Always to the frontier

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Place Of Desert

For the last year or so in American Voyages, I have been largely focused on eastern North America.  My long-time readers and those who dig further into the heap of posts will find that my emphasis started out in a completely different direction, that of the vast, diverse wild-lands that is the West (or in the case of Mexico, the North).  My travels out there were what ultimately inspired me to give a go at this blog, but heaven knows I did not start out loving such a place.  I grew up in the boreal forest, which remains to me the most primal, holy, and majestic landscape on the planet.  I viewed the southern pinelands as the next most incredible landscape, followed by a child's imaginary view of the evergreen forests of the western rainy reaches, and largely disliked that which was in between, the world of the deciduous forests and grasslands.  When it came time for me to take my first ground trip across the continent, I was dreading the flat, boring plains that I would be forced to endure.

Of course my image of them was made uglier by what I figured they would be, a continuation of the flat, artificial cornfield "prairies" of far southern Ontario, Ohio, and southern Michigan.  There was no life between the Appalachians and the Rockies, I had gathered.  But then I drove into central Illinois and saw the sky get bigger.  I crossed the Mississippi and found Iowa to be rolling, and in places where the farms had gone fallow, lush green lands dotted with the occasional Bur Oak (Quercus Macrocarpa) standing as a lone witness to another world.  August rains had come and blessed the land so that it looked as if it were something out of Hobbit country.  Again, I placed my conception of the world on top of the landscape as it truly existed and was perhaps even eager to be seen by my overly-focused eyes. 

Then came Nebraska, and some more corn, especially between Lincoln and where the Platte and I-80 meet for the first time heading west.  That river though, that shallow, silty, seemingly unimpressive river... it stole my heart and my attention.  Perhaps it was the trees that did this; tough-as-nails Cottonwoods (Populus Deltoides) forming gallery forests that made the trip so much more enjoyable for my stubborn sylvan-centric tourist agenda.  The funny thing is, though, my eyes started looking for the prairie.  I had long wondered what the transition between eastern forest and western void was like, and found instead that the corn, or at least my concern for it, had prevented me from finding this remarkable transition area.  Around North Platte, however, I saw it; hills of grass and what I presumed was only grass.  I-80 kept following the rivers, but I was headed for golden California, and the majestic mountains of Colorado.  I turned onto I-76 and into the High Plains, and much like viewing a religious icon, my mind was made quiet and my gaze indirect.  The immensity of all that was not human overtook my concentration; not for nothing have many religious experiences of some of the most intense contemplative types from western Christianity (Jesus, in fact, started to "find himself" in the desert) to the Lakota mystics who once ranged far and wide over that same northeastern Colorado grass included sharing that nature made them forget the self and connect with the infinite.

Doubtless I found such a place in the small, innocent world of childhood.  I remember the towering pines and ancient granite of the Canadian Shield transporting me far away from the worries of the present.  Then I grew up, indulged in material culture, formed a rigid world view like most other college students sharply liberal and conservative alike tend to do, and forgot about my and my world-view's insignificant place in the cosmos.  At some point I started realizing that this was at best silly and at worst insulting to myself, my place in history, and my purpose in the greater world.  Maybe I was looking for something else, or something more whole... but that trip to California plunged me into less of a tourist run and into more of a pilgrimage.  The High Plains cleared my mind and prepared me for the grandeur of the mountains to come, and more surprisingly so, the desert beyond.  I was amazed at the vista given by the Front Range, but the High Plains managed to keep me even more enthralled with my first ever glimpse of an honest-to-goodness western plant, the Sand Sagebrush (Aretmisia Filifolia).

This one was taken at Pipe Spring National Monument, on the other side of its range compared to where we first met on the Colorado High Plains.  I think this is where we fell in love. 

If you've never experience one, I would say that it alone is an excellent reason to go out west.  It feels and smells incredible, with the best olfactory performance coming after a rain.  Like so many White people before me, I always viewed sagebrush as an afterthought, even a weed.  I had encountered its northernmost version, Artemisia Frigida, back in my magical boreal youth.  Perhaps I was bred to hate prairie, however, because I found nothing likeable in that patch of meadow that constituted the "back yard" where I found my first specimen of this plant.  I have since apologized to what I assume is its children.  Back then, however, I was all about the pines, like so many people are.  No one can tolerate the fly-over states, and they seem to view anything even drier as either a wasteland, the backdrop for Vegas and sci-fi movies, or a good place to extract resources and produce more crap for us to throw away.  I certainly headed into my California voyage with a similar attitude.  Then I saw the open skies, and then I saw the sagebrush, and then I saw the yuccas... and then the cacti.  Nearly two years later, on a misty March day, I saw the saguaros, and a view of the desert that had gone from hard on life that had turned into otherworldly had then become something closer to ethereal.  The desert is a place teeming with life that has managed to not only make the best of the situation, but in many cases to positively thrive there. 

