Friday, May 27, 2011

Rotational intensive badminton

Last fall, I was lucky enough to find an intact, well supplied badminton set at a thrift store, and was able to initiate the girls into one of my favorite sports from my high school days. (My friend Conley and I played many hours of badminton in gym, demolishing the birdie with whatever clique or boyfriend-related aggressions needed outlet at the moment.) For the winter, the set simply sat in the yard, tolerating the snow and waiting for better days ahead. The lawn was none the worse for it.

This spring, we've come to rely on this $6 find for entertainment much more than I would have guessed. It turns out to be good for all the ages in our household, good for short or long moments outside, good for relaxation or, as I found in high school gym class, for peacefully working out more - shall we say - intense emotions. We're wearing out the rackets and the birdies both, and I think replacements will be in our future before long.

What I didn't anticipate - but should have - was wearing out the turf. This is a subject I think about by day (teaching in sustainable agriculture class about rotational intensive grazing or talking with local field managers about complaints over soccer field rest periods), and a subject I thought about occasionally as a child (our front lawn sported two matching bare spots where I caught or batted while Dad pitched). I've sometimes heard myself telling the girls to switch spots for their soccer goalie practice, so as not to compact the soil - poor children! But I'd never really thought about it much.

Brian and I both see that the ground is too wet for the turf to handle this kind of abuse. We've moved the net a couple of times (note the matching worn spots a few feet apart in the photo above). We've tried to put it in the least-soppy areas - a challenging task in a relentlessly wet spring. We both try not to stand in the same spot all the time, though the reality is that setting up in a central part of the court is critical to badminton success. In our own rather vague way, we're still trying to rescue the poor grass from its doom.

If I were a real scientist, perhaps I would take this as a learning opportunity. I could try to experiment, to find out how many hours of play and how much recovery time is necessary to maintain healthy turf under badminton pressure. I could do treatments to see whether aeration or modified mowing treatments helped abate the damage done by our competitive feet. But really - it's a *backyard*, and the whole reason I wanted one of these silly grassy spaces was for the kids to *play*. They're doing it. I really can't complain.

Because in reality, we're having a great time. It's a lot of fun to play. The game is compact enough (unlike tennis) that you can still talk (without shouting) while lobbing the birdie back and forth. It works for the beginning player (Hazel, who does a charming lift of her opposite foot each time she swings) and the take-no-prisoners grouchy spouse or moody 11 year old. At the same time, badminton is hard to take too seriously, and there's nothing quite so humorous or humbling as a noisy, swishing whiff followed by a birdie hitting the ground, unhit, at my feet.

So we have some bare patches, and some very mortally wounded grass in our backyard. Big deal. It's less to mow, and represents a lot of fun in progress. It's just irritating enough to make me wish for a really compaction tolerant weed to come in and make itself a home there. At least that way I won't get muddy when I slip and fall while trying to whack a line drive at some poor member of my family.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mind games with trees

Since we have moved to this house, we've been proud of ourselves for keeping up a regular pattern of tree plantings. We've planted at least three oaks, an ash, a maple, three red buds, a couple of spruces (one died, though), a tulip poplar, and two sycamores. Also, Brian has germinated some burr oaks, none of which are big enough to call trees yet, but they're thriving young saplings in the mulch next to our swing set. We're on track for roughly two trees per year in the suburbs, and we certainly plan to keep it up.

Lately, though, I've started wondering if our tree planting - and the idea of tree planting, for Earth Day or carbon credits or self-congratulation - isn't a bit of a self-delusion. We buy the trees from the garden center or nursery, but meanwhile, we keep mowing the lawn, we keep weeding the garden, and each action prevents a number of willing young volunteer trees from reaching their full potential. We have ash trees volunteering beneath our pines; I have oaks volunteering in my snap peas; each will be trimmed, or pulled, or otherwise cut short in their efforts to repopulate Pennsylvania's forest primeval.

I'm treating these trees as weeds. And while that seems eminently justifiable for Ailanthus, or Norway maples, it seems strange for natives like ash (threatened by emerald ash borer - could one of our seedlings be resistant to the pest?) or the hard-wooded oak, shade tree extraordinaire.

Back in our little woodland, volunteer trees get a better welcome. We celebrate that a volunteer oak has finally stretched its buds above deer browsing height, the improving architecture of a wild-sown crabapple, and we watch with interest to see whether any young sassafras will take hold among the jewelweed, pokeweed, goldenrod, and dock within the understory. I've been tolerating Virginia creeper and training some wild grapevines onto our dying ash trees, as we're afraid to cut them down outright, and risk the black cherry or mature sassafras trees in their midst.

Taking credit for planting trees is further complicated by the question of provenance. If we buy a 5' sapling from a nursery, do we get to take credit for tree growth, or does the nursery? If we plant one tree, while weed-whacking down dozens of volunteer seedlings, have we done a net harm, or a net good? Does pruning branches occupy a separate moral sphere from cutting a tree at its base, and if so does size matter for each? Does it matter whether the wood goes in our brushpile to rot slowly, or whether it goes in our copper-pot grill to help set the mood for a backyard campout?

The whole situation reminds me of the difference between midwifery and obstetrics. My cousin Brigid, a midwife, refers to her task as "catching babies", while obstetricians usually refer to "delivering babies". The midwife's catch is a more passive action, a response to a projection performed by another person's muscles, while the obstetrician's delivery (falsely, in my opinion) implies that the transport from the womb is instigated by the medical professional (whose contractions were those again?). Similarly, I have a beekeeper friend who also encourages wild, native bees to live on her property, a process she calls "hosting" rather than "beekeeping". The language is carefully chosen, reflecting her welcoming passivity in the process of providing habitat for the wild fliers.

In our suburban treetending, we're both midwives and parents, keepers and hosts. We welcome some wild-sown trees, relocate a few, and pull others. We purchase, we foster, we germinate, we trim. We pat ourselves on the back. In any case, a little more humility is unquestionably in order for us. The trees, after all, are doing the largest share of the work. We're just the ones with shovels and saws in hand, ready to take whatever credit we can.