Monday, January 21, 2008

Yard Redemption - Maybe Not

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

Something special has been lost. That much is clear from the accounts of early Euro-American settlers of Michigan in the previous two posts. The landscape today is picturesque, pastoral. But it is tamed, simplified, and less varied.

Restoration efforts on public and private land are making strides to preserve remaining pieces of savanna on the scale of tens or even hundreds of acres. But the miles of unbroken functioning ecological communities have been altered; there is no turning back the clock, at least not by human hands. And in that sense what has been lost is truly lost. When we preserve a remaining bit of savanna, we preserve not just many dozens of kinds of grasses and wildflowers, insects, birds, and other critters. We likely are preserving hundreds, thousands, millions of fungi and bacteria that make up that system. Planting a few plants back into a yard will not bring back all the insects, bacteria, and fungi that interacted to make the savanna truly healthy.

Restoration always takes second fiddle to preservation.

Does this mean that a yard cannot be redeemed? No. The damage cannot be fully undone - but it can be healed, taken a significant way toward being undone.

In my next post: why I am hopeful.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Yard Redemption - Oak Savanna Lost

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

This account of Hubbard is by no means unique, although it is perhaps the most elegant. My out-of-state readers probably envision rusting and shuttered factories as the current landscape of Michigan. There are shuttered factories (and working factories), but the landscape, especially the 90% of the landscape that is rural, is nice. Corn and soybean fields are intermixed with hay, pastures, and woodlots. Compared to Iowa or Illinois, field sizes are smaller more often bordered by wooded hedgerows. Residences are more frequent, and basic landscaping is common. Fewer wetlands have been drained in Michigan compared to other states. Michigan has both an East Coast and a West Coast and has more shoreline than any other state in the lower 48. More coastline than California. More coastline than Florida. Michigan is an undiscovered secret.

But it is not an "orchard" of majestic oaks scattered with small prairies and "gemmed" with wildflowers.

I want to continue to stress what has been lost, and continue with pioneer accounts from Kim Chapman's thesis.

"The annual fires burnt up the underwood, decayed trees, vegetation, and debris, in the oak openings, leaving them clear of obstructions. You could see through the trees in any direction, save where the irregularity of the surface intervened, for miles around you, and you could walk, ride on horse-back, or drive in a wagon wherever you pleased in these woods, as freely as you could in a neat and beautiful park." [Van Buren 1884, describing the oak openings settlers saw passing through the southern tiers of counties into Calhoun County]"

To-day for the first time, I saw the meadows on fire. They are of vast extent, running far into the woods like the firths of a lake; and as the wild grass, which they supply in the greatest profusion, furnished the new settler with all the hay he uses for his stock, they are burnt over thus annually to make it tender. These fires, traveling far over the country, seize upon the largest prairies, and consuming every tree in the woods, except the hardiest, cause the often-mentioned oak openings, so characteristic of Michigan scenery. [Hoffman 1835, recounting his impression of a December fire]"

Today we would call the oak openings, "oak savanna." Only 0.02% of the original oak savanna remains today. In other words, for every 4 square miles of savanna, an area the size of my yard (1/2 acres) remains. Enough has been lost to say that the landscape of savanna is lost. Enough remains that we can study it, replicate it, restore it and redeem our land, even our yard.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Yard Redemption - What was Lost

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to explore those questions over the next few posts.

We could start with the sorry state of the modern American lawn, and my lawn in particular. This is perhaps as much a shortcoming of religion and lawn care. Instead, let's begin with what was lost. What was this land before it was commodified, parceled, monetized, plowed, graded, and covered with lawn grass?

Kim Alan Chapman quotes many early accounts of the prairies and savannas of southern Michigan in his Masters Thesis entitled "An Ecological Investigation of Native Grassland in Southern Lower Michigan" from Western Michigan University, 1984.

"The ordinary character of the "openings" is that of a majestic orchard of stately oaks, which is frequently varied by small prairies, grassy lawns, and clear lakes. These magnificent groves were, until within a few years, kept free from underbrush by the passage through them of annual fires, allowing successive growths of herbage to spring up luxuriantly, covering the surface with a profusion of wildflowers and verdure...

The variety so essential in a landscape, of woodland, glade and sheets of water, are here combined in a manner which seems the result of art, but which is not less truly inimitable. It is difficult to resist the impression that we are surveying an old abode of civilization and of tasteful husbandry. It resembles those exquisite pictures of park scenery, where the vision roams at will among the clumps of lofty oaks, and over glades, gemmed with flowers..." from Hubbard 1840.

Can a yard be redeemed?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Fire in the Garden


A savanna is a mutt of forest and prairie parentage. Acre for acre savannas have more species than their parents, the forests or the prairies, because they have such a mix of species living together. If one compares how much has been lost to how much is currently protected, savannas are the worlds most endangered ecosystem. More so than wetlands. More so than old growth forest. More so even than rainforests.

