Monday, July 18, 2016

Tending one's Garden: Intimations of Hope in the Anthropocene

"We can see the country...we can see how the beautiness is still in the country...we can still see the spirit of the land glistening."  From Iwenhe Terrette - what it means to be an aboriginal person, Margaret Kemarre Turner.

Dispiriting.  Inspiring.  Between these two words lies a garden, one that I have attended to for the last decade.  Sixty years ago when a lot was developed and the house in which I live was built, a thick layer of dredged sand was trucked in to level out the yard.  This left a good-sized area to the side of the garage not suitable for growing much of anything.  When I arrived in 2000, this space was desolate, a wasteland thoroughly colonized by wire grass with a generous sprinkling of nut sedge.  Walking across the area barefoot, or even just bare ankled, was pure torture.  It turns out that the delightful name "nut sedge" hides the thorny nature of the so-called nut, a spike of sharpened needles more shrapnel than fruit that pierces effortlessly and stays painfully embedded in any flesh brushing against it.  The sand fill in which these plants were rooted was so compressed that not even scrub trees had a found a way in.  And cars speeding down the alley were increasingly encroaching on the land, their tires grinding into the earth what little diversity remained at large.

Catalpa Growing on the Berm with Jerusalem Artichokes to the right.
I took measures.  Over time nearby remnants of old telephone poles and fallen tree trunks were gathered to craft a low berm along the alley to discourage wayward drivers.   And then a surprise: taking advantage of the nooks and crannies found there, several trees, including some black locusts, a black cherry and even a catalpa, took root and are now thriving.  They are being pruned to grow laterally in hopes of an improvised hedgerow.  And surprise upon surprise: Last year catbirds built a nest in the black cherry, and this year robins.  Rhizomes of Jerusalem artichokes, dug up from a garden bed to make way for blueberry bushes, were also discarded on the berm.  They took root too, a thick stand staining the air with rambunctious yellow flower heads at the height of summer.  A lovely thought - the very wall built to keep automobiles out of the garden is becoming a garden in its own right.

Psychedelic Milkweed
But the larger garden on the side of the berm away from the alley is where most of my efforts have been focused.  Rather than importing top soil to simply throw over what was already land paved over with sand fill, I took to the earth with a shovel and compost.  Year by year new sections were dug out out, amended and planted.  At first the emphasis was upon natives that could make themselves at home without too much fuss - phlox and columbine, bee balm and beardstongue, Joe pye weed and yarrow, false indigo and echinacea, blanket flower and trumpet vine. Eventually a strip of plots dedicated to fruits - particularly blueberries and raspberries were added, along with an apple tree. Milkweed was given the run of a part of the yard, in hopes that monarch butterflies would show up (which they do only occasionally).  An area with marsh loving-plants took shape - including iris and marsh hibiscus, nettle and swamp milkweed, lobelia and cardinal flower. Finally several intensively cultivated beds of vegetables were shoehorned into the space.  Currently, tomatoes and chard, tomatillos and peppers, beans and okra with a smattering of onions and leeks are thriving there.  So too is a tower of scarlet runner, a bean originally cultivated by the Incas, that is actively adored by hummingbirds.

Once seemingly wasteland, the spirit of this little patch of earth is again, as Margaret Kemarre Turner would put it, "gllistening."  People walking by stop to admire and say thank you.  Even better, lots of critters, happy at a newfound habitat, are showing up and making themselves at home. While the voles and rabbits, along with Japanese beetles and stinkbugs, are irritating in this regard, so many others, including those hummingbirds, are positively inspiring.

Over a decade in, persistent efforts have transformed this little patch of earth and, as well, its gardener.  Margert Kemarre Turner would likely argue that the transformation was most assuredly not of the land, whose spirit, in its beautiness and glistening, was already waiting for me, but only of my own capacity to see again what had been hidden from untutored eyes. The land already knew what it was capable of.  Its gardener on the other hand, needed to figure this out.  In the process, he has found new hope to stave off a growing sense of dread that comes from living in a time of immense loss of habitat for an immense array of living kinds, a time that is being named the Anthropocene.

