If you drive along Illinois Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, you have surely seen the Wolf Oak Woods property. This is the site where “that oak” lives. You know, the large bur oak whose branches touch the ground!
What do you associate with Valentine's Day? Hearts and flowers? A box of chocolates? Valentine's Day cards? Birds? In the fifth century A.D., Pope Galesius established February 14 as the Feast of Saint Valentine to recognize a priest who was martyred by the Romans in 269 A.D. In the Middle Ages, people in Europe associated St. Valentine’s Day with love when they noticed that birds began choosing their mates at that time. Did you know that cardinals start to sing on Valentine’s Day to attract a mate? The beautiful red male cardinals, even more brilliant against the white snow, begin to sing their distinctive tune that some describe as sounding like they are saying "birdie, birdie, birdie." The females, colored a pale brown with a few red accents, also sing, but their muted plumage doesn't draw the eye as sharply as the males' red. Something you might not know about cardinals, is that they mate for life. Once paired up, they stick with their partner through thick and thin*. The male cardinal brings food to the female while she is brooding their eggs, and also to her and the fledglings once the eggs hatch. Now, I associate Valentine's Day with the return of the beautiful song of this beautiful bird that mates for life and brings so much joy! I hope you enjoy this sweet poem that always makes me smile. Cardinals by John L. Stanizzi (for Carol) I had seen them in the tree, and heard they mate for life, so I hung a bird feeder and waited. By the third day, sparrows and purple finches hovered and jockeyed like a swarm of bees fighting over one flower. So I hung another feeder, but the squabbling continued and the seed spilled like a shower of tiny meteors onto the ground where starlings had congregated, and blue jays, annoyed at the world, disrupted everyone except the mourning doves, who ambled around like plump old women poking for the firmest head of lettuce. Then early one evening they came, the only ones— she stood on the periphery of the small galaxy of seed; he hopped among the nuggets, calmly chose one seed at a time, carried it to her, placed it in her beak; she, head tilted, accepted it. Then they fluffed, hopped together, did it all over again. And filled with love, I phoned to tell you, over and over, about each time he celebrated being there, all alone, with her. * To be completely accurate, cardinals are what is called socially monogamous - they raise the children together. But they are not always sexually faithful, and 9-35% of the fledglings that hatch have a different father than the one who raises them!
A garden can be much more than a beautiful part of one’s home. It can also be a connection to people and the past.A garden can be much more than a beautiful part of one’s home. It can also be a connection to people and the past.
Each spring when the Virginia bluebells, trillium and wild geraniums emerge, I think of Barbara Wilson and Dale Galloway. Both invited me to dig native woodland wildflowers from their properties 15 years ago or more. Each was a kind, thoughtful and brilliant person who loved nature and worked to make the world a better place.
Barbara passed away in May. Dale moved to Texas some years ago. The plants still bloom each spring.
When I look at the growing redbud tree in our yard, I remember Madeline Bolger. A kind soul who once gave me two redbud twigs she received in the mail, saying that she had already planted several in her yard. That was in 2005. For several years, those sticks remained sticks, but they were still alive.
Madeline passed away in September 2013. In spring 2014, those sticks had grown enough that they bloomed. Today they are 10-feet tall.
In fall 2008, we seeded part of our yard with a mix of savanna plants selected by George Johnson. Species like figwort, columbine and showy goldenrod are there because of him – and a much larger area of the yard is now growing with savanna and woodland plants because George inspired me to give nature a home in my yard.
George moved to Madison, Wisconsin several years ago. He comes to the area once in a while to visit friends. I need to remember to invite him to my house so he can see the garden he inspired.
The other day, I posted some photos of a few of the plants that are blooming in my yard with the title “A few of my favorite things.” A friend, Kathleen, asked about one of the plants – a mass of pretty yellow flowers. It is called sundrop or evening primrose, a native perennial. I offered to share some with her, and mentioned that Nancy Wicker had given the plant to me. Kathleen knew Nancy well, and so she commented that the flowers would be extra special.
I remember the day Nancy gave me the flowers. She had dug them up from her garden because they were taking over. The plants were in plastic grocery bags, and clearly had been for some days. Nancy passed away last year, but those sundrops are doing well, and their bright little faces remind me of Nancy’s lovely smile.
Sometimes the memory is bittersweet. That is how I feel when I see the Shingle oak that we planted in 2005. We purchased it in a tree auction at McHenry County Nursery. That was when I first met Mary McClelland and Joe Beeson who ran the nursery. We found that we had a lot in common – including a love of oak trees – and for the next decade enjoyed a friendship.
In 2006, Mary and Joe approached The Land Conservancy’s board and asked that TLC start looking into the issue of the declining oak woodland and savanna habitat in the county. That encouragement led to the creation of Project Quercus, the Oak Keepers program, preservation and restoration of Gateway Park in Harvard and most recently, acquisition and restoration of the Wolf Oak Woods near Woodstock.
