Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Looking for Mama Tree: Tree of "Heaven" Update

Not 32,000 seeds, almost all viable. 325,000 seeds, every year. Ah, Ailanthus altissima.

If you are managing--eradication being impossible--this invasive species in a time of climate change, you face an uphill battle. This plant, like poison ivy and other plants that don't serve our needs, is here to stay as Carbon-Dioxide levels continue to rise in the atmosphere.

Without resorting to clear-cutting, a practice that actually propagates the plant, or chemicals noxious to us and our bees, there are some ways to reduce the presence of this tree.

I found a great article from Phil Pannill, Regional Watershed Forester with the Forest Service at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources (link to Mr. Pannill's PDF here). It seems that the practices described last year in this blog will help, but I did find two huge "Mother trees" in the woods or near the roadside that need to be destroyed.

Thanks to the article, I now know I can do this without too many chemicals or even a chainsaw. I'm going to make hatchet-cuts around the trunks and brush in Roundup, as I do on the small trees I've been cutting. Last year's culling only yielded one tree that re-sprouted, so the method for smaller trees is about 90% successful for me. Next I'm going to put on my snakeproof chaps and wade into the thickets to get the rest, including the two "mamas" that make more seeds than there are people around here.

The key to controlling the trees in wooded areas is to keep them from reaching the canopy. If one keeps at the seedlings, they'll decline and die in the shade. Mama, however, is going to take a bit more effort. I'm still investigating what to do with the logs and brush. If they are safe to take to the county landfill to compost, off they go. The trunks are pretty and used in China for cabinetry, so I may keep them around to see how they weather for outdoor use in the garden or field.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Suburban Visitors Meet A Man From Mars

"There might be ticks," she said, stepping out of the car.

He replied, "I told you not to wear flip flops."

For the record, I don't own flip-flops or any open-toed sandals. Out here, they are not practical outdoors.

She doused her legs with bug spray. So did he, and he was wearing jeans and real shoes, good boots even.  I figured it would not be useful to tell them that I eat lots of garlic to keep the mosquitoes off, and sometimes I dust my boots with sulfur to repel ticks: not a great remedy if one wears that urban ubiquity, the flip-flop.

I also did not mention the tick jar I keep my pulled ticks in, until my bite looks okay, or the gizmo I use to remove several ticks a week from me.

That would lead to some sort of discussion about chemicals, and I'd get angry.

She got about 20 feet down our farm road and turned back. "I'll stay in the car." He said again, "I told you not to wear flip flops!"

I said something about street rods and the shell of a '55 Chevy I'm going to save, just to change the subject.

"So why are you selling these other old cars?" He asked. I have a few junkers on our property, none of them worth much, so I just gave him the real reason. "The wrecks are in the way when I'm mowing, and I've got two old cars already I fiddle with. We're going to cultivate the area to plant cover crops to feed our bees."

"Your bees," he said, as we trudged into the woods, me alert for snakes.

"You know, honey bees."

He nodded and was polite, but I was clearly the Man from Mars.

I didn't tell him, as I looked for snakes, that I'd said "hello, get a mouse!" to a big one that morning, on the steps by my garage. The serpent--a Black Racer--looked at me, stuck out his tongue, and slipped into a crack in the cinder block. My visitor would then probably recommend clearing all the undergrowth by the road, getting rid of brush piles, and so on.

Satisfied with the two pickup trucks he'd be saving from a rusty apocalypse, he and his wife went back to town. I'm sure they showered and deloused themselves. Nice folks, however, they are not my sort.

Later, another visitor came by, a talented painter and car-restorer who is going to do some body work on a car of mine. He and I walked to the garage to chat about the project, and he pointed to a patch of weeds.

"You know what THAT is?" He asked.

I looked, and looked back at him. "Poison Ivy."

He tilted his head but before he could offer advice, I said "We keep bees. I just string trim it, and we use no chemicals on our land, except some Roundup I paint with a brush on 'Tree of Heaven' after I cut them down."

Again, the Man-from-Mars look greeted me. But he too was polite and, again, not my sort.

