Saturday, August 20, 2011

A 'mixed bag'

...the D&R Canal State Park's plant communities.

The phone company wuz here.
I can't imagine, but really, who else could give a boot camp hair cut to the trees?

Groundnut (Apios americana)
Incredible flowers. How is it that flowers and women look so similar?

Climbing Boneset (Mikania scandens) flowers and foliage. A very successful plant along the canal's banks.

A pea species - no time to identify to species. I was lucky enough to get a focused photograph as I was carrying my son in the Baby Bjorn carrier. He was wiggly on this walk. His legs are long, and he enjoys 'stepping' on my thighs as I move forward. If I was training for an athletic event, one other than motherhood, I'd be pleased.

Multiflora rose, prolific, but being pruned back slowly by rose rosette disease. Great, make way for those wild peas.

Knapweed and skipper

A real pain the in a** kind of plant. Ah, invasive vines.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Alternative energy

Slash pile and solar panels, Ewing Township

I wonder...when we cut trees and cover vast areas with lawn to make way for solar panels; when we cut endless access roads through deserts and grasslands and erect windmills; when we place yet more windmills in the ocean along migratory bird routes...where, imagine, imagine, on one autumn night thousands of birds with names like scarlet tanager, redstart, and veery might course by. Plumages of gold, red, and ebony.

Yes, but aren't we saving trees ultimately? Declaring independence from foreign oil? Aren't those deserts uninhabitable? void? barren? Aren't they becoming productive?

I won't argue on behalf of tiny flowers and lizards that thread their way through deserts, nor the trees that house caterpillars and birds, nor the seas that we humans gaze across, looking deep, deep, out across the horizon, seemingly pure, unsullied, perhaps the only place that seems so these days...listening, listening, beyond the shouts of children running on hot sand and parents yelling, YOU forgot the cooler, ice cream trucks, the #3 Billboard hit of summer 2011... listening, listening out beyond where swimmers dare and lifeguard whistles blow:

whump, whump, not the diving of dolphins, whump, whump, not the tails of whales, whump, whump, not the darting of sharks, whump, whump, not the wings of loons, whump, whump, not the propeller of an airplane dragging a message--$2 beers at Crabby Crab Shack--across the glittering sky, whump, whump, miles long mindmills chopping the air bringing us, whump, whump, internet access, whump, whump, iPhone charger, whump, whump, 40% post-consumer copier paper, whump, whump, windmills chopping the air, whump, whump, 30,000 life guard whistles Made in China, whump, whump, pizzeria napkins floating on the wind like ibis feathers, whump, whump, another mile of windmills where a man used to gaze out beyond and imagine a quiet and lonely life, whump, whump, 30,000 waxed cups for Italian ice, whump, whump, round and round go the windmills.

imagine, imagine, whump, whump, a shovel turning turf under to make way for wildflowers, whump, whump, bare feet in a mud puddle, whump, whump, rotten tomatoes hitting the weedy garden bed, whump, whump, picking dandelions.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A club moss. I took this photograph at the 2009 Reunion held in Thompson, Pennsylvania.

So many thoughts, so many thoughts...

Twice a year my father's brothers and their families (my aunts, my cousins, and now as times goes on, cousin's spouses and partners), spend time together. In winter, it's just an afternoon and dinner around Christmastime, and in the summer, a weekend or occasionally a week -- The Mackow Family Reunion, we call it. "The Reunion" for short.

Once Jared and I drove from Michigan to Virginia to attend. In the weeks previous, Jared had a terrible ear infection from swimming in a public lake (I had contracted Montezuma's revenge from the same lake. I know it was that lake.). With no health insurance I had called around for the cheapest doctor's appointment (a first appointment, the 6 minute one where they get to know their new patient, is expensive). Knowing we had no insurance, the doctor cobbled together some free antibiotic samples, totaling a week's worth of pills. The infection dragged on, and finally, it came time to head to The Reunion.

