Category Archives: Nature

An Apology to Mr. Teale

As I mentioned, I am reading naturalist Edwin Way Teale‘s Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of a Naturalist’s Year. I took him to task just a bit for suggesting that winter is a pause in the turning of the wheel, arguing that the life of a gardener and her garden doesn’t stop, neither for that matter does the wheel of life. This time of year, especially, we are treated to birds taking advantage of our feeders and shrubbery. The cardinals are a favorite.

While I still might quibble over the word “pause,” Teale makes my argument for me in the entry for January 7. He writes eloquently about life being everywhere even on the coldest winter day:

Protected by sweaters and a leather jacket against the biting blasts of the north wind, I walk along the hillside this afternoon. Snow lies drifted among the wild cherries. Where the wind has swept bare the ground, the soil is frozen and rocklike. On this day of bleak cold, the earth seems dead. Yet every northern field and hillside, like a child, has the seeds and power of growth locked within. From cocoon to bur, on a winter’s day, there is everywhere life, dormant but waiting (p. 3).

Circle of the seasons, p. 3

He goes on to describe how some seeds and bulbs actually require a period of cold in order to thrive. For instance, tulips and lilacs signalled spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. So, when I moved to Virginia and started my own garden, that is what I planted. I quickly discovered, however, that we lived on the very edge of their range and growing them was challenging. It just didn’t get cold enough.

Now, as the climate warms and the plant hardiness zones shift northward, those spring favorites may become less common in Pennsylvania as well. Developed in the early to mid 20th century, the plant hardiness zones attempt to identify the average minimum temperature a zone. Changes to the existing zones were announced in November 2023 making changes to the 2012 maps. While I continue to garden in Zone 7b, my parents’ zone changed from 6b to 7a, making them warmer by 5 degrees, which may be just enough to discourage the tulips and lilacs from blooming. You can check out your zone on the interactive map. It provides your 2012 and 2023 zones for reference.

Part of the reason my lilacs struggled in Virginia was also the heat and humidity we experience in the summer. They survived but certainly did not thrive, already weakened by a too-warm winter. The American Horticultural Society developed a heat zone map that looks at the other end of the thermometer and what the high temperatures for each zone are.

Gardeners were not surprised when the new maps were released last fall. We have been seeing the changes in our own backyards for some time now. Collards, a staple of southern cooking, may be the canaries in the coal mine. The tradition is that you only pick collards after the first frost. It sweetens them up. But, lately, the frost has come later and later, and one recent year, we weren’t sure it would happen by Thanksgiving. There would be a hole on many holiday tables.

I am grateful to be able to live here on the farm, my own bit of nature to observe, my own bit of wilderness to tend. It affords me a golden opportunity to look closely and connect to the turning wheel of the seasons.

The Cold Plateau of January

Naturalist Edwin Way Teale connected with nature throughout the year. I have added Circle of the Seasons: The Journal of the Naturalist’s Year to my daily reading. In the selection for January 4, he describes midwinter as “a pause in the turning wheel of life” while “the whole circle of the seasons stretches away before us as we view the year from the cold plateau of January” (p. 2).

I don’t know if Teale was a gardener or not. While gardening life slows down this time of year, we never stop completely. I planted garlic in a raised bed in December. We ordered onion sets last fall and will be building a raised bed for their arrival in February. The seed catalogs are arriving daily.

Nature doesn’t stop completely either. As I was taking pictures the other day, I discovered Nigella seedlings in a pot. Also known as Love In a Mist, they are one of my favorites, with sweet blue blossoms that turn to balloon like seed pods, self-sowing and sprouting in the fall, surviving through the winter, then blooming with the first warmth of spring.

Farm Life

Our first planting of corn has been producing for almost a month! Eating fresh and freezing as much as possible.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, about her family farm in southwest Virginia, she describes the extensive preparations they took to protect the garden from weeds and critters before going away for a week. I was away for two weeks at the height of the growing season with no time for preparation, and my gardens, both vegetable and flower, were busy both producing and returning to the wild when I returned. I was able to wrestle back some control from the weeds while also harvesting corn, green beans and tomatoes for consumption and preservation. My freezer is slowly filling up with bags of beans and plastic containers of corn and tomato sauce. It will be a delicious winter.