As a human of the Anthropocene, I take welcomed comfort in these endeavors to restore to the living kinds a small bit of country.  Certainly this alone will not be enough. Certainly systemic efforts are called for as well.  But loving the earth requires more than acting systemically.  It requires the touch of one's hands, close up and personal.

Fly Sunning herself on a Lily. 
Wasp Searching for Nectar on Echinacea
Sweat Bee Searching for Nectar on Flea Bane

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Black Eyed Susan: A World of Green for All Comers.

Arid Summer on the High Plains where Black Eyed Susans Thrive
Under a cloudless sky, the already arid earth of the high plains bakes even drier.  Grasses, briefly green in June,  now turn to a dusky patchworks of yellow and brown in August.  As if the symptoms of widespread desiccation were not emphatic enough, the air fills with smoke from forest fires rampaging up and down the not too distant spines of the Rocky Mountains.  But precisely at this moment under an implacable even if hazy sun, congregations of Black Eyed Susans - where there is one there are always many - unfurl their great yellow blossoms and thrive.  I spent considerable time in their company recently at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and was reminded yet again of my love for this common plant, ordinary in its demeanor but preternatural in its capacities.

Bee Fly (Bombylius major) and Spidfer Wasp (Pompilidae)
Sharing a Blossom
The black eyed susan is a member of the genus Rudbeckia, named and classified as Rudbeckia hirta by the celebrated Carl Linnaeus only two centuries ago.  This occurred in Sweden, a place far, far away from the plant's native environs of North America.  For that reason among others I prefer the common name which at least suggests how much at home this living kind and its charismatic cousins - sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes - are in North American soils.   My earliest memories of childhood are teeming with black eyed susans that filled the vacant lots and sprouted in every other crack in the cement sidewalks lining the streets of my neighborhood.  Perched on wiry green stems swarming with hairy filaments, their composite flowers, composed of deliriously yellow petals, arranged in lazy circles around brown-domed centers, entranced me.  Checking in regularly on each blossom's daily tracking of the sun across the sky punctuated my mornings and afternoons of outdoor play.  And picking a few to bring home in the evening was not an uncommon event, although tearing away the sticky, fibrous stems from their mother plants took some effort.  In all of this, I was offered an enthusiastic introduction into that sort of flora inhabiting my place under the sun that did not need to be planted in carefully-troweled beds around a house and assiduously watered and weeded from then on.  In the wayward places beyond the confines of a well-groomed yard I encountered the joy of things that grow effortlessly, that know how to look out for themselves and then some.

At the jump, those memories of black eyed susans welled up as I encountered their kind anew.  On the other hand, after a bit of reading that evening, I learned that these stands were in truth only what biologists term "naturalized" citizens of this particular area, emigrating here in the last century or two from the midwest, where they were originally at home.  Indeed, they arrived just, it appears, as the buffalo who were endemic to the short grass prairies of the high plains were in the process of being wiped out by European settlement.  But settlement seems far too kind a word for the practices of mass slaughter and habitat destruction that were involved in that terrible moment of species extirpation.

Dingy Cutworm Moth (Felita jaculifera) Resting.
Those who write about black eyed susans universally observe that pollinators are fond of them.   This turned out to be exactly the case with the plants lining the road along the boundary of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.  Taking a break from my assigned task of removing the lowest strand from a barb-wired fence (so antelope could scooch under the barrier safely), I took picture after picture as I discovered species after species making its way about the various contours of the plant. Some were interested in the nectar, particularly the bee flies with an occasional honey bee and orange belted bumble bee showing up to join in the feast.   Other species meandered about the stems of the plants - yellow jackets and blue spider wasps for the most part - intent, it seemed to me, on licking up the sticky residue exuded there.  A dingy cutworm moth, nocturnally active but diurnally recumbent, lounged for the day on the seed head of one blossom, wrapped in its shade.  The moth was not inclined to move.  And of course ants, western thatching ants in this case, were tracking all over the plant, looking for whatever meal might show up as they tended aphids, which in turn exuded their own sugary treat of honeydew, as they grazed in clutches under the flower heads and on the bottom sides of leaves.


