On Grass, Streams, and the Erosion of All Things Natural

Erosion from Hurricane Irene on Taylor Brook

I’m sitting on the edge of this brook, still swollen from nearly 9 inches of rain this month, cooling my feet on one of the first hot and humid days of this season. We have weathered an unusually cool spring, one that will go down on record as the coolest ever in North America, at least the coolest since we have been keeping such records from the last quarter of the 19th century until now. Dozens of black flies dance around my head. They are hovering in front of my eyes and serve as mostly a nuisance, save one or two who attempt to fetch my blood so that they may procreate. My hounds are in the brook, cooling off as only bloodhounds and basset hounds can do, their excess skin wavering in the water with each pulse of the current. Cooper lays on his side in the shallows, occasionally raising his head to see if I am still sitting in the shade on the bank. Adia, our female bloodhound friend, stands chest deep in a pool just below a series of riffles only a few feet in front of me. I have to keep a steady eye on her. One whiff of some critter on wind born currents and she will bolt in search of a chase. Not an option for this large hound in hot weather. A long, baying, chase could prove to be her undoing on such a hot and humid day.

I worked at mowing the lawn early this morning. A job in hot weather that I simply do not like. I’m thinking about ways to get rid of the steep parts of my lawn. For the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with some low cover plants. One, spreading thyme, requires almost no maintenance, grows equally well in shade and sun, and out competes lawn grass in our particular soils and climate. About half of the steepest part of our lawn is now successfully covered. These forty five degree angled surfaces are dangerous to mow, especially in wet or humid weather. One slip pushing a power mower and your toes could get chopped off. Not a pleasant thought in my book. Next year I’ll transfer the thyme plugs from the part of the landscape where they now hold the soil to areas still dominated by grass. In another few years, and with some luck, I will not have to mow these treacherous sloped areas at all. In the meantime I must be careful. I’m simply not as agile or as strong as I once was.

River rye, a native grass found along streams and rivers

As an ecologist I’ve used grasses in many of the restorations that I’ve designed and completed. No, not the cool season grasses that dominate the present landscape. These are, for the most part imported from other places, far away, and grow in thick networks that are suitable for both grazing and lawns. They are excellent for stabilizing top soil, they are nutritious for live stock, and they are attractive to many people, especially American suburbanites. Timothy, bluegrass, orchard grass, fescues, and redtop are all examples of cool season grasses. They now dominate even the wild landscape to a degree where it is getting more and more difficult to find large stands of warm season grasses.

Cool season grasses do well in the spring and fall. They also are virile in the hot summer if they are drenched on a daily basis. Otherwise they will go dormant when it is hot and dry. They do this in order to survive. That burned, dead lawn that you may have had last summer was simply resting. It was taking a long siesta during the hot summer weather. That’s what it is supposed to do.

Warm season grasses are quite different. Little bluestem, big bluesterm deer-tongue grass, panic grass, and other native varieties are all native warm season grasses. Instead of the dense mats that cool season grasses form, warm season grasses may grow in small islands with bare ground in between each clump. These clumps are raised and may support other native herbacious plants over time. They are well adapted to both drought and hot weather. And they are very important for native wildlife. Our native plants and animals have had thousands and thousands of years to adapt to each other. They have nearly perfect relationships.

I’m not going to pretend that Americans will give up their lawns, especially in the short term, but I’m willing to venture that as the cost of water and fuel goes up people will begin to seek alternatives to the American lawn. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some people have already abandoned this custom and have designed landscapes that are beautiful, artistic, and friendly both to the eye and wildlife. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but one cannot deny that culture is as much a part of deciding what seems beautiful as any innate genetic code that is part of our human genome.

Typical clump growth, this plant is actually a tussock sedge growing on a sandy outwash along a river

Keep in mind that there are many wild species that will graze on cool season grasses. There are also many wild animals that use warm season grasses by necessity. Field nesting birds like bobolink, horned larks, and meadow larks are three such avian species. Their populations rise and fall with the availability of native warm season grasslands. There are also rodents and reptiles that depend on native grasslands. And these native habitats are disappearing at a rapid clip. So much that some state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Programs are protecting this habitat to avoid extirpation of wildlife dependent on these sensitive plant communities.

