Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to avoid the Weed Inspector

Because I am scared of commitment, I will likely be a lifelong renter instead of a homeowner; I'm scared of being tied to one place, of foundation problems, leaking basements, financial investments that can enter into huge sums of money which I will never see working in the field of natural history. At heart, I'm peripatetic. I've never stayed with one outfit as long as I have these past however many years.

That being written, I've lived in the same canary yellow 700 sq. ft. bungalow with a 400 year old witness tree (a beautiful old gnarled chinquapin oak in the backyard) since December 07. I've never met my landlady, a resident of San Francisco who works for a nonprofit with good and noble goals. She doesn't really need the money she makes from our rent paying exercises, evidenced by the fact that it takes her a very long time (sometimes a month) to cash rent checks. Once recently, she wrote that she accidentally recycled the $600 rent checks and could we please send another? This, a month later.

Nevertheless, because she's the landowner of a downtown property, all pertinent notices of public hearings regarding land use, sewer developments, bond measures and issues with the property are sent directly to her in San Francisco. If she remembers, or thinks I might care, she may inadvertently shoot me an email at the last hour as a "heads up!" Such has been the case between December '07 and July '10 regarding the polite and quiet visits from the local county Weed Inspector.

One day in 2010, I received a panicked call on my cellphone alerting me that our lot, a small tract of upland flatwoods with a highly compromised front yard with lots of gravel and roofing debris, was slated to be mowed down by the city if we didn't "cut the weeds." I was in the field, of course, being mid-summer and all, and couldn't go home to hand trim the tall, rangy sedges and wildflowers that were only just starting to fill in the area where previous renters had likely parked their vans on cinder blocks and taken out engines leaking oil all over the place. Wanting to avoid a disaster by the city who may spray herbicide or bring a huge mower onto our very fragile and recovering sloping soils, Doug dutifully plugged in an electric weedeater that we found covered in cobwebs in the basement to manage the front yard. He didn't cut down the forbs, only the rangy sedges along the street, and then moved his operation to the backyard around the ever-burgeoning brushpile where small trees were growing through the logs and sticks. I didn't like how much he cut down, but knew that his actions were certainly more gentle than the city's mowers and blades and herbicide trucks.

I contacted my landlady that night to explain the notice, in the event that she was contacted following our attempt at managing the landscape. She replied that oh, yes, she received a notice from the weed inspector several weeks ago that our front yard grasses (we don't have grass in the front yard, only sedges and forbs) were higher than 10 inches and must be cut down. She never mentioned this notice before, and added that she herself engaged in pitched battles with the local weed inspector over the same issue. Her lot does not include turf, grass, lawn. Her lot is a recovering woodland lot with a rich assortment of blue eyed grass, wild geraniums, Tradescantia, penstemons, 27 species of woodland sedges, ferns. No fescue, no Bermuda Tifway 319, nothing that would even classify as turf or lawn. She added in her short email to me that began "Keep up the fight!" that she was once interviewed by the local NPR station regarding her ongoing fight with the weed inspector and efforts to engage with the local chapter of Wild Ones, a nonprofit group that promotes native landscaping.

Disaster averted that day, but one month later, we received the same notice. This time, the notice was posted on a wooden stake in the iris bed that labeled the property "blighted." Because of the weeds.

I wasn't in the field that week so I set an appointment to meet the local weed inspector (whose offices are in the neighborhood, of course). Located at the site of my walk-to farmer's market, I walked over there with my plant list from the yard. I asked the weed inspector and his assistant to please tell me which of the 128 species in my yard were "weeds," knowing that our yard is devoid of bush honeysuckle, Johnson grass, sericea, other known classified "weeds" in Missouri. Oh, he looked over my list of Desmodiums and sedges, native wildflowers that have persisted through 150 years of abuse from landowners with mowers and cows, and he couldn't answer my question. Instead, he diplomatically came to my house to talk on site so he could show me which plants were weeds.

