“Bang!” Nancy says it sounded like a large chunk of rock dropped into the bowl of our big electric cart, The Goat. Then, more bangs, sounding like gunshots, or was it firecrackers? She looked out the window to see a wave of movement in the canopy, then bark exploding from Treebeard and a big yellow flash as its trunk split, exposing the heartwood. I was 300 yards away walking the dog and heard the creaks, groans, snapping, and final crash as that big black oak fell into our West Woods.
Treebeard was named after the tree-giant character in The Lord of the Rings. A long-ago trauma had taken his top, leaving a stub of trunk and two arms. The effect was somewhat like one of those air dancers you see at gas stations, frozen in a joyful wild contortion.
Treebeard Before and After
That old injury in turn led to his spectacular demise, as the open wound allowed rainwater and various organisms to pond and fester inside his trunk. Many years later, on a totally windless and rainless day, the fibers surrounding a cavity of rot halfway down the trunk were overwhelmed by the task of supporting all that stood above.
It is incorrect to say that Treebeard is no more. His bulk is in your face over much of our West Woods. In bringing tons of carbon and other minerals back down to earth and opening the canopy for more sunlight to reach ground level, he will have an impact on several thousand square feet of forest for many years to come.
Despite that opening, this blog post is not going to be about the circle of life or life out of death. I’ll stick with the topic I have been chewing on for the last couple of weeks, which broadly has to do with my interactions with the natural world, especially the two acres of which we are the current stewards. As I have written before, our goal is to reclaim this small patch from the invasives and return it to something closer to its natural state—to make of it a haven for wildlife.
Some observations and thoughts over the past month or so:
Observation: We seem to have less Japanese stiltgrass this year. Is that my imagination, or does it just emerge later than I am anticipating?
Observation: There seem to be lots more violets this year. A solid carpet in some areas. I have mixed feelings about violets when they appear in the more formal flower gardens at church. But in our meadow, they fit perfectly and are most welcome.
I just read a post by The Humane Gardener, who reports violets taking over in areas where she has been pulling stiltgrass. That fits with our observations above. We have been pulling or cutting stiltgrass for a couple of years now, reducing its seed load in our soil and opening bare spots for violets to get established. Wow! Our efforts are paying off!
Observation: The butterfly weed has monarch larvae eating it. Great! That’s largely what it’s for. Our goal is a wildlife-friendly habitat, not a picture-perfect flower garden.
Observation (a few days later): Where are the butterfly weed? After missing them for two days, I get Nancy to accompany me. She finds the stalks, nibbled almost to the ground by deer. I wonder what happened to the monarch larvae: Did birds get them, useful food for growing hatchlings? Or were they wasted in the guts of the marauding deer?
Observation: Our ironweed have also had their tops nibbled off. And the Indian pinks—just one bloom left.
I used up the remainder of my fencing roll to make a couple more cages to separate deer from our young plants. I could use a few more cages, but am not inclined to buy another roll of wire. Meanwhile, I’m pondering the conflict between the deer and the plants we are nurturing. Should I get more aggressive with the deer repellent? Or does the repellent also repel or otherwise harm the pollinators and insect larvae the I want to use those plants? A wildlife-friendly habitat, The Humane Gardener would say, has enough food for all, the deer included, with some left over for my enjoyment. So, instead of trying to repel the deer, should I nurture more food for them? I researched preferred deer foods and found that poison ivy is on that list.
Now, faithful readers of this blog may recall that poison ivy is on my ten least wanted list: the plants we are working to eliminate from our woods and meadow. And you may have noticed that it is the only plant on our list that is not an imported invasive. Poison ivy is a native to our part of the world. I’ve had a slight nagging of conscience about my war on that plant, but I really want to be able to walk through my woods without days of itching. That was impossible before I began wielding the spray bottle. (Generally, we try to avoid the chemical poisons, and much of our fight with invasives is fought by pulling, digging, and cutting. But, my record in digging out poison ivy is : Attempts, many; successes, zero. Spot spraying is the only way I know to fight this one.)
Could we leave some designated patches of poison ivy, while still maintaining pathways and other access to our woods? Maybe. I am still thinking on that one.
Observation: One technique we are using on ground ivy is to smother it under cardboard topped with wood chips from our tree guy. Preliminary results are that violets are seeding in the mulch on top of the cardboard. Will they find adequate nutrition before the cardboard rots, and will the ground ivy be sufficiently suppressed by that time? It is too early to tell, but the early results are encouraging.
Observation: The cardboard strategy takes a tremendous amount of cardboard and chips. Our more industrial scale experiment uses a 25’ x 100’ silage tarp (heavy black plastic) to smother the existing vegetation in our meadow. The tarp is left in place for a year, then removed, and the bare soil sowed with a native meadow mix. We seeded our first strip last fall and have been rewarded with a startling mix of poppy, batchelor button, and other flowers. The mix is not yet as thick or diverse as we had hoped, but some of the new plants will take more time to mature. Meanwhile, the tarp has been moved and is cooking another strip for planting this fall.
The theme of this post, and of my recent meditations on our work in woods and meadow, is that we are still actively shaping our immediate surroundings. No less than someone else’s opting for turf grass and oriental exotics, our decision to favor native plants and wildlife involves active intervention in the ecological processes on our two acres. The very fact that we are maintaining a meadow, despite its natural tendency to revert to woodland (witness the dozens and dozens of sassafras and tulip tree seedlings that sprout each year), reveals our active role. This is more than an aesthetic choice, as that meadow overlays our septic tank’s drain field and must be kept open. But I am increasingly aware that our choices have consequences and that much of what we do is experimental. While we try to be guided by the advice of others with similar goals, our knowledge and observations are limited and some of what we do will probably prove to have been counterproductive. So much to learn!
Observation: While pulling some unwanted vines, Nancy came close to a yellow jacket nest. Somehow, she avoided being stung. In our growing sense of the interconnectedness of the various life forms on our property, we wondered if we could let the wasps be, and decided “yes.” That weeding job can be put off until cold weather and we can avoid that location.
Observation: The king snakes are prowling, doing their job to keep rodents and other vermin in check. I have spotted three in the space of a week. In one case, I had the dog with me (leashed). We stopped at a distance to watch, and the snake began a defensive coiling. I have never seen that behavior before, and assume it was because of Mona. In another case, I was trimming limbs off an arborvitae, in preparation for cutting it down. I had searched the tree for bird nests before I started, and was preceding with care. Suddenly, at head height and just an arm’s length away, I saw a small king snake on a branch of the tree. I backed off, leaving that job for another day and giving the snake a chance to get to safety. I never found a bird’s nest nor figured out what that snake was after.
Observation: All three bluebird houses are occupied, the phoebes are using the roost I made on the garage (instead of nesting on top of the floodlight), and two nests (unknown species) inside the garage seem to have evaded the king snakes.
One final observation: There are tadpoles in the frog pond! Nancy insisted that frogs and other wildlife would come when the pond was ready. First she saw mosquito larvae, and shortly after, tadpoles to keep them in check! Two different adults sighted so far. The pond is live and Nancy is delighted!
Frog and Tadpoles