Saturday, January 21, 2012

The New American Landscape

The New American Landscape:  Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening, edited by Thomas Christopher, was my latest garden read.  (Note:  One friend saw me carrying this book and asked what class I was taking!  The dust jacket face is basic and simple - lots of green.  But I certainly wouldn't call it a textbook!)

Sustainable gardening has gotten some negative press over the last few years, tarred (in my opinion) by the fear of people who are scared to change anything about the way they garden or angry that someone might consider their way of gardening to be "wrong."  The definition of sustainability is "to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs."  (p. 9)  This doesn't seem negative to me.  In fact, it seems like a very honorable goal - a positive that's not only well worth striving for but actually necessary, if humans are to survive over the long term on our planet.

So why don't "normal" gardening practices meet this goal of sustainability?  What's so bad about them?  Well, another quote precisely pinpoints the problem, "...beginning with a dream of lush fertility, we end up fostering environmental depletion and degradation."  (p. 9)  How's that?

When you stop to think dispassionately about all of the chemical products (herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers) spread upon our lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardens, it's obvious that our gardening has become a non-sustainable battle which we're losing.  Constant tilling constantly brings new weed seeds to the surface to germinate, bare soil washes away and compacts with rain and footsteps (or fills up with weeds seemingly overnight), plants designed to live anywhere but here are planted in great numbers because currently they're the "right" plants according to the design magazines.  All of these typical practices and more actually act to kill much plant (and animal) life, rather than fostering it.

So what gardening practices are sustainable?  That's what this book focuses on, in broad, general terms.  From describing the principles behind sustainable gardening, to handling home landscapes in a sustainable fashion; from building healthy soil to using water wisely; from using natives in the home landscape to making vegetable gardens more sustainable, this book presents a wealth of ideas to ponder and slowly incorporate into our gardening lives.

Getting down to the nitty-gritty.... Since I've been interested in sustainable gardening for a long time, there was understandably a fair amount of information that I was familiar with.  Because of this, I quickly skimmed through a few chapters.  Others I read in greater depth.  Some chapters were certainly easier to read than others, but I haven't tried to analyze whether that was because of my interest in specific topics or because of the style of writing in those particular chapters.  I did a fair amount of underlining in some chapters, a moderate amount in some chapters, and none at all in a couple.  (That's my informal measure of how much important, new material I'm finding in a book.)

A new gardener would greatly benefit by reading this compendium because she could start out sustainably:  designing her landscape and concurrently learning to garden with sustainable methods from the very beginning.  That said, there is plenty of "meat" here for more experienced gardeners, too.  By explaining the underlying principles (the whys of sustainable gardening), long time gardeners can decide which of their current patterns really need to be reworked and which are fine, just as they are. 

So, my final analysis?  I will be keeping this book and recommending it to folks interested in sustainable gardening.  This is not a coffee table book, but a theory book for hands-on gardeners.  You'll need to go elsewhere for lengthy lists of native plants or insects, for lists of the "best" varieties of vegetables to grow, or for which specific tool will help you the most - but you will find the reasons why healthy soil is so important and how to tell if your soil is healthy, what benefits a green roof might provide to you, or why you will generally still have healthy plants if you quit using pesticides every time you see an insect.  Definitely worth a read!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cottonwood Moment

One of my favorite trees in Kansas is the Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  I'm lucky enough to have several in the yard:  a couple small ones in the front yard and several large ones behind the house, in the draw.

Two mornings ago, as dark clouds were moving in from the west, I happened to look out the kitchen window and notice that one of the cottonwoods was highlighted against the dark sky by sunlight shining on it from the east.  At first I tried to take pictures from the ground floor, but the trees in the backyard blocked my view pretty thoroughly, so I ran upstairs and captured this dramatic photo.  By the time I'd come back downstairs again, the sunlight had softened and the dramatic lighting was gone.  It only took a moment....

Sapsucker Signs

If you come across a series of similarly sized holes drilled in one of your tree trunks, and those holes are placed in rather amazingly horizontal lines, you're seeing the work of yellow-bellied sapsuckers.  Often the series of holes becomes quite large, with many layers of horizontal holes drilled in sequence.  Here are two lines of sapsucker holes, not a very impressive display at this point, that have been drilled into one of my honeylocust trees.

