Friday, October 29, 2010

hobo gardening

 creeping spot-flower (Acmella decumbens)

“Do not think about tomorrow;

 let tomorrow come and go.
 Tonight you're in a nice warm boxcar,
 safe from the wind and snow.”

from Hobo's Lullaby by Reeves & Goebel

     Yes indeed, no time like the fall for learning about the gentle art of Hobo Gardening down on the Gulf Coast. Fall is when all the prettiest of the “pretty weeds” bloom down here; so now's the time to study up on 'em.

     So what's Hobo Gardening? It's a gardening precept involving the release of enough control on the part of the gardener, so as to allow the possibility of unpurchased/unplanted-but-oh-so-cool new plants to find their way into one's garden. God's the designer. Animals, wind, and floodwaters are the landscape crew. All that remains for us humans to do is to learn what's cool enough to keep by simply allowing unknown interlopers to grow where they sprout until they finally bloom – as opposed to weeding everything that comes up that you didn't plant there yourself. Savy??

     Plant-wise, the best Hobo Garden candidates are local species – native or introduced – which are prone to “run” via the production, dispersal, and germination of lots of viable seed. In 2+ decades of promoting the use of wild plants in garden settings, I cannot count the number of times I've been admonished by gardeners who say, "Oh, but doesn't that (insert name of wild plant here) 'run'?" Uh, yes m'am, it's a runner. It's a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talking ladies man. I mean, what else can a person give for an answer? Here's a group of plants that will spread beautifully in many many situations (roots of trees, ditches, niches, floods, droughts, what-have-you...) -- without your help, advice, or expense. For the love of God, if they run, be thankful........and just pull 'em up where you don't want 'em!

     It does help if the Hobo Garden is located out in rural – even suburban – areas which are prone to receive a much higher diversity of potential species than in urban areas where for generations such plants have been systematically eliminated as “undesirables.” Plus, far fewer hobo lanscape crew members hang out in urban settings. That said, if you happen to live in the city, consider a modified verson of Hobo Gardening: human-assisted hobo gardening (see below).

                                                                      local wild aster

     Throughout much of the U.S., one of the most common and easiest to “obtain” of these Hobo Garden candidates are the wild asters. Here in south Louisiana we've got 3-5 native aster species constantly floating around on wind and water. They all bloom in the fall. Most all of them possess very tiny leaves – no more than several millimeters long/wide; so it's fairly easy to learn to recognize them in their non-blooming stage. They average 12-30” in height/width, and will happily grow, bloom, and reseed in just about any sunny site.

     Creeping spot flower (Acmella decumbens) is another of my local favorites. It's a low groundcover that squeezes into spaces that the lawn mower can't get to. Come fall, voila', it combines beautifully with all manner of store-bought and other Hobo species.

                                                 smartweed nestles in with bird pepper

     Lydia (my hobo gardening partner) dislikes smartweed (Polygonum amphibium[?]). She apparently thinks it's a tad more weedy than smart. But since I'm the main weeder in our garden, and because I happen to think it's smarter than weedier, I leave it wherever I find it; and man does it combine beautifully when it comes into bloom.

                                                   mist flower and ironweed (coarse foliage)
                                                   found their way into this spot, where i had
                                                  originally planted some black-eyed susans;
                                                  now, the black-eyed susans do their thing
                                                  in summer, and the mist & iron take over
                                                  in fall.............................

     Whether they know it or not, I guess everybody's favorite hobo plant here is blue mistflower (Conoclinum coelestinum, formerly Eupatorium coelestinum). Only an idiot would weed this, eh? Alas, most gardeners don't recognize this plant when it's not in bloom; so BAM! They weed it out. Solution. Study the foliage of this plant when/where you find it in bloom. Armed with a tiny bit of knowledge/experience, and patience, you'll learn what to keep and what to weed.

                                                            still-green pokeberry fruit
                                                            pokeberry is gorgeous in
                                                            all stages of flower & fruit

     Hobo trees and shrubs are fair game as well. Locally, rough-leaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), and pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) are all fine examples. True, they tend to throw lots of seed, and they're harder to weed out in places where you don't want them, but in certain situations, they're wonderful additions. And birds love 'em.

                                                   Human-assisted Hobo Gardening

     Not actual Hobo Gardening – but the next best thing – is human-assisted hobo gardening (note small caps.....). This is where the gardener actually collects seed of true Hobo Garden candidates from remote sites and tosses the seed into his/her own garden. From there, the plant runs where it will.Then, just pull it up where you don't want it, and leave it where you do want it.

                                                    Salvia coccinea 'Cheniere au Tigre'
                                                    we got our start of this from the legendary
                                                    native plantswoman Zoe Segrera Lynch
                                                    who grew up on Cheniere au Tigre.
                                                    Note the pink-colored "sports" in the
                                                    back. This plant throws a lot of pink seed!

                                          turk's cap behaves best in shade -- even amongst roots
                                          of oak trees! obviously, it's a hummer/butterfly favorite,
                                          and birds love its fall fruits......

     For Gulf Rim gardeners, three outstanding examples of hobo plants to consider for human-assistance are tropical sage (Salvia coccinea), bird pepper (Capsicum annuum spp.), and turk's cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) – all native to Louisiana's cheniere forests down on the coast.

     Believe me, the list of potential Hobo Garden and hobo garden candidates goes on an on, ya'll -- particularly way down here on the Gulf Rim, where we've got a ton of herbaceous plant diversity.

     The coolest thing about Hobo Gardening is the "letting go and letting God" part......again, this calls for patience, and patience is a much needed virtue these days.....the only way to get it is to practice it....there's just something so..........................liberating.....................about reliquishing control................i guess 'cause truly we humans are not in control...........our brains have just temporarily convinced us otherwise......

     In my 27 years of experience at this particular garden, God's designs have consistently outperformed my own -- ecologically, functionally, and aesthetically. It's truly been an awesome wondrous thing to witness.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

on est parti au Grand Texas, part III

As you might imagine, Caddo Lake underwent substantial changes once the white folks took over in the early/mid nineteeen century. Before the arrival of European settlers, the natives were content to let God call the shots. They located their villages high up on the tops of the many hillocks around and in the lake, thus rendering them impervious to the occasional floods that were generated whenever too much water came down the Red River.

     Just as the Atchafalaya Basin occasionally relieves the flood-swollen Mississippi River of part of its burden during high-water times, so did Caddo Lake function in similar fashion for the Red River, receiving Red River floodwaters up around present-day Jefferson, TX, funneling that water through the Caddo Lake system, and returning what was left of the overflow back to the Red River just below present-day Mooringsport, LA (ca. 15 mi. N of Shreveport). But, riding high on the steamboat technology revolution that had gripped the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, Henry Shreve developed a shallow-draft steamer, suitable for the shallower waters of the Red River and other western rivers. Once this had occurred a cry went up from the money dudes to dam the foot of Caddo Lake in order to artificially maintain water levels sufficient for year round steamboat travel up through the lake. As is still normally the case these days, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wasted no time in siding with those financial interests, allowing them to throw up a rinky-dink of a dam just below Morringsport.

     Well, from a natural/cultural perspective, that was all she wrote. Soon enough, New Orleans shipping interests were opening up offices and warehouses in Jefferson, TX, creating an overnight boom town there. Everybody was getting rich.

     At the same time, the white folks who were settling in around Caddo Lake – mostly dudes and dudettes running away from former lives – joined in the party, selling fish, ducks, firewood, just about anything that wasn't nailed down, to the new capitalist class.

     That much money, stirred into that particular, uh, brand of humanity stirred up much craziness. The main thing is that the criminal element (that is, those criminals who had chosen to maintain the criminal careers they had established back East) flourished, much to the dismay of those folks who had truly started all over at Caddo, checking their criminal pasts at the door as they settled there. Monterrey Landing (on the Louisiana side of the lake, of course) was the most notorious, sporting a race track, saloons, brothels, all the accoutraments of low-living. It was said that Jean LaFitte had some pretty stout connections at Monterrey. . .

     Things got so bad that a vigilante group called The Regulators was formed; only they began killing not only outlaws, but also any other citizen who they didn't particularly care for. Things got so bad that another vigilante group called The Moderators was formed for the purpose of killing off The Regulators. Things got so bad that Sam Houston hisself had to make a personal appeal for the two factions to quit – appealing, it is said, to their sense of patriotism. Whew!

     By 1873 Henry Shreve finally succeeded in clearing The Great Raft on the Red River, a massive, 130-mile, post-Pleistocene log jam that had formed from well above present-day Shreveport down nearly all the way to present-day Natchitoches. And – in the parlance of our time – BAM! The Red River flowed like mad, Shreveport (I wonder where THAT name came from?) was formed, and Caddo Lake's steamboat party pretty much dried up, with New Orleans shipping interests pulling the rug out from under the lake's citizenry so fast that they scarcely knew what hit 'em.

     Economic life went on, however. At some point around the turn of the century, Ladybird Johnson's dad, a Mr. Taylor, came in and lobbied for a rail spur into the Texas side of the lake. Tourism? Nope. Fish. And ducks. He bought up all the fish and ducks that the locals could supply him with, shipping iced barrels to Chicago, Kansas City, wherever.

     Once the seasonal overflow of the Red River was tamed, Caddo Lake water levels dropped significantly, exposing freshwater mussel beds which could then be accessed in thigh to waist-deep water. Fresh mussel meat for the masses? Nope (that would be some sort of Indian move, wouldn't it?). Freshwater pearls for the elite. Uh-huh. Pearl buyers from the world over descended on Caddo, buying up every pearl that the locals could dig out. Pearl hunting was a tough business. Lots and lots of musseling had to be done in order to find a single pearl, y'understand. It was said that a few of the locals were better at it than most.

     One guy who stayed at it the hardest also happened to be a lush. Anyway, whenever this guy found a pearl or two, he'd quickly sell them, pocket the cash, and run over to the notorious St. Paul Bottoms in Shreveport, drinking and, uh, partying until he was out of cash. On one particularly extravagant run, he had stayed so drunk for so long that one morning they found him on the streets of St. Paul Bottoms, crawling around and doodling in horse dung until he'd find a grain of corn, which he'd make a big show of smuggly pocketing, as if it were a freshwater pearl . . .oh-oh . . . time to go home . . .

     During prohibition, Caddo Lake adapted a huge moonshine industry. Then, somebody found oil and gas on the Louisiana side. I'm running out of space for these items, though. Read the books!

     You know what is most captivating about this eminently captivating place? The spanish moss. Yes. We've (Gulf Coasters, anyway) all seen spanish moss, but nowhere like in Caddo Lake. Another decent example of “extra-topping” servings of spanish moss would be Lake Bistineau, just southeast of Shreveport; but honestly, it's nowhere near that of Caddo Lake.

     Caddo Lake's a freak. “Disneyesque” is the word that first came out of my wide-open mouth upon first seeing it. Can you imagine? Disneyesque? Oh but no. Never never never would you see such a thing in never never land.

     Caddo Lake – the treed portions anyway, which accounts for over half the lake – is one contiguous moss curtain, gauzily enfolding and muting every sight and every sound. Enveloping all. What ever happens at Caddo stays safely hung in Caddo's moss.

     Through it all, Caddo Lake's Moss Curtain has veiled – and continues to veil – all of the harshness of its life... continues to forgive those who might think they need forgiveness...continues to suffuse mystery and otherworldliness throughout.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

on est parti au Grand Texas, part II

     Before i get started, those wishing to read more about Caddo Lake should check out 2 books:
Caddo Was... by Fred Dahmer, and Every Sun That Rises edited by T. Sitton and J.H. Conrad. Julie Dunand Amy, a friend who has been making very regular trips to Caddo Lake since she was a kid, loaned these 2 books to me. Like Caddo Lake itself, they are utterly fascinating books, both comprised of the words of 2 old-time lifelong residents of the lake, Fred Dahmer and Wyatt Moore.

 two very typical views of the upper reaches of Caddo Lake

     In the beginning of his book, Caddo Was . . ., Fred Dahmer pretty much nails it when he states, "the history of Caddo Lake is colorful, complex, and controversial." Honestly, there's no way that i could do it any justice in this lil' blog, so i guess i'll just focus on the most obvious highlights.

