Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Country Laundry

I flipped on the radio. Must have been the Philly NPR station. "...reminds women of the drudgery of laundry..." said the speaker. The program had something to do with public art, maybe the giant clothespin sculpture near city hall.

I happen to really enjoy laundry. Really. Country laundry, not urban laundry.

There are fundamental differences between the two.

Urban: Did I hoard enough quarters? Trundle weeks worth of socks and bulky jeans down to the laundromat. Cringe when wet underwear flops out of the washer and onto the floor. Glance around to see who is staring at your laundry. Vie for the truly hot dryers. Didn't hoard enough quarters. Hold breath against terrible odors: bleach, dryer sheets, "Spring Blast" scented detergent. Weigh leaving the laundromat while the dryer spins to actually have a weekend afternoon free vs. the fact that the the dryer will stop 8 minutes after I leave the vicinity and the fear that someone will steal my underwear, my clothes will burn to a crisp, or be sopping wet when I return (see above fact).

Having left urban laundry far behind, I've forgotten the drudgery of laundry.

I jog out to move the suet feeder from the clothsline. I feel a cold dampness seep into my slippers.

SNAP! SNAP! I snap the towels. The birds continue divebombing the feeder. The sun shines on my face. A little wind kicks up, and blows the shirts. They are already frozen stiff, but the wind and sun will dry them.

A tulip tree seed case spins through the air. The bossy siskin senses a chickadee approaching from behind and flares his little wings. The chickadee is ejected from the feeder.

Socks go up two by two to save clothespins. The clothespins are old, worn smooth by unanticipated rain storms and hot summer sun. The metal springs are sturdy, most likely made by someone of my grandparents' generation. After all, I inherited these pins when we cleaned out my grandparents' home.

My mind wanders, and sounds of the morning drift by. The clothesline reel yells, as I send the laundry out over the lawn. Please don't poop on my laundry, I request of the birds. Please, squirrels, don't find the suet.

Inside, I realize how deeply chilled my fingers are. I try to warm them on the fading heat of a tea cup. The wind blows two tee shirts up on themselves.

Chickadees are Laundry Chums

After the afternoon's work is done and before the sun slips below the treeline, I take in the laundry. The coin pockets of the jeans are still damp, but the beltline and crotch are dry. The bandanna is loose and unwrinkled. All of it smells fresh and feels cool and stiff.

Jared and I laugh about how I can't read the thermometer and determine how to dress myself. "What's the temperature?" "Fifty-five." "Is that, umm, jacket and hat?" "Sweatshirt and vest." *

Nuthatch Observes the Feeder/Clothesline Activity Matrix

I do know how to tell laundry though. I know what will dry, and what will remain wet at 4 o'clock on a fiercely windy January day. I know how many times I can fold over sheets to make room for sleeveless shirts on July. In August, I know I can't wait 'til mid-morning to hang, even on the hottest day; the sun gets too low behind the trees and dampness comes off the earth. Nothing dries. A month later, the moisture dissipates, laundry dries again.

All the while, the laundry goes and comes down. I watch the birds attack the feeder in January, the titmice start singing in February, the phoebes return in March, the spring beauties in April, thrushes in May, hummingbirds zoom in June, you get the point. I love to be reminded of the drudgery of laundry.

Here's some information about suburban and urban laundry, and the RIGHT TO DRY Campaign.

*I had to confirm this clothing choice with Jared. I was not sure how to dress for 55 degrees. My initial guess was incorrect!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vista in Autumn

What is it about big birds?

Is it the same impulse that made two hikers say to us, "How much further to the top? Is it worth it? Is the view beautiful?"

We four were bathed in the glowing yellow light cast from an autumn sun through layers of chestnut oak and black birch leaves, cast again through maple leaf viburnum leaves.

Spicebush fruits, radiant fiery pills. Hulls of hickory nuts upon the ground, carved beads burst from a forgotten necklace.

Straight columns of black oak stand, caryatids protecting their brethren, the American chestnut. The oaks await the return of the chestnut when he too can stand with them again.

Silken witch hazel sepals entrance busy autumn bees. Linden buds, precious rubies. Moss, emerald carpet.

We are bathing in gold. We sing for this moment to return. We sing for winter's sapphire chill. For spring's peridot, warming to summer's muslin, cotton, and silk.

We four part and become two and two again. Our steps quicken in both directions. Up to the sweeping vista, and down through the loosening spell of an autumn afternoon.

What is it about big birds and vistas? They command us - away from thoughts of obligations and desires. They "take our breath away" - not even the sound of breathing will do in this sacred place.

Should we follow the big birds they lead us to the cricket hanging on a blade of grass, to dull seeds cached along narrow trails of field mice.

Should we not follow the big birds we wait past our lifetime to see the tiny seeds become the forest of caryatids.

