The Dark Side of the Canopy

One of the features that sold me on my little bungalow five years ago was its wonderfully deep and wooded lot. Towering silver maples – both mine and the neighbors’ – and lovely tall hemlocks surrounded the house and overhung the fenced yard. A sinuous swath of lawn curved from the back deck into the wooded far end of the property. It felt private and sylvan.

But there are drawbacks to having an established canopy.  Trees get old. Sometimes they get sick. And some trees are invasive imposters that only reveal their nefarious existence after you’re hooked on the greenery.

Shortly after moving in I had to take down an enormous pear that was just a few feet from the house.  It loomed two stories above the roof and its branches were resting on the electric wires coming into the house.  And all day, every day through that first summer and fall, it rained tiny, hard, BB-like pears – not half an inch big, on the roof and deck. Aside from the mess, the noise and the pain of being hit with the lead-shot bombardment quickly made use of the deck impossible. An arborist confirmed that the tree had exceeded its maturity, and I had it taken down.

Another charm of the house was the tall cedar rising through an opening in the deck. But it, too had its problems.  There were hardly any branches except at the very top, some four stories up, and this fall the squirrels began shredding the bark into ribbons, taking huge mouthfuls up to their nests. The cedar looks positively flayed.  I can’t imagine it will last much longer.

Flayed Cedar

And then, there are the Buckthorns.  Native to Europe, where they are kept trimmed as thorny hedges, when left to grow they become spindly, crazily branched understory trees with horrible huge thorns. They are the first to leaf out in the spring and last to drop their leaves in the fall. Plus, they keep growing when other plants have gone dormant, so nothing grows beneath them. They have no natural pests, of course. The deer don’t eat them, and the ‘lovely’ wooded scrim at the back of my yard was full of them.

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Fortunately, they are easy to cut down. Not so fortunately, they are also very painful to cut up and tie into the 18 inch bundles the city’s trash pick-up requires. That was my task most of one summer. But cutting them down does not kill them.  More will grow from the roots unless you kill the stump completely.

Buckthorn Baggie on duty.

Enter, via research and Amazon, the Buckthorn Baggie®. It’s a heavy black plastic bag that you put over the remaining 6-inch stump and cinch tight with a zip tie.  You spread the bag out over the root system and leave it for a year. That’s supposed to kill the stump and prevent any new shoots from emerging from the roots. I bought 100 of them – used about 60 so far. Now, my back yard sports what looks like an army of black-cloaked garden gnomes waiting to rush the house under cover of darkness.

One small ninja gnome battalion

I’ll get to the rest of the buckthorn in the spring, but my suburban lumberjacking has cost me a lot of the privacy between me and my back-yard neighbors. So I’m thinking of what to plant in their stead. 

Eastern Hemlock grows fast, does well in shade – which I have a lot of thanks to the huge maples and oaks on my neighbors’ properties. And Hemlocks are still zoned for this region, even though our growing/plant hardiness zone has changed in recent years from 5 to 6 in response to the warming climate. I have several large hemlocks in the yard already and the soft swishing whisper of the wind through their lacy branches is a soothing summer song.

But, as in all things, there’s never a perfect answer. Hemlocks can grow to be 800 years old. 300 years is a common life span, so long as conditions are right. That means cool, moist soil and hard winters. I am troubled about the possibility of planting these climate-sensitive trees that have a potential long life, only to put their health in jeopardy in a warming future. 

And then there’s the wooly adelgid, lately come from Asia to suck the nutrients out of these lovely trees in particular.

Sigh…  What’s a tree-loving homeowner to do?

Well, I still think it will be another buckthorn removal summer and a hemlock fall here in the little urban forest of my back yard. I’ll let you know how it goes.  For now, here’s the apologia ‘shape’ poem I wrote when I cut down my pear tree.  (Poem format may not work on a smart phone.)

Requiem for a Pear Tree
Forgive me, tree.
I did not want to let you go.
Your leafy crown above the house
was soothing music in the autumn wind,
surcease from summer’s heat, and shelter
for the scurried creatures of the neighborhood.
But ninety years is quite an age for such a tree as you,
and you signaled that your time had come—letting go
a thousand brittle twigs, a million sterile seeds, raining
like a storm of hail on roof, the deck, the garden.
All this summer I could hear your readiness
to let go, see how you were holding on
for one more season.
So I chose to
intercede, to
 act ahead of
clock. So,
forgive me,
tree, if my timing
was out of joint with yours.

