Monday, December 31, 2007

'Though the Weather Outside Was Frightful,...

Wow. What a way to wrap up 2007.

Since my last post, life has been a whirlwind of activity, both wonderful and strange.

My mother treated me to a true English tea at Aunt Hattie's Tea Room on W. Douglas during the week before Christmas. Relaxing, delicious - a real treat! Strawberry soup, fresh cherry almond scones with lemon curd and Devonshire cream, cucumber sandwiches, a pot of hot tea for each...and that's just the beginning of the list of delectable goodies they put before us. I have to admit that we basically licked our plates clean.

The next day my kitchen was unexpectedly taken over by our good friends Flip and Shelley from Chicago. It was great fun to relax and watch somebody else work there. As usual, they coaxed fantastic food from my mundane equipment as we laughed, talked and drank our way through the day. I rather think my kitchen celebrates being used as it should be used each time they come to visit!

The object of their culinary take-over was the production of several decadent desserts to contribute to the annual Christmas extravaganza held by another of their long-time Wichita friends. We were graciously invited to the party as well, and that night Prairiewolf and I enjoyed a rich feast of food, beautiful holiday decorations, stimulating fellow guests, and the crowning enjoyment of excellent young Irish dancers accompanied by a live Celtic ensemble as they put on a poolside performance that won't be soon forgotten. It was truly a memorable evening.

With a snowstorm predicted for the next day, our son Qkslvrwlf decided to travel home a few hours early, and came in from St. Louis later that same night. As always, it was wonderful to have him with us again, although I wish he could have joined us for the Celtic music and dancing earlier. I know he would have enjoyed it tremendously.

Boy, the next morning we were so glad that Qkslvrwlf had traveled early when the sky opened up and the snow came in blinding, wind-driven veils of white. I think that storm was the closest I've ever seen to the white-out prairie blizzards that I've read so much about. You know, the storms where the settlers had to rig a line from the house to the barn, or they'd get lost as they tried to do their chores and end up wandering about until they froze to death.

Accompanying the heavy snow was thunder and lightning - thunder snow. Truly awesome.

Flip and Shelley joined us again that afternoon, despite the snowstorm (I believe Flip's words were, "I HATE Kansas weather!" as he walked in), and we continued our previous day's agenda of laughing, talking, drinking and eating, now further enlivened by the presence of Prairiewolf and Qkslvrwolf and by the addition of a few games to the mix. The only thing marring our afternoon - and it was a biggie - was concern about our daughter, Genie02, who was travelling up from San Antonio that day. She began hitting the snow around Oklahoma City, but luckily she's a good driver and the worst of the storm had blown itself out by the time she got near. So she got here safely and was able to join us about 7 o'clock, in time for a superb dinner of champagne chicken, smashed potatoes, Thai green beans, and chocolate chip cookies, cooked up by Chefs Flip, Shelley and Qkslvrwlf.

Flip and Shelley had to leave early the next morning to head back to Chicago for Christmas with their family, so Prairiewolf helped push them out of the driveway through the snow and got them safely on their way. Then the 4 of us, Prairiewolf, Genie02, Qkslvrwlf, and myself, settled in to enjoy the rest of one of the best Christmas times that I can remember. We put the tree up, finished buying and wrapping presents, had both sets of grandparents over to help us celebrate, enjoyed a Christmas Day meal that featured a wild turkey which Prairiewolf had shot last spring, experienced more unique weather in the form of snow mist, brewed some beer, and just generally enjoyed being together as a family for those few brief days.

My family and friends truly enfolded me and made this Christmas especially warm and full of love.

Both kids have had to leave by now. It was hard to see them go, but they are safely home and once more immersed in their own lives. I treasure the times we get together all the more for their brevity. Their love and support warms me even from far away.

Looking back on it, Christmas this year was memorable for family and friends, thunder snow and snow mist, Celtic music and dancing, delicious food, and much laughter and happiness. It's the gift of a feeling of celebration and love and joy that I wish I could somehow share with all the people on Earth. We could all use more of it in our lives.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Native Plants Do It Better

It's rare that a new (to me) ecological concept related to gardening and wildlife hits me upside the head, but I treasure it when it does. Reading Douglas W. Tallamy's new book, Bringing Nature Home, brought me just such a moment.

For years I have believed that gardening with natives was important, but I have allowed myself to become less single-minded about that belief, especially in recent years. I couldn't answer people's questions about why, for example, a native berry-producing shrub was better than an exotic berry-producing shrub if the birds liked to eat both types of berries equally. Instinctively I felt the native was better, but I couldn't produce the underlying logic to share with others.

Tallamy nails my missing logic in this book.

Every time a plant is described as "pest free", the nurseryman is saying that leaf-eating insects (and often other herbivores) won't eat it, usually because they truly can't eat it due to its chemical makeup. This means that the particular plant in question - almost always an exotic introduced from another country or from a different area of this country - is taking space, using nutrients from the soil, capturing sunlight...and adding little or nothing to the local food chains. In essence, it is a sterile placeholder, taking the place of other, native plants that can and do support diverse, healthy populations of native animals. Because the exotic plant is not getting eaten or controlled in any way, it can easily outcompete the locally palatable native vegetation, so when the exotic escapes into the wild, there is nothing holding back its takeover of local habitats and sterilizing them.

So right now I can practically hear the question going through your head, "Why would I possibly WANT insects to eat my plants? Won't that kill them?"

The simple answer is, "No, it won't kill them. Native plants evolved along with native herbivores so that both balance each other. Then, too, having native predators feeding on the native herbivores further keeps that balance in place."

Insects are one of the primary ways that the energy captured by plants gets moved up the food chain. They are the primary herbivores of many, probably most, plants; then they become the food for primary predators, from other insects to amphibians to birds.

If you love to attract birds to your yard, it's important to know that the energy and nutrients for bird reproduction are almost entirely based upon insect food. Berries in the fall won't do birds any good if there haven't been any birds produced earlier in the year because there were no insects available to provide the food and energy for eggs and young.

I can hear another question, "Japanese beetles are eating my roses to stubs. How can you say that insects won't kill my plants?"

Japanese beetles aren't native insects, and they are not acting "naturally" for our native ecosystems. Many major pest outbreaks are actually caused by alien insects or diseases introduced accidentally into our country. Like the alien plants they often come in on, these alien pests have no natural enemies and ravage unchecked throughout the countryside. Chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and now sudden oak wilt are all examples of alien disease organisms; (Asian) azalea lace bug, soybean aphid and Japanese beetles are examples of devastating alien insects.

I've just hit the highlights of Tallamy's book here. He describes the concepts in much greater depth than I have here, plus he provides lots of interesting examples. He has also included a wonderful section about the different types of insects, including some fascinating and fun insect life histories. If you love to garden, especially if you love to attract wildlife to your yard, I highly recommend that you read this book.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Luck Comes in All Forms

We - all of us in the Wichita area - got really lucky over the last few days, especially yesterday. According to my rain gauge, we received over 5" of rain. We started yesterday with about 1/4-1/2" of ice on the trees and wires, but at our house the temperature hung at 32.1 to 32.9 degrees Fahrenheit all day. It wasn't warm, but it was just enough to keep all that rain from freezing as it hit. It was even warm enough to slowly melt much of the ice left from overnight.

Folks to the north of us and the south of us weren't that lucky. Oklahoma got hammered a couple days ago; north-central Kansas got it yesterday. I talked with a friend who lives in Holton, north of Topeka, and the entire town was coated in over an inch of ice, leading to massive power outages and major tree damage and loss. The face of the town will be changed for years.

Ice is such a good example of something incredibly beautiful that is also incredibly destructive. Wichita's turn came 3 years ago...and it will come again. Meanwhile I'm thankful for the luck that came our way, and mourning for the losses of those who were less lucky this time than we were.

Subtle Editing on Global Warming

We've lived in places - Topeka and Mobile - with strongly right-wing newspapers (supposed "left wing liberal bias in the media" not withstanding). The Wichita Eagle seems generally more balanced to me, but I notice that they do have a way of subtly influencing the news that I don't agree with.

Today's paper is a case in point. On the front page we have 4 local stories and 1 state story. Except for the story on the ice storm (which deserves front page coverage), all of the other stories are about on-going issues, any of which would have been sufficiently covered on page 4 or 5, and all of which will be forgotten in a year or two or three.

Buried on page 6A is a story about an issue that is probably signalling a major change in our world, about a warning bell of global significance. "Scientists Shocked by Arctic Ice Melt" is about the newly released report on the massive melting of the Arctic ice mass seen this summer. This melting is occurring much faster than even the most pessimistic computer model climate prediction. At the current rate, the Arctic may be ice-free at the end of summer by 2012. That's less than 5 years away.

This is a massive change.

Another fact from this article that startled me was that, according to NASA satellite data, the volume of Arctic sea ice at the end of this last summer was just half of what it was 4 years ago. Fifty percent (50%) of the Arctic ice volume gone in just 4 years.

So why doesn't this news deserve front page coverage? These are huge changes that signal a need to act decisively and rapidly before the process of global warming becomes irreversible. I think I found a piece of the answer in a couple articles I read recently. These articles talked about how the Coast Guard was going to start patrolling the Arctic as it was opened up for new shipping channels. The new shipping channels would shorten transport distances between certain cities - the Northwest Passage coming true at last.

Why worry about global warming if it's offering a profit opportunity?

"The love of money is the root of all evil." It's long past time for all the world's citizens, and for the American electorate in particular, to look at the proponents of each side in the global warming "debate" and determine who has the most personal profit to make from their stance. I can pretty well guarantee it isn't the scientific community.

