Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

All Fixed Up

August 4, 2011

If I see another kid stomp on a bug during a nature walk, or scream and flail his arms around when he sees a bee I will lose my mind.  And that’s only the children.  You’d never believe some of the wacky things adults do on nature walks, like the school teacher who screamed and ran away and out of sight leaving 25 astonished third-graders with me and a sleeping garter snake we had just found under a bug board.  Or the dozens of people you see going down into the Grand Canyon in high heels.  But it’s little wonder when you consider how disconnected from life in the outdoors we are.  Most people who attend nature hikes are unschooled in basic natural science and history.  Many parents view nature hikes as strictly an entertainment for children, or for a springtime “science-lite” field trip from school with a hidden hijinks agenda.

But we have some little successes.  Two weekends ago I had a completely bug-phobic mother bring her children to “moth night”, our annual evening event when I bait trees and set up black lights to bring in moths and other night insects so they can be seen up close.  You have to love a heroic parent like that, but to her surprise and mine she had a blast.  Last weekend, I had kids and adults out in our meadow munching like happy cows on Queen Anne’s Lace roots, and arguing over the last bits.  Just in case you aren’t on any of the very worthy survivalist list serves around, Queen Anne’s Lace is the cousin of the carrot and the roots smell quite alike.  In darkness you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.  But the QAL tastes like an old, woody carrot, not a fresh one.

Looking over our meadows at Hill-Stead there are loads of wildflowers keeping Queen Anne and her lace company right now.  Joe Pye Weed and Goldenrod are starting up, Black-Eyed Susan and Milkweed have been around a few weeks. The clover has been blooming for months.  Clover, a member of the pea or legume family, grows in white, pink (often called “red”), and yellow (called “hop”), as well as a fuzzy, ochre-colored one called “rabbit’s foot”. If your yard had clover, a “good” yard service would advise you to eradicate it with pesticides. Aside from the pretty colors and the near continuous blooming habit, here’s why you might consider a stay of execution.

Nitrogen. Essential for life, it’s in about 80% of the air you breathe and is called “free nitrogen”, though it’s anything but free to us since we can’t directly use the airborne variety.  Only “fixed nitrogen” is available to animals and plants.  Where do we get it? Plants need nitrogen in the form of either nitrates or ammonia.  These come from the soil, where they are dissolved in soil water, are taken up by the roots of the plants and start wending their way through the food chain.  But, how do the nitrates and ammonia get into the soil? Nitrogen is “fixed”, or converted from free nitrogen in the air to nitrates (or ammonia) in various ways. Of course, people can add nitrogen to soil in the form of fertilizer.  And lightening can cause reactions which result in the creation of nitrates.  There is also “nitrogen fixing bacteria” that converts free nitrogen from the atmosphere into a useable form. The bacteria have enzymes that cause the change. Here’s where the clover comes in. The bacteria live in nodules on the roots of leguminous plants,-yes! Plants like clover, with both good looks AND talent.

In short, clover unlocks a key to the entire food chain.  I love it, and I keep what I have growing in my yard.  Our meadows here at Hill-Stead are filled to the brim with clover-fixed-nitrogen and the food chain to go with it.  I love showing it off to visitors.  I don’t think that nature walks need to be treated as just a Sunday afternoon diversion for the kids, yet I don’t need everyone to be a citizen scientist, either. I would like for guests to come away from our programs with a fresh understanding of the outdoors, one that sees the human individual as part of the natural continuum, a steward and caretaker and, in fact, a party to the food chain itself. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of the nitrogen cycle for that.  But you do have to go outside once in a while and look at the clover.

