of the summer's end...