The vista is only a mirror.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Winter Blues Cured by Winter Greens

This is forest turf: not grass, but a sedge, probably Pennsylvania sedge. Its clumping, cascading form never needs mowing. Having taken a summer nap on Pennsylvania sedge, it is kind to lawn grass allergic folks like myself.

Here is what I saw on the way to one of my favorite places in the Sourlands: two little lowlands beside Rock Brook that will be filled with Royal, Cinnamon, and Interrupted Ferns and Skunk Cabbage in a few months.

By the time I reached this fuzzy tripartite leaf, I had forgotten this afternoon's trying trip to the grocery store. Have I mentioned how I find public displays of Bluetooth irksome?

Partridgeberry (Michella repens) find relief from the deer hoof superhighway that runs along the pond by nestling alongside a fallen black birch.

Betula species are a wonderful part of the forest. Their seeds (those uneaten by wintering birds) germinate readily on decaying tree trucks in canopy gaps. As the "nurse tree" decays the Betula displays a set of stilt-like legs. As a return favor, Betula species decay nicely and often nurse other species, like this partridgeberry.

Those of us who are aware of the natural world have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It can be bitter.

Here, spring beauty (Claytonia virginiana) grows among the buttressing roots of an American elm (Ulmus americana). Numerous elms near our house have succumbed to Dutch elm disease or some other pathogen. A few near the brook still thrive, and a sapling (progeny of the deceased) at the edge of our yard shoots up several feet each year.

I love their bright grey bark, their rough leaves. I root for the underdog, go elm trees.

“An alga took a ‘likin’ to a fungus.” Moss and lichens grow atop some unidentified black stuff. Reminds me of fern roots. Anyone know? Please write. [Go ask the mice!]

This is a sweet little plant that looks like cleavers, but lacks barbs. It has tiny hairs along the leaf margins. Perhaps marsh bedstraw (Galium palustre).

Neighboring the Galium is this spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa). I looked forward to its delicate white blooms.

Single strands of moss and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) find purchase on the trunk of a tree.

Wintertime Blues, Wintertime Greens

What's green in dreary February? Quite a bit, actually. Unlike spring and summer, however, to find green leaves you have to scratch around in the duff, mumble alot, and generally act like someone desperate for the growing season to start up...

Then, when you find something, you have to scratch your head, mumble some more, then act like you actually remember last growing season and what things like plants are called.

Rachel and I took a short hike out from the house in search of any greenery that could be found this chilly afternoon.

We hooked around behind the pond, followed the outflow stream into the older riparian woods, then looped up onto the lane and circled back home. Here's what I saw; Rachel will give her own tally.

Lots of sedges and confusing basal leaves demand the disclaimer: don't depend on my cold-addled brain getting all of these right!

I think this is a pussytoes (Antennaria sp.).

Partridgeberry AKA Mitchella repens. Here, happily rooting into some cushion moss. One "partridgeberry" still hangs on in the background. This is a good illustration of why the fruity flesh of native propagules contain germination inhibitors - it's almost spring, and those seeds are not in a good place to germinate until someone comes along and eats that berry! Partridgeberries taste a little on the bland side but they're little charmers nevertheless.

I didn't bother photographing some of the invasive non-natives like japanese honeysuckle (it is the weekend), but I did photograph this little creeper. If I remember aright, I think this is common speedwell -- all too common in our forests, in my opinion-- but more of a weed than a threat to ecosystem integrity.

Who's this fuzzy little cutie? Worst case scenario, maybe a wineberry seedling. Otherwise, perhaps some kind of (three-foiled) cinquefoil?

Christmas fern.

This sedge (some kind of woodland Carex) looks suspiciously like it was nibbled on by a deer doing the same thing I was doing-- looking for any green thing in sight!

Spreading in clumps, this woodland sedge acted a lot like Carex pensylvanica. I didn't see any remarkable reddishness at the base, however, which I've been told is diagnostic.

This wood rush, on the other hand, had a deep wine-red cast to many of its leaves.

More of the wood rush (Luzula sp.). See the long hairs coming off of the reddish leaves?

My best guess on this is some species of Dichanthelium, a genus of grasses that includes Deertongue grass. This one was happily sprouting from the precipice of a small clump of moss in a pretty shady spot.

The basal leaves of some kind of goldenrod.

Not green, but I couldn't resist showing off the beautiful seedpods of Ditch Stonecrop, growing in a wet, somewhat open woods behind the pond.

Not green either, unless you count the mosses (I need to work on those!) Anyhow, someone ate american persimmon here, and left these seeds behind. Too bad it was in too shady a spot for them to grow successfully next year. Mr. Fox was not being a good gardener! I wish them luck in their continued voyage.

