Monday, February 17, 2020

Resurrecting the Butternut Tree

Of all the many silhouettes that trees cast against the winter sky, one that gives me particular pleasure is that of the butternut. Most people haven't heard of this tree, also called white walnut or the scientific Juglans cinerea, which was laid low by an imported canker disease beginning in the 1990s. The few surviving specimens in our area often lack the classic vertical ambitions of a tree, tending to grow in a gangly, everywhichway manner while other kinds of trees launch a bold ascent towards the sun. The less than graceful shape is for me still heroic, given the tree's battle with disease. The nut--oblong as opposed to the black walnut's round shape--is said to be very tasty, dense with oil and protein.

A couple resident Princetonians with deep tree knowledge made me aware of the tree's presence in town. One was Bill Sachs, a Princeton grad and editor of the Northern Nut Growers Association newsletter. He had been doing consulting for the Textile Research Institute on the east side of town when he noticed a couple native butternuts growing on their property. Given how few butternuts remain in Princeton, it was a significant find.

It takes cross-fertilization between two trees to make nuts, and one fall I helped him collect those two trees' offerings of about 50 nuts, which he carefully planted in pots and nurtured into young trees about a foot high. Those seedlings took on even greater significance when the two parent trees were lost--one to wind, the other to a saw when it got in the way, ironically enough, of an environmental remediation on the property.

If not for Bill's seedlings, the only thing left of butternuts in Princeton in coming years might have been a street sign at Princeton Community Village.

It was not necessarily easy to find a good place to plant the young trees. Butternuts won't grow in the shade, and most of our open space is heavily shaded by taller-growing trees the butternut can't compete with. In one of our early efforts, I served as assistant as Bill planted a few trees on the edge of a clearing near Veblen House in Herrontown Woods.

Elsewhere in town, some may have mourned the loss of a spruce/pine forest to hurricane winds at Mountain Lakes, but when the town cleared away the debris, Bill and I found ourselves with a clean slate into which to plant native species underrepresented in our dense preserved forests.

Bill carefully caged the trees to protect them from the deer.

My caged structures, as in the story of The Three Little Pigs, were less tall and sturdy, with deer sometimes getting the chance to play the role of a toothful wolf, setting the seedlings back until I reinforced the cages.

Some will say it's best to plant butternuts far from existing mature butternuts that might have the canker, but in a few spots, we took the approach of planting two young ones near a handful of mature butternuts still to be found in the wild. Arborist Bob Wells pointed us to two old loners up near Herrontown Woods, one growing at the edge of Stone Hill Church, and one in Autumn Hill Reservation.

With the blessing of the facilities manager at Stone Hill Church, it was relatively easy to find sunny spots on the church grounds,

but our efforts to plant two young trees next to the lone butternut in Autumn Hill turned into a real adventure. The only sunny spot available near the existing mature tree was a thicket of invasive shrubs and vines. Kurt Tazelaar and I hewed an opening in the rampant growth, discovering in the process the remains of a long abandoned farmstead from the early 20th century. It may well be that the butternut was part of the original farmstead, and had survived long enough to serve as a marker of sorts, leading us back to a bit of lost Princeton history.

Bill had found another lone native butternut in a valley at Mountain Lakes, and I found an opening nearby where we planted a couple more saplings. The older butternut was blown down soon thereafter, dashing our hopes that the new and old could cross pollinate, but the two young ones are now 20 feet tall,

and are being well taken care of by Mountain Lakes staff and volunteers.

Butternuts have a lot going against them. They are unable to compete against taller growing trees, which means a laissez-faire approach to nature would cause them to be shaded out. They are short-lived, which along with the imported disease may be why most of the remaining mature trees we knew of in town have been lost over the past decade.

They don't seem to be faring any better elsewhere. Bob Wells tells me that "Morris Arboretum had two Juglans cinerea up until Nov. 1 when the wind that night blew one lead of tree #1 into the second one totally destroying butternut #2! Now only one misshaped specimen left." The finest specimen he knows in central NJ is in Hightstown, which he describes as "20” DBH and 40-45 feet tall, somewhat scrappy looking but great for a white walnut."

We can be thankful that through Bill's initiative and caring, and assistance from Bob and others, a new generation has a chance in Princeton. Additional robust young trees now grow at TRI and at Harrison Street Park, where my friend Clifford played a role. With some followup care, sunlight, time and luck, the butternut's curious form and the highly touted taste may endure.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Missing Mildfire in Australia

Repetition is a powerful force in our culture. For many people, a lie can be turned into the truth simply by saying it over and over. And one of the lies we are told over and over, even in well-intended daily news reporting, is that fire is the enemy of the forest. It's a lie of omission, a one-sided portrayal that leaves readers with a false impression, time and time again.

