Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

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  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


It’s a Puzzlement!

June 1, 2009

\"A Puzzlement\" sung by Yul Brynner, from \'The King and I\'
Press Here to See a Video Recording

There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know-oh!

 Very often find confusion in conclusion I concluded long ago -oh!

  In my head are many facts that as a student I have studied to procure,

In my head are many facts of which I wish I was more certain I was sure!”

So sings the King in “The King and I”.  Anyone who has ever given five minutes thought to the issue of climate change probably feels much like that.  It’s hard to know what to think because there are so very many opinions as to why, if, how much and how bad climate change is.  But as another famous figure said, “I know what I know.”

What I know is this.  Theodate Pope and John Riddle were married May 6, 1927.  It was a nice day according to the weather records.  A low tempurature of 45 degrees overnight rose to a nice spring temperature in the low 70’s for the wedding day.  Picture perfect.  Naturally, there are lovely photos of the wedding day.  John and Theodate are smiling together near the stone wall by the Sunken Garden.  The household staff is lined up on the front lawn facing the house.  And it looks like the middle of winter in the pictures.

In an earlier post, I discussed studies being undertaken at Boston University that examine Henry David Thoreau’s records of wildflower blooming dates.  Thoreau kept exhaustive records which scientists are comparing to the average bloom dates today. Nature coordinates blooming times to the return of certain insects and birds, so that pollination can occur (now you know why they call it the “birds and the bees”.) Should the bloom and the bird/bug arrival get out of synch, the plant risks becoming obsolete.  Fully a third of the species on the Thoreau list are extinct.  I wanted to take an informal look at possible climate change at Hill-Stead seeing if there had been a noticeable change in the onset of spring over the years since the Popes and Riddles lived in the house.

Knowing what a great archive we have here at Hill-Stead, I asked Cindy Cormier (Director of Curatorial Services) and Melanie Anderson (Associate Curator for Rights and Reproductions) for some help.  Mel waded through box after box until we found a couple of good ones from the wedding between Theodate and John Riddle.  I wanted something with a sure date that took place in Spring.  The wedding fit the bill.  EVERYONE wants to have wedding pictures done in the Sunken Garden!  Surely Hill-Stead’s owner and muse would have done it!  So, we figured, there would be some nice outdoor shots of the happy couple. 

There are some terrific photographs.  I chose two and decided to duplicate them with my own photographs around the date of the wedding day to see how much ahead we are now, if we are ahead at all.  I took them in color and then edited them into black and white so the comparison would be fair. 

Here are the originals:


TPR & hubbyTPR wedding group

It’s nice seeing such a happy day. Wedding pictures are always fun to look at. But look at the trees in back. True, some are evergreen. But the deciduous trees to my eye anyway look just barely budded out.

OK, now to the pictures I took on April 28, 2009. I had good weather that day, with temperatures about where they were for the Riddle nuptials. I couldn’t bank on that being the case a few days later. And although in a few days’ time the trees would be more leafed out than when I took the photos, I seized the moment and clicked the shutter. Here they are:


Try to imagine the staff posed in front of this wall in the picture to the right. Now, below is a picture of where I think John and Theodate Riddle posed:

blog picture

I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. I don’t presume to take a position on the whys and wherefores of global warming. But to my eye, in the modern photos there are clearly trees with flowers, buds and leaves on them. They look advanced to me. The dogwood in the staff picture is in full bloom as is the beauty bush in the “couple” photo. Maybe I am a few feet off, maybe that shrub wasn’t prominent then. In the vintage photos, I do think there are some buds here and there, but not much. Things look more like the beginning of April to me.

As in the King’s song, It’s a Puzzlement. Is the climate changing? It seems like maybe so. Is it a natural cycle, or did we place ourselves on the edge of the precipice we’re on? I’m not sure it matters, all I know is that the view from here is scary.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Earth Day

April 17, 2009

Theodate and Anesthesia's "Faith"

I guess it would be wrong not to do an Earth Day entry on a nature blog! But I must say, the Pope/Riddle families could never have imagined a holiday celebrating sustainable behavior, recycling and saving the Earth.

Theodate Pope dreamed of owning a farm, and ten local farms were purchased and consolidated to realize that dream. But it’s not as if they bought up the farms to put up a strip mall. The land was always farmed, and was renowned for its apples, peaches, sheep and cows.

At the time Hill-Stead was built, 98% of the population lived or worked on a farm of some kind. Only slightly more than a century later, the equation is completely inverted. Today only 2% of our population lives or works on a farm. The message is clear: we’ve gotten away from something fundamental. The origin of our food is unknown to most of us, assuming we ever think about the subject at all.

I used to do farm programs for school children. If I got lucky, a hen would produce a nice, fresh egg right around the time the group got to the chicken coop. Sliding the egg from under the chicken and holding it, still warm, to a child’s cheek I’d ask where eggs come from. All too often the answer came back, “Stop and Shop”.

Were it not for Miss Pope’s appreciation of the land, things at 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, Connecticut would be awfully different now. For starters, those ten farms that the Popes bought would have gone the way of millions of family farms. They’d be housing developments. Theodate would be chastened to realize that although her will called for Hill-Stead to become a museum it left little money to make that happen. Even to begin carrying out her wishes, much of the original land had to be sold, which accounts for the unfortunate encroachment of development near the property today. But who could have forseen how culture would change? How could anyone even think that we could NEED an “Earth Day”?

Still, over 150 acres of land remain. The property is noted for natural diversity by the Connecticut DEP, one of only a handful of such properties in Farmington or the entire state. Though in her wildest dreams Miss Pope could not have imagined our present need for land conservation, she would have liked being the cause of habitat preservation on any scale.

It is forty years since the first Earth Day, sixty-three since Theodate’s death. Only twenty-some years intervened between her demise and the days of Rachel Carson and her Silent Spring. It seems as though things went downhill quickly. How nice it might be to repair things as fast, but as every farmer knows poor earth takes time to remediate. Repairs to the environment go slowly.

Around here we’re doing some new things. We are trying to protect our pond, and have pulled out invasive plants and planted natives.  Proper mowing encourages grassland birds and other declining species. We look for ways big and small to preserve and improve the land, and to show people why this is all worth saving and celebrating.

Starting July 12, Hill-Stead will host a Farmer’s Market, showcasing locally grown and organic foods. Theodate would be delighted. I think she’d like our other outdoor programs, too. Although she had a large staff of gardeners charged with keeping the lawns exactly three inches high and hand-digging the dandelions, had she lived today I think she’d have been a big “greenie”. I bet those dandelions would have made fine salads for the household to enjoy. No doubt the gardeners would have been charged with other tasks to sustain the much-loved Hill-Stead earth.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist