Monday, March 11, 2019

Siberian Pea Tree Autopsy


Weather: Sun angles are changing; the sun was in my eyes when I was sitting at my desk for the first time this year on Monday. The zonal geraniums on the indoor porch are happier than I; they all are in full bloom.

Last useful rain: 3/11. Week’s low: 23 degrees F. Week’s high: 72 degrees F in the shade.

What’s reviving: Hollyhocks, sweet peas, golden spur columbine, chrysanthemums, brome grass; arborvitae have greened; fern bushes have leafed

What’s coming up: Garlic chives, Queen Anne’s lace, oriental poppies, larkspur seedlings, alfalfa, white yarrow

Tasks: Finished the difficult work on the wall I built to stop soil from eroding into the path of my gate, and keeping it from opening when the ground heaves in winter.

Animal sightings: Small birds. When I was digging out soil for the lower course of the wall, I uncovered an active caterpillar and a grub. Heard geese honking near the river on Monday.


Weekly update: High winds returned Wednesday. Friday night they took down one of the Siberian pea trees. When I looked, one of the stems had no roots and one had a few laterals that tore before they broke.

The trees grow like shrubs here. This one was about 8' high and 5' across, with two main stems. I pulled the interlaced branches apart, and loaded the smaller one onto the wheelbarrow to take to the burn pile. The other was larger and heavier. It took some effort to get it to balance diagonally across a dolly.

Then I looked at the roots. There were none on the smaller stem. The larger one had a few laterals that had torn, and a few tiny ones I had to cut. I pushed them back into the hole and covered them, hoping they would resprout.

When I tried to discover what type of roots the species had, I ran into the usual problems that no one looks, and everyone copies Wikipedia without attribution. All the it said was the root system was extensive, but not how wide or how deep. [1]

My first thought was the ground squirrel, but there was no tunnel. Besides that animal seems to feed on members of the rose family, and Caragana arborescens is a legume.

The second possibility was some kind of root rot. The trees are native to Siberia and Manchuria, [2] but researchers did not include Siberia pea trees in their list of Russian trees affected by fungal diseases. [3]


The question remains what happened. The species is used for windbreaks on the northern plains. [4] The high winds of last week and the snow load in February should not have been a problem.

Canadians indicated Caragana arborescens normally lives for fifty years. [5] This tree was planted as a bare root along with two others in 2001. They are about 18-years-old, so it didn’t die of old age.

The Canadians also suggested the pea trees were "very drought tolerant" but would "not tolerate prolonged flooding." [6]

Last summer was hotter than usual. That amplified the effects of the lack of rain. The first of July I noticed this particular shrub was losing leaves.

Last year was also the time I replaced some soaker hoses that, at the best of times, supplied water in 3" strips with sprayer hoses that provided more water over a wider area. When I was fighting with the older hoses, I had snaked one around the base of this particular tree when I looped it back on both sides of the others. That may have caused the roots to be concentrated in a small area. They then may not have been able to respond to the change in water distribution when it got hot.

When I saw the leaves dropping, which is a normal response of the species to drought, [7] I shifted the hose a bit to make sure it got more water. Maybe I was flooding it instead of starving it. The lack of roots is consistent with too much water.

So it may have been victim of the classic conundrum: is it too little or too much, and did compensating for the one cause the other? Killed with loving care, but which kind?


Notes on photographs: Snow picture taken 23 February 2019; the others were taken 9 March 2019.

End notes:
1. Wikipedia. "Caragana arborescens." The tree was discussed in more detail in the post for 4 May 2008.

2. James A. Duke. "Siberian peashrub." Handbook of Energy Crops. 1983. Purdue University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture website.

3. Evgeny P. Kuz’michev, Ella S. Sokolova, and Elena G. Kulikova. Common Fungal Diseases of Russian Forests. Newtownsquare, Pennsylvania: USDA Forest Service, June 2001.

4. Duke.
5. "Caragana." Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website.
6. Agriculture Canada.
7. Wikipedia.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Black Locust


Weather: Rain Saturday evening; drive is still spongy underfoot and wheel barrow is still leaving ruts in saturated soil sitting above frozen ground.

Last useful rain: 3/2. Week’s low: 11 degrees F. Week’s high: 65 degrees F in the shade.

