All posts by Elsa Johnson

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

  

                       

Elsa Visits Sidwell Friends School

by Elsa Johnson

While in DC for the march for climate action I also visited the Sidwell Friends School, where my husband’s cousin, David Mog (an ex-Cleveland-ite), taught math for many years. Though now retired, he is still welcomed back at Sidwell Friends, and so I got a tour of the school complex. David had told me about the waste water recycling project that Sidwell Friend’s installed several years ago and which I’d expressed an interest in seeing up close and personal (well – not too).

It is a complex system in which the water from toilets flows first into a sort of settling tank where the solids settle out. Then the liquids flow into a series of three hillside, heavily planted leach beds. As it passes through the plants of each leach bed it gets progressively cleaner. Supposedly after flowing through the third leach bed, it is safe and clean and can be recirculated.  At Sidwell Friends it is reused again and again. By being circulated back to the toilets it proceeds thus in a continuous cycle. Impressive! There is really nothing to see – and definitely nothing to smell – except plants.

 

As part of the educational aspect a cylinder was installed at the top of the terraced slope that charts the flow of the water. This shows how the system works. Of course there is a good bit of unseen infrastructure of pipes, etc., in a basement which I did not visit. 

In the same location, at the bottom of the slope is a rainwater catchment pond that captures rainwater off of the roofs of several of the more recently constructed buildings surrounding the site.  The runoff rain water flows through a variety of runnels and tunnels, mostly aesthetic, and then flows into a catchment pond, which has fish. The day we were there I believe there was a problem with the filter and so the system was getting tweaked a bit by the firm that manages it.  There was a young (by my standards) man working in the water and David had a good talk with him while I wandered around taking pictures. 

The Sidwell Friends complex was also interesting for using its sloped site efficiently — putting playing fields, in one case, on top of a garage, and in another on top of the gymnasium.  

After the visit to Sidwell Friends Elsa and David drove past the Kushener/Trump home which is in the same neighborhood as the new Obama digs (a few short blocks from each other), which we also tried to drive past, but the access road was (is) blocked as Obama is still heavily guarded by security, for his own safety. We did a little DC tour and talked about what may be Elsa’s next DC sojourn in September, the Interfaith March. We shall see.     

Gardenopolis Cleveland Goes to Washington D.C.

by Elsa Johnson and Catherine Feldman

Dear Gardenopolis readers,

We’ve missed a couple postings, and we apologize. We (the editorial board) confess to being political creatures for whom climate change is a very real and very present (as in right now!) issue, and the direction this president has chosen in response to this issue – i.e., to deny it, and wipe out the EPA – has had us (some of us more than others) spinning off in various activist directions ever since the inauguration. Most recently two of us (Catherine and Elsa) traveled to DC for the Climate Action March (where it was a hot! hot 91 degrees! – a record high for the month, and the month itself a record high for DC).

 

We joined the group, Elders for Climate Action for the march itself (200,000 people strong) and, briefly, for a conference at the Capitol the day before, at which Maryland representative to Congress, Jamie Raskin spoke. Someone who ‘gets it’. Several days later Catherine attend another conference ( Consultation on Conscience ) at which the young firebrand progressive Joe Kennedy III (grandson of Robert Kennedy) spoke — another person who gets it. These speakers gave us hope (alas, short lasting).

Yes, the march and those activist activities took priority, but while we were there at the Seat of Empire we also spent time doing the very Gardenopolisy thing of looking in on almost all the gardens attached to the various and many cultural institutions around the mall and taking lots of pictures…. and these pictures tell a story about how the focus of landscape in these important public spaces is now about gardening with native plants.

 

We can only applaud.  When Elsa was there in February for the Women’s March – 500,000 people strong – it seemed like every green space was being trampled, and it was hard to imagine anything withstood that trampling, but as you can see from our pictures, the landscapes look great.

