All posts by Elsa Johnson

Rust Belt Riders – Vroom Vroom

by Elsa Johnson and Tom Gibson

Here at Gardenopolis Cleveland we are huge advocates for soil — you may remember that one of our early book reviews was on Kristen Ohlson’s The Soil Will Save Us – and as true believers, we’re all working on making our own soils more productive without the use of chemical fertilizers or tilling. And we know we are not alone in our belief in the importance of healthy soil.

Recently two of us dropped in on Rust Belt Riders, a small composting business located in a warehouse just east of downtown. Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival shares warehouse space here, storing many colorful props that we had to wind our way around, which made for a strong contrast with Rust Belt Riders, who are basically three guys (all philosophy majors) doing experiments indoors (a tilapia raising tank and filtration tanks to clean the water) while cooking several large piles of compost outdoors.

As gardeners, most of the compost available to us commercially is based on the decomposition of leaves and yard waste, through the process we call composting. It is a large scale production undertaken by our local cities. Most people still, we suspect, send a lot of their ordinary food waste down the food disposal or into the trash, where it ends up — encased in lasts-for-millennia black plastic — in the dump. A smaller number of us home ‘compost’ (raise your hands, please).  

But most of us ‘compost’ rather loosely (I know I do).  We throw organic plant material from our yards and our plates onto a pile stashed somewhere we can’t actually see it (we call this the backyard feeding station), throw a few leaves or grass clippings on top, and expect that in time it will decay into something we can use on our gardens. And hey, in time, it will. But the Rust Belt Riders approach is way more scientific and controlled. They have studied the soil food web ecosystem, that sustainable system by which microscopic organisms in the soil exist in beneficial symbiosis with plants; that system that perpetually renews soil and plant health—-in contrast to the life-eradicating damage done by tillage or chemical fertilizers.

Their stated mission is to Feed People. Not Landfills. Their goal is to restore the soil food web, not destroy it. Don’t you want to get in on that good work? — Putting the carbon back in the soil.

What is their process…?  Rust Belt Riders collect organic food waste from grocery stores, restaurants, and businesses (50 in all) mix it with other organic ingredients in measured amounts, and ‘cook’ it to specific temperatures for specific periods of time. The key is those other organic ingredients—mainly old wood chips that only fungi are equipped to decompose and that comprise close to 60% of the total compost pile. The end result is compost that is alive with the fungi,bacteria, and other micro- and macrofauna like nematodes that, in combination, take plant health to a higher level.  (Biologically active soil also requires less watering!)

In addition to selling the compost, Rust Belt Riders also offers soil consultations, zero waste events, and workshops. But perhaps the most useful way to make use of Rust Belt Riders would be their collection service. Currently they collect from various sources like restaurants and grocery stores. But it seems to Gardenopolis Cleveland that an opportunity exists for communities of various scales (from a street, for example, to an incorporated entity like a city) to get in on the collection end by having a central collection area where ordinary individuals could bring their household organic waste (no meat), and a regular collection date. That would take things to a whole different level.

Interested in the soil food web? Go to: Soilfoodweb.com

Interested in Rust Belt Riders? Go to: www.rustbeltriders.com

Happy Halloween from Gardenopolis Cleveland!

poem and images by Elsa Johnson

To celebrate the holiday, we have a poem and some pictures of local yard decorations.

Vulture on the World Tree

It was         new territory to us                                                     We

rode the air currents to get there                                    up-drafts

We spread our wings out        wide                          the tips tilted

up      the wind    riffling    through them          There were three

of us         circling               We smelled dead things           We eat

dead things          The scent of dead things travels              When

we catch          that           smell                    we will fly a long way

A meal should be dead        but not ripe  :                     You need

presence in the land of the dead                                  You need a

tree       that stands alone                    You need to see what else

is out there    in that land                            We can clear a corpse

in a couple hours        —        thorough        —       we don’t notice 

what it is                                                     If you have a dead thing

to get rid of                                             you can do worse than us

One of Our Own, Part 2

by Elsa Johnson

Goldenrods of Northeast Ohio, A Field Guide to Identification and Natural History, by Dr. James K. Bissell, Steven M. McKee, and Judy Semroc. 

Yep— OUR Jim Bissell.