What’s green: Leaves on juniper and other evergreens, Dutch iris, grape hyacinth, vinca, snapdragon, blue flax, winecup mallow, hollyhocks, sweet peas, anthemis, dandelion, needle and cheat grass

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat, snow-in-summer leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries; new wood on peaches and apples; leaves on coral bells, alfilerillo, golden spur columbine, coral beards tongue, purple aster

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Tasks: Spent more time removing soil that slide from a bank into my drive. Each day I removed a little, then let the sun thaw some more for the next day. Many of the rocks I put down in a saturated path sank so only the tops are visible. They’re enough to keep me out of the mud.

Animal sightings: Small birds.


Weekly update: The black locust has been a problem since Megacyllene robiniae larvae first attacked it in 2007. Adult longhorned beetles feed on goldenrod, then lay their eggs in tree trunks. Come spring, the eggs hatch into locust borers that eat the wood. By the time you see a pile of sawdust at the base of the tree, it’s too late. Each year, sometime in June or early July, a trunk has fallen, usually into my drive.

The first man I called to remove a fallen branch said borers weren’t unusual, and the tree wouldn’t die. He added some farmers used to use the regrowth for fence posts.

The first few years I tried to get the fallen branches removed before August when the pupae hatched into beetles. That didn’t help, so I waited until winter to call a tree trimmer. Then I could have him prune other trees while they were dormant.

When I first had the problem, I removed my goldenrod plants. Since the insects came back, I decided there was no reason to forego the yellow flowers.

In July of 2012, the man I called told me winds the previous week had taken down a lot of branches. He also said a number of people were having problems with the black locusts and that people who had them near their houses were having them removed, especially the really big trees. I’m not sure if that meant the locust borers were a new problem or not.

I saw some adult beetles for the first time in September of 2017. In October, I heard a red-headed woodpecker in the tree. It didn’t help. Three trunks came down last year.


Each year when a trunk came down, the locust put out one or two new ones. They moved over to a soaker hose I had and destroyed it by squeezing it. Last summer there were so many branches, they began infringing on other shrubs.

This winter I decided to have everything cut down, in hopes that would remove the borer eggs. After the tree trimmer left, I went out and removed the leaves and duff around the stool. I hoped to remove any eggs that might have fallen. When it gets a little warmer I may put down one of those poisons that kill grubs.

I know it will come back. Suckers I cut to the ground, always return. I haven’t decided how much new growth I’m going to let grow. I’m thinking I may try to return to a single tree, instead of the copse I had. As I expect many suckers will come up, I should be able to select one that won’t be in my way. The thorns are a nuisance when the branches grow into my pathways.

Or, once I get used to the bare spot, I may just keep them all cut down. While the legume flowers are fragrant when they bloom, the buds or flowers usually are killed by frost. I’m not sure they’re worth the cost of a tree trimmer every winter.


Notes on photographs:
1. Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) trunk fallen over the retaining wall, with the Dr. Huey roses that grew up into it. 5 June 2016.

2. Leaves and sawdust at the base of the tree. 8 June 2008.
3. Black locust stumps after it was cut down. 3 March 2019.
4. Damage in to wood of a trunk. 14 February 2019.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Globe Willow


Weather: Snow Friday night left six inches on some wood surfaces. It even collected on the narrow edges of the vertical board fence. During the day, the snow melted from tree branches, then it got very cold last night.

Last useful snow: 2/23. Week’s low: 7 degrees F. Week’s high: 47 degrees F in the shade.

What’s still green: Leaves on juniper and other evergreens; everything else under snow

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries, new wood on peaches and apples

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Tasks: A friend told me about a friend of his who was Italian. A few weeks ago the friend of a friend was out with a pick axe making holes in the frozen ground to plant garlic. The weather may have been inhospitable, but his internal clock that defined when one planted had been activated.

Animal sightings: Some birds gathered on the rafters of my back porch Saturday afternoon before flying off.


Weekly update: Trees have characteristic shapes that are created partly by the species DNA and partly by the environment. I mentioned in the post for 13 January 2019 that no tree in northern Michigan has branches lower than a deer can reach.

Here, my junipers extend to the ground as do my neighbors’ arborvitae. The deciduous trees shape themselves.

The globe willow is the most conspicuous. I had to have the tree trimmers cut dead wood from it so the dead stems wouldn’t threaten my eyes when I walked by them. Most of the wood came from the base on the south, west, and north sides.

