Biodiversity, biodestruction

As the poems in my first collection, More Than Shelter, convey, I experienced mixed emotions about building a house and residing as human animals on a field that was in the process of reverting to wildness. It is a terrific privilege to “own” several acres of property and to dwell and raise food and children here. We have, after nearly 20 years, settled many of our challenges with the environment and its flora and fauna; and often, our lesson has been to let the environment be itself.MTS002

That means our “lawn” has largely reverted to clover and to grasses that can compete with weed seeds. That means we have meadows fore and aft and shrubby, scrubby hedgerows of mixed brush along a thin row of trees and rocks. It means we cannot entirely rid the area of invasive, non-native plants or the insects that come with them. And if a season passes without regular, careful maintenance–the environment will creep in on our living spaces very quickly.

On the other hand, a commitment to use no chemicals–or as few as possible (some exterior house maintenance requires paints and finishes that just are not environmentally-neutral) has meant that the property has good biodiversity for its size. So many kinds of avian life: scrub-loving little brown jobs, woods-dwelling owls and thrushes, turkeys, four varieties of woodpeckers, brightly-plumaged orioles, cardinals, jays, bluebirds, tree swallows, and goldfinches. Also the transient hawks, buzzards, and herons, and the grass-dwellers such as killdeer–to name a few. We are host to winterberry, serviceberry, dogwood, elderberry, nannyberry, mulberry, cherry, and wild grapes, so the wild fruit-eaters adore the place. Foxes, deer, groundhogs, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, even coyotes and possibly a black bear graze here.

They do not always stick to the margins and the flora. Sometimes they get into the trash cans or the compost heap (I once disturbed a deliriously happy raccoon sucking on a mango pit). Owls and foxes feasted on the guinea hens that refused to go back into the chicken run at night.

This description has not even gotten as far as the insect life, which is lively indeed–nor to the little bats, nor the oak trees’ flying squirrels.


For the last decade, we have been among several neighbors who worked to slow the development of about 60 acres that lies immediately east of us and extends up the last low rise of the Appalachian foothills (Blue Mountain/Great Valley section). We have had some success in limiting the development: there are now 40 acres of preserved land on the north side of the slope, and the “estates” will consist of 13 township-approved house lots instead of the initially-proposed 52.brunner

But the site preparation process has begun in earnest this summer, and each morning–an hour or so after the birds start their chorus–the bulldozers and front-end loaders rev up and begin the crash-&-bang, the delivery of large culverts made of concrete, the dump trucks with their loads of gravel, the engineered changing of swale and drainage.

We were guilty of such disruption ourselves 20 years ago, when we installed the house we love on the land we think of as our own. I try not to mourn the loss of the field next door; it was never ours to begin with, and in so many ways, neither is the property on which our house sits.

The land belongs to no one. It is earth’s. If it belongs to anything it is to the generations of dragonflies, lightning bugs, red-tail hawks, barred owls, and rotund skunks, all of which preceded our appearance here by centuries.


A break

I took a break from weeding and lay in the hammock awhile. Cloudless, breezy, equinoctial day–in no time, acorns and oak leaves hastened down to join me (nothing quite like having a large acorn ping on the forehead to remind one of the force of gravity and the inevitability of seasonal change). Hammock time is being pared away by the longer nights.

When I can be out of doors, I keep an eye out for migratory dragonflies, monarchs, flocks of robins, assemblages of chipping sparrows. Yesterday, I spied a kestrel in flight, zooming pointedly, clearly on the hunt. Today, we heard the weirdly rasping, short-stopped honks of herons, a stately pair of whom were being followed by an oddly-silent flock of crows.

smallcornsThis brief post is likewise a break for me. Post-weeding and post-hammock, I have student papers to grade and a busy work week ahead. Well, that’s what happens in the fall! I may as well be ready for it.

In the meantime, specific observations from the hammock or the back porch may act as feeder streams for future poems.

Swarms of dragonflies

September pretty much ushers in the season of southward migrations. I have already noticed some gathering and flocking action among birds in my region. Certain insects, short-lived though they are, also migrate. Studies show that, like monarch butterflies, several species of dragonflies also fly south in fall, north in spring (here’s a link to a brief National Geographic post on the phenomenon). The Dragonfly Woman is one of several entomologists tracking dragonfly swarms. I recommend her site; I’ve learned a great deal about my own back yard (the insects in it) from her blog.

I just witnessed a dragonfly swarm. Probably green darners, as they were large and as darners are one of the species known to swarm and to migrate.

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

© 2009-2015 C. L. Goforth

This evening, around six, I watered the remaining tomato and cucumber plants; we have had not one drop of rain in three weeks, and daytime temperatures have been consistently above 85º F. The earth beneath my feet feels like cobblestone. I try to conserve water, but there are still a few fruits on those vines and I’d love to harvest them. So I was out with the hose, enjoying the slow movement toward twilight and listening to birds and brown crickets while dousing the roots of the vegetables.

In June and July, barn swallows liked to dip in and around the sprinkler at the evening garden shower. I haven’t seen them for a few weeks–perhaps they are early migrators. This evening, I looked up at a cloudless sky and saw: dragonflies, at least two dozen of them, high above the rooftop of the house and darting in wide circles over the garden and lawn.

I was curious whether they’d be attracted to the water, so I directed the hose upward. I couldn’t reach them with the spray, of course, but I wondered if they would notice the droplets and be attracted to them–they are aquatic insects, after all. And due to this region’s lack of recent rain, many of the little streams and smaller ponds have dried up. Mostly I just watched them, their fast-moving, translucent wings fanning either side of their dark, elegant bodies. I tried counting them, but they’re small and quick and additional ones kept appearing from the treeline.

A darner dived toward me and passed through the sprinkles, and some of its fellow migrants moved closer, tightening the circle around the vegetable garden. A spiral of fliers–some of them a smaller species–flew down and up again, playing with the stream of water. Okay, I know I’m anthropomorphizing an insect; but it was pretty startling. My husband thought so, too–he was observing the action from our back porch. The…group? flock? gathering? swarm, I guess…stayed in our back yard for about 20 minutes, then vanished.

I have observed swarms like this once or twice before in my region, but the only time I witnessed a huge swarm of dragonflies was when I was a child in southern New Jersey. That time, there were hundreds, and the experience was almost frightening–awesome in the truest sense of the word.