The leaf of a young greenbriar. Not much chlorophyll here - more like a relic of the glorious fall.

Curly sedge and straight sedge.

As we walk deeper into the old woods, skunk cabbage lines the floodplain, where wood nettle and cinnamon fern also live.

Spring beauty is ready for spring, and so am I!

This low wet wooded area has cinnamon, interrupted, and royal ferns - an Osmunda full house! Unfortunately, these are only visible as dried husks, whereas this white avens (Geum canadense) is green with just a tinge of winter purple.
Geum canadense is one of the few native herbs I see successfully colonizing young second-growth woods on post-agricultural land - those undraining soils repeatedly churned by the plow and dowsed with chemicals. Must be deer-resistant too.

Spinulose woodfern. See the spines (teeth) at the margins of the leaves. Something of a compatriot to white avens (above), this is one of the few ferns I see recolonizing our depauperite post-ag second growth woods. Maybe it can deal with poorly-drained soils-- it's in a nice little wetland here (the Osmunda full house), not far from a black ash.

The underside of a crowfoot leaf, I think (Ranunculus abortivus), unless it's golden ragwort (Senecio=Packera aureus)

Looks like an agrimony leaf. Didn't totally expect it in this here swamp, but that's what it looks like nevertheless. Agrimonea gryposepala seems to be the common agrimony species around here. Another one of the few brave native herbs commonly found in post-ag second growth. Virginia jumpseed would be a likely companion.

Not so sure about these guys. Spring cress (Cardamine bulbosa?)

We looped back onto the road and headed home. The road cuts through some really rich woods. These beautiful little pipsissewas are among my favorite woodland herbs. They are dependent on some kind of fungal symbiosis for successful germination - just like orchids.

A little Botrychium (Cutleaf Grape Fern), in a patch of moss, middle of the path. These ferns don't seem to mind a little disturbance cutting the competition down to their size every once in a while.

Round-lobed Hepatica. Hepatica's fuzzy flower stalks and blue blooms are a big part of the reason I cherish spring now that I am a country mouse.

Alumroot waiting for the sun.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Turf Wars

I put on long pants, old sneakers, and hand-me-down ear protection. March up the steep driveway to the barn. Fill the gas, check the oil. Careen down the driveway led by the four-wheeled being that calls itself "Mulcher".

One, two, three yanks and it comes alive. "I hate grass," I think. Grit my teeth and roar away led by the eager Mulcher.

I shout, "Jared, can you move this table?!" No reply. "JARED!" does not materialize, and I move the table myself. "I #$%!'ing hate grass."

The hand-me-down ear protection squeezes my head a little tighter.
I wind my way around clumps of volunteer old field asters and goldenrod, bugleweed and cinquefoil, fleabane and shagbark hickory seedlings. I chew up the multflora rose and nearly nail the wild blackberries.

The front wheel drive almost hauls me into the woods, but I quickly spin the Mulcher 180 to face the last stretch. It's the wet part of the lawn, where the grass grows three times faster and taller than the rest. It's the deal breaking section that caused us to return a loaner push-wheel mower.

I pop Mulcher into drive and aim for the knot of turf. "k-CHHHGGG, GGGrrch," cries Mulcher. I rear it back on two wheels, and Mulcher barfs out shining, green clods.

I close my eyes and slowly shake my head, "Please, Mulcher." I lower Mulcher down, and the blade briefly stops. Rear up. Clods. Down. Near stall. Rear up. Bits of grass fly. Down. Go.

"k-CHHHGGG, GGGrrch! RRrrrmmmmmmm." Full stall. I lift the mower and pull acrid smelling grass off the blade. My inner forearms turn red and itchy.

I pull the cord four times, and Mulcher gnaws the remaining lawn down to a respectable level.

We have approximately 1000 square feet of turf grass that we mow. The remaining 4/5ths of mowable area has been happily abandoned using several approaches. Our lawn is largely a meadow.

top: Muclher claims "ONE PULL START." Lies. And, "SOLID STATE IGNITION." Every musician knows tube amps are better than Solid State. What this means for lawn mowers, I have no idea.
center: Gas cans.

bottom: Pictograms help you operate Mulcher properly. Thank you, Craftsman.

Death by Oak Leaves

is a highly successful method for killing grass. Two tremendous oaks, a white and a pin, bless us with their tannin-rich leaves each season. Their buds and branches harbor insects for warblers during spring migration. Their green canopy shades in the summer. And, in autumn they let loose their acidic foliage that seems to have hands that link and stay in place year-round.

top: Grass is no match for the mighty oak leaf.
bottom: Cardboard and newspaper hidden by rocks and oak leaves at the edge of a seasonal wet part of the lawn. Grass supressed, Mulcher jobless.

