Monday, March 12, 2018


Possibly only once, on the morning of daylight savings, will the robins arrive to their summering grounds en masse. Sure, before, small groups of six or twelve, but not this Sunday morning, no -countless robins causing a stir among the winter locals. Crows, bluejays, black capped chickadees, and red bellied woodpecker among the fray and the crows, maybe a bit pissed off about it. Listen, more than watch, for the spring that birds bring.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

March of Change

I haven't been into the woods much this winter, but for an occasional 30°+ chainsaw operation. Now, the growing day length, the day's work done, it was time to spread a bag of collected, mixed seed somewhere the sun may shine in the green season. 

The melt and evaporation is near constant, even on days well below freezing, but with this colder winter, refreshing snows were common. Now, with March's warm sun, the snow loses ground and the ground gains moisture. The thaw begins above, sinking into the earth, and its moisture mixed with mineral soil is a cold way to speak of mud. Mud is an element; we protect ourselves from it. In March, mud season begins in earnest, so a crisp mat of snow is a welcome traveling companion.

En route to the seeding region, snow delivered a graphic of animal traffic. The crossroads, the indecision, the quick and the casual are all written in the snow. I cannot fathom it, but isn't there a similar, but scented, pattern here only recognizable to those more dependent on the nose?

The wavy trail of, probably, a deer mouse on a journey of late winter courage as the red tail hawks and bald eagles glide high and the barred owls lurk mid canopy. 

By early March, ankle deep in snow, deer browse the dry, fibrous stems of the garlic mustard that they refuse to consider in the green season. Food of last resort, in winter, but never, not at all, when the buffet is so grand in May.

I did not understand how comfortable our mammal friends are with human paths before this place. I will take their cue as trails are altered by fallen timber, such as here. The trail used to pass to the right of this basswood, until it began to fall apart, completely blocking the old trail. The deer have made their decision; they now travel under the arch of a sibling basswood, the Arc de Ruminant.

In the late winter we take stock of the dead, the ill, the weak. The tops torn from hollowed basswood by time or wind, the snags of elder oak, rotted, but standing, the insect kill green ash and drowned every species in times of high water, are most evident in winter. Snags are important ecological components of the forest, whether killed by native or exotic means. For us, snags are question of safety, of food and shelter for wildlife, of timber taking out healthy neighbors. Few nearby young come out unscathed when elder trees fall and fall they do.

Of the remaining oak giants, red and bur of about a dozen on the drier, south facing slopes, we feel concern. These trees are one hundred forty, one hundred sixty, or more years old based on the rings of smaller felled oaks. They may outlast me, or not, but the point is not to count on a static nature, that is not what nature is.

As spring approaches I ready myself for the multitude of upcoming tasks and adventures. Many house and landscape projects remain, including seeding thousands of native woodland plants and harvesting two plots of Hudson Clove garlic, but also new opportunities. I have several upcoming photography courses at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum that are filling up with those eager for something new from somebody new. I am also going to be working with scientists over the coming year, as artist in residence, at the highly regarded research landscape known as Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. I plan to blog from Cedar Creek, nine square miles of otherwise inaccessible nature at the junction of the prairie, eastern deciduous and boreal forest. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Peach Blossom Spring

Things move slowly, we know, but still we expect change to come quickly. Yet quickly comes change, not often the kind we anticipate.

I am now, roughly a year, working in education at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Here stands the red barn, a relic of an old farm since annexed. The tracks lead you to the Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Center, where we hold classes for adults in a variety of subjects connected to the institutional mission and serve thousands of school children every year. My focus is the advancement and deepening of photography education. I develop classes, hire teachers, and offer insight wherever I have more than two cents to offer. This satellite of the main campus is in development around agriculture, home grown produce, cooking and methods for preservation. It soon will not be the quiet place it appears to be, but occupied by new buildings, agriculture extension staff, visitors, chefs, meals, and fields of produce. Change here will come quickly.

At home, winter is still thick as the lake ice under trucks and shacks. Two years ago this area was cleared to put up the new shop and studio. In 2016 I fall-planted milkweed and transplanted goldenrod, then winter-seeded a mix of savanna seeds in early 2017. By summer we had five foot tall goldenrod, the quickly germinating black-eyed susan, and the beginnings of a more complex blend of plants. I weeded to keep out the Canada thistle, canary reed grass and other more mysterious upstarts.

The winter snow has been permanent, cold as it has been, sheltering the seeds of milkweed, golderod, rudbeckia, and monarda fistulosa. It is one way to plant, if you can give it over to the plants and their fecundity or lack of it. If you want to get plants going with an efficient use of a dollar, avoid buying plants, bare roots, or the daunting germination codes M, E, F, G, or ?, stay off wet soils, weed when needed, and let the plants do the work.

The tiny seeds of eastern forest native Lobelia siphilitica, great blue lobelia, collected from the garden last fall. Despite having enough of these self-seeding, locally native plants to start new colonies, I am seeding it in trays this April because it will do well in sunny, wet soils and shady, mesic zones, is untouched by deer, is competitive with weeds and, with luck, garlic mustard and thistle. These seeds have the germination code C(60) and D, meaning that they will require cold stratification (as in nature) of at least 60 days, they are quite small and may require light to germinate. I will regret mixing these with damp silica sand, as they are... quite small. Next time, all code D seeds will be put on damp, white coffee filters for stratification.

In addition to the fifteen or so species collected, bagged and stratifying as I write, another twenty species has arrived from the local native seed supplier, Prairie Moon, yesterday. My first season I concentrated on milkweeds, last year on forbs and grasses, and this upcoming season on forbs and sedges. All are intended for woods, savanna, or wetland edge gardening as I make small dents in the garlic mustard and buckthorn. Come April, these seeds will be greenhouse trayed for sprouting, then moved outside. Most won't be planted until late summer or early fall in locations previously cleared of weeds.

I will end this rambling with a bit of a poem by Tao Yuanming -the 4th century writer of The Peach Blossom Spring, a tale of utopia in a time of political disunity.

The myriad transformations
unravel one another
And human life
how should it not be hard?
From ancient times
there was none but had to die,
Remembering this
scorches my very heart.
What is there I can do
to assuage this mood?
Only enjoy myself
drinking my unstrained wine.
I do not know
about a thousand years,
Rather let me make
this morning last forever.