K. Cerveny

After the Vortex

Beauty in the Midst of the Polar Vortex

11 above. On the way to 11 below.

The pirouetting force of the polar vortex has returned to its usual realm in the Arctic north. It had spun just briefly south into the mid 30’s latitudes of Northeast Ohio last month, generating in me a kind of pioneer spirit in the face of the unprecedented cold.  It was a time of hunkering down, cocooning and obsessive attention to the thermometer outside the sliding glass door to the deck. It was also a time of reverie.

One of my youthful fantasies was the romantic, completely unrealistic imagined joy of being snowed in, in a cabin in the Maine woods. Plenty of food, a pot-belly stove, a fireplace and wood stacked high enough for months just outside the door. And of course, all the books I ever wanted to read.

I remembered this dream from my 20’s and 30’s as I sat listening to the maddening drip of the kitchen faucet that kept the pipes from freezing overnight. It was 11 below. Three pair of socks and my feet were still cold.

Should have put the storm window in.

But in the midst of the cold, and maybe because of it, as the air seemed clearer through the frigid prism of light, the sun streamed in from its jewel setting in a lapis sky. The shadows slanting across the snow were a deeper blue-purple than I ever remembered. The few remaining single paned windows of the house blossomed with a tapestry of winter lace. And defying all logic, instead of resting warm in their nests, the birds chattered and fluttered around the bird feeder like excited children let out from school. Beauty was everywhere.

Much earlier, before dawn, the stars had shone brighter than usual through the clear, cloudless night. Venus and Jupiter book-ended a luminous crescent. The moonlight, reflecting off the snow, revealed a ghost image of the full orb. Sometimes the moon seems to be more brilliant in winter. Perhaps it’s the clarity of the frigid air, and the reflection of its own borrowed light beaming back from the snow.

Borrowed Reflections

Sun illuminates the waning moon.
      Moonlight falls on a frosted earth.
Sun-lit moonlight ricochets back
     revealing the satellite's
shadowed whole.

As hard as winter can be – especially as I grow older – I would not trade it for a milder climate. There is so much beauty and so many things that give pleasure in the changes of each season.

Here’s a winter poem I wrote some time ago about the simple joy of being the first to drive on a clean snowy road at night.

Late Thursday Night

Do you know the secret pleasure
of pioneering clean-sheeted streets,
spinning wheels pillowed silent
in frozen down - fallen 
soft and fresh in the night?

Ahead, pool after mercury peach pool
lights the comforted trail. Behind,
a wordless calligraphy unfurls;
clean curves the only crease
in the winter-laundered road.
© Kathleen Cerveny

Of Minnows and Safety Pins

When I was a little girl, I lived on a street with just a few houses. There were fields all around, dotted with stands of apple trees, brambles of raspberry and blackberry bushes and patches of wild strawberries.  It was a new planned development on the southwest side of Cleveland.  The street pattern had been cut and paved through the area but ours was one of only a couple of houses built at the time. I think of it now as having once been farmland or orchards, sold to developers to create the suburban homeland for the flood of returning veterans from WWII – like my Dad. In truth, it was also part of the ‘white flight’ out of the central city that helped launch the racial divide in the region that persists.

Not such a Big Creek – but mine.

At the bottom of the street, and all through the world as I knew it then, lay a forest. Or so it seemed to me.  It would eventually become part of the Cleveland Metroparks, and I think it’s still called Big Creek Parkway. Tall trees, heavy underbrush and a tantalizing creek filled with tadpoles, crayfish and water-striders.

The heaven of my young girlhood was spent there.  Long summer days in the ‘forest’ clearing the creek of fallen sticks and leaves, trying to catch minnows with a safety pin on a string, making secret hiding places beneath the arching branches of the underbrush. I would sit in these secret leafy caves organizing a cache of special stones, or just lie, looking up through the tangle of leaves and branches at the underbrush highway, busy with bees and other flying and crawly things.

At the time I thought it was my sacred duty to look after the forest and keep the creek clear of debris. I knew every inch of the several acres I roamed in those days; where the swampy areas were, the best vines to swing on, where the wild raspberries grew fat and unnoticed by all but me.

No one ever came there. The age of jogging and bicycling adults was years away. There was a path through the area, but it was unpaved and not much more than a deer trail, full of stones and tree roots, but passable. Occasionally other neighborhood kids and I played there, but most of the time I was the sole owner of the forest at the bottom of the street. It was years until mothers began to worry every second about where their kids were. It was a time of delicious freedom for a girl.