I think the problem is sun scald which is caused when trees warm up during the day then get cool enough in the night to freeze the sap that was softened by the sun. One of my neighbors had two large trees killed by that action.

I noticed the area under the globe willow is always the first part of my drive to lose its snow. It may be less snow falls under its branches, and the thinner veneer is quicker to go. It also may be the tree itself warms the ground. It may be dormant, but it still is breathing. The warmer ground then melts the snow, which then heats the tree and leads to problems with the sap.

My cottonwood apparently has been doing the same thing. I asked the trimmers to remove the branches that were hitting the fence and any dead wood they could reach. They removed several layers of low branches which had turned into a copse of underbrush.

I noticed the same thing happened with the Russian olive. A few years ago it had problems with the drought and the lower branches were the first to die. I didn’t had them removed, mainly because I forgot about them. They too have created a copse, only one that’s thorny.

These natural nests of deadwood, of course, can ignite in low fires. They probably are one of the things removed by controlled burns. And, they also are probably one of the traits that distinguish New Mexico forests and their management from those in Michigan or Florida.


Notes on photographs: All pictures taken 23 February 2019.
1. Vertical board fence at 6:30 am.

2. Area near the globe willow (Salix matsudana umbraculifera) at 6:30 am when everything was covered with snow.

3. Area under the globe willow at 3 pm when then only snow that had melted was under the tree on the south side.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Logging Tools


Weather: It rained much of the night Thursday. I tried working Friday on setting the base course of bricks for a short wall to stop the drift of dirt near by gate. I could get an shovel through the outer edge of the bank, but when I moved back about six inches I hit white ice. I know people somehow manage to dig in the winter, but I’m not up to using a pick axe.

Last useful rain: 2/14. Week’s low: 10 degrees F. Week’s high: 60 degrees F in the shade.

What’s still green: Leaves on juniper and other evergreens, blue flax, sweet peas, coral bells, pink evening primroses, vinca, alfilerillo, snapdragon, cheat grass; garlic chives are sprouting under the leaf cover.

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat, snow-in-summer leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries, new wood on peaches and apples, leaves on a few golden spur columbines and purple asters

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Animal sightings: I found a small bird’s nest high in the catalpa. A neighbor’s cat used to lay on the boughs of the tree, and nothing touched the sand cherries below. That was some years ago, and last summer the fruit disappeared.


Weekly update: Thursday I had a local company cut down two trees, and remove deadwood and protruding branches from other trees. The head of the crew pointed to the branch to be cut, and the one logger cut it. Another picked up the trimmings and carried them to the fourth who put them through the chipper.

They used a chain saw for branches they could approach, and loppers on small branches. They often began with a horizontal chain saw mounted on a pole that could reach under the branches to get to dead wood. They also used it to reach branches that were beyond reach. The long handle eliminated the need to climb a ladder.

The tools had gasoline engines. In the hands of an idiot, the saws can create fire hazards with spilled fuel and sparks.

This equipment was very different from what was available a hundred years ago when loggers used steam-powered saws. Those saws burned wood for fuel, and were always a potential source for fire. The belts could maim.

Decades before that, farmers clearing land used axes and fire.

In Eaton County, Michigan, just north of where I grew up, families settled before the railroad was built. Unlike men along the Atlantic coast, who could sell the better trees they cut to sea-faring vessels, there was no market for the wood.

Bigelow Williams remembered:

"when a clearing was to be made, the chopper cut a row of trees so that their bodies fell in a straight line. Then similar rows were cut parallel to it and a few rods distant from each other, when the trees between these rows were cut so as to fall across the first rows, thus making immense hedges of fallen trees."

The cutting was done in mid-winter, and left to dry. By "August that they would burn quite readily, and wherever one tree fell across another it would almost inevitably burn off. When after a few days the fire went out and the coals cooled off, several men came with a yoke of cattle, a long chain and handspikes and piled the logs up, and where they had not been burned short enough to be handled, they were cut in two with an ax, and these log piles were then set on fire and burned."

The trees included black walnuts and ashes. Once transportation was available, these same trees that were used as fence posts, were dug out and sold to make cabinets and veneer for musical instruments.

