Sunday, June 2, 2013

Weeding at Sunset is like a Prayer

Goodnight Mindego Hill. Goodnight land of San Francisco gartersnakes.
Goodnight slowly diminishing hillsides of purple starthistle.  
The weeds have raised their ugly heads. Italian thistle is starting to blow seeds, milk thistle is fat and purple, and yellow starthistle is bolting. I hope you got many weeds at their seedling and rosette stages (see Thistle Logic for these early strategies). There is still time to capture more weed seed before it ripens and escapes.

Weeding can be hard and weeds can be depressing. We need a coping mechanism. Every few days, I make sure to weed where I can watch the sun set. Recently while admiring a tangerine-blasted horizon, I found myself singing while tossing thistles into an overflowing wheelbarrow. From whence comes such joy? Weeding at sunset is like a prayer.

 Hairy weevil (Eustenopus villosus), a biocontrol insect, laying eggs on the flower bud
of a recently bolted yellow starthistle plant.  
Prayers are of two types: asking for something and expressing joyous gratitude. Twenty years ago, I was going through a terrible time. I thought I was going to die. I didn't understand the bad things that were happening, I felt like I had no control and I didn't know what to do. "Someone, something out there or inside of me, please, please help," I was pleading. Several times a day when I reached the panic stage, I would silently sing the Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof.

My own version of the song was "May the Lord protect and defend you. May he always keep you from pain. May you come to be in paradise a shining name." Every time, these words helped me get through the next few minutes until I could breathe again.

If I was to give advice now to my younger self then, I would say, "You will be okay. Start by doing little things that you are good at. Go back and do them again and again, and when you are ready, do a little more and go a little farther." I also might say, "Grab the little one and get the heck out of there! Run away now as fast as you can and never go back."

These days, I feel either way about weeds -  panic or patience -  depending on the day. These days, I'm grateful that weeds are my biggest problem.

A mountain lion showed up on the wildlife camera at the red-legged frog pond in late January.
Although it appears to be dancing, it probably just jumped over the brush pile.  
The mountain lions cancelled my annual birthday celebration/volunteer day. We were going to dig up the purple starthistle rosettes at the red-legged frog pond. Now every time I check the wildlife cameras for mountain lion activity, I have to walk by the spiny mass of purple starthistle plants and I growl at them. Growling is not a good tool to control thistles.

Ripening seed on a healthy stand of purple needle grass (Stipa pulchra).  
Last weekend as we returned from a day of searching for lion sign and resetting cameras, I was overcome with despair as we reached the base of the last hill and I realized we had to walk through a dense patch of Italian thistle. It was frustrating and embarrassing and didn't reflect any of my hard work and progress. But at the top of the hill, I detoured to pass through the soft grasses where I have kept up with thistle control for several years. "Start small, be persistent, you will be okay," I silently reminded myself, "They're just weeds." As I slipped under the fence, I checked on the native blue-eyed grass, California poppy, wild strawberry, bee plant, red maids, California brome, purple needlegrass and blue wildrye plants that have established themselves since I began weeding around the big-leaf maple trees.

When mowing with large equipment like this Billy Goat mower, I keep the snake tongs on board to be able to quickly move small animals out of the way.  
Mowing is an intermediate stage of controlling weeds. It can be loud and rough, but it keeps you outside all day and you see stuff. You are working hard and sweating under all that sky, feeling the heat and cold, tripping, getting scratched up, hungry and thirsty, all those things that the wildlife and plants live 24-7. After a recent big push of mowing all weekend, I felt beat up, but at the same time I saw lots of reptiles and birds, the inside of a woodrat nest, and the first fawn.

First fawn of the year leaping to keep up with the doe.  
The first fawn appeared this year on May 5th, earlier than I have seen them in previous years. While mowing next to the barn, something made me look over my shoulder. I saw a doe crossing the hill above the orchard. Not an uncommon sight in the evening, still, something told me to pause longer and I saw a small spotted fawn tumbling after her. I turned the brushcutter off and watched them trace a line between the scattered oaks in the upper pasture and cross the driveway. Their progress drew me farther west to watch. The doe was keeping a steady pace without looking back and the single fawn was struggling to stay at her flank. They kept going and I kept watching for at least ten minutes with my safety helmet resting on the fence post and gloved hands cooling off. Finally, they rounded a hillside into another pasture where I could not see them and it was getting too dark to mow. I couldn't help wonder what happened to the other fawn since deer usually have twins, and thinking what a long way and fast pace the doe was taking with such a small fawn. Maybe the doe was moving her little one out of danger. Another end of the day silently watching the pitter-patter of life.

Pods forming on bicolor lupine (Lupinus bicolor) in the upper pastures.  
There's hardly any yellow starthistle on the hill above the gate this year. This spring, there were huge stands of native bicolor lupine across these slopes and now there are loads of lupine seeds ripening in pods for future years. Two new native wildflowers showed up where once there was just yellow starthistle:  many-stemmed gilia and false babystars, just in small amounts but still showing their bright faces. While checking the woodrat sticknest in the abandoned wood pile, I found another surprise, ripe native meadow barley waving its handsome red head.

False babystars (Leptosiphon androsaceus) showing its small, cheery face
where once there was just yellow starthistle.  
The second set of fawns appeared on May 18th. While yanking milk thistles out of the stand of native beardless wildrye at the springbox, I spotted a doe and two fawns browsing at the edge of the willows below the holding pen. "May your doe protect and defend you," I silently sang. Or may you feed the mountain lions. In any event, I will still be out here most summer evenings, weeding and watching the sun set and slowly making progress on the land and in my once-frightened heart. Tired as a cowgirl, my summer skin feels like it belongs outside.

The longterm goal of weeding is native diversity like that packed into these few square inches in Pasture 1:  shining mule ears, common yarrow, bicolor lupine, false babystars, California poppy (Wyethia glabra, Achillea millefolium, Lupinus bicolor, Leptosiphon androsaceus, Eschscholzia californica).  Photo by Jean Huffman.  
Weeding at sunset is like a prayer. The pleading type of prayer where I ask for the patience to persist in weeding and not get overwhelmed. With each tug of roots, I hope I am righting a wrong, some small infraction I created during the week. The alligator lizard I hit while mowing at the pigpen. The toddler I snapped at. The homeless lady I walked around. And, there is the joyous type of prayer, feeling awe as orange dusk seeps into my cuticles and gratitude to be touching soil at the end of a busy day. I anticipate what native plants may surprise me here next year and watch the sunset with me.


  1. Pixie: let's show those mountain lions who's boss. They are not going to stop us from our weeding rituals. How would you like to celebrate both of our spring birthdays by joining the Edgewood County Park weed warriors at one of their Wednesday sunset weeding parties? You pick the date; then we can invite others.

  2. Don’t give up, a lot of persistence and the pay off is huge. Some day Cindy let me show you my progress.
    Cows, goats, herbicide, mowing, whipping and then the spot weeding. It works!

  3. Ah. I am back and back and back some more. Yes, Edgewood. I will check calendar and send you a date. I love this post. There is another kind of prayer - asking for guidance. Today, I asked "I hurt. What shall I do?" She said "Stay on your knees here in the garden, with the sun on your face." So I did.


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