Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Not the Day That I Had Planned For....

Some day I'll laugh about this....

About 11:15 a.m., I heard my German shepherd start barking like he meant business, so I rushed to the laundry room door and started outside to check it out. He was right there on the breezeway, barking at something in the corner. Our oldest English setter was there too, scrambling out of the same corner.

So I looked to the left, into the corner...and started saying some VERY unlady-like words as I hurriedly backed back into the laundryroom. The young skunk, who was itself backed into the corner 5' away from me, immediately squirmed its rear sideways and sprayed right at my face and chest.

It was one of those slow motion moments in life. I could see the droplets coming, but I couldn't get out of the way fast enough. The spray droplets were not small, but rather large. Interestingly, skunk spray up close and personal smells different...and it seemed to take a little while to really get fully fragrant.

I won't bore you with the rest of my activities today, but suffice it to say that most of them revolved around de-aromatizing myself, my clothes, the dogs, the breezeway, etc. etc. I found a recipe that worked fairly well, but it still took time and a lot of work. Unfortunately, too, I had to walk around the kitchen putting together the ingredients and now I find that every drawer handle and every surface I touched has to be decontaminated. Based on my mother's nose, I'm now skunk-free, but both dogs still have a little around their muzzles and the breezeway is better, but not totally skunk-free. I get small whiffs throughout the kitchen, too. More fun tomorrow, I guess.

Someday I'll laugh....

Friday, May 25, 2007

Fungus Amung Us

Okay. Yes, that title is really bad. But, for better or for worse, that's what pops up into my head whenever I see interesting mushrooms or other forms of fungi growing in my yard.

We cut down the cottonwood that had died from beetle infestation earlier this spring. With all of this damp weather, there has been an interesting crop of mushrooms growing on the remaining stump and above the roots underground. This photo to the right is of the mushrooms growing above the dead cottonwood roots, taken in early May.

I know almost nothing about mushrooms, but these mushrooms growing immediately adjacent to the stump appear to be a different species than the ones pictured above, which grow further away from the stump, out in the grass. The photos were taken on the same day.

The third variety of fungus that caught my eye earlier this month was a series of these interesting red jobbies. As far as I can tell, they are some form of stinkhorn, although the head of the species pictured in "A Guide to Kansas Mushrooms" does not look much like the "head" of the ones that I found in my yard.
With all of the cool moisture over the last two days, it's probably time to look for some more interesting fungi. Maybe I can even teach myself a thing or two about what I'm looking at!

Vertebrate Co-Inhabitants

On the last post, I shared a few invertebrate compatriots from our property. This time I thought I'd share photos of a few vertebrates that I've met this month (and that allowed me to photograph them).

Back on May 2nd, we'd just had our large, deep window well covered with a fancy "hat" when Prairiewolf noticed a toad in the newly sealed off area. So I climbed out through the window into the well to perform a rescue. When I got in there, I actually found 4 very large, very healthy specimens that I proceeded to liberate, getting to try out our new escape hatch in the process. By the time that I got back up to the outside, only 2 of the toads had stuck around, but I managed to get fairly good photos of both of them. This is the most photogenic of the two, mainly because of the setting. (The other was on gravel, next to our not-very-exciting-or-colorful foundation.)

The next day, I noticed our German shepherd and English setter puppy interestedly nosing something in the grass. When I went to investigate, I found this turtle. I don't remember seeing this species before, and since I am still without my guidebooks, I'm simply posting the picture without further identification. The turtle did reek, which makes me wonder whether it is a stinkpot. Incidentally, I immediately rescued it from the attentions of the dogs. It did the normal turtle thing of waiting for a bit in its shell, then hightailing it for wherever it had been heading originally. Once it got going, it actually moved fairly rapidly.

About a week later, I was able to get a couple shots of the fox squirrels that have finally learned about the bird seed smorgasbord in our courtyard. They'd visited from the swale a few times before, but now they are regular customers...which I have mixed emotions about. Fox squirrels are so much more destructive than gray squirrels around homes that I'm a little nervous about luring them up this close to the house.

Finally, I have evidence of a big bird in the Beyond, but I'm not sure what the bird is. The tracks are almost as long as our 110 lb. German shepherd's paws are broad, but there is no sign of a 4th toe. Does that make them likely to be turkey or great blue heron? Or maybe great egret? Any one of them would be a new yard bird.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Invertebrate Neighbors

One of the things that I most enjoy about gardening and living out in the country is the wildlife with which I get to share my life and the yard. I've gotten way behind the power curve in sharing photos of some of these creatures, but I'll try to catch up a little today.

