Visitors to the Milkweed Patch

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Milkweed blossom (Asclepias syriaca)

I am reminded of Michael Pollan’s premise in Botany of Desire every time I visit my milkweed patches. Are they manipulating me? Each spring, the trails I mow in our fields are delineated by the presence of milkweed. This has happened for years now, ever since I discovered the first small patch, arriving a few years after we bought the property and having a chance to grow due to what I have termed benign neglect – in other words, we just don’t mow as much as the previous owners. Now there are three areas of the property with large flourishing clumps of milkweed. I prefer to call this mutual nurturing for I am thrilled to have the milkweed here, but I’m not against entertaining the notion that it is a manipulation.

When I visit the milkweed patch I am primarily looking for monarch larvae because they are such an iconic species, because their population is in decline, and because each larva is a sign of hope to me. But the milkweed plant itself must signify hope for a myriad of other organisms, mostly insects, for I think of it as a hotel bustling with activity. I know of no other plant on our property (aside from tree canopies which I cannot visit) that is so well attended by insects.

There is an excellent book on the invertebrate community of the milkweed patch by Ba Rea, Karen Oberhauser and Michael Quinn called Milkweed, Monarchs and More: A Field Guide to the Invertebrate Community of the Milkweed Patch. It is an extensive overview and has been helpful to me in identifying our visitors.

Not only have we let the milkweed flourish over time by not mowing it, Chris has selectively cut out much of the wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) and stickweed (Verbesina occidentalis), which while native, is aggressive and rarely seems utilized by insects. The pond field is becoming a nice mix of stickweed, milkweed, goldenrod, grasses, ironweed and various other plants I’ve yet to identify. I want the milkweed to get even denser if possible, keeping in mind that diversity is better. Besides, I do want a trail to the pond, so at some point, I will dictate where they grow. For now though, milkweed leads the way. It’s a win-win relationship for much of the Halcyon invertebrate community as well as its bipedal vertebrates.

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Great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) getting milkweed nectar
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Milkweed longhorn beetle (Tetraopes sp.)
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Zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)
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Milkweed bug (Lygaeus sp.)
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Monarch larva (Danaus plexippus)

Discovery

CHIONODOXA SARDENSIS
Chionodoxa sardensis (I think)

It happened in a small patch of woods near our waterfall, not part of our regular walks, but I’d walked there many times before. Slowly, pondering, yet mostly looking down for morels or wildflowers in the warming days of spring. This day however, spicebush was blooming and I found myself looking up. What other trees and shrubs were waking? I found beech with its leaves ready to unfold even as it still held last year’s leaves, like a growing child not ready to give up a favorite shirt. The tulip poplar and sycamore still had their seedpods from the previous summer, but their branches were too high for me to discern new buds.

 

Every time I find something new at Halcyon, the discovery of the organism itself is heightened by the wonderment that it has (usually) been there every time I passed by. Instead of chastising myself, I am thrilled. One really can explore without leaving home – a backyard, a vacant lot, even a sidewalk can show us something new. Even our basements and attics are ripe for discovery since there are species of spiders that have evolved to cohabit the indoors with us.

So looking up my gaze settled on some brown papery seedpods hanging on a shrub/tree about 15 feet tall. It took a moment to trace a branch to its trunk, which was a trunk I was about to walk past, unseeing, lost in my thoughts, had I not been wondering what trees were blooming or leafing out. Its bark did not match what I’ve come to know in this small patch of woods: sycamore, redbud, black walnut, maple, ash, tulip poplar, beech (young ones), pine and cedar.

I collected some seedpods to take home and research. So what is my newest discovery? An American Bladdernut tree, which is even more of an interesting find in that I’d only heard of this tree last year from a friend. I think she said it was rare in this area of Virginia.

The American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) is actually a shrub that can reach heights of 20-30 feet. It is native to the United States, east of the Mississippi and from New England south to Florida. If you look at this Virginia Tech fact sheet you will notice that it is not distributed well around the Appalacians. Perhaps this is what my friend meant by its being rare around here.

