Operation "Embrace the Gloom"
Leave those leaves, Kooser's "Winter Morning Walks," and plant of the week
Short newsletter this time. As a heads up, I’ve set aside the vagabond freelancer life to join BirdNote as the managing producer for BirdNote Daily, their daily radio program and podcast. I’m thrilled to help bring more of BirdNote’s shows to life and keep expanding the scope of the stories and storytellers we feature. It also of course means my Possum Notes posts might become more infrequent, since some of that Possum Notes energy is going into BirdNote stuff. I’ll try to share that here when it makes sense. Today the first episode that I’ve written aired. It’s about terns. Listen here!
Leave those leaves
One year in St. Louis we (I) fell behind on raking and mulching the countless leaves produced by the two pin oaks in our front yard. And then we saw this:
Four Rusty Blackbirds—two males and two females—were foraging in the oak leaves, flipping them over and looking for bugs. It’s their characteristic style of eating, one that worked as well in a bottomland forest as the front lawn.
Rusty Blackbirds have declined by a truly shocking 90% or more over the past century. The causes aren’t fully understood, but it’s probably a combination of factors such as habitat loss in their wintering grounds in the Southeast U.S., habitat loss and climate change in their boreal wetland breeding grounds to the north, and other threats such as mercury poisoning.
But I was grateful that my forgetfulness in raking leaves helped out these four Rusties. Getting to see them in the front yard remains a treasured memory — the best-looking blackbirds around, if you ask me.
So even if you’ve got one of those fancy new electric leaf blowers, maybe just slow it down and leave the leaves on the ground for a while. You might get to see Rusty Blackbirds. Or at least some fun sparrows.
Operation “Embrace the Gloom”
The last few days before the daylight savings switch were pretty grim for me—waking up in the dark even though it was already 7 a.m. The time switch has helped a lot, but clearly, late fall is here. Coincidentally, at a book fair at the local library, I came across Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks, a book of poems that were by design written in a predawn, twilight world. Kooser explains in the preface that he was recovering from cancer treatments and his doctor had recommended avoiding the sun for an entire year. As a compromise he walked two miles every morning. He had stopped writing during his treatments and finally in November “surprised [himself] by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.” They were short, manageable poems that he sent to his friend Jim Harrison. Here is the first one in the book:
The quarry road tumbles toward me
out of the early morning darkness,
lustrous with frost, an unrolled bolt
of softly glowing fabric, interwoven
with tiny glass beads on silver thread,
the cloth spilled out and then lovingly
smoothed by my father’s hand
as he stands behind his wooden counter
(dark as these fields) at Tilden’s Store
so many years ago. “Here,” he says smiling,
“you can make something special with this.”
The context given for this poem in the preface makes the image of the “unrolled bolt” of the road a resoundingly hopeful one—the idea of considering the road, and by extension this unusual between-time in his life, a raw material he can “make something special” with. I’m going to try and read one or two of these short poems a day and, as I see it, lean into November’s apparent gloom and make something out of it. Thanks to the friend (I can’t remember which) who recommended this book to me a while back.
Plant of the week: Japanese knotweed
It would be hard to overstate how much this plant reshaped the understory of forests around the neighborhood in late summer and fall — and now, finally, they’re drying out (curing, for the nerds) changing the structure of forests yet again. Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica) grows six or seven feet tall and stretches its stems across trails beginning in late summer, its tiny white blooms lasting long into fall. (I could probably find some today if I tried, but this photo is from a little earlier this year.) I’m sure it’s been around other places I’ve lived, but Providence is the place where its presence really stood out—specifically because had to hack my way through its stems each time I’d visit a nearby trail since they’d have repaired themselves in between my visits. The species has mainly taken hold in the Northeast and Northwest U.S. Here’s GoBotany on this remarkable plant:
It is difficult to exaggerate how aggressive this species can be: it has been observed growing through two inches of concrete, and it will regenerate from as little as 5g of stem or root tissue.
An invasive plant, for sure, but it’s one of those “gotta hand it to ’em” situations. Two inches of concrete?? One of its keys to this species’ success is having a growth habit in the fast-growing sweet-spot between a shrub and an herb: its stems are “semi-woody,” meaning they’re pretty tough but also cheap for the plant to make, energetically speaking.
Managing knotweed isn’t easy. A small patch could be cut at the bases, the top of the roots sprayed with herbicide, but most patches are far from small. Just last November, the USDA decided to allow the introduction of an insect from Japan that feeds on this knotweed, the Japanese knotweed psyllid. Rhode Island is one of eight states where the psyllids have been released. I’ll be very curious to see if they have a noticeable effect on the knotty thickets of knotweed in the next few years.
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Possum Notes is a weekly newsletter about wildlife and landscapes around where I live. It’s produced on occupied Wampanoag and Narragansett land.