The reality is much more interesting. Many species are adapted to periodic fire, and languish without it. Pines of various kinds in the U.S. and eucalyptus in Australia have evolved clever adaptations to encourage and survive fire. Depending on the species, they may shed leaves or bark that resist decomposition, and thus accumulate on the forest floor to carry a fire along. Ever wonder why oak leaves are slower to decompose than maple leaves? Oaks gain advantage from periodic fire, and have thick bark to protect the trees from the fires that their persistent leaves promote. Many kinds of pines and eucalyptus have "serotinous" cones or capsules that release seeds only after being heated. The seeds drop to the ground after a fire has swept through, make contact with the newly exposed soil, and then the seedlings prosper in the ash fertilizer and more open conditions a fire leaves behind.

Fire-dependent trees and prairie grasses depend on periodic small scale fires. These mildfires, as I like to call them, burn cooler, so they don't sterilize the soil. They burn lower, so they don't spread to the canopy. Fire-dependent trees and herbaceous plants quickly spring back to life once the fire has swept through. Periodic burning makes the forest safe, by burning through fallen branches and leaves. If left unburned, these fuels can accumulate to dangerous levels and cause the truly destructive fires we've seen in California and Australia.

Smokey Bear, then, needs to be fired, so to speak. At the same time, fire can be dangerous, and mustn't be casually started. How does one use a potentially dangerous tool to keep fire-adapted forests safe? In the U.S., people are trained to do carefully planned and prescribed "fuel-reduction" burns. It's a necessary but cumbersome approach, and the result is that many forests that need mildfire go unburned.

The situation is greatly complicated by irresponsible homeowners who build in fire-prone landscapes. A recent NY Times article offered an apt description:
" ... many people are putting themselves at risk by building homes in remote, fire-prone areas without taking essential steps to make the homes fire-resistant, like installing metal roofs. Extensive research shows that wildfires will usually leave properly built and maintained homes with little damage, but rural communities have hesitated to adopt strict building codes. 
“People like to do whatever they damn well please on their own land,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs an advocacy group,Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “But when a wildfire comes, they’re calling Uncle Sam saying, ‘Please, come save me.’”

The article gave a portrait of a less cumbersome approach used by the aborigines in northern Australia. As was done in North America centuries ago, aborigines use mildfire to tame and stimulate the forests they inhabit.

The article carries an important message:
"Far from being calamities, fires are now seen by many experts as essential to improving the long-term health of the forests, thinning them and creating greater variability on the landscape. Yet that awareness has yet to penetrate the public consciousness. People still think forest fires are bad and expect the government to try to stamp them out, even in remote wilderness areas. Federal and state firefighting costs in some years approach $2 billion."
Why, as the article states, has the public remained unaware that these conflagrations are caused by a lack of beneficial fire in the landscape? I offered one reason in a comment on the article:
Since the massive Yellowstone fires of 1988, and probably well before, periodic articles such as this one have served as useful correctives, but they have had little impact on policy. One reason may be that the day to day reporting of wildfire continues to present fire as the enemy. That repetitive message has far more power than these periodic articles that say, "Oh, by the way, fire is actually an important part of fire ecology, and the real enemy is a dangerous buildup of fuel due to fire suppression."  
Nature is complex, while storylines are kept simple for easy consumption, and the result is a maintenance of the status quo that grows ever more costly and destructive. Knowing how important fire is for forest health, I read the daily reporting--which for some reason decides it's necessary to tell endless stories of victims while saying nothing about how nature works--and wonder how people are supposed to learn about fire ecology. The people who need to learn are not likely the ones reading this article. These periodic correctives are useful and important, but are not enough.
There's an important lesson about nature waiting to be learned by our culture. While the aborigines are immersed in nature, and see themselves as informed stewards of the complex forests they inhabit, we are largely disconnected from the natural world, and seek simple answers as to how nature works. Fire is categorized as bad, as is the carbon dioxide that is fueling the climate crisis. Yet fire and CO2 are important and elegant components of a functional nature. The real problem is too much of a good thing--fire so hot that it leaves in its wake a moonscape, and so much extra CO2 poured into the atmosphere that the planet becomes overheated and the oceans too acidic. Change, too, is a matter of amount. Though climate has changed through the eons, it is the unprecedentedly rapid pace of human-caused change that is proving particularly destructive. Journalism needs to find a way to convey these lessons, repeatedly, so that more than a peripheral few can learn.

