Chipmunks and Carbon Storage

Sometimes the best positive stories of the environment come from our own backyard. When you sum up the effects of millions of backyard naturalists, the positive impact is significant for the planet. The personal story I am sharing here will hopefully inspire, enlighten and encourage the development of even more backyard biophiliacs.

Last March, several trees were downed in my front yard by a heavy ice storm. Many other trees had significant loss of limbs. The clean up required a professional. Fortunately I am childhood friends with someone who married a certified arborist. He gave me a few options, when possible. One of the options was to either dig up and grind stumps for some pine trees that did not fully erupt from the Earth or to just saw them at the bottom and let them sink back into the Earth as much as possible. Two factors influenced my choice: the price to my wallet to dig and grind the stumps versus the price to the environment to dig and grind the stumps. The price for both was pretty steep.

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Conventional wisdom always chooses to make our lawns “pretty,” often with little regard to the effects of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and selection of native plant species instead of ornamental non-native plants. Non-native plants often compete with native plants and rob wildlife of hosting sights and food resources which can only be provided by native plants. Also, one man’s yard trash can be a critter’s mansion. With that in mind, I opted to keep the stumps. I can see the grove of pine trees from my home office window and enjoy watching a great variety of wildlife supporting their lives there on a daily basis. Last week, I had the joy of watching a chipmunk sunning himself on one of the stumps. Chipmunks hibernate and the cutie had emerged from the den beneath the stump on an unseasonably warm day. Smart rodent.

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Wildlife habitat was not my only motivation for keeping the stumps. If you recall the biology of photosynthesis, you know that plants absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air around them to fuel themselves. Plants store the carbon that is obtained from the break down of the carbon dioxide molecule and, in most cases, release the oxygen back into the air. Those of you with lungs probably already understand how vitally important oxygen is to all non-plant life.

Graphic from the creative commons.

Graphic from the creative commons.

When vegetation, large or small, dead or alive is made into smaller pieces through chopping, grinding, sawing, mulching or most any other type of processing, it immediately releases a large amount of carbon. Of course, vegetation naturally rots and releases carbon but much more slowly. If you consider that deforestation is occurring on a global scale, thereby decreasing the amount of trees producing oxygen, and couple that with net carbon release because of these activities, it is clearly not a sustainable practice that will support a well-oxygenated planet. When you understand this, you never look at a stump, downed tree, logging operation or old wooden furniture in the same way. In my mind, all these kinds of items have a large invisible label that reads CARBON STORAGE (open with care).

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

How can you help? Keep that old adage “think globally, act locally” in mind when you engage in lawn and gardening activities. Piles of limbs, old logs, even leaf litter can be used by many animals for many purposes. For more tips on how to make your lawn and garden friendly to wildlife, check out tips at the National Wildife Federation’s website.

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.

In Praise of Native Wildflowers

By Rebecca Deatsman

Wildflower season is in full swing here in eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. There’s always plenty of doom and gloom for anyone who follows environmental news, but sometimes it’s nice to take a step back and enjoy the beauty that’s still out there, so I thought I’d share some of the wildflower photos I’ve taken this spring.

If you’re interested in learning more about native plants like these, many areas have native plant clubs with regular meetings and field trips. This list of native plant societies around the country may help you find one near you. There are also (of course) plenty of resources available online to help with wildflower identification. I found this Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest site especially helpful when figuring out what exactly I’d been taking pictures of.

Prairie Smoke

Prairie Smoke

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Arrowleaf Balsamroot

Triteleia

Triteleia

Panicled Death-Camas

Panicled Death-Camas

Lupine

Lupine

Shooting Star

Shooting Star

Glacier Lily

Glacier Lily

Staying Home: Cultivating place-based intimacy and awareness

Sierra Ancha Mountains

Sierra Ancha Mountains

“You can’t know who you are
until you know where you are.”
~ Wendell Berry

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Hells Canyon Wilderness

In a culture of immediacy and movement, we grow up believing in the value of relocation, mobility, and change. Very few of us can say we remain in the town of our birth. Many of us can even attest to living in more cities and towns than we can count on our fingers.

Likewise, for those of us who call ourselves naturalists and adventurers, the idea of roaming the world is appealing. Exploring unknown regions and adding thumbtacks to the “places we’ve been” map becomes something of a passion, if not a genuine lifelong pursuit. I have traversed the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Mexico, in search of new experiences, the perfect vista, the unknown cave or the ideal hot spring. While exploration and curiosity contribute to a sincere interest in the environment, I question whether our jet-setting culture helps or hinders an appreciation for the natural world.