The Pear Orchard
The pear orchard with six trees and lots of delicious, eat-off-the tree pears.

I have also been canning pear jam with the bounty from our six pear trees, all of which have produced amazing fruit this year. I am using this great recipe from Practical Self Reliance; it makes a beautiful, chunky but spreadable jam. My only hack is that I use my pressure cooker to cook down the pears as it requires less tending than the stove top.

The world of “real” work is calling, and in between gardening and cooking, I got started on a couple projects for the fall semester. I was worried that, after feeling very retired for the first months of 2023 and especially while I was hanging out with my parents and then digging into my part-time farmer life, I wouldn’t have the energy or motivation to deal with timelines and deadlines and other people. Fortunately, my skills at prioritizing and focusing kicked back in but with a better sense of balance. I was able to integrate work without it overwhelming the rest of my life the way it might have in the past. Plus, it has been a great time to learn new tech skills: I am incorporating AI into both my edtech courses and have been having fun learning about and experimenting with ChatGPT. More on that later.

For now, I’ve got pears to prep and tomatoes to pick, and I might even take a bike ride on a Monday morning.

Pears hanging low on the branches

Tree Reading

I have been letting my books lead my reading this year and a group of three books revolved around nature with trees at the center.

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier is the fictional story of a pioneer family trying to make a living by growing apples in Ohio. When tragedy strikes, the oldest son heads west and works for a seed saver who is feeding the foreign thirst for American trees. We get a glimpse of the destruction of the huge cedars and redwoods.

It is this destruction that forms the foundation for The Overstory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the activists and scientists trying to save the last of the giant trees. I had avoided reading the book because I knew it would be a challenge to read about the deceit and devastation practiced in the name of progress that tried hard to wipe out the Native Americans, the buffalo and the ancient trees, just to name a few. I live amongst trees here at the farm, and my husband and I own ten acres of wooded land along a creek where we once considered building a house but may now just preserve it from development as long as we can.

Development and hunger for wood was devastating for the trees and for the activists who try to save them from humanity while trying to save humanity from themselves. It does not, as you might expect, go well for the trees or the people. Law enforcement was often brutal to the protesters when they refused to yield in ways I won’t describe here. Oregon Public Broadcasting has a radio series called¬†Timber Wars¬†produced in 2020 that lays out what they call the biggest environmental fight in the US.

The book is the story of ordinary human beings who encounter trees in ways that change their perspectives on the world. Powers masterfully tells their stories from their childhood through adulthood through the perspective of their journey both to and then with trees at the center. Along the way, we learn the stories of trees in America including references the Johnny Appleseed, chestnut blight and seed saving. It did make a nice companion to At the Edge of the Orchard although trees did not form the centerpiece of Chevalier’s novel with its focus on family and relationships. But she describes the huge stump where the westerners held dances and it is surprising to think any giants were left for Powers’ characters to save.

There may have been an undercurrent of hope in the story that ultimately the trees had a longer timeline than human beings but it couldn’t cut through the sense of grief that permeated the book. I don’t want to discourage you from reading it as I think it was the best book I’ve read this year.

The third book of the trio was The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell’s reporting from the field where he tended a 3 meter mandala in the woods of western Tennessee for a year. Haskell, a biologist, takes us deep into nature with his observations of this world, from the tops of the trees to the leaf mulch and below. He uses this small patch of the earth to lead to detailed and engaging explorations of the natural world. Haskell covered some of the topics the Powers did and lamented man’s impact on nature although his book is a bit more joyful.

These books focused primarily on the United States with brief forays into the rest of the world. Perhaps nowhere is the destruction of trees more devastating than in Brazil. A recent article in The Guardian described the increase in rainforest deforestation. In this case, it is linked to political leadership with the new leadership trying to reverse the destruction. Trees may be playing the long game but they are losing in the short term and taking us with them, I’m afraid.