To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Year 2: Part 2: Post 4: Natural Questions

It’s been almost two weeks now since the semester started--two weekends and now the beginning of the second week. It’s been, I don’t know, a month, since I got the job on the landscaping crew. 

And you’d think I’d have all kinds of Charlie stories to tell, since I now work for him every day for four or five hours in the mornings, plus the two extracurricular activities, plus I have him in class on Thursdays. But I don’t, really. It seems like we’re hardly even talking.

I don’t mean that he’s giving me the cold shoulder or anything, just that we hardly ever interact anymore unless I’m part of a group of people and he’s giving us instructions or something.

Part of it’s my fault—I know he’s busy and a lot of people want a piece of his time, and I really don’t feel right insisting on occupying his lunch breaks like I did last year, when I’m spending so much of the rest of my time with him. It’s like I’ve had my turn already.

And part of it…see, I’m not even sure we’re actually spending that much less time interacting. There never was much to begin with. We’ve never been chatty. I’d ask him a question and he’d answer it, or I’d tell him how I was doing on one or another project he’d given me, or he’d tell me about some interesting thing he’d found or read somewhere, but mostly we read or listened to birds, or otherwise did exactly what either of us might have been doing if the other one wasn’t there. I don’t know if we were quietly enjoying each others' company or if my silence just saved him the trouble of getting up and going somewhere else when I showed up.

And I still do my homework in the Great Hall or, on nice days, on the Mansion porch, and he’s there reading. And I can still ask him questions whenever I need to. So I’m not sure if much has changed. Maybe it’s only that I’m not used to seeing him so much as the head of a group, treating me kind of anonymously. It’s a problem of proportion.

Anyway, last week we got all the spring trimming on the shrubs done and kind of oriented ourselves on campus. It’s incredible—I’ve lived here a year now and I’ve done all this naming of trees and so forth and even helped Charlie in the gardens more weeks last year than not, and there are still things I didn’t know. Like, I hadn’t noticed that all the bird and bat boxes on campus, except the giant Martin House, came down in the winter and that our job includes putting them all back up. I also didn’t know we have solitary bee houses and toad shelters, which we’re going to have to check and maybe replace. 

On Friday we had a kind of class on invasive exotics, which are species from other areas that can spread aggressively. Today, we worked on plant ID some more, so we can go on invasive exotic patrol starting tomorrow. I think we’ll be doing that, on and off, for a couple of weeks. Basically, it’s weeding, both on campus and in the woods. We don’t have a lot of invasives, because they do this every year, but there are always a few, either because they got missed last year or because they’ve sprouted up again. I’ve seen some multiflora rose, for example.

We’re not going to get rid of poison ivy (birds really like the berries), or stinging nettle (Rick likes to eat it) or anything else unpleasant and native. And some of the exotics we do have to keep an eye out for, like Morrow’s honeysuckle or purple loosestrife, are really pretty. I kind of understand this, but I don’t know why I understand it. That is, I’m not at all surprised that this is the rule (though some of the others on the crew were surprised, especially about the poison ivy), but I couldn’t have explained why, especially as Charlie doesn’t mind all non-natives; some of the meadows are full of dandelions and plantain and he doesn’t do anything about them. He’s fond of dandelions. For dinner (“What? My mother used to pick them,” he said to me last year when I saw him gathering dandelion greens and didn’t know him as well as I do now).

Part of the issue, with dandelions and such, is that they don’t grow outside of lawns. They don’t turn up in the woods, and there aren’t even that many of them out on the front pastures, the Flat Field and the area beyond the Edge of the World that boarders on the maple, oak, and hickory groves. Those places Charlie had completely reseeded maybe ten years ago with native grassland species. The dandelions are mostly in the pastures that are still basically overgrown lawns. Charlie says that dandelions aren’t actually invasive, and they aren’t even an exotic species; they live almost entirely in their native habitat; the European lawn. It’s not the dandelion’s fault the lawns moved…it’s the lawns, he says, that are invasive. And he won’t tolerate them. One day I think he’ll have all of the campus’s grassy areas reseeded, if the lawns don’t finish converting by themselves.

Dillon said something, on Friday, about keeping things natural. We were talking about whether all exotics are bad, and why, and what makes something an invasive, and Dillion suggested that maybe the problem is exotic species capable of spreading into natural areas. Charlie didn’t exactly explode, but I think he’s more or less allergic to the word “natural.”

“If the objective is to leave things natural, then why the hell am I a gardener?” He actually did raise his voice slightly, one of the few times I’ve actually seen him growl in a classroom setting. “I hired you to help me change this place, including changing the woods. How is that natural? And you took the job. What do you think you’ll be doing, with your shovels and your clippers and, if necessary, glyphosate, in the woods next week?”

“I think we’ll be returning this area to what it would have been if humans weren’t here. Healing it. Making it natural again,” Dillon responded, bravely.

“When weren’t humans here?” Charlie asked. “Humans have been in this area for 11,000 years. Before that, there was half a mile of ice. You want to try bringing back mastodons? You’re an animal: you change things by being here. Get over it.”

So, I’m still not sure exactly how to say what it is we’re doing, what underlying principle Charlie uses when he decides which plants go and which plants stay and which plants he goes through the trouble and expense of buying and planting.

And, meanwhile, there is Messing Around Outdoors on Thursdays, which is all about observing and discovering, not changing. We’ve only met once so far, of course, but it was a fun class. We went from one puddle in the woods to another—they’re called vernal pools and they’re important for amphibians since they dry up every summer so no fish can live in them and eat their eggs. We looked for and counted egg masses—all woodfrogs, so far, but apparently they’ll be more species later in the spring, including various salamanders. Part of our homework is to keep track of these pools, what comes here, what lays eggs here…we have data sheets to record all of it. I don’t know what Charlie does with these data sheets. I think he keeps them. I took the fall semester version of this class last year and I’ve often thought it consists mostly of the parts of science Charlie finds fun, without the parts he doesn’t like as much. 

It does seem to put him in a good mood.

[Next Post: Friday, April 4th: Tracking without snow]

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