Being an urban naturalist begins with baby steps. One of my concepts about doing so, derived from Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book Crow Planet, is to concentrate on my own house and its lot. Each such lot is a defined microenvironment. Haupt says that a pair of crows claims about two such lots, about half an acre, as its nesting territory. I’m not sure how one defines “territory” for crows, because they seem so often to travel and roost in flocks, but nesting demands a more definitive area.
Jane and I live on our house lot in Fairfax County, on Academy Street. It is roughly rectangular, and is all of 2840 square feet, .27 acres. The house was built in 1964, at a time when more trees were preserved in the development of subdivisions. Ours, Stonewall Manor, was built in a woods, and still has many of its old trees. In addition, trees planted by early homeowners have had plenty of time to mature. So unlike the scorched earth of new developments, such as a nearby 7-acre parcel of mature woods where developers razed every single tree except for a very narrow perimeter around the outside edge, our properties provide considerable shade.
Shade brings its own problems, of course. In the fall, raking is horrendous. If you don’t hire a lawn service, and we don’t, you become very familiar with the components of your shade canopy. We traditionally raked about 45 to 50 well-compacted 35-gallon bags every year. Our biggest tree was a Willow Oak, whose narrow leaves clogged and pulled down gutters, slipped under porches, and even somehow wormed their way into the house. Its quick-growing and burly roots heaved up the brick patio in wavy undulations, pushed against the retaining wall of the basement stairs, and created tripping hazards in the lawn.
Finally that tree had to go. It was heartbreaking, and I may narrate the whole story some day. This fall we had more serious tree work done, losing three weakened and dying trees (one swamp maple and two oaks) and two towering Southern Pines next door, which were threatening our home and had indeed already done damage through falling limbs. So this fall we had less than half of our traditional raking chore. Our backs loved it.
But now I want to care about, care for, and preserve the trees we have left. One of them I had to get to “know” is in the northeast corner of the lot, on the downhill side. So when I was walking the lot the other day (a daily activity now) I pulled off a leaf with a rake—this tree has some lower branches that never dropped their leaves. I happily went inside for an online leaf identification session. Haupt owns all kind of guidebooks to her flora and fauna, but I am going to see what I can do online for starters.
The brown leaf is still on my desk. It’s about 13 cm from stem to tip, and it has four lobes
on each side of its central vein, with one central lobe at the top. Its symmetrical form tapers outward from its base, so the top end is far broader. I noticed at least one on the grass that was about twice as big, but in exactly the same form.
In my search the most important thing I learned is that the leaves of varieties of oak that are native to Virginia come in a stunning array of shapes and sizes. There is no one “oak leaf” shape comparable to the maple leaf form that adorns the Canadian flag and the uniforms of the Toronto hockey club. I also learned that not all naturalists see the leaves of a single oak species exactly the same way, nor do the photos they take all match exactly. Still, I was finally able to nail down my leaf as that of a White Oak, Quercus alba.
My family used to take a favorite hike in the Shenandoah National Park on the White Oak Canyon Trail. From the top we passed Limberlost, about 1.5 acres of rare eastern virgin forest. From the bottom we soon reached the lowest of about 4 or 5 falls along Cedar Run, the stream that the trail follows much of the way. We could swim in very cold water and get nibbled by little fish. So now I have found a tree on my lot that can remind me of those sweet summer walks.