Then it's time for those same citizens to take action to change our current course. The people making obscene profits from the status quo CANNOT be trusted to see the changes that need to be made and lead the rest of us to make them. Only the average informed citizen can remove these profit-mongers from leadership and chose leaders more qualified to lead us intelligently and carefully into the future. Let's do it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My Favorite Part of the Season

My favorite part of the Christmas season began today - I dug out the Christmas cards and started working on them. Serendipitously, I received our first Christmas card for the year too.

I know that a lot of people dislike the time, effort and cost of writing Christmas cards, but for someone like me, who has moved around a lot throughout my life, it's a wonderful way to keep connected with friends from long ago. Our lives may have separated us years before, but I still love to hear what they and their families are doing.

It's wonderful how some people remain close friends, no matter how long it's been since you saw them last. When you are lucky enough to meet with them again, you often feel like you were never apart.

For the longest time I tried to write personal letters to everybody, but I finally gave up a few years ago. I'd get a few letters written, then get overwhelmed by other holiday activities and end up inadvertently pruning my Christmas card list. Prairiewolf now helps me. He writes a great Christmas letter, which I then print off. I try to add brief personal notes, then I address and mail them. Our success rate at getting out all of our intended cards has increased significantly since making this initially unwelcome compromise.

But even joint cooperation doesn't help when a major move coincides with the Christmas season.
With our move occurring at the end of December last year, I don't remember being organized enough to send out any cards...and I'm afraid that if I don't touch bases with a few of my usual card-buddies this year, they too may move and we'll lose touch completely.

What a loss that would be. There's my best friend from junior high in Panama. We've been in touch for almost 40 years now. (Yikes! Has it actually been that long?!) Then there's my college roommate (in touch over 30 years now). There are friends from our early married years, and from many of the places that we've lived. Now I'll be adding many friends from Mobile.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Buffalo for the Broken Heart

I recently finished reading a fascinating book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart, by Dan O'Brien.

It was a random pick-up at the local bookstore. Something in the title caught my eye, then the jacket blurb made me look more closely. By the time I'd skimmed several pages, it went into my (admittedly oversized) "to buy" pile and made it safely home. Something about its promise made me pick it up soon thereafter; once I picked it up, I was hooked.

Buffalo is a quiet book. It's part personal memoir, part natural history, part cultural history, all interwoven into a well paced story that captured my heart and imagination. It's the tale of a relationship between a man and his South Dakota ranch, the Broken Heart. There's love and heartbreak, comraderie and loneliness in this book, along with beauty and unimaginably necessary daily gambles.

Having moved back to the prairie after several years in the longleaf pine forests of the deep south, I'm finding myself fascinated by the differences between the 2 places. I expected and was moderately prepared for the difference in vegetation and climate, but the differences in mindsets and cultural assumptions is surprising me. I find myself appreciating how the local history of a place infuses its people with a sense of identity that I'd never really noticed before, even people who move into an area rather than having been raised in it.

In Mobile, the people seemed to have a baseline identify still founded upon the old Deep South cultural identity of plantations, cotton growing, and the almost aristocratic society that it created. Entertaining was an everyday, gracious artform there, and the homes tended to be classic and richly decorated.

Here, the people seem to have a baseline identify still founded upon the "wild west", with its necessary independence of spirit and underlying rebellion. There's a mistrust of anything too "fancy", and a sense that cattle and farming are both intrinsically good and tragically fated to break people's spirit.

In Buffalo for the Broken Heart, O'Brien recounts how he (and countless other Great Plains ranchers) try to wrest a living from the prairie by raising cattle. As he describes it, it's basically a no-win situation, based on a disconnect between cattle and the prairie environment compounded by a disconnect between natural forces and the market economy. After almost losing his ranch (saving it only by taking a job elsewhere and sending money back, while a neighbor looked after it), O'Brien hesitantly decides to try running bison instead of cattle. It's an incredible gamble and an almost unbelievable amount of hard work, but he makes the commitment and describes both the joys and the fears of the process.

Our little 10 acres will never support a bison, but bison lived here 150 years ago and helped shape this land. There's even a depression behind the draw that I suspect may be the remnants of an old buffalo wallow. The descriptions of O'Brien's prairie lands, of how the cattle fought them and how the bison reveled in them, were evocative and haunting. I can picture bison on our land now in a way that I wasn't able to before reading this book.

I know where the past of this land has been. I wonder where its future lies.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving Weather

The kids left just a few hours ago, and I'm slowly working on finishing up the dishes and the other clean-up left from a wonderful 4 day hiatus with them. It's truly been a vacation getaway in the comfort of our own home! I will miss them tremendously, but I'm so glad that we had the long weekend together. It was wonderful.

I have an observational question, though. Why does the weather always seem to get bad over Thanksgiving week? Was the 4th Thursday of November selected for Thanksgiving because it always seems to signal the beginning of true winter weather?

Our first hard freeze was the day before Thanksgiving, and our first snow on Friday night. Saturday morning we woke up to a very winterish-looking landscape. It's been below freezing for every night since last Tuesday, and we barely got above freezing during the day

I guess winter is officially here. At least the snow was light and didn't come on the 2 heaviest travel days. Both kids travelled safely and are back to their respective homes now. Ready for Christmas, anyone?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Night Life

For some time now I've noticed unusual droppings each morning in the 2 platform birdfeeders out back. The droppings are cylindrical, with rounded ends, about 3/8 - 1/2" in diameter and 1/2 - 3/4" long, and made up entirely of the remnants of sunflower seed shells. I wasn't sure what had made them, although I had a sneaking suspicion it was a possum.

Then again, Becker, our German Shepherd, has been sprayed by a skunk twice in the last several months, so that was a possibility too. I didn't have a clue what skunk scat looked like.

So last night I rounded up a strong flashlight and decided to check out the feeders if I woke up at all.

I checked right before we went to bed, but all was quiet. We turned off the downstairs lights and moved up to the bedroom.

It was a pleasant night, so I left our bedroom window open. As I lay in bed reading, relaxing for sleep, I thought I heard a scrabbling noise, so I got up and shone the flashlight out back. Big and beautiful and bold, crisply marked fur lushly covering its body and luxuriantly flopping down from its tail over its back, there was a skunk rooting about in the grass between one platform feeder and the birdbath. I watched for a while, calling Prairiewolf to watch with me. The skunk didn't seem to notice the spotlight on its performance at all.

Prairiewolf went off to sleep while I, much too alert now to sleep, continued to read. Right before I turned the light off, I got up to check again. This time the skunk was gone, but there were 2 smallish possums on the back platform feeder. They immediately turned towards the light, and their eyes glowed strangely, but they didn't seem upset.

Thinking my mystery was now totally solved, and feeling vindicated in my orignial diagnosis about the droppings, I went on to sleep.

Sometime after 2 a.m., I woke up with my all-too-frequent, middle-of-the-night insomnia. Deciding to turn it to good use, I checked the backyard again. This time there was a single, very large possum on the back platform feeder. No skunk. No smaller possums.

Intrigued even more now, I checked again about 3:30 a.m. (still awake, unfortunately). The big possum was still on the back feeder, the skunk was drinking water from the birdbath, and one of the little possums was busily eating...what I finally realized was suet from the suet feeder, which he'd evidently knocked down out of the tree. (So that's why I occasionally find it on the ground and empty!)

My most recent check was at 4:45 a.m. This time the backyard was back down to one animal, the big possum on the closer platform feeder.

I am rather amazed at the amount of nighttime activity occurring in my backyard. A little appalled, too, to be honest. The possums don't bother me too much, other than the amount of bird seed and suet they are going through, but the skunk is getting to be a real issue, with Becker's seeming inability to learn how to leave it alone. And I sure don't want to surprise the skunk ourselves, when we go out to take care of the dogs or need to run out to the workshop after dark. Been there, done that, got the (remnants of) the teeshirt.

There's the rabies issue too.

On the other hand, the web research I did talked about how beneficial skunks could be: they eat (and therefore help control) rodents, snakes, insects and spiders, including black widows, for example. My instinct to get rid of the skunk is being tempered a little bit by understanding where the skunk fits into the workings of the local ecosystem. Emphasis on "a little bit."

It's 5:20 a.m. now. I've heard the first birds call, briefly, outside. I just checked and the backyard is empty. Time for another day to begin. I won't be watching the feeders and the birdbath with the same eyes today, however.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Highway Irony

Maybe I have a strange sense of humor, but I find it rather amusing that gigantic Cabela's, Bass Pro, and Gander Mountain shops are popping up all over the place, at a point in time when fewer and fewer people are even going outside, let alone actually fishing and hunting. It seems like every trip I take, I find at least one new, big, "hunting gear" store littered along the highway. They obviously seem to be doing well, so I have to assume that our collective ability to spend money while we pretend to be (in this case) rugged outdoorspeople is doing better every day.

I don't know why I find it so humorous; it goes right along with the large number of 4-wheel drive SUVs zipping around that have never placed even part of a tread on a gravel road, let alone really needed to use their 4-wheel drive capability.

The less wilderness and wildlife we actually have, the more we delude ourselves that we experience it. Viva le profit!

Seasonal Notes

Our habitat enhancement is paying off. In the last few days I've seen several cock pheasant flying into our front yard tallgrass area, while there's been a nicely sized covey of quail living in the back for months now. (The last time I saw them, I'd estimate there were about 15.)

The feeders are jumping with activity. I haven't been actually counting yet (I do my first Cornell FeederWatch count on Monday), but I've seen a nice variety of birds on a regular basis: pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, red-bellied woodpeckers, cardinals, blue jays, Harris sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, house finch, house sparrows, downy woodpecker, tufted titmouse, goldfinch, red-winged blackbirds, robins. Hairy woodpeckers and chickadees are rarer. And I've seen purple finch and rufous-sided towhees once so far this fall.

I was gone for a week, getting back last Tuesday. When I left, most of the trees still had their leaves; when I returned, most had lost them. It's amazing to me how quickly that change occurs.

