Monday, June 28, 2010

Time Marches Inexorably On

I had a very enjoyable morning with my father-in-law, Bill, and his older sister this morning, hunting for signs of the old house that their grandparents, J.W. and Mollie, had owned 70 years ago.

The little town of Conway Springs was our hunting grounds. In the early 1940's, Bill, his younger sister, and his parents had moved up from Oklahoma to Wichita so that Bill's father could get a job at Boeing. It was wartime and there was no housing to be found in town, so the family moved in with J.W. and Mollie, their parents/grandparents. All six of them lived together in the house until housing was found for Bill's family in Planeview, about 1 1/2 years later.

As we searched through "Conway", my father-in-law was working hard to reconcile his teenage memories with the reality of the town so many decades later. He did a fantastic job. At times I could almost feel the town as it was then. We drove around, first going by the block where Bill felt that the house should have been, then exploring the rest of the town a bit. Finally we went back by the home's street again, driving up and down, looking for signs of which piece of property it had been on.

After about our 5th time cruising slowly up and down the street, a woman came out of one of the houses to ask us if we were lost. When we explained what we were doing, she volunteered that there was an old house behind the newer house on the property next to her's. We were welcome to drive into her driveway and go back there to see if it was the one we were looking for.

It definitely was the right house! I recognized the outline of the living room windows and the vintage of the house from photos I'd seen. Unfortunately, though, it's obviously been uninhabited for years and its condition is terminally dilapidated. Nonetheless, it was interesting to get a feel for the house, its location in respect to the town, and its small size but pleasant setting. As we looked at it, my father-in-law recalled that his bed had been just inside the front door, in the living room.

Apparently J.W. was a perennial "horse-trader". Not literally, but he was always trading houses, even jobs, looking for a better situation for himself and his family. This was their last home; when they left this house, they were in their 80's. Mollie was in poor health, and so they moved in with Bill's parents. Within a year or two, grandmother Mollie passed away. Seven years later, J.W., too, was dead.

After finding the remains of the house, we decided to drive into Wichita and find J.W.'s and Mollie's graves. Again, Bill knew approximately where they were, but couldn't remember the exact location. It took a little searching, but we were ultimately successful.

Listening to Bill and Virginia share memories, I could get a sense of the vibrancy of the times they were recalling, even though the traces left are fading fast. It's hard not to think about what traces of today will still be around in a further 70 years, as time moves inexorably on.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Early Morning Treats

On my way down the driveway to pick up the paper this morning, I noticed how rich the early light was, so I grabbed my camera to see what I could find. Here are a couple images that I like....

The Mesa Yellow gaillardia is beautiful and bright, but it's the perfectly matched crab spider that really caught my attention.

I love Echinacea...and this shot almost captures one of my favorite things about them: their texture. Look at the pattern created by the disk flowers in the center. Isn't that amazing?

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself

After many years of working as a naturalist, I've come to the conclusion that everyone has at least one animal phobia, sometimes more.

While I've wondered if some of this is innate, I've come to the conclusion that much of it is either learned (often from parents) or experiential. There is certainly room here for a great "Nature vs. Nurture" debate, though!

In my own case, I have a phobia about flying, buzzing insects. While it's entirely possible that I learned this from my mother, who also dislikes bees and wasps, she has told me a story that would also explain my intense fear and strong reaction. Apparently when I was quite young, I was playing hide and seek and I hid next to a wasp nest, resulting in a very painful sting right above my eye. That would certainly have done it!

The strangest phobia I've heard was an older adult woman who was extremely afraid of chickens. I was much younger when I learned of her fear and I questioned her about it, curious to understand. She related that when she was a toddler, her family would visit her grandparents' farm...and they raised chickens. The roosters would attack her, hence her fear, which still remained many, many years later. Very logical, when explained in those terms.

About 5 or 10 years later, when we raised chickens for a couple years, I got to experience the behavior of a couple testosterone-driven roosters myself. Talk about aggressive! A full size rooster attacking a toddler would be very frightening and could inflict some painful damage. No wonder the little tyke was scared! The roosters were somewhat intimidating, even to big, old, adult-sized me.

