Sunday, October 8, 2017

Getting good at making a difference #phenology

We hope this won't be the last day this year that it's pleasant to sit outside and write, but we recognize that possibility. The sapling maple we planted a year or two ago has reached peak color and the forecast threatens frost during the next few days.

maple sapling at peak color
maple sapling at peak color
Photo by J. Harrington

We've been pulling buckthorn again. There's now a nice brush pile for a Halloween bonfire, if the weather cooperates. For the most part, we think too many of us overreact to invasive species. Ten thousand or so years ago, the areas now invaded by buckthorn were covered by glaciers. As they melted, everything now growing where we are became an invasive species, didn't it? The idea of measuring the invasiveness of plants and animals by their impact only on humans seems the height of hubris. And yet, here we are pulling buckthorn. Why? Friends of the Mississippi River helped convince us with the following bits of information, among others:

buckthorn under black cherry tree
buckthorn under black cherry tree
Photo by J. Harrington

To us humans, a glen full of buckthorn just looks like a lush sea of bright green leaves. But to butterflies, bees and insect-eating birds, it's the equivalent of a barren desert.
While birds (and sometimes mice) do eat buckthorn berries, it's often because it's the only available seed source. But buckthorn berries are not a good food source. They're low in protein and high in carbohydrates and produce a severe laxative effect in some animals. For smaller birds, the laxative effect can even be strong enough to result in death. Adding insult to injury, the excreting birds also end up distributing the buckthorn seeds over long distances.
buckthorn under oak trees
buckthorn under oak trees
Photo by J. Harrington

The likelihood that we'll be able to eradicate buckthorn and write "done" is nonexistent. There are too many local reservoirs, including the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. So, we'll plan on some buckthorn management days each future year and we'll plant natives to limit buckthorns opportunities to reinvade our property. You may well be wondering why we'd go to this much trouble. Look again at the photos. Then, remember this story adapted from some of Loren Eisley's writing?
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!” 
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)
The first time we heard that story, long, long ago, we were dismayed at the boy's naivete.  Now, as Mr. Nobel Prize Laureate Dylan has written "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Looked at another way, Stewart Brand has written "we are as gods, we might as well get good at it." We're slowly learning that pulling buckthorn can be fun. If what we plant to replace it isn't promptly eaten by deer, rabbits or pocket gophers, we'll have even more fun. (If it is eaten, we'll be reminded that we aren't the only species feeding on this earth.) Our purpose (check the Brand link) is to help create a healthy environment for children and other living things.

Starfish


This is what life does. It lets you walk up to 
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a 
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have 
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman 
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night, 
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological 
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old 
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it 
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

And then life suggests that you remember the 
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you 
were born at a good time. Because you were able 
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And 
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland, 
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel, 
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.


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