Looking back, people lament the loss of good wood and shudder at the use of fire, but from 1840 looking forward there was only dense forest and no buyers. It was only after farms were established that railroads saw an economic opportunity in crossing the county and the wood could be sold.


Notes on photographs:
1. Birds nest high in the catalpa, 15 February 2019.

2. I had a cherry cut down that had not born fruit in ten years. The rootstock had shouldered aside the scion, and I suspected the pollen was sterile since few bees came around. All I could find out about the rootstock is that it was bred from "different Prunus forms." [2] When I looked at the stump, there was not a sign of the red heartwood one expects. 15 February 2019.

3. Six years ago I had a sour cherry cut down because the rootstock had taken over, produced inedible fruit, and gotten taller than the eaves. The stock most likely was Mazzard. Its stump looked like cherry wood. 25 March 2013.

End notes:
1. Wolcott Bigelow Williams. The Past and Present of Eaton County, Michigan. Lansing: Michigan Historical Publishing Association, 1906. 6–7.

2. H. Jänes and A. Pae. "Evaluation of Nine Sweet Cherry Clonal Rootstocks and One Seedling Rootstock." Agronomy Research 2:23–27:2004. 23.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Woodland Habits


Weather: The snow is gone from most places, but cold mornings returned on Friday. The ground still gets a little soft in the afternoon, but it refreezes at night. When I tried to dig someplace I could only penetrate half an inch.

Last useful snow: 1/22. Week’s low: 8 degrees F. Week’s high: 68 degrees F in the shade.

What’s still green: Leaves on juniper and other evergreens, blue flax, sweet peas, coral bells, pink evening primroses, vinca; new growth on alfilerillo and a snapdragon; cheat grass up

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat, snow-in-summer leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries, new wood on peaches and apples, leaves on a few golden spur columbines and purple asters

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Animal sightings: Saw footprints of the cat in soft mud before the cold returned. It sank a good quarter inch.


Weekly update: People who comment on the Peshtigo fire often dismiss it as caused by human carelessness. That judgement reflects the indoctrination we got as children from Smokey the Bear. It doesn’t comprehend the realities of living with wood as a fuel and gale force winds.

When I went to summer camp in Barry County, Michigan, in the 1950s we had few fires, and everything we did was hedged with restrictions. Once a week we broke into groups of 20 or 30 and went to designated areas to cook our dinners.

The cook areas were rimmed with rocks, and everything was cleared around the areas. We had to gather dead wood from the area for cooking. By the end of the summer, when five groups had scrounged for dead wood every Wednesday for eight weeks, there wasn’t much left.


We also had a ceremonial fire once a week that was even smaller. A teepee of kindling was built inside a small square of logs set on one another like a log cabin. In the early years it was set on the sandy beach. In later years it was moved to the pine area where a square brick fireplace a few feet high had been built. It also was used for cook fires by groups coming from town for the overnights required by the Camp Fire Girls’ program.

We never had simple camp fires when we would sit around and sing, like all the films show. I remember talking to someone who had gone to a day camp in New Jersey where they had huge bon fires. I assume the camp bought the wood.

We didn’t have that luxury. At the camp I attended sponsored by the Camp Fire Girls, our leaders were more parsimonious. The director had lived through the depression and World War II shortages. The only reason we had cook outs was the cooks were given one day off each week, and on Wednesday we had to fend for ourselves: cold cereal for breakfast, left overs for lunch, the cook outs for supper.

Every other camp I attended in the area had the same rules about fires: rim it with stones and gather dead wood from the ground. I remember a woman at the local day camp being especially adamant about fire, because the peat in swamps in an area north of town would burn for weeks if it got ignited. [1]

The Barry County camp was built on hills around a lake. It wasn’t good farm land, and so wasn’t cleared until 1901 when the Grand Rapids Bookcase Company began producing mission style furniture in the county seat of Hastings.

The land probably had only just begun to recover when it was sold to the camp in the 1930s. By the time I was there the trees were medium size hardwoods on the hills, and pines in the distance. The only tree I actually remember by species was a sassafras by the side entrance to the main lodge.


The area in front of the lodge was cleared of brush and small trees because that was where we gathered before meals. The area on the opposite side included the cemented area outside the kitchen where food deliveries were made. The rest of the land was covered with leaves. Dense shade suppressed the growth of young trees or wild plants. Flowers only were found in openings.

