Friday, October 5, 2012

Diary of a Dry Summer

From Illinois State Climatologist

From Illinois State Climatologist
Here are a few journal entries from this summer. Today it is 48 degrees, damp, gray; small chance for late green tomatoes to ripen. Was the summer really so extreme?

April 1 -- Cloudy, 50s. Weeded for 2 1/2 hours -- bindweed, creeping Charlie, dandelions, quackgrass, the occasional ginkgo seedling. So many plants just kept growing, this winter that wasn't. It was as though we'd migrated to zone 6B or 7 - now I know why people south of us dread, sweet autumn clematis, English ivy, butterfly bush: all usually kept decently within bounds by a properly cold winter, but not this year. So I see first-hand how some invasiveness happens.

I also notice that certain plants--bleeding hearts for example, have bloomed early, before they got as large as usual. Other things seem to be on a more-or-less normal schedule -- because they respond more to photoperiod than warmth?

May 27 -- 95 degrees today, a record. Have been watering for a couple of days. We are in something of a drought, and with the unseasonable temperatures many plants seem stressed: strawberries flopped over and may not have any fruit to speak of, raspberry looking pale, butterfly weed leaves curing. Rarely have I had to water this early. Of course I've never seen a winter or spring like this one.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A Short Journey by Bicycle

One fine June day I get on my bike and ride up the street to where a pedestrian bridge goes over the highway. While approaching the ramp, I check on the baby bur oak someone has planted there; stealth gardening by the same person, I guess, who has in previous years planted other young oaks in the parkway of this street bordering the expressway. Who does this? Where did they collect the acorns? Do they have access to a greenhouse or do something at home involving grow lights or a sunny windowsill? I may never know—the oaks just appear: one day plain grass, the next day baby oak, marked by a white ribbon, left alone by whoever mows, watered when needed.

My job is a little more than five miles from home, and I’ve started biking regularly. This is an extension of an already established habit, so every morning I must make the decision again: today I’m going to put my lunch and other necessities in my backpack, sling it on, put on my helmet, roll my bike out of the hall and through the door, carry it down the steps, get on and go.

It’s been eight years since (regarding biking) I last found myself inhabiting this uncomfortable space between intention and action that new habits require we negotiate—at least the ones involving effort and will. I’ve always had a bike, I enjoy biking, so what could be easier than deciding that cycling or walking would be my main transportation around our community, with public transit if at all possible, for longer distances? On setting out to do this, I didn’t realize that I would have to keep re-making that same decision every single time I went somewhere. Instead of simply walking outside and getting in the car, I had to plan ahead—for extra time, for the weather, for clothing—and then overcome internal resistance. “Driving is so much easier,” the voice of old habit whispered. “Aren’t you too tired and in too much of a rush? It might rain. You’ll get hot (or cold). Come on, take the car.” Gradually, very gradually, the bike became my natural and preferred mode of transit; but this took much longer than one would expect.

I head over the bridge and ride a couple of quiet blocks to the first busy intersection, with its gas station, Jiffy Lube, cars, trucks, noise— so boring in its jarring ordinariness I can’t even call it to mind later on—I’ve blocked it out. If you are in a car, you maybe roll up the windows, put on the radio, turn on the air—you wouldn’t notice the smell, glare, noise; but on a bike these things hit you from all sides. In a car, you could be said, sometimes, to not be where you are.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Barn Swallows under the Bridge

Saturday morning I went to a workday in Thatcher woods, but was a little late, so no one was at the usual meeting place. I headed towards the main north-south path and walked north, but no dice, so walked back south to Washington Avenue. It was technically a beautiful morning--bright, sunny, and warm, with fairly low humidity. Another in a string of sunny days, part of the sunniest, driest season in years. Drought is beginning to be an operational word, and the trees are definitely showing it, their leaves drooping a little, lacking the glossy out-spreading-ness one expects in early June.
Bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix L.)

