Thursday, May 29, 2014

Crows, Poems, & an Internship

“Dust of Snow”

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

            —Robert Frost

By Andrew Miller

In the mornings at my high school in Otsego, MI, I would occasionally see a crow or two picking through the parking lot trash—the extent of my pre-college experience with crows. At the end of my first fall in Ann Arbor, they filled the sky every evening in packs hundreds deep. At night, from the law quad to the Arb, the trees of campus cawed incessantly. Every time I read “Dust of Snow” I invariably envision those roosting crows of Ann Arbor (where for years Frost himself lived and wrote), U-M’s campus, and one snowy day in the Arb in particular.
Nichols Arboretum in winter

It was the middle of the day and most of the crows were elsewhere; only a few bounced around in the snow and snowy tree branches. Snow was falling heavily, some catching in the branches of the trees and the rest falling onto the already thick blanket. I was walking with a close friend (then only a new friend), and I don’t remember meeting anyone on the trails except a handful of crows and a raccoon who stared at us from the base of a sycamore on the edge of the river. By the time we’d looped around, left, and found a bus stop, my jeans were wet with melted snow and my body was shivering cold—but I was perfectly content. I’d been distracted from the cold by a wonderful person, the unblemished snow cover, a few crows, and a raccoon.
A crow rests on a snowy branch

Without fail, Frost’s accessible little poem leads me to remember that uneventful trip that left me cold, wet, and happy. I’m blessed by it. And often, when the inactivity of cold Michigan winters drags me down, I return to this poem and dream of all the memories I’ve had in the woods and in the winter, and like the shaking crow to the speaker, it pulls me back into gratitude and happiness, it changes my mood.

Another snowy day two years later, I was back in the Arb, wearing a tie and shaking off my coat at the door of the Reader Center.

Somewhere in the middle of our conversation my interviewer asked me: “So you’re interested in poetry?”—yes, I was—“Because we’re planning a nature poetry exhibit for the winter. We’re thinking about displaying well-known poets, perhaps faculty and student poetry too, maybe hosting a reading at the gardens, a short poem contest, etc. Part of your work would involve helping us develop it.”

A moment later she offered me the internship and, grateful and excited about the exhibit, I accepted. I put on my coat and walked back home in the heavy snow, thinking about poetry, nature, winter, the Arb and Gardens, and the internship combining them all.

Now I’m beginning work on the project, making contacts and hunting for poetry, and it is of course a great position. The link between nature and poetry is, I believe, eternal—at least as long as men and women are writing and flowers are growing—and it’s mutually beneficial. Poets will always be moved by the natural world, readers will be moved by poetry, and occasionally those stimulated readers will engage with nature in a new, productive way. We hope our exhibit (opening shortly after Thanksgiving) will feature the right poetry, poetry with the capacity to enhance our visitors’ perception of the natural world as well as their engagement with it. “Dust of Snow” reminds me of all the happiness and beauty I’ve felt in winter, of my first year in college, of my many walks through the Arb in sun and snow and of the people I walked with. I hope that the right poems in the right context will reach our visitors in a similar way, and that, if only briefly, their outlook on the world will take a positive shift.

(If you would like to submit poetry for consideration in our exhibit, feel free to send it to me at anrami@umich.edu)

This post, one in a series of stories written by our summer interns, was written by Andrew Miller. Andrew is from Otsego, MI, and a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts studying English and the environment.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Sticks and Stones, Nests and Nuts - Look but Please Leave Alone at Matthaei-Nichols

A message from our natural areas manager Jeff Plakke:

We're fortunate to work and volunteer in a place with an abundance of flowers, native fruits, acorns, nuts, seeds and mushrooms. We also often find feathers, bones, interesting sticks, stones, nests, and all sorts of fascinating natural stuff. Take a look, learn and enjoy! However, we ask that visitors, staff and volunteers please refrain from collecting these things and from taking them home.

It's fine to eat a few ripe raspberries or blackberries while in the field, but these and other wild edibles should not be collected and taken off the Matthaei-Nichols property. They should be left in their natural state so that others might enjoy seeing them and to avoid impacts of trampling off-trail. Also, when we leave mushrooms, fruits and nuts as we find them, we avoid disturbing the reproduction and dispersal of these species and impacting the wildlife that depend on these food sources for their survival. Please keep this in mind and we encourage you to educate visitors you encounter collecting in our natural areas.

What about teaching and research? These activities are a central part of our mission and with permission faculty, staff and students may collect, sample and sometimes display natural items.

What about exotic invasives? If you have a taste for garlic mustard or burdock root, like to carve buckthorn wood or have other uses for these species, please talk to me! We want to prevent them from being spread somewhere else deliberately or unintentionally, but welcome ideas for these ecologically problematic species.

Friday, May 9, 2014

In Michigan at Least, Morels Even Grow on Garlic Mustard

Current Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum intern and Arb caretaker Jake Hamilton stumbled upon a delicious black morel while removing garlic mustard from the newly installed Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Garlic mustard is a prolific invasive herbaceous biennial plant in the mustard family that when bruised smells like garlic. Black morels (Morchella elata) are a species of edible fungus in the family Morchellaceae and can be found all over Michigan in late April and all through May.  They're found growing near older ash and aspen / poplar tree stands in moist forested areas and begin growing the last few weeks of April and are ready for picking in the first few weeks of May. Be sure to cut the stems of the morels near the base as opposed to pulling their roots, or else the mushroom will not grow back at a later time. And be sure to collect them in paper bags to preserve them. 
Jake Hamilton shows off his catch.

Morels make for a great addition to pasta dishes and are tasty on their own if sauteed for 8-12 minutes with butter, a few drips of olive oil and a dash of salt and pepper, but be sure not to eat them raw; cooking will remove any toxins present. Upon your search for these elusive caps, use your “botany feet” to avoid smashing any of our Pure Michigan native woodland plant species!
Closer view of the morel.

Note: Identifying wild mushrooms can be very difficult. Sometimes even experts are stumped. If you're not sure what it is, best to leave the mushroom alone!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Local Birders Spot Peregrine Falcon Dive-Bombing Turkey Vulture

Falcons, hawks, and other large birds on the wing are always an amazing sight, and to see them hunting or chasing other birds only adds to the excitement. Last weekend, local birders witnessed a riveting scene: a peregrine falcon dive-bombing a turkey vulture over Palmer Field by U-M hospital (viewed from footbridge over Washtenaw Ave.) The falcon then whizzed by the the birders close enough for them to see all the field marks without binoculars. Later, while approaching the Arb, the birders saw two peregrines chasing a red-tailed hawk out of the peony garden toward the cemetery. The also spotted one lone peregrine hunting high over the Huron River near the U-M hospital.

Peregrine Falcon

Red-Tailed Hawk

Turkey Vulture

Thursday, May 1, 2014

80-Year-Old American Agave Getting Ready to Bloom at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Some of us peak at 20. For one 80-year-old American agave getting ready to bloom at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, adolescence is just beginning. A variegated American agave (Agave americana) collected in Mexico in 1934 by University of Michigan grad student Alfred Whiting, is sporting a flower stalk that’s growing nearly six inches a day. As of May 22 the stalk was more than 20 feet tall and workers have removed a pane of glass from the conservatory ceiling to allow the stalk to continue its upward climb.

That’s the good news. The bad news, especially for anyone who’s seen this enormous plant in the conservatory or in nature with its sinuous yellow-streaked leaves bristling with spikes, is that the plant will bloom, set seed and die, says Mike Palmer, horticulture manager at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.

Close up

A view of the flower stalk from below (May 21, 2014)

A view from above---outside the conservatory looking down on the stalk (May 21, 2014)

According to Palmer the American agave usually blooms in nature at 10 to 25 years of age. “Although no one knows for sure what combination of environmental conditions induces flowering,” he says. “And it’s rare for one to bloom indoors. Of course, being in a conservatory helps!” American agave foliage is usually 3 to 6 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide. The flower stalk can reach up to 30 feet tall. The American agave is often referred to as the “century plant,” probably because  humans have noticed (and then exaggerated) how long it takes the plant to mature and flower.

Thankfully, life will go on for the Botanical Gardens’ variegated agave, Palmer points out. “While it’s sad that the parent plant will die, it also grows ‘pups’ on the flower stalk and offsets at the base that are identical clones of the original plant,” he says. And it produces hundreds or even thousands of seeds that have the potential to grow. “But in the harsh, low water environment of the desert,” explains Palmer, “plants must produce many offspring to get a few progeny that will reach adulthood.”

Matthaei horticulture manager Mike Palmer stands in front of the agave's flower stalk. 

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens’ agave is native to the Southwest United States and Mexico and is an example of a plant species that’s well adapted to dry or desert conditions. The American agave is now planted throughout the world as an ornamental in arid regions. It was likely planted in the ground bed of the conservatory on Dixboro Road in the early years of the U-M’s botanical gardens at that location.

The American agave is more than just a pretty flower stalk. If you think the flower spike of the American agave looks like a giant asparagus spear, you’re on to something. The plant is in the asparagus family. And while many know agave as the source of tequila, the fiery distilled beverage is made only from the tequila agave (Agave tequilana). In areas of Mexico where tequila is produced, the American agave is used to make a similar alcoholic drink called mezcal. The flower stalk of the American agave can be cut before flowering to produce aguamiel, a sweet liquid collected at the base of the stalk. This liquid can be fermented to make a drink called pulque. Additionally, fibers gathered from within the leaves are used for making rope or twine.