I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would guess that snakes, spiders, and bees/wasps are close to a 3-way tie for first place in the "feared animal" slot. Other animal phobias I've heard about include bats, cattle, dogs, and horses.

So what to do about it? The best suggestion I've got is to learn as much as you can about your fear. Talk to your parents, if possible, and see if they know why you are scared of that animal. Learn as much as you can about the animal, or class of animals. Finally, try to steel yourself to watch your problem animal going about its daily life. You will probably never be completely comfortable around one, but if you can stop the automatic runaway panic mode, you'll be both less embarassed and less likely to inadvertently pass along your fear to the next generation.

Have I taken my own advice? Yep. I can now photograph bees and wasps without even quaking inside, and I tend to freeze rather than run away, wildly swatting, if one unexpectedly buzzes me. I've actually taught myself to rescue a wasp caught in the house by putting an empty jar over it, sliding a stiff piece of paper over the jar mouth to confine the wasp inside, and then releasing the wasp back outdoors. (It seems like a much better solution than breaking out the pane of glass by hitting the wasp with a shoe, like I did in my 4th floor, college dorm room "a few" years ago!)

The best part of all is that, as you learn, you'll realize that spiders, snakes, and many bees & wasps are great predators who are working to help keep problem insects and rodents out of your yard and away from your home. Good luck! (And I'd be quite curious to hear your favorite phobia stories too.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Snakes Alive!

Sweat dripping off my brow (and lots of other anatomical parts), I tackled the mulching this morning. Beginning with the remains of the big pile of leaves that Prairiewolf had chopped for me last week, I trundled barrowload after barrowload to the garden bed I had cleared of crabgrass on Wednesday.

I was beginning to dig out the last section of leaves, the area closest to the snow fence that surrounds them so the Kansas winds don't distribute them before we do, when I felt something muscular moving as I removed a big double handful of chopped leaves. Looking down, I saw that I had uncovered a pretty good sized snake, buried within the leaf pile.

Assuming that I had uncovered a female in the process of laying eggs, I immediately covered her back up with leaves and moved to the other side of the pile, leaving about a quarter of the pile in place. Hopefully she forgave me my intrusion and continued her business. I'd dearly love to have more snakes helping to control my burgeoning vole population!

I would have loved to have more leaves to use (since I certainly have more bed surface to cover), but snake babies are much more important, so I switched to digging out the pile of wood chips we'd collected early last spring from the local yard waste dump site. I was on about my 4th load when I noticed several white ovals mixed in with the decomposing wood chips I'd just shoveled into the wheelbarrow - snake eggs! Amazingly, all 12 seemed undamaged, so I carefully put them back into the wood pile and reburied them, marking the section so that we wouldn't dig them up again.

The eggs were about 2" long and 1" in diameter, leathery, very white, and felt incredibly alive even though I couldn't feel any movement within them. They looked a lot like the 4 we found last year in a bag of decomposing leaves. I had placed those in a terrarium full of the leaves they had been in and waited several months until they hatched in September. They turned out to be ratsnakes which I released into the garden. (The photo below shows one of the young ratsnakes as it moved away from the block of leaves that had been its nursery in the terrarium.)

Having tried to appropriately take care of the living treasure that I'd uncovered, I turned back to shoveling. Amazingly, the very next shovelful of mulch I loaded contained more snake eggs - each egg about half the size of those in the first clutch and with a rougher, but still white and leathery, shell. This time I hadn't been as lucky in my scooping, having destroyed one egg with the shovel, but the other 6 were undamaged. Again I reburied them.

With several flower beds still needing coverage, I went back to loading mulch. Carefully. I actually changed from digging in with the shovel to hand digging out the mulch, but I didn't find any more eggs.

Now I'm trying to decide whether to leave the eggs where I placed them, or to put them in separate terrariums so that I can monitor their hatching, like I did last summer. I'd especially love to know which species laid the smaller eggs.

