The Rachel Carson Reserve

Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins.

Featured Image: Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode quadrata). The Latin name Ocypode means “swift-footed.” Ghost crabs actually spend the majority of their time out of water and use fine hairs on the base of their legs to wick up water from sand to wet their gills.

This past summer I visited a part of the North Carolina coast I had yet to explore in spite of being a lifelong resident of the state. My annual week long vacation was spent on Emerald Isle which is one of three communities on one of the southern Outer Banks islands and includes Pine Knolls Shore and Atlantic Beach. There are many historic and educational sites within a brief drive including one of the three North Carolina Aquariums, Fort Macon, the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, NC and my most sought after site, The Rachel Carson Reserve.

Visiting_Rachel_Carson_9Jul09

Map courtesy of NC Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve as part of a brochure printed with grant funds provided by NOAA.

The Rachel Carson Reserve is located between the mouths of the Newport and North Rivers and directly across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. The main part of the site, just south of Beaufort, is a complex of islands which includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, Horse Island and Middle Marsh. In 1977, Beaufort residents, civic organizations and environmental groups came together and prevented the development of a resort on the reserve. The N.C. Chapter of The Nature Conservancy purchased 474 acres of Carrot Island that year. The State of North Carolina acquired Town Marsh, Carrot Island, Horse Island and Bird Shoal in 1985, with the addition of Middle Marshes in 1989. The entire reserve is 2,315 acres.

Beaufort

A view of Beaufort through the cordgrass on the reserve, replete with periwinkle, a small marine gastropod (snail) that grazes on algae and detritus on the surface of plants and on the ground. They are food for many species of crabs and terrapins.

The reserve is one of 10 sites that make up the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve. The Rachel Carson Reserve is available as a natural outdoor laboratory where scientists, students and the general public can learn about coastal processes, functions and influences that shape and sustain the coastal area. This is in keeping with the reserve’s namesake, who did research at the site in the 1940s.

Periwinkle

Closer shot of periwinkle. I am fascinated by the multiple trophic levels that exist just among the varying heights of the cord grass. Estuarine ecosystems are quite rich.

Twice-daily, tides mix fresh and salt water in the reserve and create a very favorable estuarine environment for juvenile fish and invertebrates. The reserve is rich with coastal ecosystems including tidal flats, salt marshes, ocean beach, soft bottom, shell bottom, dredge spoil areas, sand dunes, shrub thicket, submerged aquatic vegetation, and maritime forest.

Devils Walking Stick

Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa), a native shrub tree that produces berries that can be consumed by many birds and mammals but are toxic to humans.

The reserve is located within the Atlantic Migratory Flyway and more than 200 species of birds, including rare species, have been observed there. The site is an important feeding area for Wilson’s plovers in the summer and piping plovers in the winter. The shrub thicket of Middle Marsh supports an egret and heron rookery. Wildlife on the island includes river otter, gray fox, marsh rabbit, raccoon, and a herd of feral horses. Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, sea turtles, and many species of fish and invertebrates are found in the estuarine waters surrounding the site.

Indian Blanket

Beautiful Indian Blankets (Gaillardia pulchella) were all over the reserve.

I accessed the reserve by taking a guided hike with the N.C. Maritime Museum, which included a boat to the trailhead and a pick up later. The hike was led by Benjamin Wunderly, Associate Museum Curator who provided lots of good information and species identification as we moved through the different ecosystems.

Horses

The feral horse herd, easily 500 yards or more away during the time of my hike. The horses travel to the parts of the reserve not usually accessed by humans during the hours that humans are likely to visit…because horses are smart like that.

Many visitors to the reserve are curious about the approximately 30 feral horses living on the island. No one knows exactly how they came to be there and there are many theories. Horses may have been on the islands as early as the mid-eighteenth century when Carrot Island was noted on a 1733 map of Beaufort. Horse Island was noted on an 1851 Sketch of Beaufort Harbor, administered under the US Coast Survey Office, most likely named as such because there were horses there.

The feral horses became the property of North Carolina when the land was purchased in the 1980s. The main food supply for these feral horses is Smooth Cordgrass – Spartina alternaflora and the primary source of fresh water is from holes the horses dig. The Beaufort reserve’s staff oversees the horse management. Individual horses are identified, photographed and maintained. Each horse is tracked for births, general health, social habits and eventually death. Beyond the birth control program, the horse population is treated as a wild herd.

Peas

Mr. Wunderly pointing out Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum), which the horses will eat in addition to the cord grass.

While chatting with Mr. Wunderly about the horses, I expressed my affinity for such mysteries. It does this soul good to know that in my home state there is a reserve where I can visit and spend an unlimited time pondering how something domestic came to be wild. No matter how long I ponder, I will never know the answer but the wild will remain so, thanks to the good efforts of good folks who came together to protect and preserve the Rachel Carson Reserve.

Feeling the Bite of the Bark Beetle

Text and photographs by Shauna Potocky

It is shocking. That is the only relevant descriptor—even for someone who has watched the forest turn under the pressure of drought and bark beetles, day by day. The once emerald canopy of spires continues to change, shifting from vibrant green to a pale dusty green-gray and finally to a burnt umber of brown-red. Single trees turn into patches, which turn into ridges or valleys and become full drainages of standing dead Ponderosa pines.

I have watched the Sierra National Forest change day by day, week by week, over the last four years. In 2014, as California’s drought labored on in year three, forest managers and fire agencies delivered the news that we would lose nearly 40 percent of the forest that year. When winter didn’t return again, for the fourth year in a row, the sound of people’s hearts breaking was audible and everyone in the region could feel the pressure mounting. By 2015, the forest along the western slope of the Sierra, and specifically in the foothill communities of Madera and Mariposa Counties, was poised for a massive die-off. Literally, on a daily basis, I watched trees succumb to the lack of water, which leaves them defenseless to burrowing bark beetles.