I write this because far too often we dismiss the desert as an unwelcome, useless intrusion into our idealized view of the world.  We like it lush and green, happy and managed/cultivated.  Our vision of the world, even the wild portions of it, are often frowned upon if they do not conform to our place in it.  This attitude exists in persons as different as lobbyists for the Koch brothers or ecological restorers concerned with the dwindling wolf populations on Isle Royale.  Those religious types I mentioned would probably tell the rest of us to focus instead on greater things than our immediacy.  I write this because today I read a piece related to this post, written by an "activist" living in the Mojave, an atheist no less.  I wanted to share his piece here, with all of you, and give a brief description of my own of why I think it is important.  Please, take the time to read it, because I'm shutting up now.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Wednesday Filler: Philadelphia's White Pines

Like D.C., Philadelphia is a city where one can encounter southern botanical elements such as evergreen magnolias and hardy palms next to a few northern ones like the Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus).

At Penrose ave. and Homestead st.

At Gloria Dei National Historic Site.
Unlike those zone pushed plants, however, the White Pine is actually native, albeit at the edge of its range, to the cities.  It found quite a bit of use as a landscape tree, often planted in more open situations to take advantage of the bold sweeps of its unrestricted form.  In the wild around these parts, it grows with a decent amount of vigor and majesty, and has enough of a winter chill and less than brutal summer heat in order to reproduce decently.  From here southwards, however, these conditions are only met in the Appalachians.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Garden Spaces Of Philadelphia

Last year we explored the garden and green spaces of historic Charleston and found a subtropical paradise seemingly imposing itself, sometimes orderly, sometimes not, on a city.  Like downtown Charleston, downtown historic Philadelphia is a lot of stone and brickwork and various kinds of paved streets.  This was apparently not William Penn's intention, but the early settlers who came to Philadelphia for reasons other than religious freedom were merchants and tradesmen, and all of them wanted easy access to the river.  As a result, the rural flavored, open setting that was in mind for the city went by the wayside as it grew progressively denser.  To this day, people are crammed into homes side by side.  In contrast to the larger homes of Charleston, which had courtyards and exposed back gardens, much of Philadelphia is arranged more with a combined desire to be close to the water and close to the street. 

This is not to say that the modern city is lacking in greenspace, or that even the historic core is without gardens and peaceful areas:

I forget where this is, but it's pretty much in or near the big attractions of Independence National Historical Park.

That's Carpenters' Hall, home of the First Continental Congress.
 The city is, however, much more closed in than Charleston and even New York was in the same era.  Washington might have been developed according to a more open plan under possible direction from politicians used to having the seat of government in both cities.  As noted in the last post, many politicians ducked in and out of the city whenever possible, feeling it somewhat cramped.  This was probably in large part due to the fact that some of them were less than democratic and did not enjoy proximity to the average citizen, and/or the fact that many of them were used to a more open and rural existence, especially the gentlemen of the South.  Cramped or not, the city certainly has its fair share of things paved and bricked, and the side streets off the historic core are certainly more restrictive of viewpoints than colonial Georgian or Regency era surviving cores like Charleston, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Cooperstown, and especially Williamsburg. 

But as you can see, the streets are not devoid of life.  In fact, Philadelphia does individual specimen trees remarkably well!

This is a very old American Sycamore (Platanus Occidentalis) growing in the cemetery of Gloria Dei National Historic Park.  The guide told me it was either there already, or that it had been planted during the building of the church.  Considering as how, either way, that was 1700, this is a very old tree.  The church is on an ecotone bordering the bottomland of the Delaware River, so a natural origin is not out of the question.  Come to the site just to see this beauty!
Two lovely Sweetgum (Liquidambar Styraciflua).

In short, Philadelphia is all about trying to fit life back into whatever available spots there are.  In contrast to Charleston, which I keep comparing to as it was indeed the competing botanical export center, Philadelphia is less a city seemingly overtaken by the wild as it is a city containing or built around and over top of it.  This is in part due to climate; Charleston gets a lot more rain and heat.  Still, there are the odd spaces where nature looks like it explodes.