When he pointed to my Carex amphibola and C. davisii along the curb, what with their "tall" seedheads, he called them weeds. Same with the Helianthus hirsutus. And the Penstemon pallidus that showed up in the flatwoods after the first fire, and the wild grapes (three species: Vitis cinerea, aestivalis, riparia). I launched into a gentle discussion regarding natural ecology, about impaired ecosystems, about asters which bloom in fall, about how I like to leave long stalks in the yard for wintering bees, about the natural ecology of my town and what a great treat it is to have a remarkably intact version of this landscape still around. (Obviously, if you're reading my journal, you don't need to hear about all of this...) The very reasonable weed inspector offered a gentle "harumph" to me, and told me that I needed a sign, something alerting passers by and other weed inspectors that my yard is "intentional," and not "neglected."

And so, that night, after my awesome patch of Aster drummondii (came up after the first fire) was saved from the scythe, I logged onto the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat website to receive certification that my downtown yard isn't just an overgrown lot. After answering a series of questions ("do you provide nesting sites? water for wildlife, brushpiles? native plants?") I plunked down $35 as a donation to NWF for a nice, slick, metal sign to post in the yard, per the weed inspector's request.

Tonight, while eating salad by the fire pit, I watched a gray squirrel gather clusters of leaves from the chinquapin oak and run down to the big gaping hole in the tree to begin nest building. The squirrel did this repeatedly until the sun went down. Common yellowthroats are hanging out in my dense thickets of slippery elms and redbuds, and the snakes have made their presence known in the compost heap by beating feet quickly as I turn the coffee grounds under.

There are efforts afoot to designate large swaths of my mixed income-mixed race neighborhood as "blighted" in order that developers may swoop in and scoop up desirable tracts of land for high density housing and other profitable development. It's an ugly world out there, I see it every day--the bush honeysuckle woods, the deer problem woods, the unmanaged woods, the overgrazed by domestic livestock prairies, urban encroachment on natural areas, the development pressure. After a long five days of the work week, it's truly comforting to come home to my miniscule tract of fire-mediated yard with the chattering house wrens, my awesome chinquapin oak, and all those sedges that are sorting themselves out through the years.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mid-May in April

"It could be July out there," my colleague muttered yesterday from the driver's seat while speeding east out of the last forested block before the Great Plains. The tree canopy has completely leafed out, leaving only a memory of that early spring neon green and dogwood white of mixed white oak woodlands. Wildflowers that for the past 20 years have bloomed in the second week of May are in flower during the last week of April. I won't be adjusting my previously scheduled mid-May bird work, however, (since birds tend to be guided by day lengths rather than temperatures) but vegetation sampling dates will have to be changed.

Sedges are already fruiting, by gum, and if I wait until late June for woodland sampling, the sedge fruits will have shattered, leaving me unable to key them out. By now, I know a lot of the vegetative characteristics of a suite of woodland sedges (thanks solely to repetition, visiting the same area year after year and knowing which sedges are common in western Ozark woodland settings), but several stump me (like the Ovales tribe). It's impossible to calculate the conservatism value of a given area with a bunch of "Carex sp." and "unknown grass" on sampling pages. I haven't once entered "unknown dicot" "unknwon grass" or "Carex sp." into my analysis program, rather instead spending ample time in a hotel room with keys, Steyermark, handlens, advice...So, I've spent ample time in recent weeks in the herbarium preparing for field season with the Desmodiums, Panicums, other grasses, sedges, Lespedezas, all the while drawing little characteristic traits that will help make field identification easier when flowers and fruits are absent. Summer sampling in woodlands will be a mad, mad, frenzied dash. Glade flora in the western Ozarks, however, is pretty easy even in August when the early spring brassicas are by then reduced to wispy twigs of straw.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day, 1970

Thursday, April 19, 2012

You're gonna swim in that?