Like much of southern Michigan, my neighborhood was once a savanna, a savanna with scattered, majestic oak trees. With waves of little bluestem, arrowfeather, and scattered big bluestem. Under the trees there were carpets of blue lupine, black-eyed susan, and bergamot. One common theme of pioneer accounts: it looked like a flower garden, like Eden. Another common theme of pioneer accounts: the savannas burned. Mile upon mile upon mile burned, often annually. And when the fires stopped, the savanna disappeared. Without fire to rejuvenate the grasses and wildflowers, and to prune the small trees back tot he ground, savanna became forest, or crops, or pasture.

Many of the grasses, wildflowers, trees, and shrubs in my garden are savanna plants. They love fire, especially wild blue lupine. I have a propane torch and will burn individual plants, when the setting and weather make it safe to do so. (In the spring I also assist my employer with burning remnant savannas and prairies.)

Today I mimicked fire in the garden. The bed in question is only a few feet from the vinyl siding of my house. We are experiencing an unseasonable thaw (average temperature 32 F, 0 C, today's temperature 50 F, 10 C). I noticed that wet, slimy leaves were lying over the lupine and other savanna plants. Lupine is very sensitive to rot, and most savanna plant seeds will only germinate when exposed to open soil. So I mimicked the effects of a good fire and hand picked the leaves out of the garden. Like a fire, I exposed the soil to the air and (someday) sunlight.

I was just happy for a rare mid-winter chance to get my hands dirty.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Native Plant Profile: Bergamot


Moptop, originally uploaded by pawpaw67.

I heard on my Wiggly Wigglers podcast that the crew did not know what bergamot is. It is a wildflower native to eastern North America in the genus Monarda.

In the fall of 2004 I purchased my first four native plants: rosinweed, cup plant, prairie smoke, and bergamot. The former three were purchased to aid my plant identification skills. My job often require me to identify rare plants before or long after they have bloomed, and I thought (rightly) that seeing them everyday would give me a familiarity with these state threatened plants. Bergamot was my first plant purchase with the goal to attract wildlife to the garden. Many gardeners are familiar with a close cousin of bergamot: bee balm. Bee balm, and to a lesser extent, bergamot, attract large numbers of bumblebees and the occasional hummingbird.I once spent a breathtaking quarter of an hour in a garden on the campus of the University of Maine, where a veritable hedge of bee balm was alive with male hummingbirds fighting over the profusion of red blossoms. It was a formative experience, and I have yearned for hummingbirds in my garden ever since.

Every plant has personality. Bergamot loves sun, and will form large colonies if given the chance. It blooms in mid summer, but should be planted behind a good fall plant, like an aster or goldenrod. Like bee balm, bergamot gets downy mildew – especially if you water the garden – most especially if you water in the evening. The white droopy leaves look pretty sad through fall, but the stem stays erect into the winter and adds interest with its seed heads, which also make excellent snowman facial features.

I have heard that bergamot is also used to make an aromatic tea and was a common medicine for Native Americans.

Bergemot is not rare in the wild, and it is often found in native prairies, savannas, or old fields and pastures.

(Note to European readers, the European “bee balm” and American “bee balm” are two totally different plants. American bee balm, Monarda didyma, you may know as “Oswego Tea.”)

P.S. The photo is not my own. Suffice to say I did not have a good pic in my files and they are not blooming right now.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Gardening as Spiritual Discipline

For several hundred years Christians have argued about carts and horses. Catholics have argued that faith without action is not faith. Protestants have argued that works divorced from belief is barren. We argue which is the horse and which is the cart, and who has what before which. The fact is that faith and action are related, and separable only in theory. Every action arises from a belief; every belief comes from and leads to an action.

Protestants like myself are increasingly coming to understand the value of action, doing, and ritual. Many of the actions Christians have done for centuries are called "spiritual disciplines." Discipline is a word with a bit too much negative baggage, but as I find myself way out on a tangent, I'll return to the point of the posting.

I have not found gardening listed as a spiritual discipline, a faith activity, etc. in any of the many great books I have read on this subject. Not in Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline, nor in the more recent Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner.

Nevertheless, I find gardening listed as a spiritual activity in other Christian books: Genesis (unsigned, but probably written by Moses, of anti-slavery fame), Matthew (self-titled.) Indeed, Christianity is probably the most pro-gardening of all world religions. Paradise is a garden, humans (lively humus) were created to garden, and new life begins in a garden, where Jesus was mistaken for a gardener.

Today, like most winter days, I learn faith from my garden. It is dormant, dead, frozen and white. I know there is life there, but I cannot see it, not in this season. I hope. Despite the snow and the wintery evidence, I hope. I have faith that come spring the wildflowers will do what wildflowers were created to do: green, grow, bloom.

It is a good lesson in life in this materialistic, unjust, and too oft hurting world. There is hope. Spring and life will come.