One sometimes forgets the distances between the Capitol building at one end and the Lincoln Memorial at the other (yes, this 73 year old walked the entire distance – it felt like more than once). Just crossing the width of the Mall is a trek on a 91 degree day. The monumental scale is such that one could use a horse.

I (Catherine) bring two key points from my conference that are eminently applicable to Gardenopolis Cleveland. First, we were told over and over again by politicians and activists that the voices of citizens are heard by our elected officials in Washington. We were encouraged to speak out, especially in person. Attending town hall meetings and participating in marches does make a difference. Phoning, writing and signing petitions have an impact. We do not have to wait for our next opportunity to vote. Officials in D.C. are harried by the confusion caused by Trump and his administration. They need our support. When someone does something right, let them know. 

Secondly, we were encouraged to become active at the local and state level. We can fight for the environment here at home, relatively untouched by what is going on in D.C. and we need to do so. So, what can we do? Gardenopolis Cleveland would like to open that conversation. Please respond in the Comments section about what you are doing, what you would like to be doing, and any of your own organizations that need help.

 

 

Look Before You LEAP

by Elsa Johnson

(That’s supposed to be a joke — and it’s not even April)

One of my favorite organizations, which works out of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is LEAP, which stands for (take a deep breathe to get you through) Lake Erie Allegheny Partnership for Biodiversity. What is LEAP? you ask:  It is a collaborative umbrella organization bringing together a collection of regional environmental organizations falling within the ecoregion of the Lake Erie Allegheny Plateau. The list of collaborating entities is long and includes, as you would expect, our many local park districts as well as some not-so-local park districts, local and national conservancies, our natural history museum, the EPA, and more.

There are monthly meetings (10 AM second Wednesday of the month) with speakers. One recent talk was on building Chimney swift houses to provide homes for breeding chimney swift pairs: swifts are great consumers of mosquitos (Gardenopolis Cleveland plans to do an article on this soon). Another recent talk was on what kind of coyotes we have around here – which was timely, as there has been so much public talk recently about sightings of what people take to be coy-wolves. A recent long email sequence in Nextdoor Coventry went on — and on —  and on – and on, all from one sighting of what the sighter was convinced was a wolf (be assured, it wasn’t). This LEAP talk clarified the issue through pie charts that showed the genetics of various coyote  populations in the Eastern United States, and was able to  clarify what combination of genes we actually have right here (that too will make its way into Gardenopolis, someday soon).   

What is the The Lake Erie Allegheny Plateau? It is an ecoregion that includes almost everything on the United States side of Lake Erie that is in Lake Erie’s watershed, and somewhat beyond it, encompassing the Lake Plain and glaciated lands south of Canada from Sandusky Bay all the way to western New York. This area has a common glacial history and a climate that is influenced by Lake Erie. As a natural history museum visitor what this means to you is that in a place like the museum’s Perkin’s Garden and Wildlife Center, you can expect to see the plants and animals that are representative of this ecoregion.

Also, the LEAP Native Plant Committee puts out a yearly postcard of native plants which lists one tree, one shrub, and one perennial, and offers designing-with-native-plants workshops. Look for this in another coming soon Gardenopolis posting.

LEAP puts out a very handsome little booklet that tells about LEAP’s mission to conserve and protect our ecoregion from threats such as habitat destruction, destructive alterations to various physical processes (such as groundwater hydrology, and lake and stream levels) and destructive alteration to species interactions, especially via competitive pressure from invasive, non-native species. Garlic mustard and its effect on the West Virginia White Butterfly leaps (sorry – couldn’t resist) immediately to mind. And more. Some copies of this booklet, and the native plants for the year postcard, will be available at the Permaculture Potluck (see last week’s blog) on April 2nd .

My favorite part of the booklet is the breakout with description of our ecoregion’s fourteen natural communities — which are diverse and beautiful — and where you can find them. Climate change threatens many of our community ecosystems. We are seeing outbreaks of oak wilt and insect pests in some of our old growth oak forests, such as at Forest Hill Park, where the red oaks are being decimated by oak wilt

and two-lined chestnut borer, the latter of which is also affecting other oaks such as Chestnut oaks.