Whatever I choose to do, the good news is that all poisonous snakes in Kansas bear their young alive, an important fact that I learned as I researched the parent species' possibilities. By default, any snake eggs I find are from nonvenomous species. Let the snake egg incubation begin!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Subtraction Matters

This old dog is learning a few new tricks, even about subjects she's been interested in for years. This photo is of our front walkway garden, taken 2 days ago. Note the green hedge effect? That's what too many wildflowers competing for sunlight look like, especially brown-eyed Susans, native beebalm, false sunflower and aromatic aster.

I'm learning that prairie wildflowers are so well adapted to this site, they tend to go a little overboard in their enthusiasm. Some folks might call this aggressiveness, but I prefer the term "vigorous growth". This is, after all, exactly where they are supposed to grow. And reproduce.

Some of them are especially enthusiastic about the reproduction part and have reseeded prolifically...which brings me to the new lesson that I am learning: once a good variety of prairie wildflowers has been established in a garden setting, one of the most important tasks a gardener needs to perform is removing extra seedlings. Regularly. Religiously. Without compunction.

Obviously I may be learning this lesson, but I have a long way to go, judging by the overabundance of some of the plants in my photo above. It's very hard for me to kill "good" plants by weeding them out. I love to dig the extras out and give them away (if I have time, if the weather is right, if they are at a good stage of development and if I can find anyone who wants them), but pulling them out and tossing them on the compost pile feels almost like murder to me.

On the other hand, I want guests to feel like they can safely navigate the path to our front door; right now it feels like they are wending their way through a thicket of monstrous flowers. This is definitely not the effect I'm looking for. Not coincidentally, I also want people to know that native plants are easy, pretty, and healthy to have in their gardens. It's all true, but photos showing ranks of plants looking like they're trying to take root in bare rock are not going to illustrate my point terribly effectively.

So after I get the rest of the mulch down and the last plants planted, my next job will be to stifle my overactive conscience and do some thinning. The good news is that I'll be thinning out flowers, not weeds. This was one flower bed that had little crabgrass in it, despite my tardiness with the mulch. The weeds have been almost completely outcompeted.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

This spring and summer I've been a poster child for the old admonition, "Do what I say, not what I do," especially in the garden. Every time I give a talk on native plants, or indeed on gardening of any sort, I seriously pontificate about the need to mulch. So what didn't I do this spring after I planted and cleared out the few winter weeds I found? Mulch, of course.

And what happened? Predictably Mother Nature said, "Hey, there's way too much bare soil here. Let me fill it up fast, so it doesn't wash away."

And what did she fill it up with? Crabgrass, of course. This summer I have had entire flower beds full of the most luxuriant stands of crabgrass you've ever seen.

It happened almost overnight, of course. At least, that's how it seemed. One day I had a few little sprouts here and there, then the next day I can't see any other plants besides the 8" tall jungle of weeds.

So this week I girded my loins, figuratively if not literally, and sallied forth to do battle. Despite the heat. (I just figured that the heat was my punishment for being so stupid.) Seriously, I knew that I had to get that stuff out before it started to set seed, or I'd be in trouble for years to come.

I am proud to report that I have conquered!

I won't say that my yard is free of crabgrass, as there is always a reservoir in the lawn, but the beds are totally free of weeds, including crabgrass - at least for a day or two! I even whipped the vegetable beds into shape. The funny, sad part was that I actually discovered plants I'd put in this spring, then forgotten about because they were hidden by the weeds. Seriously. One of them, a bush clematis, was in full bloom.

On the plus side, I got a lot of great green matter for my compost pile, too.

Tonight and tomorrow morning, my task is to remedy the mulch situation. I've got many ways I'd rather spend my time this summer than on my hands and knees pulling weeds, especially in 95+ degree heat. Maybe, in fact, I can learn to follow my own advice!

What Makes a True Adult?

As I was reading last night, I came upon a vignette about achieving adulthood that made me think much more about the topic than I ever have before. It was in Rachel Naomi Remen's My Grandfather's Blessings, a book I'm thoroughly enjoying reading. In it she wrote, "I remember reading once in a book on developmental psychology that only a parent can confer adulthood." The statement got me to thinking about whether I feel like I'm totally an adult, whether my parents ever "conferred" adulthood on me, and whether I, in turn, have ever "conferred" adulthood on my children.

