Sunday, September 6, 2015

Black Eyed Susan: A World of Green for All Comers.

Arid Summer on the High Plains where Black Eyed Susans Thrive
Under a cloudless sky, the already arid earth of the high plains bakes even drier.  Grasses, briefly green in June,  now turn to a dusky patchworks of yellow and brown in August.  As if the symptoms of widespread desiccation were not emphatic enough, the air fills with smoke from forest fires rampaging up and down the not too distant spines of the Rocky Mountains.  But precisely at this moment under an implacable even if hazy sun, congregations of Black Eyed Susans - where there is one there are always many - unfurl their great yellow blossoms and thrive.  I spent considerable time in their company recently at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park and was reminded yet again of my love for this common plant, ordinary in its demeanor but preternatural in its capacities.

Bee Fly (Bombylius major) and Spidfer Wasp (Pompilidae)
Sharing a Blossom
The black eyed susan is a member of the genus Rudbeckia, named and classified as Rudbeckia hirta by the celebrated Carl Linnaeus only two centuries ago.  This occurred in Sweden, a place far, far away from the plant's native environs of North America.  For that reason among others I prefer the common name which at least suggests how much at home this living kind and its charismatic cousins - sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes - are in North American soils.   My earliest memories of childhood are teeming with black eyed susans that filled the vacant lots and sprouted in every other crack in the cement sidewalks lining the streets of my neighborhood.  Perched on wiry green stems swarming with hairy filaments, their composite flowers, composed of deliriously yellow petals, arranged in lazy circles around brown-domed centers, entranced me.  Checking in regularly on each blossom's daily tracking of the sun across the sky punctuated my mornings and afternoons of outdoor play.  And picking a few to bring home in the evening was not an uncommon event, although tearing away the sticky, fibrous stems from their mother plants took some effort.  In all of this, I was offered an enthusiastic introduction into that sort of flora inhabiting my place under the sun that did not need to be planted in carefully-troweled beds around a house and assiduously watered and weeded from then on.  In the wayward places beyond the confines of a well-groomed yard I encountered the joy of things that grow effortlessly, that know how to look out for themselves and then some.

At the jump, those memories of black eyed susans welled up as I encountered their kind anew.  On the other hand, after a bit of reading that evening, I learned that these stands were in truth only what biologists term "naturalized" citizens of this particular area, emigrating here in the last century or two from the midwest, where they were originally at home.  Indeed, they arrived just, it appears, as the buffalo who were endemic to the short grass prairies of the high plains were in the process of being wiped out by European settlement.  But settlement seems far too kind a word for the practices of mass slaughter and habitat destruction that were involved in that terrible moment of species extirpation.

Dingy Cutworm Moth (Felita jaculifera) Resting.
Those who write about black eyed susans universally observe that pollinators are fond of them.   This turned out to be exactly the case with the plants lining the road along the boundary of the First People's Buffalo Jump State Park.  Taking a break from my assigned task of removing the lowest strand from a barb-wired fence (so antelope could scooch under the barrier safely), I took picture after picture as I discovered species after species making its way about the various contours of the plant. Some were interested in the nectar, particularly the bee flies with an occasional honey bee and orange belted bumble bee showing up to join in the feast.   Other species meandered about the stems of the plants - yellow jackets and blue spider wasps for the most part - intent, it seemed to me, on licking up the sticky residue exuded there.  A dingy cutworm moth, nocturnally active but diurnally recumbent, lounged for the day on the seed head of one blossom, wrapped in its shade.  The moth was not inclined to move.  And of course ants, western thatching ants in this case, were tracking all over the plant, looking for whatever meal might show up as they tended aphids, which in turn exuded their own sugary treat of honeydew, as they grazed in clutches under the flower heads and on the bottom sides of leaves.


Western Thatching Ants (Formica obscuripes) on the way to and from
 an Aphid Clutch.
The black eyed suzan, it turns out, names not only a living kind but also a world.  After an hour or so spent up close to a single plant, the latter truth comes into focus.  Providing shade, moisture, food, more or less steady perches in gusting wind, and a multitude of hiding places, the plant's very anatomy carves out a green oasis in the midst of an arid, daunting landscape.  Within its ambit, a variety of living kinds gather to find themselves more or less at home.  As insect after insect sees it, these stems are great limbs, with a girth equal to or exceeding one's own.   Western yellow jackets curl about them, fluently in tune with their contours, while the blue spider wasp paces up and down them, as well as over and under every leaf, continually on the move with only a pause here and there. To the bee fly, a lightweight continually at odds with the prairie winds permeating its surroundings, the composite infloresences' great brown domes, speckled with a multitude of disk flower heads, provide opportunity after opportunity for a drink of nectar without the need to battle again into flight.  And for creatures in search of moisture in a dry land in a dry time, the black eyed susan is also hospitable.  All plants are chemical factories, armed with a variety of defenses that deter almost every creature under the sun from helping themselves to a bite.  Inevitably an arms race ensues with only a few species specialized enough to overcome each respective plant's defenses and make a meal of it.  The black eyed susan goes another way.  Whatever defenses it has mounted, they are not directed to the swath of living kinds one finds thriving on plant after plant under a late summer sun.

