Nature blog: Tying up some loose ends on Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.” This is the final entry.

As our early spring progresses, more and more plants pop up every day on the hillside. The robins are singing this morning, and there’s a slight breeze. The sound of a neighbor’s lawnmower drones on behind the birdsong, wiping out the sound of cars on the highway. It’s cool, but it’s the kind of cool that promises heat later in the day. The stinging nettle now completely blocks off the back half of the yard, and the Japanese honeysuckle is about to go into bloom. The rose of sharon shrubs have shed their seed pods entirely and unfurled leaves all up and down their gray-brown branches.

A budding black willow tree

The black willow. You can also see the dead tree of heaven and a Boston ivy vine.

What I assumed was Japanese honeysuckle vines climbing the trees of heaven nearest my house are not. Now that the leaves on the vines have grown, I see that they are broad, flat, and triangular, nothing like the long, thin leaves of the honeysuckle. I think it’s Boston ivy, also known as Japanese ivy or Japanese creeper. Another invasive species introduced from Asia. Boston ivy got its nickname from its use in that city on the sides of brick buildings. By allowing the plant to climb the sides, it provides shade and reduces heating costs in the summer.

In looking closely at the tops of the two trees of heaven closest to the house to try to figure out what kind of vine was climbing them, it looks like one of them is actually dead. If it isn’t dead, at the very least, it’s dying. It doesn’t have any buds. I didn’t notice at first because its branches intertwine with a few other not-dead trees of heaven. It’s bark has fissures on it as well, which is a sign of age in trees of heaven. They only live about fifty years, so it’s not surprising. The one next to it is probably not much younger.

Boston ivy is growing along the right-hand fence, though there it appears to be much thicker and vibrant. The vines growing on the trees of heaven don’t seem very healthy, though, as not many leaves have grown from the vines. I wonder if this has anything to do with the chemical the tree of heaven releases to impede the growth of other plants. In addition to the Boston ivy, common ivy, the dark green ivy frequently seen covering the slopes in front of homes, also grows in my back yard. The stinging nettle and various other plants keep it in check. Before I moved to Pittsburgh, common ivy was the only type of ivy I’d ever seen.

After clicking through almost every tree on the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources online list of common trees of Pennsylvania, I finally deduced that the not-dead tree is a black willow. Its leaves hang down from the branches in long, graceful clusters. A chunk of the willow’s trunk hangs off, like a gaping wound, but otherwise it seems healthy. The wound doesn’t go deep, so I hope no insect invaders nor fungi find a way to take advantage.

A new bird song that I haven’t heard before picks up. Although it’s become harder to see birds in the foliage of the yard, they chase each other back and forth constantly. I catch flashes of movement, a wing, a tail. Even now my presence doesn’t bother them, when it did in the winter. They zip around, back and forth, back and forth. Today it’s the sparrows chasing each other, but I hear at least half a dozen species chirping and singing. I imagine it’s good to be a bird in the spring time.

Nature blog: The insects of Heaven’s Hillside

This post originally appeared on April 15, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Sketch of some insects and bugsAt some point in the transition from childhood to adolescence, I stopped liking bugs and started being a little freaked out by their multiple body parts and jointed appendages. I used to relish the various bug collecting projects assigned to us in elementary school, the task of collecting enough species with my net, sticking them in jars along with rubbing alcohol-soaked cotton balls, waiting for them to die, and then carefully pinning them to a cardboard backing and labeling each one. To this day, the smell of rubbing alcohol reminds me of bug collecting.

Now, I’m learning to tolerate them again. The only bugs that ever really really freaked me out are thousand leggers, and only really when they’re near my bed. Stink bugs freak me out too–especially their soft white underbellies and the way they crunch when you squish them–, but I don’t mind them as much as thousand leggers. Thankfully, I’ve only seen one of them in three years of living in this house. We do have an abundance of spiders, and those I don’t mind at all. They eat mosquitoes (something I neglectfully left off my sketch). Aside from mosquitoes, we get a few types of moths that I’ve been unsuccessful in identifying. More annoyingly, we get yellow jackets in the summer. And stink bugs in the fall, of course.

Today, after yesterday’s wonderful soaking rainfall that we needed so much, I saw some earthworms moving about. I’m sure that made the robins happy. In addition to providing birds with food, earthworms have incredible soil benefits. Their physical presence and burrowing actions keep the soil open and prevent too much compaction, which is bad for root systems. They also help break up leaf and other dead organic matter through digestion, which improves the fertility of the soil. Some research suggests that good farmland supports up to 1,750,000 earthworms per acre, and that even in poor soil, up to 250,000 worms per acre may be present.