Some might argue that through intimacy a greater sense of responsibility is borne, both to the land and our neighbors. I wonder, too, if remaining faithful to place encourages depth of knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna and other bioregional characteristics. Ask most individuals the names of local mountains, canyons or forests and you will frequently get a puzzled shrug. Our lives are spent funneled from home to office, suburb to inner city. Rarely do we question what lies beyond the town’s edge, over the next ridge or in the forests behind the neighborhood boundary.

As Amanda Hooyhaas suggested in her academic work,  The Study of Placelessness: Toward a Conceptual Framework,  “Perhaps all we need to become placed in this chaotic world is to pause and breathe, though the paces of our countries, societies, and cultures attempt to dictate otherwise. Society offers little time for such necessities as place and demands like climbing the corporate ladder continue to urge us forward in a march towards placelessness.”

Is it possible to shift from this placeness way of living to embracing a place as we might  a loved one or a career?

Pinal Mountains

Pinal Mountains

Spanning the works of Yi-Fu Tuan and Gaston Bachelard to Wendell Berry and Jane Jacobs, we have come to appreciate the importance of place in urban planning and community development. Great strides have been made in retaining historic relevance, cultural influence, and green spaces in cities. But what of those spaces just beyond the areas we consider home – the landscapes that are being impacted by the pursuit of bedroom communities, OHV recreation, new freeways or solar tracks? Is it possible to re-frame our discernment of place-based intimacy and home to include areas not occupied or used by man, but paramount in their wildness and solitude?

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Over the past few years, I have felt an ever-growing need to establish a bond to the land that is wild and undisturbed. Perhaps it is reminiscent of my childhood tendency to roam beyond the boundaries of our family farm in defiance of property lines and No Trespassing signs. Perhaps it resonates from the emails my siblings send, regaling details about their organic gardens and camp-outs in yards they’ve tended since graduating from high school or college. They have stayed faithful to what – for them – has become irrevocably home. Ask any one of them, or their dutifully rooted neighbors, about the local terrain or wildlife and they will often not only have an answer but also several anecdotal accounts. This connection to the land on which one dwells is easy to understand. However, it is my hope to feel such a sense of commitment to land that is public; to places I have no monetary or personal gain other than the joy of experiencing its beauty momentarily.

I have lived within an eclectic assortment of wonder-rich ecosystems – from the Canadian Shield’s granite, lake, and conifer terrains, to the hilly hardwood forests of Southern Indiana, to my current home in the watercolor landscape of the Sonoran desert. It was once my aspiration to live in as many ecosystems as possible – to be on the move, ever absorbing more information about the earth. There is still a wanderlust that prompts me to get out and walk across the bajadas and playas of the desert, but now I find myself hungry for detail about this land in particular. That old sense of curiosity that compelled more travel now commands more clarity. I want to understand this place as I might understand my closest friend.

Hells Canyon Wilderness

Hells Canyon Wilderness

On December 31st, I made my usual list of resolutions as well as a separate list of aspirations for the year ahead. This year my aspirations list was short: to choose three public lands within a 100 miles radius of Phoenix and really get to know them. The three natural areas I selected are Hells Canyon Wilderness, a Bureau of Land Management designated wilderness area northwest of Phoenix, the Sierra Ancha Wilderness where Edward Abbey once worked as a Forest Service ranger in a fire lookout, and the Pinal Mountains Recreation Area near Globe, Arizona, a birders’ paradise.

Pinal Mountains - Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

Pinal Mountains – Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

Over the coming months, I mean to develop deeper knowledge of the unique characteristics of these special places as well as an awareness of outside threats (invasive species, recreational impacts, etc..), legislative changes affecting their management, and opportunities for habitat rehabilitation and monitoring.  Likewise, I will write extensively about the native plants, wildlife, geology, and cultural resources of these wild lands.

I believe no matter where we live, there is an opportunity to learn about the ground beneath our feet. There is a need for place-based intimacy and sharing information, stories, and impressions of our native lands. By doing this, we encourage a more meaningful connection to place – an understanding beyond ownership or financial value. It is my hope to create a true relationship with these nearby mountains, deserts, and canyons, to feel at home in the unnamed, uninhabited spaces. Home is the place you know intimately, after all, and what you know you grow to love.

***

Aleah Sato

Please welcome Aleah Sato to The Ecotone Exchange. Sato is a nonprofit professional and creative writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary and environmental journals. She is a wilderness volunteer for the Tonto National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management in her Southwestern home of Arizona. As a wildlands volunteer she assists with wilderness trail work, habitat rehabilitation, water quality sampling, and wildlife monitoring. She is a frequent contributor to Plant Healer, SageWoman and other earth- and plant-based journals and maintains her own blog, Jane Crow Journal (http://aleahsato.wordpress.com/).