Saturday, March 07, 2009

On less than an acre


Two things made my heart rate increase that day: a gas stove and the gnarly old growth chinquapin oak. Five days after I had accepted a job working for the Ozarks out of a grim brown and gray office, I decided to move to a nearby town. I never even considered living where I worked, despite the commute and the environmental toll commuting would have. I'd dealt with lousy living conditions in Missouri for several years already. I ruined my saute pans on electric stoves. I burned 100 batches of Hollandaise, roux and beurre blanc on electric stoves. I never had curbside recycling in Missouri (a very bad thing for someone who consumes lots of wine, olive oil and New Yorker magazines). I never had a gym, a grocery store to walk to, a viable downtown, proximity to a store that sold bulk spices like garam masala and anise.

So, that early November afternoon I drove north to check out a rental property listed on Craig's List. Heading out of a thriving downtown towards the neighborhood, most of the homes were constructed between 1910-1960. A lot of them are decked out in boring white siding, though some nice brick Craftsmans are still around. Lots of big oak trees, customary in old towns in Missouri, dot the landscape here. In fact, many of the town's original witness trees still stand tall on the main roads, 200-300 year old monster oaks and hickories, an occasional maple.

The rental property was located on a less-traveled side street from a main thoroughfare. A few rundown homes, many of them needing paint jobs, some clearly abandoned properties lined the street. Loose trash in the street. But there it was, just as it appeared online: a bright yellow Craftsman (1932) with an archway and a big pin oak in the front yard. There was trash in the front yard, some lousy catalpas, a terribly misplaced cedar, a vain attempt at a garden and this atrocious lawn ornament made from car parts and acrylic paints to resemble an elephant. The landlady recently moved to San Francisco and had rented her cute little (National Register) house to some schlub who never put up window treatments and managed to scar the white walls with his bike tires.

I liked the hardwood floors. I liked the archways, reminiscent of my childhood friend Heather's Craftsman. I liked the high ceilings. I liked that the gym was 5 blocks away, downtown was 6 blocks away, the grocery store was across the street from the gym, the library and the bike trails were 4 blocks away. The gas stove clinched it. The square footage was pretty low (700), but I had lived in an enormous 3 bedroom house that cost a small fortune to heat and cool. I wore sweaters inside and I felt really guilty using the dishwasher there.

During the screening process, the landlady's friend learned that I worked in ecology, so she quickly wanted to show me the backyard. As we stepped through (what Missourians call) the mudroom, I saw the backyard through the original lead-based windows: an enormous chinquapin oak, a pin oak, lots of smaller trees--ash, catalpa, cedars, maples, and obviously no management at all for at least a summer. Beneath the canopy was tall, rangy brown Aster pilosus and Aster turbinellus stalks setting seed, polygonums, Tovara virginiana filling in the sides, lots of sedges. There was no grass to mow, just weedy native plants. By the time I had stomped through the yard in my black tights and short black skirt, I was covered in sticky Teucrium and Desmodium seeds. As I made my way to the house to tell the landlady's friend that I was, indeed, ready to sign a lease for a year, to put to use that wonderful gas stove, I vowed to burn the backyard.

Shortly after moving in, we built a nice fire pit, lined with bricks and surrounded by my nice white Adirondack chair and cheap collapsible lawn chairs. The next door neighbors, an art professor and waiter, built raging bonfires next door with all the available windfall, so I followed suit. I mentioned my bonfires to my colleagues who also live here. They told me that fires can only be held in your yard if you're a. cooking with them or b. performing religious ceremonies over them. (For a while I always had a bag of marshmallows on standby.) No one has ever said anything about my backyard fires, neither the fire department, the neighbors, nor the police. If no one was bothered by the campfires that occasionally sent smoke out onto the street, I didn't think they would be bothered by a raging ring head fire performed for ecological purposes. After all, our parks and recreation department has burned more acres this year in town than the Mark Twain National Forest.

Small patches of daffodils and crocuses grow intermittently in the backyard. Dominated by very common sedges which spread easily with mowing, the backyard was a lush carpet of plants I never felt deserved management by mowing: lots of weedy annuals, lots of asters, some goldenrods, Ageratum, violets, two species of Eupatorium, Geranium maculatum in big bunches. Historically, this area hosted fire-mediated prairie and woodlands, very open post and chinquapin oak woodlands and upland flatwoods which were located on areas with a clay fragipan layer (like in my backyard). I've dealt with the fragipan layer that causes flooding in the basement by creating a small drainage that meanders around the house to drain off the excess water. On the opposite side of drainage, in the laughingly small designated "ecological stewardship management" area, water stands, thus supporting a healthy sedge layer and water-loving annuals. Clearly, the backyard hasn't been terribly altered in the 87 years since the house was built. One grass species grows in my yard: Leersia virginica. No fescue, no bluegrass, no Bermuda. But I imagine it hasn't seen fire in 150 years.

