Maintaining culture through plants

Burmese farmer IMG_5217© Maria de Bruyn resChapel Hill’s largest refugee community comprises three ethnic groups who fled the country of Myanmar (Burma); a number of them lived in refugee camps in Thailand before they came to the USA. Some 30 of these families have been receiving assistance since 2010 at the Transplanting Traditions Community Farm, through which they are able to grow many of the plants on which they relied as farmers in their home country. The gardens they maintain not only help feed members of their families and community, but also enable them to maintain some of their original culture through dietary customs. The farm also helps the families earn an income through the crops they sell via farmers’ markets and a community supported agricultural (CSA) project wherein customers commit to buying a box of vegetables from them every week.

IMG_5230© Maria de BruynThis evening, the Community offered the general public a chance to tour their gardens and sample some of their traditional dishes, a delightful experience to be sure. When I arrived for the event, I first toured one of the plots with shared vegetable gardens. What first struck me was the large number of birds that were in the garden, including American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina), ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) among others.

American goldfinch IMG_5117© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow IMG_5063© Maria de Bruyn res flycatcher IMG_5075© Maria de Bruyn res

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_5088© Maria de BruynThe air was alive with bird calls and song and as dusk fell, you could see the birds flitting from ground to plant to plant. Butterflies, like this red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), were also flying about the garden, which had a mix of full-grown vegetables and blossoms promising more crops to come.

Paper wasps (Polistes) and other insects were also plentiful.

red-spotted purple IMG_5151© Maria de Bruyn res Paper wasp IMG_5182© Maria de Bruyn res

squash IMG_5095© Maria de Bruyn res vegetable blossom IMG_5065© Maria de Bruyn res

The event was co-sponsored by The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, Orange County Partnership for Young Children, and Triangle Land Conservancy, which provided the Community Farm with space in its Irvin Nature Preserve. Representatives of the organizations said a few words about their work and then we were led on a guided tour of a newer part of the Community Farm by Kelly Owensby, the Project Director, and one of the Karen teenagers participating in the project, Joe.

IMG_5194© Maria de Bruyn

We had some tasty beer, provided by a donor, and were given a bit of the Farm’s history as we walked along the path to the new section.  The 5-acre Farm is on land in the rural outskirts of Chapel Hill and, while it is a wonderful site on this 269-acre Preserve, it is not served by public transportation, a circumstance that has made it impossible for some refugee families to participate in the project. The 30 families that have managed to get there daily, in addition to their regular jobs, have made over $125,000 over the past three years with their produce sales.

pumpkin IMG_5070© Maria de Bruyn resKaren plant IMG_5139© Maria de Bruyn res

Joe told us about a Karen holiday that are celebrated by these ethnic families here in North Carolina. The wrist-tying ceremony recalls how the Karen people fled through Mongolia a long time ago; elders bind the wrists of young people by winding white thread around them three times wound three times with white string, which wards off misfortune and evil.

Papaya IMG_5176© Maria de BruynThe farmers grow some 40 plants native to Burma. These plants need to be re-planted from seeds each year since the North Carolina climate is too cold in winter for them to survive as perennials. The papayas don’t bear fruit but the Burmese refugees use their leaves in various dishes. Some of the native plants include gourds, turmeric, bitter melons, ginger, taro root, medicinal herbs and lemongrass. Plain green gourds could be seen hanging near spotted water gourds.

taro IMG_5201© Maria de Bruyn respepper IMG_5115© Maria de Bruyn res

gourd IMG_5211© Maria de Bruyn res water gourd IMG_5204© Maria de Bruyn res

Sesame IMG_5187© Maria de Bruyn resOne female farmer had begun growing sesame seed, a crop she had had in her native country and which she was very glad to be growing here. The bamboo trellises are commonly used to suspend gourds and provide shade for crops that need protection from constant sun such as ginger and turmeric.

 

 

The farmers are also growing plants native to North Carolina, such as okra.

okra IMG_5199© Maria de Bruyn res

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Burmese vegetables IMG_5219© Maria de Bruyn resBurmese meal IMG_5229© Maria de Bruyn res

The okra featured alongside water gourd and ridge gourd as part of our meal appetizer of vegetable tempura. We were also treated to a delicious soup incorporating okra along with lemon grass and shitake mushrooms, a delicious and slightly spicy pumpkin curry and a salad with some bitter elements that went well with the other dishes.

gourd IMG_5113© Maria de Bruyn res Karen plant IMG_5156© Maria de Bruyn res

I had told four people about this opportunity to sample Karen and other Burmese cuisine but none of them came; they missed a really delicious meal! I hope many more people attend the evening next year.