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If You Plant It, They Will Come

March 27, 2011

Some of my friends are on a “cleanse”. You need the book  to participate- $9.16 on Amazon.com.  You give up “obstacles to digestion” which apparently include eggs, nuts, dairy, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, peppers, meat, soy, cheese, wheat, and coffee.  Since this doesn’t leave a lot you can actually eat, there is a line of shakes and supplements, $425 for the most popular package.  Evidently people are contaminated with poisons from  a diet which presumably includes tomatoes and peppers (see above list for other possibilities), and it is recommended that the cleanse continue for at least a month.  If you have had the habit of eating any “allergen, mucous-forming or inflammatory” foods (see above), then you need to take and stay on a pre-cleanse program for a time before you can get into the actual cleansing. The more poisonous your previous diet, the longer the pre-cleanse.  Then comes the gastrointestinal scrubbing during which you will need to take pills with names like Clear, Equilibrium, Pass, Ease and so on. The image I got when I heard about these wasn’t good at all, especially “pass” and “ease”.

When you complete the tour of duty, you will feel energy and clarity, and be at least $434.16 lighter.  Starvation for the privileged.  But if you want to be on the cutting edge of weight loss fashion, look no further.  The book alone is a runaway bestseller.

I am polite about all this.  But I shudder at the frivolity while people the world over could eat for months on $425 and feel overfed.  Being riven with hunger is torture. Real starvation means the Cheezits aren’t six feet away in the cabinet if you tire of it.  The price of such hunger far exceeds $425. It is known, tragically, by millions.

On another plane, but no less pitiable is the deprivation known this winter by animals and birds throughout our area.  As the snow melted here at Hill-Stead I sadly found quite a number of bird and animal corpses.  In a harsh winter, hunger is a ruthless creditor.

This year birds gobbled up late summer berries like wild grape, pokeweed, poison ivy and blueberries before the fall was even over, so they had to start in on winter berries early.  Winter berries include cedar, sumac and winterberry.  They were in turn eaten up early. Starvation set in and with no other crop to draw from, many birds switched to eating alien and ornamental plants like multiflora rose and bittersweet. Without these foods as sustenance, I would  have found quite a few more corpses during my springtime wanderings. This got me thinking.  Because the birds had to switch over to eating invasive plants , it may mean that invasives will spread more than usual when spring warms up and the seeds dispersed by the birds begin to grow.

I began to consider the further effect of an increase in alien plants. I’ll use Hill-Stead’s experience with a butterfly, the Baltimore Checkerspot, as the perfect example. This insect has a favorite food.  And like a picky child, if the favorite food is unavailable it simply won’t eat.  But the bug has more gumption than most children, and it dies out in places where its’ preferred plant has died out.  No plant, no bug.  In this way, once common insects become more local then gradually go extinct.  Hill-Stead used to be a last gasp location for the Baltimore Checkerspot since we had quite a bit of turtlehead, the favorite plant. But the meadow began to be mowed in wider and wider margins, and the turtlehead went.  It was long before my time and anyone else here now. But the butterfly census folks still shake their heads, and so do I.  The Baltimore Checkerspot is not unique in its stubbornness. Every single insect is the same.

But here’s the thing: 96% of terrestrial birds (as opposed to sea-going birds, for example) feed their babies on insects and spiders. What determines how many and what kind of insects are around?  Plants! So, if we keep creating scenarios where invasives multiply, we will continue on a crash course with insect extinction and by extension bird extinction and by further extension, well, you get the idea.

Eastern Redbud (native)

Now it probably isn’t anyone’s specific fault that we had a bad winter and the birds had

Serviceberry (native)

to resort to eating multiflora rose hips.  But it is our fault if we fail to increase our use of native species when we plant around our homes, parks and ornamental gardens.  In this way, the birds and insects and everything that depends on them will have a leg up by having the proper food to eat. More native plants, more insects, more birds. More, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker
Estate Naturalist

Take Back Your Mink

May 28, 2010

After my mother died, I saw her everywhere.  I followed people whose hair reminded me of hers before shaking off the idea that it might somehow be her. This kind of reaction is completely normal, and in a way comforting after a loss, but I never expected to feel similarly about a few muskrats.

