Monday, August 27, 2012

Glacial Erratics

With the help of a couple of neighbors, my friend Emma installed a small pond in her yard. She called me to ask if she could come pick up some rocks to surround it. If there’s one predominant element around here, it’s stone, so I said sure.

“They told me to ask if you have any erratic glacials,” she added. “Do you suppose that’s one of those questions a man doesn’t want to ask a woman directly?”

“Probably,” I told her, “but if you want to upset them, you can say I’m successfully self-medicating.”

She came out on a 100-degree day, and we walked the dry creek bed gathering roundish, flattish stones about the size the neighbor guys had specified. Most of the rocks were native limestone or sandstone, but we found a few red quartzite fragments. Lugging them up the bank was hot work.

Something like 600,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch, a glacier 500 feet thick covered this region. The force of the inexorable ice broke quartzite boulders off outcrops and carried them slowly south across 400 miles. Red or pink quartzite, colored by iron oxide, is the most common glacial erratic here. I’ve picked up red rocks in the timber, one by one, most of my life.

My father told me about the history of the red rocks when I was eight or nine. I pictured the Great Glacier as Bear Mother, descending from the north, pushing up earthworks before her, transplanting seeds and stones and nourishing the soil as she engulfed the land. Moving a few feet nearer to the sun each year, she carved river valleys, clawed streams between hillsides and opened the bones of the planet to the sky. Creeks are her granddaughters. Red rocks are her legacy.

Speckled red boulders appear at the sides of the roads each time the county clears the ditches. In small towns, they outline flowerbeds and encircle flagpoles. They stand like Herms to mark driveways. They hide beside creeks.

Emma lives just north of the terminal moraine. Most of the red rocks in her town have been tamed. A 24-ton quartzite boulder marks the city center. For centuries it lay in the river, revered as a prayer stone. Now it carries a plaque listing the city founders. The elemental history of ice and stone that preceded them is not mentioned.

Emma called again. “Now the guys think the stones are too small,” she said. “I told them they could go up a dry creek in a glaciated region and get their own.”

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The ragweed has begun to bloom. Like everything else this year, it’s early. Unlike a lot of other plants, it does not seem to object to the drought. Ragweed is the main reason that the end of summer is not my favorite season. Without the pollen going up my nose for a month or more, I would love this bountiful turn of the year. My ragweed allergy has become less virulent with age, but it still drains my energy and discourages outdoor activity.

Common ragweed
I shot these just before full bloom.
I'm not going near them later.
Ragweed is an American member of the genus Ambrosia, mysteriously named for the food of the immortal Gods. The plant may be indestructible, but I can’t imagine the Olympians eating it, even accompanied by a golden goblet of nectar. The most prolific species here are common and giant ragweed. They line the country roads, the giants towering as tall as 15 feet, waving their yellow fronds. The smaller common ragweed fills in along the edges of the gravel; its lacy leaves frame delicate roadside blossoms.

Giant ragweed
There are some recorded medicinal uses of ragweed, mainly topical application of the leaves to soothe insect bites and poison ivy. It provides cover and forage for wildlife, but its main function seems to be causing the bulk of seasonal allergies in North America. Each plant produces about a billion grains of pollen in a season.

Photo by David McLain,
National Geographic
Enlarged images show that grains of ragweed pollen look like the caltrops used to stop medieval cavalry charges, or maybe like tiny but fully functional death stars. This makes me feel a little less frail when I sneeze. That spiky pollen is a serious enemy. I fight it by cutting back on dairy, which helps me avoid congestion, and with simple antihistamines. The newer, more expensive drugs are just like the array of older drugs: they have no effect on ragweed, at least for me.

Meditation has been the best cure so far. When my daughter was in junior high, she began listening to a guided meditation to help release things she did not want in her life. She threw her reaction to ragweed into swift running water. She flung it up a ladder of moonlight into the night sky where it bloomed harmlessly among the stars. She stopped sneezing. I began to do her meditation. It helped. It’s not a cure, but after years of dreading August, I’m happy for any improvement. I’ll take what I can get. I don’t care whether the fix is psychosomatic, magic or imaginary as long as it helps.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Drought and Dryads

The trees are beginning to drop their leaves. It’s early in the year; the leaf fall is a result of summer drought. Temporary wilting during the day has changed to permanent wilting, leaves that do not recover overnight. A few of the black walnut trees have dropped branches as well as leaves, a common response to stress.

Karya and her sisters
Even after the driest seasons, the timber seems to come back stronger than before. The trees are a mix of natives and colonizers, self-selected for hardiness. Siberian elm, hackberry, black walnut, redbud, hedge, locust, shagbark hickory, rough-leaf dogwood and mulberry are all recommended for drought tolerance. Xeriscape gardeners are turning to so-called scrub trees for city landscaping.

Ampelos the Wild Grape Vine
The timber, in all its chaos and diversity, is the matrix of the genius loci, the spirit of this place. Beneath the trees, undergrowth flourishes, wildlife forages. Devas of each species invite more of their kind. Dryads dwell here: Karya of the Walnut, Morea of the Mulberry and Ampelos of the Wild Grape. This forest is a beautiful bastard, a mongrel mix of native, opportunistic and feral. Living beings weave a unique ecosystem around my invasive house.

Morea the Mulberry
Hesiod says that the rich-haired Nymphs live longer than ninety generations of ravens or ten of phoenixes. The woods have already done that and more, changing with each transformation of the climate or the land. Pleistocene glaciers likely made greater changes than Union Pacific loggers.

 “The Nymphai rejoice when the rain makes the oaks to grow; and again the Nymphai weep when there are no longer leaves upon the oaks.” *
The drought will pass. The climate will change. The spirit of the land will transform and survive and flourish.

Spirit thrives.

 *Callimachus, “Hymn to Delos,” 
tr. A.W. Mair