Nevertheless, I don't believe in mowing. I think it's an awful waste of resources: big stretches of fescue in front of sprawling brown and white ranch style houses with crummy ornamental trees like Bradford pears planted in lousy rows. The perfectly manicured lawn can't have grass growing around the base of the trees, so any existing trees are totally stressed out by weedeater whips to get those 20 blades of grass that look so out of place at the trunk. But why mow that big expanse? Why waste the petrol? The energy? The time? And what do you gain from mowing it? It's one thing to play croquet or badminton on a freshly mown lawn, but I have never seen a single wicket in the Ozarks. Mowing is preposterously wasteful on so many levels and I simply refuse to do it. It's the only thing I'm religious about. Well, and running...I'm religious about running. So I'd manage my vegetation with fire. The city never complained about my bonfires, after all, and who knows what would come up in the backyard afterwards. I have a red card and lots of wildland fire training, if anyone asked. I've set thousands of acres on fire. What's a backyard?

And so, as leaf fall occurred last year, we decided to put in lines that would protect all the structures in the neighborhood, lines that would leave out of the fire the big stack of beautiful curing firewood that rested directly behind the house. I thought a simple ring-head fire would take care of it: I'd drip fire around the perimeter of the backyard and let it burn to the center, just like it does in the woodlands and prairies in the Ozarks. A hitch: half the yard is covered in wintercreeper, a non-native ornamental invasive plant that stays green year-round.

We heaped old cedar branches and piles of leaves on top of the wintercreeper. The Tovara and sedges burned quickly, but once the fire hit the wintercreeper, it went out. The fuel we heaped on top of it burned nicely, very hot. But there it was, standing out on the landscape--an awful groundcover planted by some unassuming homeowner many years ago. The fire ended after about an hour of trickling all over the yard. Maybe it's because people on my block are on the run from the law, maybe they deal drugs or just don't want to call attention to their own actions, but no one even came over to see what was going on, why a huge plume of smoke was rising from my backyard. The guy with the woodpile works for parks and rec, and he just wished me luck with dealing with the wintercreeper.

When we apply fire in the Ozarks, we always have a desired condition in mind. Why burn? Do you want a backing fire to move slowly down a slope to really knock back the sassafras? Do you want a low intensity, light surface fire to merely allow some light to the woodland floor? Do you want a raging, hot crown fire to replace the canopy? My desired condition, considering that my tiny backyard would not contribute to the greater goals of conservation in the Bonne Femme Karst region, was to restore (as best as could be expected in a major city) native flora by removing leaf litter and to knock back the junky woody species that have grown up since the house was essentially abandoned for the past few years. Scorch heights on redbuds and hackberries were pretty high; the chinquapin and smaller pin oaks were unscathed by the fire. But after the fire was over, the wintercreeper was still green.

This town takes its green spaces very seriously. Unfortunately, with the interruption of the natural processes that historically maintained the woodlands in the area and the lack of active management, exotics like bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper have moved into hundreds of acres. Drive through St. Louis and you'll see what we have to look forward to: a complete conversion of native woodlands to fire intolerant trees surrounded by exotics. But nothing grows under bush honeysuckle, so once the existing trees die, there won't be any to replace them. I didn't want this conversion to happen in the yard where I spend my weekend mornings drinking coffee and reading books over a small stick fire. The bush honeysuckle has been eradicated -for now- from the yard. And a week after the fire, I returned this morning to see that the wintercreeper had succumbed to the heat of the fire. Yellowed leaves and brown, dead twigs were all that remained of the burned wintercreeper. Like the thousands of oak and sassafras sprouts I've burned in my career, I managed to at least top-kill the wintercreeper. Exotics are tough, and if the native flora doesn't sprout up soon, I'm sure the wintercreeper will send out more deep green tendrils and purple-green leaves from its extensive root structure.

In the meantime, I'm excited to see what comes up this year. The sedges have started greening out already, as have the crocuses and heirloom daffodils, all planted many years ago. I'm not expecting high floristic quality index plants to spring up all over the yard (though it would be cool). I'd like plants native to flatwoods and open woodlands to come back, please, and since this town has given me almost everything else I could want in a city, maybe it will deliver.

1 comment:

Nickelplate said...

If you don't mind using chemicals (always my last resort), you can kill wintercreeper quite effectively with Crossbow herbicide. It is very broad-spectrum, so it may be best to but off thick trunks of the wintercreeper and apply it to the stump to kill the roots, or you can mix with diesel and spray, but it kills EVERYTHING. I have seen wintercreeper in my old neighborhood that has trunks 6 inches thick, but crossbow takes those out too.