Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Rewilding in the 'Burbs

Mind-wandering is a perennial problem among the naturally curious. One reason for my having fairly recently (within the last three years or so) adopted the habit of keeping a reading journal is so that if I do get sidetracked while reading an otherwise compelling book, I'll be able to get back to where I was when things started going off on another path. 

In September of 2019 I started reading Robert Macfarlane's Underland: A Deep Time Journey, which contains the best opening lines of any book I've ever read:

The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree. Late-summer heatwave, heavy air. Bees browsing drowsy over meadow grass. Gold of standing corn, green of fresh hay-rows, black of rooks on stubble fields. . . .  

I copied the first three paragraphs into my reading journal as if they were a poem, separating sentences into lines of a stanza. I read the first chapter, and got lost running after things that needed further illumination. I got back to chapter 2 in November, and then next picked it up the following August. On the 27th of this month I went back to Chapter 4, which I had clearly already read (marginalia abound), but because of the amount of time that had passed, I could remember little. I also wanted to recover some of the initial sense of wonderment I'd felt. 

The number of coincidences and rabbit trails I noticed and started following almost immediately keep tempting me away, so that it takes hours to get through a few pages. I am not, however, complaining. I'm pretty sure, even only a hundred or so pages in, that this is one of the best books I've ever read.

So now I've decided to savor chunks of it every morning, after the Times crossword is done, and after Molly and I have been out for our morning walk. I'll cultivate the habit of spending time with it, and more purposefully following where it leads. 

The topic of Chapter 4 is, essentially, mycelial networks: connections, interconnections, intersections, and entanglements in what has come to be called the wood wide web. This latter link is to Macfarlane's 2016 article in The New Yorker, "Secrets of the Wood Wide Web," which covers some of what he writes about in Chapter Four. It takes place primarily in Epping Forest, an ancient woodland of about 2400 acres that  extends from Essex in the north to London in the south. I already knew about it as the place where William Morris used to ride about in miniature armor on his pony when he was growing up in Walthamstow on the edge of the forest. (The William Morris Gallery is now located in the home once occupied by Morris's widowed mother and her eight children.) 

In a way, Macfarlane is responsible for my many side-excursions into what I often refer to as "the accidental garden" (since 2007 there have been many such mentions; if you're curious, type "accidental garden" into the search window and you'll get a chronological record).  He is a walker and a noticer and a lover of words, with the most deeply felt understanding of the natural world I've encountered in my long reading life. Reading his books inspires close inspection of one's surroundings, and my phenological efforts are certainly one result. Every year I launch a campaign to notice seasonal changes: the first indications of coming-back-to life, the consequences of summer, the ebbing of fecundity. Spring's effort has been rather protracted this year because the Great Freeze damaged plant life so deeply that some has yet to recover.

My Beloved Spouse knew the moment I saw the back yard of this house that we would buy it. It was entirely too orderly for my taste, but it had good wild bones. Over the next eight years or so, our schedules would allow for little real gardening. But as we approached retirement, we invested time, energy, and a contractor into improving the house and reclaiming the garden.

April 2008

Spring 2015

We often used felled timber to create small enclosures, perhaps not quite what Morris had in mind for "garden rooms," but certainly discrete living spaces that fostered wildlife and provided interesting play areas for the animals. As these "rooms" evolved, we attracted new inhabitants (raccoons, opossums, anoles, toads, snakes, rabbits), and gradually our little suburban habitat recovered from its more cultivated history. It also began to participate in more complete life cycle.

Even before I had read any of Macfarlane's books, I had been a noticer of fungus. I began to collect a large "album" of photos of various species as they appeared in the garden. I'm both fascinated by and leery of the various fungi that emerge everywhere on our property. The abundance is caused by the sheer number of dead things lying about: tree stumps, branches and twigs (in a "wall" that separates the main garden from where we house Porco, the travel trailer), and mulched wood that we pile around the yard after the arborist visits, or when The Beloved Spouse tidies up after storms. Every few months, a load of stuff goes to the tip to be recycled there, but we use as much as we can. And as it all rots, out pop the most interesting looking things: mushrooms, shelf fungus, jelly fungus, slime mold (which looks very much like the dog barfed), and other interesting life forms that fall somewhere between animal and vegetable.

Throughout the many years we've lived in this house, the one certainty we've established is that if something intriguing "accidentally" arrives by whatever means (wind, bird poo, or squirrel), it will be allowed to grow until I can figure out what it is. Often, I know instantly (one comes to recognize regular squirrel plantings), and if it's wanted I'll either let it stay in situ, or transplant it to where it might serve a useful purpose. That's how we got several now-large privet trees, and several more are being fostered. There's also an enormous Chinaberry tree behind where we keep Porco; it grew very quickly and I was terribly happy to see it because they grew in Taiwan and I loved them there.

I've let many of these "trash" trees grow. They're most of what makes this garden accidental. But I like them because they're free, well adapted to the climate, and up until the February storm, could withstand most weather conditions. Ever since everything started leafing out, though, we've waited for two of the largest privet groups and the Chinaberry to show signs of life, and they finally are. How much will come back waits to be seen, but at last little leaflets are showing up along major trunks and there seems to be hope.