Western Thatching Ants (Formica obscuripes) on the way to and from
 an Aphid Clutch.
The black eyed suzan, it turns out, names not only a living kind but also a world.  After an hour or so spent up close to a single plant, the latter truth comes into focus.  Providing shade, moisture, food, more or less steady perches in gusting wind, and a multitude of hiding places, the plant's very anatomy carves out a green oasis in the midst of an arid, daunting landscape.  Within its ambit, a variety of living kinds gather to find themselves more or less at home.  As insect after insect sees it, these stems are great limbs, with a girth equal to or exceeding one's own.   Western yellow jackets curl about them, fluently in tune with their contours, while the blue spider wasp paces up and down them, as well as over and under every leaf, continually on the move with only a pause here and there. To the bee fly, a lightweight continually at odds with the prairie winds permeating its surroundings, the composite infloresences' great brown domes, speckled with a multitude of disk flower heads, provide opportunity after opportunity for a drink of nectar without the need to battle again into flight.  And for creatures in search of moisture in a dry land in a dry time, the black eyed susan is also hospitable.  All plants are chemical factories, armed with a variety of defenses that deter almost every creature under the sun from helping themselves to a bite.  Inevitably an arms race ensues with only a few species specialized enough to overcome each respective plant's defenses and make a meal of it.  The black eyed susan goes another way.  Whatever defenses it has mounted, they are not directed to the swath of living kinds one finds thriving on plant after plant under a late summer sun.

Two Bee Flies Working the Nectar
What is there not to love about the generosity of this remarkable even if fully ordinary living kind?  Surely this is a rhetorical question.  But leaving off my remarks on this deservedly appreciative note would not be responsible without also observing how unsettling, literally and metaphorically unsettling, the presence of the black eyed suzan in this particular country turns out to be.  For its appearance, as noted above, is historically recent and inextricably tied to the disappearance of a rich prairie ecosystem that was sustained by great herds of buffalo once flowing over this land.  One should not forget that every step upon the site of the First Peoples Buffalo Jump commemorates those herds and the rich legacy they continue to hold for more than a dozen tribes who remember this animal's presence and mourn its loss.

Thinking about the past in this way inevitably leads my mind to tread in strange directions.  Following out one bearing, I remember how the black eyed susans I encountered lined one side of the road - the side bordered by the state park - but were absent from the other side, which abutted a farmer's field of wheat assiduously cultivated to the road's very edge.  Any black eyed susan that dared spring up there had quickly withered and died.  Surely herbicides were involved.  In a detail, then, is illuminated the history, my history, of European occupation of this place.  Our settlement of the west left in its wake a landscape capable of feeding many human mouths but extremely stingy in regard to the desires of other than domestic animals and agricultural crops to find their own patch of earth under the sun.   Even a hardy and relatively new arrival like the black eyed susan, generously offering a full range of ecological services to a landscape callously depleted of its capacity to sustain living kinds, is fought with tooth and nail, or plow and sprayer as the case may be.

But following out another bearing I find myself imagining what it must have been for those tribal peoples to love a creature as magnificent and ecologically significant as the buffalo.  I grew up consorting with black eyed susans.  What would have it been like, I wonder, to have had the same opportunity to be instructed in the ways of the living world in the shadow of a buffalo?  This question remains a significant one and is the inspiration for a variety of ongoing projects in Montana to return buffalo to some approximation of an open range.  Perhaps the black eyed susan will find its place under the sun there too.

Great Golden Digger Wasp 
(Sphex ichneumoneus)

Big Wasp Meets Little Wasp in Uncertain Circumstances

Yellow Jacket Patrolling her Particular Spot in the Shade

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Tree of Living Waters

The Tree of Living Waters
Venerable in its years, though slowly rotting from the inside out, this great American beech (Fagus grandifolia), hidden away in a coastal woodlot, still towers above its neighbors.  In the midst of its fellow beeches, along with a scattering of younger pin-oaks and hollies, the tree's outspread canopy shelters a clearing, shaded and quiet, the sort of place one would go to gather one's thoughts on a pleasant day.  Or a sad day too, if that is required. 