It’s one of the ironies of life that fire is what destroyed the camp. Lightening struck the main lodge in the spring of 1974. It must have been during a rain storm, and I think it probably burned itself out before any fire fighters arrived.

I only saw the results in August, after the debris had been cleared. Only the lodge burned. The surrounding trees were singed, but all that clearing, those habits of living in the woods, had saved them.


The camp was abandoned, and reverted again to wood lot. When a group was trying to sell it as a recreation property in 2011 they posted pictures that showed it had returned to state I knew in the 1950s.

Notes on photographs:
1. The lake with new trees growing where the beach used to be, 14 March 2011.
2. Clearing in pine woods area with Queen Anne’s lace blooming, 14 March 2011.

3. Cook fire at my local day camp, 1956. We did not clear the area around the stones as we ought to have done.

4. Camp lodge, postcard from the early 1950s.

5. Remains of the camp lodge after a spring fire, August 1974.

6. The woods as I remember them outside a sleeping cabin, 14 March 2011.

End notes:
1. Wolcott Bigelow Williams. Past and Present of Eaton County, Michigan. Lansing: Michigan Historical Pub. Assoc, 1906?. He wrote "In a very hot summer the peat became so dry in the tamarack swamps that it burned readily several inches deep, exposing the roots of the trees so that they fell over, and in the next hot summer the fire consumed them. The fire would smoulder in those peat beds for several weeks, and through several hard rains. Thus the tamarack swamps were transformed into wet prairies." (page 7)

Sunday, February 03, 2019

When Lumberman Ruled


Weather: Our weather has returned to its normal pattern. It may get cold in the morning, and it did during the descent of the polar vortex in the east, but the afternoons are warm. The thaw is afoot - and underfoot. The ground gives when one walks on it, the melting snow and ice puddle on half-melted ground that can absorb no more.

Last useful snow: 1/22. Week’s low: 12 degrees F. Week’s high: 60 degrees F in the shade. Snow on the ground since 12/26 remains in a few places.

What’s still green: Leaves on juniper and other evergreens, blue flax, sweet peas, coral bells, pink evening primroses, vinca; new growth on alfilerillo and a snapdragon. Many arborvitae have turned brown.

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat, snow-in-summer leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries, new wood on peaches and apples, leaves on a few golden spur columbines and purple asters

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Animal sightings: Still little evidence animals are entering the yard


Weekly update: Lumbermen always have an answer for the problem with forest fires: let them cut and thin. People shudder because they remember the last time they were given a free hand. While they acknowledge large corporations maintain sustainable forest programs, they also know those aren’t the companies who win contracts awarded to lowest bidders.

Roy Dodge published photographs of Michigan Ghost Towns in 1970. [1] Time and again the captions referred to towns, like Averill in 1877 [2] and Nahma in 1921, [3] that were destroyed by fires. He also had pictures of fires in process, including Shelldrake in 1910 [4] and Metz in 1908. [5] The latter was so severe "the red-hot rails of the tracks melted." [6]

His three volumes documented the ways dried wood was everywhere. Near Alger, a photograph showed the Rifle River filled with cut logs floating down to Bay City and Saginaw. Above the river, trains crossed on wooden trestles. [7]

When the logs arrived at a saw mill they accumulated in the area. After they were cut, the wood or finished products were stacked in yards waiting for ships to haul them away. [8] In the Great Lakes area, work occurred in winter or all year, depending on location, but shipping was limited by ice in winter.

Loggers left debris, the twigs and branches that weren’t usable, along with the cut underbrush in piles where they may have burned them or let them dry. Railroads were essential to opening woodlands and temporary crews left piles of waste that had been cut to lay tracks. The slash later could be ignited by anything, especially sparks if it were near tracks. [9]

Everywhere there was sawdust: in the woods where trees were cut and in the saw mills and finishing plants. It, too, was left in the woods where it could ignite. In more industrial areas, it might be burned. Dodge showed a sawdust burner on the Sturgeon River that resembled a tall farm silo. [10]

Loggers and pioneer farmers living near forests grew accustomed to fire. In Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in the fall of 1871 fires in the west had been continuous. The summer had been unusually dry and, in the fall, farmers burned their stubble and burned woodlands to open new fields.