I’d almost forgotten. But today, as I walked the perimeter paths of the Perkins Wildlife Center at the Natural History Museum, picking up trash from the crowds of visitors the day before, hauling away branches that had fallen across the walkways during the night, the memories of being  caretaker for my little patch of wild came rushing back.

Radar. One of the Museum’s Barn Owls. Saved from euthanasia.

Readers of this blog know I volunteer at the Museum, working as a Perkins Steward (docent) and directly with some of the animals presenting Live Animal Programs for Museum visitors. Monday mid-mornings are very busy with many school groups coming through. So I spend the first few minutes walking the paths, checking on the animals to see who’s out, saying ‘hi’ to the incredibly busy and dedicated professional wildlife staff as they clean and enrich each animal’s environment. It’s a quiet time; just me and the animals and the staff.

This morning, in the midst of my joy at remembering the sense of ownership and responsibility for a small piece of the natural world, I also felt a kind of sadness for something lost. How rare, I wondered, is it now, that a young girl can feel as unconsciously safe as I did in being alone in the forest?

I’m not so foolish as to think I came up in a time when nothing bad happened to little girls. But the flood of information now, about those bad things that do happen, is continuous and inescapable. Predation is a natural part of the natural world. Sadly, it’s become a top of mind concern in raising children, and a factor that severely limits the freedom to experience the world – for young girls in particular.

As grateful as I am for places like the Wildlife Center where children can get closer to an eagle or a bobcat or a raven than I ever did in my youth, I mourn the loss of the semi-wild places of under-developed neighborhoods.

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I mourn a time when the ‘wilds’ of a forested creek at the bottom of the street could be a safe place for a child, on her own, to come to care for a patch of land, discover herself through nature, and fish for minnows with a safety pin.

Looking Through Others’ Eyes; a Question and a Wish

Early morning moon

The moon was still trying to fuzz its way into the morning through the pervasive cloud cover. Its faint light hung over the neighbor’s house like a stray fluff of lint on a gray wool blanket. It’s the morning after we gained an hour, but it still seems like 5 am rather than 6.

My house guest is still asleep and I’m trying not to let the cats’ curiosity get the better of them so she could rest peacefully as long as possible. She has a long journey ahead today – back to England.

Yesterday was filled with art and rich conversation – and food. My friend was here for a conference, traveling from her home in Bath.  She’d been to Cleveland many times and I always loved to hear her praise the riches of the arts here in her plummy British accent. She was one to know, being a prominent consultant in the arts internationally.

We’d spent the afternoon in the Art Museum, wandering the permanent collection. It was fun to see what caught her eye and how she saw things from her professional objectivity and broad experience. I was reminded how easy it is to take the exceptional quality of our cultural community for granted.

It’s a good reminder, and a lesson, in these times, to remember that many others see many things differently than I do. The election looms and I am dismayed at the raw and uncompromising divisions among us. I am also afraid that, with the potential shift in the political environment – however large or small it might be, that these divisions might be deepened and widened, rather than bridged.

How do we, as a nation, make the effort to look through others’ eyes, walk for a moment in others’ shoes? Can we – can I – thin the cloud cover of my own preconceptions and biases to let the light of another’s point of view illuminate the day? Can I hope that others might wish to do the same?

Not Exactly Staying in the Moment

It’s Sunday morning and I’m walking downstairs, my special prescription computer glasses still on.  I’ve just printed out the Times crossword to work on over breakfast. The stairs are a little out of focus as I step down, but I manage. The crossword’s in one hand and in the other I’ve got two pair of dime-store cheaters, my go-to reading glasses, that I grabbed from the nightstand.  As I negotiate the stairs I smile myself a little ‘high-five’ for belaying a trip back up later, when I’ll need a pair to do the crossword.  Thinking ahead, I say to myself quite smugly.

I’ve forgotten, however, that I already have a pair of cheaters on my head; parked there when I found them in the bathroom, earlier that morning. So, at 6 AM I’m already adorned with four pair of glasses.

As I pass through the dining room I notice my prescription driving glasses and my prescription sunglasses on the table where I’d emptied my purse last evening, looking for – reading glasses.

I put the cheaters from the nightstand on the dining room table where they join my prescription specs and the pair of ancient, lens-scratched glasses with broken frames that I keep repairing because … you never know.

In the kitchen, I take off my computer glasses, put them on the butcher block – then pick them up and walk back through the house and put them on the table by the stairs where I’ll see them the next time I go up to use the computer. Thinking ahead.

Fortunately, I remember still have a pair of cheaters on my head, so when I get back to the kitchen, having passed the now five pair of glasses on the dining room table, I put them on so can see well enough to safely chop the peppers, mushrooms and basil for my omelet without incident. I smile myself another high five – especially because I saved myself the embarrassment of wandering the house looking for glasses all the while wearing a pair on my head; a pretty regular occurrence.

You can probably guess that, later, when I go back up to use the computer, I walk right by the glasses on the table by the stairs.  Lost in thought about something I can’t remember now, there’s much internal finger wagging as I do a U-ie on the upstairs landing.

I wag my finger at myself a lot these days, wondering why I can’t remember things.  Or why I can’t seem to develop a routine that, at the very least where my glasses are concerned, makes me take off any pair I’m wearing and leave them in the room I am exiting. The original plan, for all these dime-store cheaters, was to leave one pair in every room in the house.  But somehow, at some point each day, most of them end up collected in one place – and not always the same place, so I never know where my (computer, driving, reading, sun) glasses are.

Maybe not enough glasses

It’s a small thing, I know.  I haven’t really lost my glasses – or my memory, really.  But among all the adjustments we need to make as we get older, this one, for me, is a daily reminder of how hard it is to stay focused – grounded, in the moment. I find this especially true when trying to fully complete one task before getting distracted by another.

Multi-tasking is a vice invented, I’m convinced, by ‘productivity-at-all-costs’ US capitalism. It’s nurtured by our own (maybe women’s in particular) ‘have-and-do-it-all’ expectations that everything is as important as everything else and so we feel we must act immediately on each thing that grabs our attention; no matter the task at hand.

No matter that you are heading for the closet to get the vacuum cleaner out, there’s the mail you haven’t opened yet, or the cats’ food dishes are dirty and it will just take a moment to wash them.  There’s the phone by the sink, which should probably be charged, so might as well check to see if anyone answered your Next Door post. And since you’re on the phone, maybe check the news to see what new craziness in happening in the world, and oh, look, a Facebook post from a distant cousin …

Then tomorrow, while deciding right now is the time clean out the garage, or maybe hem that dress that’s been draped on the sewing machine for the past month, you notice all the dust bunnies in the corners, the cat hair piling up on the rug, and the vacuum cleaner – cord still wound up – sitting by the closet.

Grateful for the Trashmen: My Garbage Footprint

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

6:15 Tuesday morning and the big green trash truck rumbles down my street.  The sanitation workers hanging from its sides leap down,  grab and toss the trash in a rhythmic dance of efficiency.  In almost a blink, the flotsam of the past week that washed up on the curb overnight disappears from the tree lawn.  In the giant compactor’s short trip up my long street, the vista of a reasonably neat suburban neighborhood is restored.

What would we do without them – these knights of refuse, restorers of order, these clean-slate clean-up craftsmen of our civilized society?

I’ve ruminated in this space before on the often shameful volume of trash I alone produce on a weekly basis. Although I’ve made efforts to reduce my garbage footprint through composting, not buying Styrofoam packaged food or hard plastic-shelled un-necessaries, I am still amazed and a little embarrassed by how much jetsam I jettison to lighten my personal load of consumerism each week.  I don’t like to think about how much I personally add to the unimaginable mound of detritus piling up – somewhere.

How lucky we are that the rejected refuse of our daily lives can be removed for us so efficiently each week.  I wonder what would happen if the garbage men came only once a month? Or if there were dozens of open, neighborhood trash heaps that some of us had to live next to – drive by each day? Of course, there are many places where exactly that is the reality. Lucky stars shine on us.

There is an ongoing debate in my community about switching from garbage and recycling bags to big, rolling plastic trash bins for each household.  I’m against them.  It’s not just the expense – residents would be either assessed a rental fee or there would be some sort of tax assessment. It’s more a matter of further gentrifying and sanitizing the messy and essential business of dealing with everyone’s trash. Plus, if you are not retired like me, you might not be home in the morning to roll your plastic bins back to the garage after the trash truck leaves, and so they sit there all day – just another eyesore in the neighborhood.

Somehow, it seems to me, the idea of hiding our waste in neat, clean, uniform containers removes the need to openly demonstrate and acknowledge how much of a burden each of us places on the planet from living our privileged lives.

Out of sight, out of mind.

There is value in owning our waste, I think.  While I remain grateful for the garbage men that take it away, I still think it is a good idea for each of us to assemble and package our individual waste product. Maybe this confronts us, at least once a week, with the size and permanence of our personal garbage footprint.