For more information about LEAP and our native community ecosystems go to www.leapbio.org.   

Reminder: it is garlic mustard season. This is what it looks like.

garlic mustard. It is an invasive species. If you find it in your yard, pull it. It’s edible. One of us likes to put it in his breakfast scrambled eggs.          

How the Orgy Begins

by Elsa Johnson

Honeyberry leafed out    last night                                           Her pale

tiny flower buds are straining                         ( wait!   wait!       There

are no pollinators yet! )                                                    The first grey-

green buddlea leaves    uncurl —                                      Poking amid

half-digested leaf mold                                                    fragile carcass

of insect           :          possibly bumblebee            :           and    there

a scant handful of                                                    ultra violet     irises

while here               the rhubarb                  in its red                 unfurl-

ing                      so      almost     obscene                     like a bright

vulva        aroused from dirt                                      Last year’s debris

shouts           take me!   ( away! )              while this year’s new life

claws   out of the ground                And the sparrows call    :   what? 

who?/ where?/ there!    Is it time? —  now! /now! / quick? / quick!            

Good Planets Are Hard To Find

by Elsa Johnson

the bumper sticker said            and here we are                                   stranded

in this black vacuum of space filled            beyond full          with cold pinpricks

of far    and farther     distant stars            We are no longer ignorant creatures

cowering     beating our ape chests in fear    in domination           We know we

are not the center of      the ever-expanding universe            We know the sun

does not revolve around us                                           but we are still the center

of   our  universe             in this sense the worlds still spin around      not our

planet              but            we who ride her              A fine point     but telling  :           

Good planets are hard to find

Where is the awe      commensurate to truth?     Out there amid the glittering

of infinitude          the ice-hot brilliant stars    in the blank of space            there

are surely other planets         blue         fragile        like ours                       Do we

imagine        we will find one          once we’ve fouled this one ?              Escape

to a place that               once we found a way to get there                    would

no longer   be   there                      Would be going               faster               faster                      

Perhaps ridden by its own                       brand                                            of doom                 

Are Trees Sentient Beings?

by Elsa Johnson

In an interview for Yale Environment 360, German forester Peter Wohlleben answers “Certainly”. And no, he doesn’t look like an Ent. Wohlleben argues that trees are wonderful beings with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with, and heal, other trees. How did he come to this Enti-ish belief?

As a forester, he says, he was trained to look at trees as economic commodities (I cannot resist an aside here: to wit — our culture does not value things unless they are commodities), but after joining an agency for a community beech forest in Hummel, Germany, he became disillusioned. He began to see the use of traditional commodity forestry – clear cutting, and chemical use, for example – as putting short term profits ahead of sustainability. Now he manages the forest completely differently. Distressed by these traditional forest management practices, he re-thought his position because he was someone who wanted to protect nature, and he was being asked to destroy it.

Gradually he learned that the individuals of a species actually work together and cooperate with one another. In his book The Secret Life of Trees, Wohlleben writes about how trees are sophisticated organisms that live in families. He uses the term “mother tree” to describe a tree that is at the center of an interconnected web of roots, that can distinguish whether the root it encounters is its own root, the root of another species, or the roots of its own species (this is crudely verified on our local level by our experience with the same species trees in Forest Hill Park succumbing to disease while different species trees close by survive it ). Wohlleben describes how trees pass electrical signals through the bark and into the roots, and from there into the fungi networks in the soil, and thus alert nearby trees to dangers such as insects, or disease. Trees can also learn he says, citing the example of trees that in the year after a drought took up less water in the spring so that more remained available in the soil later in the season.

Sometimes accused of anthropomorphizing trees, Wohlleben says “We humans are emotional animals. We feel things. We don’t just know the world intellectually. So I use words of emotion to connect with people’s experience.” And: “We have been viewing nature like a machine. This is a pity because trees are badly misunderstood.” And: “Nobody thinks about the inner life of trees, the feelings of these wonderful living beings.” And: “Plants process information just as animals do, but for the most part they do this much more slowly. Is life in the slow lane worth less than life on the fast track?”

Wohlleben offers the evidence that trees growing in undisturbed natural forest can beneficially affect climate change by reducing temperatures and helping the soil retain moisture under their vast canopy. Conversely, climate change adversely affects trees less densely planted, as in common practice in tree plantations. The extra CO2 in the air today is making young trees grow about 30%  faster than they did decades ago. The faster growth exhausts trees and makes them less healthy. Trees growing in undisturbed natural forest fare better, says Peter Wohlleben. They grow more closely together, causing humidity to rise, cooling the forest and helping soil retain moisture.

Ah, he loves his trees so much — maybe he is an Ent after all.

If you would like to read more of the interview with Peter Wohlleben, go to YALE ENVIRONMENT 360. The issue is 16 November, 2016. Yale 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting, and debate on global environmental issues, written by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, and policy makers (etc.). It is published by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The view and opinions expressed are those of the authors and not the school. 

   

  

Of Plants, Trees, and Soil: for Gardeners

by Elsa Johnson

What is soil  (dirt!)  (earth!) – you know, that stuff plants (most of them) grow in — and how important is it, anyway?  

I’ll answer the second question first. Very important. At its simplest, soil is the stuff that feeds the green plants that create the atmosphere of our blue-green planet.  Soil is a creation, a product, the end result of a process.

We humans have a ‘thing’ for order and neatness. It is one of the ways we distinguish between the tended (hence, civilized; hence, reassuring) and the untamed (hence, wild; hence, threatening). It is the drive that compels us to pull up every unwanted plant, to prefer bare soil to – god forbid — a ‘mess’, to throw every bit of organic debris into a recycling bag for the city to come and fetch and take away.

Plants pull nutrients from the soil – and plants also create nutrients through their growth process. This is what we see above the soil – the growing plant and the soil around it. When the organic plant dies and decays in place, those nutrients go back to the soil, both above and below ground. With the help of insects and worms that take from the plant what they need for their own survival as they break down the plant’s fiber, this natural process builds a loose layer of topsoil. Soil is creation. We can help or hinder that. We all know that. But in the garden we have a hard time resisting our human need for order, for that look-of-civilization –and so, far too often, we take away all that good organic stuff that, if left, would enrich and rebuild our soils (for free) without doing any harm.  

In the forest the process works slightly differently. Tree leaves are fibrous and tough (if they weren’t we would be eating them). They don’t break down as easily or as quickly as soft-fiber garden debris. They decompose slowly, over a long time, resulting in a deeply layered forest floor of leaves in varying stages of decay, resulting in a deep, loose, dark duff under a natural leaf mulch that holds moisture and insulates the forest floor.

And this is just above ground.

Below ground soil is truly amazing, for in both the garden and the forest within that uninteresting looking ubiquitous soil exists a universe of diverse microorganisms, fungus, and bacteria with important jobs to do bringing nutrients, minerals, oxygen, and water to the roots of plants and trees. And a world of necessary microscopic predation goes on there too (for this is always the price life pays for life). That is healthy soil, sustained by and supporting the intricate, exquisite interrelationships of this complex, rich system. Intact, undamaged, these systems are self-sustaining. However, many of our common practices damage the soil.

All plants sequester carbon, as does oil, but exposing bare soil to air allows the soil to lose carbon into the atmosphere. Soil should be either planted or mulched.

Heavy equipment regularly and repeatedly rolling over the ground compresses soil, reducing its ability to absorb and hold oxygen and water, and also kills microscopic organisms that plants and trees need for health. Try to keep the use of heavy equipment to a minimum.  

Breaking up the soil by plowing or spading also loses carbon from the soil, and perhaps more importantly, breaks up soil structure, disrupting mycorrhizal structures and microscopic animals, and severing root connections and root interrelationships necessary for plant health.

