Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Winter, Leopard Moth Caterpillars, and a Dream

Afternoon sun reaches through a welter of tree limbs to arrive in bits and pieces on mats of moldering leaves flooring the swamp.  The woods here at this time of day are fairly quiet with an occasional distant rat-a-tat-tat of a pileated woodpecker punctuating the silence, as he or she mines some rotting stump for grubs. Otherwise no birdsong is to be heard.  Well, perhaps here and there are a few crows somewhere complaining.  But crows are always doing that in the woods.

The calendar says mid-winter, yet half the days it fails to freeze here, even at night, and a snowfall that sticks has not happened since mid-December.  The soil beneath my feet, still humming with decay, smells sweetly of it.   The moss in its several varieties remains for the most part green.  Here is a place where one can wait out the season, however uncomfortably, in some darkness and damp but with minimal frostbite. 

I am, it turns out, not the only one marking my time in these circumstances.  For the third day I have returned to a copse of Bald Cypresses, situated on a knot of roots and earth rising ever so slightly above the headwaters of Nassawango Creek.  And there before me poised on the drab earth, just beyond a fallen trunk ribboned with moss and lichens, is a solitary caterpillar.  I am pretty sure she is the same one I saw the last two times I was here.  

She doesn't seem to be very active and only curls up a bit tighter when I approach to take a closer look.  Underneath tufts of black, wiry bristles dotting her plump body, one can discern alternating bands of black and red.  I pick her up as gently as I can and place her on the fallen tree trunk to take her photograph with my ever handy iPhone.  

Here it is:

She (or, perhaps, he) is a leopard moth (Hypercombe scribonia) in waiting.  She is not in a hurry to move anywhere but seems caught up in a perpetual loop of slow-motion footage.  According to those who know these things, this caterpillar is fattening up throughout the winter, finding shelter, particularly when winter gets more unruly, beneath all the leaves littering the ground, and all the while chewing her way to a cocoon and adulthood.  Once she emerges, she is finished with the eating and will have only to mate, fly about a bit, and then pass away.  For most of her life she is this creature before me and not the winged, sleek moth we humans generally imagine her to be.  

Now, a few days have passed and last night I dreamed a small tribe of leopard moth caterpillars, fat and bristly, were gathered on the ground into the configuration of an asterisk, a multi-pointed star forming as each creature's body touched the others at the center and then radiated outward from there in the respective directions of the compass.  The image was very striking.  But when I stooped down to take a photograph of it, one of the caterpillars rose up and took the iPhone from my hands and cast it aside.  

Does a leopard moth caterpillar still exist in the forest, if no one is there to take a picture of her?  Evidently, that caterpillar had strong feelings about how this question should be answered.


Monday, June 13, 2022

Serviceberry in Spring Gulch: Seven Meditations on Living in an Economy of Gratitude

Serviceberry Blossoms up Spring Gulch

First Meditation: The Gift of Gift Giving as Witnessed by Serviceberry, and Chokecherry and Hyacinth too!  (Parking Lot)

"You can call them natural resources or ecosystem services, but the Robins and I know them as gifts."

We are gathered here today to witness the manifold gifts offered by creative energies that emerges from beyond our own all-too-human capacities to have made this occur.  In doing so, let us first become mindful of the gift encompassing all others, the gift of receiving and giving gifts.  

In Potawatomi, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us, the serviceberry is called "Bozakmin," whose most important syllable is "min," the root for berry but also the root word for "gift."  At their root and in their leaves, serviceberries offer "bushes spangled with morsels of sweetness in a world that can be bitter."  We cannot help, she suggests, but feel gratitude in such circumstances.  Indeed gratitude is the very currency of the earthly for Kimmerer, involving "much more than a polite 'thank you.' It [Gratitude] is the thread that connects us in a deep relationship, simultaneously physical and spiritual, as our bodies are fed and spirits nourished by the sense of belonging, which is the most vital of foods."  In doing so, the world not only sustains itself through this gift giving but invites us into its abundance. 