There's a great deal of talk in the UK about "rewilding," the large-scale "restoring and reinstating as wide a range of natural processes, habitats and missing species as possible." (The quotation is from the link.) It's designed to mitigate the problems caused by climate change, land degradation, over-grazing, and other byproducts of human interaction with the environment. There is some silliness attached to the conversation about what all this means (it does not refer to our returning to hunting and gathering), but the basic notion of not concentrating all of our efforts on controlling nature is attractive to those of us who would just rather not mess with Mom. 

Besides that, in my vocabulary, "accident" is a pretty expansive notion. It can refer to something that happens unintentionally (as with bird-planted Chinaberry trees), but it can also describe the kind of serendipity that occurs at a plant nursery when one chooses without a list. Inspiration can be accidental, as when one is confronted with a pile of logs and decides to create a memorial garden out of it for a beloved dog. Or the logs can be stacked to form an enclosure for a seating area and a habitat for small critters.

Mind you, I am well aware that my little suburban enclave is far from truly wild. Once upon a time it was blackland prairie. And then it was "tamed." It's been in and out of more or less wildness ever since we moved in. The pesticides and chemical fertilizers have been gone for twenty years, and the very large and nasty corrugated fiberglass "compost" bin that occupied the back corner of the garden (apparently designed to hold schnauzer poo) has been disposed of. There are numerous organic mulch piles, a hugelkulture mound, and two inoffensive compost bins, situated around the property for reusing as much of the plant trimmings as possible (and for avoiding food waste, which we've largely eliminated). 

What Macfarlane's book has added to my experience of our little patch is the urge to look even more closely at what's going on, especially under the trees, and the mulch and leaf litter surrounding them. Only last week I discovered that wildflower seeds I had arbitrarily (although not accidentally) scattered in one spot had produced several little baby blue-eyes--natives of California, as well as Texas. So yesterday I cleared away a heavy layer of leaves from another spot and tipped onto it several decades-old packets of various wildflower mixtures. No doubt, little will come of it. But even one tiny surprise will be worth it--and will have given me something to do with all those old packets.

The Virginia Creeper, which blew into the yard many years ago is now threatening to envelope the whole property--including a very large pecan tree. But it helps hide the ugly fence next door in summer, so there is that.

I'll continue meandering about the garden and documenting progress  (of things both accidental and purposeful) in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, I'll get back to Underland.

Image notes: The first photo is of the southwest corner of the property that we neglected due to heavy teaching loads. It was actually full of wonderful things that have since found homes elsewhere in the garden. This section has been cleared, the hackberry taken down (but accidental replacements have grown up outside the fence line), and a TBS built a driveway for our Shasta ("Lola") and later our Retro ("Porco Rosso"). Porco was featured in the Lake Mineral Wells post. Lola appears in the background of this photo, and our much-missed dogs Woody and Arlo in the foreground.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: Travel in Troubled Times

Lake Mineral Wells from Penitentiary Hollow Overlook
To celebrate our newly vaccinated status, The Beloved Spouse, the Adventure Girls, and I recently took our retro canned ham, Porco Rosso, for a mid-week getaway to Lake Mineral Wells State Park. We're still masking in public, although we're no longer topping N-95 masks (made in Fort Worth) with the cute Studio Ghibli Porco Rosso and Totoro masks we bought through Etsy. Just the Ghibli masks now, mostly to send a message, and to prevent inadvertent spreading around of bugs that might be emitted by others. Traveling responsibly nowadays requires both following pandemic mitigation procedures--and preventing as much environmental degradation as possible.

As I've often whinged about on this blog, we are decidedly ambivalent about where we live, but one thing I can say for Texas, it has some splendid State and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers parks. To help us come to terms with what seems to be a permanent situation, we decided last year to begin visiting these oases whenever possible. So in January of 2020, just as the Plague was descending upon Occupied Mexico, we found Palmetto State Park near(ish) Austin (the subject of my last Earth Day post), and in October we celebrated TBS's birthday at Lake Benbrook, just outside of Ft. Worth. This time we decided it would be nice to revisit a park I hadn't seen in about thirty five years, and that he had never visited at all. It's also only a short distance away, which is always good for our patient girls--especially Molly (the cat), who is the best traveling feline I've ever encountered, but doesn't like been cooped up forever. So, an hour and a half travel time means no food or potty stops for anyone, and a good long snooze for the animals.

We arrived by around three in the afternoon, got set up, and Nylah got a nice introductory walk. The campsite (in the Live Oak Campground) was wonderfully private, and the weather--although pretty windy--was fine, and we settled in well. We spent the better part of four days there (three nights), and saw gorgeous buzzard ballets every evening, lovely sunsets, frolicking rabbits, deer, geese, herons, egrets, myriad songbirds (a pair of cardinals lived at the campsite), and a few million (it seemed) oak leaf rollers or cankerworms floating on long strands from the live oaks. Every time we went out, we came back with several little inchworms clinging to various parts of both humans and pets.