I once heard a talk by the fire historian and author, Stephen Pyne. Grappling with a question about how best to time fire in the landscape, he stepped out of all the complexity of how to safely burn forests in populated areas, and imagined what he called a poet: someone off in a remote habitat, informed by knowledge, experience, and instinct, able to sense when the humidity, wind, and fuel loads of the forest were just right for a fire that would do the most good and the least harm. I often wondered who these poets might be. An article about how aborigines use fire may not change the world, but it offered evidence that the poets Stephen Pyne dreamed of are alive and well, if only clustered in one small part of Australia.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

68 Degrees on January 11

Flowers in January. We have a shrub that's easily fooled by the weather, which one friend describes as "weirdly, wrongly warm." It's the kind of day to split the heart in two. The warmth feels good, but the portent feels bad.

Hard to believe that just five years ago we were skating on Lake Carnegie in early January, appreciating the beauty and variability of all the crystalline patterns. But it's always possible that a pulse of arctic air will come our way and stay long enough to freeze the lake once again--just less and less likely.

If you google the NJ state climatologist webpage at Rutgers, you can find charts that show the warmest and coldest temperatures on record for any given day at various locations around NJ. Looks like the previous warmest temperature on 1.11 near Princeton was 65 degrees in 1975. Record highs for some of the days in January date back to the early 20th century, offering an opportunity for climate change deniers to cherry pick the data and claim the earth isn't warming after all. Only when you look at the data as a whole does a clear trend become apparent. For instance, in this century, this month, and this part of NJ, there have been 14 new records for warmest days and 4 new records for coldest.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

How To Bathe a Tortoise

This post could be entitled "Love and the Art of Pet Maintenance," for the uncanny skill and connection that loving pet owners can display. Below are examples of a tortoise and an abandoned baby rabbit. I also make mention of how love can inform the growing of less pet-like forms of life: a worm bin, or a tree or, I suppose, even the less charismatic life in a compost pile, for those of us whose passion sometimes lands lower on the evolutionary scale.

But because many readers are no doubt wondering, "Just how do you bathe a tortoise?," I will start with that.

I had stopped by for a kitchen table chat with my friend Mia when she disappeared into the living room and soon reemerged with a reptile, specifically a tortoise, and even more specifically a sulcata tortoise. She announced that it was a gift and she was in the process of house-training this new pet, then proceeded to set it in a tray in the kitchen sink and add a little water.

Some "why's" came to mind, in reverse order. Why water for a desert-dwelling creature? And, more fundamentally, why a tortoise?

My notion of tortoise care was formed long ago, in that primitive, information-deprived pre-internet era, while watching a film clip in which a hibernating tortoise was placed in a drawer, there to remain for a month or two until it awoke. I had had some bad experiences living with people who didn't take good care of their pets, so the idea of a pet one could leave for long periods in a drawer sounded appealing. A tortoise seemed to me a hybrid between the elemental and the biological--part rock, part animal.

All those misperceptions quickly evaporated as Mia lovingly gave the tortoise a rinse. She said it loves to have water poured on its belly, and I have to admit, it did look very happy as she held it under the faucet.

At this juncture, a photo of the tortoise getting that wonderful belly splash in loving hands would be fitting, but the scientist in me took over when she pointed to evidence that the house training is going well. Tortoise pee is more solid than liquid, owing of course to the desert dwelling tortoise's need to conserve water.

A sulcata tortoise can live up to 100 years and slowly grow beyond 100 pounds. Somehow I think Mia's up to the task.

She later sent me a link to a study showing that tortoises have good memories. This makes sense from multiple angles. What are 100 years good for if knowledge doesn't accumulate, and if one's going to move slowly, it's best to have a good memory for worthy destinations.

Another friend, Julie, who lives at the edge of Herrontown Woods, has an uncanny ability to raise abandoned animals. She hand-fed this baby rabbit a couple years ago for as long as it took to make it strong enough to return to the wild. Just from watching the interaction, it was clear there was a special connection--part instinct, part knowledge, part affection--that would insure better results than I could ever attain.

More recently, another friend, Tineke, offered us a small clinic on how to use a worm bin to make your food scraps into rich fertilizer. It would be a stretch to call these worms pets, but the same emotions support the insights and consistent, timely actions that insure success.

Love for a pet or a garden or even an inanimate building is like a beacon, a memory prompter, a sleuth. You can tell if someone is paying attention, remembering when to water, or digging for an answer when something goes wrong.