Yes, it was a beautiful day: fine, glittering spider webs laced the lattices formed by the floral spikes of the bottle brush grass, the Joe Pye weed, cow parsley, raspberries, and woodland sunflowers coming on strong, all glowing in the filtered sunlight, the strong golden-green light of the woodland savanna in early summer.

At Washington, an impulse took me along the narrow sidewalk over the bridge to the middle of the river, where I looked south to see what I could see, which was a river low as I have rarely seen it, so low you could see the silty bottom embellished with a distinctly urban collection of old tires, discarded DVD player, pieces of  machinery and so on. The current flows south, moving to join the Kankakee in becoming the Illinois en route to the Mississippi, and gravelly mud has built up on the south side of the piers. North and further south the channel flows deeper, the water's ordinary murky browny-green reflecting the trees massed along the banks. I leaned on the rail and took in the prospect, fine and surprising.

The first surprise was a canoe heading downstream. Canoeists may be common elsewhere, but not on this stretch of the Des Plaines, which flows like an old, wistful memory interrupting the angular necessities of modern life. Red, it was, carrying two people, though too far away to determine much more than that. I watched it for awhile, keeping to the deeper channel; such is the power of attraction of my own species and its activities that it took awhile for what else there was to see and hear to make an impression. But sun and water flow and a light breeze from the south catching a little coolness off the water gradually did their work. I became conscious of the movement of other creatures, tuned into the realm of existences living their own lives according to rhythms other than my own. Dragonflies flickered, not exactly visible from so far away, yet what seemed like ripples in the air showed where they were. A string of geese swam towards the bridge: adults, half-grown adolescents, and two younger ones, still yellowish and fluffy; they headed for the bank and waddled up, adding their signature to the mess of tracks in the mud.

Louis Agassiz Fuertes, 1917
After all this, I suddenly became aware of the most noticeable part of the scene. How on earth had I missed the glittering blue swallows dipping and swerving directly below? Out from under the bridge they came, elegant little birds, in threes and fives, curving nearly bridge height, then banking downstream, catching insects at the water surface in full flight, at full speed, skipping like the stones that left my son's hand during summers on a rocky beach on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Skipping miraculously, gliding and swooping, wings back, wings outspread, tails sleeked, then forked, as air currents, effort and maneuvers demanded. I watched, I marveled. I hadn't known they were here--oh happy day! I couldn't help myself. I walked the rest of the way across the bridge, slipped over the rail and clambered down the bank to discover how they lived.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tikkun Olam: Mending the World

Green Circle Fractal (Wikimedia Commons)
Some acquaintances were discussing shirts. "It's so aggravating," one said, "the fold at the collar gets frayed, and then you can't wear the shirt to work, even though the rest of it is perfectly good." The other pointed out that at one time people wore collarless shirts with separate collars, and at another time people would unpick the stitches, flip the collar over and sew it back to the shirt.

Either way, such small, outmoded cultural byways prolonged the shirt's usefulness; when truly too worn to wear it would get cut up, the good parts used for rags, or for small sewing projects such as patching other textile items. I started thinking about how I darn my hiking socks, sew on buttons, sewed a patch on a screen last summer, put down composted manure in the raised garden bed in the fall, and how my husband installed a new storm door bought only after making sure parts would be available should something break. I thought about my involvement with a community gardening network and savanna restoration work. I began to think about tikkun olam.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about that Jewish phrase that means "mending, or repairing, the world." I confess I don't know much about either its theological interpretations in Jewish religion and culture or its historical roots. Yet ever since I first came across the concept--was it in Rabbi Abraham Heschel's writings? Or in Roger Gottlieb's Green Faith?--I have spent time meditating on what it might mean to be engaged in the process of repairing the world. What attitudes and actions does this require of your average resident of the Midwest--as opposed to the great and heroic in faith and action whom we might revere, who might serve as models, but beside whom we (well I, at any rate) find ourselves to be extremely small in stature, limited in reach? Mending the world indeed! A large assignment, yet according to what I've read of modern Jewish thought, God expects humans to engage in this work, whoever and where ever we are.

