I had to post this news while it is still fresh in my mind. Around noon today, I decided to take a break from writing and have lunch on the deck of our Allegheny Mountain home. I hoped to see some wildlife.
A pair of hummingbirds was squabbling around the nectar feeder, but the scene was otherwise peaceful. The heads of Queen Anne’s Lace were drooping at the end of their season in the little glade, and beech leaves at the forest edge were still. Only the tops of quaking aspens fluttered in the slight breeze.
I thought I caught a movement in the corner of my eye, but when I turned sharply I only saw the hummers. I went back to my coffee and sardines on toast.
I was still munching when a black form cast across my retina, and looked up. At a measured distance of only 18 feet away, well within spitting distance, was a black bear weighing 250 or so pounds—perhaps the biggest beast I have seen here. How it didn’t see me I don’t understand, unless bears are even more short-sighted than I assumed. He or she was an awesome sight. I was amazed that such a bulky animal could wander so close on a gravel path without making a sound.
It put its nose into the air, but didn’t catch my scent, and then its eyes scanned this way and that, but still didn’t notice me despite sitting directly in its vision without anything between us. I had frozen with my sandiness held aloft a few inches from my mouth, and hoping it wouldn’t notice them!
After this close encounter, which lasted only seconds rather than the minutes it seemed, the animal sauntered on. I knew where it was going. I had seen it every day since arriving on the weekend, but only through my window and mostly at dusk or later. It goes to find corn under my automatic feeder close-by. My best view was from the downstairs bathroom. It is surely the only shower stall in the county from which you can watch bears, though it’s unnecessary to be bare to enjoy the experience.
I now feel an affinity for the animal I named Sooty, although it doesn’t share my sentiments. On another occasion when it spotted me, it scampered into the woods like a frightened rabbit. But I enjoy the company and fear for its safety. I hope it stays around this refuge and doesn’t bother my nearest neighbors down the valley.
Yesterday, my only visitor of the week arrived to make an indoor repair. He is one of biggest bear-hunters in the county, and he regaled me with stories of tracking down animals as we sat on the deck after he finished the job. But I feel like Sooty’s parent and am keeping mum.
The Garden of Eden might be a metaphor for peace and, indeed, for the whole world, but today’s gardens are shrunken images. They are lawns to highlight a property; or a pain to weed and mow; or a chance to grow unsprayed fruit and vegetables; or, for flat-dwellers, something strange they don’t want to own. But a garden can be a place of peace for everyone, including city-livers, to connect with nature and for educating children.
There are two wonderful local examples in Williamsburg.
Stonehouse Elementary School
This school in James City County started a native plant garden called Habitat in 2004, winning several awards. It is a place where children from kindergarten age through sixth grade have lessons about nature and get involved in garden care.
The garden was originally a barren plot between two wings of a building where turf struggled to put down roots into the baked clay. With the help of volunteers from the Virginia Native Plant Society, a few teachers and parents, and donations from well-wishers, it has been transformed into a rich and diverse habitat.
The project launched with the arrival of truckloads of well-rotted chicken manure and llama poo, which were dug into the ground and covered with mulch to slow erosion and evaporation in baking Virginia summers. The first seeds and small shrubs were in the ground by spring of 2005. All are native species, and most have thrived with the help of human hands and without spraying.
Native plants are more supportive of animal communities than aliens. According to Douglas Tallamy of the University of Delaware: “alien ornamentals support 29 times less biodiversity than do native ornamentals.”
A decade later, it is hard to see any bare ground between May and October. Flowers decorate the top of a multi-story profusion of greenness, and are visited by dancing insects and hovering humming birds. Barn swallows nest in the eaves under a drainpipe, and bluebirds swoop to catch insects. If you separate the foliage you are likely to see scuttling beetles and a praying mantis, and perhaps a frog or even a harmless reptile. None lived there before.
Beebalm burns scarlet, Soldier Mallow towers head-high, and Hoary Mountain Mint hosts nectar-hungry bees. Many other plants are also in full flower, making the Habitat as colorful as any ornamental garden planted with aliens, but it is far richer in life and quite free of poisons. If the leaves of violets, milkweed and Golden Alexander look chewed, we can celebrate the eaters for these are food plants for caterpillars of fritillaries, monarchs, and swallowtails. None of these butterflies were introduced artificially: when their ancestors turned up they made it a home, and for generations to come.
Surely, everyone loves butterflies. Even children growing up nervous of creepy-crawlies will soon offer them a welcoming finger for landing on to become their friend. Children are natural naturalists, and naturally inquisitive about nature. As David Attenborough said to President Obama, the challenge is keeping their interest alive when they grow up.
Williamsburg Botanic Garden
The botanic garden in Freedom Park is mainly populated by native species of the Coastal Plain. There are wetland and meadow habitats for wildflowers and grasses, as well as a green roof pavilion, and a therapy garden. It is a two-acre ellipse open to all ages.
