Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Spring Beauty

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
I love bladdernuts. The shrub grows in two large clusters (I suspect it's clonal) along the creek in the natural area I frequent most often. The flowers are short-lived (like all spring ephemerals) and beautiful, but, of course, the real treat comes in the fall. That's when the fertilized flowers produce the unmistakable papery, Chinese-lantern-like tripartite seed pods (the "bladders"). When the fruit is ripe, the seeds loosen inside and become miniature rattles. What's not to like about this plant?

A view downstream...

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata) adorns the streambanks of the creek flowing through the preserve. It seems like there's more of it with each passing year. The deer must avoid it, though a colleague told me that rabbits decimate any phlox plants she adds to her garden.
...and up.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Bad Boys of Dance

Rasta Thomas' Bad Boys of Dance

Think dance isn't manly? Most male dancers have ripped, highly muscular bodies, the strength and power of a top athlete, and the stage presence of an actor. Rasta Thomas' Bad Boys of Dance (Saturday evening) drove home those points by skipping the tights, ballet slippers and classical music. The troupe of six guys, including artistic director Thomas, danced in T-shirts or bare-chested, in tight jeans or black pants. They wore jazz shoes or no shoes. They danced primarily to rock music.

And they showed off--big time. They pumped up the volume and sailed through the air in grand jetes. They lifted a leg high above their heads, and turned and turned in pirouettes until the rotations slowed down naturally, then ended in a split jump.

They mixed a little tap, some hip-hop, touches of jazz, and quite a lot of acrobatics--aerials and amazing handsprings. But mostly the dance was strong and confident.

Thomas' wife, Adrienne Canterna-Thomas, was a guest artist, and the pieces during which she joined the boys were some of the more interesting of the evening.

During some of the group pieces, the dancers got so involved with trying to pump up the audience that the performance devolved from concert dance into something more like an aerobics class. The strongest sections were solos and the more carefully choreographed group numbers.

In the end, the Bad Boys of Dance offered more tricks than artistry. But they were also a heck of a lot of fun!

Blue Heaven

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Back to the River Trail at Valley Forge National Historical Park last Sunday for a six-mile walk. We hardly saw any wildlife; even the Buffleheads [Bucephala albeola] that reliably overwinter on the Schuylkill River have flown north to begin nesting in the Canadian Arctic.

The River Trail was spectacular, though, because it was bordered by Virginia bluebells nearly its entire length. The floodplain was literally blanketed in blue.

This gnarled Box-elder (Acer negundo) had resprouted after the main leader had died, leaving a scenic wooden arch spanning a lazy spring seep on the floodplain.

Some Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) were in full bloom...

...while others were just unfurling.

I've still got a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) coming to my feeder. And, though they've donned full breeding plumage, I've still got White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) foraging under my feeder; the Juncos (Junco hyemalis) have all departed, but the White-throats tend to hang around a little longer.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Creek Cleanup

Braving the waters...sort'a
Last Saturday (April 17) I gathered with a group of about 125 like-minded volunteers to help clean up the banks of the creek that flows through the natural area that I visit most frequently. Actually, I joined a group that went upstream to a tributary that drains a heavily urbanized area and that, as a result, is always full of trash.

Our group scoured a gravel bar
Unfortunately, we weren't disappointed--there was plenty of trash to collect. We rolled six barrels out of the floodplain--including one that was full of water and stinking organic muck. On the bottom of the barrel were two yellow rubber gloves embedded in the goo--lord knows what that barrel contained! There were also lots of nursery planting containers, tennis balls, and ball point pens. And don't get me started on the amount of Styrofoam--enough with the Styrofoam, people!

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but this riparian area was very highly disturbed. With the exception of the canopy trees (e.g., silver maples [Acer saccharinum], box-elders [Acer negundo], and sycamores [Platanus occidentalis]), I don't think I saw a single native plant. The forest floor was covered by a carpet of lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) interrupted by the emerging stalks of Japanese knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum) and huge clusters of multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). Everything was draped and shrouded by porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata). A botanical nightmare!

A gravestone? No dates, only the initials "JC."
We even came across what might have been a gravestone. It was a gravestone-like marble slab, but it only bore the initials "JC" with no dates. The stream does not drain a cemetery, so I'm not sure where this would have come from if it was a headstone.

Group shot--with trash!
After two hours, we had a respectable pile of debris, including ten tires. We only cleaned about 500 feet of creek bank, so imagine how much more detritus is just waiting to be washed downstream during the next storm. We'll be back next year.

Warning: Stop reading here if you're disturbed by animal cruelty

Where the tributary I was helping to clean up joins the larger stream that flows though "my" natural area, the volunteers came across a really disturbing find. Someone had nailed a dog to a tree, upside down. The dog was shriveled and badly decayed, and there was no way to tell if it had been suspended like this while it was alive or was already dead. We called the police, but there's almost no chance that they'll ever find the perpetrators. This sight haunted me all weekend.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ceremony (1977)

Right up front, I've got to say that Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony is one of the best novels I've ever read. I don't read much fiction any more--especially contemporary fiction--because I'm so often disappointed by novels. But Ceremony is extraordinary. I had the novel on my bookshelves for a long time (I don't even know where I got it, it's been so long), and I finally picked it up for vacation reading because it's a slender paperback and easy to carry. Ceremony is not your typical "beach read." It's demanding, but confidently and beautifully written, and rewarding.