That's the sort of hardwired caring I wish could be bottled and distributed widely in this new decade.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Opposing Views on Chipmunks

Though I can talk to someone for an hour and not notice what they are wearing, I do notice things in nature. Take this rock for instance, which was sitting unassumingly next to the sidewalk near the back entrance of the local supermarket. I noticed the rock, and then noticed that it wasn't a rock, really, but instead was made of plastic and just happened to be the size of those electronic rat traps you might see in NY alleyways. Sure enough, a closer look revealed round entry points of the appropriate size cut in the plastic.

Then a few days later, a supermarket employee was outside near the "rock", and I mentioned it to him. That was enough to get him talking about a chipmunk that lives in the bushes there. He obviously was fond of this chipmunk, showed me the hole in the ground into which he'd seen it disappear. He hoped it was smart enough to avoid the trap. "Rats may be smarter than chipmunks," I said, realizing I wasn't exactly feeding the wellsprings of hope.

He also told me that he'd seen the chipmunk duck into the store when the doors first open, snatch whatever it could find on the floor behind a counter, and then make it's escape to enjoy its gleanings back in its own private chipmunk preserve in the courtyard. It was a darling story of a cute and enterprising rodent, but might also explain the presence of the "rock."

On my next visit, I noticed pieces of bread scattered in the small plaza near the trap, too numerous to be accidental. In the photo, the bread crumbs are in the foreground, while the trap is a tiny speck across the sidewalk in the background.

The photo nicely captures the opposite views of chipmunks that can be found in my own family. Though I don't remember ever feeding them, I grew up loving chipmunks--their striped good looks, their perky manner and upbeat chirp, the comic but highly utilitarian way they'd stuff nuts into their cheeks. All through the intervening years, I have yet to be wronged by a chipmunk, and have cheered their periodic arrival in the yard--though a vulnerability to local predators may explain why they never seem to sustain a presence.

So it was a surprise to hear my sister in Cleveland describe them as the bane of her vegetable garden. Have Cleveland chipmunks gone rogue? Or might it be that her low opinion of chipmunks is due to a lack of sufficient predators to keep their numbers in check? Interesting to contemplate a predator being the guardian of a prey's reputation.

When it comes to liking or not liking, whether in nature or society, both the judge and the judged can easily get trapped. One positive trait can make people ignore all the negatives, and one negative trait can overshadow all the positives. Emotion seeks purity--a definitive judgement up or down--even as good and evil become increasingly intermixed. When it comes to chipmunks, for now I'm content to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, "hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I'll carry opposing ideas like a chipmunk carries nuts bulging in its cheeks, to be stored as future food for thought.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Are Foxes Poised for a Cyclical Decline?

Walking back towards the parking lot at Herrontown Woods the other day, I was surprised to see a fox up ahead, trotting in my direction. It turned down a side path before it reached me, seemingly unaware of my presence. The fox was showing the classic symptoms of mange, more specifically sarcoptic mange, having lost much of its fur, and you have to wonder what it's prospects are for the winter.

That sad, raggedly fox moving on down the trail, seemingly resigned to its fate, brought back memories of this photo sent to me years back by Christy and Brian Nann, taken at Greenway Meadows. The Mercer County Wildlife Center confirmed for me that it was a red fox stripped of fur by mange, with little chance of survival.

Typing "mange" into the search box for this blog, I was not surprised to find that the photo was taken in late 2008, roughly ten years ago.

That eleven year gap in sightings of mange may not be a matter of chance. Somewhere along the way, growing up in small town Wisconsin or reading wildlife magazines, I learned that foxes and their prey go through a ten year population cycle. There's a boom and then there's a bust.

In recent years, we've been witnessing the boom. Foxes have been flourishing in Princeton, moving up stream corridors into new urban areas. Certainly they've been making their presence known in our neighborhood. My wakeup call came two years ago, when a fox ambushed two of our last three chickens, consuming one and leaving the other stashed under a neighbor's bush for a future meal. Clearly, the local predators were upping their game. Earlier this year, during dogwalks at dusk, I would occasionally see a fox trotting confidently down the middle of the street before ducking behind a house. Late at night, I'd hear their baleful bark in our driveway. A few blocks away, a fox family had a large litter under a neighbor's porch, causing some controversy as to what if anything should be done. The most impressive sighting came last winter, when I was standing in the Herrontown Woods parking lot. Across the stream, a beautiful specimen was moving stealthily through the woods. It paused and went into a crouch, then pounced, penetrating through the few inches of snow with uncanny precision, then trotted off with a rodent in its mouth.

There's logic to the boom, and logic to the bust that may now be underway. When predators are few, rabbits and rodents increase, providing foxes with an abundant food source. Then, as the fox numbers increase, their skillful predation continues taking a toll on their food supply until the foxes find themselves with little to eat. The too numerous foxes begin to starve, and their weakening immune systems make them vulnerable to the burrowing mites that cause mange. The fox population crashes, the rabbits and rodents rebound, and the cycle begins anew. The internet is full of stories of this boom and bust, from Colorado to one out of Vermont that gives an especially detailed description of the biology behind the afflicted fox's misery. The Vermont post suggests that mange can be an isolated event, but also tells of how mange once precipitated a 95% drop in the fox population in a city in the UK.

There are lots of questions to ask. Has the boom cycle in foxes reduced Princeton's population of rats? Might it explain why there seem to be fewer squirrels around than in past years? Might predation of mice be expected to reduce the prevalence of ticks and lyme disease? Is there a ten year ebb and flow to fox raids on chicken coops?

Though rodents can survive a boom in the red fox population, less certain is the resilience of ground-nesting birds on the Jersey shore, like the endangered plover. Red foxes, it turns out, were introduced from Europe. The native gray foxes tend to stay deeper in the forest, and so the red foxes may pose a threat in more open habitat that the shorebirds have not evolved to defend themselves against.

To protect the birds, the state Division of Fish and Wildlife has been culling the red fox population along the shore. Residents outraged by the intentional killing of such beautiful animals managed to get 80,000 signatures on a petition demanding the state's trapping program end. If the petitioners were successful, however, the results might not be exactly humane. When an unfettered population of foxes ran out of endangered shorebirds and other prey to eat, it could succumb to mange--a painful and deadly condition that makes the government's trapping program look highly humane by comparison.

Of course, no enlightened fox is going to rise up and warn its brethren to have smaller litters in order to sustain adequate prey and avoid the epidemic of mange. It is humans who have that gift of foresight and sophisticated communication that can forestall calamity, and yet our special gifts are being spent not to limit our own boom and bust cycle--played out over centuries rather than decades--but to create the conditions for a bust of such global proportions that no life form will remain untouched. Whether it's CO2 or foxes, we live in an era when superficial views of nature predominate, when the misplaced sympathies of 80,000 people can be manipulated to oppose the one government action that could protect both the endangered birds and the foxes from calamity.

This is the journey of thought, back to my youth and forward to a shared future, that can spring from a chance sighting of a forlorn fox along a wooded trail.

Some useful links: 
Princeton's Animal Control officer
Mercer County Wildlife Center

From what I've read, mange in foxes poses little risk to people or pets

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Unexpected Bird Sightings -- Red-Headed Woodpecker, and a Displaced Woodcock

In my inbox recently were two remarkable bird sightings. The first was of a juvenile red-headed woodpecker, spotted Nov. 30 by Susan Miles at Rogers Refuge. This refuge, renowned among birders but not known to many other Princetonians, is on American Water property at the bottom of the Institute Woods, accessible via West Drive.

David Padulo took these excellent photos of the bird, which has been continuing its residency in a prominent snag in the woods.

Red-headed woodpeckers were a fairly common sight in the mature forest that I grew up next to in southeastern Wisconsin. Sightings became more rare when I moved to Durham, NC, where they seemed dependent on large congregations of snags created by flooding or fire.

The red-headed is the one species of woodpecker I have not seen since moving to Princeton, so it's good to hear that at least one juvenile has strayed into the area. One theory is that the tragic loss of ash trees due to the introduced Emerald ash borer may boost woodpecker numbers for as long as the snags last.

Melinda Varian offered the following directions for finding the woodpecker.

Walk along the Stony Brook, about 0.4 miles along the Blue Trail, going from the parking area through the water company and down along the brook. The best place to find it is to walk the Blue Trail to the area where we had to move the trail inland a couple of years ago because it was about to fall into the water.
Halfway along that new section, stand with your back to the brook and look for a light-colored, very tall snag that leans slightly to the right. The bird flies to the top few feet of that snag frequently before going to the other trees in the area. It makes a very recognizable sound that could be described as a sort of chuckling.

Susan Miles added that "the sound it makes could be confused with a Carolina Wren, but it's coming from high in the trees."

Lee and Melinda Varian are now leading the Friends of Rogers Refuge. Lee recently built a new trail--accessible by walking down the gravel road to the left of the water company buildings--in memory of Fred Spar, long-time leader of FORR. The trail helps provide better access to the lower marsh.

Years back, I wrote an ecological assessment and stewardship plan for the refuge, and still help out from time to time. FORR just received another grant from the Washington Crossing Audubon Society to continue invasive species control in the refuge.