In a press release, Governor Brown recently stated, “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history.” In response, the Governor’s office of California declared a State of Emergency because of the unprecedented die-off. In October of 2015, estimates indicated approximately 22 million dead trees with potential increases as the drought and beetle kill continues.

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. 

Bark beetles are opportunistic, able to take advantage of stressed and weakened trees, particularly during drought. They bore into a tree, and if the water pressure within the tree is not adequate and the tree is unable to mount its defenses to force the beetles out, they can then establish themselves, damaging the tree, which can result in its death.

This crisis of lack of water, increased wildland fires and the nearly unstoppable spread of bark beetle infestation, has made me seriously question: what good can come of all this?

California’s drought and the unprecedented tree die-off of the state’s forests may be the environmental issues needed to help people fully understand and engage in proactive and nimble resource management. As pressure increases on limited water resources, and the state’s forests succumb to the perfect storm of environmental pressures resulting in an increase of wildland fire hazards,  we need management strategies, skilled professionals and citizens poised and empowered to make decisions that will lead to long-term sustainability of resources.

In the fire scar along Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In a fire scar on the edge of Bass Lake, California. 

Management Matters

When Euro-Americans settled in the Sierra Nevada, their suppression of fires dramatically shifted the fire regime and density of biomass within the forest ecosystem. Fire had been a natural occurrence on the landscape, returning in regular intervals, which served to thin the forests and recycle nutrients by burning woody debris that had settled on the forest floor. The local tribes of the Sierra utilized fire as a tool on the landscape; they used fire to manage meadow lands, clear space around important tree species and to manage the health and production of various plants they depended on.

The western slope of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems evolved and are adapted to fire as a natural part of the landscape. Some species of plants and trees possess substances that provide them with fire resistance. In the case of the Ponderosa pine, the tree possesses, several adaptations, which include bark that sheds easily and features a crown structure that prevent them from burning or torching during low intensity fires. Alternatively, others species require fire as a necessary element of their reproduction cycle, needing fire or heat to open their cones or clear the forest floor providing space and nutrients for germinating seeds, such as Giant Sequoias.

When fire is suppressed in these ecosystems, it allows forest debris to build up and create large fuel loads under stands of trees, increasing the risk of large, hot wildland fires such as the Rim Fire or the Rough Fire—as observed in recent years in the Sierra Nevada.

Fire suppression also allows the forests to become overgrown, with large numbers of trees in densely packed areas, forcing them to compete for resources such as light and water. In these densely packed stands, trees become more susceptible to stress and disease—consider the analogy of children with a cold virus all in one classroom—when in contained spaces or areas, it is much easier to spread an illness, or in the case of bark beetles, an infestation.

Low water levels, dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Low water levels and dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. 

What the drought and beetle kill is creating, besides anxiety and pressure, is movement. Governor Brown stated, “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.” Today, there is significant movement as citizens launch Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, while federal and state agencies proactively address issues, reevaluate management practices and provide funding as well as resources to mitigate hazards, easing the burden of overwhelmed communities and agencies. From grassroots efforts, county participation and state and federal support, work is being done on a daily basis to address the issues, on the ground, at all levels.

Reintroducing fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads, restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads and restore natural fire regimes. 

So as I look out over the forest from where I write, and see the mix of oaks and pines. A tartan pattern of green and dead, it seems a long stretch to pull some positive parable out of this situation, yet, I honestly believe this has been a critical turning point for California. For people who seemed yet untouched by drought, fire, forest management practices, and climate change, this has been the reality check, reaching into all walks of life and emerging as the situation that is moving the needle.

We are poised to take a serious compass baring and find a new direction that inspires us to address critical issues collaboratively, engage them in a timely way and manage our resources wisely in order to minimize crises. We are better together, pulling resources and knowledge, leveraging skills and the best we each have to offer to address water use, battle the bark beetle and our old ways of thinking.

It is an unprecedented time and we need to shift the paradigm from crisis management to sustainable management; we have the resources, the knowledge and the people to do it, now we need the resiliency, political systems and backbone to make this shift, because the challenges will keep coming and together we can do better in facing them; the drought, bark beetle and resulting wildland fire hazard might just be what gets us there.

Discovering the North American Pawpaw Tree

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author's pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author’s pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The powerful forces of forest succession threaten always to engulf the 18th-century stonewalls that surround our 1770 center-chimney farmhouse. During the restoration of the house, we largely gave up trying to stem the encroachment of the surrounding forest. However, several years ago, we began in earnest to work to control that encroachment, in great part due to an alarming increase in the number of Lyme ticks in our yard, which resulted in two of our three children being positively diagnosed with Lyme disease. Reducing moist, shaded areas along the edge of a yard through tree cutting, in conjunction with short-cropping the grass and the removal of leaf litter and other detritus, is a critical component in the war on Lyme ticks (Ixodes scapularis) that has become critical to country living in the northeastern United States. I have previously written about the Lyme disease crisis—a word I don’t use lightly.

This past spring, I began cutting back saplings, creating a ten- to twenty-foot buffer along the outer edges of our stonewalls. At the same time, I began clearing and grass-seeding the inner buffer of the wall that separates our front yard from the road. When I first bought the house in 2003, I had noticed a small stand of trees along that wall that looked to be some kind of tropical ornamental that could survive New England winters. This seemed likely, given the line of Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) that lined the eastern edge of the yard. The stand on the south road-edge featured alternate broad leaves as long as sixteen inches stem to tip. They seemed conspicuously out of place amidst the maples, hickories, oaks, birches and elms that, along with eastern white pines and hemlocks, define the surrounding forest. Though I had often intended to identify this tropical oddity, I had not done so by this past spring. In the effort to clear the front wall, I began to cut the stand down, and, at the same time, began limbing an adjacent venerable eastern white pine, also a major shade source.

