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Branching Out: A Sit Spot or Two

Locations: Columns Published

Barefoot, I step quietly through waves and drifts of green.

I can hear heavy birds scratching in the underbrush. With one wary eye at a time, they peer about, swiping their beaks back and forth through the decomposing duff. Concealed within a filagree of aspen leaves, I finally spot them. Angry chatters fill the air and a male squirrel launches spread-eagle from an apple tree, and tears off through a clearing. Another one chases him, practically shaking its fist. Chuckling, I slowly drop to the earth, settling into fragrant Timothy grass. My “sit spot.” 

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It’s the golden hour, and like one squirrel after the other, shadows are chasing the sunlight up a stand of creamy aspen. A beetle by my right knee falters and stumbles within the anatomy of a dandelion — silky stamens, pistils, petals are a small cosmos. Pollen dusts his legs and antennae. After a minute or so, he chills. Is he making camp for the night, I wonder? 

Dusk deepens in my thicket. Crickets have kicked in, a summer anthem. Water burbles from myriad pockets and holes, swirls around and over boulders. Negative ions bathe and cool the outward breath of leaves and grass. I shiver, tucking my knees and hands into my shirt. The last rays of warmth retreat with the sun as it ducks beneath lavender, violet and purple-shadowed ridges…

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Vrrrrrrrr! It’s a hummingbird blur; too fast to see. The air shifts though, and anticipation prickles my scalp— my nostrils flare and there it is: musk and urine. The dark silhouette of his antlers swing and sway, low over the grass and clover. He’s back! Grazing, he steps noiselessly from our sage thicket, nose wet from our ditch.  

Oh, wait — you thought I was camping? 

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No way; this is my backyard. Three unruly lots that I’ve come to love dearly these last few years, but especially now, sheltering in place. The bonanza of flora and fauna makes loneliness impossible, and solitude? Cherry. 

A sentimental sort known to commune with trees (and elves), my housemate has been planting and tending to his Eden for two decades. Each sapling and tree, is a kindred spirit. His hedgerows are rich with lilac, honeysuckle, chokecherry, and sandcheriesy. He’s planted crabapple and canyon maple, rabbitbrush and sage. The aspen, spruce and mountain ash  are not long for this world, with climate change happening. Weedy elm, sweet Russian olive, water-pig Populus spp.. Box elder thrives under a downspout. He even believed enough to plant for the future, three species of Quercus: mossycup, gambel and ‘fastigiate’ oaks. He went nuts on the fruit trees: A Jerome pear, several varieties of apples, apricots that seldom happen, two kinds of cherries; even Concord grapes. And evergreens, of course: junipers, lodgepole, pinyon and black pine. 

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“Especially special,” as my daughter would say, is a 40-50-year old ponderosa. I cleared the pokey branches up along the trunk, so we could climb to the top. You can take in most of Carbondale. At 30-40 feet tall, it’s breathtaking — and not necessarily because of the views.

The extensive canopy disperses rain showers, improving water infiltration, which replenishes soil moisture, instead of running off, taking the soil with it. The annual and perennial rooting below ground improves water percolation, which recharges the groundwater. And yes, his trees store and sequester carbon, but even better, they produce a microclimate of clean, oxygenated air. Species meander and self sow, increasing habitat, forage, and cover for the multitude of creatures we thrill at witnessing.  

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Fruiting plants bring our feathered friends, who in turn, further disperse the verdancy, via digestion-stratified seed. Squirrels and field mice stash caches underground, aerating the soil and adding to wild-sown new plants. Deer, skunks, and raccoons come and go, sometimes with chicken mortality. The bears shit copious piles of chokecherry seed. We’ve even been graced with wild turkey. She spent a few days hanging with our hens before returning uphill to the Nieslaniks. And let’s not forget all the creatures on the wing, and the six-leggeds, and eight-ers. Even those with no legs — writhing garter snakes, red wigglers and earthworms. Hornets, wasps, puff balls and the mycorrhizae: all intrinsic to our feral fiefdom

And feral it is. From April to November, we might mow… four times? The catch-bag is slowly moldering under the juniper bushes, unneeded. We strive for closed loops and cycle the clipping nitrogen back into the soil: feed the bacteria, microorganisms. It’s a feast for roly polies and earwigs, who in turn are consumed by our hens, and robins. 

We like our lumpy, blowsy “lawn.” We set the blade deck at its highest. The longer grass simply lays over, cooling and shading its soil and roots and retaining moisture. 

I mow clearings in this untamable ocean of grass. I circle the rogue hollyhock, the bonny stands of penstemon,  flax so blue it captures the sky, and the wild tangles sweet pea vine, come June. These painterly swathes of ‘lawn’ are my deep breaths in the landscape. In my admitted compulsion to control just a little, I mow rhythm into my space: calming islands of lawn against swooping skirts of tall grass, and mowed pathways spill through thickets of trees, claiming several sitting areas, a tree house, a trampoline, and the chicken yard. The compositions bring flow and life that simply would not be if we prioritized turfgrass. So we restrain ourselves (how unAmerican!) leaving Nature to her ways. Moseying about, we lend an artists’ hand, tucking a blowsy bit here, guiding a branch there. 

Grass, dead branches, autumn’s leaves and dessicated seed pods often remain from previous seasons. Harvesting seed last year from a biennial primrose, I instead found pupae. I learned that “plume moth” larvae chow their way in, feast on omega-3-rich seeds, and pupate, safe within their winter shelter of “dead stuff.” Come spring, a dusty, frilly moth crawls out. Incredible miracles every day. We have no clue.

My summer sit spot is out back, on the sun-warmed steps of my concrete stoop. From spring to autumn, I air-dry in the sun, wrapped in a towel or robe, the sun so delicious on briefly-clean skin. I linger over coffee, cherishing “slow” and “pause.” I marvel at the entirety of what we choose to do on this patch of Earth. We grow food to nourish our bodies. We manage trees, leaves, sticks, dirt and stone for the sake of untold cycles,  lives, and creatures. “Finished” and “fancy” be damned. 

From my perch above this yard, I half close my eyes, the sunlight pink and gold in my lashes, my body with the swallowtail, the hawkmoth, and the robin, attuned to possibility and discovery, winging through the life-filled air between me and the ravens… way up yonder. 

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