The other unusual bird sighting that showed up in my inbox came from Mimi Mead-Hagen.
An odd occurrence happened to us when we were in Philly visiting our son at Penn. We were leaving the squash courts walking along a path when my 21 yr old son was almost hit by something…he ducked and there on the pavement landed this stunned bird. It had hit the ground in an awkward way then recovered to a sitting position as seen in the photo… 
Woodcocks sometimes migrate, and my guess is that this one hit a glass building and crash landed on the pavement. By the body language in the photo, there's some promise that it would recover. Thanks to Mimi for the photo (below).

Rogers Refuge happens to be one place to see the male woodcocks do their spectacular mating flight in February and March. Because the Alexander Rd bridge is closed, many drivers happen upon the refuge when they take West Drive in search of an alternative route to Route 1. There is no alternative route, however, and the water company said it would erect a sign to make clear that the gravel access drive to their buildings is private. You can still drive in there and park next to the observation tower to enjoy the refuge.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

A Pumpkin's Smile That Would Not Die

Not everyone will see the smile that lingers here on a Michigan friend's front step long after Halloween has passed, just as not everyone will see the value in keeping any sort of organic matter around that is transitioning back to the air and soil from which it came.

This pumpkin, too, would have long been gone if not for its smile, and for an assignment given to its carver, an art student named Theadora, to draw an object in progressive stages of decomposition.

For me, this smile, here visible, is inherent in all things making nature's magical journey from death back to new life. For me, leaves keep their smiles all the way through winter and the following year, as they are slowly dismantled, losing themselves to a soil's riches, casting their carbon to the winds to take new forms.

In addition to the artist, the art teacher, and my friend Dan--the patient, appreciative father who took the photo--there is one other person to credit for this lingering smile.

As we know here in Princeton, many a pumpkin's well-carved expression has been lost, or reworked, by a neighborhood squirrel.

Squirrels tend to render one-eyed faces, or a face that is all mouth and no eyes,

though perhaps a couple squirrels teamed up to carve what here looks like a face with bunny ears.

Sometimes, if a squirrel is too hungry, it abandons all pretense of artistry and eats its own carving down to the ground.

Thea's smile in Michigan might too have been radically reworked by a local squirrel if not for the mother, Karen, who has been paying off the local squirrel mafia with peanuts in a shell, which she delivers one by one to their tender, appreciative paws on the back porch.

Moral: It takes an artist to make a smile, and a family to keep it going. I wonder what other stories this smile has to tell.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association Celebrates Its 20th Year

This past weekend, I journeyed to Durham, NC to help celebrate the 20th year of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit I founded while living there from 1995 to 2003. I served first as president, then as executive director, continuing long-distance through 2005, and am proud to say that the organization has flourished in the years since then, growing to a staff of six, with hundreds of people attending this year's annual meeting in downtown Durham.

For the occasion, my friend and fellow plant-keeper Cynthie Kulstad (left) created a botanical portrait of the watershed--a glorious bouquet of native plants collected from different preserves that ECWA now owns and manages.

I seldom find myself posing for photos, but wanted to have a photo with Ellen Reckhow, a longtime Durham County commissioner who helped our fledgling organization get a county matching grant to purchase our first six acres next to the creek, twenty years ago.

One of the special places along the creek that I happened upon in ECWA's early days was a beaver marsh, improbably located right behind a big shopping center. It was a classic juxtaposition of nature and urban development. Beavers maintain the water level, and have a big lodge in the middle of the marsh. ECWA went on to acquire the marsh and build trails through it. A Beaver Queen Pageant evolved in a nearby neighborhood park, becoming the nonprofit's biggest annual fundraiser, as aspiring beaver queen contestants perform flamboyant skits, encouraging their friends to bribe the judges. The pageant's irreverence is a good balance for ardent environmentalism.

Staff member Rachel Cohn did most of the organizing for the celebration, including help pass out pieces of birthday cake.

I was one of the speakers at the event. The new executive director, Rickie White, introduced me as a stay-at-home dad, which prompted me to lead a cheer for stay-at-home dads before launching into my speech. In the speech, I told what I consider to be an immigrant's story, of moving to a new city, happening upon a neglected creek that flows through town, seeing value and possibility where many had only seen a ditch.

What a great feeling to witness all the growth, and be a part of the celebration.


