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.