As I sit here dangling my feet in the brook I see Adia’s go up in the air. I quickly grab her by the collar and attach her leash. She seems content to sit next to me resting her large floppy head on my shoulder. With each hot bloodhound breath I know that she loves me. Cooper still is lying on his side in the shallows of the stream. He does his dog smile and I know for the moment he has found dog heaven.

On the opposite bank I can see how erosion has taken its toll. This small stream has endured some god awful storm events in the last couple of decades. After Hurricane Irene the stream cut more than five feet into the river bed. A depth of cut that had taken the previous several thousand years to accomplish. I’m thinking that the removal of sediment along the bank is normally so subtle that I don’t notice it. It takes a storm of incredible magnitude to make me take notice of the changes this bank has endured. It reminds me of life. I really don’t notice each moment going by. I take almost every moment for granted. But every once in a while there is an event; a wedding, a death, a birth that wakens my consciousness with regards to the passage of time. It is then that I notice that I am no longer the person I once was. I have changed, not necessarily a bad thing, but I have changed nonetheless. And, if we are honest, we will all have to admit that once we reach a certain age we are losing some of our previous abilities. Like the bank across the stream we look different, perhaps a little eroded, but making a path for something new. And that something new will eventually yield to another something new. And so goes the cycle of life.

Cool, clean waters produce ample brook trout in northern climates

I stand up and walk through the stream to a nearby pool. The water is nearly still. An overhanging tree branch shades the brook in this spot and the water clearly reflects an image. There is blue sky in the background, the silhouette of a tree, and some fellow with gray hair and a full beard that is nearly white. Beside him stands a red hound. She has a white muzzle. It occurs to me that his scene would make a wonderful painting.

Eventually we will make way for something new. But, now, right now, I am full of grace. I appreciate the moment for what it is. Perhaps these realizations are the purest, most beautiful experiences that we have.

Cooper stands from his long snooze in the riffles and shakes himself off. Water flies through the air. He stretches, yawns and runs over to me playfully.

It’s time to move on. Life is short.

Lush patches of wood sorrel love growing on the upper banks of a cool, moist brook

Written for www.wildramblings.com in June 2012

  • Emily Brisse

    I love how this land is so much a part of your life, Bill — something you measure your days and memories by, something to witness your walks upon the earth. Lovely. Hope you enjoy the rest of your June!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you Emily. I choose to measure my life as it meets the rhythms of our planet. So much better than a clock or a calendar. Plus it has the added advantage of being relevant to my way of thinking. Whether water, land, plant community, atmosphere, or wildlife there is much to witness and be a part of. I’ve often wondered how it was that we veered so far away from our planet, its beauty, and the way it keeps track of all that happens-with natural cycles.

  • http://winappnews.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    Another enjoyable read. As I was reading about your talk of mowing thew lawn, I thought of how much I hate that particular activity. I think I’m just too lazy for it. I kind of like the natural look, but it brings out the bugs and other various critters. I’d much rather be exploring a brook with the dog.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Mowing a lawn vs hanging out at a brook with my dogs? No contest. Thanks for stopping by Ratty!

  • Barbara

    What a glorious afternoon by the brook with your two hound companions. I envy you that stream – what a wonderful piece of Gaia’s many gifts to enjoy and dream by. I too dislike mowing lawns and join you in wondering how we got so far away from caring for all this truly awesome land. Hope you’re right about people turning to steriscaping and landscaping with natural looks not mown lawns. Thanks for the information on the cool and warm seasonal grasses as well. Lovely bit of writing, made me feel I was right there with you Bill… my two labs lying in the brook alongside Cooper and Adia. Thanks for sharing your afternoon.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks for coming along. The stream is cool and cleansing, isn’t it?

  • Montucky

    Looks like now it’s about time for me to do the same, head out to a cold stream to spend the days. We’ve also enjoyed a cool spring, not as much rain as you, but often in small amounts. Now a warm front is moving in and we will jump from highs in the 60′s to the possibility of 100′s, and fire season will be upon us. Time to spend some time studying the changes in the high country creeks caused by the melt of last winter’s snow.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I can’t wait to see the photographs of the high country creeks. Stay cool!

  • Teresa Evangeline

    This is absolutely beautiful and a goosebump inducing look at life. I love your reflection on your reflection… :) Who IS that person in the “mirror?” Love this, Bill, I needed to read this just now… a lovely reminder of why I live where I live…

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Teresa, perhaps the highest compliment one could ever get! You are so kind.

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