Friday, November 08, 2019

Leaves -- A Love Story

Leaves are easiest to love during their "fifteen days of fame" in the fall. But though a true love of leaves may first take hold in the fall, maybe in a particularly colorful leaf picked up by a child on the way to school, it ultimately deepens and matures to include the less showy times that leaves go through, from an obscurity of green up above to an obscurity of brown underfoot, to a slow return to the air and ground from which they came. A love of leaves is so richly rewarded, by the oxygen they give in abundance, the shade, the transpirational, transformational cooling in the summer, the remembered exhilaration of raking and leaping into leafpiles, and the fabulous pulse of surface area and food leaves give to the ground each fall to insulate and feed the life of the soil that in turn sustains all life. Such abundant gratitude they show for the ongoing gift we give without even thinking, "a breath to build a leaf on." Leaves, after all, are built to a great extent from the carbon that we and other animals exhale.

Here are some photos collected this fall:

A sweetgum tree on Princeton University campus across from McCarter Theater. Of course, you expect leaves in such a setting to be above average,

but even the wild ones can put on something of a show, as in this field of sweetgum seedlings in a field next to Snowden Lane,

and even rival the cultivateds. This photo was taken only with the intent of showing variation in size of leaves that fell near Veblen House. The car's hatchback windshield was the closest horizontal surface. Only when looking at the photo later on did I see that nature, ever the artist, was composing the photo as much as I.

This photo of a native witchhazel planted next to a house on Linden Lane led to the unceremonious end of a phone conversation, as my cellphone battery died moments later.

In Herrontown Woods, witch hazels were more the color of these backyard pawpaw leaves. Shade can mute the brilliance of color, and sometimes alter the color itself.

The leaves of mapleleaf Viburnum vary year to year and place to place along the Princeton Ridge.

Wasn't expecting a musclewood to be so colorful. This is a lovely understory tree of Princeton's forests, but my neighbor has one flourishing in her front yard, close to a busy street. (Carpinus caroliniana)

Virginia creeper hanging from a blackhaw Viburnum. Lots of sun, lots of color.

The oakleaf hydrangia and stonecrop "autumn joy" can be a fine combo, their colors slowly shifting through the fall. The stonecrop isn't native, but stays where it's planted, and gives pollinators a fine late-summer dinner plate of nectar.

And lastly, another form of autumn joy--my older daughter when she was discovering the pleasure of leaves while growing up in Durham, NC. The child within us can make that love and delight last a lifetime.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

"Sprout Lands" -- Restoring a More Active Role for People in Nature

There was a time when the manipulation and utilization of trees formed the foundation of any sustainable community. Closely tended, trees provided fuel, food, and forage, keeping the home fires burning and the pantry well-stocked. Over the past couple centuries, we have drifted away from that deeply entwined relationship with arboreal nature, and now hold a romanticized view of trees as something to plant and then stand back. When a tree is taken down, we can think of nothing better to do with its wood than to grind it up, trunk and all, and feed it to the decomposers, hastening the return of its collected carbon back to the atmosphere. Children are warned to stay off trees, lest they fall, and environmentalism is defined largely as a passive protection of open space. Trees are to be hugged, not utilized.

Princeton was offered a much different view this past Sunday, during a talk at the Princeton Public Library by William Bryant Logan, author of Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees. His visit was co-sponsored by Marquand Park and initiated by arborist Bob Wells. Logan is an arborist, not an activist, yet his book seeks to raise awareness of two nearly lost words--coppicing and pollarding--and an active way of interacting with trees that for millenia benefitted not only people but nature itself. Nature, it turns out, has talents that can be trained much like our own.

Coppicing involves periodically cutting a tree to the ground, which may sound unkind, but if done in the right way with the right kinds of tree can result in numerous vigorous sprouts that produce slender stems for basketmaking, poles for fences, growing mushrooms or making charcoal, nuts for people and forage for livestock. Pollarding also involves periodic cutting of the tree, but farther up on the trunk, so that the resprouts are beyond the reach of browsing animals. Though such aggressive pruning may sound harmful, Logan describes this ancient practice as a kind of renewal that removes accumulated problems and allows a tree to start over again. It's not uncommon for a coppiced or pollarded tree to live 1000 years or more.

Most of us who pay attention to trees have been vaguely aware of these techniques. For an American, it can come as a shock to see them on display in the streets and countrysides of Europe. My first doubts about our entrenched let-grow approach to urban trees came in the 1990s after moving to North Carolina, where I soon witnessed the devastation wrought by Hurricane Fran. A pollarded oak survived the winds, while many of its untrimmed brethren came crashing down. Years later, on a gray, wintry day in 2014, prompted by the silhouettes of some aggressively pruned trees in my Princeton neighborhood, I read up some and posted on this blog about how pollarding in Princeton could make our neighborhoods safer, allow us to better integrate trees and rooftop solar panels, and use trees to more effectively absorb excess atmospheric carbon and inject it into the ground.