The therapy garden is not like a physic garden of medicinally important species (a good project for the future), but a classroom for children and adults, including people with disabilities. They can get hands-on training for cultivating ornamental and food plants.
It feels good getting hands dirty in dark loam. There is something therapeutic about physically working with nature, and especially a tactile engagement en plein air. Konstantin Levin, a nobleman in one of Tolstoy’s epic stories, became “awfully fond” of hand mowing. He found it was a blissful activity that earned respect from his peasants when he shared in the haymaking.
The botanic garden has a butterfly garden with a monarch waystation where researchers attach a numbered tag to monarch wings for tracking their migration like bird banding. It draws many butterflies, bees, and other pollinators to suck nectar from the abundant flowers at this time of year. The garden also has food plants for caterpillars of some butterflies and moths, and nearby are stands of oak, birch, and sourwood that are favored by other species.
Last weekend, the garden hosted a butterfly festival. Hundreds of visitors of all ages, a few in wheelchairs, endured temperatures in the low ‘90s in the long tent so they could walk among the fluttering insects. There were hundreds of specimens from a butterfly farm, including two species of swallowtails, monarchs, viceroys, buckeyes, sulfurs, and painted ladies, and perhaps others I missed.
What a spectacle! How many more human generations will be able to enjoy the more threatened species? It was another garden opportunity against the tide of modern life that alienates us from nature.
“Hey, look!” I exclaimed as a man rolled down a window of the truck he drove into our yard this morning. I think my hand was shaking as I pointed at a flower bed. “Over there! It’s our first monarch butterfly of the year. They’re rare now.”
A large butterfly fluttered around for a food plant. Its wings looked like a hinged pair of stained glass windows made of amber inside cames of black lead. They dazzled me. And then I pondered the mystery of generations that make the long migration possible and the thousands of miles for the return journey in September. They astounded me.
“Where’s your broken pane?” the man asked. “You still want it fixed?” I guess he thought I was wasting time on a stupid butterfly. It’s harder to convert someone to care for nature when there’s business to be done.
Neighbors told us that monarchs were common twenty years ago, but now we only catch sight of them a dozen times in a whole summer. The numbers are down by 90% in Virginia as well as elsewhere. Perhaps you have to live long enough to notice a difference, and that’s why it’s important to help children to care.
The fading of monarchs from the landscape has prompted lots of speculation. Is it climate change, or logging in their mountain fastness where they overwinter in Mexico, or pesticide exposure during their peregrinations, or food shortages as they traverse swathes of monoculture crops? Perhaps a little of all of them, but entomologists think the disappearance of the food plant for their caterpillars is the main reason. They only eat certain types of milkweed.
Milkweed species used to be ubiquitous, but intensive farming and mowing of fields and highway verges is stripping them across their range. Part of the problem is that we are less tolerant of “wastelands” and “weeds.” A little more “untidiness” might help them and the critters depending on them. Any creature like a monarch that depends on a single food source is more vulnerable than a less fussy eater.
It made evolutionary sense when the first monarchs laid eggs on milkweed. The plant is named for its milky sap which contains alkaloids that Native Americans used as folk remedies, and the scientific name for the genus is taken from the Greek god of healing (Asclepias). Since the alkaloids are distasteful to most birds, the caterpillars and the adult butterflies had an advantage, and prospered as long as milkweed was abundant.
There is a silver lining to this gloomy story. While agriculture and urban development are squeezing out milkweed, countless people across the country are running to save it.
The Internet is full of appeals by milkweed activists and ads from seed merchants. Some vendors even offer free milkweed seeds, bless their hearts. The US Fish and Wildlife Service are sufficiently concerned that grants are offered to help save the butterfly. And in our own county master naturalists are planting it in school gardens or rearing butterflies indoors or tagging them so researchers tracing their migration can discover the most vulnerable stages of their migration.
Even tiny efforts can feel worthwhile when they are part of a larger endeavor. I bought swamp milkweed seeds in March. After germinating in trays of potting soil I planted them out, and they are now over a foot tall in damp corners around the yard. Perhaps the colorful visitor I had today has already found them and laid its eggs under the leaves. And maybe in a couple of weeks they will grow into a bunch of fat caterpillars with black, yellow and white stripes like pajamas. Of all the critters that feast on our vegetation, they are most welcome.
Butterflies are wonderful ambassadors for nature, and monarchs are as fine symbols for conservation as giant pandas. I never heard anyone say they disliked them, except perhaps a gardener moaning about cabbage white butterflies on his brassicas. Butterflies are almost entirely harmless, and exquisitely beautiful. You can even make a friend of one if you hold out a finger very gently to offer salt in your pores.