Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Bench In Winter

Have you seated yourself on a bench shaped this way? Probably not for long as they're terribly uncomfortable. I came to the Como Park Conservatory to escape the cold and do some planning and writing, but instead I'm thinking about this bench. The way it is designed requires us to lean forward to be comfortable, our rears are cradled by the curvature. Leaning back as the rear is cradled our spine arches sharply and uncomfortably.  Here, then, the benches are mostly for looks or to keep us moving, not at all for winter's thinking and writing in a a blessedly warm and humid environment.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Downstairs Upstairs

The other day, while in the studio, I spied this large raptor up in the tree overlooking the little, north wetland.

I had to run downstairs to get my camera and zoom lens, then up to the attic to attempt a shot.

 But nobody likes to hold a pose for too long.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

An Insider's Garden

Winter has gone and done it. We're rising above zero for the lengthening daylight hours, but descending to negative teens deep into the long night. The sun is low, brilliant reflected off the snow, and surprisingly warm at your back.  

Brought on by a concern for agave and prickly pear cactus we were given while visiting New Mexico last April, I've chosen to be a better house plant care giver. As a gardener, most people are surprised to hear I don't care much for houseplants. I prefer plants that take care of themselves and felt fairly confident that the desert succulents would survive outside as long as they were protected from moisture and cool temperatures, in essence -the damp. With all that has been going on, our gardens were not quite ready for such attention to detail, so we brought the potted agave and opuntia in, situating them under the south-facing windows, where only the tree trunks get in the way of their much needed light.

With our extended summer and then autumn, I was able to pot up parsley and cilantro well after a hard freeze. These herbs are tough, out of doors, but inside they have become languid. There isn't a window in the house that could give them all they want.

Betsy had potted Lantana out in the yard, and brought it in. I balked as it dried to a crisp, and then, in utter darkness, new leaves sprouted. Me and my balking. Afterward I recollected all the weedy Lantana growing street side and hill side in Florida during the dry winter.

Rosemary came in, growing as it's snipped, and preferring more sun. The Norfolk pine, Araucaria, somehow, can hardly believe it, survived a move from a sunny-ish window in humid Brooklyn to a dry, very dry west-facing window in our house with only some crispy golden needles as casualty. The purple Oxalis, reaching for the window, has been with me for nearly 20 years. It's been dead several times, or so I thought -a little water brings it back to life. Asparagus fern is in there too, came in from the cold, and is as carefree as the one I had in a pot on a landing in New Mexico. Finally, I should recuse myself from speaking about the Cyclamen because a) this is not my favorite kind (I prefer the gloriously scented variety) and b) I bought it at the Home Depot (never buy plants at the box store). Almost immediately its leaves began yellowing, although flower production kept up. Undoubtedly due to atmospheric conditions in the dry home but maybe light and let's just call it seasonal affective disorder. I think it is unsure what season it is, or not, however we can agree that the Cyclamen is pretty but moody.

We cure ourselves of that kind of difficult with this kind of easy -a hanging planter filled with spider and pothos, Epipremnum aureum. The pothos was ripped from the painted wall of our apartment in Brooklyn, wrapped in damp paper towel. stuffed into a small water bottle, and forgotten in the cab of a truck somewhere in Illinois, overnight, nearly snuffed out from freezing temperatures, then left in a bottle of water for 9 months, until planting it in this hanging basket. The pothos is one tough plant.

All that is required now is to build a proper shelf to support our collection of tough and finicky. Like many things these days, I will think it, and several months later it will happen.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Winter Mind

Winter has finally come to us. Temperatures below 20 degrees F, snowfall, car doors frozen shut with the last freezing rain, the clinkeling of ice crystals shed at forty five miles per hour. Despite this wintry attitude, we here at PrairieWood have work to do. The new shop is now standing with roof and ceiling. It never occurred to me that I would work into the night, outdoors, at just a handful of degrees above zero, but I did just that last Sunday so that we could get the wiring in before the ceiling closed out our access.

While I've been able to put most house projects on hold until springtime, one thing is still weighing heavily on my mind -the woods. What once went concealed by countless leaves is now made obvious by the contrasting wet bark and newly fallen snow. If I could sum up its appearance in one word, it would be diagonal. What is it about a wood of slanted trees that is so disturbing? Is our sense of order satisfied by horizontal ground and vertical columns of trees? Is the removal of angled wood a goal of a "clean" woods? 

What we need here is a plan, a forest plan, to guide us in the care of these woods. But wait. Why do the woods need our care at all? Isn't that awfully anthropocentric? Couldn't the woods take care of itself as it has for thousands of years?

Why is it so hard to look at the woods and see ourselves in it? We entertain the woods as a medium of passage. We experience the woods, but are not a part of it. Our aim is to be out-of-the-woods. We are beasts of clearings where a few selected trees may stand sentry. Why not the woods? Is it a blow to our ego to be among such large beings? Or is it the inherent danger of a sustained presence in the woods, the mashup of life and limb? Maybe this is the most practical tack, that a life in the woods is a life fraught with falling timber. Even among the trees there is danger. No elderly tree gives way without taking or scarring those around it. The falling of a great old tree reverberates through the forest, destroying the order, remaking communities, providing opportunities for well placed upstarts. 

