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Obligations at the Edge

As I prepare for the new year I have been thinking about the importance of conservation, about preserving the best of what we have for the benefit of the next generations.  Today I am posting a piece I wrote three years ago after talking to an inspiring conservationist and speaker.  My inspiration is a gaggle of grandchildren, two of whom love to play in the old apple tree in our field, home and pantry to birds – and porcupines.

Even those of us who live in Greenfield or any one of the village centers where we have pretty yards and gardens, know we are very close to a wilder world. It is not all wilderness, of course. There are fields and farms, as well as the riversides and mountains. Sometimes we take all that loveliness for granted, but sometimes, when we read about zoning issues in the newspaper, we remember that there are pressures on this beautiful landscape.

The Conway School of Landscape Design is known for the excellence of its academic graduate program, but also for its sustainable design principles which reach out into the local community through student projects for individuals and towns. As part of their larger educational mission, CSLD organizes a series of free lectures every fall. On October 16, Frances Clark will speak at the Conway Elementary School about our ‘Obligations at the Edge’.

I was happy to have the chance to speak to Clark, who after a career in botanical gardens, and serving as President of the New England Wildflower Society, now works as a freelance botanist. She often works for the state and municipalities making inventories of conservation land. “I come up with a list of native plants, give descriptions of the land, and make recommendations on how to manage the properties. I suggest the best public uses of land, the kinds of interpretive signs to install, and where to lay trails so they don’t disrupt important plant populations,” she said.

When talking about our area Clark says the ecology of the region has been ‘resilient’. The first wave of change was from wilderness to agriculture. Now we are facing the major impact of housing and businesses. Clark asks the question, “If maintaining the natural landscape is a value, how do we minimize the effects of that development?”

Her first answer is that we should not build densely. But if you live in an established suburban neighborhood there are things you can do to preserve biodiversity, and the ecological integrity of your land. For example, she says that barrier fences like stockade fences that reach down to the ground can impede the movement of wildlife like turtles and salamanders. I have to admit that this downside to fences is one I had never considered before.

She talks about avoiding poisonous pesticides and herbicides, and even about the dangers of bright lights. Bug zappers may comfort us, but Clark want us to remember that bugs provide sustenance for birds and bats.

She also cautions about feeding wildlife including birds. “My husband and I feed the birds in the winter and it is a great joy to watch them. But as soon as bears start coming out of hibernation, we put the feeders away. At that time of the year birds have more food. Besides, providing water, even in winter, is as good a way to attract birds. Instead of bird feeders, plant viburnam, dogwoods, blueberries and other plants to feed the birds.”

I don’t live in a suburban neighborhood anymore, nor do I live at the edge of conservation land, but I do feel an obligation to the land and to the future. There are some principles of conservation biology that are very easy for me to practice.

Clark says, ”Nature likes it messy. Keep messy edges. Grass seeds for the sparrows. Dead trees attract woodpeckers. Big dead trees provide food, but also den sites.”

Anyone who visits End of the Road Farm knows we have lots of messy edges. Our only fences are old barbed wire fences. We have hedgerows that provide shelter and food for birds. Our pond, built as a fire pond, certainly attracts wildlife.

Over the 25 years we have lived here we have seen a great change in the amount of wildlife. Wild turkeys are a common sight. I used to tell deer hunters that there were no deer; now there are substantial numbers. We have even seen a bear or two.

One of the conservation issues we have become more aware of is the damage done by invasive species like purple loosestrife and bittersweet. We pulled out the autumn olive that we got years ago from the conservation district, and are now going around to find the seedlings that planted themselves. We are also battling hops and yellow flags. My young grandson Rory had a great time chopping down the yellow flags that appeared in the very wet Sunken Garden this summer, checking them daily to see if the plant was recovering and needed more whacking back.

In the end, for me, conservation is about leaving at least a little part of the world in better shape than I found it. I have grandchildren and just last week my first great-granddaughter was born. I want to leave them with a world that is healthy and beautiful. I treasure the walks the children and I have taken through the woods, noting bear and tiger trees, as well as the wolf trees that I explained provided food and shelter for birds and animals. The woods and fields, so various in their moods and textures always delight. This is what I want to endure.

Between the Rows  October  2006

3 comments to Obligations at the Edge

  • Bears?? Yikes! But your sentiments here are wonderful; I agree that conservation should be about leaving the world a little better off for later generations. It sounds like you and your family are certainly doing your part! The lack of wildlife, including birds, here in the land of suburban sprawl is pretty depressing, and too often whatever animals are here are looked at as vermin. I would like to think my natives are helping just a little bit.

  • Cara Hochhalter

    Thank you for this inspiring piece, Pat. I am wondering about the voluminous patches of invasive Japanese Knotweed (it probably has another name?)that I see growing along the Deerfield.
    You have very fortunate grandchildren…and grandchild!
    In peace into the future!
    Cara

  • admin

    Rose – I do understand the problems in the suburbs. Dr. Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home which I reviewed within the last year, emphasizes how important the suburbs are to the food web and what suburbanites can do to help. Your natives are doing the job!
    Cara – I talked to the New England Wildflower Society about Japanese Knotweed earlier this year because they do invasive plant eradication, but they said that particular battle has been lost. They are now devoting their efforts to preventing invasive species like the Mile a Mintue vine (which I wrote about this summer) from getting a toe hold.

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