Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Myth of Our Stewardship of the Planet?

Photo from the 1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.
source of image:
The way we are burning through fossil fuels and creating a climate that will have (and has already had) devastating effects on the planet, its people, its animals, its plants, its countries reminds me of what I read in a book about Red Cloud, leader of the Western Sioux during those peoples' last fight with the U. S. government. I recalled this bit of history when I read Bob Drury's and Tom Clavin's The Heart of Everything that Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend. In 1840, though already depleted, the bison of North America still "number[ed] upward of 25 million to 30 million, nearly double the 17 million Americans counted in [the U.S. census of that year]." By the early 1860s, the buffalo had disappeared from the Platte River Valley, where Red Cloud had spent his younger days, "having lost the battle for the corridor's already scarce water and vegetation to the 100,000 head of cattle and 50,000 sheep that passed through the territory annually."

Drury and Clavin describe the rapid demise of the massive buffalo herds:
A solitary hunter equipped with an accurate large-bore Sharps rifle could fell up to 100 buffalo in a single stand, and this technology marked the beginning of a Plains-wide slaughter that within four decades would reduce an estimated 30 million animals to less than 1,000. It was the greatest mass destruction of warm-blooded animals in human history, far worse than what the world's whaling fleets had already accomplished, and, as Sitting Bull was to lament years later, "A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell. A death wind for my people."
 In 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad was completed across southern Wyoming, Northern Utah, and into the goldfields of Montana. The wide open West suddenly became even more accessible to buffalo hunters with those 50-caliber Sharps rifles who could kill thousands of buffalo in a short amount of time. The white hunters took only the fur and the tongues, leaving the huge carcasses to rot on the prairie. The U. S. government promoted this massive slaughter as a way to subjugate the Plains Indians, who depended on the bison for food and clothing, and to force them on reservations. The slaughter also made way for cattle ranching--with its own devastating impacts on the environment of the West. 

It is difficult for me to read this history and not get depressed over our current grappling with massive environmental degradation: we seem to be systemically unable to curb or control our voracious appetite for destroying this planet. We dress up our dreadful maw in words we hope to disguise the rotting carcasses of our environmental rampage: "Manifest destiny," "civilizing the natives," "economic growth," "job opportunities," "regulation over-reach." We slaughtered the bison that once were so numerous a herd could thunder by for days; for our sins, we then put the image on our coins and in nostalgic paintings that represent a West we say we yearn for yet willfully destroyed. 

The negative reactions to President Obama's climate deal with China underscore my worries that we will not be able to face successfully the greatest challenge of our time: global climate change caused largely by fossil fuel usage. Even as a supporter of this initiative and of other movements to curb carbon emissions, I can't completely subdue the doubts I have about our real commitment to mitigate the negative effects of the dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere.  The article to which I have linked above in Mother Jones notes that the deal with China includes "[e]xpanding funding for clean energy technology research at the US-China Clean Energy Research Center, a think tank Obama created in 2009 with Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao." All of this sounds wonderful, but I am also reminded that during the Obama administration, hydraulic fracturing (or, fracking) has been touted as  a "clean" fossil fuel. Another Mother Jones' article, "The Chevron Communiqu├ęs," explores how "[u]nder [then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's] leadership
the State Department worked closely with energy companies to spread fracking around the globe--part of a broader push to fight climate change, boost global energy supply, and undercut the power of adversaries such as Russia that use their energy resources as a cudgel.
How "clean" fracking is, however, is very much open to debate, as research suggests the environmental consequences of this process, from an increase in earthquakes to  well water contamination to methane leaks to the possible health hazards posed by the chemicals used in fracking. The fossil fuel industry's protective tendency to downplay any hazards makes many people all the more suspicious of those claims to "clean energy." In a public forum that I attended last night at Lakeshore High School in Mandeville, Louisiana, one person testifying for a local oil company unequivocally stated that contamination of St. Tammany Parish's drinking water by fracking was "absolutely" impossible. The industry's secrecy also raises suspicions. The U. S. State Department's first shale gas conference in August of 2010 included "delegates from 17 countries," other departmental agencies, and industry representatives--but the media was barred from attending. And the fact that U. S. oil companies are "snapping up natural gas leases in far-flung places" calls into question just what our government is promoting--good stewardship of the earth or the bottom line of industry giants such as Halliburton and Chevron, in their world-wide attempts to wring the last bit of profit from diminishing fossil fuels?