Death by Compaction

usually spells the death of desirable volunteer plants, but in our case has allowed an interesting tapestry of species to thrive. Path rush (Juncus tenuis), perhaps the only species whose name I retained after taking a day long class called, Grasses, Rushes and Sedges at Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve, loves our "lawn". It appears along well traveled paths (it is called path rush, after all). Chicory, some yet to be identified sedges, yarrow, oldfield aster, mosses, and cinquefoil tolerate a history of compaction sometime in the past (it seems as though part of the meadow was once a driveway).

Each new year of leaf fall provides a new layer of humus and increased recruitment by native flora like boneset, Joe Pye weed, soft rush, goldenrod, and New York ironweed.

top to bottom: Signs of compaction include natives species like path rush and non-natives like mouse ear hawkweed and sorrel.

Death by Moss

is a sign of Death by Compaction, but deserves a separate treatment here. Moss grows throughout the meadow, and we selectively pull or cut back taller plants so it can thrive.

Rain and naturally moist places bring out the eternal radiance of moss. Dessicated and flattened by drought, mosses expand and grow with the advent of rain and melting snow.

Last spring, a chickadee built a nest by pulling tuft after tuft of moss from this patch. This renewalable building material will be waiting for the chickadee come spring.

Products exist to kill moss, if you use them, I suggest that you read Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately.

top: Moss in a bottle.
center: The first sighting of spring beauty (Claytonia virginiana), February 13, occurred in the highly compacted moss meadow below the Japanese maple.
bottom: The clay oven is home to moss and a variety of compaction tolerant species such as Indian tobacco (Lobelia inflata) below.

Death by Surprise Species
occurs when you have an excellent source seeds blowing around, wildlife to transport seeds, and the special species that can tolerate a multitude of human wrought adversities (mowing, compaction, lack of humus layer, etc.).

The north side of our house collects three important things, which bring about magical alchemy: a high drift of wind blown oak leaves, cold air and shade. In this narrow band of 'meadow' (about six feet or less) grows a youthful forest of two foot tall black birch seedlings and tall rattlesnake root (Prenanthes altissima).
Five indiviuals of ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera) have graced our meadow in two locations. In the first year of abanonment, we noticed their straplike basal leaves and combed through Peterson's and Newcomb's. Again and again.

The flower buds finally appeared and took a long time to open. When they did at last, I was shocked. A native orchid in my lawn?

SURPISE FOREST: LEFT: Black birch colonizing the "canopy gap" left by our former lawn.

Death by Encroachment

by the forest is rewarding to watch. What a relief that the earth can heal itself through a combination of intervention and non-intervention.

The forest edge was begun a forward march into our lawn. Yearly, trout lilies silently push ever closer to the house. A patch of mayapple, Virginia jumpseed, and an ash seedling crowd about the porch. A lady fern takes refuge from the sun underneath the porch. Fleabane basks in the sunnier spots and makes the approach to the porch steps ever narrower. A native loosetrife (Lysimachia sp.) is making moves from woods edge towards the house, too.
The forest creeps ever closer towards signs of civilization.

bottom: Cinquefoils and moss build the soil for the emerging forest.

Death by Self Sowing

occurs on the south side of the house. Unlike the cool, shaded north side, this part of the meadow receives several hours sun through spring into midsummer.

When we moved in two lonely ornamental roses bloomed in this area. 'Bloomed' is an exagerration. The yellow rose sent up a single flower that slammed against our bedroom window on windy days.

Since mowing ceased, we've battled gill-over-the-ground and stiltgrass by planting farflung native species like closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), Tennessee echinacea (Echinacea tennesseensis), and more regional natives like swamp rose (Rosa palustris) and Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis).

More exciting than our additions have been the volunteers. Spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis) seeded itself beside the front door. It offers a outdoor medicine cabinet for my chronic summertime case of mild poison ivy. For what it is worth in itch relief, jewelweed seems the better common name.

The arrival of Joe Pye weed and its surge to fix feet tall made each glance out the window a treat. Oldfield aster exploded next to the goldenrod. New York ironweed and boneset are finding their place.

A purplish aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum? One would expect I would have written it down, having spent until dusk trying to identify this plant with Plants of Pennsylvania and Wildflowers of the Field and Forest by my side. Usually hairless, hairy below, bristly hairy. You know what I mean?), ok, back to the aster... took refuge from he(oa)rds of deer by growing in nook between the house and porch.

top: The aster seedheads glow against dusty red aluminum siding.
center: The swamp rose sends out "suckers" a forms clumps of delicate stems covered in thin prickles. An injury by swamp rose prickles is like walking on clouds as to
multiflora rose injury which is like walking on glass covered in flaming gasoline. Go native.
bottom: The meadow will one day return to forest with this red cedar leading the way.