Speaking of which, we've started leaf rustling - picking up bags of leaves that have been left by the curb. We tried to start running them through the chipper/shredder today, but it got mad about being neglected for so long and had to be taken to the shop for some coddling and intensive care treatment. I'm really looking forward to all of that great leaf mulch - I can't think of anything better to enrich the soil, hold in moisture, and keep the weeds down. Best of all, it's free!

I have to laugh at myself, though. The leaves that I pick up have been bagged and put out at the curb to be taken to the landfill, but I STILL feel very self conscious about picking them up and putting them into our pickup. It's really sad to reflect on how tame my version of "living dangerously" truly is!

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, it feels like we're totally immersed in fall now, and I'm starting to get hints of winter. I went out earlier one night earlier this week to cover some container plants that I haven't put in the ground yet...and it smelled like winter. The sky was crisply black, the air sparkling and snapping. It felt great, but I'm not sure I'm ready to move on to another season at this point.

Well, the weather waits for no one, so I'll just take what happens and make the best of it. Right now, the best feels pretty darn good.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sterilizing the Sedgwick County Landscape

Boy, the people of Sedgwick County sure like to waste gas and time mowing and plowing. It must be a "religious" thing, or something. Sterility is next to Godliness, perhaps? Too bad God didn't understand that when he created a complex ecosystem on this planet.

The fields around here look like brown velvet. They've been plowed so many times in the last few months that any earthworm that might have ventured inside one of their boundaries must be mincemeat by now. But they sure look "neat"!

The vast majority of "country" homes in this county seem to be pretending to be mini-English estates, with manicured grass from one edge of the property to the other -all 5 or 10 or 20 acres of it. We looked at quite a few of these as we were trying to find a home here: restrictive covenants usually require that ALL of the land be mowed. One area even restricted us to 2 pets - cats and/or dogs - on the entire 6 acres. WHY would I want to move to the country just to have to spend hours of my time and massive quantities of gas money mowing, then be restricted to far fewer pets than I'm allowed even inside city limits?! And how barren and ugly those little neighborhoods are.

But the current crowning stupidity occurred yesterday. At the end of August, the county road crews mowed the ditches along the road we live on, along with the ditches beside most of the county roads in this area. It seemed stupid and wasteful to destroy all of that habitat to me, but I could see some justification in terms of keeping woody vegetation down. However, yesterday the county roadcrews came by and mowed again. Mind you, almost nothing had significantly grown in the last 2 1/2 months. There were a few grass seedheads and the grass had put on a couple inches or two of growth. The crews certainly accomplished nothing in terms of keeping woody vegetation out further or improving visibility along the roadside. Now, though, we have uniform 3" brown stubble for 15-20' on each side of the road...except, of course, for the beautiful "blooms" of roadside trash with which the local low lifes have decorated our countryside. It was evidently very important to showcase that trash for the rest of us to look at all winter long. We certainly just spent large amounts of county gas money and time doing so.

This weekend I learned, too, that parts of the Kansas hunting community are now blaming the lack of quail on turkey predation. Folks, wildlife needs food, shelter, and water just like humans do. When you plow and mow and spray the living daylights out of the land, you literally plow and mow and spray the "living" right out of the land. Just where in these "pretty" brown velvet fields and 3" deep roadsides are the quail supposed to live these days? On the 2" tall grass of those pretentious "English country estates"? And what are they supposed to eat - the beercans and leftover McDonalds' trash I saw along the road this morning? Bare fields and grass stubble don't harbor many insects of any sort for quail to feed on. Yes, by late winter the fields will have wheat growing in them, but where are the birds supposed to live until then? The roadsides won't grow up appreciably until April or May.

It seems to me that we were given this planet as our Garden of Eden, but here in Sedgwick County (and in much of the rest of the country) we are busy killing off the "undesireables", sterilizing the world, as fast as we can.

Unfortunately, sterilizing is a nonselective process...and we've really been pretty ignorant about understanding how the life systems on this planet work. Then, once we do begin to understand them, in this country we seem to condemn that understanding. I've come to believe we condemn it because it means we have to change the way we're doing things.

But that's a whole new can of worms to open. Suffice it to say that I'm saddened and angered by the attitudes of the people in this county towards the land that supports them. Surely we can do a better job of understanding and coexisting with the world around us than we are doing.

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Live Simply So Others Can Simply Live"

Live simply so others can simply live. I saw a poster with this sentiment, illustrated by a series of quiet drawings, that is haunting me. The drawings are almost all of things or activities that satisfy me deeply: a barn swallow flying, an open window with a plant on the sill, a pad of paper and pencils, a piece of fruit hanging on a tree, a guitar in a corner, a book with glasses laid on top of it, a bowl of steaming hot cereal, needle & thread & scissors ready to mend something, fresh baked bread on a cutting board with a knife beside it, a wheelbarrow with garden tools, a dandelion with a bee about to land on it.... Symbols, to me, of a quietly satisfying and deeply peaceful life.

Translating that "quietly satisfying and deeply peaceful life" vision into reality is turning out to be surprisingly hard for me. For example, Prairiewolf and I had a meeting with a home remodeler the other day. My desire for a "nice" kitchen is sharply warring with my "better" self, who wants to avoid waste by making do with what we have. After all, what we have is perfectly functional, just very tacky by current standards.

Live simply so others can simply live.

On NPR this morning, I heard a preview of today's Science Friday program, saying that atmospheric CO2 levels are increasing even faster than scientists have been predicting. (The broadcast is at 1 p.m., so I'm going to try to remember to listen to it.) Every bit of energy I use, every item I buy is helping to contribute to those CO2 levels.

Live simply so others can simply live. What is my personal responsibility in this issue? Where do I draw my personal balance line? This influences my life in so many ways, from driving to clothes to volunteering to food consumption to remodeling our home to...topics of conversation between friends. In voluntarily simplifying, am I living by my ideals or unnecessarily restricting myself? Am I cutting myself off from "normal" society by simplifying?

Why does it feel like trying to live a simple life these days is so isolating? It seems like I ought to have more time to talk with and connect to others, but I find it hard to join in many of the conversations: "Look at this $500 purse I got for $250! I am so excited! I've been wanting one of these FOREVER!" or "We're going on a Caribbean cruise next month. We go at least once a year, and it's SO MUCH fun! Why don't you guys take a cruise with us?" I could care less about unnecessary, expensive purses or self indulgent cruises to nowhere with 3000 of your "best friends" crammed alongside you, but if I say so, the conversation comes to a crashing halt. Somehow, not caring about such things makes me weird and unAmerican, as does being interested in the environment or in affordable healthcare or in true education.

Do I have to travel a lot, drive a gas-guzzling SUV, love to shop for entertainment, wear classy or cute (i.e. relatively new) clothes, and live in an upscale house to be "worthy" in the United States? A lot of times it feels that way.

Live simply so others can simply live. It sounds so easy, but I'm really struggling with it.

Often I question myself as to why these sorts of ideals are so important to me. Why should I care? Why can't I just put this concept, and others like it, out of my head as "idealistic hogwash" and get on with "real life"? It seems like everybody else does, even those who think of themselves as quite religious.

I don't know the answer to those questions. I just know that this "idealistic hogwash" IS very important to me and to my life...and if I get labeled as slightly crazy? Well, there are worse things to be called. (Ironically, it's the "unworthy" label that bothers me more than the "slightly crazy" label.)

So I stumble through each day, making the proverbial mountains out of what other people consider to be molehills. Isn't it ironic that I welcome actual molehills in my yard (24/7 grub patrol!) while most people seem to consider them mountainous mounds of evil to be fought with the most toxic arsenal they can command?!

Monday, October 29, 2007

An Irruption Year?!

Judging from the recent additions to my bird-feeding population, this may very well be an irruption year.

Last week, a red breasted nuthatch started showing up regularly. It's still busily coming to and from its favorite feeder all day long.

Today I've seen 3 purple finches (2 female and a male) and a pine siskin too.

We were gone for 3 days over the weekend, so I have no idea exactly which day the purple finches and pine siskin showed up, but today was the first day I saw them.

Today was also the first day I've seen a goldfinch this fall.

A few Harris sparrows, juncos, and white crowned sparrows have been here for 2-3 weeks. Last week I saw a song sparrow and a couple white throated sparrows too, but they stopped in for a day, then seemed to move along.

It's shaping up to be an interesting year for bird feeding!

The Secret Behind One of Life's Enduring Mysteries

I have received wisdom. I have learned the answer to one of life's enduring mysteries. (Note: I have not TESTED this answer, but my source was pretty authoritative.) And so I'm going to pass this wisdom on, out into the blogosphere....

I now know why weeping figs, Ficus benjamina, drop their leaves.

Yes, I know this is astounding, but bear with me. If your fig has done this, it is not because you looked cross-eyed at it. It is not because you are a bad plant owner and it hates you. It is not because you spoke intemperately around it.

In fact, the only thing that probably happened was that you changed the amount of light it was receiving. Maybe you brought it indoors for the winter, or moved it across the room because it looked better there. Maybe you simply put up new curtains or took down the old ones. Or it may just be normal seasonal variations.

It turns out that weeping fig is especially quick to adapt to new light conditions. This is one of the traits that actually makes it a good houseplant. It adapts to the change in light by dropping about half of its leaves and putting out new ones that just happen to be completely suited to the new light situation it finds itself in.

As I learned, plant leaves can be adapted to either high light or low light situations. It has to do with how the intracellular structures with chlorophyll, where photosynthesis occurs, are arranged. Generally it can take a plant up to 6 months to change its leaves from high light to low light, or vice versa. Figs just do it fast, by dropping and regrowing them.