In the spring of 2014, to celebrate the arrival of our third child, a friend had given us a gift certificate for the annual native plant sale offered by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. As we mulled over the catalog choices, a particular fruit tree caught our attention, the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which was purported to produce a fruit similar in appearance to bananas but with a flavor and texture more akin to mango. We were intrigued and initially decided to buy a bucket sapling. We reconsidered, however, for two reasons. First, owing to years of successional encroachment, we lacked a light-sufficient, open space in which to plant it. Second, the catalog noted that pawpaw flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat. With conjured visions of a tree that mimicked, albeit on a smaller scale, the most famous of the “carrion flowers,” Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), we were reticent to plant one too close to our house and opted instead for a group of native butterfly attractors.

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw's tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw (Asimina triloba) saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw’s tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fast forward to the early summer of 2015. Having cut about half the trees of the unidentified exotic stand along our front wall, I began to rake out the carpet of leafy detritus and natural mulch that had built up beneath them over decades, unearthing the fragmentary evidence of former property owners: assorted canning jar fragments and several rusted lids, old nails, an 80s-vintage orange foam Big Mac box, assorted hardware encrusted in rust, and, most interesting of all, a faded but still-legible plastic plant nursery tag that offered the life history of and planting tips for the pawpaw tree. The light went on. Gathering a handful of brown, nickel-sized seeds scattered among the leafy debris—mystery seeds that I had noticed every fall but never investigated—I went in the house and completed a quick Google image search for “pawpaw seeds.” With that first search confirming what I expected to see, I completed subsequent searches: “pawpaw leaf,” “pawpaw flower,” “pawpaw bark,” each subsequent search adding additional confirmation. We were the proud owners of a substantial pawpaw stand, more commonly referred to as a pawpaw patch, half of which I had just cut down.

John James Audubon's rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

John James Audubon’s rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

Despite my own ignorance of the pawpaw as a native North American tree, according to an article by José I. Hormaza, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, its presence in North America was documented as early as 1541 by a member of the De Soto expedition. Hormaza likewise notes that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition relied almost entirely on wild pawpaw fruit for subsistence over several days in September of 1806. In his book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore writes of the cultivation of pawpaw trees by several Native American tribes in the pre-Columbian era, noting that tribe members “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs” likely replaced the traditional dispersal of pawpaw seeds by then-extinct prehistoric megafauna. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America (1827-1838), features the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the context of a detailed rendering of an insect-damaged pawpaw tree with a cluster of overripe fruit. Hormaza likewise notes that Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaw trees at Monticello and even sent both seeds and plants as official ambassadorial gifts to France in the late 18th century. Still, the pawpaw, as suggested by Andrew Moore’s book title, seems largely to have fallen victim to obscurity in the American public consciousness. So perhaps it should not be surprising that I could step out my front door for thirteen years, look directly at our pawpaw patch, even admire its downward-facing crimson flowers in spring, and remain ignorant of its natural history. Still, I am a bit surprised given my predilection to wanting to be able to identify the species of all kinds that occupy our woods.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author's patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author’s patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

This summer, with our pawpaw patch thinned and the pine boughs that once shaded it cut back, the more mature of our trees have produced a respectable fruit crop. As I write this, it is still too early to harvest them, but we are eager to do so in mid to late October. They certainly produced fruit in other years, as evidenced by the seeds we would turn up in our fall raking, yet never once did we notice the fruit that followed the spring flowering. This is certainly due in part to the color of the fruit being, at least in our specimens, nearly identical to their leaf color. Even now, with our new awareness, it takes careful looking to see most of the fruit. Still, our failure to see the fruit of previous summers is also just as certainly a product of the fact that we as human beings, collectively speaking, often simply do not see what we are not looking for. And I am reminded in all of this that our minds can always be more open, our senses keener, our curiosity stronger. Natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, notes, “Among the tangled weeds of the roadside or in the grassroot jungles of your own back yard, you encounter strange and incredible forms of life.” He later notes, “The more we know, the more we see; our adventures increase with knowledge.” When we are suddenly struck by our lack of such knowledge, as I was with my “discovery” of our pawpaw patch, we can be critical of our own ignorance, or, instead, we can be grateful for the rich and unquantifiable range of knowledge that is offered to us by the natural world. I choose the latter.

Finding Refuge

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill Cranes and other species find refuge at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

by Shauna Potocky

The morning is damp and cool—not cold, just wet and cool. A thick blanket of Central Valley tule fog keeps the Merced Wildlife Refuge in a dream like state of obscurity. In the gray mist the voices of thousands of birds rise in the morning air. Only a few Whitefaced Ibis, Pintail ducks, Cinnamon Teals, and Northern Shovelers are seen on the edge of the wetland as the fog begins to lift and the sun rises.

Pintail Ducks and more stand at the water line as the fog breaks.

Pintail Ducks and company preen in the emerging sunlight as the fog breaks. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Today, what the fog is hiding is substantial. As California emerges from January with hardly any precipitation, it is clear that the historic drought that California is experiencing is set to continue into a fourth year. With it will come significant challenges—exacerbating last year’s remarkable issues. From critical and hard decisions regarding water allocations to agriculture, wildlife refuges, and rivers with native fish runs. To addressing tree mortality estimated at 40 percent in some areas of the state as well as having faced a prolonged fire season, with no shortage of extraordinary and fast moving wildfires.

Taking action, California is now employing significant steps to address the ongoing drought and provide for both human use and environmental needs. In November, California voters approved Proposition 1, which allocates $7.5 billion via a bond measure for water programs, projects and restoration. The proposition addresses seven key areas: Regional Water Reliability; Water Storage Capacity; Water Recycling; Groundwater Sustainability; Safe Drinking Water; Flood Management; Watershed Protection and Ecosystem Restoration.

Specifically, the proposition focuses on expanding and diversifying water resources and management options. It is clear that one method of water management cannot address the needs of the entire state. Thus, the goal is to diversify water collection and storage, protect and correct current water quality issues—primarily in disadvantaged communities where water pollution is a major issue. In addition, efforts will be made restore ecosystems and river functions and address both short and long-term water needs.