This site has some pictures that show close ups of the flowers and seedpods:

 

This discovery has brightened my spirits, which have been waxing and waning with the tease of spring’s slow and wavering march. I plan to plant its seeds and with luck transplant it to other suitable habitat on the property. I also plan to see more of my walks; literally see them, as opposed to meanders where I am lost in thought. Such walks do bring discoveries, but often I need more than those internal discoveries – not liking to dwell on the self too much. I am more cheered I think of the discoveries outside myself. Of the life that has been all along and will be after I’m gone.

bloodroot
bloodroot

Wrestling with Weeds

I’ve struggled with getting a post written this spring. Partly I’m grappling with time and energy, which we all do, though the particular demands on our time differ. Chris cut down at least 10 large invasive white mulberry trees (Morus alba) for firewood, and cut up the large parts before he left for a month-long spring term in New Zealand. I have been cutting up the rest. My chain saw can handle up to 8-inch diameter logs and I have alternated days between cutting and hauling it to our two sheds, aka our Black Snake Exfoliation Spas. I have found myself staring at the growing pile of wood like I do my canning jars all lined up on their shelves in the fall with a mixture of self-admiration – I stacked all that wood to keep us warm – and incredulousness – how in the world did families survive without their backup furnace?

Often while working, a jumble of words and ideas forget to pass each other in the muddle of my mind and form an essay that I’d love to write. But when I do sit down at my computer, and need to work on my children’s books, the essays have tended to re-tangle in my mind instead of flow out my fingers. Mind you, it’s not like I’ve cut or hauled all day. My battery, and the two chain saw batteries I have, only give me about two hours, but that’s enough to drain me for hours afterward, and make me slow going the next morning.

I’m not complaining. I really do like that I can do this work and that we save on our heating bills, savor an old-fashioned heat and get exercise in the process. I know it still pollutes, returns carbon to the atmosphere, but at least I’ve had to work for my warmth.

wood

One essay I would love to write is about the current state of politics and ecology regarding invasive species versus native species. I have some understanding about ecological processes in different habitats. I am full of concern about lack of understanding on the parts of those people who feel we must return a system to its native species (usually by poisoning) without an understanding that ecosystems are not static. And without an understanding of the underlying reason that said native species no longer exists. Usually all this does is create another disturbance for the same invasive or a new one to enter into the story – and at great economic and ecological cost. For a great example of this see the story of salt cedar on the Colorado River.*

I’m also full of confusion about to what state of nature people want to return our habitats. Before we, the worst invasive species ever, arrived in North America? One or two hundred years after we invaded and had already brought over species from Europe intentionally and unintentionally?   See the following link for examples: http://eattheinvaders.org/we-came-over-on-the-mayflower-too/

I agree that some species are particularly aggressive and I would not be happy to find them at Halcyon. Kudzu particularly comes to mind. Would I succumb to using poison?  Creeping Charlie is quite aggressive, but of course is small, easy to pull and actually to me quite beautiful.  I spent $80.00 on grape hyacinth bulbs last fall to turn the front lawn into a brief purple sea each spring.  Creeping Charlie is doing a much better job, for free.

creeping charlie
Creeping Charlie

So I remain tormented. I pull garlic mustard on my walks when I can easily reach it. I’ve seen it every year since we moved here 17 years ago and it has not taken over. I mow more than I want to keep ailanthus and mulberry from literally carpeting the yard around the house. However, I mow much less than the previous landowners in order to attract wildlife and protect the stream. Over the years we are finding a mixture of native species living with invasive species. There is a slowly growing and gorgeous patch of golden ragwort by the stream because I do not mow to the edge. I found black cohosh last year and wild comfrey this year. There was a small patch of spicebush when we bought the property. Now it is all over…a lovely invading native.