Molly finally decided to use her new harness and get out of Porco for a couple of walks. She has been reluctant to emerge from the trailer, but we got her a new harness recommended by one of the RV people we watch who also travels with pets. This seems to be more comfortable than the previous attempt, and it's easier to get on and off her.  She also spent some time in the catio TBS made for her out of her old travel crate (a large screened dog crate we used for her in the old Wrangler, but replaced with a crash-tested, smaller carrier when we got the Gladiator).

The trailer itself attracts a fair amount of attention from passers-by because it's far smaller than most of the rigs we've seen in the parks we've visited. At only 20 feet, it looked somewhat out of place among the 35+ foot fifthwheels and gigantoid motorhomes occupying most of the nearby spaces. It's also really cute, with simple red and white trim, the Retro's retro logo, and its canned ham profile. It also doesn't have any swirls or other trim typical of many RVs on the market these days. We know, because we watch an embarrassing number of YouTube videos about what's new on the market. In general, European RVs are much nicer looking and more cleanly designed than those in the US, but there are a few exceptions, and the recent trend toward nostalgic travel trailers first offered us the re-issued Shasta Airflyte, and then the Retro. 

Here's where the Earth Day meditation comes in. One might fairly ask how, if we're so environmentally conscious, we can justify using up all that gas to pull a largish vehicle with a Jeep truck? Why aren't we driving a more fuel-efficient car and sleeping in a tent, or in one of the shelters provided by many of these parks?

Several reasons come to mind. One is the animals. We don't have anyone who can look after them, and since they were both abandoned by previous "owners," we're not happy about boarding them. And while we could probably make do with a smaller Jeep and a teardrop, it would be a tight squeeze for two adults, a 75 lb. dog and a 20 lb. cat. Tents would be a bit flimsy in some camping situations where one or both of them might start feeling territorial, so we chose a small-ish trailer with a bunkhouse layout (hence the two windows at the rear) so the cat could have some room for exercise.  Of course we moon over Airstreams and the new InTech Terra Oasis, with all their space and windows, but we are trying to minimize the footprint. And 20 feet is about all we can park in our hand-built driveway. What doesn't show in the photo is the solar array we used to power the trailer when it was sunny out (thus not using the shore-power), even though we had paid for a 50 amp hookup (we only use the 30 amp plug when we are using the park's power). 

TBS is keeping his eye on the progress of electric vehicles capable of towing Porco. Jeep is even making noises about a hybrid Gladiator, which we'd be happy to trade ours in on at some point. I should also mention that we don't fly, so there's that. I've developed a ridiculous phobia and haven't been on a plane since 2004--even though both of my parents were pilots. But that does keep us grounded, and long trips require careful planning and slower paces. It also gives us a chance to visit beautiful places and to spend time enjoying the scenic wonders of the American west.

I should also probably point out that while we're traveling as conscientiously as we can, we're also generating very little waste. We recycle everything in the trailer that we do at home, and even keep a compost bag in the freezer to hold whatever little food waste we generate. Our total trash output for the four days we were camped amounted to one tiny biobag with a few unrecyclable scraps of paper and odd bits of refuse. All of the recyclables went into a bag to be taken home to our municipal blue bin. 

When we make our big trip out west next fall, we'll map out recycling centers ahead of time, and make use of family compost bins when we can. Meals will be carefully planned so that we eat up everything we make, and have little or nothing to trash. No paper plates, no plastic forks, no styrofoam cups. We'll use as little propane as we can (we have portable electric induction cooktop), and take advantage of dispersed camping sites when available and accessible--and where we can use the solar setup.

We have noticed that many of the RV folks we watch on YouTube are manifesting interest in generating less waste and are making increasing use of solar power, so it may well be that climate change is raising awareness in the sphere of recreational travel.

When I think back on my earliest trailer travel experience (with my grandparents to Yellowstone National Park when I was about seven), the main difference I can see is simply in the size of the rig. They had a little sixteen-foot canned ham (which was later replaced by a sixteen-foot real Shasta Airflyte in the early sixties), which had an ice box instead of a 12 volt refrigerator. There was no air conditioner, but even now we try not to use ours by not traveling during the hottest part of the year. And we can't travel in freezing weather because ours is a three-season (only) trailer. Physical limits also kept travel down in my grandparents' day. Of course, weather was rather more predictable then, and the extremes weren't as pronounced. So we adapt.

Responsible traveling in this particular climatic "moment" requires thinking, planning, and foresight, as well as finding ways to compensate for environmental impact.  What we hope we're doing is that by keeping our everyday footprint as small as possible, we can compensate for any increase that might occur while we travel--and work diligently to keep that small as well.

I opened this post with a photo of Lake Mineral Wells (like almost all the lakes in Texas, it's a reservoir), and I'll close it with one of the sunset on the first night. Have a happy Earth Day, folks. I'm hoping more people will be able to get out and celebrate this year. Things do seem rather more promising in many ways than they did last year at this time.

Sunset at Lake Mineral Wells