Rolly polley bugs, also known as pill bugs or potato bugs, is another creepy crawly that makes itself at home in my backyard and feeds on decaying plant matter. Rolly pollies are actually a type of woodlouse, and as the nickname suggests, rolls into a ball when touched. Some people apparently keep them as pets. They regulate their temperatures the same way as snakes: by sunbathing when it’s cold outside, and hiding in the shade when it’s hot. I’ve never found a rolly polley in my house, but I never have to look hard to find one outside. Apparently they can live for up to three years as pets. I’ve always thought they were vaguely cute, especially when they roll up into a little ball.

I’ve only ever seen one butterfly species in my neighborhood: the cabbage butterfly. I only ever see one or two at a time flying in my backyard. I enjoy watching them flap about the stinging nettle, especially now that the denser foliage makes bird watching much more difficult. The cabbage butterfly is named so because its caterpillars munch on that crop, causing lots of damage. The species hails from Europe and was introduced accidentally to North America, where it’s spread across the continent and become abundant. Although I enjoy the butterfly stage, I have found cabbage butterfly caterpillars on my petunias before, and I can’t say I enjoyed the holes they left in the flowers. Today, though, in the 70-degree weather, I saw only butterflies.

Nature blog: Heaven presents a mystery

This post originally appeared on April 8, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

A charred treeAfter a leisurely walk with my dogs, I went up to the backyard to see what new plants had come up since last week. I found a few, but also several trees of heaven with singed leaves. The scent of scorched plant matter hung in the air, but I could only smell it intermittently. What could have caused some of these leaves to burn like this, other than someone with a lighter or matches burning each individual leaf? Nothing on the ground looked burned or singed. I frowned. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Saturday because of excessive dry conditions, meaning that areas around Pittsburgh were at increased risk for fire.

And then I remembered the Pirates’ 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Phillies in an extra inning last night. And the Zambelli fireworks show afterward. They set the fireworks off from the Allegheny River near PNC Park, about one mile from my house. I’m not sure that hot fireworks ashes would travel far enough to singe leaves on three trees in my backyard, but nor do I have a better explanation, and the breeze seemed to be blowing off the river in this general direction. Giant magnifying glasses from space don’t sound quite as plausible as fireworks, and sometimes the smoke from the fireworks does drift into our neighborhood (we can also see them from our third floor window–though we were at the game last night, so window-watching wasn’t necessary).

12.04.08.stingingnettlesIn less mysterious backyard news, the stinging nettles* exploded from last week and have now taken over the base of the wood pile. Other minor patches of it are springing up down by the retaining wall and by the right-hand fence. I’ve been stung by the nettles enough to know to stay clear of them unless I’m wearing my thick working gloves, jeans, and long sleeves. The bull thistles have started coming up in the yard of the empty house, as well. On the next day after a rainy day, when the ground is most pliable and roots most willing to come out of it, I may need to pull up some of them to keep the path to my yard clear for myself.

I don’t think I’ve been out in the yard around noon before, at least not since the robins returned from their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico (at least those that left–many staid here all winter). Several flitted from tree to tree across multiple yards. They didn’t seem to be doing much except looking around for something. I didn’t see any other birds. My family came to visit for the baseball game (we are from Philadelphia originally, but I have turned traitor and root for most Pittsburgh sports teams–but I like the Philly teams, too), and I had hoped the cardinals would make an appearance for my mother. They didn’t, but my mom did bring me a gift–a bird identification guide.

Plant with small white flowersAnother mystery: some kind of shrub growing by the right-hand fence. It has white flowers with five petals and about a dozen stamens protruding from the center of each. Extensive searching of white flowering shrubs yielded several promising lookalikes (something in the Deutzia family or elderberry), but no positive matches–the leaves seem all wrong. Up close, the flowers remind me of a sea anemone waving in the ocean, beckoning fish to its stinging tendrils. Thankfully this plant does not seem to contain any venom. My yard doesn’t need more than one plant with an irritating defense mechanism.

 

Bird List: April 1-8

  • Male and female Northern cardinal
  • American robins
  • Black-capped chickadees
  • Song sparrows
  • European starlings (even more seem to have moved into the area lately…)
  • Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot

*Note from 2015: Yes, the yard had stinging nettles, but what exploded was actually garlic mustard, yet another invasive species. That’s what you can see in the photo, too.