With a landmark birthday fast approaching, I'm trying to figure out where to go to hide from it. I spent several birthdays in my 30s at Orange Beach, Alabama, but decided against it after the oil spill occurred. The US press has been mum about the dead dolphins, the lack of recruitment from avifauna, and other trophic impacts from the oil itself and the toxic slew of chemicals BP dumped into the Gulf (so that the American public didn't have to see pelicans covered in oil tar). See here a disturbing article about how the human skin absorbs oil tar and chemicals when swimmers hit the Gulf waters for recreation. No clue where I'm going for my birthday.

Warbler Days

My backyard house wrens are back! They arrived from their wintering grounds to build a nest in their rustic, stable, handmade-in-Oregon wren box yesterday, the same wren box I clean out every January as I think fondly of the two broods the box allows the wrens to produce every year. There's invariably a fight every year between the house wrens and chickadees (who stick around all year) over the box. In haste, we made a second wren box for the chickadees last year, but the chickadees and house wrens seem to like the fancy Oregon wren box rather than the locally made box (because it's not made of Doug fir? Because it's not painted green with a verdigris copper lid?). Nevertheless, I heard that mellifluous, unmistakeable call of my backyard house wrens this afternoon and watched as one traveled in and out of the box with a beak full of grasses and twigs. Oh, happy spring!

I was only away from the woods for four days when the flush came in. Last week I was surrounded by the motley crew of red headed woodpeckers, titmice, a single Northern parula. This week, setting out to a prairie fen and recently burned sandstone woodlands rich with great woodland flora, I was surrounded by the intricate song of white-eyed vireos, Northern parulas in the woodland edge, in the prairie fen (what with the topkilled sumac and cedar slash) tons of blue-winged warblers, a common yellowthroat, several black and white warblers, a swamp sparrow, all my FOY, the first of the year sightings and calls. While this spring has tracked several weeks early, I'll think of the long, cool days and the explosive bloom cycles of all the spring wildflowers. When the desiccating heat of August sets in, those days of chiggers on the prairie and seed ticks in the grassy Ozark woods, I'll think back to the spring when we could sit outside comfortably to listen to the house wrens without being menaced by the incredible population of my neighborhood's mosquitoes.

Photos! I won't bother naming all of them since most of you know most of them. But, check out the Veronica comosa (tall plant that looks like a Polygonum in structure), which you're probably accustomed to seeing underwater in springs and spring branches. It was blooming all up and down a roadside with a spring coming out of the bedrock. Robust! And beautiful. By the way, visit a burned prairie fen for a veritable explosion of wild strawberries and Silphium terebinthinaceum. And hit the sandstone roadsides for that restricted Silene. I would love to hear of a site where this plant grows in an intact native landscape and not just on a roadside.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fire Loving

Sorry, spiders, as you know I don't keep house very well, but I do need to reach that book, Flowers Native to the Deep South by Caroline Dormon (1958). I haven't looked at my signed copy for years, actually, so the spider webs on that side of the bookshelf are deep. I used this book as a girl scout in a pine woodland summer camp and found that most of the wildflowers I could identify were restricted to roadsides, places where light could reach the woodland floor.

Dormon illustrated this book herself, with all but two specimens drawn from live material. I grew up in Louisiana in the early 1970s, years when wildfires occurred on the Kisatchie NF and the USFS didn't fight them indirectly. Just as in Missouri in the 1970s, active fire suppression regimes were in place in Louisiana. (Unlike Missouri, however, today, forestry schools in Louisiana continue to teach that fire is good for pine systems, but fire should be kept out of oak-dominated woodlands.)

In the foreward to Dormon's 1958 wildflower field guide, she writes:

It is hoped that this book will arouse renewed interest in the preservation of our rapidly vanishing wild flowers. From too frequent picking,
misdirected efforts to move them to gardens, forest fires and the onslaught
of rabbits and insects, some species are becoming rare.