Our truck had no air conditioning. So, we drove with the windows up because the wind bothered Jared's ear. We tumbled out of the pickup truck into my uncle's driveway a half day later, filthy, sweaty, the truck cab rank with our body odor. Hugs went around, as well as loving exclamations such as: "You guys need a shower!" Jared explained, and my uncle, a doctor, produced an ear scope from his sleeve, peered into Jared's ear, remarked how the Michigan doctor was not too smart to give pills, and wrote a prescription for ear drops.

There's something about family, there's a little notch left just for you. No one else fills it. Conversations pick up, doesn't matter that it's been 6 months. You can leave your infant son in someone's care and drift into the house, catch up with someone, grab a drink. I suppose I'm lucky, having been to other people's family gatherings.

Now that my kin are all in their distant homes, I feel the rainy day. My husband, son and I usually have an energetic household, but today was slow. We spent the afternoon together. We watched our son crawl around the house, pulling himself up, and sitting down. We sang silly songs and ate dinner (my son ate Aunt C's fruit salad, I made a tomato soup from E's & L's extra tomato harvest. No doubt, the rest of my extended family ate the leftover corn and is flossing now).

My brother and mother are traveling far today, bringing my brother to his very, very distant home. Before he left, we spent a while sitting on the porch talking, while my son slept in my brother's arms. It's a rainy day.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reforestation Thoughts

 Old growth loblolly pine at Congaree NP

A few years ago, we travelled in the South, visiting old cypress swamps and sandy longleaf pine savannas. A few of the swamps were old growth and were thick with the rot and renewal of centuries. I remember one pine with great big fissured plates of bark like stegasaurus skin and a massive trunk. Nearby was a stand of pawpaws in maroon fetid bloom, laurel oaks and horse sugar and redbay and baldcypress and great tangles of unknown flowering vines.

I also remember driving down country roads through miles and miles of timber plantations-- dense, isolating, more-or-less lifeless. Pines growing like corn, row after row, nothing above or below them. The great pulpbasket of America, future toilet paper and plywood and post-it notes occupying the better part of an entire biome.


I've been thinking a lot about reforestation lately. I'll be planting about 8 acres worth of reforestation this fall, and am involved in various ways in a few other projects to convert fields to forests. The underlying goals of these are generally "closing gaps" in otherwise contiguous forests. The utility of trees in sequestering carbon has also played into the funding for a few projects.

I wonder about planting trees, sometimes several hundred per acre, into what are essentially "disturbed" habitats - old farm fields, capped dump sites, and the like. When all of those successfully-planted trees reach canopy height in a great dense sward, will we have a forest? Or will we have something that looks, structurally and biotically, a lot more like those pulpwood plantations down south, or the derelict christmas tree plantations one passes on country roads here in the Northeast? I've walked through old "reforestations"- generally coniferous, it's true - red pine, Japanese larch, Norway spruce - even in places as otherwise intact as the great Catskills park. Like the plantations of the South, there's not much doing in the understory.

It seems to me that many of our native forest herbs, and understory trees and shrubs, are dependent on small-scale canopy gaps for recruitment. I figure it takes a tree fifty years or more before it has the girth to create a significant canopy gap such as would recruit spicebush or flowering dogwood or hornbeam- or stoneroot, black cohosh, or wild ginger.

Many of the reforestations I am involved with are being done, partially, to create larger areas of habitat for birds that thrive best in large acreages of contiguous forest. They are "closing gaps" in otherwise largely forested areas.

Yet many of the birds that depend on "contiguous forest" utilize the understory, not immature canopies. There are plenty of biologically depauperate post-agricultural forests around here that bear that out-- even age stands of red maple and ash, with nary an ovenbird or Kentucky warbler or veery in earshot. Why? The understory is lacking.

What about our ancient forest herbs, the rich, rainforest-like layer of broadleaved wildflowers and ferns that run thick and waist-high in the most intact of our local forests? Black cohosh, horsebalm, bloodroot, wild ginger, wood nettle, purple-node Joe Pye Weed, interrupted fern, round-lobed hepatica...