The importance of water has grabbed the attention of representatives, business owners, farmers, public land managers, and citizens. Collectively, the people of California are taking a forward-thinking, diverse approach to address another record-breaking dry year. Of course there may not be consensus on all the initiatives, yet it seems clear a diverse approach will offer more potential solutions than a narrow focus.

Faced with today’s water realities in California, a proactive forward-thinking approach is needed to address these challenges.

Habitat that received water despite overall reduced wildlife refuge water allocations.

Habitat that received water despite reduced water allocations. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

One example of proactive management includes the actions and planning of California’s Wildlife Refuge managers in addressing the dry conditions of this winter’s migratory season. Many planned for a large influx of migratory birds in December and January based on reports of a productive breeding season in the northern habitats of Alaska and Canada. With refuges situated along the Pacific Flyway, it was critical that managers provided habitat for migratory species, despite the drought conditions, which serve as resting and feeding grounds as the birds move through California.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Faced with reduced water resources, wildlife refuges have concentrated water in critical habitat.  Many California refuges received only a portion of their normal water allotments, making strategic management of the wetlands essential. In addition, visitor use activities have been limited including hunting and tours at various locations. Although difficult for bird enthusiasts, it is a good reminder that the refuges are for the birds. They represent only 5 percent of the remaining historical habitat in California’s Central Valley.

A Whitefaced Ibis forging on a mild winter day.

A Whitefaced Ibis forges on a mild winter day in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

As the fog lifts on this winter day, the Sandhill Cranes begin to dance for their partners. The Ross’ Snow Geese rise in great loud clouds of movement and the reeds that frame the wetlands shimmer with the flutter of Redwing Black Birds—their songs as sharp as their brilliant red and yellow shoulders. With the receding fog, we are reminded that as resources like water become scarce, we are all pressed to be wiser and more forward thinking in our planning, use and conservation.

The fourth year of California’s drought is the perfect time to examine how water is allotted, conserved, and protected. Although facing significant challenges, California is also perfectly poised to embrace responsible, innovative, and robust water planning and management. Its success is critical. Frankly put, citizens, wildlife and ecosystems are depending on it, as California seeks its own refuge during a paradigm-shifting drought.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the wildlife refuge comes to life as the morning breaks.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the refuge comes to life just after daybreak. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

Surrounded by Fire Part 2: Building Resilient Communities

Text and photographs by Shauna Potocky and Kirk Keeler.

On Monday, August 18, 2014 all the meetings, planning, and preparation paid off. Just days before, on Friday, August 15, 2014, I posted an article entitled Surrounded by Fire, which explores fire ecology in the Sierra Nevada, fire-related issues facing California foothill communities and ways to build resilient communities in the face of ecological challenges.

This is an immediate update to that article. An update that I hope inspires you to prepare now for whatever evacuation you might need to be ready for, whether that be for a fire, earthquake, snowstorm, hurricane, or flood–you pick, based on your bioregion.

I arrived home from working in the field on Monday afternoon, August 18. It was another hot, dry summer day on the western slope of the Sierra and I was finishing emails and computer work when I began to hear sirens. The emergency response sounded significant, as if building to a crescendo, so I turned on the police scanner, a free application I had downloaded onto my smart phone. The response was for a fast moving fire that had begun in the town of Oakhurst, California, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The fire was located on the other side of town and a significant distance from where I live, yet it was close enough to pay attention to, considering the current fire conditions in California.

I do not recall how long it took before I could see smoke from my desk. What I do know is that it did not take long. The air filled with the smell of fire and I went outside to look at how close it might be. I could see a mix of black, brown and white plumes to the west. Listening to the scanner, it was evident the fire was building, air tankers were being called in and a full-scale response was in action. The fire was making a fast and furious run through town.

Smoke rising from the Junction Fire, which had become visible from the authors home office.

Smoke rising from the Junction Fire, which had become visible from the author’s home office.

The incident, known as the Junction fire, was exhibiting aggressive fire behavior. The fire itself was burning extremely hot with large flame lengths rising above the burning trees and brush as well as spotting (sending embers) well in front of the fire. With the extreme drought conditions, the vegetation acted as a fully receptive fuel, which enabled the fire to move quickly uphill—essentially the fire was racing through town. It moved through neighborhoods, business areas and the edge of foothill wood and grasslands, all of which are located adjacent to Highway 41. Then, as a shock to many, the fire jumped a wide section of highway, making a run down a drainage and coming up the other side. It crossed where businesses and homes are located, and some of these were lost.

This is when the planning paid off.

Evacuation calls and email messages via the reverse 911 service were popping up on my email as well as my personal and work phones.

Having a plan made evacuating fast and efficient. The author evacuated with seven animals and critical items.

Having a plan made evacuating fast and efficient. The author evacuated with seven animals and critical items.

If your area has a reverse 911 system and you need to sign up for emergency alerts—do it TODAY. Do it now, don’t wait, just do it now. Having this system in place can make a significant difference in your being prepared for, and responding to, an emergency.

If your community does not have a reverse 911 system, call your local law enforcement, fire agency and local representatives and tell them that you want one.

Air Attack responding to the Courtney Fire.

Air Attack responding to the even more recent Courtney Fire. The DC-10 is a critical resource in responding to wildfires. Photogrph by Kirk Keeler.

The dark calico smoke was building, the hum and buzz of spotter planes could be heard circling and the daylight began to take on an ominous orange hue. With this began a series of calls between neighbors—our community group communication plan was now in action. Everyone was checking in with each other and making sure people had places to go, that we knew where people were going and assisting neighbors that needed help.

This is a testament to knowing your neighbors. It takes a team to handle some of the big things life throws at us and we cannot always manage alone. Get to know your neighbors now; you will know whom you can team up with. Share your contact information, build a sense of community, make a plan in case of emergencies and help each other.