The sapsuckers feed on the sap that flows from these holes.  It is thought that they feed on any insects that are drawn to the sap as well. 

Other species, such as warblers, can also occasionally be found feeding at sapsucker "wells."

In Kansas, yellow-bellied sapsuckers are primarily a winter species.  They are rather shy and retiring birds, so often you'll see their holes but never see the birds.  The ones that you do see are often immatures, with very drab, dirty-looking plumage.  They'll assume their flashier, breeding plumage in late winter or early spring, but they may be headed back north by then.

I've seen at least 2 sapsuckers in my yard this winter.  The first is a juvenile (seen here, contesting a starling for access to the suet feeder),...

the second one is a male.  (The picture below isn't too clear, but the red - which looks dark - in the chin area of this individual identifies it as a male.)  Of course, I could be seeing more than just two individuals, but it's hard to tell unless I see them together.

Although sapsuckers can make a lot of holes in a tree, this usually doesn't seem to harm the trees. It may be more of an issue in the northern country where sapsuckers breed, but in Kansas, I haven't heard of any issue.  So far this winter, I've only seen holes in my honeylocust trees, but there could certainly be feeding going on in other trees that I simply haven't noticed.

Sapsuckers certainly aren't rare in Kansas, but they're uncommon enough that I always get a little thrill to see one.  Having two is especially interesting this year!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Redtails in Love

Two days ago, while waiting for Greg to get home, I went out back to see if I could find any "winter interest" to photograph.

I found my resident pair of redtail hawks, cozying up to each other in the top of one of the big, mature cottonwoods in the draw.

Generally, in raptors, the female is actually the larger of the pair.  There is no gender-based plumage difference in this species.

Towards the end of last winter, I noticed this pair building a nest near the top of the one of the big black willows.  I watched hopefully for signs that they'd laid eggs, but I never saw any incubating behavior.

This year I have hopes that, with less nest building to attend to, Mr. and Mrs. Redtail may provide us with the excitement and enjoyment of watching new little hawks being raised!

Monday, January 09, 2012

Another Cardinal Abnormality

It's odd.  Today I saw my second abnormally plumaged female cardinal at my feeders.  This one is a partial albino.  I've never seen this particular individual before.

I did my best to get mug shots.  Here she is from the side....

And from the front....

And here, just for comparison, is the other abnormally plumaged female that I've seen this year at my feeders.  Unlike the partial albino I saw this morning, this brighter-than-normal female is a regular at my feeders.

I'm curious to see if either attracts a mate this spring.

The Garden of Eden?

At the risk of sounding horribly sacrilegious, has anyone else ever wondered if "The Garden of Eden" isn't Earth itself?  And if our banishment from "The Garden" didn't come about when we started considering ourselves so smart and special that we became convinced we were smarter than nature, better than any other species on Earth, able to design "better" than nature, and therefore we began to consider ourselves free to destroy and desecrate our planetary home for the feeblest of excuses?

Hubris.  "Pride goeth before a fall."  I think our tendency to think ourselves god-like gets us in major trouble in so many ways.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

So What Kind of Citizenry Are We Aiming For???

I feel grinchy, but more and more these days, it feels like we're trying to raise a nation of citizens suited best for hand-to-hand combat, or plowing fields without machinery, or running the Pony Express without the ponies.  I don't know the numbers, but it seems like even our colleges and universities are more likely to award "scholarships" based on athletic ability than on scholastic ability.  Really, folks, let's call these "athletiships" and at least be honest about it.

In our local paper (and in most local papers that I've seen), the sports section is at least as large as the national and international news, if not larger.  Tyler Teenager, awarded a minor football scholarship to a junior college, gets a huge photo and more inches of column space than some major national piece of legislation that will effect our lives for decades.  The public school systems rush to cancel arts and music programs when times get tough, but they sure don't seem to consider sports programs for any meaningful cuts.

I understand that sports are fun.  I understand that some kids do much better at sports than at academics.  I understand that parents and community members like to socialize at sports' events and cheer their kids on. That said, school is supposed to prepare us for adult life, and I just don't see sports programs preparing today's students for much of anything but Sunday quarterbacking.

Seriously, in today's world the ability to catch a football or jump hurdles or wrestle an opponent to the ground and pin them DOESN'T TRANSLATE TO FUNCTIONAL ADULT SKILLS that will put food on the table, buy a house, or help a citizen decide which candidate is helping make our country stronger and which candidate is giving away the farm.  It's these latter skills that the public school system is supposed to be helping our children be able to perform.