Second Meditation: Gratitude for the Gifts of Serviceberry. (First Rise on Rattlesnake Creek Road)

"The tree is beloved for its fruits, for medicinal use, and for the early froth of flowers that whiten the woodland edges at the first hint of spring. Serviceberry is known as a calendar platen, so faithful I it to seasonal weather patterns. Its bloom is a sign that the ground has thawed and that the shad are running upstream--or at least it was when the rivers were clear and free enough to support their spawning.  The derivation of the name 'Service' from tis relative Sorbus (also in the Rose Family) notwithstanding, the plant does provide myriad goods and services.  Not only to humans but to many other citizens.  It is a preferred browse of Deer and Moose, a vital source of early pollen for newly emerging insect, and host to a suite of butterfly larvae - like Tiger Swallowtails, Viceroys, Admirals, and Hairstreaks - and berry-feasting birds who rely on those calories in breeding season."

To these gifts, Craighead adds: The entire plant is palatable to deer, elk, moose, mountain goats, big horn sheep, rabbits and other rodents.  For this reason, Serviceberry is often the first plant to be eliminated in overgrazed ranges.  Pheasants, grouse, and black bears eat the berries and the buds are a staple winter food of rugged grouse.

So, so much to be thankful for.  The miracle of Serviceberry opens our eyes to how much the world invites our gratitude.

 False Solomon Seal and Arnica Nearby

Third Meditation: Living in Reciprocity with Serviceberry and its Kin. (Spring Creek Bridge).

Waters of Spring Creek

In the thickets running along Spring Creek is found not only Serviceberry but also some of its kin in the rose family, including River Hawthorn, Currants, and Wild Roses.  A more distant kin, Red Osier Dogwood, is also found here in abundance.

From the Salish Plant Society Website, maintained by ethnobotanist Rose Bear Don't Walk, we read that the Salish People "honor each and every plant as they come to us new in the spring and summer months."  Among these, it is noted, is the one named "Staq" in Salish, or Amelancher ainifolia in taxonomists' Latin, or Serviceberry in English.  
Let us for this moment then put the emphasis upon honoring all the plants surrounding us here and in particular Serviceberry in this renewing moment of Spring.  In doing so, let us also become mindful of Robin Wall Kimmerer's thought that if our first response to serviceberry is to involve gratitude, then our second should involve reciprocity: to give a gift in return.  Perhaps the very first gift we might offer in to return serviceberry is to honor it, so as to bring it fully into our hearts so that we might share the story of its gifts with our fellow humans. 

 Fourth Meditation: Why do we succumb to economies of commodity? (Serviceberry Alley at turn off to Spring Gulch)

Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: "To name the world as gift is to feel one's membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy - and it makes you accountable."  But this observation then leads to a troubling question: "Why," she asks, "have we permitted the dominance of economic systems that commoditize everything?  That create scarcity instead of abundance, that promote accumulation rather than sharing?  We've surrendered our values to an economic system that actively harms what we love.  I'm wondering how we fix that.  And I'm not alone."

Have you ever felt alone when confronting the consuming energies of our econonmy, helpless in the rush to take hold of the things of the world so that one can survive?  How does this feel?  Please feel free to share your thoughts not only with one another but with the serviceberries lining this walkway.

Fifth Meditation: Colors are Gifts Too. (Mountainside of Purple Lupine and Yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot)

The colors of things are also powerful medicines, medicines that in some cases work with one another to form patterns of invitation. Beauty is a medicine! This is what Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests in her chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass regarding how purple and yellow, the colors of asters and goldenrods, interact in reciprocity when the plants are near one another so that "growing together both [might] receive more pollinator visits that they would if there were growing alone."  Before us rises a mountainside of Lupine and Arrowleaf Balsamroot, vibrant purple and yellow blossomings, just as in the case of Asters and Goldenrod, each plant being illuminated by the radiance of the other.  To take our experience of this beauty seriously, Kimmerer suggests, we must move from the question of "What is a lupine?" to "Who are you, Lupine"?, and "Who are you, Arrowleaf Balsamroot?"   Let us pause to reconsider our relationship to these to fellow living kinds and to ask anew how we might better listen for the wisdom these offer us.

Sixth Meditation: Returning to a Gift Economy (By the Feral Apple Tree)

Several groves of feral apple trees, remnants of former homesteads, inhabit Spring Gulch and the rest of the Rattlesnake watershed.  Like them, this single feral apple tree, lost in a thicket of Currant and Serviceberry and Hawthorn, was likely once solely dedicated to the feeding of human hunger but now has been abandoned to the hungers of all comers.  And like Serviceberry, Currant and Hawthorn, Apple is a member of the rose family.  This single tree before us blossoms and continues to offer itself no longer as commodity for an economy of scarcity but as gift in an economy of abundance.  Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: ''In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away....The currency in a gift economy is relationship...A gift economy furthers the community bonds that enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is 'we' rather than 'I,' as all flourishing is mutual."