I have seen the yards from the places where such folk come. Monocultures of grass not suited for our climate, foundation plantings just as water-intensive as the grass. Non-native trees far from the house, if there are trees. A sign on the lawn every so often, from a company with an innocuous name that cloaks its evil--GreenWays! EverGrow! BugBlaster!--that sprays poisons to kill bugs, all the bugs, or that puts toxins down so the lawn will continue its junkie life of constant chemical fixes. Meanwhile the owners of these properties breathe in chemicals daily, so trace amounts stay in their fatty tissue, accruing a little at a time...

I'd rather be a Man from Mars.

Here's a good test of a person I'd want to spend time with: they think the tick-jar is cool and talking to a snake is not odd.

I just pulled a tick off me, after my second paragraph of this post. I'll spare the readers a picture of him in the jar, crawling around.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Getting Really Local

Despite T.S. Eliot's declaration to the contrary, I do not find April to be the cruelest month. I really enjoy it, in fact. In the air are promises of summer ease, given my delightful academic schedule. We always have commencement on Mother's Day, but even before that, we have a week free when the soon-to-graduate go to "beach week" for a final communal debauch.

That sort of thing was never for me, even when I was a callow undergraduate. I tended to enjoy some casual-reading time and a bit of geeky gaming with friends, once classes ended.  And unlike so many hyper-parented students these days, back then I had no money.

Still, let them have some fun. Many of them will soon be back at home, looking for work,\ or slaving as disposable units for a large firm that will one day discard them. My students often--with a few really canny exceptions--find my attraction to the land strange. So do older creatures of chain stores and suburban neighborhoods. They cannot see the fragility and temporary nature of these living arrangements. When someone like James Howard Kunstler challenges them (as he did in a Skype visit to a class of mine a few weeks back) the students are either profoundly shocked or they laugh off Jim's dire predictions about the end of easy capital and easy energy.  After all, their smart phones, to which they are addicted, beckon them into an eternal now of continual progress and easy connections.

I'm not so sure about some of Jim's ideas, but I also doubt that our current exploitative way of life can continue, unabated, for much longer. My own solution may not suit everyone, but it involves living a deeply local life. Jim advocates it, especially in how one uses localism to build community. What does that mean?

I began by taking an assessment of what we purchase. How much of it could be sourced from a locally owned firm? How much extra would it cost, if it did cost extra? Second, I began to try, as best I could, to establish a relationship with merchants, contractors who do quality work, and old-school mechanics, not dealerships. This is not as hard as one might think. Our local butcher shop provides premium, but reasonable, meats and seafood from local sources; the beef, pork, and chicken come from our very county.  While meat may again become a luxury item at some future point, for now sustainably raised livestock help local growers retain the land, make money, and pass on essential skills to another generation. Agribusiness does none of this.

Likewise, the mechanics' shop to the east down the road and the tractor-repair to our west employ local people and have owners who live nearby. These folks will work on older cars and farm equipment that the big shops won't touch. Two small-engine wizards get things to work I can't, and I am not bad at it though chain saws will be forever finicky, even with ethanol-free gas in the tank!

Thinking local made us look for plants the same way. We were recently at Herbs Galore, an annual sale by Maymont in Richmond. It's a ritual to go and pull around a wagon of organically raised plants from local growers. Given the use of pesticides and herbicides in the soil of plants from big-box stores, we stopped buying their plants. The chemicals may be killing our bees, as seems to be the case for Neonicotinoids already under a two-year moratorium in the EU.  I will need a lot more evidence before I put chemicals into our land again, beyond the same small bottle of Roundup that has been doing a great job of controlling "Tree of Heaven" on our property. I'm so careful I use a small paintbrush to apply the product!

Perhaps it is the hope that blooms every April, but I'm not ready to give into the resignation of Jim Kunstler or worse, the despair of climate activist Paul Kingsnorth. Humans have a way of muddling along, even though we muddle things up in the process. At Herbs Galore, I saw, however, more than seedlings. I saw a new culture, a new-old type of capitalism, waiting to be born. It's at every locally owned brewery, never new bakery, every little business that finds a niche that Target or Amazon cannot crush.

Get to know your local merchants and cultivate some local skills. Even if doomsayers are wrong, any future with strong communities of committed neighbors will be a resilient one.