A little backstory here. I’ve known Jim since around 1980. I was living on the east side of Twinsburg, in Summit County, where I’d grown up amid forest, fields, swamps, and ledges, but by the late 70’s Twinsburg had been continually developing since Forest City built the Glenwood development in the mid 1950’s. By 1980 development had finally arrived on the heretofore totally undeveloped east side, where I lived, in the form of a developer buying up a couple thousand acres directly across the street from me, consisting of fields and swamps and ledges that were in the headwaters of Pond Brook (which feeds into Tinkers Creek, which feeds into the Cuyahoga River). Horrors.

Some of us – conservation minded and appalled by the idea of such development there – formed a group to fight this threat and one of the first things we did was ask Jim Bissell to come out and hike the two sets of ledges with us. Which he obligingly did, this youngish (early thirties, I guessed at the time) sandy haired fellow, already a fount of knowledge. This was in the early days of land conservation through purchase by the museum. We were hoping the museum might be interested in our 2000 acres. Unfortunately, while Jim agreed it would be a shame to see it developed, it was not pristine enough or unique enough to be of interest to him or the museum (In case you’re wondering – we did eventually find a way to save it. The area is now a Summit County Metropark.)

Flash forward to now, thirty some years later.  Jim is still out there doing what he loves to do, fighting for natural areas, and me too, I’m doing what I love to do, fighting for places I love. Neither of us is young or even youngish anymore. Occasionally we run into each other, which for me has always been both a pleasure and an education.

As a kid growing up in the country I took goldenrods for granted. Goldenrods were just — goldenrods. They were considered ‘weeds.’ They grew everywhere and pretty much looked the same. In fact, to me, they mostly still do. I do not appreciate them with a botanist’s interest but rather for the beauty of their abundant glory when they are all in bloom. I no longer consider them weeds. So it is with delight that I mention that the beginning of this definitive book on goldenrods begins by celebrating that glory and their role as “the cornerstones of ecosystems across the region.” 

We learn that 100 species of goldenrods have been described, with the greatest goldenrod diversity – 60 species — within North America, and that they support 430 types of insects. We learn that goldenrods are not huge nectar producers, but that this is offset by the vast number of flowers produced per plant, and that their pollen is heavy. Native bees, we learn, and bumble bees, rely heavily on goldenrod nectar, and that there are at least eight butterfly and moth species that feed exclusively on Solidago species. We learn that after the flowers die back for the season the seeds feed chickadees, finches, siskins, juncos, and sparrows. And we learn much more. One interesting aside gives a list of goldenrod uses —  for tea, for dye. This natural history section is followed by a section on how to use the guide, a dichotomous key, and then a species by species description of the goldenrods to be found in Northeast Ohio, with both elegant drawings and clear photographs, and discussion of preferred soils and habitat.

This year a goldenrod volunteered in my front yard garden. It grew into a sizable clump while growing taller, and taller, and taller, growing ultimately about 5 or 6 feet tall. Late in August the flower heads developed and in mid to late September they bloomed. Using the guide descriptions and pictures I was able to identify it as most likely either Tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, or Late Goldenrod. The flowers were so heavy that they bore their supporting stems to the ground, and were covered with all sorts of insects – many different kinds of wasps and bees and flies. It was glorious.  Thank you, Jim Bissell, Steven M. McKee, and Judy Semroc.

As a side note, Jim’s work in the region has been recognized by many, including the Nature Conservancy. The Dr. James K. Bissell Nature Center opened October 21. Located on the Grand River Conservation Campus of the Morgan Swamp Preserve in Ashtabula County, the center is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 – 5 pm from the first weekend of April through the first weekend of December. 

One of Our Own

by Elsa Johnson

One of Cleveland’s own, landscape designer Bobbie Schwartz, has written a book: Garden Renovation, Transform Your Yard into the Garden of Your Dreams (Timber Press, 2017). In case you cannot tell from the title, the book is written to the homeowner who isn’t prepared to just hand the whole task over to a designer or landscape architect with the invitation to “knock my socks off—do something spectacular.” Which is almost everybody. So the book is not one of those drool-over-pretty-pictures-of-high-end-gardens type books (the kind our bookshelves are so chock full of ) ….and though there are plenty of pretty pictures in this book, some of expensive landscapes, many are of small scale gardens and spaces easier to replicate. So in many ways this book is aimed toward the do it yourself gardener.