You may also find that in an emergency, you suddenly have to be flexible, adaptable or a solution finder. This happened to us. The fire, which was now located south of us, was coming towards our neighborhood. The major highway was closed below our neighborhood, essentially cutting off the route to the designated emergency shelters. Thus, evacuating to the shelters was not feasible. We had to figure out another plan.

A small number of neighbors designated a meeting location north of our neighborhood and secured temporary overnight accommodations with our pets and belongings in tow. For as stressful as an event like this can be, we were calm, organized and adaptable, which made all the difference.

Resources from CalFire that were distributed at a neighborhood meeting prior to fire season, in order to help the community be prepared for a tough summer.

Resources from CalFire that were distributed at a neighborhood meeting prior to fire season. The materials were utilized, thus helping the community be prepared for a tough summer and long fire season.

During the entire incident, the neighborhood community group that I referred to in Surrounded by Fire stayed in contact. We were checking in and sharing information, discussing what people knew from their vantage point, as well as debating what information was credible and what was rumor. It is true, that when an incident is occurring and lots of information is circulating, some of it may or may not be accurate. For example, what time evacuation orders might be lifted, how the fire started or what families or business may have been directly effected. Sometimes, the information just needs time to be vetted by the proper agencies. The most important part, though, was that we were communicating and we knew we had each other to count on.

Once the evacuation orders were lifted, our group followed up on our communication plan. We shared information, made updates and added resources to our toolbox. Of course we swapped stories and added many more neighbors to the community group. We had people asking to be included and offering to be an active part of being prepared, as a neighborhood. This perhaps is the greatest sign of success for such a collective effort.

Resources that make all the difference:

  • Reverse 911: this service is critical for alerting residents that there is an emergency and how to respond to it. At our annual neighborhood meeting, a special focus was put on making sure neighbors had signed up for this service. Neighbors, who needed assistance signing up, received that support.
  • Our larger community has two established Facebook pages for incidents, where literally thousands of people can stay up to date on important information. If your community faces seasonal or ongoing threats, a Facebook group page can be a powerful tool to communicate critical information to a significant number of people, quickly. Where I live, this is the go-to tool during incidents.
  • In addition, there are free police scanners both for the Internet and for smart phones. When an incident is occurring, this is an important way to monitor information AND I can guarantee, it will build your respect for the hard work Emergency Services personnel provide.
  • Be sure to become familiar with the emergency services in your area. Be aware of your law enforcement, fire, and other agencies, and check to see if they have Facebook pages or other information hubs where they post incident updates. It is great when you can get the information you need directly from the source.
  • Finally and most importantly—BE PREPARED. I cannot stress this enough—you will be better off and relieved when the pressure is on and everything you need is ready to grab and go. You need to have a plan and be ready to follow it. Be prepared and be ready to go because when it does happen, it happens really fast! It can feel chaotic and you won’t have time to dally and think about what to grab.
  • Take time to think it through and put your grab-and-go items together. Do you have children, pets or are you a caregiver? Think about what you need to get through at least 1 – 2 days away from home, along with your must have items. Prepare them.

Items prepared for a possible evacuation.

Items prepared for an evacuation.

Over the course of the week following the Junction fire, I heard heartbreaking stories from people who did not have a chance to grab what they needed or wanted. People left with only the clothes on their backs or never had the chance to grab their house paperwork or that special photo. In these cases, one is left with no choice but to wait and see—and that is the hardest part.

A portion of the Junction Fire on the west side of Highway 41 in California.

A portion of the Junction Fire on the west side of Highway 41 in California. The fire line was held utilizing Air Attack, bulldozer lines and fire crews on the ground, all of which helped reduce the number of lost structures during the incident.

We all face challenges where we live. Here in the foothill communities and throughout the Sierra Nevada, fire is a part of the ecosystem and our lives. Wildfire is a reality we constantly face.

You may live in a remarkable place with a completely different paradigm of ecological factors and challenges; perhaps it is hurricanes on the East coast or in the Gulf, perhaps it is blizzards and ice storms in the Northern latitudes or earthquakes, such as along the Pacific Rim.

Regardless of the hazard, being prepared will make facing such challenges easier. The better prepared you are, the better you will feel when you actually have to use your emergency plan or if you are evacuated and find that you have everything or nearly everything, you need.

Thank you signs can be found lining the streets throughout Oakhurst, California.

Thank you signs can be found lining the streets throughout Oakhurst, California following the Junction Fire.

Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photograph taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.

Featured image: 9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc.

Planting Trees is a TREAT

treeplantingPlanting trees with TREAT in 2014

Text and photographs by Jenna Gersie

Five years ago, I visited the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland to learn about the rainforest through the School for International Training’s semester abroad in Australia. Our professor asked us if we would prefer to spend our last day in the rainforest hiking or planting trees. Amongst the fourteen students in my group, the decision to plant trees was unanimous. We headed to a property where a planting site had been prepared in the red, muddy soil, with native rainforest tree seedlings laid out next to holes dug in the earth. We moved down the rows, putting the baby trees in the soil and packing the dirt tightly around their thin trunks. We had joined another group of students from the School for Field Studies, as well as many community members who volunteer with TREAT, or Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands.

I didn’t know much about TREAT when I planted with them in 2009, other than that it was a fun day, kneeling in the red mud and putting trees into the ground. The chance to plant trees was especially meaningful after spending the previous ten days learning about rainforest composition, disturbance, reforestation, and wildlife. While I was proud of my small contribution on that day, I certainly did not imagine that I would return to the Atherton Tablelands in 2013 as a staff member for the School for Field Studies, the other group we had met at the planting, and make volunteering with TREAT a weekly occurrence.

Early upon my return to Australia, I visited the Lake Eacham nursery, operated under a partnership between TREAT and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), to bring my group of School for Field Studies students to volunteer. When I introduced myself at morning tea (also known as smoko) and told the other volunteers that I had planted trees with TREAT in 2009, their faces lit up with pride. Their smiles at that moment were something I would encounter again and again, on Friday visits to the nursery and on Saturday morning tree plantings throughout the Tablelands. If the chance to put trees in the ground and the tasty post-planting barbeques weren’t enough to keep calling me back to TREAT, the friendliness I encountered within that community undoubtedly was.