The key here is apparently to realize that the plant is somewhat stressed while it is changing out its leaves and to let it rest. Don't fertilize it. Be careful to wait until it is dry to water it, then saturate the soil completely and let it drain out. Don't let yourself respond like normal people do and say, "It's dropping its leaves. It must be dying! I have to save it by giving it extra food and water." You'll kill it with love, for sure, that way.

I'm so excited by this new insight that I'm ready to go out and buy a new Ficus or two. I left 2 beautiful big ones behind in Mobile, so I'm currently "without fig". It seems like a perfect gardening challenge for the oncoming winter months.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Observations of Fall

I saw the first white crowned sparrow at my feeders two days ago, and it's appearing all the time now. Winter is coming.

It's been interesting to see who's visiting the feeders during these days of natural plenty. (I put up a few feeders - mainly mixed seed and a suet cake - on September 20, along with water in the birdbath.)

A large family of cardinals, the young males looking patchy and as gawky as adolescents of all species tend to do, was among the first visitors, and they've been regulars ever since.

Blue jays. A couple house sparrows. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers.

Today I saw a male hairy woodpecker.

And I've briefly seen a house wren flitting around the deck, although I can't say that it was drawn in to the feeders.

Few visitors yet, but I know that traffic will pick up as the season gets harsher.

Overhead, I thrill to the sight of crisp white gulls swooping silently south against crystal blue skies. (Do the gulls only fly on clear days? Or do they just disappear into the clouds and become invisible? They are so quiet that it's impossible for me to hear their passage; I just have to be lucky enough to look up at the right time, attracted perhaps by a bit of sparkle or movement in the sky.)

I hear killdeer cry as they wend their way southward, one here, one there....

The barred owls are becoming vocal in the late afternoon and evening again.

The sunflowers have shed their bright fall plumage and are industriously plumping up their rich, life producing seed heads. Dotted gayfeather blooms have faded from bright purple to dusty lavendar, melding back into the textured prairie tapestry. Heath aster is blooming, but its tiny white blossoms almost seem like a foreshadowing of snow and winter's quiet.

Unobstrusively speaking of winter too, the trees are beginning to shed their leaves. It's not a pretty leaf-drop this year. The drought is forcing it a little early, and the leaves tend to be brown and shrivelled. As I look across the landscape, the remaining stubbornly green trees are the only major remnants of summer left, despite our still-warm temperatures.

However, the big bluestem is turning rusty, the Indian grass is golden yellow, the seedheads of the switchgrass are airily puffed out, and all of their slender stems sway gracefully in the wind, outlined against the rich blue autumn sky. The remnants of prairie are especially beautiful right now, despite the dry weather.

It's fall, that bitterly sweet time of year.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Pain of Knowledge

"There are things you can't get away from after you know them. It is very complicated to know anything.... Can you ever not know again?" (p. 151)

"[What is innocence?] ...just not knowing about something?... Is it innocent, as in a state of goodness or whatever, if you simply don't know about all those people in the Holocaust? Or is it just naive, stupid? What use is that kind of innocence anyway?...
Can you ever be made innocent again?" (p. 152)

Those two quotes are from The Accidental, a book by Ali Smith. They've been nagging at me ever since I read them.

They remind me of a quote I read many years ago about environmental knowledge. (I thought it was by Aldo Leopold, but I've reread Sand County Almanac lately and I was unable to find it there.) That remembered quote, roughly paraphrased, spoke about how a person who understood how the world worked ecologically would be living "in a world of wounds" invisible to others as they watched how most people treated the natural world.

I've often thought of that quote. Just this week, I've felt flayed as I came upon a cruelly shorn thicket of sunflowers that had enlivened our nearby creekside, reduced to 3" tall stubble, then shuddered as the neighbor later boasted to me about mowing it down because now "it looks so much better." That thicket was providing shelter and food for birds and other animals, as well as holding soil in place along the creekbank. Now it's a barren eyesore. Also this week, I've cringed as I've watched the local farmers plowing their bone dry, black-earthed fields in 30 mph winds. I've driven through the resulting dark clouds of topsoil, barely able to see through to the road ahead. The rich topsoil that feeds us, that took eons to form, is being carried skyward and eventually will be washed out to the Gulf of Mexico where it will join the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi. In this day and age of agricultural knowledge, surely these farmers know better than to treat their land this way. Surely they realize their farm's fertility is blowing away with that soil.

Are these people "innocent" because they refuse to learn about the environment or to accept the longterm consequences of what they are doing?

I don't think so. But while I don't think they can be absolved of their guilt, I can also understand their desire to try to remain ignorant.

So many times, knowledge hurts. Because of that knowledge, you become aware of a wound that you weren't aware of before. You feel like you should act, but what should you do? You are just one person and these are big problems. Now, suddenly, because of this new knowledge, you are different than the people around you, which causes more pain.

No wonder so many people choose willful ignorance over knowledge. They are trying to avoid pain, and that's a very human thing to do.

However, as I've learned the hard way so many times, trying to avoid a problem through running away from it only makes the problem worse. And eventually the pain will be that much worse too, because avoiding the problem only means that you lose the opportunity to solve it or that the problem becomes much worse before you're forced to acknowledge and solve it anyway.

Knowledge and pain. I always believed that "knowledge will set you free," that knowledge was a good thing, that it was desireable, that it was something that would make your life better.

I still believe that knowledge is good and that it will set you free. Now, though, I also realize that sometimes you have to work through a lot of pain to earn the freedom that knowledge promised.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Brief Balance of Light and Dark

Today is the autumnal equinox. The light of daytime and the dark of nighttime are balanced for a brief moment, with the dark poised to take the lead for the next 6 months.

And so the seasons pass.

I can feel the changes in the natural world outside. Although the temperatures are still summer-like, there is a sense of winding down. The daily locust chorus is growing quieter by the day. Trees are starting to lose their leaves, the monarchs are beginning to aim southward in their daily flights, and it's suddenly rare to find a germinating plant. The sunflowers are past their prime; each morning when I walk, I see a few more brown, rayless disks and a few less bright yellow, fresh blooms.

Everytime I go outdoors for the next few months, the increasingly less subtle message will be, "Winter will be here soon." The summer birds will be leaving, and the winter birds will be arriving. Green will be disappearing as the fall colors, and eventually winter brown, predominate. The temperatures will finally break, and cold autumn winds and rain begin.

Despite the foreshadowing of hard times ahead, I've always loved the fall, with its cool, crisp air and bright blue days. It's an invigorating time of year, with rich harvests yet a promise of quiet winter reflection.

I'm beginning to feel a correlation between this season and my time of life. Springtime is behind me. Summer is disappearing too. Now my life is full of rich harvests that are beginning to lead me towards quiet reflection. Family, friends, experiences, interests, memories - a potpourri of patches that I'm feeling the urge to stitch together into a velvety, idiosyncratic crazy quilt I can share with others. Hopefully it will help keep them warm during the cold times that return with seasonal regularity.

I know it will help me find the pattern to my days.

Light and dark, balanced.

And so the cycle of life goes on.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Is Our Democratic Experiment Failing?

I woke up this weekend feeling a need to share a growing concern of mine. Events conspired to keep me from writing the piece when it was dominating my thoughts, but this morning I have the time to try to capture it coherently enough to share it on this blog.

Is our country, our grand democratic experiment, failing? Increasingly, I'm afraid that it is.

At the risk of sounding paranoid, I feel like our country is under attack. Not from the usual bogeymen touted (if I hear Bush make about one more "fear-mongering speech"about terrorists, I'll scream), but from super-rich corporate moguls. Terrorists may kill a few of us, but we are systematically beginning to allow many of us to kill ourselves and each other.

Our country's government is one of the few entities left in this world that has the power and clout to restrain corporate greed and make the large corporations and super-rich individuals police themselves and watch out for the well-being of the average person. As a country, we've put regulations and restrictions in place because we've had to, after corporations or individuals have gotten so greedy that they put their own profit-making above other people's lives and health.

All of that is now in jeopardy. Regulations are under direct frontal attack, and have been for years.

Even more disturbingly to me, our country's government is being systematically weakened by being overburdened by debt, underfunded, and chronically maligned. Many branches of our government are now so poorly staffed and funded that they barely function, yet the mantra is always, "No new taxes," and "Make government smaller." After all of this time in Iraq, our military is almost broken too.

The government is nothing more than the citizenry itself, acting collectively, paying a few individuals to do jobs that need to be done but that don't generate money in and of themselves. WE, as citizens, ARE THE GOVERNMENT. It is acting on OUR behalf. If it is failing, it is because we are letting it fail.

Who will benefit from our government falling apart? Not us "average Joe citizens," for sure. But corporations will. They already are. They are becoming increasingly free to pay slave wages, thoughtlessly pollute, produce defective and deficient products, and make obscene profits. The elite who run the biggest of these corporations are rapidly becoming global citizens who are above any country's laws and who are so rich and powerful that they can literally control what people all over the world hear about and discuss.

What will it take to wake our country's citizens up enough to pay attention and take control of their own government again? It's time to quit listening to 30 second sound bites touting "moral values" and to pay attention to what our leaders are actually doing and who they are actually taking care of.

If we don't actually take the time and energy to act as citizens and hold our leaders accountable for their actions, we will end up losing our democracy. Most of us will become powerless, exploited and underpaid serfs whose labors will benefit the new economic aristocracy.

This is beginning to happen already. The time has come to act, if we want to nip this backslide in the bud. Let's live up to our country's ideals and take back the control of this country, putting it once again into the hands of an active, educated, democratic citizenry.

The World Moves On

I have to laugh. I was born in 1956 and most of the time I trundle along without thinking of my age very much. Like most of us, internally I feel pretty timeless, and if my body occasionally reminds me that I'm actually not...well, I can usually shrug that off pretty easily.

Over the past couple of days, though, I've noticed two news articles that have slapped me upside the head and let me know that the rest of society may not view me as quite as timelessly as I view myself.

