Fall Musings 1.2 by Christine C Cantrell PhD

Berkley, Michigan sits on a level lake bed, part of the geologic basin centered on the Lower Peninsula, extending to the Upper Peninsula and parts of Ontario, Canada. The basin is centered on the state in a nearly circular pattern, dipping toward the center of the Mitten.  It lacks the spectacular mountains of the western United States, folding and refolding ancient layers of rock, with faults criss-crossing the mountains. 

I vacationed in Colorado and Utah, exploring dramatic mountains, canyons, caves rock formations, petrified forests and examining dinosaur tracks from long ago.  Being a flat-lander, it took several days to become acclimated to the elevation (6 – 14,000 feet) and longer to convince my leg muscles to move me up the steep incline of a canyon and down the other.  Next time, I’ll practice running the stairs for a couple of weeks prior!

Michigan shares many of the same layers of rocks as the Rocky Mountains, but Michigan’s are neatly layered, with a slight dip in the middle of the state.  I mention this, because we in Berkley, live on clay mud flats formed long ago from shallow lakes with many fossils.  Michigan’s state stone is the Petoskey stone which is a fossilized rugose coral, chipped off and polished by glaciers, found in the Traverse City area. 

Pics of Petoskey stone

I dig in my yard all the time, and have occasionally found a marble or a nail, but no fossils.  Like the state, Berkley is pretty level, with maybe a dip.  For example, in my back yard.  And my yard, like my state, is pretty level, with a dip.

Our section of town has no topsoil, as the cemetery a mile east of our house, owned a huge tract, which they sold for our neighborhood to be developed.  Before they left, however, they scraped 2′ of top soil off to be able to bury caskets.  So we are left with a lot of clay.  And it doesn’t absorb water very well with the drenching spring and fall rains.  If we have a drought in the summer, it is as hard as concrete.  We learned this our first summer in Berkley when we had the “Berkley Sewer Job.”  Everyone gets this sewer job.  Sometimes several times over, costing many thousands of dollars.   The crockery pipes leading from the house to the city sewer were no longer the normal cylindrical shape, as decades pressure from of clay pressure riddled it with lacey fissures and flattened its shape.  PVC is the material of choice now, and with a clean-out installed, we hope not to dig it all up again. 

Our yard has relatively good topsoil, thanks to Emma.  She lived in this house from 1990 – 2000, from her 90th to 100th year.  A farmer from Minnesota, she ploughed steer manure into the back yard every year she lived here.  She also brought a lovely pink rose bush with her.  It blooms to this day, usually on June 1, and if it’s a heat wave, those lovely light pink, scented petals fade in a day.  Emma farmed tomatoes and had a dozen or more 6′ tall steel tomato cages.  Once she moved out, neighbors acquired them.  Over the years we’ve managed to reclaim a couple. We continue her tomato tradition, harvesting the last green cherry tomatoes just today. 

Some neighbors have lived here since the mid ’40s  and there are at least 2 original home owners on this block still here! They tell me that there used to be a creek between  our back yards and the adjoining yards behind us.  If that is true, the developers didn’t put a culvert in.

Flood Zone and Locust Tree Fungi

So, the back yard floods 4″ or 5″ spring and fall.  It is absorbed by the clay over several days.  And over 14 years, I planted 9 bushes and trees which grew, then drowned.  The hemlock, white pine tree, red bud, forsythia or spice bush and so on.  So far, the locust tree remains, but around the “neck” grows white mushrooms.  Since the fruiting bodies of fungi are only a small portion of the fungus itself, that locust tree will be history in a year or two.

Whether or not one is inclined to stay informed, politics has been crazy since the last presidential election.  I’m inclined to stay informed, but now I have to take breaks.  Being a psychologist,  sitting and listening hour after hour fuels my need to physically move and find a project I can do and complete myself.  I need something I have a chance of controlling.  What grounds me is gardening;  in particular, digging.  I plant perennials, bushes and trees.  The next year I dig them up, move them around and divide the perennials.  I thoroughly enjoyed digging. 

I was looking for a digging project this summer, but couldn’t decide what it should be.  What would be best for the killing flood zone?  Dry wells or French drains as some neighbors have installed successfully?  In the heat and humidity of summer, it seemed like a lot of very heavy work burying pea gravel and a container with drain holes.  There’s no rush.  I stayed level headed and waited to figure out what I wanted to do. 

The first dig, after 2.5″ rain.  JazzPurr enjoys. 

The third day digging.  Approximately 90 sq ft 

I decided to create a sloping flood control field, deepening that back of the back yard so it can collect water without killing bushes and trees.  I will grade it lower, scatter grass and clover, and milk weeds and daisies, to encourage butterflies through the drier summer.  I moving the excess dirt to the middle of the back yard, raising that ground level so that it will not get as soggy as  it does now.  So far, we keep our feet dry by using stepping stone paths.  I expect I will have to raise those now that the land on either side of them is higher.

So far, the flood field is about 90 square feet, trapezoidal shape.  I dig on the warm days till I tire.  I know from the first 10 shovelfuls that I first  moved, a heavy rain will fill the initial ditch.  JazzPurr, the tabby cat, drank  the rainwater and I rescued 2 worms.

 I like this physical exercise and it’s therapeutic:  My frustrations are channeled doing something destructive, yet also constructive.  And it may improve the yard from a gardening perspective.  I am slowly taking my fairly level property and building an incline.  Building this flood control field and improving the rest of the back yard to stay dry. 

I enjoy dumping wheelbarrows of dirt on the mid-lawn, leaving it piled and “fluffy” with patches of transplanted grass covering it.  I know it will pack down over the winter months. 

Usually, I am impatient and hate suspense. I can’t stand not knowing what the results will be.  I prefer to prepare myself for whatever might come. But this project is different.  It is more of a process.  As it continues, I will evaluate the size and scope of the flood control field.  If it needs enlarging, I can do that.  There is no rush.  It will take as long as it takes. 

Meanwhile, I feel strong and sleep well at night.  I gain a sense of accomplishment.  And in this a time of political unease and global warming increasing the size of storms, I feel there’s not a lot I can do.  It doesn’t help to watch too much news coverage of political fights, wars, droughts and hurricanes.  My ‘big dig’ gives me something I can begin to control, or at least work with in my world.

I try to stay level-headed and to get through these challenging days, I’m inclined to do 4 things: 

           I can look for rainbows.

                        I can take care of myself.

                                      I can be kind to others.

                                                  I can dig and dig and dig. 

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