The first step, of course, was trying to figure out what I thought truly defined adulthood.

Biologically, we are adults when we become capable of having children. Obviously most of us do not consider ourselves or any one else a true adult just because we can reproduce - at least we don't once we get past the teenage years.

Legally, we are adults when we turn 21. Most of us know 21 year olds who may be adults legally but are far from adult in their actions. In fact, I'd guess that most of us know 50 or 60 year olds that we don't really consider adult.

Which leads me to my mental meandering: what does someone have to exhibit before I consider them to be truly adult?

To see if I could gain any insights from a closer look at the word itself, I consulted the dictionary. The definitions included
"fully developed and mature: GROWN UP",
"of, relating to, intended for, or benefitting adults",
"dealing in or with explicitly sexual material", and
"one that is adult, esp. a human being after an age (as 21) specified by law."
So there were elements of biological adulthood (sexuality) and legal adulthood, but no new concepts that help me clarify my instinct that there's something much more than sexuality and/or age to truly being an adult.

Self reliance is part of my personal definition of an adult. This is a little tricky, though, because the older I get, the more I realize the importance of interdependence. Humans are at their best when they are working together to achieve a common goal, such as raising children to be happy, functional adults or creating a vibrant, supportive community. These goals often require people to "specialize" in one area where they support others and, in turn, rely on others to specialize and support them in complementary areas. Both family and community life, done well, give us many examples of this sort of interdependence.

Attitude is a big part of it. The adult steps up to the plate and assumes his or her role, looking for ways to help others make their jobs easier, when possible.

The "adult-in-name-only" (whom I will call the "subadult" from here on out) looks for ways to get out of doing their work or ways to game the system so that they get more than their fair share. It never crosses their mind to help others just for the sake of helping - they only help others if they think it will earn them a "quid pro quo" or brownie points.

To me, the adult puts the good of the whole before their own personal good. The subadult puts their own personal good ahead of the good of the whole.

There are other points, as I think further on the subject.... Adults look for groups to join with, or work to do, where they can be of service to a common good, while subadults expect others to be of service to them. If they join "common good" groups, it's often primarily as a resume builder. Adults have the courage to stand up for their beliefs and convictions, while subadults go along with whatever will make them popular or gain them money or net them some other personal advantage. Conversely, adults can accept that others may not share their beliefs and can accept others' heartfelt convictions as right for the other person, as long as those beliefs don't undermine the common good.

I'm sure there's more, but I'll stop for now. So do I meet my own description of an adult? Most of the time, I think, but not always. There's always room for improvement.

As always, too, it's a balancing act, because part of being able to act for the common good means taking care of yourself so that you are healthy and whole. How much self care is healthy? When does self care become narcissistic subadulthood? I think this is the area I'm having the most trouble figuring out. A good topic to chew on as I go out, again, to battle weeds in the garden.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Prairie Walk, Complicated

A beautiful June evening on the prairie.... Cooling wind pleasantly rippling the grasses and tossing the wildflowers.... A tour designed to acquaint folks with our tallgrass heritage and share with them the beauty of the tallgrass landscape.... Vistas stretching to the horizon, uninterrupted by telephone poles or electric wires or billboards....

What's not to love, right?

All of those things were present and were wonderful, but other, more troubling, things were present too.

For starters, the group was large, around 200 people. Too large, in my opinion, to do justice to truly learning about the prairie. Good accommodations had been made, though - a loudspeaker for addressing the entire group, a truly portable Porta-Potty (pulled on a flatbed trailer behind a pickup truck), 4 separate, knowledgeable, group leaders for identifying the plants, 6 bright yellow school buses to transport us all.

My first concern, though, was with the behavior of the folks present. Presumably most of these people were on this tour because they love nature and want to learn more about it, but the vast majority barely walked 100 feet out into the prairie itself. Instead they stayed huddled like a bunch of frightened cattle, seemingly nervous about getting too far from the safety of the buses, the road and/or the group. It's hard to truly experience a prairie while you're clumped up in a large group of people with your eyes firmly glued to the ground or to the group leader. Have we all become so scared of nature that even those who are fascinated by it are too frightened to really venture out into it?

