Category Archives: ecology

The virtue of surprise

Walking or biking, at leisure, through areas you think are familiar may yield surprises. Any day you go out, in fact, and come back, traversing familiar areas, may heave up discoveries that you and most of your friends and neighbors have never suspected.
So, the other day, I walked from the Nissan dealership on College Avenue, where I’d brought my car, to the gym at Washington Regional Medical Center. There’s no direct way, straight as the crow flies, so I skittered through back lots along the commercial strip and came to the back side of Fiesta Square.

I was astonished, first of all, at how huge the parking lot was: it can hold hundreds and hundreds of cars. The front lot is  never full and rarely crowded, as you may know, at this mall that was a premier spot in the early ’70s, when it was built, but has long since been superseded by larger, more glamorous developments.

The only vehicles parked in this huge L-shaped lot belonged, I suspect, to employees at the stores, especially those stores near where the two legs of the L join and where a passageway allows access to a few stores and joins the two lots. I peered as I walked the back lot for egress through or around the dog-eared fence at the back of the lot, behind which a dozen or so of private homes sat. On the right side of the fence, as I walked west, was a ravine too dense and brambly to penetrate, especially in the shorts and tee-shirt I was wearing. Who owned this land, if anyone? I wondered. How had it been excluded from development? Would it ever be developed? (Fayetteville, back in the day, must’ve had much more informal development policies than it does today, with the city council and a planning commission presiding over every option that comes up before it.)

As i walked, then, south, along the fence, I noted two or three gates into yards. Of course, I was wary of trespassing but curious too, and I tried these gates, tentatively, pushing in, but the gates did not yield easily. Besides, as I pushed, I raised a hullabaloo from dogs in nearby yards, a racket of primitive menace that produced in me only the determination not to enter any yards and an imprecation or two I hurled at the mutts.

As I walked by the backs of the stores, there was a more than pungent smell from one Dumpster, presided over by a lordly crow on the rooftop, which cawed and claimed the garbage as its own. Whew! What rot! I hurried by and had to go all the way south to Appleby Drive, at the southern end of the shopping center, before I could turn west again toward the gym.

secret-places
A glimpse of the rural and industrial area south and west of the development where I live in Fayetteville, Ark.

As for biking, I took my Trek out the other day along the back roads south of our development of Stonebridge Meadows. I did a leisurely 15 miles, about all I had time for, and climbed up Dead Horse Mountain Rd and then twisted south and east a bit. At the end of this road I came to S Black Oak Rd, which I took east, towards the industrial park, sluicing along and ducking into byways and dead-end streets. I found a couple of things I hadn’t know to be looking for: 1) an old crumbling concrete reservoir built in 1889, a decaying sign said, for Fayetteville’s water supply, and 2) a cemetery.

The reservoir was on the West Fork of the White River, which cuts long the edge of our development and then skirts through farmland south and west. I found the reservoir just by cutting down a stub street, one block long, spying an old stone house and outbuilding, in good condition, and then the peeling painted sign with the history of the project. A couple in their early 30s were fishing at the reservoir and their little daughter clambering among the rocks. This was one of those rocky riparian flows, or floes, you sometimes see in an area of limestone topography (or karst) like Northwest Arkansas. Shelves of limestone stretched away from the river banks, an area that would be underwater during springtime rush and flooding.

The cemetery was along Pump Station Road, or one of the nearby country roads. I didn’t stop and check it out but was amazed, even in flying by, to spy this extra evidence of earlier settlement. Ah, yes, the dead were tucked away so safely and squarely. Who would disturb them, or remember them, now? Well, I would like to return, some day soon, not to haunt them but sit down and visit a spell, talk nonsense with them, perhaps take a few photos.

All of these secret places, some maybe sacred, are susceptible of being visited, meditated, recorded. So remote, and yet so close, they can be remembered if we simply slow down and drop in.

 

Hummingbirds, our summer clowns and warriors

Hummingbird
Female ruby-throated hummingbird at feeder.

Jen and I get a great kick out of watching the hummingbirds, ruby-throated and others, that visit our patio all summer — they swarm and kick up in great clouds of territorial aggression, as many as 12 to 15 at a time, lately, with the weather cooling, these tiny aerial warriors that lord it over an area of maybe 1,000 square feet.

The males are especially aggressive, driving away Lilliputian rivals in aerial combat. Many collect, and hide, in a neighbor’s big maple. Do they sense each other there? Do they attack even in that covert?

The birds seem to expend more energy driving away their rivals from the feeder than they do in feeding. One perches on the rim of the feeder and just stands there, body tense, warily waiting and watching for interceptors. As soon as a rival approaches, the percher lights after him, and the two describe crazy aggressive circles in the air, as if they were all von Richthofens.

Yes, we’ve been cooling this late August. It won’t be too long, a month or so, before the rubies fly south, abandoning their fiercely held Arkansas territory. We will miss them, of course, sitting at the table on the patio  looking upward in vain.

Still, these feisty Lilliputians set an example we really don’t need to follow. They chase away all comers from the feeder, though there’s nectar (sugar water) aplenty. Though polygynous, the males guard their females zealously, jealously. Hey, guys, we feel like shouting out, there’s enough for everyone! (Food, females.) They put out so much energy in jealous defense that you’d think they’d wear themselves out. And yet they may live, the ruby-throated variety of these smallest of all birds, as much as nine years  and, so, make nine round-trips, self-propelled, of course, to the tropics, more than most of us will ever make or ever dream of making.

All hail, then, Lilliputians of the air! Your iridescence amazes us. Your feistiness and flightiness make us laugh. Your talent for survival, against huge odds, astounds and heartens. Prosit! We raise a cup of our nectar, a pinot noir say or summer chardonnay, and toast you!