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.

 

Love & reflection

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We express love because the gratification of love is enormous, and we continue to express love and to act protectively because the loss of love is traumatic. If we did not experience pain on the demise of those we love, if we had the pleasure of love but felt nothing when the object of our love is destroyed, we would be considerably less protective than we are.

It may also be that the very structure if consciousness opens the pathway to depression…To give up the essential conflict between what we feel like doing and what we do, to end the dark moods that reflect that conflict and its difficulties–this is to give up what it is to be human, of what is good in being human.

–Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

Reflection is a sign of consciousness, the ability to take in information and observe how it feels to be oneself in the face of that information, and to assess the impact of behaviors and actions and catastrophes and deaths. Socrates, the irritating questioner, required of human beings that capacity of reflectiveness. Solomon suggests this reflective ability is natural to people who undergo a depressive episode: “The unexamined life is unavailable to the depressed.” (italics mine)

Yet it is also this reflective consciousness which permits recovery among those who’ve been in the abyss, and sometimes a kind of bounce into remission/relief. Solomon adds that “[p]eople who have been through a depression and stabilized often have a heightened awareness of the joyfulness of everyday existence. They have a capacity for a kind of ready ecstasy and for an intense appreciation of all that is good in their life.”

That sense of “ready ecstasy” often acts as the impetus for poetry, in my experience. I am not sure that joyful awareness was worth the pain and despair–couldn’t I have just achieved heightened awareness through, say, meditation, song, or religion? Nonetheless, if I can craft a relationship with depression that is not a destabilizing battle, that’s enough for me. The recognition of joy and the critical thinking that reflection deepens in my consciousness keep me striving.

Yesterday morning, early, in the long grass, the three-legged doe gave birth to a fawn. I watched as they emerged from the meadow and headed for the woodlot together, mama still licking the little one.

Earth delivers ecstasies readily, if only we will observe.

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The study of–

Earth Day. March for Science. Global weirding. Polar ice caps. Phenology, biology, meteorology, chemistry, zoology, entomology, geology…all the ologies: “The study of.”

Ways we learn about who and where we are and how to live where we are and with those who have been there before us and on whom we–usually without realizing it–depend.

Scientists tend to justify their work by citing how factual it is. They believe it is necessary to have facts. But there are people who question these facts and who peg scientists as dry, heartless unbelievers. How wrong that concept is. Let’s look at scientists as people who study. Observers. Curious, inventive people. People who push the envelope of the “known” and who inquire into assumptions. Science evolved from philosophy, after all.

And there is so much at stake. We are all stakeholders in this environment, in this universe that extends–as far as we mortals know–infinitely. But scientists are working on that.

 

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March for Science–Philadelphia.

 

So many reasons why “the study of” matters.

Spring cycle

This morning, five deer grazed languidly at the farthest edge of the meadow near the treeline. Some minutes after the small herd moved away, a lone doe hopped into view.

She was familiar to me. I have posted about her before–the doe with the missing leg, whose home base is located in our area. The University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology website says odocoileus virginianus (the white-tail) lives an average of two years in the wild, but our semi-suburban region lacks large predators (other than cars) and offers quite a bit of protection. Maximum lifespan in the wild is 10 years, and I know that this particular doe is at least eight years old by now. She seems as spry as ever; very likely she is gestating another fawn.

The deer are pests in many ways–gardeners despair of deer depredations of ornamentals and native plants alike, and we also worry about their role as hosts of Lyme disease. Nevertheless, the deer and I co-exist peacefully, and their appearance at the fringe of the grassy field has signaled spring this year as they emerge from having “yarded up” in their camouflaged territory during the deep, snowy winter. They reestablish their familiar trails through the vines, thorn bushes, and grasses.

And there is something soothing about the cyclicality of the roving deer, the reappearance of their well-worn paths…even about my annoyance at finding the crocus leaves cropped and the branches of the pear trees nibbled.

Also, do forgive the pun–but what could be more endearing than this sight from May of 2011?

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When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.
When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.
When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn.

 

Lawn vs. meadow, and a doe

I was outdoors this morning, raking leaves and silently cussing the grass. Spouse and I hold different viewpoints about the necessity and maintenance of a lawn, and while I gave into his desire for a lawn many years ago, my argument has proven correct over time: we live in a meadow, and lawn-grass is not happy here. Now, as I rake leaves from the spotty, weedy, too-long ryegrass, I get exhilarated by the exercise and the crisp autumn air but steamed at the need to rake at all.

We don’t rake the meadow; it takes care of itself. This is what “low-maintenance lawn” means, that nature takes care of things without human intervention.

Besides, I have never harbored a yen for the classic British lawn—acres of clipped greensward don’t appeal to me. I always feel the great lawn is missing something: trees, a bed of flowers, a crescent of blooming shrubbery. Great lawns’ main appeal for me is that there are edges all along them. Edges are interesting. Large, plain, even swaths work mostly to draw my eye elsewhere. While our meadow acts like an open space, it is ever-changing and often full of movement. Lawns, by contrast, are static. We mow the meadow once a year; the lawn requires considerably more time and gasoline consumption to stay in bounds because it is meant to be more-or-less unchanging.

Except that we live in a meadow. The expensive grass seed loses out to plantain and dandelion, chickweed, henbit, ivies, wild onion, queen-anne’s-lace, cinquefoil and other invaders that thrive on acidic soils that go dry in summer and turn to mud for months, circumstances that the thin-rooted, superficial, stoloniferous lawn-grasses cannot abide for long. I don’t relish the fight against nature, and my suggestion is to “naturalize” our lawn, even though—of course—the majority of these weeds are non-native species. But then, so are the lawn grasses.

I should mention the grazers, as well. Rabbits. Mice and voles that tear  up the root systems of lawn grasses. Deer:

A digression on the subject of deer—

This morning, I was startled by the sight of a large doe skirting the frost-covered goldenrod stalks quite close to the house. It’s deer-hunting season here, and there’s often an increase in the herd activity around our property as individuals and small herds lie low or avoid areas where there are hunters. This is one individual with whom I have long been familiar, a three-legged doe whose territory has included our yard for at least five years.

(In the photo, she is third from the left, the largest one; her right foreleg is missing)

She has borne a fawn every year but this past spring (the year before, she had twins—a male and a female). Some years back, I watched as she delivered her offspring in the meadow, which elicited a poem. In fact, she’s inspired several of my poems, so I owe her a debt of gratitude.

She was back-lighted by the early sun and, as usual, a bit graceless as she ascended the hill on her three good legs. The sun behind her outlined her in white, just as the  dry weeds were also rimmed with white, and she didn’t seem to mind that I had joined her. She just kept going until she vanished into the woodlot. I walked to the bottom of the hill and looked for her tracks in the soft lawn, followed them along the edge of the meadow, three hoof prints instead of four, one a bit deeper in the soil.

Well, we make our compromises, we do what we can with what we have, we choose our battles. My spouse has his lawn, I have my meadow, the doe treads her uneven path through survival at the edge of the suburbs.

I may as well pick up my rake and stop cussing the grass.