The first chapter, Choosing Change, covers all those ordinary reasons that lead one to undertake a re-do, and I will skip over them, but I like that the final paragraph in that chapter introduces the not so frequently seen goals (in garden design books) of gardening for sustainability, permaculture, and diverting storm water run-off to on-site uses, although these are not explored nearly a fully as they could be. I was/ am much taken with the picture here showing a hillside that hides a children’s play tunnel charmingly disguised as a hobbit house.

The second chapter, Understanding Landscape Essentials, gets down to business by mentioning the obvious (which surprisingly, isn’t so obvious to many people): unlike houses, unlike architecture, landscapes change, natural environments change, so the first step in any redesign is taking stock of those existing on-site elements that will affect a garden’s success — soil, light, drainage, wind, microclimates, animals (deer and other pesky wildlife, but also one’s own pets), water, drainage, slopes, retaining walls, steps (and safety thereof) electrical access, lighting, and maintenance. There is a tidy little section on what Schwartz calls design “themes” – i.e., those defining and unifying concepts a designer uses to integrate a garden’s parts, such as rectilinear, diagonal, curvilinear, and arch and tangent. Thorough, but not overwhelming. Lots of helpful pictures.

The third chapter, Working With Hardscape Elements, covers all those garden parts that do not change – sidewalks and paths, driveways, patios, decks, fences, walls, fire-pits, hot tubs, arches and pergolas – but must come together into a harmonious whole to create enjoyable outdoor spaces and ‘rooms’. One brief section dwells on illusions – always a nice touch.

The chapter Assessing and Choosing Plants starts with a brief discussion of natives vs. exotics, invasive species, and what she calls “plant thugs” (interesting word application, that). This is a bit of a slippery slope for garden designers these days and Schwartz begs the question a bit (the question being: what is native?) (in my own practice I aim for 60 percent natives, and of that 60%, most must be species or cultivars with flowers attractive and accessible to pollinating insects). Oh well. Trees, shrubs, and perennials are a garden’s living components, and the book does a nice job of offering ideas and possibilities without becoming encyclopedic.

The next to last chapter is the practical how to’s: how to start (with the soil, then pick the plants); how to add plants to existing beds; how to choose and work with perennials.

Finally we come to the concluding chapter, titled Success Stories. This is the chance for the author to show her stuff, and she does not disappoint. She shows us a series of front yards and backyards in their before and after personas, as they successfully mature over time. (I do not know that they are all her own designs but I assume most are). My favorite is a low slung ranch style house deck and backyard re-designed with a distinctly minimalist, contemporary feeling, with the once closed-in deck opened up and flowing down to a low maintenance yard of stones and gravels of varying textures and sizes laid out in blocks like a Japanese grandmother’s quilt. Nice. This stands in stark contrast to another redo in which the only pavement is the broad walkway leading to the front door – all the rest is planted with low shrubs, perennials, many types of textural grasses. Also very nice. Kudos to Bobbie Schwartz for a book many will find helpful and useful, rather than intimidating.

Meet Bobbie at Loganberry Books on Sunday, November 19!

Of Birds and Bugs and Trees

by Elsa Johnson and Tom Gibson

A few years back I was cruising on Facebook and ran across a posting that showed a humming bird gripped in a praying mantises’ claws. They looked about the same size and it wasn’t clear the mantis was going to win a meal. Reading further in that posting I discovered it turned out that the hummingbird got away – that time. But that image stuck in my mind, and so one day I sat down and wrote a poem about it.

Lady Mantis Prays Before Lunch

Dear Lord                       I am devout          about            devouring

Every day          I raise my arms         and pray                    claws

clenched tight                 please    send me      something bright

and beautiful       to bite                                        I am no different

than the stealing fox            or soaring kite                       Send me

red twig gossamer                                            a dainty damselfly

in flight                                   I’ve heard   she  is a mighty huntress

too                  though     I do not understand         her weapons

Dear Lord                                     how much      better       beautiful

tastes to bite                                     Just yesterday           as I clung

to a branch                     one bright     bejeweled     hummingbird

flew by and           snap !              oh!         the joy       of the green

struggle !                              I held him for a long      long      time

feeling the heat of his heart                                   We both prayed

Then very recently my co-editor Tom Gibson sent me a link to a story that tells how some praying mantises routinely prey on hummingbirds, complete with pictures of the gruesome feast. I include that link here. Perhaps it is time to think about where we hang our hummingbird feeders that is nearly impossible for mantises to climb or jump to. Not this year, of course … the hummers are gone. I hope they missed the hurricanes.

 NYT article about praying mantises and hummingbirds

I miss their background chitter – one day it is there, omnipresent in the air, and then it’s not, and that’s how I first know they’ve flown. But every year there is one humming bird that lingers on for about another week after the others have flown south, and that little bird and a neighbors’ locust tree inspired another poem about humming birds. It anthropomorphizes the tree (oddly—not the hummingbird) which of course is a ‘no-no’, except I think it’s legitimate to look a something and try to imagine it’s inner life. I’ve never been particularly compliant about ‘no-s’ — why start now?

Black Locust     Missing Hummingbird

For two days she sat                                 and watched a swarm of

honeybees       lay waste her feeder                         golden bodies

fuzzed over its sticky surface                                 avid for syrup 

while she perched                                           at the very top of me

chipping her feisty song of chitter                                         that all

summer long                   my leaf-ears      loved        to listen to  

this time in such protest!                                  (and a long journey

ahead of her                    the ways deep                       the weather

unpredictable                                                        her kin       already

flown)                      Why  so many ? !            In the morning when

my heartwood woke          its         slow          fall          awakening

she’d flown                                            perhaps hungry because of

bees            My leaves grieve                  All around me        the air

is vacant                                              Only the hard of me endures

Then in the August of  2016 my street got hit particularly hard by the min-tornado or micro-burst that went through, which was especially damaging to the black locust trees – of which, on my street there are many, very old, very tall, and very brittle. And the locust that every year succored the last hummer before she left had its head struck off, allowing me to ‘see’ that loss through the eyes and heart of the hummingbird. A little over the top — it is, after all, a projection of my own feelings. We cannot really know what the hummingbird feels.

Hummingbird Missing Black Locust

He lost his head            you see                          Soon after dark

when that    sudden     wind came through         like a smack

to the face                     He was there                  then he wasn’t

I did love him                      the way a bird       does        love

a tree                    sitting      way up       high      in his green

top-most branches                           chitting             about    how I

could see     everything     up there                                 my cousins

forever            fighting                                    over the stiff         red

nectar flowers                                 at that big blue nest    where

the two-legs live       across the street                                His head

cracked                            then fell                    crashing onto another

two-leg nest          shattering him            smashing that nest

awry                                    I think the two-legs miss him     too   

If he could grow another       head                           I wish he’d try

The Peripatetic Gardener Visits Hocking Hills

Hello dear Gardenopolis readers –

Our prolonged, unplanned vacation is over. Our Gardenopolis party (3rd one, celebrating two years of Gardenopolis Cleveland) was a success, with 50 people attending, enjoying good food in beautiful surroundings, and the rain politely held off until closing hour.  And now – drumroll here, please – co-editor Catherine is now the delighted new grandparent of a lovely little girl, Mira; co-editor Tom’s visiting grandchildren have returned to Chicago; and co-editor Anne has settled into a new living arrangement. Time for all of us to get back to work. I had hoped to have my interview with Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s Jim Bissell done by now, but I’m still working on transcribing it, so, not this time; instead I will share my mini-vacation visit to Ohio’s spectacular Hocking Hills.

I can’t believe I waited so long to visit this place (actually a series of places). I remember once as a teen going to a state forest down there to attend a forestry conservation camp. Alas, I was 15 and more impressed with the boys than with the scenery. LOL, as we say today. Then when I was studying landscape architecture at OSU, and the Hocking Hills were close, I was too busy. So the Hocking Hills have been on my bucket list for kind of a long time.

An explanation of the topography; It is all hills and valleys, ups and downs, with no seeming rhythm or natural order and no straight line roads. If you’re not used to the windy roads you might not want to drive after dark with the rising and falling multiple ssss curves, especially with some hot rod local in a semi’s-cab riding your car’s back end. Just off Rt.466 is the winner of the most-lethal-looking-driveway-entrance-to-a-school award, ever. Period. Why? Why? Why put an entrance to a school there?

Anyway, among those roads and tucked into those gnarly hills are wondrous places, cliffs and caves, and waterfalls, and grottos.  Some of these spaces fight the camera — the cliffs, for example, and the caves. Without a human or human structure in the picture to give a sense of scale, they are just jumbles of rocks and trees, lacking depth perception.