TREAT was founded in 1982 by local community members who recognized a need to plant native rainforest trees on the Tablelands. The Tablelands were once completely covered with beautiful, native rainforest, but when land was opened to settlers in the late 1800s, there was a requirement to clear and cultivate the land as a condition of occupancy. Much of the rainforest turned to farmland, and giant rainforest trees were felled at a rapid rate. In the early 1980s, protest movements to protect the remaining rainforest, such as blockading logging trucks, began. Enough passionate people got together to ensure that the remaining rainforest would be protected, and in 1988, the Wet Tropics received World Heritage Area protection. That protection, combined with a grassroots effort to reforest the Tablelands, has meant that mature rainforests are returning to the Tablelands.

Furthermore, the community effort that led to the founding of TREAT is backed by science. Community members work with QPWS and rainforest ecologists to connected isolated, fragmented habitat to larger tracts of rainforest. With landscape disturbance from cyclones and the degradation of forest fragments from weed invasion and other disturbances, it is important to connect these high-value systems of forest for the long-term health of the environment.

One example of this type of work is found at Donaghy’s Corridor near Lake Barrine. This wildlife corridor links forest at Crater Lakes National Park with Gadgarra State Forest. Plantings began in 1995, and after 18,000 trees were put into the ground along 1.5 kilometers, the corridor connected the forests in 1998. The work done to create this wildlife corridor was among the leading tropical restoration work in the world at the time. And TREAT didn’t stop there; they’ve been creating these types of forest linkages all over the Tablelands ever since.

One of the main reasons to create these wildlife corridors is to support the amazing floral and faunal diversity of the Wet Tropics. A starring character of this diversity is the Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo, also known as the mabi in the local Aboriginal dialect. Because of these unique and rare creatures, the rainforests in the area have come to be known as Mabi Forest, though they are more scientifically characterized as Complex Notophyll Vine Forest. Reforestation efforts in the area have also led to sightings of the Southern Cassowary, a large, flightless bird who survives on rainforest fruits.

Lumholtz Tree-kangaroo in habitat

To support Australia’s native wildlife, TREAT members turn up at the Lake Eacham nursery every Friday morning to take care of seedlings, extract seeds from rainforest fruit, pot plants, and plant seeds. During smoko, announcements are shared, QPWS gives updates on their fruit-gathering efforts, community members share their exciting wildlife sightings, and tea and cake are enjoyed by all. During the wet season, TREAT members and volunteers meet every Saturday morning on various landholders’ properties to plant hundreds to thousands of tree seedlings. Following each planting, volunteers on the cook crew provide sausages and lentil burgers for the hungry planters. I would give a great deal to again be sharing a cuppa with Tablelands community members after planting trees on a misty morning, red dirt still under my fingernails.

To learn more about TREAT, please visit their website, or watch a short documentary, Wet Tropics – Restoring Communities, here. You can also read about Donaghy’s Corridor and other projects here.

tree3Planting trees with TREAT in 2009

Featured image: Plastic guards protect these seedlings from herbivory by pademelons.

Surrounded by Fire

KKeelerElPortal

El Portal fire in July 2014 by Kirk Keeler

There are few elements, few phenomena that can inspire long talks of life and philosophy beside a hearth, fill a home with warmth and ambiance, or suddenly take one by surprise—instilling fear or dealing a blow of heartbreak. It is most certainly true that there are few elements in the world that can do what fire can do.

In California and along the western coast of the United States, a surge in wildland fires is being observed—not just in their numbers, but also in their intensity. It is hard to imagine that after most of the United States spent the majority of its winter pinned down due to record freezing temperatures and stunning winter snowfall—that much of the west did not share in the bounty of the Polar Vortex winter, specifically, its water.

In fact, California is experiencing a record drought—with some of the hottest temperatures on record, experienced throughout the state in the last three years. And this is one part of an intricate story that actually began, “A long, long time ago…”

In California, and specifically in the Sierra Nevada, many of the forest ecosystems evolved with fire as an important aspect of their natural processes. Some species of trees, shrubs and flowers actually depend upon fire as a part of their natural history or thrive after disturbance by fire.

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Smoke from the Rim Fire in August 2013 reached the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias a significant distance away. Photo by Kirk Keeler

The natural fire cycle within the Sierra Nevada was due in most part to lightning strikes and appears to have occurred in five to ten year spans of time. This frequency of fire occurrence served several key ecological purposes. First, it prevented significant fuel build up on the forest floor—in a forest, trees drop limbs, needles, leaves, cones, and other woody debris, grasses die and this results in an accumulation of materials that can fuel a fire. Thus, this material is commonly referred to “fuel” or “fuel loads.”

Second, with frequent fire and reduced fuel loads within the forests, when fires did occur the fire intensity was lessened, meaning it did not burn as hot or with as much severity as we experience today. The terms “intensity” and “severity” are key when discussing fire behavior. These terms help fire officials and land managers understand the implications of a fire on a particular landscape.

Another benefit of fire on the landscape is the recycling or release of nutrients back into the ecosystem. Often forest duff or debris is rich in carbon, nitrogen or other elements that are locked up and unusable until the material decomposes and can be reused through natural processes either in soil, through living organisms, in the air or taken up by animals. When a low intensity fire moves through a landscape it can release these nutrients, making them available to be taken back up into the ecosystem.

Thus, fire is a healthy and natural part of forest ecology in the Sierra Nevada but, you may be asking yourself, “What happened? That doesn’t sound like the fires I see today.”

That’s a great question.

When Euro-Americans settled in the American west, they brought a cultural perspective with them that changed the landscape we live in today. The perspective at the time and which can sometimes still be observed today, is that fire is—take your pick—“bad,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and the list goes on.