     Before any white folks arrived, Caddo Lake was occupied by many many Kadohadacho (later slanged out to "Caddo") Indian villages. The Kadohadacho called the lake, Tso'to, which meant something like "sparkling water falling over red banks." By all accounts, the Kadohadacho were peaceful people who were known as big-time farmers, traders, and artisans by First Nation peoples from all over. Their lands stretched from Caddo Lake all the way south to present day Nacagdoches, TX. The Kadohadacho were said to be trading as far away as the Illinois Territory in 1715.

     In fact -- and i hope i'm not digressing too much here -- it wouldn't surprise me if the Kadohadacho turned out to be the trading destination described by Spanish castaway Cabeza De Vaca, who was taken as a slave by the Karenkawa Indians in the early 1500s near present-day Galveston. After a few years, the Karenkawa Chief trusted De Vaca enough to designate him a trading emissary, sending him "several days north" with pots of fish oil and other goods to trade with a certain powerful trading group (the Caddo???) for spear points and other items not readily available to the Karenkawas. 

     Anyway, the first written/Caucasian mention of Tso'to lake was as "Sodo Lake" by a traveler named George Bonnell in 1840. That name eventually morphed into "Soda Lake," which roughly describes the southernmost portion of present-day Caddo Lake, near where Twelve-mile Bayou (near Mooringsport, LA just above Shreveport) is today. Interestingly, at about that same time, the lower end of Caddo Lake was also known as "Fairy Lake," thus designated on U.S. Army Corps of Engineer maps of the time. Later, "Fairy Lake" was corrupted to "Ferry Lake," a name which today serves as a place name for a tiny community on the northeastern end of Caddo Lake. See how colorful, complex, and controversial everything gets?

     Long before Bonnell, the first Caucasians to reach Caddo Lake were the survivors of the 1685 LaSalle expedition. Five years later, it was again mentioned by ol' "Iron Hand" Tonti, LaSalle's right-hand-man, who himself had gotten separated from the expedition, and was looking for it. Only one year after Tonti, Spanish expeditionary leader Domingo de los Rios reached the Kadohadachos from the southwest. French from the east, Spanish from the southwest. Oh, them poor Indians! In no time, the French and Spanish became entangled in an ongoing battle for the Kadohadacho lands! And what did the Kadohadacho do? They supplied both sides with food and friendship, and attempted to act as peacemakers between them!

     Fred Dahmer mentions that the word Tejas itself, meaning "friend," comes from the Caddo, who used it so often that the French and Spanish explorers thought that was the Caddo's name for their land. Thus, the territorial name of "Texas" was born.

     The battle for Caddo land raged on for years. First, the French claimed it. Then they ceded it (and all of the Louisiana Territory) to Spain. Then Spain ceded it back to France. Then the French sold it to the U.S.

     And yeah, you guessed it: in the meantime, white folks' whiskey, contagious diseases, and broken promises pretty much did the Caddo in. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. and Spain (who owned present-day Mexico and Texas at the time) still had no idea who owned Caddo Lake -- nor the entire Sabine River drainage for that matter.

                                                     mercy sakes but it's dense up in he-ah 

     Even after the U.S. purchased the Caddo Lake site from the Kadohadacho in 1835, surveyors simply could not properly naviagate the site in order to draw up proper maps/boundaries between Louisiana and the Texas Territory (still owned by Spain). Thus, Caddo Lake and the entire Sabine River drainage became a de facto "No Man's Land" -- unclaimed by either side, and highly attractive to all manner of skallywags, n'er-do-wells, cult leaders, runaways, smugglers, etc. . . . . and that's where we'll pick up the story in 'on est parti au Grand Texas, part III' . . . stay tuned ya'll.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

pink/tropical inspiration

 roseate skimmer, 25 sept 2010, downtown lafayette, la.
 photo by George Forest

     Before i get to part II of 'On est parti au Grand Texas', hows about a mild detour into the world of local pink organisms? Good then..............actually, this post was inspired by a recent photo (above) supplied by George Forest, life-long lafayette-saints-streets native; plus, it's breast cancer awareness month.