Then the winds started. Fires blew toward the city. The local employer, who made wooden products like barrels from wood that was too small for construction, [11] sent his men out to clear anything combustible and stockpiled water in barrels around the town. [12]

These winds weren’t the ordinary ones of fall, but part of a great cyclonic storm system that reached from Arizona to Michigan’s upper peninsula. [13] As the winds intensified, the small fires merged. In the woods, ground fires became crown fires. Chicago was in its path, as were parts of western Michigan and the Thumb in the east. Peshtigo was destroyed in hours. [14]

William Ogden, who owned the Peshtigo factory, was one of the more responsible lumbermen. But, when wind and drought combine human efforts only magnify their destructive force. Half the population of Peshtigo died that night, [15] and many more deaths are suspected on farmsteads where nothing remained but ashes. [16]


Notes on photographs: All taken 2 February 2019.
1. Melting snow in path on west side of house.
2. Peach (Prunus persica) buds at northern end of path where snow disappeared a while ago.
3. Revived vinca(Vinca minor)leaves under the peach.

End notes:
1. Roy L. Dodge. Michigan Ghost Towns. Sterling Heights, Michigan: Glendon Publishing, volume 1, 1970; volume 2, 1971; volume 3, 1973. This is still available on Amazon.

2. Dodge. 2:67.
3. Dodge. 3:88.
4. Dodge. 3:62.
5. Dodge. 2:164.
6. Dodge. 2:163.
7. Dodge. 1:33.
8. Dodge. 2:170.
9. Wikipedia. "Great Michigan Fire."
10. Dodge. 3:87.

11. William Converse Haygood. Notes to Peter Pernin. "The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account." Wisconsin Magazine of History 54:246–272:1971. 246.

12. Pernin. 251.

13. Eric R. Miller reconstructed the storm system from "observations made by the observers of the Signal Service, U. S. Army, at 5:35 P.M. Central Standard time, October 8, 1871." His map has been reprinted many times, including in Pernin, 100.

14. Joseph Schafer. "Great Fires of Seventy-one." Wisconsin Magazine of History 11:96–106:1927. 96–97. Miller’s map is on page 100.

15. Wikipedia gives the official death toll as around 1,500 in "Peshtigo Fire."
16. Haygood. 271.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Saint Simons Island Fires


Weather: We got snow on Tuesday, and, since the Earth as turned since December, the afternoon was warmer and it disappeared.

There’s still snow in the Jémez and on the northwestern corner of the Black Mesa that I can see. In my yard it remains in shadows of buildings, fences, and trees, especially on the north and western sides.

Last useful snow: 1/22. Week’s low: 16 degrees F. Week’s high: 57 degrees F in the shade. Snow on the ground since 12/26.

What’s still green: Leaves on juniper, arborvitae, and other evergreens, blue flax, sweet peas, coral bells, pink evening primroses, vinca; new growth on alfilerillo and a snapdragon.

What’s gray, gray-green, or blue green: Four-winged saltbush, winterfat, snow-in-summer leaves

What’s red or purple: Stems on sandbar willow and bing cherries, new wood on peaches and apples, leaves on a few golden spur columbines and purple asters

What’s yellow: Stems on weeping willows

Animal sightings: Still little evidence animals are entering the yard

Tasks: On Friday I saw someone on a low ladder using long-handled loppers to prune his apples. His ground must be frozen harder than mine. It gave when I walked on the gravel in the drive Saturday.

The same day I saw some men loading a pick-up bed with wood when I was stopped at a light in town. They must have cut down a sapling that was in the way. They had cut the wood to length, but it wasn’t more than a few inches in diameter. They also were picking up all the sticks from the ground. Those were the actions of people who are using wood to keep warm.