We're not going to do anything but spiral further down in the world economy when our community focus is more on training our children's bodies than on training our children's minds.

Personally, I think it's time to take all sports out of public schools and make them community intramural programs, funded by those who choose to participate.  If the local taxpayers want to subsidize part of the expense or give "athletiships" to underprivileged kids, that's great.  Otherwise, let's separate competitive sports from education and make realistic choices about where our money should be going.

Our schools need to return to being focused on academics, rounded out by basic gym classes, music classes, and art classes.  Homework should not be dependent on whether the kids are tired because of sports' practice, but rather on the practice needed to learn the material deemed necessary.  Standardized tests need to be minimized - a once a year per grade level, nationwide exam should be sufficient.  (The key is that the community needs to be aware of the results, especially the trend of the results, and put pressure on the school board accordingly.)  Results of standardized tests should be normed in some way, based on the number of special ed students that a school district is servicing who take the exams.   A child with an IQ of 70 is not going to be able to function on a standardized exam at the same level as a child with an IQ within normal range, no matter how much extra tutoring or special teaching he/she receives.  A school should not be penalized for serving a higher than normal proportion of children with lower academic "hardwiring."

It may be appropriate to award different levels of graduation certificates, ranging from whether a student showed up regularly and tried diligently to those that excelled in various ways.  There are many jobs where simply showing up and performing reliably is more important than being able to memorize a periodic table.    Employers might have a better chance of hiring suitable employees if they had a better way to evaluate their work ethic in this manner.

Let's be innovative and start teaching job skills at the high school level too.  For those who are geniuses with their hands, in mechanical or artistic ways, for example, let's offer appropriate baseline education in those fields.  All of us would do well with some basic mechanical knowledge, no matter what field we end up entering, just like those who become electricians or airline mechanics will benefit from basic history lessons as well.  Graduation certifications could be tailored to show competency or excellence in those specific areas.  Again, employers would reap the benefits of reliable information about the skills their entry-level employees were bringing to the table.

What initiated my rant tonight?  The article in The Wichita Eagle on Friday about more than 15,000 K-State fans showing up in Arlington, Texas, for a rally the night before the Cotton Bowl.  Now some of those may, admittedly, be K-State fans from the Dallas area - but I'd be willing to bet that the vast majority of those are fans from Kansas who left their jobs, traveled to Dallas, stayed in hotels, and attended the Cotton Bowl.  No wonder kids think that sports are more important than academics!  Can you imagine any other sort of event - a job fair, an academic competition, a cultural event - that would draw that sort of enthusiastic, committed turn-out?  I'd be willing to bet that, for many "citizens," sports are more important than voting or political knowledge or community involvement or most other things that keep our country running, let alone academics.  And we wonder why our country is beginning to fall behind and spiral down economically?

I said I was feeling grinchy.  I know that the Cotton Bowl was a special time for K-State fans to have a good time, watch their team participate in a national event, and take a small break from their routine.  But my point remains:  this should have been an abnormal break, while the main focus in the day-to-day grind should be the important stuff.  The stuff that helps our lives improve from year to year.  Let's quit playing and start getting back to the real world, people.

Mementos of Blog Entries Past

Last month Greg helped me find a reasonable site to compile my early blog entries into a book (we ended up just going with the site affiliated with Blogger itself) and I ordered a compendium of my first year of blogging, using the calendar date as my cut-off.  This nicely coincided with our move from Mobile, Alabama, to Clearwater, Kansas.

When the book arrived, I was tickled.  I've been wanting to save my blog entries for some time now - if nothing else, just as a hands on keepsake of earlier times in my life.  I'd tried printing them off at home, but the results just lacked finesse.  The book is far from perfect, but it gives me a fairly nicely finished product that should last for most of the rest of my lifetime, at least!

Since the first year's efforts came out so nicely, yesterday I sat down and ordered the second year's compendium.  In doing so, I reread all of my blog entries for that year - our first year here - and I was struck by how much more philosophical I was in my blog at that time.  There were many fewer photos (which wasn't necessarily a good thing), but much more mental interaction with books, current events, cultural trends, and ideas.

