Edible Plants in the Wilderness - Wild Strawberry

June 28, 2016

The wild strawberry is no longer dotting our lawn red. We haven't been to a nature park in a month so I don't know if they are still brightening the understories of local woodlands. We knew the wild strawberry was edible before I looked them up in Edible Plants in the Wilderness, Volume 2, but it was satisfying to read the entry on our walkabout at Gulf Branch Nature Center. I received two volumes of Edible Plants in the Wilderness and one volume of Poisonous Plants in the Wilderness from Leslie of Urban Plants Research. She was paring down for a move and I volunteered to house these gems.

The children especially enjoyed the fruit. Botanically, the strawberry is not a berry. It is an aggregate accessory fruit. Each strawberry has multiple matured ovaries each containing one seed (aka pericarps but note that some ovaries can hold more than one seed) on the exterior of the fruit. More specifically, according to Harold William Pickett in Botany for Gardeners, in the case of the strawberry, each of those pericarps, which some think of as seeds, is actually "a minute nut containing a seed".

The leaves of the wild strawberry can be steeped as a tisane but I have not tried to do so. Have you eaten wild strawberries or drank a herbal of its leaves? Do you forage?

You might be interested in these posts on foraging and eating wild edibles:
Eating the fruits of street trees
How I drank a street tree

Eating your urban forest

Book Review - 'Lassoing the Sun', by Mark Woods

June 23, 2016

The first thing I will note about Lassoing the Sun by Mark Woods is that I cried often. You might think that the vivid descriptions of the beauty of our national parks prompted my tears. Mark Woods did chronicle evocatively the splendor of our national parks from the most wild and remote places to our most urban and nearby settings but it wasn't the natural landscape that elicited tears. This book is also a memoir of the last year of Woods' mother's life as well as an autobiography of his own childhood and adult life spent in our national parks. The stories of the lives of his family set against the backdrop of some of our most shared sacred spaces is highly emotional.

Much has been written about the origins of our national parks system. Woods set out to answer the question: what is the future of the national parks system especially in light of radical changes in technology and climate? To address the question, Mark Woods visited 15 national parks. The book is organized as a year long itinerary of visits to national parks with each chapter telling the story of a park and its resource management challenges. For example, the issue of dark skies is discussed in the context of Acadia National Park; the ripple effects of species reintroduction in the context of Yellowstone; and the fit of urban parks in the context of a predominantly "wild" parks system. The observations that Woods' makes during his visit to Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn underscore a quote he includes earlier in the book: "'Can national parks evolve successfully in a world where nearly all of their founding assumptions have been proven wrong'?"

Because the book is both journalistic reportage and a memoir, Woods extracts life lessons and insights from the approaches to solving challenges in our national parks. Without quoting literature on the benefits of time spent in nature on our emotional and mental well-being, he makes a solid case for the value of landscape in not only making memories but also in holding memories. I already mentioned that his mother dies during the course of the travels that form the basis of this book. But, also, he engages with a family who lost a son, Gabe Zimmerman. Both Woods' mother and Gabe Zimmerman had strong connections to national parks and the outdoors. Both sets of families relied on the landscape as almost an experiential album of their deceased loved one.

There are so many great elements of this book. I will discuss one more before wrapping up this review. Sensing the landscape comes up in several chapters and parks. Going back to Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn, Mark Woods quotes Thoreau writing that "the question is not what you look at, but what you see'." Woods initially overlooked some of the natural processes occurring in GNRA. The GNRA is not a traditional national park and doesn't fit within popular conceptions of what is natural. Woods' remarks that the GRNA represents "a new kind of natural". But is it a new kind or are our standards too narrow? In addition to seeing a landscape, Woods tackles engaging with our national parks through hearing, specifically he spends time with an advocate of the "One Square Inch of Silence" in Olympic National Park in Washington. For me, the last many lines of the chapter resonated the most with a description of hearing a rain event. Here is an extensive excerpt:
And then it started to rain. Before I saw the rain, I heard it. Before I felt drops on my skin, I heard them slowly, sporadically, plucking here and there on the canopy high overhead. When they started to fall harder, their pace and pitch rising....And when the water eventually started to cascade through the trees, the individual drops turning into a collective chorus....
When was the last time you heard the rain fall from start to finish? Do we give undivided attention to natural phenomenon?

I recommend Lassoing the Sun! If you love natural histories, memoirs, travelogues, this book is a great blend of these genres. Mark Woods' ties our lives to our landscapes. He celebrates our commitment to the national parks model and holds us responsible for sustaining this particularly American legacy.

This book was provided for review, and I am glad to have read it.

Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park

June 16, 2016

We usually favor parks that are destinations in and of themselves. However, last month, one of the parks we visited was a linear one with multiple destinations along its length. The Washington & Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park or W&OD Trail for short is 45 miles in length (with a parallel 32 miles of trail for equestrians). It's also known as "the skinniest park in Virginia". The rail line was built in 1858, became defunct in 1968, and was purchased by by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority in 1982. NOVA Parks and Friends of the W&OD manage the trail. There are twelve access points which basically means parking lots but you can also walk onto the trail. Along its length you have access to other regional parks, local parks and playgrounds, creeks, and even an old railcar at the Arlington access point off Wilson Boulevard. We began our walk near the Bluemont Tennis Courts heading east then looped back and ended at the railcar.

One of the first things we noticed was the row of trees at the edge of Asher's Baseball Field. These trees are a field marker of the former Reevesland dairy farm.

We've noticed art installations in several of the parks we have visited in Arlington County. On the W&OD Trail are the Named Stones sculptures by J.W. Mahoney. It's always a treat when you can engage with art with more than one sense.

The light through the trees was pretty. The ducks moved slowly through the creek facilitating photography. One of the destination point on the trail is the disc golf course. We did not know about the course in advance of our visit and wished we had. I have never played disc golf. Have you?

Peering in and around Four Mile Run didn't yield additional sightings of local fauna.

The trail is multi-use so although we walked we saw recreational runners and cyclists. We didn't hop off the trail to play at any of the playgrounds along the way although there was a half-hearted request to visit the Bluemont Playground. The highlight destination along the part of the trail that we walked was the railcar at the former Bluemont Junction which is where we ended our visit.

The older child climbed the car like a jungle gym while the younger one pretended to be a train engineer. We may have a budding rail buff!

The W&OD Railroad Regional Park is a rails to trails project and is listed in the database of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Learn about the history of the concept and the conservancy here. If you are curious about the development of bike and walk routes adjacent to active rail lines, consider this article at Streets Blog USA.

Field Trip - Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea at the National Zoo

June 7, 2016

A couple of weeks ago we excitedly visited the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. Then the terribly sad and terrifying incident occurred at the Cincinnati Zoo and that has dampened my recollection of the National Zoo, but has also rekindled previous misgivings about zoos. I won't share photos of live animals in this post instead I am sharing photographs of many of the sculptures of marine animals in the Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea exhibit currently installed at the National Zoo. Each sculpture was created from plastic waste taken out of oceans. This exhibit is engaging, provocative, and educational without being didactic. Well done, National Zoo! Learn more about the Washed Ashore Project here.

The photos are arranged in the order I took them not in the order seen. For example, the first sculpture we saw was of the jellyfish installed at Gate D but I photographed the jelly on our way out of the zoo.

"Octavia the Octopus"

"Fish Bite Fish"

"Lidia the Seal"

"See More the Sea Lion Pup"

"'American' Sea Star"

"Chompers Tiger Shark"

"Zorabelle the Rockhopper"

[I did not record the title of this sculpture.]

"Water Bottle Jelly"

This exhibit is installed at other zoos, aquariums, and gardens. Have you seen it? I was impressed with the details but this only means that in addition to the gross amount of plastic waste in our oceans, there is a significant diversity of plastic products that we discard.

