When we built our house on a hill at the edge of the woods several years ago, we had the idea of creating a meadow instead of a lawn over the two acre area that spread out below. Neither of us like to mow, and in my profession, I’ve learned how important certain types of rare habitats are to a variety of animal and plant species. Early successional habitat, in particular, is scarce in New England. It’s an area abundant in bushes, grasses and saplings, and we had a great opportunity to create one. If you’re interested in learning more about early successional habitats and why they are so important, check out this article by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs143_022190.pdf.
What started out more as a science project turned into a labor of love that has taught us volumes about nature around us that’s all too easy to take for granted. Never in my wildest dreams would I have predicted that I’d fall in love with and learn so much from a place.
We got started by having the land cleared and the soil turned over. We purchased wildflower seed from American Meadows and spread it heavily over the area in early spring. I highly recommend their products. We’ve had great success with the American Meadows seeds and bulbs. http://www.americanmeadows.com/wildflower-seeds. We also planted a number of fruit trees including apples, peaches, pears, high and low blueberry bushes, grape vines and a large vegetable garden. Wild blackberry, raspberry and strawberries have made appearances in our meadow all on their own. Sumac and thistle are also naturally abundant.
Remember the famous quote from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, he will come?” That quote comes to mind often and slightly modified when gazing out at our field of dreams. “If you create it, they will come.” And they did. A procession of mammals, amphibians, wildflowers, birds, butterflies, dragon flies, fire flies, lady bugs, honey bees and the like have graced us with their lives. A variety of Mother Nature’s creatures thrive in the little piece of heaven that we’ve created together. The reality is that my spouse and I only got things started. The wild ones did the rest. All of them have been necessary players in the making of our nirvana. That is the first big lesson that they’ve taught us. A healthy robust environment is built on diversity. Every creature has its role to play in maintaining that perfect harmonious balance. Here are just a few of the other things we’ve learned from our meadow friends.
Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. “Mama G” is a ground hog who made her appearance the first summer of our meadow. She lives in a big pile of boulders in the field. Like humans, ground hogs love to sun themselves. I know when spring has arrived because she’ll come out of her winter slumber and lie on a big boulder belly up toward the sun, no doubt contemplating all the yummy tender plants about to emerge through the surface of the soil. The other thing that I’m sure she’s considering is what obstacles she’ll face trying to get into our vegetable garden that particular year. Mama G’s cleverness is maddening. There have been years in which she has completely decimated our garden. When she manages to breach the garden perimeter, she’s not happy with only a squash or two. She likes to take a bite out of each squash until she finds the one that’s just right. It’s in those moments that I seriously consider my neighbor’s offer to make Mama G “disappear.” But, I can’t do it. She’s merely making her way in the world and my spouse and I aren’t going to starve if she eats our entire garden. Instead, I think of it as a chess match. She’s a clever one. We just have to figure out how to be more clever. Some years we win, and some years we lose. At least the fight is fair. Besides, there is a huge soft spot in my heart for her. She brings me comfort knowing that as soon as I see her emerge from her slumber under the boulders that spring has arrived in all of its glory.
Sometimes all we need is a little help crossing the road. The other beautiful thing that comes with the passing of winter into spring is the emergence of amphibians. As soon as things start to thaw, their little body clocks turn on and compel them to move in the direction of their breeding areas. There is a large upland vernal pool in our woods that is the spring home for blue spotted salamanders, among others. Each year, there is what we call the great migration when the blue spots move in mass toward their breeding pools. Unfortunately, many of them have to cross the several dirt roads in our neighborhood to get where they are going. Salamanders are slow movers as they unthaw from the winter cold. They do the best they can to get from point A to point B, but sometimes a little help goes a long way. On those days when the critters are on the move, we set out with our neighbors to help them cross the road. It feels good to lend a hand to Mother Nature’s creatures, especially since it’s us humans who put the roads in their way.
Beauty of a smile is in the eye of the beholder, especially when it comes to wildflowers. In our field, we have established a healthy population of daisies, lupine, coreopsis, and black eyed Susan’s. Every year since we spread seed over the soil, these flowers have emerged and continue to proliferate. There is nothing like looking out and seeing a field of brilliant color. I can’t help but smile when I see them because to me, a flower looks like a smile. Even though they come in all colors, shapes and sizes they are all a smile just the same. That’s why I’ve come to appreciate all flowers, not just the ones I’ve planted by seed. There is a wooden sign hanging above the entry way to our kitchen with the mantra, “May all Your Weeds be Wildflowers.” Because I’m not in the business of farming and my field was created as habitat, I have the luxury of getting to appreciate all of the interesting things that pop up in our field. Things like thistle and milkweed have beautiful flowers that birds and butterflies such as gold finches and monarchs thrive on. One of my favorite underappreciated “weeds” is the hawkweed that comes in lovely little orange and yellow daisy like flowers. Trust me, the next time you see a “weed” in bloom on the side of the road or in your garden, check it out. I promise that you’ll see a beautiful smile if you look closely enough.
Patience is a virtue. But, the early bird does get the worm. We have been blessed with very healthy and prolific berry bushes. Our blueberry and wild black and red raspberry bushes produce loads of fruit each year. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t have enough left over to freeze for use in the winter. We aren’t the only ones who love them though. Mama G, deer, foxes, chippies and birds all wait patiently for those delectable little berries to ripen into perfection. Here’s the thing, while one has to be patient for that perfect moment of ripeness, one better not be late to the party or there won’t be anything left. Mother Nature expects hard work and vigilance in exchange for the gifts of summer. I’m just glad that there’s enough to go around. The wild ones get some and so do we so long as we get our butts out there to harvest our share. The simple lesson is that if there’s something one really wants in life, go out and get it.
Life is beautiful, but fleeting. Enjoy every second while you can and be sure to leave something positive behind. One can learn a lot about life from birds. They are fierce, loyal, smart, beautiful and sing the loveliest songs. Our meadow is filled with all kinds of them throughout the year. The bird that has most touched me is the one we refer to as “Mama Phoebe,” an olive green bird who wags her tail and lets you know she’s there with her distinctive call of phoe-be, phoe-be. She arrived about four years ago by building a nest on a board underneath our upstairs porch. Every morning, she’d hang around on the porch flying to and fro chirping and looking for insects. She was a constant companion who would show up every spring, mate and raise her babies and then head off someplace south for the winter. She wouldn’t hesitate to battle to protect her babies and she was always the doting mother. I found such joy in her company and couldn’t wait for her to return to us each spring. This year, like always, she came home to us, refurbished her nest and got busy with the business of having her babies. I loved hearing her song, and looked forward to her presence as I sat in my sun room with the windows open in the early morning. Until recently, she always managed to avoid the Cooper ’s hawk that also frequents our field in search of birds to eat. I don’t know for sure that it was the Cooper ’s hawk that silenced her voice, but I suspect it did. I saw it hanging around in the time shortly before she stopped singing. I miss her terribly, but am comforted when I paddle my kayak along the shore of the lake. The sounds of Eastern Phoebes fill the air. Mama Phoebe may have left us, but I have no doubt that her legacy lives on in the many babies she raised who now live because of her.
This meadow that we are so fortunate to share with the wild ones is a sacred place. It fills our hearts and minds with more lessons than I could ever begin to articulate. Sometimes those lessons are filled with laughter, and sometimes tears. But like the seasons and night and day, laughter and tears are integral to the cycle of our lives. I’m so grateful that our eyes, ears and souls have been opened by our place of wildness. Peace.