Let us reflect upon the transformation of this apple tree, of its reintegration into an ecosystem in which its gifts have become fully open to all comers.  This transformation of its generosity inspires us in a manner that keeping the apple merely for our own hungers would not.  This leads to a question for our reflection:  How might our hungers live in reciprocity with the hungers of others?

Feral Apple Trees further up the Rattlesnake Watershed

Seventh Meditation: Homecoming and Generosity (Old Homestead)

In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein observes: "In nature, headlong growth and all-out competition are features of immature ecosystems, followed by complex interdependency, symbiosis, cooperation, and the cycling of resources." Meditating upon this thought, Kimmerer ends her essay with this passage: 

"Continued fealty to economies based on competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than competition for manufactured scarcity, rather than cooperation around natural abundance, is now causing us to face the danger of producing real scarcity, evident in growing shortages of food and clean water, breathable air, and fertile soil. Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle: genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy.  Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings.  When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up...To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants."

And so we end our guided meditations, at the site of an old homestead that has been returned to the land so that both humans and serviceberries, along with the many other living kinds inhabiting the Rattlesnake Watershed, might thrive.  We stand here today with this question: "Where is the place in our home places for the home places of others?  To answer this questions, Kimmerer invites us into a transformed and transformative relationship with all other living kinds, and all the energies and elements with whom we share the earth.  Please use your walk back to the parking lot as the occasion for personal meditation and animated interchange with others on this important question.

Hyacinth Blossoming at the 
Parking Lot

- Meditations inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer's 
"The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance"

Sunday, August 22, 2021



"Ain't goin' there," as one campfire song's refrain playfully puts it.  I too am not so confident of a positive outcome, and not just because I haven't been behaving well.  After all, we find ourselves increasingly in a world for which the reality of heaven, at least understood as afterlife, is radically in question, if not fully irrelevant. Indeed, religion, which provides a home for all sorts of notions of heaven, is itself in danger, so some say, of going extinct. 

In these circumstances, my son and I recently had a conversation about heaven as we ambled up a wooded gorge surrounded by a surfeit of blooms - blue camas, shooting stars, arnica, the fresh beginnings of lupine, the tattered remnants of glacier lilies dotting the earth.  All these spring ephemerals, as they are called - shooting up overnight and disappearing within a week or two - certainly emphasize the transitory nature of things here on earth.  And yet precisely in these environs, we humans are struck by the glory of it all.  The temporary is caught up in a light that suggests something more, something, dare we say it, perfect.  We think at such moments: "Nothing to be added, just this."

The conversation on that day in the main consisted of musings and ruminations.  One thought:  Heaven could be a very difficult place. We likely would be stuck with a whole host of personas we would prefer not to have had the opportunity ever to have encountered again.  What if heaven involves something along the lines of the inverse of Sartre's famous dictum - that hell is other people? Particularly those other people!  This point in turn reminded me of something shared by an Oglala thinker who once was invited to the Salisbury University campus: In the spirit world, he shared, there are no secrets.  Everyone knows what everyone else did and what they are thinking about it now.  Where's the fun in that?

But fun is perhaps precisely what heaven does not involve.  Christian theologians speak of heaven as a basking in the presence of the Most High, the summum bonum, the highest good, of all creation. But need that involve a perpetually extended, really great day at one's local watering hole with a carefully chosen repertoire of family and friends?  Indeed, would the summum bonum even allow one merely to bask in it, as if one were sun-bathing in the Good?

If heaven is anything at all, it is arguably a place or state where the glory implicit in all things is thoroughly unleashed. as one finds one's voice resounding in an emphatic Yes to creation.  What this might imply is only darkly sensed here and now, I think.  Certainly, praise is involved, praise beyond any sense of what we might currently imagine, praise that is certainly not fulfilled, as Mark Twain once, in a less than charitable mood, characterized it: as singing interminable hymns in a stuffy Sunday worship service without end.  Rather. heaven might be more like walking up a mountain slope on a gaudy spring day asking whether heaven means anything at all.  

I think we decided, my son and I, that we are better off in our skeptical times with at least the thought of heaven, as long as we remember not to take liberties with it, to render its meaning facile by selling it and ourselves short. Perhaps Dylan Thomas had something like that in mind when he wrote:

    Dark is a way, and light is a place,
    Heaven that never was
    Nor will be ever is always true,
    And, in that brambled void,
    As plenty as the blackberries in the wood
    The dead sing for His joy. 

Our day was too early in the season for blackberries, but still the thought sticks.  The dead surely were there, and we, the currently living, at least for now, as well.  And I can only hope that my son and I are and will be in some fashion singing in those woods long beyond the brief moment we took a walk there.  How that might be, I cannot know.  It lies in heaven itself to say.


Monday, November 25, 2019

Incendiary Ghosts on Morrell Creek: The Dark Shimmering of Creation

Larch Snags on Morrell Creek
A world can burn and burn and yet remain a garden of green.  This remarkable truth, know to all who live in ecosystems sculpted by their very flammability, was in full display this summer along the national recreational trail to Morrell Falls in the foothills of the Swan Range of Montana. Spreading along this very route, the Rice Ridge Fire, which commenced with a lightning strike on July 24th of 2017, resisted being quelled for nearly two months.  Throughout August it continued to burn, blanketing the surrounding mountains in acrid smoke, until over 46,000 acres had been consumed.  Then fire became megafire, growing mightily in early September to scorch an additional 100,000 acres in a mere two weeks.

Now at every step hikers finds themselves surrounded by the charred snags of lodgepole pines, along with a sprinkling of those of larches and firs, all of which had succumbed two years earlier.  Yet everywhere one looks to the earth lying underneath this sobering scene, one finds it festooned with colorful blossoms, as fireweed, lupine, salmon berry, hare bell, hyssop, wild hollyhock, wild licorice and a host of other plants are putting newly-available sunlight to good use. This is especially true of the fireweed which has shown up in droves to reclaim blackened soil still peppered with carbonized bits of wood.

Fireweed among the Snags
The luminosity of fireweed, its neon blooms shimmering with psychedelic intensity, is compelling as it overtakes a forest seemingly in ruins.  "Neon," at least to this writer's eyes, is the particular shade of hot pink, as it has been named by those who worry about such things on the internet, that more or less matches the distinctive and showy color of a fireweed's distinctive and showy raceme of flowers. In this particular case the descriptive term turns out to be an apt one.  The fireweed's inflorescence literally glows from within, even when fully-exposed to sunlight from without.  And when the angle of one's gaze is such that a conical clump of flowers is silhouetted against the background of a charred stump, the effect is doubly electric.

To be among these and the other colorful colonizers who are embroidering a heavenly scene on the drab remnants of forest burned to the quick is to experience what Deborah Bird Rose has characterized as the shimmer of creation.   The nature of life is to be lively.  In the environs of Morrell Falls and the two small lakes lying directly below it, this liveliness now shows up as what one writer for a local newspaper characterizes as a "landscape under revision."  But as witty and catchy as this phrase might be, I would advocate as well for a "landscape re-envisioned." One is eager to walk in these environs not simply to satisfy one's curiosity about how forest succession occurs, as the fabric of an ecosystem is woven anew in the wake of its recent immolation.  One also is called upon to behold how what is now emerging offers itself in a wholly other light, indeed, in one that shimmers.

Deborah Bird Rose speaks of this shimmering as a translation of sorts of what the Yolngu People of Australia characterize as bir'yun, a "brilliance" that is also "a kind of motion," indeed one that "grabs you" and "allows you, or brings you, into the experience of being part of a vibrant and vibrating world."   Yet another translation of shimmer might be that of the Hebraic "chavod," the glory of creation, in which the heavenly shows through the things of this world and leaves them resounding beyond their own means to account for themselves.  In shimmer, Rose argues, it is made clear that a forest is not simply a contraption of "gears and cogs," an elaborate mechanism that somehow keeps itself, in spite of firestorms and infestations, well-oiled and running.  That would certainly gain our admiration, but only as a well-crafted tool might. Such admiration in turn would be forgetful of how the forest is iridescent with the creative dynamism of the diverse agencies of diverse living things, with for instance "the ancestral power," as Rose would put it, of lodgepole pines and fireweed as they renew old ties, the pulsing of life in one living kind communicating its energy to another.  Gifts are piling up all about us.