As a group, we were given the appropriate warnings about this being private land and not to come back by ourselves without contacting the landowner(s) for permission. Of course, we weren't given the names or contact information for any of the landowners, so in essence we were being told "This is OURS - you can peek at what we have today, but otherwise stay away!" How can a society learn to love and protect the land when the vast majority of its people are legally barred from experiencing the land enough to learn much about it, let alone learn enough to love and care for it?

The most irritating part of the evening was the political rhetoric, thinly disguised as teaching about the prairie and ranching. We were literally told that without the ranchers, there would be no Flint Hills. Excuse me?! We were told that we should never criticize a rancher for how he manages his land because he knows what he's doing and we don't. We were told that the government should be kept out of the ranchers' business; that they should be allowed to manage weeds however they want to. We were told that it was necessary to burn AT LEAST 3 out of 5 years, sometimes more, to maintain the health of the grassland. (We were also told that cattle gain 10% more weight on freshly burned pasture; I highly suspect that's the "health" being referred to with a 3+ years of 5 burn regime. Biologically it's my understanding that the prairie does best overall with a burn approximately once every 3 years.)

All told, by the time we were done with the introductions of everybody and their brother who was involved in putting on the tour, with the "where is everyone coming from?" question & responses, and with the "ranchers are God incarnate" rhetoric, we basically had less than 45 minutes total to learn about the prairie plants and ecosystem that we'd come to see. Which gets us back to large groups of people huddled about next to the buses....

It was a beautiful evening in an incomparable setting, but it was a disappointment overall.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sometimes the prairie reminds me of a poem from my childhood:

There once was a girl who had a little curl
right in the middle of her forehead,
and when she was good, she was very, very good,
and when she was bad, she was horrid!

Yesterday the prairie was very, very good. Prairiewolf and I took advantage of a quiet morning to drive down to Medicine Lodge and take a micro-vacation looking at the wildflowers along the Scenic Drive southwest of the town. (Yes, I know that seems hypocritical, given my last post - but at least we did take the car that gets the best gas mileage.)

The Echinacea were just beginning to come into bloom and the false wild indigo (Baptisia spp.) were just finishing their bloom, so we probably could have hit a more spectacular color display, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Best of all, I found several species that were new to me, which is always fun and educational.

The first thing we noticed was that the catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa nuttallii) was in full bloom. I love this little dainty plant, with its tiny, compound leaves that close up when touched and its bright floral pompoms of dayglo pink tipped with yellow pollen. I think we even found a pure white version of it...but I might have been mistaken in my identification - I'd want to go back and check again before calling it for sure.

Then there was this little plant that reminded me a lot of a miniature cleome (spiderflower). It's actually called clammy-weed or Polanisia dodecandra. (Isn't that an awful common name for such a graceful little plant?) This was one of the new plants I learned on this trip. I liked it, and the butterflies seemed to be really attracted to it too.

Brightening up the prairie were occasional clumps of St. John's Wort, Hypericum perforatum. Hypericum is the genus of all St. John's Worts, and it's a big group. "St. John's Wort" is the herb that's used medicinally to help fight depression, but I don't have a clue as to which species they extract from for the herbal supplement. Hypericum, in general, can apparently cause severe reactions in cattle when they consume it, so it wouldn't be a plant I'd encourage in a prairie that you were going to use for cattle grazing. When I tried taking it as an herbal supplement many years ago, I developed a severe sun allergy that, thankfully, resolved after several years.

Well, this post is long enough, so I'll continue on another at a later time. There was so much to see (and share) on our wildflower excursion!

Gauging His Fuel Needs

Thinking to myself, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all!", I've avoided posting anything about the BP oil mess in the Gulf. After all, what was there to say?

Now, however, I want to report something positive that Prairiewolf is doing - he bought a ScanGauge II and installed it on his car. This is a gauge that monitors instantly and constantly what your fuel use is, in miles/gallon. It is also capable of showing several other parameters, including engine load, actual speed and so forth.
The little rectangular box with white buttons that you see over the steering wheel, on the left side of the gauges, is the gauge that Prairiewolf installed on his car. It apparently took approximately 5 minutes and was very easy.