Government and industry fail to engender the trust and commitment needed to make real changes in energy use, and few people seem to understand the global impact of their energy choices. This short-sightedness was particularly brought home to me in a single event at the public forum in Mandeville, Louisiana, led by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources but requested by the town of Abita Springs and Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. One of the representatives of Helis Oil and Gas Co., had just described all the extra efforts the company "promised" (but has not committed to legal contract) to ensure the safety of its fracking operation and asked what more could the company do. "Drill somewhere else!" a local citizen yelled. Many in the crowd shouted and clapped in agreement, waving "Don't Frack St. Tammany" signs. It was difficult not to be sympathetic--such is the pull of tribal allegiance--but at that moment my support wavered and disillusionment increased. If we are concerned only with our little patch of paradise, we've learned little about global environmental degradation. Will it take the last drops of fossil fuel, just as it did the few remaining bison of the millions that once roamed the American West, to teach us the folly of our rapacious plunder of the earth? Too bad the lesson doesn't seem to stick.

Science has proven that global warming is driven by fossil fuel usage, and we need a united front--citizens, industry, countries--to cut our carbon emissions to prevent massive changes to the planet as we know it--but we may be too late. We already may be standing on the bones of our failure to fulfill what must have been a fantasy of our stewardship of this planet.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Melancholy Loveliness of Late-Fall Gardening

iridescent green bee on wild mint
Yesterday we heard the song of the white-throated sparrow for the first time this fall. The sparrow winters in the south and breeds in the north. The first time I heard its call was in a coniferous forest of northern Minnesota; its song was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard, coming as it did, waveringly, through trees that had not yet become familiar to this daughter of southern pines and Gulf Coastal grasses. Its melody conveyed a hint of cool Arctic air, spicy scent of balsam fir, and a sense of melancholy. I never forgot it. Now, here in southeastern Louisiana, I look forward to this memory of Minnesota made flesh in the flash of a winged shadow in the bushy edges of our yard and in the song that intimates to me presences loved and lost.

The white-throated sparrow arrived with unusually early cold weather. Temperatures dipped to 32°F where we live and broke record lows in towns nearby; the average low for this time of year is 53°F. Fearing frost, I had spent the previous afternoon cutting lemongrass leaves to dry for tea--a task I had promised to do for my daughter who is living in Wyoming--gathering what I thought might be my final bouquet of zinnias for the year, making room for cold sensitive plants in our sunroom, and covering the plants I could not bring inside. We had no frost, however, so the lemongrass still lives for another harvest or two, but our sunroom remains filled with the plants of semi-tropical climates: a pink-flowering bougainvillea, poinsettias, ginger, a red-flowering geranium, a Buddha's hand citrus, and a couple of reed palms.

Our gardens, the larger vegetable garden and the smaller flower and herb beds around our yard, are full of late-fall blooms and ready-to-eat tender greens. In late summer, I cleared away the crusty remains of the zinnias of summer to make way for re-seeded plants, which are shorter and more attenuated than their summer parents but covered with flowers. They began blooming in time for the early fall arrival of gulf fritillaries, painted ladies, yellow sulphurs, and a few swallowtails. In the northeastern corner of our yard, I had allowed native fall aster to spread and grow throughout the summer and have been rewarded not only by a profusion of blooms in plants that can be head-high, but also by the hundreds of bees that busily collect pollen as the shadows of a nearby bamboo hedge retreat during the day. The bees are so besotted with this wild bouquet that they have almost abandoned my cultivated blooms.
partial view of the fall aster patch on an October morning
Paying closer attention to pollinators as I have the past two years, I have noted what plants seem to attract the most bees and other pollinators. The fall asters have attracted several different kinds of bees and wasps, while in a nearby patch of tiny wild mint, I can always spy an iridescent green bee or two flitting from one minuscule bloom to another. These little bees are difficult to photograph, as they seem very wary and fly very quickly in a zigzag pattern. I have noted several sizes of bumblebees; some very large bumbly-type bees love the big yellow luffa flowers. One morning I ventured into the aster patch while it was still in shade, and I discovered dozens of very tiny bumblebees hanging from the blooms and branches where they had over-nighted and were waiting for the sun to warm their wings so they could begin their daily work.