Sam, who, along with his granddaughter Jessica, has guided me here, ventures the object of our pilgrimage is likely a century and a half old. If true, this is ridiculously old in a landscape that for the last century or two has been harvested and replanted every thirty years or so, "working land" as it sometimes is referred to.  And the preferred tree in this enterprise is not the slow-growing beech but the fast-growing loblolly pine, which has proven the most amenable to a quick turn-around time between one seeding and the next.  As if to prove the truth of this, just a hundred feet away from our idyllic setting, the woods stop abruptly and a vast patch of land clearcut last winter begins - a melee of overturned trunks, disturbed earth, mounds of uprooted brush. A quarter-mile back, stacked in neat piles, trunk after trunk of loblolly shorn of their limbs are waiting to be picked up for delivery to a wood shredder or saw.  Such is the usual fate of forests here on the eastern shore of Maryland.

But on the Eastern Shore even a grandfather beech tree in a beech wood providentially saved from the saw is still rooted into working land, although of a different sort than the loblolly plantation next door. Michael Lewis, environmental historian at Salisbury University, notes that beech were not so common in the forests encountered here by European colonists 300 years ago.  Up to that time the First Peoples of this area - Wicomico, Assateague and the like - had been busy using fire to keep the land clear of underbrush and amenable to hunting.  The upshot of this practice was that the beech, which is vulnerable to fire, was little in evidence.  But the newly arrived colonists suppressed rather than encouraged fires, which in turn allowed beeches to find a renewed footing. Today approximately 20% of the forest in Maryland is composed of beech trees.   And, although they are no longer harvested commercially for their wood, their nuts offer food for a variety of wildlife including turkey and deer. The land, Sam reports, is regularly rented out to hunters, a fact that is underscored by the many deer blinds we have encountered on our walk here.  Living things, at least the ones some humans are fond of eating, are doing well in these woods.

A Closer Look
Sam and Jessica have brought me here today to share their love for the Tree of Living Waters.  I call it that, although I must also report that Jody Haggler who owns this woodlot calls it the "Jesus Tree," because sometime in the last half century or so, someone has incised the bark with a series of words and phrases, all of them directed to sharing the good news of creation, or at least, of a solidly Christian version of that news.   "God - Fountain of Living Waters." "Emmanuel." "Jesus is Lord." "The Saving Word." These and other phrases of similar import have been carefully arranged on the trunk in beautifully rendered block letters, a work that must have taken considerable dedication and time to accomplish.  And, judging from the height above ground of some of the entries, good climbing skills as well.

This tree, engraved with human words conjuring supernatural powers, in turn readily engraves itself on the memory of those lucky enough to have found themselves in its vicinity. The agency involved in this process is complicated, tricky. Is an unknown scribe, employing knife and bark in place of quill and paper, the one who is now at work in my own thoughts as I remember and admire what his or her handiwork has wrought? Yet surely the one who inscribed these words left them not for her or his own particular fame - no initials or dates are in evidence - but for the sake of the Most High.  Is it to God then I must turn to appreciate the power of the tree's evocation?  Or is the tree itself, this great living pillar of sugary cellulose and dusky sap, spanning from the darkness of the earth to the airy heavens above, the one who is making its mark upon me?   To behold such a tree is surely to remember all the trees one has ever looked upon and loved.  I am reminded of Wendell Berry's beautiful lines in praise of the trees, "patient as stars," composing his own woodlot in Kentucky.   "They build in air, tier after tier a timbered choir," he writes, "Stout beams upholding weightless grace of song, a blessing on this place."

The blessing of being human certainly entails receiving gratefully the blessing of such arboreal choirs.  Yet with this blessing a troubling thought cannot help but to come to mind. Were not the trees of this place once beloved in other tongues with the names of other gods?  European colonists were quick to name the towns of the Eastern Shore after those found in their Bible and their memories of home - Salisbury, Chrisfield, Cambridge, Hebron, Bethel and the like.  But the naming of the waters - Wicomico, Pocokmoke, Nantacoke, Nassawango, Choptank, Marshyhope - came from another fount entirely, the languages of peoples dispossessed and pushed aside, even as these small indications of their existence were enshrined on maps to persist even into our time in everyday parlance.   Given this history, might not the Tree of Living Waters also be thought of as the Tree of Usurpation?   Engraving the names of one's God upon the face of a land once held by others is certainly a statement of ownership that should not go unremarked upon.  Throughout history, people have murdered others in the name of their God.  We should not forget this, even if that very Name itself remains worthy of praise and commemoration in our deliberations and musings, if not our prayers and rituals.   History is besotted with violence, a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Repairing to a glen in a wood does not diminish this fact.

A century ago, yet another in a series of blights arrived on our shores that threatened yet another in a series of species of indigenous tree, this time, the one in whose precincts I have been walking, Fagus grandifolia. The Tree of Living Waters has not proved immune to this disease and now is succumbing to it. Beech scales, tiny aphids that attack the tree in turn precipating one of two fungal infections, have been at work.  The smooth, gray surface of the bark for which the beech is universally famous is growing black and crusty, particularly where saving words, now disappearing into the decay, were incised.  Jody tells me that two pileated woodpeckers have been having their way with the weakening tree, boring holes indiscriminately into its flesh.  One of the holes, it turns out is placed precisely in the open part of a "d" spelling out the name of God.  The tree, Jody fears, is not long for this world.  

Jessica Brannock with the Tree of Living Waters
In light of this outcome, one might argue that carving the name of God or that of any other being on a tree is not only a fool's errand but also a vandal's. Perhaps without these incisions wounding its skin, this august beech would have proven resistant for a while longer to contagion. I can imagine the shuddering of every forest ranger across the land at the thought of an army of believers, knives in hand, keenly intent upon carving the names of the Creator on the trunks of trees wherever they might be found.  Certainly this should not be counseled.  Yet, I am also glad that the Tree of Living Waters, carvings and all, stands here, at least for the time being, welcoming any passerby willing to spend a moment in its company.  Someone came into this forest decades ago to behold a fellow creature whose very glory touched the deepest springs of human and more-than-human longings.  And suffering the depths of that inspiration, prayers were left in the very flesh of a living thing.  "Emmanuel" is a Hebrew word signifying "God is with us."  But also, Jody reminds us, a seven foot black snake that swallows rabbits whole is making its home near the tree, perhaps even in its very hollow.  What would that particular creature ask of us, I muse, if we would dare to listen to it carefully?  In The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold notes that to buy a woods is to buy "almost as many tree diseases as [one has] trees."  But these very maladies, Leopold adds, "made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county."  Although Leopold, when he wrote these words, had in mind the manner in which decrepit trees offer magnificent habitat for a wide range of living things, including both rabbit and snake, the arc of his thought leads other places as well.  These woods indeed are dark and deep.  Death as well as life is making its home here. Dare we enter into such environs?  Faith is required.  

Incision of "Emmanuel" isolated from the surrounding Bark

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Totems of Intelligibility (Opening Sections)

Sympetrum obstrusm

i.  A Tree of Dragonflies

     On the high prairie, an adult rocky mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), with scaly 
leaves green and tender, holds itself erect under the intense light filling a cloudless sky in August. Planted strategically near the doorway to the museum and offices of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park. this lone tree, along with the sarvis berry, chokecherry and black currant bushes clustered about it, resists the sweltering heat and welcomes the public. 

     "Ambassadors for better times," I think.  For once a prairie unplowed stretched all about here, a land teeming with a variety of native grasses unusually rich in protein and capable of sustaining great herds of buffalo and more. Today the buffalo are no longer to be found, and the fields are dominated by a single crop - crested wheat grass imported from Asia during the dust bowl to fight soil erosion.  Manifest destiny became all too manifest in these environs, and a multitude of living things no longer are finding their place here under the sun. 

     But the juniper is proving to be a far more effective ambassador than I had imagined possible.  For today, she welcomes not only the Jump's human visitors bent upon finding their way to a museum's door, but also a multitude of white-faced meadow-hawks (Sympetrum obtrusum), who would rather stay outside and play.  Exploring green pockets of shade, hovering and darting and then hovering again, the dragonflies' thin, elongated abdomens shimmer in metallic tones of green and blue and gold.  Transparent wings whirring invisibly suddenly jump into view, shining and poised, as their respective owners alight on an unoccupied branch.  My vision narrows in, and I watch a single dragonfly, bouncing about in the gusty prairie winds, tail and wings flailing in the air.  She clings to a limber twig and rides it like a cowboy riding bronco in an arthropod rodeo.  Delight abides here, the delight of other living kinds in their modes of existing, delight arresting me from my all too human concerns, leaving me breathless and more than a little envious. 

     And so, starting off this inquiry into the intelligibility of land and its living kinds, dragonfly gets the first word.
 Juniper too, as her hidden roots dig in deep to find water secreted in the arid earth, her visible body a hillock of green speckled with shadows, her limbs oozing sticky sap in the oppressive heat.  Come here,” she whispers in my ear, “come here and stay for a while. I am cool and green, an oasis among endless fields of strange grasses, dry and spent in the weathers of August."

ii. The Etiquette of the First Word

     That dragonfly and juniper are given the opportunity to speak first on behalf of the First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is a matter of etiquette and atonement.

     As to etiquette: We practitioners of academic philosophy have far too long ignored dragonfly and juniper, not to mention porcupine and antelope, rattlesnake and prairie dog, sarvis berry and black currant, red hawk and magpie.  And this is not a trivial point, when I consider that these living kinds are rightfully my kin and among my first teachers.  My education, both manifold and subtle, into becoming what Leopold has termed a biotic citizen, a citizen of the land, began under their tutelage.  Prompted here and now by a host of dragonflies and a juniper tree, I contemplate how walking the contours of this land throughout my childhood proved to be an inalienable aspect of the calling to embrace a philosophical life.  In that time as well, dragonfly and juniper appeared, offering themselves as totems of intelligibility, living kinds capable, along with a host of others, of announcing through their peculiar modes of behavior, through the gestures and shape of their respective lives, how life itself might be articulated in diverse species of wonder and gratitude, of anxiety and supplication, of circumspection and greeting. 

      To this I now offer a heartfelt "Amen." 
 Yet, in the very next breath I must also confirm how the human midwives of philosophical thinking, into whose hands dragonfly and juniper delivered me, were most often quizzical if not downright perturbed at the sources of my not-so-human birth into wonder.   The living kinds were not only in the main regarded as irrelevant but also a danger
to the philosophical vocation, allegedly tempting its practitioners to perverse forms of malpractice.  And so a second education began in which the message was made clear: Philosophy is no Noah’s ark. If you root in with the trees and hover with the dragonflies, you should not be trusted with deducing the categorical imperative, let alone posing the ontological question.  And so, the ritual of the exorcism of the demon of the “pathetic fallacy,” its liturgy peppered with imprecations against naivety and, even worse, nativism, was repeatedly invoked against the intimations of dragonfly and juniper in my speaking and in my writing.  The animals and trees of one’s place under the sun were to be kept at bay.  

     And so today this provocation:
  Can one at least for a moment drop one’s philosophical guard and let dragonfly and juniper have their say? And on their own terms?  Or put another way: How might one become open not only to the question of land's intelligibility but also to the very categories of intelligibility by which land makes itself known?  For the land, when it speaks, speaks as much in dragonflies and juniper, or in shadows and shape-shifting, as in Blackfoot and English.  In a Greek way of saying these things, the time is long overdue for a moment of disruptive poesis in the court of philosophical judgment.  It’s time for some introductions to take place. 

The Jump


iii. The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park

     The First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park is located on terrain surrounding the largest site of its kind on the North American continent, an elongated, sandstone cliff in the rough shape of a horseshoe running for several miles along the northern, southern and eastern edges of a low lying butte.  The butte in turn emerges, just barely, between two broad, flat-bottomed valleys carved out on either side by the yearly spring flooding of the Missouri and Sun rivers.  The country here is high plains – big sky and dry earth – a landscape of undulating prairie rising to meet blue-gray reefs of limestone constituting the front range of the Rockies some sixty miles distant. 

As one looks west toward that convergence, the land begins to bunch up, as if a string has been threaded through rough burlap then pulled increasingly tight, so that wrinkles and kinks begin to appear and then knot themselves into chunky buttes and columns of foothills.  At the very edge, always, lurking on the horizon, are those limestone teeth capped with snow, ridges and peaks jutting along the very margins of the earth before all falls away into dreams and unknowing.  The Piikani, I am reminded, locate the very place of creation on that distant ridge.

     The management plan for the park includes the following sentence: “The site welcomes Native American use for worship and celebration and for reconnection with ancestors.”
  It appears, according to the archaeologists, this has been going on for 6000 years or so.