I've realized how easy it is to make a metaphor of the woods, but the questions are more difficult. In our short time here we've had to ask many, and no answer is quite right. Any intervention is yet another question, or string of questions. We cannot extract ourselves from the story of the woods; people created it and we are living it. 

I regret to speak so abstractly, but somewhere in this line of thinking is a better perspective that may be teased out in writing. I understand intuitively that we have a role in this mess, that we are the aliens among the trees, roadsides, and fields. We cast dispersions on the plants and animals that take advantage of sensitive niches, but were it not for us this would hardly be the case. We are the aliens, the agents of drastic change. We project it onto others (plants, animals) while claiming our place. There would be no buckthorn, no garlic mustard, no barberry or burning bush if it weren't for our own invasive nature. Can we make it right? Can you take it back? Can you undo the done? 

This is a defining aspect of our culture. We invade a place, instigating the consequences that we see all around us and then tell ourselves that it is the others' fault, it is their doing that has created the mess and maybe, just maybe, we'll commit resources to cleaning it up, and it will be ongoing, forever perhaps. The productive citizen looks away; it's just easier that way, isn't it? We can spend a life throwing resources at a problem that traces back to exactly where we stand. Is it rational to label plants and animals invasive and yet completely ignore our responsibility for it? 

In the woods I see the paradigm of our conflict, one as much with the natural world as it is with other human beings. I am left asking you if an answer, one that can never be fully right, is to look away or to commit the resources to try to correct the damage, forever, perhaps. And what to make of the trying, because trying isn't necessarily accomplishing anything other than assuaging one's conscience of total responsibility. 

I don't mean to be melodramatic. It's simply that so much of what appears to ail us today is hindered by our unwillingness to take responsibility, or at the very least, to understand our responsibility. I am not personally responsible for the rampant buckthorn in the woods, but I sure can see how it came to pass and how I've benefited from our ancestral migration to this place. 

Ignorance (in the sense of not knowing, but also ignoring) leads to bad decisions, or self-centered ones, and consequences difficult to ameliorate. For instance, water holds in the middle swale, in the back woods, and leads to ponding, mosquitoes, and to water-logged roots which can bring an untimely death to the trees there, fallen timber, more sunshine, and then faster buckthorn spread. I considered trenching a drainage so that the captured water could drain into the great wetland. Autumn came and I saw that some trees at the center of the middle swale remained green-leafed long after the rest went yellow.

Upon investigation, the bark and leaf, below, spoke. These are silver maple, Acer saccharinum, the fast growing, brittle-wooded tree of wet areas in the Eastern Forest.

I can only guess that silver maples living at the boundaries of its range put the species under pressures not necessarily found near its core. So I came to an understanding of this middle swale. I will not dig a trench to help drain it, yet I will dig deeper into what else is growing, and dying, in this area, and attempt to understand it before acting or, quite possibly, not acting at all.

The questions of how to act and what sustained gestures are both possible and effective, are for our winter mind. What can be done that limits the rampant buckthorn and doesn't undermine the fragile species under threat from its able fecundity? We spent a quantity of time pulling garlic mustard from the drainage stream connecting the northern, small wetland to the great, southern wetland. Our work was effective, but it also appeared to me that there was a significant reduction in jewelweed in the very same area. I'm working on memory, now, but I thought it was more prolific in that region in past years. So I wonder, was it the garlic mustard that reduced the jewelweed population to nearly zero, was it natural swings in population due to unusual temperatures or flooding, or was it our trampling feet that inhibited its seed from sprouting? 

Every action has consequences, so many of which are unknown. I recall how, as a child, certain people were inclined to spray pesticides into the tall oak trees to bring down gypsy moth caterpillars. Our camp director screamed, during lunch, that by God he was not going to allow those trees to die! Our neighbor brought in a pump truck, unannounced in summer time, and sprayed his trees. I am still haunted by the overwhelming bitter smell of the pesticide, the sticky residue dripping from the trees, the dead birds and squirrels on the ground. His trees didn't die, nor did the camp's, but then, neither did the vast majority of unsprayed trees.

Each of us who is responsible for a part of the woodlands at the edge of the prairie has to choose for ourselves whether to act, or look away, to spray herbicides and trample, or do nothing. There is no mandate, we operate independently of our neighbors and yet nature cares little for these arbitrary boundaries.

I am inclined to act, yet feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is necessary to be effective. We hesitate to spray herbicide, usually in two or more applications, but pulling is incredibly time consuming, physical and often, incomplete. Should we adjust to the new, simpler woods, make peace with the knowledge that we brought this thicket on ourselves? Could there be a middle ground where buckthorn and garlic mustard and all the others are accepted to a degree, where we do not look away but effectively manage the woods?

*all photos are from October, showing yellow-leafed sugar maples along with the green understory of buckthorn -low growing, young plants spread north while the large shrubs reside on the south facing slope.