another view of a wary green bee
tiny bee on a fall aster bloom
closer look at the wild mint, to illustrate its size in relation to my fingers
Some wasps are pollinators, too.
black bee-like fly
a hornet-like pollinator
We are already enjoying salads of mesclun and tender mustards from the larger garden and also from the herb beds where I planted seeds of dill, arugula, and mixed greens in late September. The last few weeks have been dry, so I had to water the tender sprouts as they emerged. The habanero peppers, ghost peppers, and green peppers are still bearing, and the luffa fruit are huge. We are a little worried, however, that the luffa will not develop into the dry, spongy product one associates with bath time. The fruits are still green and soft. My gourd crop has been disappointing; too many gourds dropped from the vines and rotted in the hot humid weather of southeastern Louisiana.
a luffa fruit
foreground, arugula, mixed greens among the remains of summer's basil; background, flowering Mexican tarragon
Although temperatures are warmer today, we will have cooler weather again, and pollinators will die or hibernate, some maybe venturing out occasionally during milder winter weather. This morning I heard the song of the white-throated sparrow again as I watched the sun rise above the pines. It will keep me company through the late-fall and winter as leaves fall and flowers fade.
one harvested row of this year's sweet potatoes
second harvested row of this year's sweet potatoes

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The September Garden

habanero peppers
This morning under an overcast sky, the temperature hovers around the mid-70s Fahrenheit. After two or three weeks of neglecting the garden, I ventured out in the early morning while the dew was still on the grass and weeded two of my 8ftX8ft raised herb beds. Although rain has been predicted for today (80% chance), only a few sprinkles fell this morning, and while the soil still has moisture in it a few inches under the surface, we have had a rather dry September. The seed Tom planted in the big vegetable garden a couple of weeks ago has failed to sprout except for one or two little plants. Tom didn't water the seed when he planted it, thinking that rain would soon do the job. Onions are up, however.

The soil in my herb beds is also depleted of nutrients. We scattered some commercial fertilizer across the surface, but that's just a stop-gap measure. I need to add compost to the soil if I want to have a successful fall/winter garden.

The late summer and early fall heat has not been the only thing discouraging me from active gardening. As I have aged, my allergies have become worse, especially in the late summer and fall, and my inner ears are especially affected. Sometimes, as soon as I walk outside, my ears begin to fill with fluid, in an allergic reaction to something in the atmosphere: rag weed? cedar elm? I don't know. It's time for another re-fill of the medication my doctor prescribed, though. Meanwhile, I do what I can, and this morning cooler weather encouraged me to ignore my allergies and spend an hour or so in the garden weeding.

Our daughter grew the poinsettias in a greenhouse class, and I've managed to keep them alive for two years.
The gourd vines are still green, and luffa vines are spreading across the lawn of our north lot. This morning, bees were busy gathering pollen from the luffa blooms; I noted at least four different kinds of bees. The peppers are still bearing, especially the habaneros and the ghost peppers. While the sweet potato vines are growing and spreading, they have been infiltrated by that scourge of the southern garden, Phyllanthus urinaria, and some luffa vines have spread through the potatoes to grasp at the pepper plants. We will have a lot of cleaning up to do after we dig our sweet potatoes.
Luffa vines escaping from the garden trellis
vegetable garden, north lot (far background, bamboo planted by previous owner)
Spider lilies are beginning to bloom.
These are the herb beds I weeded this morning. I left some of summer's basil, purslane, and bronze fennel. The fennel probably would have done better in the fall here.
Mist flower and swamp sunflowers are beginning to bloom (zinnias have re-seeded).
more spider lilies blooming near the spearmint.