A morning at Cane Creek Reservoir

The Orange County water authority maintains two recreational areas where it manages water supplies for our area’s drinking and sewage water. One is the Cane Creek Reservoir, where people can boat, fish, bird and relax. When my morning began yesterday with a distressing family situation, for which I would need to wait for news, I decided to visit the reservoir since getting out into nature always helps me handle stress. My foray was rewarding, both in terms of handling the emotional tension and appreciating the marvelous diversity that nature offers for our appreciation.

marbled orbweaver DK7A5291© Maria de Bruyn resMy walk began with a need to wipe spider webs from my face as our arachnid brethren were busy spinning their webs across walking paths. The marbled orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus) was in the process of building a web, climbing up and down and leaving new silken strands behind as they emerged from the spinneret.

marbled orbweaver DK7A5288© Maria de Bruyn

The walking path also held evidence of the passing of a young white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus). A Carolina satyr butterfly (Hermeuptychia sosybius) was moving from grass blade to grass stem as I proceeded up a hill.

white-tailed deer DK7A5276© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina Satyr DK7A5279 © Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird DK7A5392© Maria de BruynFirst birds of the day as I left the woods — a pair of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) that were roosting on a wire. When a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) wanted to join them, he was given to understand that his proximity was not appreciated.

 

pine warbler DK7A5383© Maria de Bruyn res

Next, I caught sight of a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos), very busy grooming near the top of a small tree.

Northern mockingbird DK7A5449© Maria de Bruyn res Northern mockingbird DK7A5443© Maria de Bruyn

Southern magnolia DK7A5439© Maria de Bruyn resA nearby Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) was mostly laden with rose-colored fruit but one large bloom was still vibrant and visited by smaller and larger bees.

A number of birds were singing but I didn’t recognize their calls and I saw some birds flit from one tree to another but then I caught sight of one that was dipping into the grass to pick up insects and then sitting still on a branch for a while. It was a lovely Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), a type of flycatcher with a yellow hue.

Eastern phoebe DK7A5586© Maria de BruynEastern phoebe DK7A5722© Maria de Bruyn

This bird flew around a bit, perching in trees, on ropes and barbed wire, providing some nice views of its lovely self.

Eastern phoebe DK7A5670© Maria de Bruyn resEastern phoebe DK7A5825© Maria de Bruyn res

A blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea), busy as these small birds always seem to be, was gleaning insects from twigs and branches.

blue-gray gnatcatcher DK7A5924© Maria de Bruyn Blue-gray gnatcatcher DK7A5920© Maria de Bruyn blue-gray gnatcatcher 1-de Bruyn, Maria DK7A5944 Supported on the balance beam

Coming up on the shoreline of the reservoir, I first spotted some least sandpipers (Calidris minutilla) foraging at the water’s edge. This is the smallest species of sandpiper and they are also the smallest shorebirds in North America. They looked very pretty in flight.

least sandpiper DK7A6073© Maria de Bruynleast sandpiper DK7A6081© Maria de Bruyn

The sandpipers landed near some killdeer (Charadrius vociferous), who looked very large next to them.

killdeer DK7A6103© Maria de Bruyn res

red-spotted purple DK7A6143© Maria de Bruyn resA red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) was mud-puddling on the shore, as was a Sachem skipper butterfly (Atalopedes campestris). A trio of American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) also dropped onto the wet mud for a brief time.

 

sachem skipper DK7A6355© Maria de Bruynsachem skipper DK7A6368© Maria de Bruyn

american goldfinch DK7A6323© Maria de Bruyn res

Several flocks of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) came in to the little lake. One group surprised me by suddenly veering in my direction and flying right in front of me, so close that they more than filled the screen of my zoom lens.

Canada goose DK7A6472© Maria de Bruyn res Canada goose DK7A6195© Maria de Bruyn res

Canada goose DK7A6205© Maria de Bruyn resCanada goose DK7A6207© Maria de Bruyn res

Near the end of my visit, a fellow birder kindly pointed out two green herons (Butorides virescens) to me. (Having binoculars is a definite advantage for this pursuit!). One was rather far away but another within walking distance so I snuck up on it in stages.

green heron DK7A6717© Maria de Bruyngreen heron DK7A6575© Maria de Bruyn

In the left-hand photo, you can imagine the dinosaur ancestor of this stalker.

At one point, the bird stretched and stared at the sky, moving its head from side to side obviously watching something – it turned out to be a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

red-tailed hawk DK7A6633© Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6631© Maria de Bruyn

My sneaking ever closer to the heron was rewarded when I saw the short bird catch and eat a rather large frog for its brunch. It was sad for the frog, but that is the cycle of life.

green heron DK7A6826© Maria de Bruyn resgreen heron DK7A6850© Maria de Bruyn res

And when I returned home a short while later, I learned that the family emergency had been handled for the time being. Like the fauna, our own cycles of life are also unpredictable.