     

We started, as I suspect most people do, with Old Man’s Cave, which, along with Cedar Falls, and the Ash Cave are probably the most popular and most visited of the natural attractions in the Hocking Hills (there are unnatural attractions, but we won’t go into them here). All this chaotic multitude of big and little hills drain water into twisty-rocky-cliffy little streams that drain into twisty-rocky-cliffy bigger streams, and eventually become twisty rivers — which drain, finally, into the twisty Ohio River). One of these little streams carved Old Man’s Cave, which is a huge recess cave, created by the wearing away of a softer layer of rock from between harder layers of rock – here sandstone. There is an upper falls, a trail downstream to lower falls into Old Man’s Cave, and then the trail follows the stream that meanders between the walls of a gorge for roughly a mile. You eventually get to Cedar Falls, misnamed. The first colonists mistook the trees, which are hemlocks, for Cedars. Then from Cedar Falls you can pick up another trail to the Ash Cave, the area’s largest recess cave, or across a fun small suspension bridge to Whispering Cave, almost as large, I’m told, as Ash Cave.

What was interesting, to me, was observing that the infrastructure of stairs and bridges and trails that encourages and supports intense public use of this place/space — most of it created by the CCC in the depression years of the early 30’s (and they did a spectacular job), though it is showing signs of wear and much use over some 80 plus years, has largely endured.

Old Structures

New Structures

One enjoys a mix of ‘artifacts’ – Mother Nature’s, on one hand, and man’s, on the other — and both are beautiful. The CCC artifacts sometimes incorporate the former and often feel organic, and stand in contrast to the more contemporary man made structures. On the negative side, this place shows the effects of so much love, of so much use. The paths, and beyond the paths, are worn, the soil is bare. There is little vegetation along the main pathways, other than the trees, and these often have their roots fully exposed. This is the inevitable erosion and compaction of the access path too much traveled, and that tempting short-cut too often taken. Everywhere there are the signs of our human insatiable curiosity (what’s up that ledge? What’s in that cave? Gotta see!). Interesting, too, to me, that not until four years ago was there a precipitation event that damaged this otherwise so durable man-made infrastructure.

We also went to a place called Rock House, a collapsed recess cave — impossible to photograph with one’s android phone) a little more off the beaten track. Much the same story of wear and tear there.

Contrast these with Conkle’s Hollow, within a similar gorge, but somewhat – considerably? — less visited, and considerably less worn down, located in a state nature preserve rather than a state park or state forest. Does this explain the difference? I can’t answer that question. We hiked both the loop rim trail (two miles, not counting the ups and downs) and the inside-the-gorge trail. The rim trail takes you close along the edge of 200 foot high cliffs, and even if you do not get vertigo and thus are brave enough to go right to the edges and look down, all you can see are the tops of the trees below. The footing is uneven, challenging. The east rim, which gets the western sun, seems drier. There is mountain laurel and briar edging the path among the hemlock trees. The west rim, which gets the eastern sun, seems wetter, shadier. It is more open and ferny. 

The gorge itself is a religious experience! The path in and out is flat concrete that is handicapped accessible, and — thanks be to God, the ODNR, and the well placed fence — people largely stay on it. It helps that there are frequent signs asking one to stay on the trail to help preserve the vegetative ecosystem — ferns, ferns, ferns and more ferns, densely carpeting the steep slopes under the tall straight trees, clinging to the rock walls, growing on large stones, with lots of stinging nettle (don’t touch!) and little bit of a native broadleaved carex for contrast.

The air is moist, cool. There is a natural hush here, similar to what one felt during the recent eclipse. Perfect.    

                                 

Dear Fellow Ents

by Elsa Johnson

It’s not just our trees that are dying but trees everywhere, headlines an article in The Guardian (issue of 19 September 2016, written by Oliver Milman in Oahu and Alan Yuhas in San Francisco).

In Hawaii, on the big island, in 2010, the iconic ohi’a trees – a rainforest evergreen — started dying at an astonishing rate. After almost six years nearly 50,000 acres of native forest on the big island are infected, and there is the potential for major deforestation to a whole family of metrosideros trees and shrubs of the Pacific. It is caused by a beetle carrying a pathogen (dark creeping shades of Moana!).