The novel recounts the story of Tayo, a young Native American, who was held prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II, and the horrors of captivity that almost crushed his will to survive. His return to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation west of Albuquerque only increases his feelings of estrangement and alienation. While other returning soldiers find easy refuge in alcohol and senseless violence, Tayo searches for another kind of comfort and resolution.

Tayo's quest leads him back to the Indian past and its traditions, to beliefs about witchcraft and evil, and to the ancient stories of his people. The search itself becomes a ritual, a curative ceremony that defeats Tayo's most virulent affliction: despair.

The novel is set in the Laguna Pueblo Reservation and in Gallup, New Mexico. Silko includes beautiful, memorable descriptions of the Southwestern landscape and its effect on her characters. It's not "nature writing," but parts come damn close.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Novel Hunting Technique

Immature Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) hunting on the ground

Last evening, after we both got home from work, we went for a walk at our favorite natural area. Rounding a bend and entering a field, a hawk swooped down out of a tree and onto the ground. I thought that it had caught prey, but the hawk didn't take off again immediately.

Instead, it stayed on the ground for about five minutes, walking and hopping around in the matted grasses. I suspect that it was trying to catch mice or voles that it could hear scurrying in the vegetation but couldn't quite see.
It probably would have remained there longer, continuing the same behavior, except that other walkers approached from the opposite direction. The hawk stayed on the ground for several minutes even while the other walkers looked on, but either it finally got spooked or was unsuccessful in its pursuits and it took off and perched in a tree far across the field.
Further into our walk, along the creek that flows through the preserve, we came upon a fly fisherman trying his luck as the sun was going down. While the stream is too warm to support a self-sustaining trout fishery, the local chapter of Trout Unlimited stocks the creek each year with non-native Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), and some of the fish actually seem to persist in the creek year-to-year despite its warmth and generally urban character.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Not Natural, But Nice

The Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

Another beautiful weekend here in the Mid-Atlantic. We had a Mid-Atlantic ex-pat friend visiting from St. Paul, Minnesota this weekend, and he wanted to see some places with flowering trees since Minnesota has a dearth of spring-flowering trees.

We decided to walk around the community of Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, a tiny Philadelphia suburb that has recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of several monumental buildings built in the early 20th century. Bryn Athyn was established in 1917 by John Pitcairn, the founder of Pittsburgh Plate Glass (i.e., PPG Industries). John was a robber baron of the Gilded Age (he owned property on the private lake impounded by the private dam that burst and devastated Johnstown, Pennsylvania). He later moved to Philadelphia, where he began to buy-up rural land to create a religious community that would serve as the headquarters of the Church of the New Jerusalem, a faith based on the teachings of 18th century Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg. With the land secured, John built his yellow-brick mansion (Cairnwood) on a hill overlooking the village. One of his sons, Raymond, designed and oversaw the construction of the Romanesque- and Gothic-inspired Bryn Athyn Cathedral, and then, because it was the Great Depression, he retained the cathedral artisans to build his own castle-like house called Glencairn (now a museum).
Most of the main cathedral building is Gothic

Romanesque influences in the Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Today, the cathedral is surrounded by beautiful gardens and the flowering trees our friend wanted to see.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Valley Forge Redux (and Discovered)

Box-elder (Acer negundo) flowers

We took three ambitious walks over the long weekend to firm up after a winter whose exercise consisted largely of upper body work (i.e., snow shoveling). Two of the walks were mostly for sheer movement and exercise, but yesterday we returned to Valley Forge National Historical Park and walked the River Trail that parallels the south shore of the Schuylkill River to see how far spring had advanced since our visit two weeks ago.
River Trail, Valley Forge National Historical Park. Here, the trail is bordered with lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Valley Forge is a great place to walk, but ecologically it's a disaster. There's a huge deer herd that's culled only through (numerous) automobile accidents and by hunters when deer unwittingly cross the border of the park onto private land. As a national park, there's no hunting allowed inside the boundary. In addition, the natural habitat is badly fragmented, so the landscape is beset by all the problems inherent in largely unmanaged, fragmented habitat--especially invasive vines and groundcovers. Right now, the scourge of the Eastern floodplains, lesser celandine, is everywhere.
Corky sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) and Virginia bluebells on the bank of the Schuylkill River

Virginia bluebells and lesser celandine in bloom

The western half of the 3-mile River Trail follows a narrow course between the Schuylkill River and a formidable (obviously man made) embankment about twenty feet high. I had always assumed on our relatively frequent visits that the embankment was the edge of a huge fill--that the area behind the embankment had been used for a landfill or for clean fill from construction. I'd never really investigated. On this walk, though, I proposed that we take an alternate route back to our starting place (rather than just walk out and back on the same trail as we usually do). We climbed the embankment, thinking it led to the alternate trail I sought--and instead of finding a flat plain on top of fill, we entered another world!

The area behind the embankment wasn't solid landfill as I had suspected--the embankment was a levee, created most likely to prevent flooding from the river and to allow the land behind the levee to be farmed. Over the years, though, the area behind the embankment began to retain water, and now it supports a long series of interconnected forested swamps. It was beautiful and exciting. We walked back on a well-worn but unofficial trail along the forested crest of the levee--the swamps one side and the River Trail and Schuylkill River on the other. We felt like we'd stumbled onto a strange new world.

Hidden swamp

Basking turtles in the hidden swamp

Stately sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) on the edge of the hidden swamp