There was a sad report out of Whiteside County in Illinois this week. A female mountain lion was killed by a Wildlife officer from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. You can read the whole story here.
My first reaction was sadness for the poor cougar who was probably scared and hungry. Sadness was quickly followed by outrage that in the year 2013, this is still how people react in these situations. On the one hand, we have the IDNR hiring sharp shooters to "cull" the deer herd because it is too large due to the fact that there are no longer any predators to naturally cull the weak deer. And then the same agency insists on killing a wild predator that might naturally cull some weak deer from the local herds.
There are many more questions than answers, and it isn't useful to play "what if" or "why not" games as in: "Why not tranquilze the animal and relocate it?" Or, "What if the lion had attacked a human being?" The sad fact is that the answer to either question is moot - the lion was killed despite the fact that it wasn't threatening anyone, and it wasn't tranquilized.
At TLC's Annual Brunch earlier this year, storyteller Jim Pfitzer gave a moving portrayal of Aldo Leopold, famed conservationist who authored A Sand County Almanac - a collection of essays about the natural world and mankind's relationship to it. One of the essays is titled "Thinking Like a Mountain," (read below) and upon reading the story of the mountain lion's senseless death, I thought it was a good time to share this essay as a reminder for those who still seek to control wild things.
The biotic community - of which we are a part - if far more complex than people can understand - even wildlife biologists, ecologists and other scientists. The system is too complex, and it is in a constant state of flux due to changing weather conditions, the emergence of new diseases and pests, natural population spikes and troughs for individual species, etc, etc. The best we can hope for is to make decisions that respect the integrity of the natural system - the whole system, not just the parts with which we are most comfortable.
Thinking Like a Mountain
A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.
Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.
My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.
In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.
Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.
I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.
We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.
November 11th, and the season's first snow is falling in Woodstock.
It seems early this year, but I suppose that is just a function of my age and the general acceleration of time that occurs with each year that passes.
Wasn’t I happily gathering seed in my garden just yesterday? Well, yes, I was!
Looking out the window, I see the Arrowwood viburnum bushes still holding their golden and deep red leaves, but the hazelnuts are nearly bare already.
The bur oaks have lost their leaves, but the white oaks are holding onto theirs as they do some years. (They will drop them in the spring when the leaf buds begin to open, but decided to keep them this winter – just in case.)
While most of the native perennials are now dried and brown, many of the asters and goldenrods are still green. And didn’t I see a purple bloom on a New England aster last week?
The first snow is somehow magical and sobering. For me, it is a reminder of my youth – making snow angels and building snowmen during snow days when school was closed. But it is also a glimpse of things to come as we adults prepare for the cold, snow and ice that we know will arrive over the next few months.
More than anything, however, the first snow is a time for me to stop and reflect. A time to remind myself to slow down. A time to remember to appreciate each season and the beauty it has to offer. A time to read a good book while drinking a hot cider with a warm cat on my lap.
“We are responsible for the third generation of oaks in McHenry County.” Mary Tree McClelland, horticulturist, Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard.
To Mary's way of thinking, the first generation of oaks was the one that was here when European-American settlers moved into the county in the mid-1830s. At that time, nearly 40% of McHenry County was covered in oak woodlands or savannas. The remainder of the landscape was prairie, wetland, and open water.
By 1872, settlers had cut half the original oak woods, whittling them down to just 18% of the county’s land area, or about 70,000 acres. The second generation of our oaks is the one that sprouted and grew since the 1830s, but they never regained the ground lost in those early years of settlement. In fact, during the second generation, oaks have steadily lost ground to farming and development, so that today, oak woods cover just 4% - 14,000 acres – of the landscape.
Of the remaining oak woodlands, very few, perhaps 25%, are healthy. The vast majority are dying off as oaks are choked by invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and rapidly-growing trees like box elder. Acorns fall, young oaks sprout, but they never grow to adulthood because they are shaded out by the invaders.
As the second generation of local oaks nears the end of its natural life (200 years?), the county faces the prospect of the third generation being nothing more than a handful of remnants in public natural areas – just like zoo specimens.
There is a different way. The descendants of the early settlers and the new settlers who arrive by the thousands each year have a choice. The community can choose to plant oaks. Not just specimens in backyards, but actually recreating oak woodlands and savannas on the soils where these woodland communities once thrived.
And, our community can choose to take better care of the oak woodlands that remain by clearing invasive brush and giving the young oaks sprouting in the woods a chance to mature.
If local settlers – new and old – choose to help, the third generation of oaks can thrive!
Look for "Oak Rescues" that TLC holds throughout the winter months. These are days when volunteers gather on a privately-owned property for the purpose of helping the landowner clear invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from around some ancient oaks. We get a good brush fire going, have something warm to drink and even cook some brats over the fire for lunch once the work is done. Contact Linda Balek, firstname.lastname@example.org, for more information about upcoming winter oak rescues.
November has always been a misfit month to me.
Fall colors are giving way to browns and greys. The bright white of the first snow usually waits until December. Sure, there’s Thanksgiving – my favorite holiday – but not until the end of the month.
Rather than just biding my time until Thanksgiving this November, I’m going to get out and appreciate the good things this season has to offer:
- Take a nature hike. One advantage of this pre-winter month is that the weather is cool, but not cold. On the next sunny day, I’ll take walk through the woods and enjoy the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet. I’ll also keep my eyes open for late season mushrooms, particularly if there has been some rain recently. If I’m lucky I’ll see some turkey tails, which do look like their namesake, albeit much smaller.
- Look at the stars. Nights are longer now, which means there is plenty of time to enjoy some star-gazing and still get to bed early. On a clear, moonless night, I like to find a dark area in the country, wrap myself in a blanket with a thermos of hot cider, and just look up. (The new moon was November 3rd, so this is probably a good time for stargazing. The end of the month should be good too.) The website www.stargate.org/weeklytips posts a nice list of celestial events to look for each week. Cassiopeia, Pisces and Pegasus are visible in November, as is the Andromeda galaxy, which is in Pegasus. To the naked eye, it will look like a faint smudge. Andromeda is located 2,500,000 light years from Earth, so the light from that smudge took 2.5 million years to reach us!
- Clean and fill the birdfeeders. It is a good idea to clean bird feeders monthly when in use, but annually at a minimum. The cleaning helps remove bacteria, mold and diseases that can build up on a feeder. If an infected bird uses the feeder, it will pass the illness on to other birds. A solution of one part bleach to nine parts hot water is recommended. Be sure to clean all parts of the feeder.
Something else to look out for in November is deer. This is peak breeding season for deer, so they are a little distracted. Their coloring blends in well with the drab landscape right now, so many people don’t see them approaching on the side of the road until it is too late. Be especially alert when driving at dusk and dawn. With all of the wonderful natural areas in McHenry County, most parts of the county have deer populations, so stay alert even when driving in built-up areas.
On November 9th, from 2-5pm, TLC will hold its first acorn planting day. The inaugural event will take place at the Beeson Conservation Easement north of Chemung at 8216 White Oaks Road, Harvard. The planting will be used to test whether direct seeding of areas with acorns is an effective way to restore oak woodlands.
On November 21st, from 6-7pm, on Speaking of Nature radio program, I’ll be talking with local business owners about nature-themed gifts to consider this holiday season. Tune in through the website www.harvardcommunityradio.com or on the radio at 1610 AM.
On my daily commute between Harvard and Woodstock, there are several majestic oaks I’ve admired over the years that are showing signs of decline, and even a few that have been removed in recent months.
The declining trees tend to be close to Route 14, and signs of stress can be seen as upper branches die off, or perhaps the leaves turn brown and fall earlier than other trees.
These veteran trees are 200 or more years old, but if given proper care, one would expect them to live at least another 100 years.
So, why are they dying?
It is rarely one thing that kills an oak. Rather, these distinctive trees often succumb after a combination of stresses wear them out. The usual suspects include:
Age. Let’s face it, as any of us age, little things that may have been “no big deal” when we were young can be harder to recover from as we age. The same is true for trees.
Changed hydrology. Hydrology is the surface and below-ground flow of water in an area. As roads are built, rebuilt and widened, the flow of water changes, and this affects the trees near to the road. Another way that hydrology is changed is through tiling of farm fields to change the water table levels.
Invasive plants. Buckthorn, honeysuckle, maples and other fast-growing trees shade out the lower branches of oaks, causing those branches to die. Groundcover plants like garlic mustard change the soil chemistry, which is believed to affect the fungus and microbe populations in the soil.
Damage. Digging a foundation near an oak, building a road, compacting or adding soil underneath or pruning branches during the growing season will damage oaks. The root system of oaks is near to the surface, so compaction will crush roots and adding soil can smother them. Also, an oak’s root system extends at least twice as far from the tree as the canopy, and when the roots are severed, it may not kill the tree, but it is another stress.
Disease. Oak wilt has been around for many years, and while it is almost always fatal for red oaks, it rarely kills the white or bur oaks, as they have a natural resistance. The beetles that spread the disease gain entry to the trees when they are damaged – or pruned – during the growing season.
What can be done to help these trees live out their natural lives?
Avoid damaging roots through compaction, mounding soil or excavation around oaks.
Remove invasive plants by cutting brush and painting the stumps with herbicide to ensure they will not regrow. Pull garlic mustard in the early spring and add seed from native grasses and flowers to help keep it from dominating the understory.
Prune oaks between October 15 and March 15 when the trees are dormant. Ideally, hire a certified arborist to remove dead branches every 4-5 years to keep the trees healthy.
By taking care of the oaks, they will provide beauty and enjoyment for many generations.
TLC holds a fall oak sale each year. All trees are grown at a local nursery from locally collected acorns. Thirty percent of proceeds support efforts to plant more oaks throughout McHenry County, and the remainder supports the growing and care of trees that are sold and planted. Visit www.conservemc.org to place an order by Monday, October 7th, or call the office at 815-337-9502. Trees can be picked up at TLC’s office, 4622 Dean Street, Woodstock on October 11 and 12.
The Land Conservancy of McHenry County
Lisa Haderlein has worked and volunteered in the conservation and environmental field for over 25 years. Since 2002, she has been Executive Director of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County, a local, non-profit land conservation organization. Lisa and her husband, Tom Cubr, share a 105 year old house with three cats in Harvard.