The heron’s roost

On the shores of Kenilworth Lake here in Asheville, we garden at about 2,200 feet above sea level. The summers are getting hotter, and the mild winters have lately been so mild that for the first time in my Asheville existence, we have bagworms on the branches (sounds almost like a line from a song).

Somewhat great: This artist’s rendering bears a resemblance to a great blue heron. painting by Catesby, from the collection of Peter Loewer

January is usually the coldest month, with night temperatures generally in the 20s and daytime highs of 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The average frost-free period is 195 days. Although some weather experts say we are in USDA Zone 6, most gardeners who live within the city (and who probably have more experience with the local climate than the weather people) say it’s been Zone 7 for two years now. Then we get zapped with a 30 mph wind while temperatures hover close to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Whatever the final outcome of the battle of the zones, however, many people think it’s getting warmer.

A drought began around the turn of the century, with winter and spring experiencing inches of rain but summers being basically dry. Some of us thought the drought might be on the decline, but recent weeks have proved that assumption to be faulty.

Where summer temperatures once averaged in the 80s, we now see weeks in the low 90s. And the nighttime lows in the high 50s—once the rule, with refreshing morning dews—are also gone.

One of the friends in my garden is a very old great blue heron (they can live two decades or more), that I reckon is now around 16 years old. He sits atop the tall dead oak in our back yard that we left just for the birds after it died.

High on a branch, the heron gets a good view of the lake, and his sharp hunter’s eyes can easily tell when the waters are riled—either by other waterfowl or by residents feeding the fish.

Now, however, a new development off White Pine Drive threatens the lake’s entire ecosystem, including that part of the upper end of Ross Creek that’s been filled in with silt—first from the Interstate 240 cut, and then by the endless development and construction that continues unabated. Each such disturbance sends more mud down to the lake.

And because of a lack of storm sewers, whatever runs down Tunnel Road or Kenilworth Road or the upper reaches of White Pine Drive (not to mention rain that falls on the Asheville Mall’s parking lots) also winds up in the lake.

In my garden there are small animal threats but nothing that I can’t get over as an observer of the natural order of things. Sure, squirrels nip the choice treetops of new leaves, but the trees survive; chipmunks, which delight in tunneling, displace but do not eat bulbs; and crows are attracted to and make off with shiny plant labels, so we now use dulled copper. Some things never change!

But unless the city wakes up from its dreams of plush developments and the associated tax revenues, my old great blue heron will lose his summer living grounds and be forced to die in Highlands—or even South Carolina somewhere.

[Peter Loewer, aka The Wild Gardener, lives in Asheville.]


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