Nature blog: Heaven presents a mystery

This post originally appeared on April 8, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

A charred treeAfter a leisurely walk with my dogs, I went up to the backyard to see what new plants had come up since last week. I found a few, but also several trees of heaven with singed leaves. The scent of scorched plant matter hung in the air, but I could only smell it intermittently. What could have caused some of these leaves to burn like this, other than someone with a lighter or matches burning each individual leaf? Nothing on the ground looked burned or singed. I frowned. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning Saturday because of excessive dry conditions, meaning that areas around Pittsburgh were at increased risk for fire.

And then I remembered the Pirates’ 2-1 win against the Philadelphia Phillies in an extra inning last night. And the Zambelli fireworks show afterward. They set the fireworks off from the Allegheny River near PNC Park, about one mile from my house. I’m not sure that hot fireworks ashes would travel far enough to singe leaves on three trees in my backyard, but nor do I have a better explanation, and the breeze seemed to be blowing off the river in this general direction. Giant magnifying glasses from space don’t sound quite as plausible as fireworks, and sometimes the smoke from the fireworks does drift into our neighborhood (we can also see them from our third floor window–though we were at the game last night, so window-watching wasn’t necessary).

12.04.08.stingingnettlesIn less mysterious backyard news, the stinging nettles* exploded from last week and have now taken over the base of the wood pile. Other minor patches of it are springing up down by the retaining wall and by the right-hand fence. I’ve been stung by the nettles enough to know to stay clear of them unless I’m wearing my thick working gloves, jeans, and long sleeves. The bull thistles have started coming up in the yard of the empty house, as well. On the next day after a rainy day, when the ground is most pliable and roots most willing to come out of it, I may need to pull up some of them to keep the path to my yard clear for myself.

I don’t think I’ve been out in the yard around noon before, at least not since the robins returned from their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Mexico (at least those that left–many staid here all winter). Several flitted from tree to tree across multiple yards. They didn’t seem to be doing much except looking around for something. I didn’t see any other birds. My family came to visit for the baseball game (we are from Philadelphia originally, but I have turned traitor and root for most Pittsburgh sports teams–but I like the Philly teams, too), and I had hoped the cardinals would make an appearance for my mother. They didn’t, but my mom did bring me a gift–a bird identification guide.

Plant with small white flowersAnother mystery: some kind of shrub growing by the right-hand fence. It has white flowers with five petals and about a dozen stamens protruding from the center of each. Extensive searching of white flowering shrubs yielded several promising lookalikes (something in the Deutzia family or elderberry), but no positive matches–the leaves seem all wrong. Up close, the flowers remind me of a sea anemone waving in the ocean, beckoning fish to its stinging tendrils. Thankfully this plant does not seem to contain any venom. My yard doesn’t need more than one plant with an irritating defense mechanism.


Bird List: April 1-8

  • Male and female Northern cardinal
  • American robins
  • Black-capped chickadees
  • Song sparrows
  • European starlings (even more seem to have moved into the area lately…)
  • Pittsburgh Pirate Parrot

*Note from 2015: Yes, the yard had stinging nettles, but what exploded was actually garlic mustard, yet another invasive species. That’s what you can see in the photo, too.


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