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Courtesy of Liza Field
A working landscape: Microbes and grubs have been eating last year's leaf litter into soil — a feast for these violets. In turn, the violets are feeding the early butterflies and bees, who will be working to pollinate later crops, whose organic matter will go back to feed the soil.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Visiting my very-old friend the Mountain one recent spring evening, I was floored by glimpses of how well it all worked.
Everyone here had a creative place on the chore chart. From subterranean waters to tree-bud to buzzard, it seemed, everybody was working up supper.
It was a work not like certain unhappy, high-speed, life-flattening human endeavors, but full of slow unfolding, soaring, singing, bobbing, hopping, divine smells and the giddy joy of reunion attendees at a garden banquet. Everyone had brought something to the table.
Two chirruping songbirds, among the first migratories to arrive here from Central America, were pealing out hilarious and gleeful traveler’s tunes, while already relieving the forest trees of excess larvae and leaf-eating grubs.
They were aided in song and work by the shrill spring peepers, in the mountain bottoms, turning the puddles and grubs of the ground into high-pitched peals of music, and possibly food for …
WHOOP-wuh-HOOO! The heart-jolting, behind-your-head owl was clearly intrigued by those peepers also — perhaps planning to gig a few for a tasty, fat preprandial that twilight.
On the mountainside, it seemed a black bear had been ambling that day, also, depositing his strange, humble scat composed of (it appeared) pure-white mushrooms and black lichens and a side of rotten leaves. He was obviously not very picky this early in spring but glad to help the lowest plant matter transform inert rock into roving life.
Beetle like bugs, meanwhile, already were helping turn that scat into good soil and their glittering, mobile selves, who would in turn feed birds and toads.
Elsewhere, all over the woodland floors, more little beetles, grubs and microbes were busy chowing down on dead stuff, turning logs and acorn caps, pine straw and leaf litter into that rare “black gold” elixir of life — topsoil.
One little bat flew flappily overhead, dark against the fading sky. “Bless you,” I called, gazing a long time upward.
The bats are not faring well these days, declining from disease and the stressful imbalances of our biosphere. It is grievous, for these unappreciated, humble creatures have been highly diligent for millions of years, helping our whole planet flourish, consuming great quantities of insects and adding to that rich topsoil.
Will work for food
I could see that this mountain’s incense-heady, fibrous topsoil was in turn feeding the roots of all these unfolding plants, from mushrooms to oaks, blue mosses to blooming wildflowers.
The blossoms — of snow-sprinkle serviceberry , dogwood, wild cherry, fringe tree and the wax-white trailing arbutus, plus the yellow coltsfoot blooming raucously out of ditches, and the oak tassels high above — all were feeding spring butterflies and many sizes of bees.
Those pollinators would, in kind, help the blossoms become the fruit, seeds and nuts that would serve many four-legged walkers, crawling turtles, hopping toads and birds. Those diners would, in turn, help sow more tree-and-flower seeds in ready-pack plops of manure, across more of the mountain, for an orchard to feed the future.
From many past visits here, I knew all this joyful work would continue for months, in varying shifts.
As the present blossoms would be forming fruit, other bloomers would just be opening — blackberry, wild azalea, rhododendron, mountain laurel; then summer’s firepink, bluets and milkweed, bee-balm and yarrow and joe-pye weed, thistle and spiderwort; then white or blue autumn asters and the astonishingly late yellow-fluff witch hazels.
These would keep the pollinators fed and working till October. Late menus of fox grape, blue sassafras berry, chinquapin, acorn, hickory nut, butternut, pine nut and flabby-sweet December persimmons would then help many creatures weather the winter.
Let them eat grass?
One visit to such a thriving, cooperative ecosystem provides plenty of food for thought. It also produces wonder, joy and a bit of dismay.
Returning to a machine-loud, asphalt-and-lawn landscape, one can’t help but feel a profound, eerie absence.
Where are the creatures? The dear wildflowers? The hickories and sourwood, sassafras and serviceberry, the ancient incense of soil-restorative humus?
“I just don’t want that mess in my yard,” people will explain between roars of a life-collapsing chain saw. Down come the fruitful curtains of cherries and high arches of oaks, with no awareness of the great gifts they had brought or the other creatures they housed and fed.
Thus gone are the quivery owl cries and toads, the native and shaded creeks — even the very darkness of night that balms the tired soul and helps migrating birds to steer by the stars. The whole life-shriven flatland is illuminated like a prison yard by floodlights, and there is little mystery to feed body or soul.
Blessedly, however, an alternative movement is astir. The “edible landscape” concept (formerly called “reality”) has been attracting a small but persistent following in recent years.
Thus, that’s the direction we’ll follow as well, next column.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
Weather JournalBreather before next wintry system