Refuge: At Home With Nature

The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice

Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council

“In nature nothing exists alone.”

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

— Rachel Carson

I am looking out my dining room window on a beautiful fall day when I see a serious six-pointed stag finishing off some acorns, nuts, and bird seed at my bird feeders. I rush outside assuming it would leap the neighbor’s fence and disappear. But as I approach, it ambles away calmly and settles down to relax in the corner of my yard. It is there my wife and I had put branches, brush, and leaf litter around the ferns to create a refuge for wildlife. We had hoped to give a spot to the occasional red fox. But a stag?

My home, a classic 1940’s brick three bedroom Colonial in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, sits on a small plot, perhaps one-eighth of an acre. When we moved here over thirty-five years ago there was nothing but lawn, a few azaleas along the foundation, and broiling heat and humidity.

Now, following years of planting and the general state of our overgrown yard — with trees, bushes, ferns, flowers, and pollinator gardens, along with birdbaths and feeders — we have earned official status as a National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Refuge. It is no wonder that a stag would finally seek refuge here, just as my wife and I have sought refuge as developers increasingly clear cut properties around us before erecting huge McMansions without a single tree. Seems we are not alone as tree cover has been decreasing not only in Bethesda, but throughout our region.

But I want this stag and other acorn eaters (fox, squirrels, Blue jays, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons) to find food and refuge as well. So I set off in my immediate neighborhood to find acorns. This isn’t hard since I almost incessantly walk about a two-mile radius from my home and have done so since I first wrote about finding nature in the Washington, DC area almost a decade ago in Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital. There were more oak trees then — including some historic ones over six feet in diameter that have been cut down by developers, or by homeowners convinced by tree “experts” that mature shade trees pose a risk to them, their house, their car. Besides, they are too large or messy for suburban lots.

But the oak trees that remain seem to be dropping a record amount of acorns. They litter the curbs, are crushed by cars in the street, and keep falling even as I approach. Again, puzzled by why acorns are so prolific now, I discover that this fall is what is called a mast year. Oaks don’t always produce bumper crops, but when they do, look out. I am amused to learn that a Washington Post reporter has similarly been made aware of a surfeit of acorns raining down upon him. He has captured the varying sounds of acorns falling, somewhat like the amazing number of Inuit words for different kinds of snow. Acorns are like most things in nature, once you focus on them, you begin to see the fine details you have missed.

Before long I am starting to distinguish among them and match them by size, color and caps to the kind of oak trees from which they fall. Majestic willow oaks produce miniature acorns that seem designed for chipmunks; pin oaks (which we have in our yard) are fairly common in our neighborhood, grow quite large, and also produce small acorns that are just a bit bigger, but still the stuff of chipmunks, mice and Blue Jays. The big ones are from red oaks and white oaks, but wanting to help my stag, I read that deer prefer white oak acorns. They are softer, sweeter and have less bitter tannin than the red ones. In fact, hunters (they are not in Bethesda) are able to increase their odds of bagging a deer if they note carefully where the stands of white oak are.

My strolling search for acorns for my stag leads me to other wonders as I walk. I notice not only oak trees but the glorious specimens of mature shade trees that have survived development, PEPCO, and the neatness of those who consider trees and wildlife a nuisance. Sycamores, for example, drop huge foot-wide leaves and those odd little balls that litter. But my granddaughter and I lovingly used our arms to measure the girth of an ancient giant on my street. We kept reaching around until we got a diameter of twenty-three feet. It’s how a new generation of tree huggers is formed.

More messy, large, dangerous mature trees that have sought refuge on the small strips of county land in front of houses or on boulevards safe from developers catch my eye – sugar maples worthy of a Vermont hillside, brilliantly painted red maples, sweetgums whose leaves in fall are dangling red and gold star ornaments (despite the pesky spiked balls they drop), huge white pines lining the school yard, scotch pine, as if from a Christmas tree farm, loblolly pine from the south that can handle our rising temperatures, tupelo with scarlet leaves and “messy” fruit that resembles blueberries, cedar, ash, hickory, and oaks — not just pin, red and white, but Southern oaks, chestnut and chestnut swamp oaks, chinquapin, and massive burr oaks whose acorns resemble a macrame lampshade.

(l-r) Native Sweetgum, White Pines, Scotch Pine, Tupelo, Burr acorn

As I marvel over the specimen trees that remain within a short walk of my home, I see more signs of hope, of refuge, and the regeneration of species. Solid young trees, perhaps fifteen years old, that had escaped my notice, have been planted by the county, or by die-hard, optimistic homeowners who refuse to surrender to the sterility and monotony of McMansion landscapes. I see new sweetgums, tulip poplars, sycamores, and, amazingly, given their lousy reputation among developers and modern arborists — amidst the devastation of the big new houses — a sturdy young white oak which has already produced a couple of acorns. They have not yet fallen but signify a future refuge for the offspring of my stag or of my grandchildren. Perhaps this young oak will live hundreds of years, long after the McMansions have crumbled, and host the hundreds of butterflies and other pollinators, bugs, birds, and caterpillars that depend on it as a keystone species.

With books like Nature’s Best Hope, Bringing Nature Home, and The Nature of Oaks author and professor of ecology Doug Tallamy has led the charge to return to native species, to plant oaks, and to connect wildlife corridors in urban and suburban areas so that we and those troublesome creatures seeking refuge can survive and even thrive.

My pockets now bulging with acorns from my wandering, I return home and scatter them throughout my little wildlife refuge. I smile at the oak saplings that my wife and I have already allowed to grow in our crowded, overgrown yard and at others growing in pots. I plan to play Johnny Appleseed and encourage neighbors to plant them and even sneak a few plantings into some small public areas that now stand bare.

But I muse there must be more I can do to create more refuge. I Google quickly and discover that the love of acorns, of oaks, of refuge has been spreading elsewhere around me. I am not alone. Even though I belong to the Potomac Conservancy, I had not noticed that they have volunteers who gather up huge numbers of acorns to restore the oaks that once dominated landscapes here. I smile and lean down to gather some more acorns. There are many, many other hands holding acorns who will present them in many, many refuges and perhaps, in time, connect us all safely together.