Obviously the world is so broken, in so many ways, that there is endless patching, mending, fixing to do and no one person can make much progress. Yet, as I have reflected over the years I've noticed that there is room to be human and an acceptance of the imperfect in this way of thinking and acting. There is, as in the Japanese concept of shibumi, a virtue in simplicity, modesty, and everydayness. There is hope. One is not expected to try to save the world, as so many young idealists set out to do when they first begin to understand that injustice, cruelty and exploitation of humans, other species, and the earth abound. That way often leads to despair, denial, cynicism and worse. Nor does tikkun olam require us to create the world anew--as if we had that power, anyway. The world is what it is; history, matter, energy and time form a net from which we can't escape; and human nature doesn't change. Tikkun olam doesn't require that you belong to a faith tradition or bind yourself by dogma and creeds. It merely asks that you take an active part in mending the world--however you can.

When I truly embraced this attitude I came to better understand what living a low-carbon, sustainable life means; so much of sustainability involves mending and care-taking of one sort or another. Grand notions and big ideas abound--large plans about sustainable development, industrial scale cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, and big green technology that together with miraculously changed ways of human interaction will… save the world, whether from peak oil, or climate change, or whatever. Entranced by those grandiose notions and schemes, it's easy to forget that this sort of completely anthropocentric thinking and action is what's gotten our civilization--and earth systems--in trouble in the first place.

Yet much of true sustainability and living the post peak oil, low carbon life comes down to the homely, unglamorous, often low-tech arts and crafts involved in mending things--tools, clothing, buildings; or helping other things mend themselves--garden soil, relationships, communities, ecosystems. It involves practicing reconciliation ecology by choosing to work in partnership with nature. It requires rethinking the human place in creation and eschews violence. It is, I think, characterized by understanding one's own imperfection and by recognizing that restraint often has more to do with the truly valuable than extravagance and excess or the flashily heroic. Stitching these seams patches together a good way to live (in all senses of the phrase) governed by the overarching principle that these are worthy actions to be taking--tikkun olam.

Though many people and organizations are moving towards sustainability in inspiring ways, in the U.S. our lives remain full of the need for mending caused by the gaps between current mainstream practice and the more sustainable way--even in small things. We can and often do, even in a recessionary time, throw away the old, the used and choose to buy new so as to avoid having having to fix anything. We ignore the human and ecological misery from which these new products and services often spring and to which they contribute. We are expected to; our market economy depends on it; our culture makes it difficult to do otherwise.

But part of the idea of tikkun olam seems to be that each of us has a responsibility to discover, as we live our lives, the ways in which we can take part in its healing project--how we can help others, how we can help the living earth. We can choose not to, of course. We can choose not to engage with the world around us in this way; we can choose to live in destructively I-centered ways, unwilling to take responsibility for how we live, or for examining the principles/beliefs/cultural assumptions that, examined or not, govern our lives. We can fall into cynicism and despair. That to me is the way of death. I choose life and renewal. Tikkun olam.

Related Posts:
A Question of Trees
Midewin Means "Heal the Land"

Cross Posted: Energy Bulletin

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sandhill Cranes!

It's better in real life!
Last Saturday, en route to a work session in Thatcher Woods, I heard that familiar, fluttering call echo over the woods and my heart leaped, as it always does at that moment. I stopped my bike by the side of the road and tilted my head back to watch a large group heading north by northwest, and then went on, happy for the sight: a good sign, I thought, fitting the day’s stunning clarity and warmth.