Spider lilies coming up in the lawn.

ghost peppers--hot, hot, hot!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The August Garden: Chaos

The late summer garden is producing lots of peppers: ghost peppers, habaneros, bells, etc.
A two-week absence from the August garden leads to chaos--knee-high weeds, rotting fruit, gourd vines escaping their trellis, empty bird-feeders, grass in the lawn almost high enough to be baled, and wilting plants that need water despite all those previous weeks of rain. We had traveled west to help our daughter move into her new temporary home, leaving instructions for care of the cat and for just a few potted plants I was especially keen to have survive our absence. A couple of days after returning home, I first set about mowing the lawn, a big job with a push mower, and then I started clearing out the weeds and dead plants in my herb and flower beds. The vegetable garden is a mess, with only peppers bearing prolifically, with a few cherry tomatoes still ripening on the neglected vines. The two rows of sweet potatoes had spread their vines over two or three more rows, and that pesky weed Phyllanthus urinaria (A.K.A., chamberbitter, gripeweed), which can take over a bare spot of ground in short order, poked above the vegetables like umbrellas in a summer shower, the undersides of their leaves heavy with seed.

The second task was to water my herb and flower beds nearer the house. It seemed that the area had a dry spell while we were gone. Of course, as soon as I watered, we got rain, first an afternoon sprinkle, and then days of showers.

August is a hateful month to me. I have never liked the heat of these late summer and early fall months in the South. As sweat poured down my face, I was longing for that cooler climate we left behind in Wyoming and Colorado. National news had also heated up while we were unloading our daughter's belongings from our car and taking hikes in our spare time. The heat of August, I'm convinced, brings out the worst in people.

The back yard in August, from a distance quite nice
A little closer look: zinnias brown with some kind of leaf spot or leaf wilt

I removed dead zinnias and basil from this bed, and am waiting to see what reseeds and how it will grow through the fall.
Within a week after we had returned home, these sprawling Maximillian sunflowers were past their bloom, and I removed them to provide more light and nutrients for the swamp sunflowers.
Butterflies continue to visit the garden.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The July Garden: Hot and Humid

salsa we canned the first week of July, using tomatoes from our garden
In southeast Louisiana, June and July are the wettest months, and this year has been no exception. According to one source, the rainfall average for June is 5.89 inches and for July 7.23 inches. Our area received almost 11 inches of rain in June, according to official records and to the rain gauge we monitor in one of my herb beds. And according to climatological data supplied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our area received 46.22 inches to 48.24 inches of rain the first six months of this year. The average annual rainfall is, according to various records, anywhere from 60-65 inches a year. Compare that to the average precipitation of the following cities: 
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico:  9.39 inches
  • Duluth, Minnesota: 30.94 inches
  • Austin, Texas: 34.25 inches
  • Atlanta, Georgia: 49.74 inches
  • Crescent City, California: 71.26 inches
  • Seattle, Washington: 37.13 inches
 Add our rainfall totals to high heat (average high of 92F in July), and you can imagine how oppressive summers can be in southeast Louisiana.

For the first time this year, I planted blue borage in one of my herb beds. The plants sprouted and began to grow vigorously. By late June, every plant had succumbed to a fungal disease; the weather was just too wet for borage to thrive. Our tomatoes, also, suffered from the very wet weather, the Cherokee Purple tomatoes being the first to succumb. We did harvest a few Cherokee Purple tomatoes before the plants finally died. Our other tomato plants grew eight or nine feet tall, but they, also, suffered from fungal disease (probably septoria leaf spot), which begins at the bottom of the plants, where rain splashes the spores. These plants did live to provide us with lots of tomatoes though perhaps not as many as might have been possible had they not been affected by the disease. A few fruits continue to ripen on the vines, which look very bedraggled now. Perhaps next year we will mulch the plants after the vines are big enough where the cut worms can't get at them. Mulch should help prevent the splashing of spores.
vegetables from our garden, gathered mid-July
sliced persimmon tomato--The plants did not produce a lot, but the fruits they did produce were big and juicy.
Here at the end of July, the gourd vines are growing vigorously on the bamboo trellis that Tom built, and the cucumbers, climbing with the gourds, are still producing. The yellow squash is probably about finished--I picked one squash yesterday--and the peppers are producing. This year we did not plant any okra, and that was because the ground was just too wet when it was time to plant. Tom did manage to plant sweet potatoes, which are now vining.
gourd and cucumber trellis, late June
gourd and cucumber trellis, late July