In other areas of the tropics, disease threatens banana plantations, coffee growers are dealing with fungal attacks that reduce yield and kill the plants that produce the coffee bean, and citrus greening is a threat to citrus growers worldwide.

In California an invasive pathogen called Sudden Oak Death – distantly related to the cause of the 19th century Irish potato famine – is infecting hundreds of different plants, including redwoods and ferns (but …but…it’s called oak death): 66 million trees have been killed in the Sierra Nevada alone. SOD is caused by phytophthora ramorum. Despite its name the pathogen slowly saps the life from oaks over two to five years. It is spread mostly through water, like rain splashing off an infected leaf, or wind driven rain that can carry the pathogen for miles. Whole mountainsides have died.

In the Midwest, from Texas to Minnesota and east into Ohio, trees are dying. Ashes succumb to ash borer, oaks succumb to oak wilt (as we know to our regret through the loss of old growth red oaks in Forest Hill Park), caused by the fungus Ceratocystic fagacearum, and to opportunistic insects like the Two-lined Chestnut Beetle.  And now something is affecting our native beeches. Meanwhile In the Pacific northwest, bark beetles and pine beetles are killing trees. Five years of drought starved trees of water and weakened their defenses. The beetles that used to be held in check by wet winters now have more time to roam beyond their normal territories, expanding from British Columbia to the Yukon border. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the iconic English and European beech forests are also threatened by climate change, especially drought. For us here, weather – mild winters possibly? – may not kill off the two lined chestnut borers the way a bitterly cold winter would, hastening their spread.   

What seem like small changes to us – the shift of a degree or two, the lengthening of fall and the earlier spring onset of spring by a just few weeks (which feels beneficial to us – who doesn’t appreciate a milder winter around here?) — can have profound negative cascading affects to ecosystems which depend for communal health on everything living in a balanced equilibrium of competing and cooperating interconnected organisms, both above and below ground.  Events like a long and too-wet spring, followed by a longish period of drought, such as we had here in northeast Ohio last year, which affected the prairie states even more severely, stress trees, leaving them vulnerable. They live lives many times longer than ours, but are slow to adapt.

Alas.

These changes to climate – that seem so unremarkable to us, or even good as we enjoy that mild winter day – naturally affect all components of an ecosystem, and there are parameters beyond which any ecosystem becomes destabilized and the natural equilibrium of the healthy ecosystem is sent awry. I believe we laypeople inadequately appreciate this. Probably new equilibriums will be established over an extended time, but we, personally, probably will not live to see it. Recent reports suggest as much as 80% of species may be on a path to extinction…. and we? We are who understand – we who care? Galadriels, sadly looking at the world we love, knowing that much in it that is wonderful will pass away.   

This is what tree death looks like.

 

 

Be Here Now

by Elsa Johnson

What else              would one write               on a fairest day?

Yesterday      overhead                         the clouds flew by like

fluffed white dragons                strung out       horizontally —

battalions                no       legions !               lined up against

perfect blue                  Today’s heavens have changed three

times this last hour         wisps first         tattered         as if

breath ripped apart in some great battle                     then

infinite           pale         and        totally        cloudless        sky

Now?         Dragon spawn                         Today is all sea rush

a constant in-rushing         wall          :        Sound        wave

upon wave               wearing away                 relentless and

without emotion                  Thus     what else can I say    but

Great Spirit               Dragon Breath             oh   cloud and air

let me be present        Here         :          Let me be           now

Chimney Swifts

by Elsa Johnson

Back in the day before people caged off their chimneys there were probably fewer mosquitos.

What??? You say… what possible connection????

The answer? Chimney swifts/chimney ‘swallows’.

Chaetura pelagica, voracious eaters of all flying insects, like mosquitos. These birds, native to the Americas, spend the winter (as I would like to do) in South America (northwestern countries), but breed in North America during our summers. Their range is from the Rockies eastward to the Atlantic and northward into lower parts of Canada. Like all swifts, they are incapable of perching, but instead cling vertically to surfaces. And this is where chimneys come in.

A swift spirals down to its roost opening from above. Originally these birds roosted and nested in trees. While they are diurnal foragers, able to stay afloat in the sky for hours, the time I am most aware of them is in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk. They are easily recognized, with their strange short, neck-less bodies, long slender wings, swift erratic flight and chittering call, but they are also easily mistaken for swallows (hence the name confusion). Able to drink and bath on the wing, they are one of the swiftest of birds.