One flock would have been enough to make the morning, but as we all cut and carried buckthorn to the pile for later burning, the air seemed tissued with the sound and sight of the cranes, as every ten minutes or so another family group passed overhead, smaller groups joining larger groups in that wheeling, distinctive way they have, until we were watching nearly as much as working. Luckily we were opening up the savanna at the edge of a small prairie on the west side of the river, so we could see up through the leafless trees, and then, work done, we walked forward, drawn into the open where we got a panoramic view. Standing among last year’s Indian grass, side-oats grama and big bluestem, in this small, self-contained world edged by hawthorns, young oaks and the river, it was hard to believe the busy urban thruway was so close by, with apartment buildings on the other side. That patch of prairie has had its own struggles. I once saw it so ripped up by off-road vehicles it wasn’t clear how well it would mend. With care it recovered and one chilly October afternoon two years later I found bottle gentian growing there.

Cranes need wetlands
We stood, we watched, and someone said that when she first saw cranes flying a few years ago, she thought they looked like drunken geese, as they grouped in their free-form, sociable way: a more non-linear, laterally organized way of getting up to Wisconsin and points north than geese show in their sober V’s. Some cranes now stop in Illinois, however. Last year a pair took up residence in one of those builders’ wetlands in back of a cousin’s house in a prosaic subdivision in Huntley. He, not up on birds, nearly fell in love, I think; as how could you not?

Good flying weather it was that scherzo of a morning, sunny, blustery, the sky a brilliantly clear blue vault, rare in our hazy, cloudy metropolis with its often dull light. They rode the strong south wind and sailed along, glittering and flashing in the sun. The heart does leap at such a sight and sound, and even now, typing these words, at the memory. Having come back from the edge of extinction, those big, elegant birds are a symbol that conservation efforts can work, do work, should work, a sign that if we care enough and work at it enough we can bend the grim line way from environmental catastrophe, help it arc toward sustainability and environmental regeneration.

Until the early 20th century, extravagant bird life flourished in Illinois, and accounts from prior centuries scarcely seem credible in these latter days. Some Indian tribes identified with the water birds, a living embodiment of earth’s goodness and generosity to her creatures, including humans. Accounts from the 19th century mention scarcely believable multitudes of many species, numbers that to hunters seemed inexhaustible—until they weren’t. Enough people cared about this in the early 20th century that one of the first intergovernmental conservation treaties specifically protected migrating birds, halting wholesale destruction carried on at the time, in part for the purpose of adorning women’s hats. It took much more than that to bring the cranes back, decades of work by individuals, small groups and organizations such as the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin. Seeing Saturday’s abundance of cranes made those early accounts ring a little truer. This is how our land should be, and could be again if enough of us care enough, are skillful and timely and lucky enough.

These days, in certain, surprising quarters, environmentalism gets discounted a little too readily. Some people say conservation and environmentalism are old-fashioned luxuries, are the province of privileged white folks, and that we must instead focus on “practical” sustainability and social justice. Those people have a valid point, especially if you equate nature with wilderness. But nature is everywhere. Social justice is clearly of the utmost importance; but good, green habitat helps support social justice. Our society and economy are embedded in green nature, we are part of the living earth, not the other way around.

If we make sure our land includes good habitat for the cranes, for robins and bees, frogs and bats, beaver, otter and deer, for hummingbirds and butterflies it clearly will be better habitat for us as well. Over the past thirty years, numerous investigations and studies have demonstrated what has long been known intuitively: it is in relation to green nature that we paradoxically become most fully human. Healthy, biodiverse habitat hospitable to other species improves our own physical, psychological and social health—for both individuals and social groups. So all sustainability efforts by rights should be, by necessity must be, imbedded within a conservation ethic as a framework for action. As the cranes go, so go we all.