     Back in April 1982, Lydia and I finally moved back to Acadiana -- where we truly belong, y'know -- to the self-same spot where we live today. The first organism i remember seeing at our place was a pink dragonfly, a roseate skimmer. That near-neon visage, against that spring-green backdrop, remains one of only a few dozen indelibly-burned images in my brain today.

     A pink dragonfly! I had never seen one before.

     The roseate skimmer belongs to a genus (Orthemis) of tropical dragonflies. It is the only species of the genus that has managed to expand its range as far north as the U.S.  Presently, its U.S. range map shows it occurring as far north as southern Kansas in the continental interior; and, hugging tightly to the Atlantic Coast, it's been recorded as far north as Delaware, i believe.

     Interestingly, the roseate skimmer was first recorded in the U.S. only recently, around 1875, from the Florida Keys. It spent 60 years establishing itself there before radiating north and west. I have no idea as to when it finally reached Louisiana; but i certainly do not remember it from my childhood days (1950s-1960s) in southern Evangeline parish. Perhaps it was restricted to our coastal zone at that time; but, for real, i have no idea. Today, it seems fairly common throughout south-central Louisiana -- particularly so in the Atchafalaya Basin. Yet another example of a tropical species' northward march in (probable) response to climatic warming trends.

     While we're on the subjects of 'pink' and 'tropical' . . .

 roseate spoonbill, 16 march 2005, Lake Martin (St. Martin parish, LA)

     . . . hows about this pink thing? Yeah. The "Cajun Flamingo," more properly known as the roseate spoonbill. Like the roseate skimmer, the roseate spoonbill is primarily a tropical species. Actually there are only 6 spoonbill species in the world, five of which are confined to the Old World (eastern hemisphere) tropics. The roseate spoonbill is the only New World spoonbill, restricted mostly to South and Central America, and only nudging its way northward into the U.S. Gulf Rim (coastal Texas, Louisiana, and south Florida).

     Prior to the Lacey Act of 1919 (prohibiting the practice of plume-hunting), the wings of roseate spoonbills were in high demand as fans for "fashionable" ladies, restulting in this species near-total extirpation from what little of the U.S. it had managed to establish itself in. As late as the 1950s, Louisiana ornithologist George Lowery declared it "very rare" in our state, confined almost entirely to a couple of very isolated rookeries in Cameron parish. Fortunately, it has made a strong comeback, and now breeds as far north as Miller's Lake in Evangeline parish (south-central Louisiana), and seems to be slowly spreading eastward into Terrebonne parish.

     Even through the 1980s it was sufficiently rare as to be consistently mistaken for a flamingo, by southwestern Louisiana rice farmers, as it gradually edged its way northward into that part of the state. During that time, at the Acadiana Park Nature Station in Lafayette, we received a fairly steady stream of "flamingo" phone reports from farmers and/or farmers wives -- thus the nickname, "Cajun Flamingo."

     That said, I'll hasten to add that several bona fide greater flamingo reports exist for Louisiana, all of them from the coastal zone, the most recent of which occurred only a year ago in Cameron parish. So be on the look out . . . keep your eyes peeled, as my dad used to say . . . and keep your cameras at the ready. . .

Friday, October 15, 2010

on est parti au Grand Texas, part I

     Originating at Fyffe's Corner, Harrison County Road 2198 is only about 5 miles long, terminating at the Shady Glade Restaurant, Motel, and RV Park in the tiny village of Uncertain, TX.

     Uncertain is perched on the western "shore" of Caddo Lake, a 40,000+ acre lake/cypress swamp complex that straddles the Louisiana-Texas line just above Shreveport. The origin of the name "Uncertain" is, uh...uncertain. Some say it was originated by the U.S. Postal Service as a best-fit designation for the site, where postmen simply dumped mail addressed to various of the swamp rats inhabiting the unreachable upper reaches of the adjacent swamp. In the opening pages of  Recipes from Uncertain Cooks, an extra-fine little cookbook put out by members of the Church of Uncertain (a sincerely appropo name for a church, non?) mention, four additional how-Uncertain-got-its-name theories are presented, including 1) steamboat captians plying the waters of Caddo Lake were UNCERTAIN if they were in Texas or Louisiana, 2) there was an UNCERTAIN hunting/fishing lodge near the present location of Uncertain, which was somewhat of a landmark, 3) during a local election to determine if the area was to be "wet" or "dry," the outcome was UNCERTAIN, and 4) akin to the postal service theory, when the city charter was mailed to Austin for name selection, the blank for the name of the city was filled in with "UNCERTAIN".

