Sunday, November 25, 2007

Thanksgiving Weather

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Night Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's the rabies issue too.

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

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

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Highway Irony

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

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

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

Seasonal Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Sterilizing the Sedgwick County Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 02, 2007

"Live Simply So Others Can Simply Live"

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

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

Live simply so others can simply live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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