These are the essence of the Eastern forest, and are everywhere declining. They seem generally unable to recruit in second-growth forests. Many (not all) have extremely limited seed dispersal distances, relying primarily on clonal growth in their relatively undisturbed habitats. Some may need evenly moist conditions through the summer to survive as seedlings. These species may have thrived in a Northeast with higher groundwater levels and more frequent precipation; maybe we see merely relics of a former age in the remaining populations. Some of these species need thick organic duff; others need sheltered micro-habitats, nurse logs, the heterogeneous topography of a habitat wild and abundant.  Is soil biology an issue?

Will our reforestations recruit these conservative plant species? Can we recreate, from scratch, an honest eastern forest with forest herbs, dense shrubs, and a structurally varied canopy? In a "reforestation", when will the mycorrhizal fungi arrive that network so many of the root interdependencies of the forest?


In many ways, I'm doubtful. Our primary tools in doing ecological restoration are often modes of disturbance. Chainsaws, loppers, herbicide, tractors, augers. The system ("forest") we are trying to re-assemble is the most complex and interdependent ecosystem type we have in the Northeast -- and, relatively, the least disturbed -- what they used to call "climax", though that kind of religiously teleological science is thankfully out of vogue now.

Perhaps we should focus ecological restoration more on creating high-quality meadows, savannahs, grasslands. These are highly productive habitat types, on a par with any other. They are also among the most threatened habitat types in the world, right up there with tropical rainforest. They are critical for many species of birds, and for most native pollinators. Although meadows and areas of scrub-shrub are often accused of "fragmenting" forests when they lie in between even the crappiest of second-growth parcels, I'm skeptical of this notion. I suspect that patches of open habitat within a forested matrix probably keep many native pollinators viable adjacent to woods that are so stripped of flowering plants by deer that the woods can no longer support its on suite of pollinating insects.

I'd be so bold as to say that meadows and scrub-shrub are forest, just very young forest, and that the forest fragmentation we hear of in studies is often that created by lawn, factory farm, mall, and parking lot.

I wonder if, by creating good meadows now, we might set the stage for a good forest in the future, whereas if we just plunk a bunch of trees into a field a few years out of corn production or hay, we're locking our planted site into 50 to 100 years or more of depauperate tree plantation.


What about a hybrid approach? This is what I'm thinking for some of our reforestation projects:

1. Keep the trees in the planting mix, but leave large gaps between densely treed areas. Into these gaps, plant native shrubs which thrive in full sun (for the early years) but also transition successfully to shaded habitats. Blackhaw, winterberry, arrowwood, highbush blueberry, maleberry, even spicebush... rather than waiting several decades or more for gap dynamics to naturally recruit the beginnings of an understory, it'll already be in place, and thriving, as the canopy closes (hopefully unevenly).

2. Plant trees that will die soon. Gray birches, Virginia pine, sassafras -- these pioneer trees are the land-healers. When they give way, the young forest will be shady and no longer ruderal. These trees will die and in their places will recruit shade-tolerant species -- whether they are the next generation of (mid-successional) trees, or native herbs, or forest shrubs -- rather than mugwort and chinese lespedeza and, if fenced from deer, rather than multiflora rose and autumn olive, too.

3. Plant meadow plants that can transition from sun to part shade. Own the ground with boneset, hollow-stem Joe Pye weed, ironweed, Indian grass, swamp milkweed, etc. These plants serve two purposes -- first, to pre-empt recruitment of invasive plants by filling niches, and second, to mimic natural meadow successions. There is much that we have little control over in the realm of the soil, and I believe that it is these herbs that prepare the agricultural soils for a transition to forest soils -- bacterial to fungal, nutrient-lossy to nutrient conserving. These herbs also support pollinator communities that could make the difference in successful recruitment of mid-successional herbs -- plants like solomon's seals and the like which bridge the gap from thicket to forest.