     Cross a tiny bridge east out of Uncertain and you're on Taylor Island, a 70+ acre sand mound rising up from surrounding swamp -- which is where Larry Amy, Kevin Courville, and i spent 6 luxorious days of music-making, fishing, cooking, silliness, and generalized R&R, in a pleasantly-rickety old camphouse named "duckweed," which, without further elucidation, appropriately described our day-to-night-to-day-again agenda for the trip.

  a view out of camp duckweed's back porch

 back gallery of camp duckweed, where we spent the majority of our time (for those into deeper states of relaxation, there's even a day-bed up in there)

     Larry, the trip's techno dude, quickly set up a recording studio there on the back gallery of Duckweed. Daily sessions came like clockwork: 7:30am, 2:30pm, and 8:00pm. In between, we fished, cooked, and laughed -- hard.

    There's so much to say about Caddo Lake that it's truly hard to know where to begin. For starters, a little ecological profile: Though many of the old-timers swore that Caddo Lake was formed by the same (1911-12) New Madrid earthquake series that formed Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, it's pretty apparent by now that it was scoured out by numerous overwash floods from the nearby Red River -- particularly those floods occurring after the formation of the massive 130 mile log jam on the Red River that stretched from present-day Caddo Lake, south to nearly Natchitoches, and before Henry Shreve dismantled the jam in 1873. So it's a pretty recent thing, y'know.

     Much of the Louisiana side of Caddo Lake consists of open water, dotted here and there with old cypresses. Most of the Texas side of the lake is not really a lake at all, but a massive, old-growth cypress-tupelo gum swamp, crisscrossed by hundreds of bayous, bayoulettes, sloughs, ponds, what-have-you. The shorelines of the swamp support cool vegetation such as American snowbell (Styrax americana), buttonbush, river birch, and swamp privet. Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis; in full bloom during our stay) dotted the dry swamp floor in numerous places. In every snippet of open water, no matter how small, aquatic vegetation covers the water in lush abundance; dominated by American lotus, water lily, and spatterdock.

  above, water lily (Nymphaea odorata) below, spatterdock (Nuphar advena)

      Numerous sandy hillocks arise around the perimeter of the entire complex, some forming islands, some remaining on the mainland. Lower elevations of the hillocks support bottomland hardwood forest vegetation including delta post oak, green ash, sweetgum, persimmon, hackberry, and American elm. Tying both the swamps and the lower elevation forests together is spanish moss -- more spanish moss than you've probably ever seen before -- casting a gauzy veil over everything. It's like you're dreaming thru a smokey gray haze all the livelong day. "Disneyesque" was what blurted out of my mouth, first time i saw it. Which is whacky, y'know, in that the scene is anything but Disneyesque. It's real all right, and it's in our face everywhere you travel by water. 

     If any of you have wondered what the Atchafalaya Basin might have looked like before it was stripped of its timber in 1875-1930, go ahead and have a look at Caddo Lake.

                                                     Kevin, feverishly documenting moss . . .

     By mid-slope, the forest morphs into a pine-oak-hickory affair, featuring massive specimens of loblolly pine, black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), mockernut hickory, and several oak species. The very tops of the hillocks, called "glades" by the locals, featured a full-blown. dry-mesic, post-oak savannah habitat type.

     Thus, almost wherever you go,  you have at least 4 major habitat types to explore -- all neatly stacked for your convenience. Birdwise, i honestly thought we'd see more than we did, given we stayed there during the near-peak of fall migration. We saw a good number of birds, though; the most impressive being white-breasted nuthatch (in Louisiana, common only around Shreveport), which apparently lives up in the higher-elevation hardwoods on a year round basis.

     Next post: Word sketches of the weird, whacky, wonderful, controversial cultural history of Caddo Lake.