Weekly update: Cecil Frost noted foresters, at least in the south, were slow to recognize lightening could cause woodland fires. They simply assumed fires were "carelessly set to improve grazing, to clear land, and to protect woods where turpentine is being gathered." [1]

Fanny Kemble made the same assumption in 1839 when the English actress was spending a year on her husband’s plantation on Saint Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. Toward the end of March she noticed fires burning in a number of places on the island and concluded:

"The ‘field-hands’ make fires to cook their midday food wherever they happen to be working,

and sometimes through their careless neglect, but sometimes, too, undoubtedly on purpose, the woods are set fire to by these means. One benefit they consider that they derive from the process is the destruction of the dreaded rattlesnakes that infest the woodland all over the island." [2]

Frost noted people who actually lived in the woods knew better. He mentioned one land owner in coastal Onslow County, North Carolina, who provided free log cabins near his turpentine plantation to "poor white families, whose duties included fighting summer lightning fires." By putting them in harm’s way, he provided an incentive for them to extinguish the fires and ring bells for help if the flames grew more serious. [3]

As we all have learned, there is a difference between fires set by lightening and those caused by humans. Lightening usually occurs in the rainy season when the duff already may be wet. If it isn’t raining when the fire starts, it probably will be within a few days. These fires burn comparatively few acres, and go out by themselves.

Fires caused by humans are worse because they occur outside the monsoon season when nature has no chance to act, and they often occur in areas made more flammable by humans like the ones in Onslow County who were living near concentrations of pine resins. The Dome Fire of 1996 was caused by German campers who thought urinating on a cook fire was enough, the Cerro Grande was set by the Forest Service as a controlled burn in an area that needed clearing in 2000, and the 2011 Las Conchas, like this summer’s fire in Paradise, California, was caused by a high-voltage power line destroyed by high winds.

Susan Bratton thought humans had contributed to the fire problems on Saint Simons in 1839, not by their carelessness, but by unwittingly disrupting the natural pattern of woodland succession. When Englishmen first saw the island, it was dominated by "evergreen oak-mixed hardwood forests." [4] Men began cutting the live oak for building frigates in the 1790s, and continued "until the resource was depleted." [5]

By the Civil War, most of the upland parts of the island that weren’t planted with cotton had been depleted and left fallow. Instead of the original vegetation, pines with differing nutrition demands had taken over. [6] As Bratton observed, Kemble only mentioned pine woods in 1839. She added:

"Live oak forests do not carry fire well, even under exceptionally dry conditions. During a large fire on Cumberland Island, during July and August, 1981, the fire moved quickly through pine forests and oak scrub, but dropped into the understory and then went out when it entered mature evergreen oak stands." [7]

Not surprisingly, the winter of 1838–1839, when Kemble was on Saint Simons, the state was beginning what became an extreme drought when the rains didn’t appear until July 1839 in upland Georgia. [8] This would have made it analogous to the Cerro Grande fire when routine winter burning to open new fields could have gotten out of hand because of unanticipated variations in the weather. After all, they worried more about too much water and hurricanes than too little.


Notes on photographs: Taken 16 January 2019.
1. Two types of yuccas that are still green and uneaten by the ground squirrel. Purchased as Yucca Baccata (broader leaves) and Yucca Glauca (narrow leaves); who knows what they really were.

2. The snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus) leaves stayed viable until the snow covered them. The stems remained green, and now new growth has emerged at the base of one.

3. Alfilerillo (Erodium circutarium) plants were still viable until December. When the snow cleared, the leaves had turned a dull red. They’ve now begun to put out new growth.

End notes:
1. T. H. Sherrard. A Working Plan for Forest Lands in Hampton and Beaufort Counties, South Carolina. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903. Quoted by Cecil C. Frost. "Four Centuries of Changing Landscape Patterns in the Longleaf Pine Ecosystem." 17–43 in The Longleaf Pine Ecosystem: Ecology, Restoration and Management. Edited by Sharon M. Hermann. Tallahassee: Tall Timbers Research Station, 1993.

2. Frances Anne Kemble. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1863. 242–243.

3. T. Gamble. Naval Stores: History, Production, Distribution and Consumption. Savannah: Review Publishing and Printing Company, 1921. Cited by Frost. 35.

4. Susan P. Bratton. "The Vegetation History of Fort Frederica, Saint Simons Island, Georgia." Castanea 50:133–145:1985. 133.

5. V. S. Wood. Live Oaks: Southern Timber for Tall Ships. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981. Cited by Bratton. 139.

6. W. M. Brewer. "Some Effects of the Plantation System on the Ante-Bellum South." The Georgia Historical Quarterly 11:250–273:1927. Cited by Bratton. 139.

7. Bratton. 143.

8. Georgia. Department of Agriculture. "Climate." 35–72 in The Commonwealth of Georgia. Atlanta: Jas. P. Harrison and Company, 1885. 58.