Over the years, Mary and Joe donated thousands of young oaks that TLC planted throughout the county with school groups, service organizations, scout troops and 4-H Clubs to raise awareness of the need to help bring young oaks back to the local landscape.
The personal friendship has faded, but the fond memories remain, rooted in the living legacy they created.
That’s the case with Barbara, Dale, Madeline, George, Nancy and so many others – a list too long to include here. People move in and out of our lives for many reasons, but they can always live on in our memories – and sometimes in our gardens.
“Well, I suppose we don’t need farmers much. Just three times a day.”
What is conservation? The definition is “the careful preservation of something.”
Conservation is talked about typically in the context of nature, water, soil, a historic structure, artwork, and the like. In other words, there are many different things that can be conserved.
When people talk of land conservation, what do they mean? A quote from Aldo Leopold may help clarify: “Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” Thus, conserving the land is conserving life itself.
Recently, someone asked me whether farming is compatible with conservation.
Oh boy, where do I start?
The Federal agency that works with farmers is called the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). Since 1935, the NRCS, and its predecessor, the Soil Conservation Service, has worked with farmers to help ensure farming is done in a way that conserves both soil and water resources on the land so the land will be available for crop and livestock production forever.
The agency was formed as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1935 during the Dust Bowl when Congress passed Public Law 74-46, which states "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands…is a menace to the national welfare....”
Maybe you saw Ken Burns’ documentary “The Dust Bowl,” but if not, here’s a quick summary: in the 1920s, areas of the great plains (Central United States and Canada) were being over-grazed and intensively farmed in ways that left top soil exposed to the elements. When an 8-year period of severe droughts hit the area in the 1930s, the soil literally blew away – as far away as Washington DC and New York City. In some places, 75% of the top soil was lost.
National leaders recognized that the rich prairie soils of our country were one of the most valuable natural resources the country had, and steps needed to be taken to ensure it was not wasted.
At the time, the new agency’s mission was to help farmers take better care of the land.
Today, the mission is to provide “America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, not only helping the environment but agricultural operations, too.”
To extend soil conservation to more farmers, local Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) were formed. NRCS staff work closely with the local SWCD staff to provide technical assistance on natural resource issues for landowners, farmers and other local individuals and organizations.
McHenry County is served by the McHenry-Lake Soil and Water Conservation District office in Woodstock that was formed in 1947 under the Soil and Water Conservation Districts Act: of 1937. The act states that it is " in the public interest to provide (a) for the conservation of soil, soil resources, water and water resources in the State, (b) for the control and prevention of soil erosion, (c) for the prevention of air and water pollution, and (d) for the prevention of erosion, floodwater and sediment damages, and thereby to conserve natural resources….”
There are various funding programs offered by the USDA through the NRCS. Examples include:
- the Wetland Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland permanently to wetland
- the Conservation Reserve Program where landowners are paid to convert farmland to grasses or trees for a set period of time (usually 10 years)
- the Conservation Stewardship Program that pays farmers who implement soil and water conservation practices such as no-till farming, use of cover crops to build organic matter in the soil, field buffers, grass waterways, management of habitat for wildlife, and many more things.
It is up to each farmer to decide what soil and water conservation practices he or she will use on their farm, but there is no shortage of good information and technical experts to help them make decisions that will conserve their land.
I cannot recall the last time I experienced silence - the complete absence of sound.
Sure, there have been times that I would describe as “quiet,” even very quiet, but not silent. Even late at night when Harvard is asleep, I can hear the train engines idling a mile away.
The lack of silence in our lives is a health problem that also affects our mental capacity. This fact was first recognized over a century ago. Florence Nightingale, famous British nurse and activist, declared back in the 1800s that noise inflicted on patients was “cruel,” as it hindered their recoveries. Additionally, her American contemporary, writer Herman Melville wrote: “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”
“The fog comes on little cat feet” wrote Illinois poet Carl Sandburg in 1916 as he watched the fog roll in at the Lake Michigan shore in Chicago. The next line, “It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on” describes the fog as it settles in for a while before retreating again.
This is a story about the birds and the bees (and the bats and the bugs).
That’s right, it’s a story about plant pollinators. Insects like bees and butterflies, as well as animals such as birds and bats, are responsible for pollinating two-thirds of the world’s food crops.
Have you ever heard of middens? They are basically really old landfills.
The word comes from an old Scandinavian word, moedding, which means an old dump for human domestic waste.
People have always produced waste. That is why we know most of what we know about ancient cultures that did not have a written language.
I understand that it is welcome to see something green in the woods after winter, but please keep in mind that the welcome glint of green you see spells trouble for our native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
That green you see is honeysuckle. Soon to be followed by buckthorn.
The honeysuckle was early this year. I can usually count on it starting to "leaf out" by April 12th, but first noticed it March 31 this year!