gourd and trellis in the vegetable garden, July
 The herb and flower beds in the yard behind the house are on a little higher ground than the vegetable garden, and except for the borage, most seem to be thriving, though the fennel is rather under-whelming. I think I probably should have planted the fennel in late summer, as it might have done better in cooler fall weather. My parsley plants are greening up again, the older leaves having died in the hot summer heat, and the dill has reseeded. Last week I staked and cut back the zinnias, which had grown head-high and tended to fall over as rain loosened their roots. Those are re-sprouting where trimmed, so maybe I'll get a few more flowers through the fall.

Our yard is now very lively with wildlife. The birds like to hide and scratch in the numerous flower beds and to perch on the very tall Maximilian sunflowers and banana trees. Catbirds and mockingbirds--as well as cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers--peck at the figs as soon as they begin to ripen. We have noted numerous juvenile birds at our bird feeders: cardinals, titmice, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers. And one morning we watched a mother bunny nursing her young bunny near a brush pile Tom left unburned when he realized the baby bunny was living in it. That brush will probably stay in our yard until winter--or at least until we're sure the bunny has moved out. Tom created brush piles on the margins of our property, in the understory, hoping that the bunny would find those less obtrusive piles more suitable for hiding from red-tailed hawks and other predators.
Maximilian sunflowers began to bloom in late July.
Younger black-eyed Susan plants near the patio bloomed in the spring and again in the summer, but these older plants, planted near rosemary and salvia in full sun, did not bloom until July.
back yard, late July
Last year I kept a closer watch on the pollinators that visited our yard, as I wanted to learn what plants attracted which pollinators, and I encountered all kinds of surprising creatures lurking in my herb and flower beds. I checked my mountain mint patch several times a day. This year I have noticed less pollinator diversity, but that might be because I have been a little less observant. The mountain mint is covered with honeybees most days, and a few bumble bees and tiny wasps, but I have yet to spy an ambush bug or scarlet-bodied wasp moth, both of which I discovered and identified in the mountain mint patch last year.
black swallowtail caterpillar on flat-leaf parsley growing near our patio
black swallowtail butterfly, I think, though other butterflies are often mistaken for it-- photo taken in July
may be a pinevine swallowtail, photo taken in late July
yellow swallowtail butterfly, late July
bumblebee clinging to the bottom of a spotted horsemint leaf, planted in a pot near our patio
honeybee on zinnia flower, late July
I continue to add new flower beds to our 1-acre yard and to monitor the wild flower plants that spring up in the bushier southern lot and along the northern edge of our acre, where I have allowed what I think is fall-flowering aster to proliferate, along with goldenrod. The garden is a respite from Louisiana politics and St. Tammany Parish's boorish commercial culture of parking lots and strip malls. (Downtowns are often nice, though, with old homes, occasional festivals, and farmers' markets.) But I've never enjoyed the heat and humidity of the South--even as a child in southeast Texas, near Houston and the Gulf Coast--and I always look forward to the cooler weather of fall.
The stump of a water oak we had cut down last summer is now surrounded by a flower bed with black-eyed Susans, yellow lantana, and Confederate Rose. By next summer, these plants should fill out the flower bed.
Another water oak stump is surrounded by a flower bed in which Tom planted native Turk's Cap (at the eastern edge of its range), and I have planted native fall asters and yellow lantana. The Turk's Cap will grow into large bushes.
Turk's cap flower'