The next three photos were taken along a little side alley off of Elfreth's Alley, a very scenic little part of the old town that has remained largely unchanged since colonial times.

But there are also many places where it is bricked and potted in. 

This should not be seen as a reflection of the attitudes of a citizenry who wished to dominate nature so much as find a place for it in a place where space was at a premium.  Cities like Chicago and New York took time to become as dense as they are, but Philadelphia started out that way, if much smaller in vertical scale.  Like Charleston, however, the surrounding environment never became as much of a secondary feature but got slowly reabsorbed into the setting.  There are many gardens, some restored, some surviving, that attempt to capture the changing face of the populace and its relationship with its environs.  The best way to see them, or any city, really, is to walk around and take in the sights. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Magnolias Of Philadelphia

When I was first learning about various trees of the continent back in my idealistic youth, I was blessed to come across a free copy of Audubon's Field Guide to North American Trees (Eastern Region).  This was a marvelous book full of fun things like maps, pictures, and even illustrations of trees in silhouette, with the evergreens being nice and full, and the deciduous trees shown in their bare winter glory.  Now and then, I came across a remarkable leafy tree... with leaves on it!  I knew about them before, of course, being a traveled veteran of Southern Florida, but what really impressed me was the fact that some of them could be found very north, namely the American Holly (Ilex Opaca) and above all else, the majestic Southern Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora).  In specific, the guide noted that the beauty is noted for hardiness "north to Philadelphia".

In gardening circles, people are lately growing fonder of the art of "zone pushing", which is to say that they, ahem, we, like to grow things far north of where they are considered hardy.  Gardeners in Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, and Cleveland (and associated friendly cities) have long since considered anything that retains leaves in the winter to be of high prestige and a reminder that life goes on during otherwise snowy and cold dark months between November and March.  Alright, so October and April...  Anyway, its a hard thing to take even a cold hardy palm or broadleaved evergreen and expect it to dance for you while the blizzard rages, at least this far inland.  Philadelphia, on the other hand, is perhaps in one of the perfect situations for attending to a variety of cultivation.

While it has far more in common with the ocean than the Appalachians, it has elements of both; pine species form extensive barrens in nearby rural areas in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as more mountain species like rhododendrons in surviving woodlands.  It's not too hot, it's not too cold, and due to an atmosphere of tolerance, it was the American city that got the most brains to boot.  Massachusetts was all about religious agenda/freedom, New York was all about commerce, Charleston and Williamsburg were all about slave-powered farming, but Philadelphia was about letting you pray how you wanted, letting you argue with people over politics, and, surprisingly, letting you talk about what academic subjects were currently in vogue.  Alexander Hamilton of the spice islands by way of New York tried to get finance to set up a crown here too, but ultimately the city is still best remembered as more of a home to the Benjamin Franklin type.  This is a city of books, trees, and people who still like to read newspapers on a park bench.

One such popular academic interest was plants.  Aristocrats in Europe went crazy over trying to acquire New World vegetation for their estates, especially in England.  Various botanists made quite the name for themselves detecting and acquiring such treasures, and Philadelphia's own John Bartram earned the respectable but low paying title of the "King's botanist".  While Charleston, under Michaux, served as a secondary port for the thriving plant and seed trade, the varieties of climate and plant life meeting here, as well as the royal connection, ensured that Philadelphia would remain the chief point of departure for the finest trees finding their way to the finest clients.  Unlike Charleston, however, Philadelphia grew up much more snug and dense, seemingly paved over, much to the distaste of the founders and succeeding generations of planners in the city who wanted everyone to have a growing space.  Thomas Jefferson disliked the environment, and like many other politicians, wanted to try to escape to greener pastures when possible, which usually meant taking a trip to Bartram's house (which I regret upon regret not stopping at).  There they talked about plants.  No, really.  Jefferson and Washington were plant geeks.

Philadelphia has since greened rather nicely, even if the concrete which has replaced the brick is still the dominant feature everywhere.  The riverbanks are lush, there are parks and green spaces never far away, and the city is home to the United States' first urban national wildlife refuge.  Out of all this, however, what caught my eye was, well, the magnolias.  My little guide book did not disappoint.  I can't remember where half of them were taken at, with the exception of the line of tall ones at Betsy Ross House.  They are not hard to find, though.  Just wander through the historic core and you will find quite a few, some very impressive in size.

Yeah, that's a Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum) intruding on the top left.  Pretty cool seeing them together!

These last fellows were at the Betsy Ross House.