And, having looked back, I rather miss that focus on this blog.  So I'm going to try to recapture some of those concepts in the next couple months.  We'll see how it goes.  My life is busier these days, as I've come to know more people in the area, assumed a few community obligations, and developed larger, more extensive gardens. I've become more aware of how important photos are to many readers.  (For me, photos often lead to discussions of the subject of the photo, rather than to miscellaneous musings.)  In those earlier entries, I often didn't really know what I was wanting to say until I'd actually written it - a fun exercise in self awareness, but rather time consuming too!

Lastly, I can get rather political, which is not the focus of this blog, but is a big part of who I am.  If you, as a reader, don't agree with my politics, please use this as a forum to (civilly) discuss the areas we don't agree with, rather than as a reason to get mad and quit reading.  So many important cultural trends seems to be falling under the "political" umbrella these days.  I'd love to hear your side and have a chance to talk back and forth.   Maybe we can all learn a bit from each other!  That's always my hope.

I'm looking forward to stretching myself again.  And I look forward to being stretched by my readers as well!  Thanks, in advance, for working with me on this one!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

It Certainly Didn't Play Possum!

I had a usual visitor at an unusual time of day today:  an opossum decided that the birdseed in one of my feeders was much too delicious to leave alone just because the sun was coming up.
I've had opossums at my feeders off and on over the years and I knew that I was hosting at least one this fall, since I would find the pellets in the feeder in the morning.  (Also, when we were having skunks visit regularly in the evening, we would often see them while we were doing a skunk-check with a flashlight before letting the dogs out.)

This morning, when I somewhat blearily surveyed the backyard feeders, I suddenly woke up to the fact that the tree trunk hadn't, in fact, grown a burl overnight - there was a fairly small opossum on it, perched a few feet above the hanging platform feeder.  It stayed there most of the morning, carefully watching my movements in the house.  When I let the cat out, she noticed the opossum and climbed the tree (to investigate more closely?) but stayed at least 3' away at all times.  The opossum simply kept quietly watching her and me.

After I went upstairs for a while, the opossum decided the coast was clear and descended to the feeder to continue chowing down.  When I let the shepherds out for their walk late this morning, Becker and Blue looked at it for a while but made no effort to catch it, although it was probably well within their reach on the feeder.  In fact, the cheeky little thing didn't really get upset at all, even when I decided this was an opportunity to get a closeup photo or two.  Throughout all the staring and shutter snapping, it stayed firmly on the feeder, watching carefully and occasionally pulling its lips back a bit.  By the time I got back from a trip to town later this afternoon, though, it had moved on. 

I learned something new tonight:  a "possum" is actually an animal that lives in Australia or New Zealand.  Our North American marsupials are correctly called "opossums."   There are apparently 103 species of opossums in the Western Hemisphere!  The species we have here in Kansas is the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana.  It was originally confined to the East Coast, but was spread to the West Coast during the Depression, perhaps as a source of food.

Opossums have never concerned me too much.  They are fairly resistant to rabies and thus are very uncommon carriers of it, perhaps because their body temperatures run low for mammals (94-97 degrees Fahrenheit).   They are not really aggressive, hissing loudly when threatened but not likely to attack.  And, of course, they are well known for their habit of falling over, as if dead, when really threatened.

As I did research this evening, I learned that opossums are occasionally called "Nature's Little Sanitation Engineers" for their eating habits:  primarily animal material such as snails, slugs, insects, spiders, rats, mice, even snakes.  They will also eat fruit (especially fruit drop on the ground), berries, nuts, and vegetables.  And they eat carrion.  As is typical of such omnivorous animals, they are easily attracted to yards with such attractions as pet food left out overnight, garbage cans without tight lids, and...full birdfeeders.

On the plus side, one source I read even suggested that opossums may help reduce the spread of Lyme disease, since they "kill off" (eat?) almost all the ticks that feed on them.

Overall, I consider opossums to be benign yard guests - no more of a problem than squirrels, with a similar likelihood of getting into attics or sheds or garages if I'm lazy enough or silly enough to leave openings for them to do so.  And if I really cared about keeping them out of the bird seed, I would simply pole mount all of my platform feeders.

In fact, having read the list of their preferred foods, I strongly suspect that opossums provide me with a reasonable amount of pest control for the relatively minor cost of a bit of bird seed.

