Thursday, August 30, 2018

Writings from Durham Days--Rain ponds, live stakes, and falling leaves

Googling myself, I found some published writings from my days in Durham, NC, where I founded a nonprofit called the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. Published in the "Front Porch" section of a news magazine called Indyweek, they make a good entry for this website's 1250th post.

Rhapsody to a rain pond 

Though the reservoirs that feed Durham's faucets--Lake Mickie and the Little River Reservoir--are still low, I am happy to report that Lake Hiltner is now filled to the brim, thanks to recent heavy rains.
Located on an upland slope in an old city neighborhood, it receives its waters from a nearby mountain range, better known as my roof. Lake Hiltner is what my next door neighbor calls this new, homemade body of water, but at 8 feet across, terracing down to 2 feet deep, it's somewhere between a pond and a permanent puddle. A pondle, perhaps, or a pund.
It needs a good name, because it's such a satisfying thing to have in a backyard garden. In time, frogs will move in, and hummingbirds will find the hibiscus, cardinal flower and jewelweed that bloom along its shores. Most of all, the mini-pond is responsive to the weather and the seasons, slowly diminishing in drought, rising in the rain. Flowers come and go in succeeding waves; the school of mosquito fish--a native of local creeks related to guppies--swells with each new batch of fry. And then there are the distinguished visitors, which in other backyard mini-ponds have included great blue herons and hawks.
For those who seek larger meanings in backyard projects, a neighborhood dotted with Lake Smiths and Joneses will be better prepared for extremes of weather. Drought and flood teach the same lesson: Find a place for rainwater in the landscape. The current practice of shedding runoff quickly from roofs into streets into urban creeks not only creates destructive flooding, but also leaves the rainwater-deprived landscape more vulnerable to drought.
The most drought-resistant landscapes are those where water is allowed to linger, whether in mini-ponds or in absorbent swales where water will seep in over a few days. Water allowed to seep into the ground creates an underground reservoir of moisture for plants to draw on during drought. This has been clearly demonstrated this summer as larger-scale projects like the stormwater wetland at Hillandale Golf Course and the wetland gardens at Indian Trail Park continue to flourish without watering.
The same philosophy applies to the backyard. The way to reduce weather's extremes is to accept the gifts currently spurned. It involves harvesting the rain that falls on house and yard, in rainbarrels, raingardens, grassy swales, mini-ponds and soil made absorbent by mulch. Even the condensate from air conditioners, most abundant when it's most needed, can be directed to a pond or raingarden rather than left to soak into the foundation.
Though droughts and torrential downpours teach harsh lessons, the response can be a rewarding adventure.

Dogwood candles 

It's fun to watch 6-year-olds deal with the concept of spring starting on a particular day. They think something magical is going to happen--all the flowers will burst forth, the temperature will suddenly jump. But the heavens and the trees don't give a hoot about March 20th, the official start date for spring, and kids everywhere are left to wonder what it's all about.
By coincidence, March 20 was the day I went to my daughter's first grade class to do a little planting project. The bushes we were going to plant had no leaves and no roots, but I assured the students that they would grow. That would have to be magic enough to fill the gap between this most ordinary day and the far grander work of their imaginations.
The activity is by now pretty standard. A couple of big plastic tubs--the cut off ends of a donated 55 gallon drum--stand ready outside the classroom. After some discussion about the things plants need to grow, the kids do their best to shovel schoolyard dirt into the tubs. When they're filled to the brim, we add water to turn the dirt into glorious mud. Finally, each kid takes a freshly cut section of stem from one or another native shrub that grows along Ellerbe Creek in Durham--silky dogwood, buttonbush, elderberry--and sticks it deep into the ooze.
This time, though, about when we had 20 stems in each tub, the kids began singing "Happy Birthday." Now the grown-ups were left wondering. In the eyes of the first graders, the tubs of brown mud with sticks pointing up had taken on the look of birthday cakes with chocolate frosting and candles. "Happy birthday, silky dogwood. Happy birthday to you."
In a week or two, the buds on the sticks will open, and the buried portions will sprout roots in the mud. By fall, Forest View Elementary will have 40 shrubs to plant on the school grounds. But more importantly, the kids got to dig the good earth, to learn which way's up on a buttonbush sprig and, best of all, they found meaning in the day. A birthday for spring--maybe that's what March 20 is really all about.

Front Porch 

Rhapsody in leaves

The narrow leaves of willow oak spin earthwards, catching flashes of morning light. In walks along the tree-lined canyons of city streets, we are all victors in a ticket-tape parade. The sun's rays, having lost their summer harshness, now angle into the sheltered air beneath trees, illuminating the languid descent of leaves from the vaulted canopy.
Not all leaves are so elegant. Pine needles plunge earthward like clouds of arrows. The broader leaves of maples fall in rocking zigzags. But willow oak leaves are designed to celebrate their momentary freedom in one long graceful pirouette. They spend summer clustered overhead, anonymous in dense masses of green. Then they become a million individualists in their first and last dance back to earth. In loose embrace with gravity, they fall--each spinning in its own manner, at its own tempo, each captured for a moment by the sun's beaming light. Having reached the ground, again anonymously massed, they mingle and merge and return by degrees to the soil from which they came.
At such times, it's hard to think of leaves as anything but a gift. In the competition for my heart between lawn and leaf, lawn has had to yield. I used to rake the leaves and mow the threadbare grass. But now I channel my yard's sylvan tendencies rather than struggle against them. The leaves fall where they do for a reason: to soften the soil, to catch the rain, to help dogwoods through the droughts and to give kids one more reason for delight. What pleasure to trace a leaf's whimsical flight and find, at bottom, a sense of rightness and rest, rather than impending chore. The Triangle is a forest masquerading as metropolis, and we are the beneficiaries of its golden rain

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