We ecological restorationists are much like healers, with similar responsibilities towards our work, and a similar imperative to "do no harm". Yet our tools are largely borrowed-- from agriculture, from forestry, from landscaping. What sets us apart are the plants -- our healing herbs. We need to observe natural habitats, and unnatural habitats, very closely, and consider how to use the plants in our palette to best effect. If we simplistically interpret forest as "trees", and leave the rest of the forest system to time and chance, my bet is that our future forests will be structurally and biologically impoverished. We risk creating habitats that are more like forestry plantations or monocultural farms than indigenous natural habitats.

Driving by a southern pine plantation 

Good friends provide good food

A clouded sulphur on the top bloom of a blazing star (Liatris spicata) on July 31.

We had visited this site a week before - the flowers were not yet open. We returned a week later and again, they seemed not yet in bloom. Or, maybe we missed them, I wondered. We wandered among the stems. Jared exclaimed, "I think they are opening as we stand here!" We stood in the blazing sun, the blazing stars began to open, and the pollinators arrived.

Spiked blazing star (Liatris spicata) with an approaching northern cloudywing

The northern cloudywing pauses for a moment, and I am able to make this photograph. Both Jared and I use Canon Elph 'point & shoot' cameras, requiring us to stalk close and quiet. No powerful zoom lens...just lots of patience (sometimes), luck (sometimes), and a steady hand (sometimes, and not so easy with the macro lens showing every tremble of the hand and hint of a breeze).

Two skippers. I've been told the skippers are the winter plumaged warblers of the butterfly world. Beautiful and they all look so similar...

Red admiral & wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Hummingbird clearwing, very patient until the camera was taken out.


Tiger swallowtails

The radiant and threatened northern blazing star (Liatris scariosa) at Kennebunk Plains, Maine

northern blazing star visited by two pollinators

Monday, August 1, 2011

Some books are for the toilet, not for reading in the toilet, but for placing into the toilet

This skipper nearly jumped off his liatris when he read The American Meadow Garden. "Can you believe this fountain grass b******t? I'm hungry, damn it. Can't eat that crap. Gotta go, some lady is trying to take my picture."

The library - what a great place. I'll pay more taxes to keep the local library going. Where else can you go and return something used, wrinkled, water-stained, scratched besides Bed Bath and Beyond? That's the way many patrons (SIDEBAR: Sorry, I will not use the newly adopted term "customer" to refer to a "library patron." One does not purchase anything from the library. One pay taxes or possibly donates funds to support the library's mission and services. One utilizes the circulating collection, requests assistance from skilled librarians, researches the reference books, investigates Lexus Nexus, or plays Free Cell on the computers.) hmm...back to patrons, what was I saying?

I am an avid library patron. I love browsing the shelves and taking books out, and then immediately returning them when I find I hate the author's attitude. I've recently read several books about babies, and my husband can assure you that I am going f***ing nuts from it. Dear authors: please write a pamphlet instead of a 436 page book and save a tree (or a fir, spruce, maple, aspen, or birch pulpwood plantation). My son needs oxygen to breathe.

Other than the parade of child rearing books, we recently picked up The American Meadow Garden by John Greenlee and Saxon Holt. For the love of god, man, do your research and stop with the whimsy. Chinese silvergrass is not a species of the American meadow. It is a weed that trashes wet and dry meadows and barrens. Goodbye, meadowlark habitat; hello, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fight scene setting.

Under the section "The Wicked Ones" which discusses problem species, "Rubus", not even "Rubus sp." is noted as a Eurasian plant. Last I checked there were plenty of native Rubus species.

Worse yet, Greenlee captions a photograph of a lupine meadow, "This meadow of lupines is being invaded by Johnson grass (Sorghum halepense). Sometimes weeds can be managed and actually work as groundcover grasses." (p. 235) For those of us who are land stewards or land managers, we smell the glyphosate and begin calculating the best time to treat an invasive species interspersed among the best of our native species.

I'm sure this book is on some landscape architect's plate glass table, on shelves of a fanciful fire escape gardener's bookshelf, and a garden club's reading list...

I paid taxes for this crap? Excuse me, can I speak with the manager? You know, I have been a customer of this library for years, and never, I mean, never have I...