Earlier this year I thought I saw a weasel of some kind around the pond, and one day I got a good view. It was a mink. They are very handsome animals, and I don’t think most people think of them as weasels although they are a member of the same family. They think of them as coats. Weasels, of course, have a bad reputation and it isn’t nice to call someone a weasel, or be called one yourself. The insult is intended to mean “sneaky and low-down”. Weasels are also considered (by farmers especially) to be cruel and needless killers. Because they often “scalp” their prey and simply leave it, people think that the weasel kills for sport. Not so-he kills and returns later to eat the prize. He’s not fussy about a little putrification, and he also “caches” his food.  A farmer who wakes to a hen house full of scalped chickens regards the weasel as the worst kind of varmint, and the natural history of it is of little importance to him.  But a weasel has to kill when the opportunity presents itself, and also have a little something to fall back on. You never know when a meal is going to come along and a mink has a high metabolism. Think of them as the Holly Golightly of the animal world. And I think I remember that Holly Golightly had a really nice mink coat.

Minks are solitary, except during breeding, at which time they virtually define the word “promiscuous”, with both males and females mating as much as possible, with as many partners as possible. So the gene pool is nice and healthy, and the DNA for survival very strong.  These animals are smart and canny predators, eating fish torpid from cold during winter and switching to slower, more defenseless animals in warm weather. Which brings me back to the muskrats.  Mink will eat anything, but they really love muskrat.  Also, “abandoned” muskrat lodges make swell mink houses. So I think it is pretty clear what happened to the Hill-Stead muskrat family. Of course, muskrats need water that covers them. Our pond is getting more shallow all the time, so the muskrat days were numbered in any case.

For a while, I saw the muskrats in my imagination, too.  But, as with my mother, I finally had to accept that they were gone. In the hierarchy of small mammals, the mink with its sensitive nose and killer instinct has it all over the poor vegetarian muskrat, who just likes to noodle around the pond eating weeds. And even in the hierarchy of coats, the mink is the trophy outerwear, the muskrat for wannabe’s.  

But nature has a way of equalizing things, and the mink may eventually be taken by a coyote or even an owl. And then I’ll miss the mink.

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

May 12, 2010

There are so many things that need saving it can really be demoralizing. Whales, wolves, panthers, funny little owls, hundreds of songbirds, frogs. The list is endless. All you have to do is say the word “rainforest” and you summon up images of destruction. It’s why I don’t believe in teaching elementary kids about the rainforest at all. Let them enjoy the pleasure of nature and develop a love for it, before you discourage them with tales of extinction and despair. That people think the only interesting nature exists thousands of miles away, really only demonstrates the need for education about local natural history. There is a fascinating backstory everywhere you look, no matter where you look.

The American Kestrel is a bird in need of intervention. It depends on areas of grassland, and so is getting squeezed out of survival by the minute. Instead of farms with fields, we now have either forests or building sites, so things are tough for grassland birds like grasshopper sparrows, woodcock, upland sandpipers, meadowlarks, kestrels and others.

The American Kestrel is a tiny falcon that resembles its larger cousin the Peregrine, only with a swankier color scheme. It has blue, cream, black and rusty shades of feathers, along with stripes beneath the eyes that cut down on the glare during high-speed chases after fleeing prey. All the better to see you with, my dear. The female of the species is color-wise a little more subdued, the better to remain camouflaged as she sits on a nest.

Perched on a fence, nest box or other spot overlooking the meadow, a kestrel darts off to snatch prey out of the air. In that way, it resembles a flycatcher. But it has the ability to hover in the air scanning the area and adjusting its trajectory before diving out of the glare like a Kamikaze pilot. The hovering would make you think of a hummingbird. Because the kestrel is diminutive in comparison to just about every other bird of prey, from far off it isn’t too hard to believe you are looking at a hummer, but only for a moment. Kestrels are about the size of a robin, and the hovering behavior is a great skill. Some people still refer to the kestrel as a “sparrow hawk” (I can’t help thinking of Foghorn Leghorn and his precocious sidekick here), from its ability to take down smaller birds.