There is also a garden consisting almost entirely of imported magnolias which, while not the majestic Southern Magnolia, do put on quite the show in spring.  I ran into some volunteers at the garden who gave me the unofficial history of magnolias in the city, as well as the intent behind the creators of this garden.  They explained that Washington, plant geek, wanted to green up the city he had to spend so much time in as president.  He was particularly fond of magnolias, which the ladies and I deduced to probably be his proud Southern Magnolias, arboreal symbols of American robustness.  As a symbolic tree, Magnolia Grandiflora is much more associated with the deeper South and with Andrew Jackson, who planted them at the White House as they were his wife's favorite tree.  Nevertheless, Washington probably would have run into plenty of them in his boyhood tidewater stomping grounds, as the tree was already making quite the impression in the trans-Atlantic trade and was already being cultivated as an ornamental in the southern lowcountry.  He probably enjoyed seeing a tree as robust as this in remaining green even in colder winters, and as a horticulturalist probably thought about bringing them further north with him into his presidential exile from Mt. Vernon.  The creators of the garden, acting 150 years later, apparently did not have the same design in mind, which the volunteers and I grumbled about.  The Asiatic magnolias, they said, are nice, but they only flower in the spring, and, well, are not very American.  At the risk of sounding like an ecological imperialist, considering the intent of the design of the garden, I have to agree.

Still, it's a nice garden (with a fountain, which I did not take a picture of), a quiet space of reflection surrounded by quiet streets (Locust between 4th and 5th streets) and various quiet places of worship.  There are thirteen flowering trees and shrubs which represent the thirteen colonies, but most of them are imports, and ironically, two of the species are iconic of England!  I'm a proud subject of the Commonwealth myself, but the concept seemed rather nutty to me.  If I had to guess, I would think that the creators wanted to put on an incredible burst of spring and early summer color, and to be fair, the garden was set up long after the colonial era passion for natives had faded and the Victorian and Imperial passion for exotics had become the rage.  Remember what I said about zone-pushing?  That's something fairly new, the current emerging vogue.  People maybe just weren't planting southern trees here back in the day, just as they weren't planting palms in Vancouver or London until fairly recently.

The worm has since turned, and the National Park Service tends toward at least the homegrown and preferably native ecological restoration as much as possible (and to be fair, as much as they work here and are not too distantly native, Magnolia Grandiflora is native no further north than the central Chesapeake, if I am allowed to make such a bold statement).  In the garden we get to see shifting trends in horticulture presented as a history lesson about a history lesson.  I have to admit, regardless of my angst, I stopped and enjoyed the patch of green for a while.  Washington probably would have done the same.  Jefferson would have turned cross, purchased nearby land, and started over on a superior garden.  Bartram would have sold him the plants.  All of them probably would have been in awe of the many Southern Magnolias found through the rest of the city.  I have to admit, seeing them together with so many other trees, including my favorite Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus) gave the city a pretty interesting arboreal landscape.  You can do that in DC too, but then you have to pay for it with hot, muggy summers that do not get nearly as bad here.

What's the rest of that city treescape look like?  Come on by next post for a tour. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday Afternoon Post: Really Small Town America

Smithfield, Pennsylvania, is one of those towns where if you hold your breath you can make it through by the time you need to exhale.  They do have a traffic light there, though, at the corner of Church and Morgantown. 

Its not that I am not used to small towns, I've lived in and around them most of my existence, but this particular traffic light reminded me that while this was still a full functioning town, it was also a very... small one.  There it was, standing all by itself, like a toll collector at a bridge that never gets used.  It seemed very superfluous, as if to say to the odd out-of-towner that Smithfield was something to notice while passing by, maybe even a nice community to live in, but that it would not be surprised or upset if you just kept passing on through.  That's the sort of feeling I got from that off the beaten path part of Pennsylvania in general.  Sure, Pittsburgh and even Morgantown were nearby, as were notable attractions like Fort Necessity, but this is one of those parts of North America that seemingly got skipped over for the next level of frontier. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Northern Lush

In the last post we looked at a rather handsome trees and shrubs from the American South.  It felt wrong not to also give something of a shout out to the greenery farther north, specifically that in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, or Alleghenies.  Northern forests can be very thick and have fun, acid-loving, evergreen foliage too!

This particular scene is representative of the Laurel Highlands in Pennsylvania, and is actually on the site of Fallingwater.