The revelation for Bill Logan, who is on the faculty at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, also began on a wintry day, while standing in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his company had been given the responsibility of caring for a grove of pollarded London plane trees. Realizing the limits of his knowledge on the subject, he began what would become a journey back in time and around the world to recover the techniques and tell the story of a nearly lost art of cultivation central to past civilizations and relevant to our own. The eloquently narrated journey, enlivened by a clear love of culture and horticulture, along with vivid memories of encounters with trees in his youth, takes us from England to Spain, Norway, Japan, and ultimately to Logan's homeland in California, where Native Americans would use fire to stimulate the abundant sprouts and acorns that allowed them not only to survive but to prosper.

In each case, coppicing and pollarding served as a foundation for cultures that interacted with nature not in the "impose and extract" manner that has dominated the industrial age, but in an exchange in which both people and nature could flourish. Coppiced hillsides were harvested in rotation on fifteen year cycles. Each fresh harvest allowed sunlight to reach the ground, awakening dormant seeds and spurring a surge in vegetation that transitioned in succeeding years from herbaceous growth to brambles and then back to shade as the coppiced trees regrew. Each stage of succession supported its own cohort of plants and animals--a diversity twice that of an unmanaged forest.

It is Logan's loving description of the coppicing common in Japan before World War II that is the most inspiring and also the most heartrending, given all that was lost in the post-war modernization and urban expansion. Coppiced hillsides held the soil and absorbed the rainfall that in turn fed springs critical for growing rice in the valleys. These, Logan realized, were the landscapes described in the classical Japanese poetry he had encountered as a young man in college.

There was a time, then, when nature around the world was intensely managed, and richer for it. Multiple times, Logan describes how this management would sometimes go awry, and people would need to adjust their techniques. Through mistakes, people learned how to live with the nature they depended upon. My speculation is that Native Americans, new to this continent, at first erred in their overharvest of megafauna, then took lessons about co-existence from the resulting extinctions. Our own immigrated civilization has in turn made far greater mistakes, and has resisted learning from them, with heedless extraction countered by hands-off preservation, neither of which serve nature's needs, nor ultimately our own.

Though Logan does not overtly advocate, his research and writings point to the possibility of re-integrating people with nature. Restoring nature could include restoring the positive role our economic needs once played within it. With knowledge and a caretaker''s sensibility, we would shift from being antagonists or passive protectors to active protagonists--allies and beneficiaries of a balanced, diverse and prospering nature.

There are, of course, challenges. Past neglect leaves a legacy that is hard to overcome. One audience member pointed out how invasive species could derail the once rich succession of native species that coppicing had in previous centuries produced. Logan describes the challenges of renovating a pollarded tree whose limbs have been allowed to overgrow. The long eclipse of these techniques is reminiscent of the long suppression of beneficial fire in America's forests and prairies, beginning with the ban in 1911 that led to dangerous fuel buildups in our forests--the explosive conditions that feed the mega-fires we see today. Like people, a neglected and abused nature cannot simply be reset to a previous era.

Personally, I view Logan's research as relevant to our management of Princeton's open space, and in particular the land surrounding the Veblen House and cottage at Herrontown Woods. The techniques he witnessed in western Norway, a combination of grasslands and pollarding that he described as "one of the most intelligent systems of farming anywhere in the world," suggest it's worth exploring what Veblen's ancestors in south-central Norway were doing on their farms in the Vadres valley. Many native species nurtured by Native Americans--blueberries, shadbush, Blackhaw Viburnum, hazelnut--grow in Herrontown Woods, their fruiting suppressed by deep shade. A meaningful task, already begun, would seem to be to manage open areas where these understory species can prosper.

After the talk, Bob Wells and I gave the author a tour of the Veblen House site, where plantings of pawpaws, hazelnuts, and butternuts fit nicely with the theme of his talk. When I took the opportunity to ask Bill what, beyond the ban on forest fires in 1911, shifted us away from an active management of trees, he offered a surprise answer. He speculated that a major shift came in the mid-19th century, when the saw became cheaper than the axe. Since trees could then be easily turned into boards, sprouts became less useful, and trees were allowed to grow up. The proud culture of the axe faded before the advance of the saw. Suddenly, as we walked the wooded corridor between the Veblen House and Cottage, Veblen's love of wood and the chopping thereof took on a deeper historical meaning.

The history of coppicing and pollarding, beautifully told in Sprout Lands, suggests that the way forward includes recovering much that has been left behind. In describing past eras, Bill Logan also describes living remnants in Europe and restoration of coppiced landscapes in Japan. These point to a way to prosper by working more actively with and within nature.