Kestrels are faithful, both to a mate, and to a nesting place. Research on one pair showed that they returned to the same nesting spot for six years. It is a remarkable statistic, given that the bird has a mortality rate of nearly 50%. Kestrels themselves are frequently the prey of larger birds, and their own reproduction depends on the availability of cavities within which to make a nest.

They are well adapted to nest boxes, and this is where Hill-Stead and Art Gingert come in. Art is on a mission to save the American Kestrel. With a keen admiration for the little bird, a wide experience as a naturalist and a steady arm with a hammer, drill and ladder, Art is scouring the state for locations that might tempt the kestrel to nest in one of his specially-designed boxes. They are fashioned out of quality wood, and follow a design he has developed based on his long experience.

Art and I put a box up the other day in one of our meadows. One of Hill-Stead’s many claims to fame is the three full-sized elms that have managed to survive the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. One of them, and by far the prettiest in my opinion, sits out in one of our hay meadows. No other tree is near it and the eye is drawn automatically to its graceful form. A Kestrel would probably see it as easily as we do. At least, that is what we hope. Art carefully hung the box, even using a level to make sure the look of it was pleasing. Now all we have to do is attract the birds. It’s a gamble to be sure. There aren’t even that many Kestrels left, comparatively speaking, and it may be vain of us to imagine that one or two will happen along and notice our box.

But there is much to be said for preserving local treasures. Just ask some of those men and animals that used to live in the rainforest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Muskrat Love

April 7, 2010

I am dating myself to admit I remember a certain popular song describing the romantic antics of two muskrats.  I believe the animal’s names were Suzy and Sam, though I wouldn’t swear to it.  If I did, I’d have to admit that I actually remember some of the mortifying lyrics. If there’s a list somewhere of egregious top-forty tunes, this should be number one. The musical duo “The Captain and Tennille” should relinquish any royalties they earned from it to the George Gershwin estate, or maybe Cole Porter’s. The crazy thing is that they unwittingly hit on a certain truth: Muskrat family relationships are marked by a touching constancy.

A muskrat family lives at the edge our pond. Their tunnels extend into the surrounding meadow. The waterside part of their home is made from plants, so if they get hungry during a winter cold snap, they just crawl down and take a few bites. The tunnels make nice, snug winter quarters, and they start low near the water and go upwards, keeping the burrow dry when the water rises.

I enjoy watching the muskrats, and though they are largely nocturnal, you can see them during the day, particularly in the early morning. They glide around the pond, busily chomping up wetland weeds. Sometimes they carry a big mouthful of greens, pushing it along with relaxed determination. They never seem to hurry, even if disturbed by a possible threat. Instead, they gently flip underwater leaving a little eddy to mark their place.  I’ve read they sometimes slap their tails to warn of danger, like the beaver, but I’ve never seen that.

Baby muskrats are called both kits and pups, and sometimes pinkies,-though I don’t care for that name because it is the same as the tiny baby mice you can buy frozen to feed pet snakes with. Muskrats do look like little puppies paddling about with their mother in the spring. Prolific breeders, muskrats can turn out up to four litters in a year. Gestation is a month or a little less, and the pup has to move on after about a month of life, to make room for the next batch. In this they are much like big, aquatic field mice. But families don’t stray far, just further on into the wetland. They live essentially in an extended family group, with grandparents, cousins, aunts and parents all within shouting distance.

Vegetarians, muskrats don’t pursue prey, they instead forage for plants. Cattails are catnip to them. It’s their favorite food, and not a bit goes to waste. Cattails are edible (even by people) from root to flower. It’s sad that cattail colonies are destroyed by the graceful but useless phragmites plant, an invasive species that overruns wetlands that cattails (and those dependent on it) favor. As cattails disappear, muskrat families peter out too, to disease, predation by coyotes or foxes, or they just move on if they can manage it.  Muskrat families become fragmented, much like the American family after World War II. Before 1940 25% of Americans lived with parents, grandparents and children. Often aunts, uncles and cousins lived close by.  The habits of children were policed by legions of well-meaning relations. Forty years later, that life had become an anomaly, vanquished by the post- war economic boom.  Phragmites is a world war to cattails, and to muskrats. Fragmented family units fare poorly in contrast to those that are intact, be they one mammal or another.