Mapping the Trees of Lyon Park on iNaturalist

June 1, 2016

I promised you wild strawberries on Twitter but changed my mind after spending the late afternoon today in Lyon Park. I started a Trees of Lyon Park project on iNaturalist with a single observation on April 24. I made my next three observations two days later on April 26. I made one observation on April 29. Today I added six trees to the project. June is #30DaysWild hosted by The Wildlife Trusts and my goal, in addition to "finding the wild in [my] life every single day"* this month, is to add all the trees in the park to the map on iNaturalist!

The tally of trees is 11 observations across 8 species. So far, I am the only observer but the project is open to anyone, so if you frequent the park or are passing by, please take a stroll and map a tree or two. If all the trees are mapped, leave a comment on your favorite tree.

* Admittedly I'm always looking out for and recording wild things.

Arlington County's Nature Centers, Part 2 - Gulf Branch Nature Center Preview

May 24, 2016

We haven't yet visited Gulf Branch Nature Center but we plan to do so on June 12th, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the nature center. The center will host a birthday party on that day during the afternoon. The Central Library's current exhibit is of the nature center. When we visited the library last weekend I took several photos of the exhibit which I share below. Coincidentally, while keeping a recent appointment I read an article about the origins of Gulf Branch in the May/June 2016 issue of Arlington Magazine.

The wildlife preserve was a country house known as "White Pines" between 1937 and 1944. In 1966, its second owner sold the property to Arlington County and in 1963 the county matched federal funds to purchase additional land to expand the conservation area to 40 acres. I am looking forward to our visit this nature center next month.

Interested in nature centers? Read about our walk in Potomac Overlook Regional Park.

Species in My Yard, Part Two - Three Bird Nests

May 10, 2016

There is so much wildness in our yard in Arlington County, VA! Here's an excerpt from a recent email I sent to a friend.
[We] saw a warbler or a finch recently. There's a robin's nest in a redbud growing in the sidewalk. House sparrows are using the bird house. Unfortunately two clutches of cardinal eggs were eaten; the nest was in our lilac. There's a bat box on our chimney; we've seen them once, flying on a Saturday night. There are oh, so many rabbits. Friends had a resident peregrine for a while. These same friends also had visual access to a fox den beneath their neighbors' shed.
I wrote about the cardinals, rabbits, bats, and other Species in My Yard a couple of weeks ago, but I am going to spotlight the now abandoned cardinal nest today along with two other nests. One is a house sparrow nest inside a nest box and the other is a robin nest in a redbud growing in the sidewalk.

A pair of cardinals made a nest in the lilac shrub growing on the south side of our house. I discovered the nest only after seeing the male cardinal fly out of the shrub. The female was well camouflaged within the interior of the lilac as well as on the nest itself. Two clutches of eggs were eaten by a yet unidentified animal. The nest has been abandoned.

On top of the swing set in our yard is a nest box. It's old and in poor shape. A month ago or so, my son and I opened the side flap and saw a thick duff of old nest material. However, starting last week, we have observed a pair of house sparrows flying and out of the box and the male house sparrow is behaving territorially. This morning, he chased a bird out of the box! It all happened so quickly, I was not able to identify the interloper. Since the nest appears to be active, I did not want to lift the side flap to look inside the box. Curious about the state of the interior of the box, I used a selfie stick and my phone to take some photographs. It was difficult to get a clear shot of the inside of the box.

Simultaneously, a pair of robins have constructed a nest in one of the redbuds lining our street. I also used a selfie and a phone to investigate this nest. The nest is disappointingly empty. Notice the mud on the upper portion of the nest? The female typically "reinforces the nest using soft mud gathered from worm castings to make a heavy, sturdy nest." I have observed robins pulling worms out of the grass strip in the sidewalk so I know worm castings are plentiful. Hopefully the damp mud indicates that the next is still under construction, and that egg laying will follow soon.

Are you watching nests where you live?
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