 A Landscape under Revision

Ancestors I
But it is not only life that shimmers.   Death in its own fashion does too.  And it is this latter possibility that fully claimed me on two successive July evenings as I walked among the forests of charred snags left in the wake of the Rice Ridge Fire.  As night descended and the visible world moved back into the shadows, the outlines of a multitude of carbonized trunks and their leafless branches, only dimly registering in the eye, nevertheless came alive with intimations of their former lives that would not let me be.  One might say that I had been visited by ghosts.  Indeed, more accurately, I was the visitor, as the ghosts were arrayed all around me. The power of what these trees had been, their decades and centuries of rambunctious life before succumbing to fire was for that moment undeniably palpable. The ancestors were speaking.  One had the sense that one was being addressed, that a forest that once had been green and living was now revisiting its haunts on its own behalf, reminding those who tread here now of what had been offered up to the flames for the sake of the coming generations.

Everywhere one turns in a more-than-human living world, the invitation to liturgy abounds.  This is to say, one is invited to offer one's prayers, one's thanksgiving and veneration on behalf of all those other living kinds who contribute to the very possibility that one is offered for at least the brief moment of one's all-too-human life one's own place under the sun.  The fires of one summer might leave the earth smoking and blighted, its waters smudged with soot, but this in turn only insures the emergence of a garden green and shimmering in the next.

Ancestors II
Ancestors III

Ancestors IV

Ponderosa Pine Unfazed by the Fire

Morrell Falls

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Mantis Birth

Ready for the Wider World
Once you know where and when to look, finding a nest of hatching mantises is not so difficult as one might think. Mid morning seems to be the best time.  The mantises wriggle out rear-first from the oocenta, their egg case, one by one, wet and folded in on themselves.  Just like moths or butterflies emerging from a cocoon, they need to stretch out and dry.  Then, if they don't simply drop away from the writhing mass of their fellow hatchlings hanging in mid air, they clamber back up by the thread by which that whole cluster is hanging and find immediately nearby the highest perch available.  And then, when their oocenta-mates begin to dispute that perch, they climb down a stem and scatter into the garden.  Such an event! 

The Oocenta over a Cluster of Newly-Emerged Mantises
Moments like this one stop me cold.  One cannot simply note them and then move on.  They demand meditation, or at the very least, rumination, the turning over in the mind of the various ways in which, for instance, the birth of a clutch of mantises is no small thing.  Or perhaps, better, how the small thing that is that birth is all the same remarkable, fully endowed with the capacity to invite one's awe.  The everyday world of earthly things, it turns out, is wild, dense with meaning.  

Not a single mantis crawls about the face of the earth that did not emerge from an oocenta such as those dotting my garden.  All too often, one takes for granted that the living kinds are simply going to show up, that the earthly, after a long winter's nap, is automatically set to repopulate itself.  But this expectation ignores the long waiting in the cold, the sudden registering of warmth, the developing of an egg until its occupant is ready to squirm tail first into the light of a spring morning.  

I have been working through with my students this semester a series of readings raising the prospect for a contemplative ecology.  Sensei John Dado Loori in a small set of essays titled "Teachings of the Earth" speaks of how the river verifies the river, of how the earthly communicates itself precisely as itself.  We need to get out of the way, Loori recommends, so that the suchness of earthly things is rendered palpable in our thinking, so that we might become intimate with them.  

The wild is not to be found in the bizarre or the exotic, the untamed or untrammeled.  Rather the wild is precisely that which in its very ordinariness verifies itself as such.  If there were ever a moment that begged for a contemplative response in an ecological vein, certainly the birthing of mantises would suffice.   As ordinary as the unfolding of a leaf or the rising of the sun, the birthing of a mantis reassures us of our own place upon the earth.  If, that is, we were simply to attend to it with an open mind... 

Emerging one by one from the Oocenta

Competing for Perches

On the Way Down

Monday, July 23, 2018

Buffalo and Trains: Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia on the High Plains.