golden ragwort
Golden ragwort

Perhaps I am only seeing a snapshot in time and the invasives will take over. But what if that model is wrong? And what does take over really mean? What if some selective cutting and benign neglect allow the natives a chance to adapt to a newcomer’s defensive strategies? It is possible. I have a right to be here. But, I also have a responsibility to tread as lightly as I can because of my big human footprint. Who am I to kill the house sparrows that nest in a blue bird box – sparrows my species introduced?

wild comfrey
Wild comfrey

Well this essay seems to have spewed out finally, but is admittedly messy and incomplete. I know scholarly ecologists will find my ideas and concerns naïve if they subscribe to the current dogma of saving native habitats. Perhaps I am naïve. It is hard for me to know the best course of action, but I do know that Halcyon is a prettier, wilder (meaning more species live here than when we moved in), scrubbier place than when we bought it. I know too that our management choices – clearing for walking paths, planting mostly native trees, hand removing of some invasives and cutting our own firewood (always an invasive tree unless a native falls) – are disturbances to habitats and that with or without us and our impact on the land Halcyon will continue to change over time. I am just a small part in a small picture from a larger ecosystem.

What kind of story do we want to tell in the long run about our treatment of other species? What if humans don’t learn from past follies and continue to disturb habitats, which in turn advantage invasives? An invasive species is none other than an opportunist looking to take advantage of an open opportunity. An opportunist that could provide food, nitrifies the soil, provides oxygen for us and sequesters carbon. Services we can’t live without.

I don’t feel any more settled about what is the best course of action regarding invasive species. But I intend to go slower with decisions about certain species on the property. Observe them. Admire their tenacity and understand their adaptations. I don’t want to be a master in control of them; I want to feel part of a special place. A place I call home.

 

*Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration by Tao Orion. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont. 2015.

waterfall

Another Trip Around the Sun

I like a lazy New Year’s Day full of plenty of pondering time. I set some personal and professional goals and take a look back at the previous year; it helps slow down time a bit, which seems to whiz by more quickly each year. I realize I have let this blog slip due to focusing on my children’s writing blog, my new book coming out and all the non-writing tasks associated with promoting it. I have considered ending this blog in order to not feel so scattered, but a recent trip changed my mind.

The last three days of 2017 were spent with old friends. We’ve known Pam and Denis for 28 years. It was a great visit in a cabin near Edinburg, Virginia – a cabin I’d hoped to be warmer than my house, but alas was colder. We told old stories and new, shared our children’s lives, pondered what the future holds and, for me at least, retrieved memories of other friends and events that are held in that dusty file cabinet of my mind called THE PAST.

It was the hike that took me not only up a slippery mountain to a wind-swept peak, but back even further past meeting Pam and Denis in Princeton, NJ. Back to the first three years Chris and I dated and our first three years of marriage. We’d started a tradition – I still call it that though it only lasted six years – of camping on New Year’s Eve.

1986 Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin: with my brother-in-law and his wife, my first time winter camping and cross-country skiing and the inspiration for the tradition.

1987 Shenandoah National Park, Virginia: just Chris and me against the cold.  It was 5°F and our stove froze. The walks were gorgeous: crisp and sparkling.

1988 Spruce Knob, West Virginia with my best friend (also) Lisa and her   husband Wayne. It was the first time I’d ever had a cloudless view from Spruce Knob. We cooked steak and mushrooms on an outside fire and at midnight cooked shrimp and toasted with champagne.

1989 Seneca Rocks, West Virginia: in Ivan Jirak’s cabin (Ivan was the leader of      the Pittsburgh Outing Club when we were members) with Lisa and Wayne. Note-this is not camping, but I still counted it as important to the why of this tradition.

1990 Catskills, New York: just us this time. My notes say we slept in the car and            had a nice hike and dinner.

1991 Chris and I made it to Annandale-on-Hudson (from Princeton, NJ) before turning back due to a big rainstorm from Virginia to Maine and waited until the end of January for some snow. We went to Lake Placid and Saranac Lake in the          Adirondacks. The first night was so cold that we got up and cross-country skied in the dark to try to warm up. The next night we got a cabin for $38.00. It had a bathroom, kitchenette and heat! Clearly still roughing it compared to our warm, cozy bed at home, but traditions are meant to be tweaked, right?