The first was an internet piece, the annual Beloit College "Mindset Piece" (, which I saw posted on another blog. For the past several years, this piece has been written to help profs realize what this year's incoming college freshmen have and haven't experienced (based on their age) in their lives. It's always interesting, but for some reason it hit me this year that MY children would find this list interesting and, if they were teaching, might need to refer to it to be able to relate to that age group. After all, this year's incoming freshmen were born in 1989, by which time my kids were already 8 and 10!

The second item bursting my "timeless" bubble was in today's paper. Apparently American Girls is coming out with a new historical era doll this month, Julie, created as a 9 year old girl living in San Francisco during 1974. Ouch. In 1974 I was already 18; I was actually 9 in 1965. Evidently that makes me REALLY historical.

Oh, well, as they say, "It's better than the alternative."

Like so many people, I must say that I actually like being older. I generally feel much more self confident and comfortable with myself than I did when I was younger. Life has only gotten more interesting, too. When I can ignore our cultural bias against midlife and older individuals, I'm happy to be where I am.

So bring on the historical references, World. I wouldn't want to have missed my life's experiences for anything, and I'm proud to have survived this long.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Sunflower Season

It's sunflower season in Kansas.

Driving through the countryside, I see billows of bright yellow suns with chocolate centers nodding at me in the wind.

The golden disks and rich green foliage soften ugly chainlink fences, skirt the bottom of most telephone poles, lace the edges of fields, and drift in fencerows alongside the roads.

In the morning, they're straining eastward, drinking in the rising sun. By mid-day they're looking southward, sunny faces reflecting the noonday sun. In the evening, they're facing westward, bidding farewell as the sun sets.

I love the abundance and the cheerfulness of their extravagant display. I fantasize about gathering big bouquets of them for the kitchen table...but restrain myself when I think of all the bird seed that I'd be cutting out of existence. Then I fantasize again about the flocks of goldfinch that will be clinging to them later this fall, gorging on the nutritious seeds, enriching the roadsides yet again.

They say that Kansas is a drab state. "They" have obviously never been here during sunflower season.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Did I Miss a Timewarp to 1904?

The "humans vs. the rest of life" war had another skirmish in Logan County, Kansas, recently.

Logan County officials apparently used a 1904 state law to justify coming onto a rancher's land, over his protests, and using an extremely toxic gas to poison prairie dogs and all the other animals that live in their burrows. To add insult to injury, the law allows them to make the landowner pay for this assault against him and his property.

This is wrong on so many levels that I don't know where to begin.

Science has learned a little since 1904. We know now that prairie dogs are actually healthy for a prairie, a "keystone species" in fact. Their burrows not only aerate the soil and increase water penetration during rains, they provide habitat for countless other prairie animals whose numbers have declined precipitously since wholesale destruction of prairie dog colonies began. Ironically, some of those burrow co-inhabitants are also the predators that work to keep the prairie dog populations stable and under control.

Since 1904, we've learned that "playing God" and deciding to take out entire sections of the ecosystem often backfires on us and leaves us with a less stable, less productive, poorer piece of land on which to live and try to eke out a living. Ironically, since 1904, we've also become much better at destructively playing God. We can do a lot more damage in a much shorter period of time than we ever imagined back in 1904. Those of us who realize that it's not 1904 anymore are trying to be more careful in utilizing our destructive power.

Slowly we are learning that poisoning other living things poisons us too. If it's a "-cide" (pesticide, herbicide, insecticide, etc.), that means it's a life killer. That's what "-cide" means. Last time I checked, humans were alive...and we generally prefer to stay that way. When we use "-cide"s against other life forms, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

We like to think that we are smarter - and therefore better - than the rest of the animals. And I think that we can be...I just don't think that we act that way very often. We actually only transcend being animals when we use our brains to act smarter than a typical animal would act. If we've learned through scientific research that, longterm, prairie dogs are important to the health of our land and the animal community that lives on it (which we have), then we are acting like animals, not humans, when we ignore what we've learned and poison off prairie dogs for perceived short-term gain.

As humans, we have the capacity to look at longterm consequences and big pictures. To act like humans, we need to take those longterm consequences and big picture realizations into account in our actions. If , on a wholesale scale, we kill off the rest of life that is competing with us for food or water, we have learned that we will, sooner or later, kill off ourselves. A little killing is often necessary and a part of life; wholesale killing is stupid and short-sighted. Balance, as always, is the key.

It's time to realize that if we think of the natural world as the enemy to be vanquished, we will kill ourselves off too. The war isn't "humans vs. the rest of life." The war is "humans vs. human greed."

For our own sake, it's time to learn how to live in balance with the rest of nature.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Trying to Fathom Fate

By the time you get to my age (51), you realize that life is full of fate. Sometimes fate seems good to you, sometimes it seems bad, and most of the time you careen off it or around it, not really knowing whether it's your friend or your enemy until time and events can give you some perspective.

There are lots of sayings about fate and changing your fate. "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade," springs quickly to mind. Some people seems to be "born under a lucky star," while others "have a black cloud hanging over them." "I turned the corner, and there she was." Cliches abound, as they always do about such an important and universal subject.

Overall though, I guess I have to admit that, many times in my life, seemingly negative fateful events turn out to have been extremely positive when viewed in my "20/20 retroscope". I remember, for example, the first apartment Prairiewolf and I tried to rent just before we got married. It was a duplex whose "rent" included helping to care for the owner, an older woman who lived in the other half of the duplex and who, within the hour of receiving it, took my deposit check immediately to my bank to cash it. I was getting my paycheck at work later that same morning and so, at lunch, immediately took my pay over to the bank to cover the deposit check I'd written which time our landlady-to-be had already tried to cash my check and been told there were insufficient funds. I was devastated and embarrassed, and I called the woman up to try to explain the events to her, but she was adamant - we could not have the duplex. It felt like my world had dropped out from under me, as we were having a very hard time finding an affordable and decent place to live. I learned several useful lessons that day, but looking back I'm also very glad we started out our married life without a nosy, unforgiving woman who expected me to cook and clean for her living right next door.

So why am I focused on fate - and early events of PW's and my relationship - this morning? I just got news from our son about fate taking a definitive hand in his life. Like so many fateful events, it looks pretty black from his current perspective and my heart sinks for him, but I'm hoping that it will turn out to be a lemon event from which he can squeeze some form of lemonade. For better or for worse, only time will tell.

Rush Hour in the Country

During the hot weather, I've been trying to do my walking first thing in the morning, after Prairiewolf leaves. Not only does this start my day out productively and keep me from procrastinating exercise out of my daily schedule, it's also generally the coolest part of the day.

Before school started, only a few cars would pass me each morning. Now that the academic year has begun, there's been a marked increase in traffic.

That said, I sure am glad that I live in the country. (Visiting K.C. recently reaffirmed that.) This morning, my "busy rush hour" consisted of a bakers' dozen vehicles - 12 cars/pick-up trucks and 1 true truck - passing me during the course of my 35-40 minute walk. It doesn't seem like very many, but they are still amazingly distracting.

Given that I can hear each vehicle from well over a mile away, one of the main distractions they create is road noise. On the plus side, in between each vehicle's passing I get to listen to the sounds of the wind rustling through the grass and the birds and insects calling from the fields and hedgerows.

As I walked this morning, I wondered if it would be possible to locate the place and season of a recording just based upon the natural sounds of that location. I know that listening to certain songs can temporarily transport me back in time to a different time and place. Could I get good enough at hearing the sounds of nature that listening to a recording of those natural sounds would transport me mentally to where and when that recording was made?

It's funny: country life is considered so "quiet", but it can actually be quite noisy. Think of cicadas singing on a summer afternoon, or coyotes howling at night. There's a great little scene in My Cousin Vinny where city boy Vinny actually can't sleep in a cabin in the woods because of all the strange noises he hears. He doesn't get a good night's sleep until he finds a bed in the local jail, where bells, whistles and the sounds of people surround him all night long.

Out here, the natural noises usually relax me, but even the slightest human noise seems jarring and out of place: the neighbors' talking across the road, the car humming on the pavement a mile or more away, the plane flying overhead, the refrigerator motor kicking on in the kitchen as I write, the whir of the computer fan.

At the same time, through the open window I hear at least 3 different kinds of insects (grasshoppers? crickets? cicadas for sure) singing. If I concentrate on just those songs, my mind quiets and my entire body relaxes. I feel at peace.

I've set myself the task of learning to identify as many of these natural songs as I can. Maybe someday I truly will be able to locate myself solely through natural sounds, and meanwhile I'll enjoy picturing the singer as I listen peacefully to the song.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Waterfire and Reconnections

Prairiewolf and I just got back from a wonderful weekend in Kansas City, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. It was PW's 25th class reunion and we had a "date" with one particular couple of good friends who live half a continent away. We had a great time with them and, as a bonus, we ended up reconnecting with several other old friends and acquaintances as well. There actually weren't very many of us that showed up altogether, but those of us who did seemed to have a great time.

My biggest regret, besides the fact that I don't look like I did 25 years ago, was that I didn't get to know some of these folks better back then.

The reunion, however, is only the backdrop for the main subject of this post.

Serendipitously, while we were there, Kansas City staged a new event called Waterfire. This was held Saturday night on Brush Creek as it winds through the Country Club Plaza.

Picture this:

Floating bonfires swaying down the center of the creek, stationed every 50 feet or so, their vivid orange flames reflecting boldly off the smooth dark water just below them. They form a brilliant living chain that twists down the backbone of the creek.

Smoke drifting through the air, cool breezes intermixing with sudden blasts of heat from the nearby fires.

Music filling the night, broadcast from large, well-placed (but unobtrusive) speakers. Classical arias are followed by African chants or celtic melodies, followed by chamber music or jazz. Every so often the recorded music is replaced by a spotlight shining on a classical singer, who sings from his or her heart, poised on the edge of one of the bridges traversing the creek.

The crowd meandering up and down the creek, some staying above on the roads and bridges, others venturing to walk along the creek, with still others resting on the steep, grassy slopes. Occasionally a member of the Vesuvius fire troupe performs amid the people, juggling blazing batons or breathing fire high into the air.

Sounds of laughter and talking interspersing with applause and sometimes just with awed pockets of silence.

It was a mystical evening, capping off a magical weekend.

A friendly stranger, leaning beside me on a bridge railing, avidly watching the fires and the crowd too, mentioned that they were repeating the event on October 13. I haven't verified that fact but if they do, I'd prescribe attendance for anyone who could use an evening's antidote to the humdrum ordinariness of everyday life.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mourning for Roadside Losses

The mowers came yesterday.

As I walk in the morning or drive at any time of day, I enjoy looking at the ever-changing array of plants in the ditches: Illinois bundleflower, big bluestem, silver bluestem, eastern gamagrass, sunflowers, catsclaw sensitive briar, prairie petunia, and many, many more. It's a small tapestry of prairie plants, complete with food and cover for pheasant, quail and many other types of wildlife.

The mowers came yesterday.

Now all I have to look at up close is stubble. Boring, ugly stubble.

At least they waited until nesting season was done.

I worry about the wildlife anyway. At this point in the agricultural cycle, the farmers are all discing their fields, so all of those thousands of acres are being converted back to bare dirt. And now, to add insult to injury, the sanctuary of the roadsides, those narrow bands of habitat that stretch for miles and miles, has been reduced to 4" tall monotony. It's hard to hide from a hawk in 4" of cover.

I know the standard rationale:

"It looks neater this way." (Stubble with exposed trash? Thank you, but no thank you. That may be your idea of better looking, but it sure isn't mine.)

"It's a safety issue. This way cars can get off the road if they break down." (Grass doesn't keep a car from pulling off the road if necessary. And a steep ditch slope will keep someone on the road, whether the grass has been mowed or not. Last but not least, on most of the county roads around here, you can see for miles and there's little traffic, so pulling to the side of the road is all that's needed for safety's sake.)

"If we don't mow, the woody vegetation will grow up and become a problem." (Only one side of the road could be mowed each year, leaving 50% of the habitat available, and reducing mowing costs by 50%. Or, mowing could be delayed until early spring as things start to green up, before nesting occurs. That would leave cover and food for wildlife over the winter, but still set back the woody vegetation.)

"The roadsides are a source of weeds for the farm fields." (If the roadsides are left less disturbed, it allows perennials to dominate there. Most weeds are actually annuals that thrive in disturbed soil and produce massive quantities of seeds, ready to move in and colonize open soil. Annuals can't compete against established perennials, though. And perennials produce many fewer seeds, usually taking years to become well established. So, ironically, disturbing the soil and setting back perennial growth actually increases the weedy plants available to colonize the crop fields.)

I know I'm a lone voice railing against established precedent on this issue, but I'm tired of the tyranny of the "neatnik" crowd. "Neat" isn't always better or healthier, sometimes it's just boring and wasteful. To my mind, this is one of those times.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash

 I have found a real keeper for our garden line up!

Prairiewolf and I started using heirloom varieties of many vegetables over 10 years ago, in Mayetta, Kansas, after learning about how rapidly these interesting, locally adapted, non-hybrid varieties were disappearing. Tomatoes were our favorites, but we've tried a wide variety of heirlooms over the years.

We didn't really grow vegetables in Mobile, both because the weather was extremely hot and humid and because we didn't really have a good, sunny spot where vegetables could thrive.

So this year, after moving back to Kansas, we found ourselves really excited about putting in a vegetable garden again. Even though we started our garden extremely late and didn't put in a very big one, it seemed important to incorporate at least a few heirlooms.

So we put in 3 different kinds of squash: spaghetti squash (my personal favorite from the grocery store), delicata or sweet dumpling squash (written up as one of the sweetest squash - seemed like a good one to try!), and Thelma Sanders sweet potato squash. The sweet potato squash had two things going for it: I couldn't resist the name, and it came from a woman in Adair County, Missouri, which seemed reasonably close to Kansas agriculturally.

The spaghetti squash wilted away with the first squash bug. All 3 plants, even though several young squash had set already and I got after the squash bugs right away.

Only one delicata squash came up, and it looked very healthy for most of the summer, but it never set any fruit. Finally, when I let my watering and squash bug patrol slip for a couple weeks during a combination of horribly hot weather and a family reunion, it succumbed.

The Thelma Sanders sweet potato squash, however, took everything that this Kansas summer could dish out and thrived on it. With 2 vines coming up in the single hill we planted, I've got at least a dozen fruit maturing and the vines are scrambling throughout the raised bed, in the path, under the basil, through the real sweet potatoes, and generally running rampant. Based on squash vines winding through the garden, you can't tell anymore that all the other squash plants croaked.

Besides watering, my only care has been to try to control the squash bugs organically. (That translates, for me, as picking off squash bug eggs, crushing nymphs, and drowning adults in soapy water. It's a gross activity to have to do, but it feels better to me than spraying or sprinkling pesticides.) Obviously, I've been in a holding pattern, not trying to wipe out the little beasts.

This morning, when I picked up a couple of the fruits, 2 of them easily came off the stem, so I took that as a sign that they were ripe.

I fixed the first one for dinner tonight...and it was great. Size-wise, they are rather like a small acorn squash, and the texture of their flesh is very similar too. I baked them with butter, the same way I usually fix acorn squash. The taste is a little different, but it was excellent. Using them up is going to be no problem at all.

I am really excited about finding this great variety: hardy, prolific and tasty. And it's got a great name. I couldn't ask for anything more.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Sport of Champions?

'Tis the season for recreational mowing.

Moving back after 6 years away, I am struck by how popular this "sport" is here in Kansas.

We looked at numerous houses in the country before deciding on this one. One of our big deciding factors was that I wanted to be able to let some of the grass grow on our acreage. Unfortunately, most of the "country" acreages around here require edge-to-edge mowing that seems much more suited to a postage stamp size lot in the city than to 5 acres or more in the country.

What a waste of time and gasoline. I would think that in this day and age of $3/gallon gasoline, people could find better things to do with their money than burn it up while cutting grass and wildflowers to an unsightly and boring stubble.

Now please understand that I'm ludicrously allergic to chiggers and I therefore fully appreciate the need to have mowed grass to walk on. My compromise is to mow (or have PW mow) a winding path through our acreage. This way I get to walk chigger-free through gracefully waving grasses and colorful interesting wildflowers. Meadowlarks cling to the tops of redcedars, bobwhite quail call from our frontyard, pheasant nest in the grasses. The path becomes our personal, stress-reducing, 3-D, ever-changing nature program.

For those folks who just love to mow, I'm not trying to take all your fun away. It's always a great idea on any prairie homestead to keep a firebreak of 50-100 feet mowed around any combustible structures. That makes a nice mowed lawn around the house, barn and/or garage.

We're a prairie state. Why is everyone so scared of prairie?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Meditations on Ownership

What do I own - truly own? A chance phrase I read made me start thinking about this basic concept.

According to the normal concept of the word in the United States, I "own" (in conjunction with Prairiewolf) 4 dogs and a cat, a home and 10 acres of land, many books, furniture, 2 cars and a truck, lots of clothes, and so forth.

But as I list all of that, a niggling feeling of doubt arises. Do I really own all of that? What is my real relationship with each of those beings and items?

First of all, there is the classic question: do I own these things or do they own me? Trust me, when I'm feeling the recurrent obligation to dust, vacuum, mend, and otherwise manage inanimate objects, I find myself asking whether my life belongs to me or if it doesn't truly belong to all of this stuff that we've accumulated.

That makes me want to look up the actual definition of "to own".

With some apologies to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 3rd Edition, for rather sloppily quoting their careful work, the definitions the dictionary gives are:
"belonging to oneself..."
"used to express immediate or direct kinship"
"to have or hold as property"
"to have power over"
"to acknowledge to be true, valid or as claimed".

I'd say that the third definition, with overtones of the fourth definition, comes closest to the standard concept of ownership.

I could, however, definitely say that the dogs and cat "have power over" me, and therefore own me, perhaps almost as much as I own them. (On my 10th time out the door to watch over our blind dog in the yard, it definitely feels like she has more power over me more than I have over her!)

There's another nuance here that's arising today. What is the difference between things I own...and things I really just tend? (Is "tending", for all intents and purposes, the same as "being owned by"?) PW and I technically own this house and land, but they will long outlast us and we are likely just a small part of their history. Truthfully, I think we just tend our house and land rather than truly own it, no matter what it says on the deed.

Does that mean that the house and land actually owns us?

It does feel like I truly own the books and furniture and vehicles. Yes, they exist separately from me and they may very well outlast me, but their value is chiefly the value that they have in my (our) life.

Except for the family history items. Those have a history that began before our "ownership" and that hopefully will outlast that same ownership. I'm back to being simply a "tend-er" again.

In some ways it is as simple as ownership enjoyments vs. ownership responsibilities. Saying that, anything you could actually get rid of by destroying it would be something you truly own.

Transfering responsibility and care to someone else, though, leads me back to the idea of ownership as tending.

So, for me, if I could destroy it without a qualm, I own it. If I would feel obligated to pass responsibility for it on to someone else, I am simply a tend-er.

By those standards, I own very little: some of my books (but not the good ones or the important ones); the everyday accompaniments to modern life like shampoo and cleaning supplies; clothes; cars.

But I tend a lot. Our house and land. The animals. The important books. The family history things.

I own a few things, but most of my "possessions" own me.

I'm not sure how I feel about that state of things.

Startling Statistic - Why Does It Bother Me?