Last — chemical fertilizers kill beneficial organisms, thus destroying soil health, and making plants dependent on repeat applications. Build soil health through composting and returning organic material to the garden.             

 

Reprise – Citizen Science in Forest Hill Park

by Elsa Johnson

Last summer Gardenopolis Cleveland wrote about a project in Forest Hill Park undertaken by the Great Meadow Task Force for the East Cleveland Parks Association. The task force inventoried all the old growth trees (about 70 trees) in the park’s most iconic space, the Great Meadow, and with the help of Dr. David Roberts, a tree pathologist from Michigan University, arrived at the conclusion that the trees in the meadow are largely healthy and in good shape. However, as the summer wore on, it became clear that a group of 5 chestnut oaks about midway along the south perimeter access trail were showing signs of distress, with one clearly past saving.

How quickly this happened! It was shocking. The task force decided to invite Dr. Roberts back for a look at these trees, and at the trees in the area called the Meadow Vista, north across Forest Hill Boulevard. 

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Chestnut oak is an oak in the white oak group, native to the eastern United States, and an important ridgetop tree of the Appalachian mountain range chain, with a sparser outlier population in our northeastern Ohio foothills. Since most of us have never seen a chestnut leaf it will help to tell you that a single individual leaf somewhat resembles a beech leaf, but with small lobes, rather than fine dentations, and these gather together in a cluster.

Peeling back the bark on the dead chestnut oak tree revealed the grubs of two-lined chestnut-borers at about chest height.

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The borer starts its damage to the tree’s vascular system at the top of the tree, and works its way down. If only a few branches are affected presumably the tree could be saved, but when one finds the grubs at the base, the tree is definitely not salvageable. It is dead and should be removed and chipped (which kills the larvae). This borer is a serious insect pest of chestnut, white, black, red, scarlet, and bur oaks. Preventative treatment is possible, but treatment after a tree shows clear signs of decline is unlikely to save it.

Alas, this does not bode well for the park’s mostly oak forest. To prevent spread of this opportunistic insect in the Great Meadow (were there the funds to do so) these trees need to be gotten out of there.

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Then we all regrouped in the Meadow Vista, which has been suffering tree loss for a longer period of time than the Great Meadow; here many trees are diseased and dying. Examination of more recently dead trees here revealed chestnut borers in every affected tree. However, what Dr. Roberts was looking for was evidence of fungal pressure pads under the bark of dead and dying trees. He strongly suspected oak wilt here, based on the infection pattern he was seeing, with dead and diseased trees spreading in an ever widening ring from a center. And although we never did find pressure pads, but found lots of two-lined chestnut borer larvae, he remained concerned that oak wilt was also an issue here.

Oak wilt is an equally (or more) devastating diagnosis for our trees in the Meadow Vista. Where it might be manageable in the Great Meadow (were there the funds for treatment) in the more closely knit environment of the Meadow Vista and surrounding woods, management quickly becomes impossible as individual trees give way to densely packed forest… for oak wilt travels through the soil via the interconnected roots of same-species trees (i.e., red oak to red oak), and kills the vascular systems of trees through the soil, from the soil up. In an oak opening or savannah with some considerable distance between trees, one can cut trenches, severing the root systems, thus preventing spread. But where trees grow close together and the disease is manifesting in several locations, severing interconnected root systems is almost impossible.

The only good thing about oak wilt, and this is a very, very small thing, is that the white oak group succumb less often and less quickly than red oaks – and, indeed in Meadow Vista, all the affected trees are red oaks. Again, infected trees should be removed, chipped, and then covered for the year it takes to make sure the fungus is no longer viable.

What is the cause of so much disease? As I meet and talk with people in Cleveland Heights I discover other areas where oak trees have been lost to disease, or where there is failure to thrive. Is it stressed biological environments? How does a summer like the one we had in 2016 contribute to diseases like these? How do we plan a forest for the future? Another article will look at these questions.