I haven’t written, really written in months. Summer seems a distant memory. The first growing season at Three Oaks Garden was a pleasureful chore, about which I intend to share many thoughts. I’ve never been a particularly good blogger (the term is practically foreign to me), even as I do a reasonably good job of sharing quick little posts on Instagram or Facebook. My writing lately has been perfunctory at best as deadlines come and go for projects small and smaller. The most productive writing cycles in my life are iterative—a compositional feat like a book, for instance. I have an itch to really write more often than I actually have time—my creative self has more outlets than it wants most days. This self-awareness is my creative vulnerability, although I don’t know if I want to spend much time unpacking it. I really write when I have something to say.
Last night, while planting a last-minute assortment of Epimedium, a lone male Carolina wren interrupted my thoughts with a series of alarmist vocalizations as he glided from the branches of a hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) to the railing of my deck. I stood up and found him perched within 10 feet of where I stood, muddy shovel in one hand and a tray of two unplanted plugs dangling from the other. If it wouldn’t have disturbed him, I’d have let it all fall to the ground as I focused with rapt attention on his performance, an innocent spectacle. His raspy, guttural call emanated from him with the full force of his body. He had something to say.
For starters, he was the first of his kind I had observed since moving here to Three Oaks. I owe the sighting to my neighbor who keeps a row of bird feeders in front of his living room window. On a quiet and contemplative autumn night, amid the senescence of the landscape, his call gave me great joy, another moment for the tally of reasons why I’m so in love with this place. With so many leaves now fallen and only the final crackling ember from oaks and hickories in my viewshed, I finally took stock of my first full growing season here. November 2 yielded this Dylan Thomas moment amid the landscape’s final flourish against the dying light, a biological act of defiance before a requisite season of dormancy. This Carolina wren, a new year-round resident of central Iowa only in the last decade, offered a salvo.
His earnest and repetitive calling soon stirred his mate, whose appearance softened his demeanor. His shrillness gave way to something more songful, doting. They flitted as a pair, dancing first through the seedheads of my Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and then chased across the Long Look Prairie to the burning hot cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) at the corner of the property. I lost sight of them for a few minutes, only to hear them scratching and foraging in the leaves accumulating beneath the viburnum’s twiggy infrastructure. They were good company, chattering in the background as I traced my own path back and forth across the prairie, hastily determining where I might plug in these last few plants. I was their benign audience.
Here on this late date, I found myself still planting (let’s not even start on the list of bulbs still to go in the ground). Planting is my purest and most earnest gardening act. It’s what I do best. I don’t mind weeding, in fact it can be quite therapeutic. But I don’t do it well, at least not thoroughly. I give too much license to natural growth and am too lenient with pruning. I regard it as an art in which I’m personally unpracticed, even as I study and admire those who have more training and intuition. Planting, however, I excel at. It’s commitment in horticultural form and my preferred form of engagement with the world. Against all sensibility, I planted perennials on November 2, although I think that Epimedium are relatively safe bets given their nearly evergreen nature. It’s all conditional, but I’ll take the risk. Anyway, the weather looks uncharacteristically wet and milder than average for the next week and the leaf cover is heavy.
I’ve always been inclined to stop and stare at land, to take in its contours and subtleties, its trees and weeds. I noticed absent the distraction of leaves on the box elder (Acer negundo) that a wild grape (Vitis riparia) has jumped the road and abounded the leader, apparently almost 18 feet tall now. Golden strands of this native, aggressive vine entwine the full height of the street light across the way—it’s perhaps the only ornamental moment the plant has all season. I suppose it was only a matter of time before it joined me south of Riverview Drive. I wonder if Carolina wrens forage those withering berries and how they compare to the sparsely clustered drupes on the viburnum they’ve taken shelter in. What’s palatable to a wren?
I don’t yet have any birdfeeders on my side of the hedgerow, something I probably should fix soon. I’ve had a long relationship with birds in my life, and I intend to plant a biologically productive landscape in which they can thrive in accordance with their own ecological instincts. Feeding birds feels a bit selfish, otherwise. But I’m not an ornithological purist. I’ll put out a feeder in hopes of stealing a view onto the courtship of my newfound winged friends, cohabitants of this place I’ve come to love so much in the last 15 months. I’ll also keep planting for their benefit in hopes I’ll have an ear again to whatever they have to say.