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 discreet 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 our little suburban habitat recovered from more cultivated history. It also began to participate in more complete life cycle.

Before I had read any of Macfarlane's books, I was 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.

Through the many years we've lived in this house, the once certainty we can count on 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 poop) 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.

1 comment:

Tigger said...

Fabulous - and I am big on 'rewilding'. My plan for my years after formal work is to buy some uneconomical farmland in NZ and reestablish whatever native cover it might once have enjoyed. Soil protection, species diversity, carbon capture, the delight of lying on a forest floor and looking up at a canopy of leaves... I might even get that book. I know Epping Forest too.