Early May has been a busy time in the yard. I went out to get the paper early in the morning on my birthday (May 3) and found this imposing edifice which had been constructed in the middle of the driveway overnight. If you look very closely, you can see the reddish brown ants who are still busily working on it. I put the dandelion bloom in the picture for scale, but the photo still doesn't do their castle walls justice: these walls were about 1 1/2" high and cliff-like in their design. By later that day, the hill was gone..or at least flattened into an ordinary and unrecognizable state. The fleeting nature of even impressive architecture....

Milkweeds have always fascinated me, in part because of the invertebrate communities that thrive in and on them. Currently the milkweed in bloom in our yard is green antelopehorn, Asclepias viridis. It's not a colorful bloom, but it fascinates me...and definitely attracts quite a few insects as well.

In the Back of Beyond, I found this caterpillar also enjoying life on green antelopehorn. It's obviously not a monarch caterpillar, but my guidebooks are still packed and I have no way to identify it right now. At any rate, it's an interesting and rather pretty beastie.

About a week ago, I was in the right place at the right time and was able to catch this hawkmoth feeding on dandelions in the front yard. The dandelions have been especially "productive" this spring: I saw the first, tattered monarchs nectaring at them in late April. The monarchs have been continuing to enjoy their bounty, as have numerous swallowtails and other butterflies.

Dandelions are not necessarily my favorite plant, but I have to admire the lacy, mathematical perfection of their seedheads and the bright sunny freshness of their blossoms. When I add their obvious benefit as an early source of nectar, I think the balance tips in their favor.

Single species grass lawns are so monotonous anyway. How much more exciting a yard is with the bright color and life of dandelions!

The Restoration of a Degree of Faith

I'm feeling much more optimistic this afternoon. My faith is being restored, or at least part of it. I called the plumbing company this morning about the water softener bill and the owner was appalled that we'd been billed like that. He promised a revised bill for the originally agreed upon amount and even volunteered to come by personally to help trouble shoot the softener since his employees hadn't looked too hard trying to find the problem. Then we proceeded to have a very enjoyable conversation, with topics ranging from why he ran for city council to whether TV is good for us. Now THAT's why I tend to enjoy life in small town America.

No news yet about either the heat pump or Westar's "trimming" of Mom & Dad's trees.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sour Grapes

It's 12:45 a.m. and I'm normally sound asleep at this hour. But tonight my mind is circling over several frustrations with the local business community that are unfortunately souring my outlook...and obviously interrupting my sleep.

The most recent is a plumbing company that agreed to come out for $100 trip charge to look at our water softener and see if it could be repaired, since it doesn't seem to be consistently putting out soft water. When the guys got here, they quickly peeked into the brine tank, then briefly glanced "under the hood" and asked me to explain what it was doing. They did not test the water for hardness. They did not actually open the gauge section to see what the meter was set on as far as gallons/recharge or to see how the recharge cycle was set. They left in less than 10 minutes, after telling me that they figured we just ought to put in a new water softener, to the tune of $1000. The bill for this cavalier treatment came yesterday. It wasn't for the $100, which I'd been quoted and therefore expected, although that seemed extremely excessive for the non-job they did. No, it was for $240 - including 2 hours labor for 2 men each, plus a $40 trip charge. They charged me for time going to and from another job, which was between me and their home base, and for the fact that the other job required 2 men, so that an extra person was along for the ride when they stopped by my house. To say that I feel cheated is putting it lightly.

This is on top of on ongoing problem with our geothermal heat pump. We've been without any functional heating/air conditioning except for emergency electrical backup heat since April 12. I hesitate to go into detail, but suffice it to say that I'm not positively impressed with the company we're having to deal with. They've got a long way to go to regain my trust...if they ever had it.

Last but hardly least, I've spent quite a few hours over the past several months trying to help my parents salvage some beautiful trees along the back part of their property. After years and years of not bothering to trim them at all, despite several requests from my parents as a tree limb grew around an electric wire, this spring Westar decided it was time to do a 5+ year trim. (The tree limb around the wire issue was solved by an Oklahoma Power & Light crew during the ice storm clean up several years ago.) We looked into the option of burying the electrical lines but, as far as I could tell from the marginal assistance I could get out of Westar, that option would be over $10,000 and therefore too expensive when all was said and done.

