June 21, 2014

By summer, the forest is a cool, dim respite, a darker, more peaceful place to escape the heat of the sun. But it is the meadow that properly represents this season of blazing hot days, especially in muggy Philadelphia: swampy afternoons linger and rainstorms blast out of the early evening to drench the world. To me, summer has always been the season of meadows.

I sit, lie down, fall back into the grass and see only sky, bits of grasses and shrubs just coloring the edges of my vision. A few clouds float past, a hawk circles high above, the horizon expanded by the shift in perspective. In the meadow, the world is all waist-high. While in the woods, we are dwarfed by even small trees, here everything is closer and we are put into a natural context by this proximity. We are a part of this meadow, I am reminded when thorny blackberries grab at me and I pull a caterpillar from my skirt. Milkweed stalks bend and bounce slightly in the breeze, knee-high butterflyweed shines fluorescent orange in the field of green; vetch climbs up and down the grasses, sprinkling the meadow with purple. I lean into the smell, the heady, rich perfume of milkweed mixing with the warm smell of dry grass.

Meadows offer a space for biodiversity to flourish, with full sun, cooler microclimates below the grasses, and space for small mammals like field mice and voles and myriad insects to find their food and shelter. I watch a dragonfly, dark against the dense green of the field, land first on a branch of invasive bittersweet, then a young sassafras. Everywhere, the edges of the meadow are tinged with the shifting ecology of this place. Sassafras and cottonwood, sun-loving forerunners of the forest, are beginning to move in. As much as meadows are the home to biodiversity, they are also a battleground for invasive plants. Though the green vista of a meadow can seem inevitable, it’s not. Here, where sun is plentiful, plants with an evolutionary advantage from regions far afield can rapidly take over: bittersweet, mile-a-minute, thistle. The meadow is always in flux. This grassy field where I lie now, here in northwest Philadelphia, was farmland fifty years ago, and before that, it was forest.

This meadow offers me a place to settle down into the spot where I am. An eastern swallowtail butterfly makes its slow loops among the flowers, a creamy yellow and rich black punctuation mark on the afternoon. We made the meadow as we made the city. That this meadow is here at all is the result of a walk humans have taken together with the wild living land.