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 1*
On the high plains of Eastern Montana, images of buffalo emerge whichever way one turns.  Car dealerships and bars, stock brokerages and coffee roasters, sports teams and local banks, art galleries and t-shirt shops: the buffalo, or at least the image of the buffalo, is in evidence in all of these places and more.  Charles Russell, the great Montana painter, famously employed a buffalo skull as part of his signature on his artworks.  In doing so, he can be understood as insisting that all who remain here and now remember that buffalo had been here too.  In any event, the many ways of depicting buffalo - whether sketched out in a full-bodied side-view or frontal approach wth horns lowered, whether rendered as bleached skull or as tanned hide, or simply reduced to a silouhette  - is explored obsessively by a broad range of artists in these parts.  An infinite appetite for the image is seemingly at work

The hunger for the presence of the buffalo that these images communicate is all too often nostalgic.  The buffalo are welcomed as long as they remain safely in the past, a memory of other times, of a world that was destined to be superseded even if once remarkable in its own manner.  In this way, the iconifying of the Buffalo becomes nothing more than a re-inscription of what Australian anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose has termed "the Year Zero," a reordering of time by settlement peoples such that what has taken place before the arrival of European culture (and particularly in this case, European agriculture) is relegated to a legendary past that ceases to impinge too strongly on the moment in which one is currently living.  To remember the buffalo is fine, as long as they are not too near or too meaningful.

Railroad Poster**
But the imagery of Deeling Gregory's contribution to the public mural painted on the concrete walls of the First Avenue Railroad Underpass at Great Falls, Montana is another manner entirely.  To understand exactly how this is the case, it might be helpful to consider an image - supplied by an advertisement poster for a railroad - from the time when Buffalo were being wiped off the face of the earth with gleeful abandon by settlement culture.  In this picturing of that event, a steam engine plows through a herd of Buffalo running in panic before the onslaught of riflemen shooting at whatever moves on the prairie.

Deeling Gregory's Gigantomachia*
Gregory reinterprets this image as a Gigantomachia, in which two great forces are in battle with one another.  In her version, rather than simply fleeing the onslaught of settlement, the Buffalo, along with a white dove, oppose the steam engine as it ferociously invades the prairie.  In doing so members of the herd offer their very bodies in resistance, as they are crushed under the weight of the locomotive and ultimately paved over by railroad tracks.  Still they resist in spite of their defeat.  They do not assent to the imposition of the Year Zero, regardless of what riflemen and plows in the meantime might have accomplished.

What comes across in Gregory's portrait is entirely absent in the railroad poster: Buffalo, Gregory would remind us, were not dumb animals to be eagerly chased down and heedlessly slaughtered but august fellow creatures whose capacity to inspire and instruct us humans is not to be underestimated, let alone dismissed.  Particularly striking in this regard is how Gregory treats the individuality of each Buffalo in the herd she pictures.  Each visage is alive with sentiment as it submitted to ecocide.  Consider these images taken from the mural

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 2*
Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 3*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 4*

Feeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 5*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 6

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 7*

Deeling Gregory: Buffalo Visages 8*
Those who might pause to meditate on these figures and their connection to the very location in which they are pictured will find provocative instruction on how settlement culture might reconsider its place in time.  The imposition of the Year Zero is not a fiat accompli.  Not only, it turns out, might the Buffalo one day return, but also in truth, they have never left.

* Images from the First Avenue North Underpass Mural are used with the permission of the Business Improvement District of Great Falls Montana.
** Railroad poster image taken from the interpretive materials provided at The First People's Buffalo Jump State Park near Great Falls, Montana.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Dreaming the Waters: Regenerative Ecology on the Banks of the Choptank

Waters of Rosemary's Spring on the Choptank
Nick and Margaret Carter have dreamt of many things under the sun in the fifty years since they settled along the upper reaches of the Choptank River.  But arguably at the bottom of those dreams, if there is ever a bottom to a dream, are the very waters of the river itself.   They are, it turns out, worthy of the devotion of entire lives.  Nick and Margaret have offered theirs in an ambitious project of regenerating  a forest dominated by native species on farmland that had been plowed under early on in colonial settlement and planted in corn and other monocultural crops for centuries.  Regenerating a forest inevitably requires regenerating the waters by which it grows, although Nick Carter might see this in its inverse relationship as well.  For him, the project is as much about restoring good water to the Choptank as it is about restoring ecosystem diversity to the watershed.