They have extremely acute vision and interestingly, can focus with one eye or both eyes, and, like our native whippoorwill, which they somewhat resemble, they have a huge mouth gape — the better to eat you, little flying insect – but they are sociable rather than solitary, and many birds – sometimes hundreds – will share a roost.  In that roost there is only one breeding pair, mated for life.

Although originally cavity-in-tree dwellers, since the arrival of European colonists – and chimneys – these birds now almost exclusively use chimneys (and air shafts, isolated corners in lightly used buildings, and the walls of cisterns and wells). Here’s the catch, however: today many of us cage our chimneys, thus preventing chimney swifts/swallows from using them.

In 2010 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature changed this bird’s status from Least Concern to Near Threatened. Its population has declined precipitously across the majority of its range. The causes of its population decline are unclear. There may be contributing factors besides loss of roosts.  In the U.S, the chimney swift is protected and neither birds nor nests can be removed from chimneys.

How can you help? You can build a chimney ‘swallow’ tower.

This tall slender structure offers an alternative to chimneys. It is usually placed to allow easy maneuverability to descending birds, in an open field, or in a yard, in an open area…. but could also be placed, it seems to me, on a flat roof or deck. They can be big or small. As with chimneys, some maintenance is required. You can find plans on line; look for chimney swift houses. 

To Be Called   :   Testimony

by Elsa Johnson

I will speak now in other voices       :        whippoorwill        legend        saver of lost souls

haunting the wood’s edge in springtime                                calling the dusk moths home            

I will speak now in the voice of chipmunk              quicksilver             placer of sunflowers

seed-side-down                    offerings made                           for one more day’s safe grace

I will speak in the hawk’s voice         :        sharp-shinned huntress                          shrieker 

gifter of quick death         she of the ice-cold heart           the silent swift-moving shadow                         

and in the vulture’s voice          :          gleaner                  wing-rider                  wind-soarer                                                               whose presence is                                   the priesthood                                              of death

I will speak now in other voices       :       hummingbird chitter               high in the tops of

linear locust trees          :          small       writhen       ring-necked snakes                alarmed                               

loosened from sheltering stone          :         Yellow-jackets          that sting         and chase        

to sting again            and night-time horses                     bolting                       lightening

flares                         thunder-claps                            and   I will speak for the un-wild deer                 

quiet-eyed                at the yard’s edge                             browsing the bushes without fear                                                             

I would speak for what does not speak     :     the  cruel devouring mantis      the delicate

damselfly she sometimes hunts                     for bumblebees         butterflies          drunk 

in the milkweed         the goldenrod                      all that multitude of            tiny insects        

buzzing flowers         :           in red crocosmia         sprawling                        purple pungent

oregano                           yellow-eyed blue buddleia                          crystal-crusted daylilies             

star-burst filaments of    cimicifuga                                                            and bee-glad phlox                                                   

I   too    will stand to speak for the wood drake            and for the still water on which he             

rests in beauty       For the great heron            the night heron              the ‘fisher’ flashing    

low     over the water                for the geese        drifting      among the reeds       the lily

pads        and for the strong-jawed turtle         waiting                                       lurking below   

                  

I will learn and speak the language of lichen                                         of grey-green filigree

coating stone                hiding time                                      the language of the aging oaks

riddled by borer        riven with wilt                                     I will learn the codes of worms

of microscopic mycorrhizal fungi           leaf mulch             and leaf mold              decay       

the language of           the mysterious complexity of dirt             duff           ruffled rhubarb        

and all that driven             erotic              unfurling of spring                                     new risen                               

out of the driven        luminous         dying         of fall                            I will speak for them

and  this voice too    :    ocean   :     least knowable           greatest of all              her words

of hush and sibilance      of susurration      that mystic speech          that echoes        down

our own chambered seas       words        of the wet world         that tell us                we live     

not          as we think         on our own terms            but helplessly           :          Hear that            

internal roar             Feel the great wave’s pull                the irresistible draw of its wash                     

its tremble        tumble        its untranslatable speech made up of        songs            of all

the large and lesser creatures of Sea             I will speak for them        :          sharp tooth

and finned tail      tentacle and gill          I will speak for what cannot speak            even

for that vastest whale         wrecked        broken       on the broad beach            by plastic

I will speak in other voices                                                                                 to bear witness