A Biodiversity Birthright

Last week’s Indiana Master Naturalist class has put me into a state a little bit like that dream … the one where you suddenly find a whole section of your house that you didn’t see before. “This was here all this time?”

Since the week-long intensive ended, I’ve been noticing things that previously weren’t on my radar. I’m hearing (sometimes identifying) distinct birdsongs that had largely been a sort of background chitter-chatter. Who knew there were indigo buntings around here? I had never heard of the Kentucky Coffee Tree, which I’ve seen on my walks (if my budding tree ID skills are on target).

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Sunfish. Photo by Sara Long.

On one particular day we saw fish in Lawrence Creek that were simply stunning, and a green frog to boot. Now I’m curious what wonders lie under the surface of the creek I cross every morning on my rambles.

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Green frog. Photo by Sara Long.

It’s common for Hoosiers to agree with people who denigrate our state. We seem to come at the bottom of every list measuring quality of life, particularly when it comes to environmental issues.

But: It turns out that my state is actually pretty fascinating, geographically and ecologically–with incredible (often unsung) biodiversity.

That’s largely because of a thing called the “ecotone.” This is a place where two edges overlap, such as woodlands and wetlands. More species live in these spaces, naturalist Amanda Smith told us.

And Indiana, I learned, is lousy with edges. We have the Great Lakes edge in the north. Eastern Seaboard forests terminate in Indiana. Prairies had their eastern edge in Indiana. And the swamps of the south begin in Indiana.

Finally, we have glacial edges from retreating Ice Age glaciers. (I did learn this fact as a child as the reason for the way Indiana turns hilly south of here.)

I now have a long list of Places to Visit in my Own State. Part of being a naturalist is simply appreciating the natural world. Another part is sharing wonder, to get other people out and appreciating alongside us, so they can have their own epiphanies.

Another part is dirtying up the hands. A host of volunteers and organizations and nature preserves are working to conserve our ecological heritage—to support the coevolving native plants and bugs that form the foundation of life (not to mention beauty). So much habitat has been lost to development. The wilder corridors are so fragmented and invasive species so pervasive that many native species are imperiled.

The good news is that we can be part of habitat restoration in our own places. Our yards can become “our largest national park,” urban tree advocate Holly Jones told us, quoting native plant proponent Doug Tallamy.

Because, as Holly put it, “if you think your life is independent from the black-capped chickadee*, you are wrong.” (These perky little birds are on the decline in many areas.)

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Bumblebee on milkweed. Photo by Sara Long.

“Humans cannot live as the only species on this planet because it is other species that create the ecosystem services essential to us. Every time we force a species to extinction we are encouraging our own demise.”

—Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home 

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Milkweed bug. Photo by Sara Long.

A long time ago, the elderly mother of a friend questioned me about my vegetable garden. “Do you have a lot of BUGS in your garden?” she said, and all but shuddered at the word BUGS. It was sort of comical, but sad too.

Now I want to plant a native garden that will unapologetically attract “bugs” to support the biodiversity that is Indiana’s birthright.

*A classmate just informed me that Black-capped Chickadees are in northern Indiana. South of Lafayette we have Carolina Chickadees.

All photos courtesy of my hugely talented classmate Sara Long. Check her photography website out, or follow her on Instagram at @longacres.

The 100-Foot Salad

(Or: “Eats Shoots, Blooms, Weeds, and Leaves.”)

You’ve heard of the 100-foot diet? Proponents strive to eat food grown or produced as close to home as possible. Much of the year, that is my goal. And the farmers of central Indiana offer much of what I need, from meat to eggs to dairy to fruits and veggies. There’s even a local oil option now, and certain grains and beans can be sourced locally as well.

This time of year though, I’m enjoying my 100-foot salads.

Every spring I plant salad greens in my Garden Tower and an old salvaged sink. My tradition is to go to the winter farmers market and buy starts from a farmer of my acquaintance, Laura Karr. I wrote about her farm, KG Acres, for this Farm Indiana piece. She was also the source of my perennial sorrel plants, which give a lovely lemony flavor to salads in early spring.

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OK, so the lettuce itself did not originate within 100 feet of my kitchen, but once a plant is in the garden, I claim it.

Even before the lettuce and spinach are ready to eat, I feast on chickweed that grows in my yard. Well, “feast” might be an overstatement: I graze. This succulent little salad green got its own shout-out in a Hoosier Locavore blog post, as the foraged food of the month. In February. Back then I was snitching chickweed from a farmer acquaintance’s fields, but now I have my own little clump growing next to a raised bed, and I pinch off the tips for every salad I make. Yum.

I also have chives (and chive blossoms!) that come back year after year just outside my back door. (The potted chives has developed a modest wintertime Facebook following of sorts, because I post photos of her on snowy days as Lady Chives of the Pillbox Hat, just to be silly.)

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“Lady Chives” in February, with an undignified mullet peeking out from her pillbox hat.