Before I report his results from driving with the new gauge, you need to understand that he has been checking in on the "hypermiling" sites and learning tricks for increasing his fuel mileage for about a year now. He's definitely been able to get at least 1-2 mpg more using just tips he learned from those sites, but he wanted to do an even better job.

Prairiewolf drives a 5 speed manual transmission, 4 cylinder 2002 Toyota Camry with over 100,000 miles on it. For this last year, while he's been learning the hypermiling tricks, he's been averaging about 31 mpg. Using the gauge, he boosted that to 35.2 mpg! More than a 10% increase in fuel efficiency! He can actually see the difference in the miles he's able to travel before needing to fill up.

My response to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf has been to try to curtail the driving I do, but I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to consistently cut out even 10% of what I normally do, since I already have tried to avoid too much unnecessary driving for an entire laundry list of reasons.

So I'm proud of Prairiewolf and excited that we can help decrease our dependence on oil, even if it's just in a little, tiny way. I consider it a step in the right direction.
I'd love to see our country pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and lead the world in constructive, energy efficient, "clean" solutions, but that may be a bit like hoping that the tooth fairy will come. Meanwhile, I'm trying to balance living my life fully with learning to live "lighter". Wish me luck!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Time for Weeding

I started to write a post this morning about the conflict I felt yesterday in skipping a committee meeting in order to work (on the coolest morning predicted for the week) in my vegetable garden...but I've deleted the entire thing because it sounded like whining. I needed to be in 2 places at the same time and, since I haven't mastered that art yet, it was impossible. So I made my decision, will take whatever flack I deserve from that, and will move on.

I did get my vegetable beds back up to snuff, which involved replanting some tomatoes and pepper starts, planting some herbs from last Saturday's Farmers' Market, and doing a whole lot of weeding. The picture below shows our newest vegetable beds, the ones that needed the most work yesterday, and, yes, they still need a fair amount of work done to them. (If I would mulch them they'd take up much less of my time....)

This morning I followed up yesterday's work by planting a crapemyrtle and several perennials that have been languishing in pots on the breezeway, then doing some more weeding, followed by clearing out another small section of my newest bed-in-progress. It doesn't sound like much, but it ate up several hours.

It's that horrible time of summer when the beds that I didn't get mulched earlier this spring are sprouting all sorts of things they "shouldn't" be growing. Mother Nature is trying to provide that soil-holding cover that I haven't managed to get in place yet. The bad news is that this translates to hours on my hands and knees in the heat, plucking out baby crabgrass. (The sad news is that I could have avoided most of this chore by keeping things mulched appropriately.) The good news is that the crabgrass and most of the other summer weeds haven't started blooming yet, so I'm gaining lots of good green stuff for my compost pile.

My true confession is that I actually rather like weeding, especially if the temperatures are moderate and the wind is breezing just a bit. It's productive work - I look up from my task and see the clear surfaces I've completed, then look at my pail and notice all of the compost-friendly remains stacking up. It's mindless work - leaving my thoughts free to wander at will from topic to topic. It's relaxing work - I hear the wind rustling through the tree leaves, the birds singing, the frogs chorusing, the puppy yelping.... Well, maybe that last isn't so relaxing, but the other sounds are great for lowering my blood pressure and making me glad to be alive, especially when they're accompanied by a bright blue sky!

This morning while I was weeding, I kept hearing the drone of a cropduster that some clodhopper of a neighbor to my south had hired to spray garbage on his crops. Meanwhile as I worked, I was seeing a lot of spiders (several carrying egg sacs), but few leaf-eating insects at all. I'm sure the leaf eaters will come and take their share as the summer goes on, but for now I'm reveling in the natural balance that is being established on our little homestead.

The point of this post? I'm not sure it has one, but I wanted to share the slow, simple pace of gardening that I enjoy with anyone who might be interested. I find gardening to be one of those simple pleasures that makes life richer and more rewarding, and I feel immeasureably lucky to have realized that and to have space and time in which to do it.