As I was reading Mary Pipher's book Writing to Change the World last night, I came across a startling statistic. On page 3, she writes "Tech Tonic, a publication of the Alliance for Childhood, reports that the average American can recognize over a thousand brand names but is unable to identify ten indigenous plants or animals."

Ouch. Could that possibly be true?

Ironically, I don't question in the least that most Americans can recognize over a thousand brand names. What scares me is the thought that most Americans could not identify ten indigenous plants or animals.

(Could this be a language issue: not understanding the meaning of the word "indigenous"? If that word were defined for them by the researcher, would they then be able to come up with ten indigenous plants or animals?)

I can't imagine any Kansan over the age of 10 not being able to identify: bison, blue jay, raccoon, opossum, skunk, bald eagle, meadowlark, box turtle, (fox) squirrel, and turkey.

The plant side is harder, though. Most of the plants people can recognize are weeds...and most of those are not indigenous. (Dandelion springs immediately to mind.) By the age of 10, I'd like to see Kansans able to recognize cottonwood, red cedar, poison ivy, big bluestem, cattails, Indian grass, willows, and a couple prairie wildflowers. Knowing the grasses and wildflowers would help them know when the land they were looking at was relatively undisturbed, and it would help them learn about and understand the ecosystem that formed the landscape they live in. Recognizing cottonwood, willows and cattails would help them understand where the land they're looking at is often wet. Red cedar's the only native evergreen here. And knowing poison ivy might help keep them from inadvertently getting themselves in trouble.

Ultimately, though, I think the problem is that most people don't think understanding the land is important any more. They still "hunt and gather", but now they hunt and gather clothes and CDs and DVDs and cars and other stuff. Stuff to make themselves look powerful or important to their friends and enemies. Stuff to impress the other sex. Occasionally even stuff to help them survive.

In other words, they are still acting as animals, but now their frame of reference is divorced from the environment that actually supports them. Who needs to know plants and animals when you think that everything you need is in a store?

My gut tells me that it's important for people to be able to understand the physical world around them. That our health as living beings depends on the health of the environment we live in. And that if we have absolutely no clue how to "read" our environment, we won't take care of it... and we'll "break" it, perhaps irrevocably as far as its ability to support us.

But I wonder if I'm right to be concerned.... Maybe we really aren't living beings any more.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Perseid Meteor Watch

It's the time of year for the Perseid meteor showers.

In Mayetta, we would spend several hours on at least one night each year, lying on our backs on the front lawn, watching the sky for the sudden flash of a streaking meteor. In Mobile, however, we lost the habit. There was too much light pollution there, and the sky was hardly visible due to tall trees and surrounding houses.

I missed my annual sky-watching event.

Last night I got it back. I took a blanket out and spread it on our front lawn, then lay down facing the northeast sky. Pretty soon Lefty, our oldest English setter, staggered out to join me. Then Prairiewolf and Becker, our German shepherd, came out from inside. We all lay on the blanket together, panting softly.

It was a perfect night for star gazing. The air was softly warm with a light breeze. The sky was clear, and the stars were scattered across it like sand on a dark glazed floor.

I didn't get to see too many meteors - only 4 - but I had a wonderfully relaxing time trying. I can't think of a better activity for keeping myself centered in the "now" and for sinking back and enjoying being alive.

Sometimes it's important to smell the roses; last night it was important to watch the stars.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Summertime Haiku

Recently our local paper, The Wichita Eagle, sponsored a little contest at their website, encouraging their readers to submit "hot haiku" about their angst over dealing with summertime heat and humidity.

(For those whose grasp of poetry is as rusty as mine, haiku is a Japanese form of poetry, non-rhyming, where the first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7 syllables, and the last line has 5 syllables again. )

Last Thursday, they published 12 of the best entries they'd received so far (The Wichita Eagle, 9 August 2007, p. 3A). My favorite two were:

Yes, I do love you
But it's summer in Kansas
Please don't sit so close.

Flowers are wilting
My enthusiasm, too
Only weeds survive.

The contest idea tickled my fancy as something that I had the energy to do, despite temperatures in the upper 90s and low 100s. Since "heat" alone wasn't getting my creative energy flowing very strongly, I expanded my allowable topics to include summer in general. Here are a couple of the summertime haiku that I came up with....

Soaring vulture tilts
Side to side, searching below,
Drifting on the wind.

Shiny leaves waving
As wind rustles through the tree.
Cottonwood music.

Silent shell clings tight
To twig while living locust
Sings shrilly above.

Shimmering heat waves
Ripple through the stifling air.
Summertime Kansas.

The grammar of the locust one still bugs me (no pun intended), but I like the image, so I included it anyway.

I had fun doing this, especially as I drove the country roads doing errands. The biggest problem was that I would find a phrase I liked, but be unable to write it down for miles until I came to the next stop sign. I tried writing against the steering wheel, but ended up honking the horn with the slightest bit of pressure. Finally I decided that it was good mental exercise to either refine the phrase I was thinking of or just commit it to memory. Who knows what literary masterpiece was lost to posterity due to a middle-aged memory!!!

Too bad the kids are all grown up - this would have been a great family road game.

Maybe my next poetic creations should be limericks.... ("There was an old dame from....")

Then again, maybe not.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

My New Personal Trainer

About 6 weeks ago I went to the local family practice physician (at Prairiewolf's request) to have my blood pressure checked out. To make a long story short(er), the doc recommended the typical "walk for 30 minutes every day," which I knew I should be doing but somehow never managed to accomplish on a regular basis. About two weeks ago I finally quit procrastinating and, with our German Shepherd, Becker, as a companion, I hit the road, walking about half an hour each day for a couple mornings in a row.

A couple mornings was all it took. It turns out that Becker is a strong "J" (to use the Meyers-Brigg personality profile terminology). That means he likes his routines...ah, no, that means he craves his routines. Within those "couple" days, he had decided that this morning walk thing was a GREAT addition to his morning rituals.

Becker is an extremely talented nag. Obviously he can't say anything, but his body language is unmistakeable: "Okay, Mom, time to get up" (cold nose nudge in face, whine, whine). "Okay, Mom, time to get dressed" (hopeful look back upstairs, dancing feet if I head even slightly in that direction). "Okay, Mom, time to go outside" (alert stance, whine, whine, dancing feet when I pass near the door). "O boy, Mom! Now you're talking!" (dancing happy dance as we go out the door).

Do you know how hard it is to ignore a 110+ pound German Shepherd?

Any thoughts I now have of occasionally skipping this morning walk are not about to be least not by Becker. It doesn't matter what the weather is. It doesn't matter if I'm feeling groggy from allergy meds or from an interrupted night of sleep. It doesn't matter if my feet hurt because I stood on them all day the day before. We ARE going walking every morning. And we ARE going walking as soon as he can nag me to get out the door. No lolligagging is permitted.

It irritates the living daylights out of me, especially when I've been up half the night and sleep is seductively calling my name after Prairiewolf has left in the morning, but some taskmasters are simply inescapable.

Once I get outside and on the road, though, I'm usually glad we came. Becker settles down right beside me, ears slightly back, nose quivering, eyes scanning, panting as he contentedly pads along the side of the road. I notice the wildflowers blooming in the ditches and the birds singing in the fields. (The dickcissels have been particularly vocal lately.) Becker notices the roadkills. We both do our own versions of neighborhood watch.

Back at home once again, I have to laugh. Some people actually PAY for personal trainers. For better or worse, I've got mine living with me 24/7...and he WILL NOT be ignored.

Monday, July 16, 2007

New Tricks for An Old Dog

You can teach an old dog new tricks! And I taught myself a new trick just today. It feels great!

After years of growing basil (I love the smell as I brush by it in the garden), I finally got myself together enough yesterday and today to harvest some and actually use it.

To be precise, I made basil pesto. It took a lot longer than I expected, mainly because I think I am the most inefficient basil leaf picker known to humankind, but it was wonderful and well worth the effort. (Since my food processor instructions said to be sure that fresh herbs were DRY, I had to first pick fresh basil branches, then wash them and pat them dry, then pick the leaves off individually and blot them dry. It takes a lot of basil leaves to make 2 packed cups of fresh basil leaves!)

Note: When I described how long it took to pick the basil leaves, my mother got concerned about how long I was out in the sun, evidently envisioning me picking off leaf after basil leaf out in the garden. It's nice to have someone who still worries about me.

The pesto turned out excellently! Now I have plans to harvest much more. I have 3 different kinds of basil, so I'm planning to make pesto out of all 3 separately, noting the flavor difference between varieties. I'll also be freezing some. Lots of new experiences ahead.

The last few days have been the beginning of our serious attempt to eat more locally. The pesto is part of this. (The basil was VERY local. The other ingredients, unfortunately, were not. I have some work to do there.) We grilled (local) corn on the cob in its husk for the first time last night. Another new trick for us old dogs. Our chicken tonight was local, free range, hormone and antiobiotic free - and was excellent. And we've been eating tomatoes, cucumbers, cinnamon rolls, and whole wheat bread from local folks too. It's fun, tasty, somewhat of a challenge to learn to plan menus differently, and altogether an excellent adventure.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Past the Tipping Point of Summer

It's barely into double digit days in July, but already it feels like we've passed the tipping point of summer.

Mom mentioned yesterday that she's noticing a few yellow leaves on the cottonwoods, and that the willows are beginning to shed a few early leaves too.

I noticed the first cicadas about 2 weeks ago. They're not omnipresent, like they will be soon, but they are definitely moving into full chorus mode.

When I walk in the morning, I see families of barn swallows sitting on the wires or on the fence near the creek bridge.

Lastly, this morning on my walk I noticed the second and third of the fall flowers and grasses beginning to open up. (I noticed a few sunflowers open several days ago - those were the first of the fall flowers.) Right next to the road, I saw the first turkeyfoot flowerhead of a big bluestem grass clump, and further down the way, an ironweed bloom cluster was beginning to show its brilliant purple color.