We have a big stand of cattails which is holding its own. We have phragmites, too, unfortunately, but not nearby. Though phragmites spreads like wildfire, it would have quite a distance to cover before reaching the pond. So I think our little muskrat family is safe at least from that threat.  I’d hate to see them split up.  Pretty soon we’d be seeing those little muskrat pups listening to thumping popular music on ipods, wearing droopy pants, with no nosy aunts to disapprove.

Interestingly, today economics is driving a revival of the extended American family. Expenses for seniors and a paucity of entry-level jobs for young people are keeping us together longer.  It’s not muskrat love, but it’s a start.  Pass the cattails, please.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Scrambling for Serenity

March 30, 2010

I’d like to tear the Japanese Barberry out with my bare hands.  Why is it that so many of the “problem” plants that now grow in New England green up and get going before the native plants? If I didn’t know any better, I’d be thrilled to see things growing and leaves unfurling.  It isn’t as though I don’t appreciate the change in seasons, but when all I can see when I look along the Woodland Trail is Japanese Barberry ad infinitum, I get angry. Nature is all about competition, who gets eaten, who gets to eat.  It isn’t any different among plants or animals, they are all the same.  If you live long enough to pass on your genes, you carry the day. The more genes passed on, the bigger the winner. And barberry is triumphant.

It’s galling to see bullies prevailing. Invasives are plants or animals not native to the region where they are found.  In certain cases, like Multiflora Rose, Japanese Barberry and Asiatic Bittersweet, we planted them deliberately. Brought from other climes by well-meaning garden enthusiasts, they were cultivated and treasured as plants to spice up our landscape with their exotic shapes and colors. Who knew we planted in our perennial border a floral Trojan Horse? Other plant interlopers arrived entirely against their will, in a mattress, on the bottom of someone’s shoe, in the unwitting ballast of a ship. In a way, it’s natural, part of the warp and weft of the world, but there’s a certain bitterness in it.

Non-native plants may die in an unfamiliar climate, if their needs are too specific.  But less picky plants, happy to put down roots without particular regard to soil, sun or even rainfall, run riot over everything, choking the life out of native plants and animals. In time, ecosystems fail under the unnatural competition from the invasive plant.  After habitat loss due to human disruption, habitat loss due to the effects of invasive species is the largest cause of animal and plant extinction.

Why am I filled with petulant spleen to see these barbarries colonizing our wood?  Isn’t it all part of nature? Surely the cross-pollination of certain plants and the failure of others is part of our advancement? Perhaps,but I see the invasives leading us away from balance. I cannot see the end around the bend, and I am angry at the changing landscape.

Japanese Barberry is hard to erradicate and reproduces obscenely. Elimination has to be done painstakingly, one plant at a time. Left alone barberry will render areas completely impenetrable and it has done so here, keeping me perhaps from discovering vernal pools, bear dens, coyote families, rare butterflies, a lost race of birds. I can only speculate and seethe.

But I know this: As I churn over the barberry, spring ephemerals- hepatica, trout lily and the beginning of corydallis, are popping up.  I should focus on them. They bloom from barely warmed soil, and only until the trees begin to leaf out.  You might never know they were there at all, they bloom so briefly and die back so completely, like something of a woodland secret. Yet I smolder with regret at the Japanese Barberry, quite literally grinding my teeth over them. I wonder if I could burn them out, literally a crazy idea, with a home listed on the National Register not a quarter of a mile away. There is nothing reasonable to be done, for the moment.