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El Portal fire at sunset. Photo by Shauna Potocky

This perspective is very one-sided, human-sided, yet, it is understandable how and why people felt this way. One example to consider is how many times the City of San Francisco burned down prior to having a dedicated and established water resource. There are countless examples of fire being seen as thoroughly destructive.

The result of this cultural norm is that as people settled in forested areas of California, when fire did occur, it was suppressed—put out. This single act, of suppressing fires for decades, turned into accumulations of generations of trees and shrubs and subsequently shifted the fire regime in these ecosystems. Today, many of the forests in the Sierra Nevada are overgrown. The trees are crowded and densely packed and have significant fuel loads residing beneath them.

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Rim Fire at night with stars. Photo by Kirk Keeler

Last summer, the Rim Fire jarred everyone to attention. From private citizens, land owners, public lands managers, fire professionals, ecologists, wildlife biologists, restoration experts, researchers, politicians and many, many more. On August 17, 2013 the Rim Fire began in the Stanislaus National Forest. This fire grew to become the third largest in California history and involved 257,314 acres. The fire was so massive its plumes could be seen in the Central Valley communities of Fresno and Merced. It burned with various levels of intensity and severity, resulting in various impacts on the landscape and subsequently the viability of the soil.

The fire also generated its own weather, creating pyro-cumulus clouds. It was nothing short of stunning.

French Fire Pyro-cumulus cloud as observed during July 2014.

French Fire pyro-cumulus cloud beginning to form during July 2014. Photo by Shauna Potocky

The Rim Fire burned into October 2013. Upon reaching areas of the forest where active fire management strategies had been put in place, such as management fires to reduce fuel loads or areas where forests have been thinned, the fire was slowed and burned with less intensity. Thus, demonstrating the value of proactive fire management strategies.

Fast forward to today. California is another year into its significant drought—perhaps the most severe in California’s recorded history. Communities are struggling to manage water resources, reservoirs are shockingly low, and California’s forests are drier than they were last year—it seems we are in a remarkably challenging place.

SPotockyPachecoPass

San Luis Reservoir at Pacheco Pass, California. Note the “bathtub ring” which indicates previous water levels. Photo by Shauna Potocky

And where there is a significant challenge, there is also a significant opportunity.

In one small community, situated on the edge of the Sierra National Forest and between the recent El Portal (4,689 acres) and French Fire (13,835 acres), something remarkable happened. These neighbors came together and utilized this intense fire season as an opportunity to do a few empowering things.

First, they got together to build a community of support, to ask and answer questions. They learned first-hand about where they live, the natural fire ecology of the landscape they live in, and the current fire regime shift. They learned how to minimize their fire hazards, how to live more in alignment with the native ecosystem and how to conserve water in order to use it where it is really needed. They also went further.

These citizens empowered themselves—by embracing each other as a neighborhood, as a team. So, instead of living in fear, they can be mindful of how to live in the landscape as well as be prepared. The community created a communication strategy to share information and look out for each other. They have meetings featuring experts in their field who have knowledge of the neighborhood landscape and can provide real input on what people need to know. They are seeking out opportunities to create their own Fire Safe Council and most importantly, they also help each other. When one neighbor needs a hand with fire clearance or hauling, they get to work helping each other.

SPotockyFireDanger

Current status of fire hazard is posted daily. Photo by Shauna Potocky

As many communities in California sit surrounded by fire, holding their breath as the last weeks of the California fire season eek by, there are things that can be done—it is an opportunity for citizens to learn and engage in the important aspects of fire ecology, to understand the historic role of fire on the landscape and the factors that have created the dynamics we see today, as well as understand important elements of fire behavior. It is also a time to empower people to come together to learn about their local ecosystems, deepen their sense of place by learning how to live in those ecosystems, as well as seek and support management strategies that will reduce fuel loads and return fire to the ecosystem—such as through prescribed or management fire.

In the long term, management strategies that help restore balance to forests ecosystems and embrace our understanding of fire ecology will also protect natural and cultural resources, wildlife, people and property. Ultimately, it will take every single one of us doing our part to help empower shifts in our historic ways of thinking.

Who knew fire could be so inspiring?

Resources:

CalFire: Wildfire is Coming Guide

CalFire: Fire Safe Council

Incident Information System (InciWeb): Current incidents

Every Path Leads Homeward

By Jenna Gersie

In August 2013, I spent about a week at home in northwest New Jersey, preparing for my ten-month stay in Far North Queensland, Australia. In between packing a year’s worth of my life into two suitcases, saying goodbye to friends and family, and taking care of the necessary doctor appointments and financial arrangements, I had some time to part with the oak and hemlock forests that I love, the Turkey Vultures soaring on broad wings above, and the beautiful late summer light that makes Sussex County so special to me.

In recent years, as I’ve begun to study my home place from an academic standpoint, I have grown more attached to my rural region of New Jersey, one of the places that give the state the nickname “The Garden State.” The more time I spend away from the place I grew up, the more it feels like “home” to me.

But I was off on a journey; I was returning to a place I had lived for a short while nearly five years before. In 2009, I studied abroad in Cairns, Australia, and connected with the rainforests and coral reefs of that region. In 2013, when my final flight from Sydney to Cairns approached land, my heart sang as I saw the rainforest-covered mountains that lined the coast. I felt like I was coming home.

Australia began to feel more and more like home to me as I got to know the community—human and non-human—of the Atherton Tablelands, about an hour’s drive from Cairns. I planted hundreds and hundreds of rainforest tree seedlings with TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands). I was welcomed to country by Aboriginal community members both on the Tablelands and down on the coast. I became friends with the locals, learned to identify the birds, and grew accustomed to the relentless terrestrial leeches.

