It’s February, the shortest and second longest month of the year. In Winter, nutrients return to the soil from decaying leaves and last summer’s bounty. The Earth seems to be sleeping, but just like a ray of sunlight falling on a dozing face, she’s about to come to life again. We all feel colder and gloomier the less we feel the sun, but just like our brains teeming with activity as we sleep, the earth is busy even while frozen.
The flowers we sowed in the Autumn are doing their best impression of death on the surface. Our tiny foxgloves have brown, dilapidated leaves but pull them up and their roots are alive and well. They’ve spent their winter lacing into the soil, waiting for the temperature to be just right before bulking up on the harvest of springtime sun. Like foxglove, I put my roots in the soil, planning, scheduling, enlisting, forming connections, sowing seed, preparing the website, and packaging little dried bouquets in brown paper and waiting for signs of life to appear.
Winter is a time of productivity for the Serpentine Ecosystem Restoration Program (Friends of Soldiers Delight.) The team of volunteers meet every other week through winter to restore the site of one of Maryland’s last remaining oak savannahs. My friend Erin and I are joined by government workers on their day off, college kids in an outdoors club, and naturalists of varying skill levels. We listen to Paula Becker of the Department of Natural Resources tell us to kill all the pines and hollies we can reach. “Anything around that’s green can go. They’re invasive here,” she explains. “We’re not cutting the big ones down, just clearing about six feet of bark off all the ones we see.” Some of us are assigned weed whackers, chainsaws, clippers, and hand saws. As we work, the sweet smell of singed pine fills the air around us.
Paula tells me that only two places in Maryland have this specific kind of rock called serpentine, making the ecosystem of Soldiers Delight especially unique. In only a few generations, invasive greenbriers, cedars, and pines have started to choke out the native scrub oaks, grasses and wildflowers. This land has missed her people. The Piscataway and Susquehannocks used to employ controlled fires as a hunting device in the area before First Contact. Now, we prescribe fire as an antidote for a missing people. I cringe as I look around, realizing all of us are white. I tell myself we are here to make sure the land is not forgotten, but the people must not be forgotten either. It feels like we should honor them in some way, like we do on 9/11 and Yom HaShoah, but that moment doesn’t come, so I honor them in silence as I hack away the scars of their removal on their native land.
Coming back to the evergreen patch we started on, the trees look like they were shaved at the base for the start of someone’s whittling project. It made me sad to see the straight spindles of young pines go to waste. It feels wrong to kill a tree without honoring it’s sacrifice, but I remind myself they will become the nurseries of the next generation. Pines in particular are excellent at this as their bodies decay. From their old roots and trunks spring mossy beds that happen to be the perfect microclimate for a young sapling. Nothing is wasted in nature. Grandmothers become babies again.
It’s cold. We hardly feel the sun, but we’ve been pulling weeds and laying coats of mulch and compost on the farm all winter. We’re laying the path for new growth, clearing the way for regeneration, and someone, somewhere under the soil seems to feel our presence and whisper, “It won’t be long now.”