Nick would be quick to note that one's notion of a river's waters needs to be expansive.  The very land on which the couple lives, for example, is underlain by an aquifer, the Columbia, whose slow-moving lateral drift, inching along underneath one's feet, is as much a part of the Choptank's flow as the waters explicitly meandering between its banks.  The rain then that falls on the Carters' land, percolating in the soil and infiltrating into that aquifer is also part of the river's flow, indeed so are the weather fronts that have brought precipitation here in the first place.  To make things particularly complicated in this version of the hydrological cycle, if one dawdles a few hours along the edge of the river, one discovers that it has the disconcerting habit of flowing both down and upstream, as it interacts with the incoming and outgoing tides of the Chesapeake Bay, of which it is a tributary.  The river's source then is at times downstream as much as upstream, briny as much as fresh, the fate of all estuaries.
Nut Sedge found in a Swale
A river turns out not to be a piece of plumbing, a conduit for efficient delivery of a liquid, but rather a great and multifarious metabolism.  Complexity is its life, and a rough circularity is its function.  This is not to say that things don't get moved around, but they do so, at least when the river is working properly, in a manner that fits with the intricate and interwoven gestures of a master practicing Daijijuan.  Paradoxically, in a healthy ecosystem, the more abundantly its waters flow, the more complex their movement becomes: the very meandering of the river, in which it rhythmically undulates from right to left and then left to right, even as it moves downstream, is perhaps the best illustration of this point. The Choptank, then, is not a jet train powering ahead to its oceanic paradise, but rather a contemplative act focused on remaining precisely where it is, keeping itself in tune with how its manifold waters pause, even as they pass, eddy even as they stream.  Indeed the very notion that a river is not a singular but rather plural element, a gathering of the waters, hints at this.

Ground Cedar (Lycopodium complantum) showing up in a former Cornfield
A failure to attend to that complexity and its related aptitude for circularity has shaped all too much of the landscape surrounding where Nick and Margaret live.  For instance, if one were to look for the proverbial source of the Choptank, its starting point, one is likely to find it these days in a series of ditches draining fields of corn and soybeans.  This at least is the result that occurred when local writer Curtis Badger, in his A Natural History of Quiet Waters, attempted to trace the headwaters of the nearby Pokomoke.  From the 1700s onward, he notes, the ditch, as much as the plow and the ax, were the tools by which European settlement transformed the extensive swamps formerly characterizing this area into what locals like to say is "working" farmland.  A lot of work, indeed, does go into dewatering the land in this area.  Unlike a river, a ditch is a piece of plumbing, in which not the waters but only the water, as a singular, homogenous and troublesome element, is siphoned off and then unceremoniously disposed of.  For the digger of ditches excess water is not a precious element to be conserved but instead unwanted refuse, trash.  And "industrial-strength ditches," as Badger puts it, crisscross this landscape.  Indeed many of them have names suggesting a certain rural charm: "Bald Cypress Branch," "Coon's Foot," "Cowhouse Branch," "Gum Branch," "Gray's Prong," "Tilgham Race" are just some of these.   But Nick would remind any visitor to his property such fetching words are wasted on a form of interaction with the land that only ends up in leveling and ultimately impoverishing it.
Fern along a Brook flowing into
the Choptank
And so we return to the dream mentioned above.  Nick and Margaret have been busy for over fifty years on a project of regenerative ecology that for the most part has involved doing precisely nothing, of letting an extensive plot of farmland literally go to seed.  This has been accomplished with attentiveness and love, rather than indifference and neglect.  And along the way, at least some explicit interventions were indeed called for.

As Nick guides me down a path running along the edge of the property, he points out the remains of a ditch, in shambles but still waterlogged, that was dug early on in the history of European settlement.   In those times, he notes, ditches were often excavated after a winter thaw.  Farmers would determine where the snowmelt was flowing, charting out the lowest contours on the land, in order to place the ditch's course along these.  Ditches constructed in this manner, at least on the Eastern Shore, have a laudable tendency to tap into the aquifer, which often is only a few feet below the surface of even the more elevated areas.  Not unsurprisingly ponds and seeps abound on this particular ditch as it caves in and dissipates from Nick's studied inattention and particularly so after he dammed up a few decades ago one section of it.  As the land in that area reverted to a bog, interesting things began to grow there of their own accord, including ground cedar, really a clubmoss, sphagnum moss, and even the occasional stand of orchids.  When all these appeared, Nick and Margaret knew their project was working as they had hoped it might.