IMG_0164The Atherton Tablelands

And while I was in Australia, I began to explore the meaning of “home” through the novels of Hermann Hesse. I had discovered that many of Hesse’s characters left the places where they had grown up to embark on journeys of self-discovery, only to later return to their homes or other places with which they had connected along the way. There I was, having returned to a place that I had explored five years before, and examining the actions of these characters and their own connections to nature and place.

For many of Hesse’s characters, a sense of homesickness pervades their feelings as they travel away from their homelands. Peter Camenzind misses the lake and mountains of his native place; Goldmund thinks often of the old chestnut tree and cloister walls of the place he spent the second half of his childhood; Knulp imagines the gardens of his father’s house; Siddhartha returns again and again to the river of his childhood; and Hans Giebenrath daydreams of fishing by the riverside in his hometown. For me, the Black Kites had replaced the Turkey Vultures, the oaks and hemlocks were substituted by Atherton oaks and Bunya pines, and the sunset in the west shone in different colors from my rainforest porch. I thought often of home.

I also thought of the idea of “reinhabiting”—both of returning to a place one has connected with, and of getting to know that place inside and out: its streams, trees, animals, people, seasons. In LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer writes, “People who care about a place are more likely to take better care of it. And people who take care of places, one place at a time, are the key to the future of humanity and all living creatures.” By getting to know one’s life-place, one begins to care more about it, and therefore take better care of it. I knew the bleeding heart tree seedlings that I planted in Australian soil and the Pale Yellow Robins that fluttered through the trees on my way to work. I cared about them.

But now I am in the process of reinhabiting. I have left one home behind for another. Hesse wrote, “A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward…” I said goodbye to the rainforest trees that had become my home, so that I could return to my original home. Now I look out my window and see the oak trees and Turkey Vultures I had missed. Like each of Hesse’s characters who return to his home place, I have returned to my home in northwest New Jersey. I am beginning to relearn the natural history of this place as I spend time outdoors. I have put aside my Australian bird guide for a North American one. I am homesick for the Tablelands, to be sure; but I have returned to the place that knows me as well as I know it.

IMG_2437Sussex County, New Jersey

Where ever you are, you have the opportunity to connect to place—to make the place you are living your life-place, to care for that place, and in caring for it, to take better care of it. Meanings of home are ever-changing, but I believe they are founded on one thing: sense of place. How well do you know your home place? What does “home” mean to you?

Native Plants And Incidental Entymology

All text and photos by Maymie Higgins

While browsing for climbing vines and just for intellectual edification, I glanced over the plant information label for a plant I already have, Confederate Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), aka Star Jasmine. Ten years earlier, I had purchased a Star Jasmine at this very nursery, while honeymooning in Charleston, South Carolina. It grew very well on a trellis on a southern facing wall and I have even propagated more plants from cuttings. Two friends now have the vine established in their gardens from plants I gave them. But I couldn’t believe my eyes as I read the card. “Native to China?!”, I exclaimed in surprise and disbelief. I continued to shake my head and secured a wagon to haul out the six large vines I would be purchasing at Abide-A-While Garden Center in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. But this time, I would be purchasing a native plant, Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), aka Butterscotch Jasmine, aka Yellow Jasmine.

The author and her husband in front of Confederate Jasmine in Charleston, South Carolina.  Confederate Jasmine and Climbing Fig are the only two climbing ornamentals allowed around historic homes in Charleston because their vines do not damage masonry and other structures.

2005: First anniversary photo in front of Confederate Jasmine in Charleston, South Carolina. Confederate Jasmine and Climbing Fig are the only two climbing ornamentals allowed around historic homes in Charleston because their vines do not damage masonry and other structures.

As I selected six vines, an employee, a nice gentlemen in his late sixties or early seventies, approached with a smile and said, “You’re planning to cover some real estate”. I explained that thanks to the recent ice storms, I now have a sunny fence line that used to be a shaded fence line. Mother Nature downed quite a few trees in March at my house, including six Loblolly pines and five Leyland cypresses. Not to mention countless large branches that broke off and required hard pruning.

As I went on to confess my embarrassment about previously selecting a non-native plant and how it is important to select native plants to your region in order to support the native wildlife, the employee reached around in a fatherly manner and briefly squeezed my opposite shoulder. He was proud that I had learned that lesson.

Plants and animals rely on one another in many ways. Animals rely on plants for food and shelter. Many insects have very specific plant host requirements for laying their eggs and for nectar host plants for nutrition. When we plant non-native plants, we are losing an opportunity to support native wildlife. If those plants happen to be invasive, their quick propagation can begin to choke out native vegetation and create deficiencies in resources for native wildlife. Animals adapt to the local plant life over evolutionary time so it is unreasonable to expect all of them to adapt to new plants quickly enough to avoid extinction. One cannot merely replace one plant with another and expect it to provide the same support to wildlife. It is far more complicated than that.

I now have eighteen Carolina Jessamine planted along fence lines and cannot wait for the intoxicating fragrance to overtake my backyard in the future.

Yellow Jessamine leaf with native caterpillar.

Yellow Jessamine leaf with native caterpillar.

If you are interested in using only native plants in your garden, there is a great resource for determining the plants to select. Former first lady Lady Bird Johnson became concerned about the loss of our nation’s natural beauty and the fact that as much as 30 percent of the world’s native flora is at risk of extinction. So, in 1982, she and actress Helen Hayes founded what became the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in order to protect and preserve North America’s native plants and natural landscapes. In 2006, the Center became an Organized Research Unit of the University of Texas at Austin. The Wildflower Center has helped to preserve and restore the biological richness of North America and has become one of the country’s most credible research institutions and effective advocates for native plants.

If you are interested in learning more about the importance of native plants, please visit Bringing Nature Home to view a video interview with Dr. Doug Tallamy and/or read his book by the same title.

Here is my own goofy biology lesson, filmed spontaneously when I discovered a caterpillar on my right shoulder after spending time in the garden recently.  As you can see in the background, my cat Larry was not impressed.  Also, I returned the caterpillar to the plants outdoors.  If you know what this species is, please comment.