So we waited and hoped for a bearable outcome. The process has dragged out interminably. They finally came and did their drastic cuts this week and we thought they were done. We were mourning the loss of beauty and grace, but learning to live with the new reality. The original cuts were not easy or enjoyable to watch, but we're not stupid and we know that they were necessary for safety...even if the 12' radius in all directions seemed excessive. However, we appreciated the fact that the crew did a professional and careful job, leaving no stubs and only getting into the bark collar on a few cuts.

Now they've come back and say that they want to cut out even more. The cuts they are planning will take out the center of the trees down to the ground and will destroy any hope of the trees ever recovering any beauty and function in the landscape. These are 40 year old trees in the prime of their life, with an expected lifespan of 75 years. They've made my parents' yard unique and special in a prairie state. These next cuts planned are just plain meanness.

I can't think of a good thing to say about the business community right now. I know in my head that they are not all greedy, lazy, and mean - I've met many very nice, helpful business folks over the years - but it sure seems that many of the ones I've been dealing with lately have been unethical, incompetent, and/or nasty. What ever happened to providing a service, taking care of the customer, and taking pride in a good job well done? And whatever has happened to consumer protections and watching out for the little guy? Is a hardnosed scramble for money all that we've left ourselves in this country?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Weather "Gods" Are Stirring

The sun is finally out, playing peek-a-boo between the clouds. It feels wonderful, like a reprieve from a punishment that we knew we were getting, but didn't understand why.

It's been an odd year, weatherwise, here in south central Kansas. At least, it seems that way to me. We've had 80 degree weather in February, 6-8" of snow bracketed by ice that stayed on the ground for weeks, several 3" rains, and now a seemingly endless series of strong storms, rain and, most scarily, major tornadoes. Many schools have even been shut down across the state, due to flooding. I can't ever remember hearing about that occurring on such a widespread basis before.

My brother called me on Sunday to tease me about carrying the bad weather from the Gulf Coast to the Central Plains when we moved. Sometimes it feels like he's right.

I know that any one of these events - warm weather in mid-February, snow & ice, strong storms, floods, tornadoes - is quite normal for Kansas. Even a couple of them in the same year wouldn't be unusual. That's what makes living in a prairie state such a challenge. But the continuous assault this year feels abnormal. Then again, maybe I just got soft, living on the Gulf Coast.

Somehow I feel like I should be able to find some philosophical truth in all of this, but I can't. Certainly my heart goes out to the victims of the tornado in Greensburg - and to the victims of all the other tornadoes and flooding in the past few days...and to the victims of the horrible western Kansas snow storms this past winter. It seems like there's a developing class of weather refugees in this country - people displaced from their homes and livelihoods by extreme weather events, beginning with the hurricanes of the past few years.

As I'm writing this, there are more storms and flooding occurring in Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. In Missouri, I've heard they're expecting floods in some areas to rival those of 1993. There is a low sitting off the eastern seaboard that developed in cold water, but has now taken on sub-tropical storm characteristics. It's creating high winds and pounding surf. Will it develop further and/or bring major havoc when it comes ashore?

The weather "gods" are stirring. For decades, now, I've heard that global warming is predicted to unsettle the weather. Is that what we're beginning to experience, or is this just a normal fluctuation? I wish I knew. It might be easier to know how and what to plan for, if I did.

Changing of the Avian Seasonal Guard

I've been watching the summer birds slowly move into the yard over the last several weeks and months, and it suddenly hit me this morning that the change from winter birds to summer birds is almost complete.

The goldfinch seemed to totally disappear for a few weeks; now I have maybe 2 pairs in full breeding plumage. They suddenly appeared about a week ago, presumably from points further south.

Looking back at my notes, I had 83 Harris sparrows at the feeders on February 15th. Even 2 weeks ago, I regularly had a dozen or so chowing down. I have 2 this morning, and any day I expect them to be gone as they move north. Also on February 15th, I had 14 cardinals - now I'm estimating that 2 pairs are nesting somewhere in the yard, but I rarely see more than a single male or female at the feeders at any one time.