Note: For readers interested in nature's role in creating healthy urban settings, these books are full of useful studies and narratives covering everything from community gardens to parks to habitat restoration.
  • Green Nature/Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in Our Lives, by Charles A. Lewis (U of I, 1996)
  • Urban Place: Reconnecting with the Natural World, edited by Peggy F. Barlett (MIT, 2005)
  • Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-being through Urban Landscapes, edited by Lindsay Campbell and Anne Wiesen (U. S. Forest Service, revised ed. 2011)

Related Posts: 
A Date with Some Turtles
Sandhill Cranes and Spring Resolutions
Christmas Day in Thatcher Woods
Gardening in Thatcher Woods, with Help

Cross Posted: Energy Bulletin

Monday, February 20, 2012

Chicago Gardens: The Early History

The Story of the Transformation of a Landscape

OK, the snowdrops were up a month early; the butterfly bush did not die back to the ground (something that helps it avoid the "invasive" label and thus avoid banishment); the chickadees are akkk-akkk-akk-ing all around. On Saturday, one sat three feet above me on a branch telling me what for as I pulled out the poor, tired, remnant chard. Who would believe such a tiny bird could make such a brassy sound?

Nevertheless, as I keep reminding myself, as my gardening friends and I keep reminding each other in schoolmarm voices: It’s Not Spring Yet.  Even though we have moved past the cross-quarter days of early February into ascendant light and temperature time, day lengths have not skipped ahead to March or April, so there's still opportunity for long evenings of reading.

Lately I've been immersed in Cathy Jean Maloney's impressively comprehensive Chicago Gardens: The Early History  (University of Chicago, 2008). Maloney writes that the book, which covers the period between the 1830’s and 1934, is the culmination of twenty years of research. This is easy to believe--the detail is exhaustive and Maloney supplements the historic record with extensive field research. At the end of each chapter is a useful selection of modern gardens and parks that have preserved something of their 19th and early 20th century look and feel. In addition, the book is liberally illustrated, often with examples of period photography, maps, and drawings from her own collection. At the end is an extensive reference of people and places mentioned in the text and a list of plants used at various periods.

Maloney recounts the efforts of early great horticulturalists to learn to grow fruits, vegetables and ornamentals on the prairie; discusses the early florist trade, flower and garden shows; how different immigrant groups gardened; early community gardens; the great landscaping architects; changing gardening styles; the efforts to get people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables (at one time they were thought to spread cholera); and how our system of parks and forest preserves came to be. Some of this I knew from other sources, but the level of detail and the effort to show how interconnected are Chicago’s gardening, political, and social histories make this book especially valuable.

You can’t help admiring these early gardeners--who often were also naturalists--for their pluck, persistence and ingenuity--yet there is a near-tragic subtext, as well. The book conveys, like time-lapse photography, how the city grows, landscapes change, subdivisions get built, and Chicagoans go all out to remake the marsh/swamp/prairie/savanna landscape to suit themselves, often with the best of intentions, and with outcomes conducive to Chicago’s ambitions to great-city status but destructive to native plants and wildlife. Fortunately, enough people--led by naturalists, landscapers and gardeners--realized almost soon enough our responsibility to the natural landscape. Along with development, we have always had conservation, so that today we live in the Chicago Wilderness Region. In Cook County alone, 68,000 acres--11% of the land--belong to the forest preserve system championed by rich and poor alike at the turn of the 20th century. It was a near thing, a close shave, that could so easily have gone entirely the other way: Even now this green legacy--encompassing city parks, gardens and natural areas--requires constant defense against those institutionalized forces that lead people to constantly want to “improve” a piece of ground, to “make it useful,” starting with draining the ground, removing native plants, cutting down some trees and putting up a building--or two or three or a thousand.

Of course there are the great books by professional historians, like William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, which are groundbreaking and enlightening in their own right. But some of my favorite books about this northeastern Illinois ecotone in which I live are books by people who may get their living by other means, who are passionate, knowledgeable, and dogged in their determination to tell a particular, local story. Books such as Chicago Gardens,  A Natural History of the Chicago Region, by Joel Greenberg, and The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, by Libby Hill, take years to research and write, true labors of love. Cumulatively, they tell the environmental story of this particular region--yet every place must have its similar cadre of devoted, tenacious historians who love the ecosystem in which they live, and who help us see our home-places in new ways.

