By Bruce Stambaugh
Several years ago, our lifetime friends Dave and Kate built their dream house on a hill overlooking Millersburg, Ohio. They picked the perfect spot.
From that lofty vantage point overlooking a lovely valley, Dave and Kate can see the county courthouse clock tower, the school where they both taught, and the hospital where their children were born.
The setting is marvelous, the view fantastic. Still, through hard work and creativity, the couple has managed to improve their surroundings, not only for themselves but for the wild things, too.
About five years ago, Dave decided to turn work into play so to speak. He kicked the cows out of the five-acre, pastured hillside that surrounded the house. His goal was simply to let nature take her course.
Before the European invasion 300 years ago, a dense, mature forest covered most of what is now Ohio. Dave wanted to test an old theory that the land would replenish itself if allowed to go fallow.
So instead of cows grazing, grasses, plants, and seedlings began to sprout freely. Today, the results are impressive, producing rewards that even the amiable couple could never have imagined.
On an all-too-brief return to our Ohio haunts, Dave led me on a walking tour of his mostly-spontaneous prairie. We traversed a looping pattern of mown paths that crisscrossed the rolling hillside topography.
Up and down and around we walked. All the while Dave pointed out some of the changes that had already naturally occurred. In some spots, he had helped things along with saplings and young trees he had planted. He checked on them like a mother hen guarding her chicks.
Of course, he encaged the plantings with wire mesh to stymie the ubiquitous and free-ranging deer that nibble the tender and tasty leaves and stalks. Sometimes it worked.
Wildflowers and plants now flourished in the prairie plots where heifers used to munch. The floral growth attracted appreciative pollinators that flitted and buzzed about while we ambled along. Bees and butterflies, flies, dragonflies, and damselflies all made appearances.Several pairs of eastern bluebirds tended to their nests in boxes Dave had erected. Some had eggs, some second brood hatchlings. Others were empty. When we cleaned out an old nest from one birdhouse, a bluebird pair began building anew a short time later. Dave’s face glowed.
At the bird feeders, Ohio’s smallest to largest woodpeckers and several species in between vied for the suet offerings. Both pileated and red-bellied even brought their young to learn to forage for the protein.
On the parameters of the property, red-tailed hawks dove from shaded oak perches, unsuccessful in snagging a mammal breakfast. An indigo bunting began its song but stopped short, a typical behavior this late in the summer.
Cedar waxwings preened in the morning sunshine on dead ash snags. American goldfinches harvested thistledown for their late-season nests.
The gnarled, amber trunks of giant Osage orange trees served as living statuaries in the young reclaimed landscape. Their coarse-skin fruit hung lime-green and eerie, like so many Martian brains.
Once dormancy dominates the prairie, Dave will mow down this marvelous and necessary wildlife habitat to eliminate the human-made nuisance multi-flowered rose bushes. Of course, he’ll save the trees, both those he planted and the multitude of volunteers that are thriving.
That adage is coming true. Left to grow on its own, this come-what-may former pasture is an ever-changing habitat for all things bright and beautiful. The environmentally friendly owners couldn’t be more grateful.
© Bruce Stambaugh 2018