Nature loves a mess

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERANature loves untidiness. On this farm that we acquired we were awed on our first clean-up weekend, over Labor Day, by how nearly nature had taken over. When weeds are three feet high, when water collects in a roadside ditch because no one has cleaned out the driveway culvert, when there are lots of objects lying on the ground to crawl under or into, then there is plenty of cover for wildlife.

I picked up a western painted turtle crawling through the high weeds. He/she apparently came out of the water in the ditch and was on her/his way to someplace better, or at least different. There is no other pond near. In all my growing up years I’d never seen a turtle like this except in a pond on a log. There were other surprises. When we took the cover off the wellhouse, two snakes slithered out of that damp dark place. Here and there when we’d pick up a board or a sheet of tin, other snakes emerged. They were all the harmless variety, thankfully, either black snakes or snakes with stripes. There are rattlesnakes in this part of the country, but you’d have to really hunt to find one.

Beyond snakes, there was a plenitude of praying mantises, both brown and green, and the black and brown woolly bear caterpillars, the kind that predict the severity of winter. We didn’t take time to measure their stripes. One website says about the woolly bear: “They are the Dale Earnhardts of the caterpillar world, crawling at a neck-snapping .05 miles an hour, or about a mile a day.” There’s a festival for them each October in Vermilion, Ohio (costume contest, but no fried woolly bears apparently), and an annual race in Banner Elk, North Carolina to mark the start of the ski season.

In the pond in the ditch there were frogs, making a racket more normally associated with spring. The trees on this place haven’t been trimmed for a couple decades and there are lots of dead snags and several completely dead trees. Which is why I saw more diversity of bird life during the weekend than I ever saw while growing up there. Woodpeckers, northern flickers, eastern phoebes, a Carolina wren. They all love dead wood and neglected buildings.

Unfortunately, in the process of cleaning up we’re going to be reducing the cover for this wildlife. The roadside pond needs to be drained so we can mow. The weeds need to be cut because, well, they are three feet tall. And we’ll be picking up most of the stuff laying on the ground.

The snakes are free, however, to continue living in the well house as long as they move over when I need to tend to things down there. We’ll also leave some dead wood for the woodpeckers. And it’ll be a good while before everything that’s on the ground gets picked up.

We were fortunate enough to be in the country for the start of the Monarch butterfly migration. Every Fall, through this region, come millions of Monarchs, the orange and black guys, on their way to Mexican forests where they winter. They float on the breeze, sometimes at eye level, and sometimes high in the sky. A half-dozen can be in sight at the same time. It’s a marvel of nature that I look forward to every September. It’s not as easy to see them in the city, but they’re there as well.

Out in the feedlots this fall the weeds have taken over. I spent a good many summer mornings of my childhood hoeing cockleburs, sandburrs, and pig weeds out of these same lots. But earlier this year, when the previous owner got into financial difficulty and the cattle went away, the weed seeds were waiting. All summer they grew. To walk through the feedlots now would be to gather unto your person all manner of burrs and stick-tights. They have never had a better year. It’s not a crop that you can take to the bank. But it does have a redeeming quality. This afternoon the brightly-colored ring-neck pheasants have been gliding into the weeds singly and in pairs, making a great commotion. The weeds are high enough to make good cover and I’d imagine there are some pretty good eats in there. The sparrows are also having a field day in the weeds, hanging onto the bending stalks and eating their fill of this unexpected bounty. We are torn between disking up all the weeds, thus restoring “tidiness” or leaving the weeds for the birds. For now, the birds win.

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