The change of seasons is beginning to feel like a rollercoaster ride to me - the ups and downs are thrilling, but come at me amazingly fast and almost take my breath away.

My Southern Nemesis Reappears

Since we've moved in, both Prairiewolf and I have occasionally seen a hole that looked suspiciously like armadillo work. We've known that they are here, but they don't seem to be present in the numbers found further south, so we've assured ourselves that the hole probably wasn't actually made by an armadillo and moved on with life.

Well, all of those holes probably were made by an armadillo. Proof that we have (had) at least one resident armadillo is currently lying dead in the ditch in front of our house, a victim of a run-in with a car.

I normally mourn when a wild animal tragically meets its end, but in this case I feel more like celebrating. I want to be able to assume that we're done with armadillo damage for a while, but logic tells me, "Where there's one, there's plenty more."

Bah! Humbug! That was one garden scourge I was truly hoping we'd not have to deal with here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Challenge to Become a Locavore

I just finished Barbara Kingsolver's latest book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is a book about the year that she and her family (husband, 2 daughters) decided to eat locally. They consciously and carefully tried to make their entire menu out of food produced as close as possible to their home, as well as food produced organically. They grew quite a bit of their food, including eggs, chickens and turkeys, but also relied on area farmers and farmers' markets.

"Why would anyone do that?" I hear people asking. There were several reasons. One was the realization that every calorie they were eating had used many more calories being shipped to them, and in this time of growing environmental concern, that seemed tragically wasteful. Then, too, local food is fresher, tastier, and in buying it you are supporting local farmers rather than soul-less mega-corporations. Eating locally meant becoming more in tune with the natural rhythms around them. And by eating locally and getting to know the local producers, they not only developed a stronger sense of community, but they helped keep that community (and themselves) healthier by supporting organic agriculture.

It's an interesting book, a true family affair. Kingsolver writes the bulk of the story and her narrative voice is casual and fun, but knowledgeable. Her 19 year old daughter Camille writes occasional sections primarily focused around specific recipes and meal plans for taking advantage of seasonal fruits and vegetables. Her husband, a biology professor, writes sidebars that provide more specific scientific information.

While I'm not courageous enough to jump headfirst into a year's contract to eat locally, I've been slowly trying to work more local foods into our diet. We've been eating local eggs (wonderful! with bright orange yellow substantial yolks), hamburger (no hormones or antibiotics - very tasty, but we're still looking for straight pasture fed beef), bread (very good), cinnamon rolls (fantastic, but I'm not sure the ingredients are local for either the bread or the cinnamon rolls) and vegetables. Many of these things we found at the local farmers' market in West Wichita. After reading this book, I'm even more dedicated to that changeover, and I'm specifically looking forward to trying some of the recipes Camille presents.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Smoke Clouds on the Horizon

It's been such a rainy spring and summer here that everything is still bright green. Everything, that is, except the wheat.

By now the wheat should have been harvested and all that should remain is stubble. Instead, field after field still contains its crop...or what remains of its crop. After decades of living in Kansas, I've never seen the wheat look this bad. Instead of golden brown, it's gray and thin and scraggly. As each week passes and more rain comes, keeping it impossible to get into the fields, more and more weeds are poking their heads through and the wheat itself gets grayer and skimpier and sadder.

I've wondered what the farmers will do. It doesn't even look like you could harvest these fields for hay - too much of it is bent and all of it looks like it's rotting in place. However, leaving the wheat standing and eventually plowing it under doesn't seem like a good option either, because that would just leave seeds in place to contaminate next year's crop.

This weekend I got my answer: smoke clouds started appearing in several different directions. Many farmers have made the painful decision to burn the remnants of their wheat as it stands.

Hopefully most of the farmers will have crop insurance and will thus be able to weather this disastrous year. However, there's certainly not much diversity built into farming any more to allow them to weather it the traditional way, through the offset of a different crop thriving under these weather conditions.

In fact, the condition of the wheat is quite ironic, really. So many other plants are thriving this year: the wildflowers have been outstanding, lawns and gardens are lush even without watering, and many trees are putting on strong growth. This year is pointing out the biological vulnerabilities that underlie our country's current agricultural system: the economy of scale (literally putting all our eggs into one or two baskets) provides phenomenal results when the conditions are right...but provides colossal failure when those conditions aren't perfect.

It reminds me of the stock market debacle of several years ago: tech stocks "couldn't fail" for several years...then suddenly they did fail, wiping out entire portfolios of investors who had concentrated on only the "best performing" stocks. It also reminds me of the loss of so many communities' trees when Dutch elm disease wiped out most American elms; many communities had planted little but elms because they were such a "perfect" street tree.

So the smoke clouds send signals to me. They signal me that what works most of the time doesn't work all of the time, and to plan for that. They signal me that, in the midst of plenty, things can still go wrong and be hard for others, and to take that into consideration in my dealings with them. They signal me to celebrate courage, and to cultivate the courage to cut my losses and move on when things don't go well. Most of all, the smoke clouds signal me to celebrate diversity and to work to incorporate it into my life wherever I can.

(Does this mean I've got some loss cutting and diversity increasing that I need to do right now? Hmmm. Much as I hate to admit it, I suspect that it does and that I do. If I'm going to interpret the smoke signals and write about them publicly, the least I can do is actually pay attention to them irritating as that is!)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Questioning the Status Quo

Yesterday we went to see Sicko, Michael Moore's new movie about health insurance here in the U.S. It wasn't an unbiased piece of journalism, but it was an interesting look at our country's health care system compared to the health care systems in several other, generally "similar" countries.

If you can temporarily suspend the automatic "our country is always better no matter what" mentality that most of us seem to absorb with the air we breath, the movie definitely raises some difficult questions about whether our current health care system is serving us, as a people, adequately.

For me (and on a more philosophical note), the movie also raised questions about who we, as a people, are becoming. I have to say that I like our IDEA of who we are, rather than the current reality of who we seem to be, based upon how we are acting.

During much of the movie, average people tell their own stories. For the most part, this is specifically a movie about working people who have health insurance. There are definitely many "there but for the grace of God, go I" moments.

Go see it. It's entertaining, not preachy. You get a chance to see life through some other countries' glasses. And, if nothing else, it raises some interesting questions for us to ask ourselves. It's well worth the price of admission and the small time investment...even if it only gives you ammunition for argument!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Beginning the Rebalancing Process

For the first time since we got our "stuff", I spent much of yesterday outside, continuing the organic process of settling in to our new homestead.

I worked on 3 main tasks I've come to view as critical to maintaining my yard organically: weeding, pest control, and mulching. First, I cleared (by hand) the beginnings of my frontyard perennial garden. As I weeded, I separated the weeds into "not yet seeding out" and "seeding out" piles - the former went into the compost pile; the latter was bagged and put into the trash.

Weeding has become meditative for me. While I'm weeding, I notice things that I would normally miss while I hurry through the yard. It was gray and overcast. And quiet, at least as far as human noise was concerned. When a car came by, I could hear it from at least a mile away before it zoomed past the house. The cottonwood leaves were rustling in the breeze. In the swale, the yellow-billed cuckoo announced its presence with its distinctive, drum-roll song. Cardinals frequently defended their territories with melodious liquid notes. An eastern wood peewee sang its name over and over. The robins nesting in the honeylocust nearby alternated between singing, alarm pips, and silence as they fed their young. And the neighbors cows lowed insistently for at least 15 minutes, presumably quieting once they were fed.

When I got bored and ready for a change, I moved around to the back and cleaned out the little deck-side beds that I started late last winter. Given the time of year and my absence as a gardener, they were choked full of crabgrass just beginning to form seed heads. "A year of seed; 7 years of weed" kept running through my head.

Later, as I was walking out to the mailbox, I noticed a mass of caterpillars on the leaves of a small walnut along the driveway. They had defoliated one moderate branch and were beginning to work on a second. There seemed to be 2 broods: one getting big enough to pupate, and one newly hatched.

So, I got out the big guns: a old peanut butter jar filled with water and a few drops of dishwashing soap. Then I did one of my least favorite tasks of all - I handpicked all of the older brood and most of the younger brood, dropping them into the water where they rapidly drowned. I hate killing anything, but at least this way I'm only killing the insects that are out of balance. Which leads me to why I only killed part of the younger brood: there was a hemipteran nymph feeding on one group of the newly hatched caterpillars. I decided to leave it chowing down, in hopes of increasing the population of predatory insects doing 24/7 guard duty in the yard. I'll keep an eye on that tree and remove the remainder of that brood after he's has his fill and moved on.

An hour later (it was evening now), Prairiewolf came in and said that squash bugs were "running all over" the squash vines. So I got out the big guns again and hunted squash bugs. I probably got 15-20 adults, 2 broods of newly hatched young, and (most importantly) I found and removed at least a dozen batches of eggs on the underside of the leaves. I've kept squash bugs at bay for weeks on end using this somewhat primitive method. Whether it will work here or not, I don't know, but I certainly set the population back a bit last night.

Of course, once I was looking that closely at the vegetable beds, more weeding was in order. (Why do people plant bermuda grass? It is the most awful plant to keep out of gardens.)

Last but not least, before I went in for the evening, I decided to spread some corn gluten on my newly weeded flower beds, then cover it (and them) up with cedar mulch.

Weeding - pest control - mulching. This year will be the most time intensive as I try to establish new biological balances. (Or should I say, reestablish old balances?) Birds and predatory insects should eventually solve most of my plant-eating insect issues. Mulching consistently and keeping weeds from setting seed will decrease weeds in the yard. These aren't quick fixes, but they are satisfying and ultimately richer. It's a recipe I've followed several times before, and the results have always been well worth it.