By the early 1980s, following Dormon's assessment that many of these wildflowers were indeed becoming rare, the Louisiana Natural Heritage folks published a book of "rare wildflowers of hardwood forests in Louisiana." I have this paperback book, too, hiding in the spider-infested bookshelf with my bound Master's thesis and Pausanius manuscripts photocopied from the Vatican library. Notably, the photos in the rare plants book are washed out, not from poor paper quality, but from the photo quality itself: these photos of open woodland plants were taken in closed canopy forest settings which therefore activated the flash. Black background photos with washed out wildflowers searching for light. The reason that common fire-mediated Ozark woodland plants like Geranium maculatum and Spigelia marilandica are in the rare plants of Louisiana is precisely because of their setting. There was no fire there in the early 1980s. Of course, as an 8 year old girl scout, I didn't truly understand why these plants were rare, really, I certainly didn't know fire ecology back then, and I never dreamt that I would live in a place where "rare plants" like Phlox divaricata and lady slipper orchids were as common as red oaks in degraded Ozark woodlands.

Alas, I live here now, in fire-dependent ecosystems, and I am fortunate to spend my sampling hours and my private time burning woodlands and seeing the response of long lived perennial forbs sprout from the rich soils peppered with chert residuum. I've burned my own yard for the past four years, and this year I burned my front flower garden, rich as it is with G. maculatum, purple coneflower, phlox and a suite of sedges (wanting showy flowers in the front yard so the weed inspector will hopefully recognize the yard as manicured-ish). As expected, the Ozark woodland wildflowers in the flower bed have exploded in blooms and spread over the area, a sight I never thought I would see when I was a kid in Louisiana with the dire threat of wildfires killing fire-dependent flora all over the place.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Firefly Watch!

I think it was last week when the nighttime temperatures dropped to a low of 71 degrees, almost ten degrees higher than the normal daytime high in early April. Wildflowers are blooming much earlier all over the Ozarks, and even my sedges are busting out which will potentially impact my vegetation sampling schedule to accomodate the fruiting season. Most notably in the past two weeks, however, was the single random flicker of a very early firefly hovering around the redbuds in my backyard. April 4, the firefly came out on April 4, much earlier than normal. Boston's Museum of Science is tracking firefly activity again this year. On your first occurrence witnessing this harbinger of summer, go here and put the Ozarks on the map or explore the data to discover when fireflies are in your area!

Friday, April 06, 2012

Spring Green

Against the pale gray sky on a chilly Maundy Thursday morning, the bright green leaves on the regenerating white oaks looked neon. The early spring ephemerals are almost gone, leading the way to late April and May's floral display, this year even coincident with Easter. Visiting high quality burned landscapes in late April, areas rich with forbs and a structural integrity only achieved through a long, long fire history, remind me of Eastertide in Louisiana.

For our little Episcopal Church high on a wooded hillside with longleaf pine trees and scattered white oaks, Easter weekend was spent gathering boughs of blooming dogwoods, azaleas, the showy bearded irises from the garden ladies, handfuls of any other spring wildflowers one could gather from family property. Years ago, a parishoner built an enormous three dimensional white cross with hundreds of holes bored into the front, places for children to cram flowers into the frame, flowers with wads of wet paper towels wrapped around the stems so they wouldn't wilt by the end of the services. By the time the majestic 11 am service began, the entire cross was packed to the gills with flowers, a magnificent sight, especially for girls like me who wanted to follow in botanist Caroline Dorman's footsteps rather than be a lawyer like my parents half-heartedly wanted. I insisted that my mother take photos of me in front of that cross with my favorite deacon- not for religious purposes, but because of the utter explosion of flowers of every color stretching for 8 ft high. The only contribution my two sisters and I ever made to the cross was dogwood boughs and pale pink sassanquas from my grandmother's yard in West Monroe. The ladies of the church ponied up the best of their bearded irises and lilies for this endeavor, and some families even bought flowers for the children's flower cross. (My parents would never do that)

The woodlands and glades I visited on Thursday, that clammy and gray day this week, reminded me of the big white plywood cross loaded with flowers. I walked slowly and deliberately that day to see every colorful bloom that returns every year after a fire in this ancient landscape, one fire maintained and remarkably heterogeneous and healthy and as my benchmark site for Spring in the Ozarks.