My catnip reseeded itself all over the yard last fall, as did arugula, as did lamb’s quarters. (Don’t think me weird, but I eat catnip leaves in salads. It’s a bit cheesy tasting. And suits my feline nature.) The young lamb’s quarters add pink interest to my salad plate, but I’ll let several of them grow tall  so I can eat them as cooked greens later in the summer. And who doesn’t love the peppery taste of arugula, especially if it’s free?

Pea shoots are another thing showing up my garden, and I think they reseeded themselves from last year’s Austrian winter peas. I am a lazy gardener, but sometimes that pays.

The coolest part of my 100-foot salad, though, lies across the street in a greenspace by the creek.

 

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Trout lily, in a photo snapped before my “salad bowl” across the street was mowed by an enterprising neighbor. Dandelion says “Hey, I’m here too!”

I can pick trout lily, violet flowers, and redbud blooms while they last. Maybe the fleeting nature of these delicacies gives them their aura of specialness. The redbuds are already on the wane, and last weekend a neighbor mowed the greenspace, so my trout lily salads are done for.

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Redbud blooms, the pinkest salad topper ever.

I also love to pick baby leaves off of a basswood (linden) tree over there. There’s something so novel about eating tree leaves in a dinner salad. They’re heartshaped, succulent (if picked small), and delicious.

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Seriously yummy basswood leaves. Later in the summer (actually very soon) it will be hard to find a small leaf this shiny and new on the low branches of “my” tree.

For a while I had sweet Jerusalem artichokes that I dug up in early spring and sliced like water chestnuts, but they’re gone now. But there’s plenty of other wild goodness in my yard and surrounding area. Small dandelion leaves (bitter!) and wood sorrel (tangy!) round out my salad bowl.

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I love to go out foraging with my little colander.

Eating a salad like this nourishes me twice, kind of like Thoreau’s wood chopping warmed him twice. It’s a delicious outing, carrying my colander out into the world to pick nature’s tenderest.

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I give you the 100-foot salad.

Living Proof

Yesterday at Rivoli Park Labyrinth, I met up with a riotous party of plants, insects, and birds.

The park, which formed on a vacant lot thanks to community organizer Lisa Boyles, has gotten overgrown this rainy summer—but it is also a haven for life.

"Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects during this dry part of the summer when they don’t have many options. Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves, bees and other insects drink the nectar, and predatory insects, such as the Green Lacewing, come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey, such as aphids" according to Chiot's Run. (Click photo for more.)

“Queen Anne’s Lace provides beneficial nectar to insects… Caterpillars of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly eat the leaves… and predatory insects come to Queen Anne’s Lace to attack prey,” according to Chiot’s Run. (Click photo for more.)

Some plants we call weeds and others we call ornamentals. Some we consider natives, wildflowers, edibles, or another elevated status. Some we designate as invasive, others as desirable.

What I realized yesterday: These divisions are more important to humans than the rest of nature, which seeks its own balance.

The plants called “weeds” are the ones we pull out. Still, the grasshoppers, bees, and spiders find food and shelter on plants of all stripes. They are the epitome of nonjudgment, our guides in an insectile anti-labeling initiative.

Friendly pollinator

Friendly pollinator

So often I am quick to judge something good or bad.

Just now I went to strike that sentence, gauging it too trite! As testament to my new commitment to allowing things to be messy and imperfect, I am leaving it there.

Lisa and I talked about this very thing: In my writing, I declared my intent to finish my book while letting go of the need for it to be “perfect, balanced, and comprehensive.” Lisa swept her arm toward the “weedy” labyrinth and said, “Here’s living proof that a project doesn’t have to be perfect—just look at it!”

What I saw: voluptuous plants abuzz with happy pollinators. Abundant living entities in ongoing conversation, all encircling the glorious hibiscus at the center. The idea of perfection doesn’t really apply when we’re partnering with life, does it? So it can be with writing.

I told Lisa that the labyrinth didn’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution to the community. Uh, hello. Maybe I should write that down and stick it on my computer monitor.

Repeat after me: We don’t have to reach some ideal in order to be a marvelous contribution!

Peas and the Possible

“The Possible’s slow fuse is lit

By the Imagination.”

—Emily Dickinson

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

Austrian winter peas planted in my garden

We have already had snow and single digit wind chills here. Yet these Austrian winter peas, planted very late, still grow.

My friend Dawn gave me a couple generous handfuls of seed to play with. I’d never heard of this hardy cover crop that doubles as a tasty wintertime salad green. But Mother Earth News had the full scoop on  planting Austrian winter peas. So somewhere between transplanting herbs and cooking up harvest stews, I threw those seeds in the ground.

I’m so glad I did!

This is the time of year when nighttime slams down on us pretty hard. A time for diving deep and dreaming. Those tender sprouts remind me that sweet tendrils of possibility can thrive in this liminal space.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in a space of unknowing. Allowing guidance to emerge organically, and playing with a deeper trust than I’ve ever had before.

And I love walking out my back door and seeing my little crop. If I never get to eat the shoots, I’ll be perfectly happy just with the view.

Thanks to Yes Magazine‘s Winter 2015 issue for the stunning Dickinson quote.