Emerging Trout Lily

I am very bad at deciding I am powerless. But there it is. I can only accept, look with curiosity to the future and keep my eyes open for Trout Lily.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Hope Springs Eternal

February 9, 2010

My mother had a saying for everything. Her speech was fashioned by the linguistic effects of verbally colorful Anglo/Irish parents, and from living in Guam after World War II soaking up the Southern and Western cadences of American servicemen. She spoke in a patchwork of literary references and colloquialisms, and until I began school I had no idea that not everyone spoke like that. She was full of song lyrics, too, and would break out singing if the words applied to the situation.  Some favorite expressions came from poetry, but I’m not sure to this day the derivation of many of those funny, perfect remarks.

A useful motherly comment was, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring”.  This was for when you didn’t know what you were talking about. Another was “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”, which she would say brightly if you asked for something and which meant, “we’ll see”.  It was oddly soothing and perhaps the simple addition of the word “hope” introduced a more positive flavor than the flat “we’ll see”, which every child knows is just a stalling tactic for an eventual “no”.

When the world is windy and frozen as it is in February, hope is a good arrow to keep in your quiver. I always give the same advice for cases of late winter doldrums, as I am nowhere near as clever as my mother.  I tell everyone who is down and dragging to get out and take a walk.  For starters, you need your sunlight and vitamin D to keep you on an even keel, and there’s nothing like some fresh air to improve your attitude.  And nothing reminds you more of hope springing within you than a look at a skunk cabbage as it begins poking through the frozen earth.  The only way to see that is to go for a walk in February or March!

Despite its repellant name, skunk cabbage is a wonderful thing.  One of the very earliest flowers, it has a remarkable determination to bloom.  If skunk cabbage competed in the Miss America contest, its “special talent”  (rather than baton twirling) would be its uncanny maintenance of an internally controlled heat from within, a sort of natural furnace. It runs approximately thirty-six degrees above the ambient temperature. This enables it to “burn” through frozen earth and even ice in an inexorable penetration of the surface of the ground.  As it breaches that surface and becomes visible it has a dramatic mottled purple hood called a spathe curled around an odd little flower that resembles nothing so much as a tiny morningstar (that round-headed medieval weapon with all the pointy things sticking out of it).  This is the spadix, and the little pointy things are the flowers.  You see this same configuration on many species of the lily family including calla lillies, peace lillies, jack-in-the pulpit and many others.  At the right point in early spring if you walk through a wetland carpeted with skunk cabbage, you might smell a sort of funkiness in the air. That smell draws little bees, flies and early bugs of every kind to come and nectar at the cabbage flowers, sustaining the insects and enabling them to get started on nests and procreation.  In a way, skunk cabbage is one of the mothers of spring itself, with its certain internal warmth giving way to the fecundity of an entire season.

My mother wouldn’t have touched a skunk cabbage with a ten-foot pole.  I’m pretty sure she never even saw one.  But, as a mother, she knew all about warmth, perseverance, and hope. It is remarkable at every level how our personalities are reflected in the natural world around us, though we often miss the connection. Mothers, of course, do not have a monopoly on the excellent qualities they share with the skunk cabbage, nor indeed, does every mother have them.  But there is no separating the characteristics of animals and plants from our own.  The world is a continuum.

It turns out actually, that hope DOES spring eternal for many people, and needs to.  Optimistic thoughts stimulate the amygdala, a powerful area of the brain that affects emotion.  It is biologically important to have a positive outlook.  Not everything in life will turn out perfectly, but if you thought things would always go badly, you’d never do anything.  So go out and take a walk.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Ewe Yews

November 6, 2009

IMG_0515

It’s not exactly the swallows and Capistrano, but sheep are back at Hill-Stead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Anesthesia's Faith & TheodateTheodate Pope wanted a country life.  Her rusticity was sophisticated, but at its core Hill-Stead was a farm.  The property boasted peach and apple orchards, greenhouses, silos, barns, out buildings and was as up-to-the minute in farming practices as was possible at the time.  Miss Pope prided herself on her award-winning livestock.  Sixty years later, Lil and Juliana, Hilda, Emma, Irma, Hattie, Poppie, Succotash, Jasmine, Crash, Elsie and Rhubarb are the harbingers of what we hope brings back the Hill-Stead legacy of farming.