1992 Cabin at World’s End State Park in Pennsylvania with Lisa and Wayne: It was $54.00 for all four of us for 3 nights – cheap because no one else thinks this is a good tradition on New Year’s Eve – though it was a one-room cabin with bunk beds and no bathroom. It was freezing the whole time and I was pregnant, which meant lots of trips outside!

1992 was the last year of our tradition. Lives evolve, kids don’t like peeing in 20°F weather any more than pregnant women do, jobs structure our time, bones start to appreciate warm beds. There have been many fun New Years since then of course, evenings with friends, celebrations with family, one in Barcelona and my favorite these days, home with family.

So what was the why? Why did we plan, pack and look forward to going somewhere cold and uncomfortable for a few nights at the turn of the year? I loved the idea of having the most important things in my life right beside me: Chris, warm food, friends and sharing our thoughts and ideas. It was symbolic; a reminder of all I was grateful for and knowing what was waiting at home, all that was icing on the cake.

It was the hike that showed me I can still do this; nature isn’t something to be cherished only on 80°F, blue-sky days during summer vacation. It can and should be daily – for me I know I need this – and it can be uncomfortable. But the rewards that come after kicking the snow off my boots, stoking the fire and shivering while my tea water boils make it all worthwhile.

The hike also reminded me of one reason I started this nature blog: to forge a meaningful connection with all the life that surrounds me on our property, a connection that will lead to respect and reverence of other species and to a better understanding of who I am.

So I will continue to explore Halcyon and share what I learn about the other beings that live here. And I will strive to get out every day: cold, wet, windy or warm. I have much to be grateful for. Happy New Year!

Summer Visitors

September brings welcome rain and cooler temperatures to Halcyon. Autumn is also my favorite season, full of new starts (even though I’m no longer teaching), nesting chores like canning and filling the wood shed and, usually, reflections of a busy summer.

This summer my flow got a bit derailed. It’s not that I am good at having a steady flow; it’s often derailed, which in general adds to the richness of my life. It’s more that suddenly I realized summer was over and I had not spent a lot of time being with and learning from Halcyon. And there is nothing to can, courtesy of the (at times eleven) deer that would prefer to jump the fence to sample my hard work than settle for all of nature’s bounty outside the fence. We’ve plans to thwart them for next year.

But on my walks these past two weeks, I was reminded of summer visitors despite, or in spite of, my lack of attention to their comings and goings. Two of our visitors were quite special to me as they’ve never been here before. Without further ado, I present our visitors in chronological order.

June 14, 2017 — A Bear For My Birthday!

 

I was thrilled to have this yearling here, but didn’t think it wise that he learn to eat from birdfeeders, so I reluctantly took my feeders down for the summer (sorry birds). The bear has left some scat sign on the driveway twice, but I’ve not seen him since the first week of July.

July 21, 2017 — A Record Sighting

On a walk to the pond, I flushed a bird from the edge into a tree. I did not have my binoculars with me, but I didn’t really need them. She was large and had a curved bill. She was definitely not a heron and my presence didn’t seem to spook her. A quick online search told me she was an immature white Ibis and that she shouldn’t be here.

I saw her every day until July 29th. Once we even took our rowboat to the middle of the pond and she stayed where she was at the far edge calmly eating. I wondered if something was wrong, an injury maybe, and I wondered how she got here. A birder friend reported the sighting and it is apparently a record for Rockbridge County. I’m glad Halcyon could keep her fed until she found her way back to a flock.

Late August – Caterpillars on the Move

I was thrilled to find some monarch caterpillars on my milkweed this summer, but we left for vacation and I never rediscovered them. I have also seen an adult monarch flying through Halcyon three times, which is an increase from zero the past several years.

