Biodiversity, biodestruction

As the poems in my first collection, More Than Shelter, convey, I experienced mixed emotions about building a house and residing as human animals on a field that was in the process of reverting to wildness. It is a terrific privilege to “own” several acres of property and to dwell and raise food and children here. We have, after nearly 20 years, settled many of our challenges with the environment and its flora and fauna; and often, our lesson has been to let the environment be itself.MTS002

That means our “lawn” has largely reverted to clover and to grasses that can compete with weed seeds. That means we have meadows fore and aft and shrubby, scrubby hedgerows of mixed brush along a thin row of trees and rocks. It means we cannot entirely rid the area of invasive, non-native plants or the insects that come with them. And if a season passes without regular, careful maintenance–the environment will creep in on our living spaces very quickly.

On the other hand, a commitment to use no chemicals–or as few as possible (some exterior house maintenance requires paints and finishes that just are not environmentally-neutral) has meant that the property has good biodiversity for its size. So many kinds of avian life: scrub-loving little brown jobs, woods-dwelling owls and thrushes, turkeys, four varieties of woodpeckers, brightly-plumaged orioles, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, tree swallows, and goldfinches. Also the transient hawks, buzzards, and herons, and the grass-dwellers such as killdeer–to name a few. We are host to winterberry, serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, mulberry, cherry, and wild grapes, so the wild fruit-eaters adore the place. Foxes, deer, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, even coyotes and possibly a black bear graze here.

They do not always stick to the margins and the flora. Sometimes they get into the trash cans or the compost heap (I once disturbed a deliriously happy raccoon sucking on a mango pit). Owls and foxes feasted on the guinea hens that refused to go back into the chicken run at night.

This description has not even gotten as far as the insect life, which is lively indeed–nor to the little bats, nor the oak trees’ flying squirrels.

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For the last decade, we have been among several neighbors who worked to slow the development of about 60 acres that lies immediately east of us and extends up the last low rise of the Appalachian foothills (Blue Mountain/Great Valley section). We have had some success in limiting the development: there are now 40 acres of preserved land on the north side of the slope, and the “estates” will consist of 13 township-approved house lots instead of the initially-proposed 52.brunner

But the site preparation process has begun in earnest this summer, and each morning–an hour or so after the birds start their chorus–the bulldozers and front-end loaders rev up and begin the crash-&-bang, the delivery of large culverts made of concrete, the dump trucks with their loads of gravel, the engineered changing of swale and drainage.

We were guilty of such disruption ourselves 20 years ago, when we installed the house we love on the land we think of as our own. I try not to mourn the loss of the field next door; it was never ours to begin with, and in so many ways, neither is the property on which our house sits.

The land belongs to no one. It is earth’s. If it belongs to anything it is to the generations of dragonflies, lightning bugs, red-tail hawks, barred owls, and rotund skunks, all of which preceded our appearance here by centuries.

 

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Hawks & fragments

When I take the commuter bus into New York City and back, I prefer daytime trips because I can count hawks.

I’m not a birdwatcher; but I have noticed, over many years of traveling the route (Interstate 78 Pennsylvania through New Jersey), that the highway offers good predatory-bird landscapes. The bus has large windows and elevates the passengers above the usual traffic lanes, so even though I’m traveling 70 miles an hour, I have a panoramic view through eastern Pennsylvania and north-central New Jersey, where there are scrims of woodlots behind the noise barriers, scrubby undergrowth on medians and embankments, a few cornfields, many high-density housing communities, railroads, creeks, and small county park lands.

I seldom get a close enough look to identify a bird positively; yet from my motor-vehicle perch I can tell a buteo from a harrier or an accipter. The fairly small kestrel is difficult to note, being about pigeon-sized (and pigeons are legion in NJ &NY) but I’ve identified them by their flight pattern. The buteos are most common around here, and from a bus I can’t usually discern a broad-wing from a redtail. But I see them roosting at dusk, or perched, or soaring over the fields and the strip mall parking lots. Twice, I have even spotted a great horned owl in trees along the route.

There are important raptor flyways along this path and into the region just west of where I live: Hawk Mountain is a big birding attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I have counted as many as 18 raptors along an 80-mile stretch of road. The commute takes just under two hours; I am probably the only person on the bus who spends most of her time looking out the windows at what is, admittedly, a rather uninspiring and predictable landscape.

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See below for a link to raptor id at Hawk Mountain

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Hawks have been very much on my mind because I recently read Helen Macdonald’s quite wonderful memoir, H Is for Hawk, which I highly recommend.

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Here are a few fragments of notes I wrote in my journal while I traveled home last Sunday.

what could be a hawk. but isn’t–

paper wasp nests     squirrel dreys (nests of food for hawks!)     leaf clumps      plastic bags[tangled in boughs]

big crows. until they fly.          traffic cameras. the particular angle of them, perched (as it were) above streetlamps.

without binoculars, and in motion. not birdwatching. I scan for raptors.

frozen swamp–The Meadowlands–

snow. out of which phragmite grasses emerge, brown, russet brown. color of redtail feathers.

cranes/high tension wires. canadian geese–also in snow, feeder creeks & streams frozen, Hudson frozen, Delaware frozen.

raptor count NJ 10, PA 4. Four in 16 miles, Pennsylvania.

And yes, I composed a couple of poems during the trip.

But only one of the poems featured hawks.

~ Link to a great page for Eastern US raptor identification