 Thanks to the generosity of friends from up the hill, sheep once again dot the property.  Our sheepherding neighbors let us “borrow” their sheep during the warm months, and sweeter visitors you couldn’t ask for (the shepherds are darn nice, too).  To me, there is nothing more companionable than sheep.  “Our”  Shetland Sheep spend the summer eating the poison ivy and listening to poetry every other wednesday night during the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.  They seem to like poetry, and baa now and again during the readings. But they don’t let on which poems (or poets) they prefer.  

 Shetland Sheep are wonderful, and have bloodlines dating back 1000 years.  They are a dainty breed, not much larger than some sheep dogs.  At seventy-five to a hundred pounds, the ewes are pretty and nimble.  Rams are only about twenty-five pounds bigger.  Though fine-boned, they are rugged.  An “unimproved” or “primitive” breed,  they retain the robust nature of their Viking forebears.  I take exception (on their behalf) to the use of the word “unimproved” when it so clearly in their case means “not in any need of improvement”.  Shetland sheep are easy-going –their tails don’t even need to be docked.   In the literature, these tails are charmingly referred to as “flute-like”.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but if someone described any part of my physique as flute-like, I’d take it as a compliment.  These sheep are good mothers, and no-nonsense lambers.   As one of the oldest British breeds they maintain the fine characteristics of ancient wild sheep, meaning, among other things, that they are plucky and trouble-free.  Our ewes are winsome and Hill-Steaders are, quite frankly, besotted with them.

 Theodate was quite an Anglophile.  Having  British sheep on the place would certainly fit her vision of Hill-Stead, which included  stone walls built by stonemasons straight from England, and Capability Brown-inspired landscape architecture. It may be no accident that there are so many yews around the place.  Yews are about as English a tree as you can find.  The wood was the steel of the day before the industrial revolution, and its strength coupled with its flexibility makes it even today a preferred wood for longbows.  Robin Hood, legend has it, used yew for his.

But yew is poisonous-except the berry or “aril” as botanists call it.  Don’t heave a sigh of relief.  The seed within the aril is toxic,too.

 There is little point in trying to suss out the Japanese cultivar from the English or American.  Suffice to say the plant is evergreen and can be tamed into a shrub or let loose into a handsome tree.  The yew grows charmingly by leaving a bough on the ground so long it takes root and becomes another tree.  Thus, it is sometimes hard to say which is the paterfamilias amongst a grouping of yews.  A yew is a shrub or a tree, a hedge or an accent plant.  They grow in sun or shade and like a nice pruning now and again.  Most evergreens don’t. This explains its outlandish popularity as a suburban plant. In ancient times, it may have been the only British evergreen. We can see why-sun or shade, shrub or tree, accent or hedge. Few plants can claim such versatility. In this, they are similar to our sheep!

 Perhaps the most impressive feature of yew is its medicinal derivative -taxol.  Widely used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers, I (like many), may owe my life to it.  The pleasure at seeing it in full growth around our property cannot be imagined.

On a lighter note-the yew has the honor of being perhaps the first modern Christmas tree.  Queen Charlotte (wife of Charles III)  decorated a yew with sweets and toys and illuminated it with candles for a party of local children at Windsor on Christmas Day in 1800.

So there are ewes and yews, in ways oddly similar.  We are thrilled to have them both here at Hill-Stead. 

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Slug Doggerel

July 11, 2009

If I were a snail and you were a slug     snail

I’d sing your praise to every bug!

And tell a tail that few could match

About how you can lay and hatch

Your eggs yourself

As boy and girl.

slugNo other critter can unfurl

 twenty times its body length.

They haven’t  got the flex or strength.

A slug can slip away inside

Through cracks and crevices small and wide.

That single foot it leaves no print,

It just sets down a slimy hint

For you to follow later when

You back track for a snack again.

A body-made road map comes in handy

When you crave some greenery candy!