The following caterpillars were found on my daily walks in August. I have tried to identify them, but admit that I may be mistaken.

Milkweed tussock caterpillar

milkweed tussock caterpillar

 

 

 

 

 

White Flannel moth caterpillar: his larval stage is much more flamboyant than his adult stage!

Banded tussock moth

banded tussock moth

 

 

 

 

 

 

Halcyon Days

 

Halcyon Days: a state of pure happiness induced by hard physical labor in the pursuit of enhancing natural habitat, complete with the resulting physical exhaustion and wildlife encounters.

Synonym: a perfect day.

I know that if you look up the lore and definition of halcyon, it will not be exactly the same as my definition above. The previous owners named this property Halcyon because of a pair of kingfishers that live near the pond. We liked the name and adopted it, but since all relationships depend on the personality dynamics of those involved, Halcyon has shaped us as much as we have shaped it these past 16 years. It’s only natural that the definition of halcyon could change a bit.

golden ragwort

Twenty years ago, I didn’t know that I would do some of the work I do to help shape my home or property. A lot of this work is what most people have to do to manage a property: painting, mowing, house upkeep, gardening, fencing out deer, etc. Even when we bought the house I had no real understanding of the activities I would undertake to make Halcyon our home: gutting rooms down to the studs, cutting and placing tile, plastering, using a chainsaw to clear brush and cut firewood (once crawling on my stomach under a forsythia bush with my chainsaw to cut invasive mulberry at the base, and aware of how foolish this was), learning about and eating some wild edibles, and lots and lots of canning. Chris has undertaken much of the same in addition to plumbing, wiring, dam building and the ability to amass a huge pile of firewood in the amount of time that takes me days. I have chainsaw envy.

This relationship wasn’t always easy. In the early years, we were very busy and Halcyon benefited from our benign neglect and my do I have to mow all that? attitude. When we would walk the trails, which were getting narrower year by year, I would feel frustrated at all the work there was to do, all the times Chris would point out places we should clear. This frustration, and the slow steady creep of a host of invasive species: ailanthus, multi-flora rose, autumn olive, honeysuckle and more, was a huge part of my desire to leave teaching and focus on Halcyon. She needed me. I don’t think I grasped how much I needed her.

waterfall on Mouse Run

It still isn’t easy. I mean, I don’t sit on the couch and eat bon bons, but a good day is made all the better by the fact that it isn’t easy. Sweat, scratches, close-encounters with snakes (we let them be) and sore joints and muscles are not only a price we pay for our Halcyon Days, they are part of the process. I daresay there would be no bliss, no matter how enshrined in exhaustion, if someone else did this all for us and we just showed up as guests every day. For me at least, I have to be a part of the process.

view of the Mouse Run from our bench

There have been almost daily discoveries, mostly of native trees. We have been rescuing some favorites from honeysuckle and other crowding. I call these dates with Chris, Operation Redbud Rescue or Operation Sassafras Patch. Just a few days ago we had a really rich Halcyon Day: We rescued sassafras trees and found many maples and baby sassafras. We cleared around a milkweed patch so they had more room to grow. We found and watched 5 fledgling Carolina wrens in the wood shed (they are so cute!), found a patch of wild phlox, and saw an indigo bunting at the bird feeder. All of this makes for a great day, but Halcyon wasn’t done with us yet. Before dinner we made a cocktail and took our tired bodies to the stream to enjoy the view of the waterfall – talking about what else we want to clear no longer frustrates me, it excites me – when I noticed a GIANT morel! It was almost 8 inches long and wide! I have never seen one so big. There were enough others nearby for two dinners and I am drying a few. Ah, Halcyon Days!

monster morel
morels

Each morning as my joints are slow to join me in greeting the day, I have less of a to-do list in my head and more of a vision. This vision of Halcyon grounds me in these tenuous political times and gives me hope that nature will outlast us all. But it is not just the vision; it is the process, which I hope is never done, that grounds me. It also gets me, eventually, out the door to do it all over again.

shady wall garden