Chicago trends such as rooftop gardens, community gardens and  cold-weather vegetable gardening I thought were new, I now understand are over a hundred years old, though in recession during the mid-20th century. When visiting relatives in the Lakeview neighborhood, I now imagine late 19th-century greenhouses full of flowers and winter vegetables and fields devoted to the cultivation of the celery that once flourished in that area’s sandy soil. This spring and summer I’ll go on field trips to a few new places Maloney recommends, and see for myself the living history embodied in some of our old and restored landscapes and gardens. And as I grow my own vegetables and volunteer in the savanna and prairie along the Des Plaines River, I’ll remember I am carrying on in the great, complicated tradition of gardening in Chicago.

Related Post: 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creeping Charlie Love

 I wrote this post in November, just before I got my new sustainability coordinator position. Then I was swamped, doing two jobs for a bit. Now work is a little more under control, so I hope to start posting regularly again. I've missed writing and interacting with my online friends!

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Creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)
Late fall (and early spring) is a good time to weed--most perennials, native or not, have turned yellow or brown, which makes it easy to spot cool-season grasses--and creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), which is pretty much green all year. In this it resembles buckthorn, also easy to spot and cut down when the natives have lost their leaves. One way invasive or opportunistic species succeed is by having an extended growing season.

Creeping charlie is one of the most reviled, opportunistic non-native species in the upper Midwest. I do tolerate it in my lawn, as I've written in The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer. It's green and the bees like the pretty purple flowers in spring. Besides, it's nearly impossible to kill in a lawn. When I worked at the garden center, poor, sad customers would tell me their tales of woe about battling the stuff, and I would point out that attempting to kill it wasn't worth the chemical cost (which didn't exactly help profitability, but my sojourn there is a story for another post). I would go on to inform them that if you're dealing with a nice, moist, shady to semi-shady spot--perfect for creeping Charlie, not so good for grass-- you shouldn't be trying to grow grass there anyway. Best to put in some (native!) groundcovers that can hold their own a little better.

I tolerate creeping Charlie in my lawn, I say; but winding through my prairie plants or twining among the sedges and wild strawberries? Oh no, no, no. Luckily, it's really easy to grasp and pull: catch it at the right place, right by where it has rooted, give a good yank, and gratifyingly long strings of the stuff come right up--easier than digging dandelions or dealing with bindweed (see Beware the Dreadful Bindweed) any day. So I pull it when I notice it, and sometimes go out on that particular mission and more or less keep it at bay.

The other day I was patrolling the borders of my property along the fence, pulling the creeping Charlie and some remnant Bishop's goutweed--which rivals creeping Charlie in its persistence--and I began to wonder where it came from and how it had made such a comfortable home for itself here.

Creeping Charlie (left) and Garlic Mustar
 Some facts, easily Googled:
A Eurasian native, creeping Charlie was brought to this country because it was considered so useful. Before they had hops, early Europeans such as the Saxons used it to clarify beer. It has also been used in place of rennet when making cheese, as a salad green and as a pot herb--imagine flavoring your soup or stew with creeping Charlie and garlic mustard! In addition, for a couple of thousand years it was used to treat various ailments, and you can use it to make a tea that is high in vitamin C. Considering its fresh-in-winter nature, this would be useful to people with little access to our conventional vitamin C sources such as citrus fruits and vitamins. I wonder what an infusion of creeping Charlie and rose hips would taste like?

So a question arises, complex and not easily answered: How and why has our culture, in roughly the last hundred years, come to devalue plants that have had a long and honorable history of use for thousands of years prior?

Note: As a veteran conservation volunteer I am not at all discounting the problems caused in native ecosystems by introduced invasive plants. Here is a fun quiz from the U.S. Forest Service on identifying once useful or ornamental, now invasive, plants:

Related Posts:
Behold the Inglorious Garlic Mustard
Beware the Dreadful Bindweed
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer