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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

Spring fever urges many a gardener and nature lover outside, and I’m one of the first to feel the symptoms: I want to dig, move soil, divide things – garden, that is – and it’s way too soon for most of it. So I put on my mud boots, call the dog and turn that energy outward toward the fields, woods and stream; it’s hiking time.

East Aurora has many fine places for nature hikes – Knox Farm, Emery Park, the new Major’s Park off Olean Road and nearby Chestnut Ridge Park among them.

But I am blessed to have country property, a former farm that I try to maintain mostly as a wildlife habitat. I walk the portion that has trails nearly every day and watch carefully the changes in plant and animal life through the four seasons. I keep my cellphone in my pocket, in case I fall in the creek or over an embankment (getting older, after all). Sometimes I even call my faraway mom or daughter, while sitting on a rock, but generally I appreciate the disconnected time. The solitude is so good for an overcrowded mind in a too-busy life.

Yesterday the spring fever took me even farther — up the hill to the older growth part of the woods (hemlocks, oaks). It was then that I started to hear the voices.

From the distant past

In the garden and in the woods, certain voices and their messages come back to me often, starting with Grandpa. I cannot see a tree felled by lightning without remembering him showing me the ancient fallen hemlock in the woods behind my family home. I was about 5. I may not have registered much about that lightning business, but his enthusiasm and deep interest in telling me made the impression. Likewise I hear him when I see thimbleberry patches, and tiny wild strawberry leaves – the locations a secret between us – and woodpecker holes where they pecked for insects.

My love for worms and native snakes also came from Grandpa – no time for squeamishness allowed. I actually hear him laughing as he got me to hold the little garter snake behind its head, and stick my tongue out at it. Of course it pooped on me, which I observed should be accepted matter-of-factly. Only when I went to school and had playmates did I learn that some kids found the entire matter of snakes, worms and even frogs appalling. Too late, though: I was programmed to be a nature-lover and caretaker of wild creatures.

Closer to the house, I also hear Mom’s laughing voice telling me, “Never sit on an anthill” (her story was not a pretty one), and Grandma saying we could cook those small dandelion leaves, and both of their appreciative sounds when I presented yet another bunch of wildflowers and twigs for the 100th time. Learning about the natural world is so impressive when it’s experienced in person, outside in that world. You never know what will stick when you tell it or show it to a child.

Teachers for all decades

Even I was surprised, during today’s walk, when I began to register the voices of all the people who taught me field and forest lore and ecology. It was quite a crowd I had walking with me: John Whitney teaching my first lecture on wetland ecology; Master Forester Volunteer Paul Marohn showing me the different stages of reforestation on my land; Mary Alice Tock identifying wildflowers, mosses and ferns, some native and some not. It was Mary Alice – master gardener, leader of nature hikes – who also made me (then a compulsive plant-collecting gardener) face the important topic of non-native invasive species. She dragged me to a long Cornell weekend, for a full immersion in Non-native Invasive Species concepts, including hikes to fields overrun with Japanese honeysuckles and escaped barberries. Now I walk my land, rife with that bad honeysuckle and multiflora rose, and those naturalists walk with me.

Gerry Rising appears everywhere in my woods, too – birder, naturalist, lifelong learner and teacher. I literally can hear him say, about 23 years ago, “Oh, you’re strong in horticulture, but you don’t have a background in forest biology …” – and was he ever right. He pointed me toward explorations in ecology and natural habitat, and continues to do so for many of us through his nature columns. His friend, entomologist Wayne Gall, is also present when I slog through any creek or stream. I hear him telling some kids, on a nature hike when we were looking for worms and larvae under rocks, “Leave every stone and rock in the exact position you found it. It’s a very complicated world under there, where so many creatures live – we don’t want to mess up their homes!” I put all the rocks back in place even today.

I keep learning about plants and animals from lectures, including those I prepare to present, and from reading – from the great novels of Barbara Kingsolver to the scientific work of Dr. Douglas Tallamy. But the greatest learning today still comes from being outside with naturalists and experts.

Today I came upon a giant buckthorn in my woods and heard native plants expert Ken Parker saying that the buckthorns on a certain piece of land might be the most important invasive plant to remove first – a difficult process. Ken Parker, Paul Fuhrmann (Ecology and Environment), Nancy Smith (Western New York Land Conservancy), and Lyn Chimera (master gardener, wildflower and native plants teacher) all have comments, their voices clear in my ears, as I travel the woods and fields.

As we talked about dog walking and hiking recently, a friend asked if I usually take my walks alone. “Hardly alone,” I said. I’m in very good company.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.