Not just for you such trail is set

Your friends and family can also get

A meal from following the handy slime,

Lettuce fears your cartographic, gastric line!

Your eyes are stalks, you look like gel

You don’t even have a shell,

Or so some think, but they don’t know

That they should try to look below

The skin on your back for there it hides

Waiting a chance to ride the tides

Where your brother shellfish play and frolic

Oh what joy to be a mollusc.

By Diane Tucker 7/11/09

The slug is a fascinating creature. It is a shellfish, the cousin of a snail. Its shell is indeed invisibly located underneath skin on the back. They are hermaphrodites, having the sexual qualities of both male and female. Eggs laid will hatch only if conditions are moist.

Slugs can stretch themselves up to twenty times their original length, enabling them to fit into tight spaces. Their slime is laid down in a continuous trail that they can retrace to a satisfying food source. Their friends and relatives can follow it too. Snails have an interrupted slime line.

Snails and slugs are further a part of an animal group known as gastropods. These creatures move using a “foot” which propels the animal forward on slime, in the case of slugs and snails, and along a sandy shore bottom in the case of other molluscs. It is a single foot like any snail would have. Snails and slugs are related to octopus, clams, oysters and scallops.

This is a banner year for slugs. They love wet weather.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Every Instant a Pinprick of Eternity

July 5, 2009

Tempus edax rerum

Time the devourer of everything 

-Ovid

You know the high point of summer has come when you start to hear it.  Starting slowly, it becomes a constant backdrop of the season.  The high-pitched whine begins low with a growing crescendo, and tapers to silence.  It’s the love song of the cicada, and in some ways it marks the beginning of the end of summer.

cicada insectA cicada has a lot of work to do before it can start looking for a mate.  So it takes the better part of the summer to get rolling.  Also, the soil needs to warm up enough to inspire them.  They start out as eggs laid into twigs, but they soon fall to the earth and make their way underground, where they suck moisture out of the roots of trees as they mature.  Some cicadas, known as periodical cicadas, spend over a decade in the ground.  They can be a real nuisance when they all pop out of the ground at once.  But the ones here in Farmington are the yearly kind, known as “dog-day harvestmen”.  They just spend the winter sleeping under the soil.  The “dog-day” part comes from the fact that you generally don’t become aware of them until summer is good and hot.

After snuggling up to tree roots over the winter  they scrabble their way toward the surface using oversized front legs.  Climbing out of the soil, they head for the nearest tree, telephone pole, deck siding-whatever is high and handy.  There, they split out of their pupal skin into all their adult finery.cicada pupa

They are one ugly bug.  Some people are petrified of them.  They’re big and they have prominent raised eyes.  Wings extend the length of the body and they make a terrific buzzing sound while flying.  Even the shells of the split skin that remain on tree trunks and telephone poles freak people out.  But they don’t bite.  They’re one of the big, harmless lugs of the insect world.

Perhaps the most notable thing about them is that crazy sound they make.  At a decibel level of 120, it’s close to causing pain in human ears. It even puts birds off trying to eat them.  Different kinds of cicadas have their different songs, so that females can choose someone from the same background.  Male cicadas cluster together to increase marketability, and to keep predators away with the cacaphony.

big eyed cicada

I think the cicada song is mournful.  It signals the passage of time, the subtle change in seasons.  “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” it seems to say.  It is the dying length of day, the sweet passing of spring’s newness.  Nature gives way to the ripe, lush time right before harvest.  It is the vigor of middle age before  an inevitable decline.

This is even more true for the cicada itself.  The adult stage is brief.  It will mate and die in short order, and by the end of September the woods are quiet. Go out soon to enjoy the love song of the cicada.  Time is already short.

I heard my first one today (July 5, 2009).  It is about two weeks later than I usually start hearing them, which is no surprise given the weather lately.  You can hear them earlier or later depending on how early or late it warms up.  So, there’s plenty of time to notice the urgent whine and savor it before the end of summer.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist