I saw my first wood duck when I was about 10 years old. A tartan-colored drake led a hen on the water before flying off into the woods with a startled whistle that pierced the morning air. In my youth, I spent a lot of time at Sand’s Timber, a county recreation area and lake near my grandmother’s farm, birding and botanizing, sleuthing out nature’s next mystery. At 10 years old, everything about nature is a mystery, though nothing a magnifying glass, a field guide and a good set of binoculars can’t solve.
This memory rushed back to me last weekend when I heard a pair of wood ducks flying over the backyard into a stand of trees south of my house. They landed in a dead oak just down the hill. The female darted into a hollowed limb. Apparently aware of my gawking, the scouting lasted only a minute before they dashed off deeper into the trees. I live a quarter of a mile from the Des Moines River, a local flyway for birds migrating inland from the Mississippi River. The floodplain woods are home to herons and bald eagles. Soon, in my hilltop garden, the warblers will arrive, leading the songbird parade. I eagerly anticipate their antics as they alight the canopies of the hackberries and oaks. I could watch them for hours. As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal. Would I have had those unscheduled few hours to roam around the yard and pick up sticks last Sunday afternoon? Would I have made time to do it?
“As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal.”
Like all of you, I’ve spent the last month adapting to new routines in light of coronavirus. My work travel schedule is nonexistent, nothing like the weekly itineraries of January and February, which seem faraway and distant memories. I’m cooking more again, a pleasant intervention with the transactional relationship I’ve developed with UberEats and GrubHub even as I still try to support my restaurant friends who need the cash. All of this coincides with the return of the growing season, the green glimmers of which bubble up with each passing day. Snowdrops and witchhazels came early at Three Oaks this year, the lambs of spring’s early arrival, but no bellwethers for the lion of March: the arrival of a global pandemic.
In the last year, I have added “ecological artist” to my identity, a markedly different self assessment than I would have made only a few years ago. It helps me explain my approach to making gardens, honoring the early influence of Aldo Leopold and A Sand County Almanac on my education, and my curious examinations of plants in photography (and occasionally paint). As my professional life powers ahead at full speed, I’m grateful for the lenses of ecology and art to refocus my practice on its roots. And its sticks.
Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) are notoriously soft-wooded. Each winter they scatter small branches in a fleeting act of arboricultural dishevelment. Last year, I strung them together into loose, curving lines to form the path I use between the Long Look Prairie and hedgerow. The gist of that sinuous pattern still exists, so I decided to add to it, expanding the outline of the hedgerow for a future planting project into a sixty foot long, double file line of fallen limbs. As I drug hackberry sticks and limbs with my right hand, I sorted smaller stems and seed heads into my left almost unconsciously (shown above). For a short hour which seemed like a few long minutes, my attention was absorbed by the task of collecting and making. I observed the fallen by giving shape to life. Then there were wood ducks.
Against the seeming enormity and uncertainty of it all, a garden, if you’re lucky to have one, is a timepiece of the seasons and a refuge for the spirit. I’ve been absent from this blog for some time, like most blogs I’ve struggled to keep in my life. I write almost daily, but not usually for public consumption. I’m in the final throes of another book that I’m so excited to share with you in the coming months, along with longer form essays like this one. I’ve fallen into the convenience of quick and quippy posts on Instagram in the last few years, but amid this slowing down, I’ll commit to sharing more of the view from Three Oaks. Even when that itinerant lifestyle returns, I hope the memories of now will underscore the sanctuary of home and the joys of keeping it.