Two Bee Flies Working the Nectar
What is there not to love about the generosity of this remarkable even if fully ordinary living kind?  Surely this is a rhetorical question.  But leaving off my remarks on this deservedly appreciative note would not be responsible without also observing how unsettling, literally and metaphorically unsettling, the presence of the black eyed suzan in this particular country turns out to be.  For its appearance, as noted above, is historically recent and inextricably tied to the disappearance of a rich prairie ecosystem that was sustained by great herds of buffalo once flowing over this land.  One should not forget that every step upon the site of the First Peoples Buffalo Jump commemorates those herds and the rich legacy they continue to hold for more than a dozen tribes who remember this animal's presence and mourn its loss.

Thinking about the past in this way inevitably leads my mind to tread in strange directions.  Following out one bearing, I remember how the black eyed susans I encountered lined one side of the road - the side bordered by the state park - but were absent from the other side, which abutted a farmer's field of wheat assiduously cultivated to the road's very edge.  Any black eyed susan that dared spring up there had quickly withered and died.  Surely herbicides were involved.  In a detail, then, is illuminated the history, my history, of European occupation of this place.  Our settlement of the west left in its wake a landscape capable of feeding many human mouths but extremely stingy in regard to the desires of other than domestic animals and agricultural crops to find their own patch of earth under the sun.   Even a hardy and relatively new arrival like the black eyed susan, generously offering a full range of ecological services to a landscape callously depleted of its capacity to sustain living kinds, is fought with tooth and nail, or plow and sprayer as the case may be.

But following out another bearing I find myself imagining what it must have been for those tribal peoples to love a creature as magnificent and ecologically significant as the buffalo.  I grew up consorting with black eyed susans.  What would have it been like, I wonder, to have had the same opportunity to be instructed in the ways of the living world in the shadow of a buffalo?  This question remains a significant one and is the inspiration for a variety of ongoing projects in Montana to return buffalo to some approximation of an open range.  Perhaps the black eyed susan will find its place under the sun there too.

Great Golden Digger Wasp 
(Sphex ichneumoneus)

Big Wasp Meets Little Wasp in Uncertain Circumstances

Yellow Jacket Patrolling her Particular Spot in the Shade

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Tree of Living Waters

The Tree of Living Waters
Venerable in its years, though slowly rotting from the inside out, this great American beech (Fagus grandifolia), hidden away in a coastal woodlot, still towers above its neighbors.  In the midst of its fellow beeches, along with a scattering of younger pin-oaks and hollies, the tree's outspread canopy shelters a clearing, shaded and quiet, the sort of place one would go to gather one's thoughts on a pleasant day.  Or a sad day too, if that is needed. 

Sam, who, along with his granddaughter Jessica, has guided me here, ventures the object of our pilgrimage is likely a century and a half old. If true, this is ridiculously old in a landscape that for the last century or two has been harvested and replanted every thirty years or so, "working land" as it sometimes is referred to.  And the preferred tree in this enterprise is not the slow-growing beech but the fast-growing loblolly pine, which has proven the most amenable to a quick turn-around time between one seeding and the next.  As if to prove the truth of this, just a hundred feet away from our idyllic setting, the woods stop abruptly and a vast patch of land clearcut last winter begins - a melee of overturned trunks, disturbed earth, mounds of uprooted brush. A quarter-mile back, stacked in neat piles, trunk after trunk of loblolly shorn of their limbs are waiting to be picked up for delivery to a wood shredder or saw.  Such is the usual fate of forests here on the eastern shore of Maryland.

But on the Eastern Shore even a grandfather beech tree in a beech wood providentially saved from the saw is still rooted into working land, although of a different sort than the loblolly plantation next door. Michael Lewis, environmental historian at Salisbury University, notes that beech were not so common in the forests encountered here by European colonists 300 years ago.  Up to that time the First Peoples of this area - Wicomico, Assateague and the like - had been busy using fire to keep the land clear of underbrush and amenable to hunting.  The upshot of this practice was that the beech, which is vulnerable to fire, was little in evidence.  But the newly arrived colonists suppressed rather than encouraged fires, which in turn allowed beeches to find a renewed footing. Today approximately 20% of the forest in Maryland is composed of beech trees.   And, although they are no longer harvested commercially for their wood, their nuts offer food for a variety of wildlife including turkey and deer. The land, Sam reports, is regularly rented out to hunters, a fact that is underscored by the many deer blinds we have encountered on our walk here.  Living things, at least the ones some humans are fond of eating, are doing well in these woods.