There we have Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron Maximum) in the lower foreground and shooting up on the right.  The darker green spruce looking trees on the right and left sides further back are Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis).  There is a huge variety of hardwoods at various stages of growth here, including oaks, beeches, maples, etc.  This is a very dense forest, albeit a healthy one with various levels of canopy.  The Hemlocks here have not yet been assaulted by the Wooly Adelgid (Adleges Tsugae), an invasive insect which has otherwise been murder on the majestic Hemlocks.  In former times, before the bug and logging had seen that many Appalachian forests looked nothing like their former glory, the above scene would have been typical of the deep woods that at once both encouraged European exploration and kept colonials back on the cultivated lower ground.  They also would have had less mosquitoes in these parts; they do not seem to swarm that much around the Hemlocks.

Like the plants in the last post, these fellows are also the in-between crowd.  They don't like to keep their feet soaked, but they don't do well with hot and dry either.  This is a forest of comfortable heat in the summer, despite the lack of breezes in the dense growth.  Things are moist, but not wet, even though the region receives plenty of rainfall like the southern one previously seen.  The soils help in that regard, holding on to what they need to with their thick layer of organic matter, while also draining relatively well.  All in all, a rather pleasant environment to live in, but still relatively unsettled.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Q and A: Southern Lush

I came across a particularly lovely picture tonight, one worthy of standing by itself in a post.  I was looking to post on another closely related topic, that of how rivers affect their surroundings in terms of soil and plant life, but that's looking like it will be a huge undertaking in terms of the sheer pictures that need to be uploaded.  Instead, since I have been active on this here blog again, and a few questions have started streaming in, tonight we feast upon a picture and try to answer a question.

Q: Since you have been to so many places and lived in quite a few, where would be an ideal place to plant some roots if you had the option?

A: That is a very unfair, difficult question.  If money were no object, I would love to have multiple small places.  One which is already there, up north in Ontario.  One on the high plains, preferably eastern Wyoming or western Nebraska.  One in highland Mexico, in the trans-volcanic belt.  One in western New York or southern Michigan, where I would probably spend most of my time.  One in the coastal South... yes, especially that one. 

If you rephrase the question as "where would you like to live to be able to garden to your heart's content", it would still be tricky, as I have a fondness for northern species of trees, shrubs, and in the flower department, for the gifts of the prairie, but wow, the South has amazing native stuff like evergreen oaks, more azaleas than you can shake a stick at, pines upon pines, moss dripping off of it all, and... magnolias.  Not the hardy, Asian hybrid kind that flower before they leaf out, but the kind that never lose their leaves and flower in full green.  Needless to say, I do have a picture, and a natural one at that, of most of these elements put together:

Oh yes, that is truly lovely.  Sure, it comes with some price tags, notably brutal summers of heat and humidity, destructive storms for a much longer period than up north (including hurricanes), and much less of a thrill regarding the onset of spring, but... I mean look at that!  The tree on the left with the brown undersides to the leaves is a Southern Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora), perhaps the second or third most beautiful tree on the planet.  The tree on the right with the lighter green, almost maple looking leaves is a Sweetgum (Liquidambar Styraciflua), a tree that can be found from the tropical cloud forests of Central America to the Ohio Valley and New York City, one of the few trees besides the Red Maple (Acer Rubrum of our past maple sugar posts) and Baldcypress (Taxodium Distichum) to brilliantly light up the Autumnal southern canopy.  In the center stage below is a Sabal Minor or Dwarf Palmetto, the northernmost naturally occurring species of palm in North America, and in the rear, dripping with that incredible Spanish Moss (Tillandsea Usneoides) is one of those incredible evergreen oaks, the Live Oak (Quercus Virginiana).  Its a veritable natural stand of who's who in the Southern tree world.  When I found this thicket, growing so peacefully off the shores of Albergottie Creek in Beauford, SC, I stared for a good ten minutes, as if it were a holy icon.

Then I had to wonder why these trees, clearly more in love with being nice and dry, were so close to something so decidedly wet like a tidal creek.  Except for the palm, none of these species like to get their feet soaked for a long time.  Then I remembered that even a few inches of elevation change can make all the difference in an otherwise very low landscape such as this.  That's the special thing about river habitats, really, they have a strong influence on their immediate surroundings, but life goes back to something else once you get far and high enough away, as we will see in our upcoming river post.  At the same time, rivers have far more of an effect on us humans; while we love to use them to travel and fence in for aesthetic purposes, we sometimes also learn to give them a wide berth, what with the way flooding and erosion works.  In many places such as this, the "extended river" becomes a vessel of green and wild cutting through an otherwise cultivated and transformed landscape.  So, to be more precise about that question, something in the South near, but not on, a river.  To be honest, the mosquitoes are just a bit much to handle...