Sphagnum Moss reappearing on the Land
Beech Trees in the
along the Chop-tank
The earlier part of our walk had angled down from the farmhouse through former cornfields toward the river.  On these uplands, where crops once grew poorly on dry, sandy soil, an entire forest has sprung up over the last fifty years with loblolly and Virginia pine, black walnut and pignut hickory, southern red and willow oaks now predominating.   Under the loblollies, pink lady slippers, which are dependent on a particular fungus associated with this tree, have appeared as if by magic.  The magic unfortunately has not kept  deer with discriminating taste buds from eagerly chowing down upon the blossoms.  To Margaret's consternation, the number of lady slippers in that area is in decline. But still, all in all, things are going reasonably well.  Amazingly, not very much management for feral trees and exotics, including Norwegian maple, crape myrtle and all the rest of their ilk, has been necessary.  Nick attributes this to the fact that land along the river, too wet for crops, was planted in trees in 1927 and then managed as a woodlot. Today, a healthy, mature beech forest sustaining a wide variety of native plants and shrubs now flourishes there. This older, mature forest in turn has served as a dependable source of seeds and spores taking root in the former cornfields upland from it.

Lady Slipper under a Loblolly Pine

Jack in the Pulpit: A Green Bloom
in A Green Shade
There is no end to Nick's meditations on the intertwining of this land and its waters.  As our walk nears its goal on the banks of the Choptank, Nick points out three consecutive swales marking the course of the river in times past.  The first one we reach, he fancies, is the river a thousand years back. These depressions, meandering across the forest floor, make for difficult crossing.  Their boggy muck, glistening in the sunlight, threatens to swallow one's foot with every step.  Surrounding us are literally thousands of jack in the pulpits, a species of skunk cabbage with a fetching bloom, not to mention a scattering of spring beauties, Indian cucumber, May apples and other spring ephemerals that love moist feet.  Here and there a wood frog or bull toad hops out of the way of our passage.  Reaching the dryer area lying between two swales, Nick comments on how berms of sand built up here, as well as in tandem with the current banks of the Choptank, are the residue of yearly flooding, as the waters overrunning the river's banks are interrupted by the trees and shrubs of the forest.  This allows time for sediment captured upstream to drop out of the water and be deposited anew.

Nick takes me to the final berm near the Choptank and asks me to consider how its sands engage in ionic capture of nutrients and pollutants, leaving the waters of the river to pass downstream cleansed of excess phosphorous, as well as a host of unseemly chemicals. Listening to him, I finally begin to get a hint of the complexity and breadth of his vision.  He is asking that those who visit here join him in the contemplation of the journey and fate of each and every drop of the waters finding themselves, however temporarily, at home here.  When Tom Horton wrote that the unexamined place is not worth living in, he surely had Nick and Margaret in mind.  There is no walking this landscape in their company without every step becoming an interrogation in how the waters are making their way through it.

Crane Fly on a Sedge Leaf

Wood Frog

Complicating the
I ask Nick if he ever dreams of the land in his sleep, and his answer is disconcerting.  In his dream, it turns out, a phalanx of bulldozers are poised at the edge of his and Margaret's property.  The foreman of the crew shows Nick a legal document ordering the uprooting of the newly-regenerated forest to make way for a suburban development.  This nightmare lies literally in plain site during Nick's waking hours in every direction from where we stand.  "The leveling of the land," as Nick puts it, involved in suburbanization and farming, continues unabated.  Imagine, Nick asks me, to think of what a single branch fallen from a tree does to the waters encountering it on the forest floor.  The branch interrupts the waters' progress, complicates their flow.  The irregular topography of land is what makes it amenable to the diversity of life.  Farms and suburbs tend to smooth out the land and channel its waters quickly away into ditches and storm drains.  Nick's goal, on the contrary, is to keep the waters around and active as long as possible.  This is accomplished by intensifying the roughness of the terrain, by letting duff accumulate and fallen branches, not to mention entire trees uprooted, lie.  Nick intones, "When you walk down the land in spring and puddles are all around, the land is doing what it ought to do."

At least for the time being, Nick and Margaret's land is indeed doing exactly what it ought to do.

Nick and Margaret Carter