A Closer Look
Sam and Jessica have brought me here today to share their love for the Tree of Living Waters.  I call it that, although I must also report that Jody Haggler who owns this woodlot calls it the "Jesus Tree," because sometime in the last half century or so, someone has incised the bark with a series of words and phrases, all of them directed to sharing the good news of creation, or at least, of a solidly Christian version of that news.   "God - Fountain of Living Waters." "Emmanuel." "Jesus is Lord." "The Saving Word." These and other phrases of similar import have been carefully arranged on the trunk in beautifully rendered block letters, a work that must have taken considerable dedication and time to accomplish.  And, judging from the height above ground of some of the entries, good climbing skills as well.

This tree, engraved with human words conjuring supernatural powers, in turn readily engraves itself on the memory of those lucky enough to have found themselves in its vicinity. The agency involved in this process is complicated, tricky. Is an unknown scribe, employing knife and bark in place of quill and paper, the one who is now at work in my own thoughts as I remember and admire what his or her handiwork has wrought? Yet surely the one who inscribed these words left them not for her or his own particular fame - no initials or dates are in evidence - but for the sake of the Most High.  Is it to God then I must turn to appreciate the power of the tree's evocation?  Or is the tree itself, this great living pillar of sugary cellulose and dusky sap, spanning from the darkness of the earth to the airy heavens above, the one who is making its mark upon me?   To behold such a tree is surely to remember all the trees one has ever looked upon and loved.  I am reminded of Wendell Berry's beautiful lines in praise of the trees, "patient as stars," composing his own woodlot in Kentucky.   "They build in air, tier after tier a timbered choir," he writes, "Stout beams upholding weightless grace of song, a blessing on this place."

The blessing of being human certainly entails receiving gratefully the blessing of such arboreal choirs.  Yet with this blessing a troubling thought cannot help but to come to mind. Were not the trees of this place once beloved in other tongues with the names of other gods?  European colonists were quick to name the towns of the Eastern Shore after those found in their Bible and their memories of home - Salisbury, Chrisfield, Cambridge, Hebron, Bethel and the like.  But the naming of the waters - Wicomico, Pocokmoke, Nantacoke, Nassawango, Choptank, Marshyhope - came from another fount entirely, the languages of peoples dispossessed and pushed aside, even as these small indications of their existence were enshrined on maps to persist even into our time in everyday parlance.   Given this history, might not the Tree of Living Waters also be thought of as the Tree of Usurpation?   Engraving the names of one's God upon the face of a land once held by others is certainly a statement of ownership that should not go unremarked upon.  Throughout history, people have murdered others in the name of their God.  We should not forget this, even if that very Name itself remains worthy of praise and commemoration in our deliberations and musings, if not our prayers and rituals.   History is besotted with violence, a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Repairing to a glen in a wood does not diminish this fact.

A century ago, yet another in a series of blights arrived on our shores that threatened yet another in a series of species of indigenous tree, this time, the one in whose precincts I have been walking, Fagus grandifolia. The Tree of Living Waters has not proved immune to this disease and now is succumbing to it. Beech scales, tiny aphids that attack the tree in turn precipating one of two fungal infections, have been at work.  The smooth, gray surface of the bark for which the beech is universally famous is growing black and crusty, particularly where saving words, now disappearing into the decay, were incised.  Jody tells me that two pileated woodpeckers have been having their way with the weakening tree, boring holes indiscriminately into its flesh.  One of the holes, it turns out is placed precisely in the open part of a "d" spelling out the name of God.  The tree, Jody fears, is not long for this world.  

Jessica Brannock with the Tree of Living Waters
In light of this outcome, one might argue that carving the name of God or that of any other being on a tree is not only a fool's errand but also a vandal's. Perhaps without these incisions wounding its skin, this august beech would have proven resistant for a while longer to contagion. I can imagine the shuddering of every forest ranger across the land at the thought of an army of believers, knives in hand, keenly intent upon carving the names of the Creator on the trunks of trees wherever they might be found.  Certainly this should not be counseled.  Yet, I am also glad that the Tree of Living Waters, carvings and all, stands here, at least for the time being, welcoming any passerby willing to spend a moment in its company.  Someone came into this forest decades ago to behold a fellow creature whose very glory touched the deepest springs of human and more-than-human longings.  And suffering the depths of that inspiration, prayers were left in the very flesh of a living thing.  "Emmanuel" is a Hebrew word signifying "God is with us."  But also, Jody reminds us, a seven foot black snake that swallows rabbits whole is making its home near the tree, perhaps even in its very hollow.  What would that particular creature ask of us, I muse, if we would dare to listen to it carefully?  In The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold notes that to buy a woods is to buy "almost as many tree diseases as [one has] trees."  But these very maladies, Leopold adds, "made my woodlot a mighty fortress, unequaled in the whole county."  Although Leopold, when he wrote these words, had in mind the manner in which decrepit trees offer magnificent habitat for a wide range of living things, including both rabbit and snake, the arc of his thought leads other places as well.  These woods indeed are dark and deep.  Death as well as life is making its home here. Dare we enter into such environs?  Faith is required.  

Incision of "Emmanuel" isolated from the surrounding Bark