Brush. The word connotes a thorny nuisance. Change the word to shrub and the image shifts a bit toward an acceptable plant, like a rhododendron. Today, I reclaim the word “brush” as home, haven, and provider.
Come with me for a few minutes to greet a fine community of native brush in Central Oregon that dazzles with bitterbrush, manzanita, ceanothus, rabbitbrush, and sagebrush. Rub the lemony blooms of bitterbrush between your fingers and inhale a sweet spiciness.
Listen to the singing of Green-tailed Towhees near the trail up Bessie Butte, one of the best local hikes for delving deep into our local, life-giving, and life-supporting wild shrubs. Daydream to the buzz of mason bees, bumble bees,and countless other insects pollinating the blossoms. Tune to the ziiiippp of a hummingbird seeking nectar. Glimpse the top knot of a California Quail vanishing into the sheltering limbs of a manzanita. Run your hands over the smooth wine-red bark.
Recently, I met a woman who told me with pride that she and her husband spent 20 years clearing all the brush on all the several acres surrounding their home in Central Oregon, and finally achieved their goal. That’s when I knew I must write this blog. At that moment, I did not know what to say.
How could I tell her that their toil and sweat resulted in destroying native plant and wildlife diversity? What if someone told me I’d spent two decades harming more than helping the world I care about so much? The good news is that it’s not too late for restoration and return if she’d be willing to lend a nurturing hand.
If we ran into each other by chance on Bessie Butte, I’d offer to gently guide her toward observing the native species and the ways they intertwine with one another, starting with brush. I’d invite her to merge with a dynamic ecosystem shaped by natural wildfire, wind, blizzard, rain, and aridity of the high desert.
Together, we’d amble among the best flower show in town. We’d marvel at a Green-tailed Towhee belting arias at the tip of a dead limb from the old fire, and joining with other towhees to form a spring symphony sweeping over the bitterbrush, ceanothus, and manzanita sea.
Perhaps we’d stop in our tracks, floored by the olive green colors of the towhee’s namesake tail and the jaunty rusty red cap. The trills and whistles of his song (one that in this breeding season may add up to 12 songs per minute,) are the lyrics of romance.
The Green-tailed Towhees nest here, because the wildfires that swept over Bessie Butte in 2003 and 2007 created the ideal habitat for them. Towhees seek out brush in the open or within scattered trees, and 8-15 years after a fire is perfect.
The female weaves a bowl-shaped nest hidden deep within the folds of the bitterbrush, ceanothus, or manzanita. For as long as five days, she will thread her fine basket of twigs, bark, and plant stems, lining the interior with rootlets, fur, hair, and the softest of stems. Only then, will she lay her two to five eggs, and for the next two weeks will incubate them, until the helpless, mostly naked, eyes-closed chicks hatch. Two more weeks will pass before the chicks are feathered and ready to venture out. Without this safe haven of brush, there could be no Green-tailed Towhees in this world.
Green-tailed Towhee (Credit –All About Birds, Cornell University).
As we pay tribute to the virtuoso male, we’d notice a second towhee hopping about on the ground performing that double scratch dance move, a rapid hop forward and then back to overturn leaves and twigs. The hungry bird pecks at the emerging meal of beetles, bugs, flies, grasshoppers, seeds, or berries. Every bit of food is part of this intricate neighborhood of native shrubs. Like all the inhabitants of Bessie Butte, the Green-tailed Towhees are here, because of brush. This is their home.
At the end of our walk, I’d imagine my new friend and I would look each other in the eyes and know we’ve shared a brush with beauty.
Author’s note: For homeowners concerned about shrubs and fire, note that being firewise extends only as far as 100 feet from your house, and even then in zones. See this Firewise fact sheet from the pros–National Fire Protection Association.