These days I have a pair of brown thrashers that comes to the feeders, as well as a regular pair of chickadees, the goldfinch and cardinals mentioned above, and several house sparrows, grackles, and cowbirds. I still see woodpeckers, although mainly just downies and red-bellieds. I haven't seen the flickers or hairies for several weeks now.

It's the time of year when I start wondering if I should take the feeders down, since I really don't want to swell the numbers of brown-headed cowbirds, grackles, and house sparrows unnecessarily. Not yet, though. Maybe not at all this year. I'm still pretty evenly mixed between "good" and "bad" birds.

Meanwhile, both Prairiewolf and I are enjoying the mockingbirds who are (literally) calling our yard home. There has been a pair of blue-winged teal hanging out on the lagoon for the past week (although I haven't seen them in a couple days), and I saw a northern waterthrush in the swale last week. I've seen "butter butts" (yellow-rumped warblers) several times, and we've seen phoebes, barn swallows, and purple martins checking us out. I keep hoping that a few of them will decide this would be a good place to settle down and raise a family. We'll see what the summer brings.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Birthday Buddies

As I was starting my day today, I heard Garrison Keillor's "Writers' Almanac" segment on NPR. I always enjoy the segment, but since today is my birthday, I paid special attention.

Keillor had four (or was it five?) people highlighted: William Inge, May Sarton, Machiavelli, and one of the co-writers of the songs in Singin' In the Rain. (James Brown was also mentioned, but I can't remember if that was by Keillor, or at another point in the broadcast.)

The combination of talents born today struck me as rather humorous: from Singin' in the Rain to The Prince. Now that's a breadth of inspiration!

So I did a quick Google search and came up with a few more birthday buddies: Bing Crosby, Golda Meir, Pete Seeger, Frankie Vallie, Richard D'Oyly Carte, and Sugar Ray Robinson. An interesting combination of characters to share my date-of-origin with.

Rather interestingly, I didn't recognize anyone in particular who had died on this day. Which makes me think of the poem "On the Anniversary of My Death" (or something like that - I haven't unpacked my books yet, so I can't give you the exact title...or the author). We celebrate birthdays, but never do know our deathdays. Would we live life differently if we did?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Weight of Memories

Our things are here and I've begun the long, slow slog of puzzling them into our new surroundings. We've been fairly lucky so far - a lot of bad rubs (unfortunately many on our new furniture pieces), but only one desk was actually destroyed in the move.

Not unexpectedly, I'm having to downsize a lot as I unpack. In some ways I'm welcoming the discipline enforced by smaller cabinets; in other ways, it's hard to set things aside to pass along to others.

This move has added a new layer to the decision-making: having lived here for 4 months, we've accumulated a few duplicate things and now I have to decide whether to keep those duplicates or pass them along too.

For example.... Rather than using paper plates, I bought a few cheap but pretty ceramic plates at Dillons shortly after we arrived. They've given me a little lift as I've used them for the past few months; now I have to decide whether to keep them or pass them along. With cupboards in short supply, passing them along has won, but I'm feeling a pang as I let them go.

An even more difficult decision involved our silverware. When we first got here and I was scrounging for temporary household goods, my mother magically produced the old silverplate set that my paternal grandparents used for most of their married life. She said that I could have it permanently, if I wanted, as none of my siblings were interested and she wasn't going to use it. I was actually quite excited, as it turned out that the pattern was the same as a special spoon, the "D" spoon, that we kids had fought over using during childhood.

It's been so much fun to use the set, incomplete and worn as it is. It's brought back memories of my childhood and prompted speculation as to how my grandparents got the set and where the set has been. (These grandparents were missionaries in Arabia for many years.)

Now our things are here. And with those things is OUR set of flatware, a wonderful set that we've had since we got married many years ago and that has many, many memories of our own associated with it.

I've thought somewhat about switching out and using my grandparents' silverplate as our everyday flatware, but I've decided against it. There are good memories associated with both sets, but MY main memories are associated with our own set. I'm keeping their old set for now, hoping that one of our children will want it.

Memories are wonderful things, but they make this process of settling in more difficult. "Which memory-piece should I keep and which should I pass along?" "How much should I store and how much should I give away?" "Should I give this to Goodwill or should I save it for the family?" When added on top of the simpler but seemingly never-ending question, "Which cabinet can I fit these into?", the memories complicate the process immensely and wear me out rapidly.

But I wouldn't have it any other way.