Sunday, June 29, 2008



Sara Stein, Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), p. 199:
In the semiphore of arborists, blue or green tape tied or tacked to a tree or shrub means that it needs attention, such as limbing up or pruning. Red, orange, or day-glo pink means to cut it down.
Semiphore should be semaphore, from Greek σῆμα (sēma = sign) and φορός (phoros = bearer). This is a word for which knowledge of etymology might assist spelling, although cf. semiotics and semantics, also from the same root.

I don't mean to denigrate Stein's excellent book. Indeed, the very paragraph quoted, spelling aside, taught me something that I didn't know. It's a sign of my own boundless ignorance that I once marked some trees at the back of my woodlot with orange spray paint, to show approximately where the property line was. Fortunately no one cut down the trees so marked.

One of the endearing qualities of Stein's book is her readiness to admit mistakes, e.g. on pp. 45-46:
The finished effect, in which the lawn serves as background for some baubles of exterior decoration, seems so normal to us that it is hard to view a piece of land in any other way.

It seemed so normal to us that even though we bought a glutton's portion — and there was no lawn at all — we immediately proceeded to "develop" it by clearing the brush and mowing. We started near the house. First, a back lawn, then lawn to either side, then loppings and mowings to roll the green rug over the land in all directions.

The first indication that we were doing something wrong was the disappearance of the pheasants. In those early days, we had planted behind the house a kitchen garden encircled by a hedge of currants whose brilliant berries were regularly enjoyed by a mother and father pheasant and all their little chicks. The distance from the hedge to the unmowed, tall grass cover was about twenty feet — a critical distance, it seems, for when we mowed a broader strip, the pheasants were cut off from their breakfast as though by an invisible fence. The more we extended the lawn, the less we saw of them, and finally we came to realize that there were none.
Gradually Stein came to see that one purpose of her land should be to increase habitat for fauna. On p. 244 she wrote:
Let's imagine a goal: that at some time in the future, the value of a property will be perceived in part according to its value to wildlife. A property hedged with fruiting shrubs will be worth more than one bordered by forsythia. One with dry-stone walls that provide passageways for chipmunks will be valued higher than one whose walls are cemented stone. Buyers will place a premium on lots that provide summer flowers and fall crops of seed. Perhaps there will be formal incentives: tax abatements geared to the number of native species; deductions for lots that require neither sprays nor sprinklers. A nursery colony of bats might be considered a capital improvement. There could be bonuses for birdhouses.

Oh, brave new world!

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