Monday, June 16, 2014

June: Gardening as Process

Our back yard, mid-June
Last year the bamboo-covered lot across our dead-end street sold. The lot was cleared of its forest of bamboo, brush, and pine trees, and our little street become much less private as I could now stand on my front porch and see houses on the street beyond ours. For months the house made its slow progress from cleared and leveled ground to roof. Monsoon-like rains fell and made a muddy mess of the tiny yard; trucks parked on its margins, compacting the ground. Then, one day, the house was finished, the new neighbors moved in, and workers showed up to put in a lawn. And that's what they did in one day, arranging neatly trimmed squares of sod and grass all around the house. By evening, our neighbor was watering his grass. By the next morning, the precisely-edged lawn looked as if it had been established for months. Within a couple of weeks, our neighbor was mowing his grass. The house and lawn stood out among its nearby neighbors like a princess among peasants, its suburban perfection at odds with some of the more scruffy elements of the neighborhood.

One resident of the neighborhood had watched the process in awe. "Only in America," she said. "An instant lawn in a day. What a wonderful country!"

In contrast, our yard has been a slow work in progress, and at times it seems as if the elements will win. Grass has been migrating and establishing roots across our gravel driveway. Days of heavy rains encouraged such rapid growth that plants toppled over. Soaked ground loosened roots. Weeds had a holiday and celebrated all across my herb and flower beds. The south lot, especially, is a lot in transition. Tom is still hard at work chopping into firewood the two water oaks we had cut down last summer. He is making progress, and the wood rack is almost full again after a cold winter, but the area remains littered with remnants of wood and bark. I mow around the piles, but grass grows tall between the pieces of remaining wood and waves gaily across the yard to its neatly trimmed and circumspect neighbor like a friendly country cousin.

Gardening for me is a process, but I recognize--and often sympathize with--the urge to have an immediate end result, to hire others to do the work, to buy mature plants every year and rotate those plants in and out of the garden seasonally. That's one kind of gardening. and more power to those who manage such gardens. But I'm willing to work and wait and experiment.

Two years ago, we decided we would have to have the two water oaks nearest our house removed as they threatened the house in this hurricane-prone country. I imagined the stumps of those trees as being the center of flowerbeds and began raking leaves around the water oaks to compost. By the time the trees came down, the leaves had created a layered humus. I had to wait while Tom chopped and stacked the piles of wood nearest the stumps. Then I began hoeing and shaping the beds, removing some of the cast iron plants to a shadier flower bed near our front gate and getting rid of the more easily removed weeds. What we think are two Confederate Rose bushes sprouted spontaneously in one bed; Tom transplanted Turks' Cap in the other, where I also transplanted some native flowers that had sprouted in other areas of our yard. Virginia creeper, brambles, elderberry, and a persistent native plant with bulbous roots had covered the area around one stump, so Tom sprayed the area with Round-Up so that I could remove the weeds more successfully. Their tangled roots spread throughout the soil, and I spent a day last week--between days of rain--clearing the weeds and loosening the soil. This past weekend I transplanted to that new bed Black-eyed Susans that had sprouted near their parent plants in other flower beds in our back yard. We probably won't see any flowers from those plants until next year.

Gardening in southeast Louisiana is tough, as the heat and humidity challenge one's commitment. We had an entire week of rain at the end of May and the beginning of June, with between 10 and 11 inches of precipitation. During the following days of sunshine, we were out of state, attending a wedding, and when we returned, sunny days were offset again with pouring rain. Afternoon showers are common in June. As the planet heats up, humid areas such as southeast Louisiana are projected to have more precipitation and higher temperatures, and gardeners will have to adjust to those changes. Our entire planet is undergoing a process that will enormously affect the lives of not only gardeners but every inhabitant. I hope we're prepared for the work of adjusting.

An afternoon's worth of weeding and thinning my herb and flower beds
weeded flower and herb beds--lemon basil, borage (most of which did not survive the heavy rains), zinnias, dill, portulaca
The once bushy lemongrass has been reduced to one blade-like plant, which I will probably transplant elsewhere. Black-eyed Susan on the far left; rosemary in the middle; blue salvia trying to take over most of the bed; red salvia, far right
white-blooming monarda (bee balm)
Sungold tomatoes beginning to ripen in our vegetable garden
Yellow squash maturing in our vegetable garden
Spearmint loving its new location