So, until and unless one really causes me a problem, I'm going to relax and enjoy this neighbor with whom I'm sharing the yard and gardens.  Diversity, after all, is the spice of life!

Monday, January 02, 2012

Feathered Fun

It's Monday, so I'm doing a FeederWatch count today, and I had a perfect example of why I like to participate in this project.  This morning, for about an hour, there was a white-breasted nuthatch flitting between my feeder-trees out back.  This is only the second time I've seen a white-breasted nuthatch in the yard since moving here 5 years ago.  If I hadn't been doing a count, I'm quite sure that I would have missed it.

Since I had the camera out to photograph that bird, I decided to take pictures of a few other birds that were coming in this morning as well.

Most interesting is this female cardinal that I've been seeing this fall.  Her plumage is distinctly brighter than most female cardinals, but not as bright as most males.  The other bird on the feeder is a Harris sparrow.

Here is a typical female cardinal for comparison.

So my question is whether this is just a plumage variation?  Or is this bird a hermaphrodite?  Or is there some other abnormality occurring?  Chances are that I'll never know, but it's interesting to speculate! 

Another oddity that I've noticed this year is that I have a few white-crowned sparrows who seem to enjoy eating Niger thistle.  Usually only goldfinch and house finch enjoy thistle seed, so it's rather odd to see a sparrow regularly perched and eating on these feeders.

No unusual issues for the rest of these feeder visitors, but they posed very nicely for me and the light was good, so I thought I'd share them with you.  This is a mockingbird who's a regular visitor to the water bowl....

In mid December (on a count day, of course) I photographed this female yellow-bellied sapsucker who stopped in to sample the suet, much to the irritation of my usual starling,...

as well as this male spotted (western) towhee, who had a penchant for digging in this same spot for several weeks.  I haven't seen him recently, though.

Beginning over Christmas break, it seemed like some of the birds started pairing up.  I've seen only male red-bellied woodpeckers so far this year, only one tufted titmouse at a time, and the downy woodpeckers came in to feed separately.  Today I've seen pairs of both the red-bellied woodpeckers and the downy woodpeckers, feeding in the courtyard at the same time.  I've also seen two tufted titmice at a time, as well as two chickadees.  It seems awfully early for courting behavior, but maybe they're living together for a while before committing to raising children together!

Before I know it, the red-winged blackbirds will be back in numbers and the early spring migrants will be headed north again.  The turning of the seasons in all its predictability and magic.  

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Be the Change....

As I ended 2011 and now as I start 2012, the wonderful quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world," keeps rattling around inside my head.

What changes do I want to see in the world at large?  And what changes, specifically, in my world?  How can I "be" those changes?

I started to write about the big issues:  peace vs. war, looming weather crises, jobs, and so forth - but I found that, while I care deeply about such things, they are overwhelming.  I want to make my own little corner of Earth more life-affirming.  If we all did that, maybe some of the bigger problems would solve themselves.

So, in my own little corner, ...

I can start using recyclable bags regularly when I shop.  I don't know WHY I have such a hard time with this one.  It's such a simple thing.  I must have a dozen of the suckers, but I can't seem to remember to bring them inside with me when I go into a store to save myself!  I CAN do better on this one, and every bit of plastic that doesn't get used leaves our planet just a little bit healthier.

I'd love to see more real discussion among friends and neighbors and community members about what we value in life, about directions we'd like to see our lives and communities taking.  What gives us pleasure?  (The local park?  A walking path?  An internet connected coffee shop?)  Is earning more money going to make us happier?  What is a fair wage anyway?  What's the attraction of reality TV shows and who watches them and why?  How do you provide maximum personal freedom while maintaining strong community ties?  (For that matter, which of the two is more important?)  Maybe I can start a local discussion group, open to anyone who wants to join in, where we discuss topics beyond the latest football scores or "what I did on my summer vacation"?

I'd like less stuff to care for.  Short of the house burning down, that means sorting through 35+ years of possessions and winnowing them out, getting rid of what we're not using.  I can organize our things and release those that we no longer need so that other people can put them to better use.  In the old business parlance, that's a win-win!

Well, I think I'll stop.  One totally realistic goal.  One necessary goal that's harder to accomplish.  And one somewhat pie-in-the-sky goal.  Enough for this year. (I do, after all, want some chance of personal success here!)

I hope that 2012 finds us on the path to peace and understanding.  May it be a year rich in caring and love.