Monday, December 31, 2007

'Though the Weather Outside Was Frightful,...

Wow. What a way to wrap up 2007.

Since my last post, life has been a whirlwind of activity, both wonderful and strange.

My mother treated me to a true English tea at Aunt Hattie's Tea Room on W. Douglas during the week before Christmas. Relaxing, delicious - a real treat! Strawberry soup, fresh cherry almond scones with lemon curd and Devonshire cream, cucumber sandwiches, a pot of hot tea for each...and that's just the beginning of the list of delectable goodies they put before us. I have to admit that we basically licked our plates clean.

The next day my kitchen was unexpectedly taken over by our good friends Flip and Shelley from Chicago. It was great fun to relax and watch somebody else work there. As usual, they coaxed fantastic food from my mundane equipment as we laughed, talked and drank our way through the day. I rather think my kitchen celebrates being used as it should be used each time they come to visit!

The object of their culinary take-over was the production of several decadent desserts to contribute to the annual Christmas extravaganza held by another of their long-time Wichita friends. We were graciously invited to the party as well, and that night Prairiewolf and I enjoyed a rich feast of food, beautiful holiday decorations, stimulating fellow guests, and the crowning enjoyment of excellent young Irish dancers accompanied by a live Celtic ensemble as they put on a poolside performance that won't be soon forgotten. It was truly a memorable evening.

With a snowstorm predicted for the next day, our son Qkslvrwlf decided to travel home a few hours early, and came in from St. Louis later that same night. As always, it was wonderful to have him with us again, although I wish he could have joined us for the Celtic music and dancing earlier. I know he would have enjoyed it tremendously.

Boy, the next morning we were so glad that Qkslvrwlf had traveled early when the sky opened up and the snow came in blinding, wind-driven veils of white. I think that storm was the closest I've ever seen to the white-out prairie blizzards that I've read so much about. You know, the storms where the settlers had to rig a line from the house to the barn, or they'd get lost as they tried to do their chores and end up wandering about until they froze to death.

Accompanying the heavy snow was thunder and lightning - thunder snow. Truly awesome.

Flip and Shelley joined us again that afternoon, despite the snowstorm (I believe Flip's words were, "I HATE Kansas weather!" as he walked in), and we continued our previous day's agenda of laughing, talking, drinking and eating, now further enlivened by the presence of Prairiewolf and Qkslvrwolf and by the addition of a few games to the mix. The only thing marring our afternoon - and it was a biggie - was concern about our daughter, Genie02, who was travelling up from San Antonio that day. She began hitting the snow around Oklahoma City, but luckily she's a good driver and the worst of the storm had blown itself out by the time she got near. So she got here safely and was able to join us about 7 o'clock, in time for a superb dinner of champagne chicken, smashed potatoes, Thai green beans, and chocolate chip cookies, cooked up by Chefs Flip, Shelley and Qkslvrwlf.

Flip and Shelley had to leave early the next morning to head back to Chicago for Christmas with their family, so Prairiewolf helped push them out of the driveway through the snow and got them safely on their way. Then the 4 of us, Prairiewolf, Genie02, Qkslvrwlf, and myself, settled in to enjoy the rest of one of the best Christmas times that I can remember. We put the tree up, finished buying and wrapping presents, had both sets of grandparents over to help us celebrate, enjoyed a Christmas Day meal that featured a wild turkey which Prairiewolf had shot last spring, experienced more unique weather in the form of snow mist, brewed some beer, and just generally enjoyed being together as a family for those few brief days.

My family and friends truly enfolded me and made this Christmas especially warm and full of love.

Both kids have had to leave by now. It was hard to see them go, but they are safely home and once more immersed in their own lives. I treasure the times we get together all the more for their brevity. Their love and support warms me even from far away.

Looking back on it, Christmas this year was memorable for family and friends, thunder snow and snow mist, Celtic music and dancing, delicious food, and much laughter and happiness. It's the gift of a feeling of celebration and love and joy that I wish I could somehow share with all the people on Earth. We could all use more of it in our lives.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Native Plants Do It Better

It's rare that a new (to me) ecological concept related to gardening and wildlife hits me upside the head, but I treasure it when it does. Reading Douglas W. Tallamy's new book, Bringing Nature Home, brought me just such a moment.

For years I have believed that gardening with natives was important, but I have allowed myself to become less single-minded about that belief, especially in recent years. I couldn't answer people's questions about why, for example, a native berry-producing shrub was better than an exotic berry-producing shrub if the birds liked to eat both types of berries equally. Instinctively I felt the native was better, but I couldn't produce the underlying logic to share with others.

Tallamy nails my missing logic in this book.

Every time a plant is described as "pest free", the nurseryman is saying that leaf-eating insects (and often other herbivores) won't eat it, usually because they truly can't eat it due to its chemical makeup. This means that the particular plant in question - almost always an exotic introduced from another country or from a different area of this country - is taking space, using nutrients from the soil, capturing sunlight...and adding little or nothing to the local food chains. In essence, it is a sterile placeholder, taking the place of other, native plants that can and do support diverse, healthy populations of native animals. Because the exotic plant is not getting eaten or controlled in any way, it can easily outcompete the locally palatable native vegetation, so when the exotic escapes into the wild, there is nothing holding back its takeover of local habitats and sterilizing them.

So right now I can practically hear the question going through your head, "Why would I possibly WANT insects to eat my plants? Won't that kill them?"

The simple answer is, "No, it won't kill them. Native plants evolved along with native herbivores so that both balance each other. Then, too, having native predators feeding on the native herbivores further keeps that balance in place."

Insects are one of the primary ways that the energy captured by plants gets moved up the food chain. They are the primary herbivores of many, probably most, plants; then they become the food for primary predators, from other insects to amphibians to birds.

If you love to attract birds to your yard, it's important to know that the energy and nutrients for bird reproduction are almost entirely based upon insect food. Berries in the fall won't do birds any good if there haven't been any birds produced earlier in the year because there were no insects available to provide the food and energy for eggs and young.

I can hear another question, "Japanese beetles are eating my roses to stubs. How can you say that insects won't kill my plants?"

Japanese beetles aren't native insects, and they are not acting "naturally" for our native ecosystems. Many major pest outbreaks are actually caused by alien insects or diseases introduced accidentally into our country. Like the alien plants they often come in on, these alien pests have no natural enemies and ravage unchecked throughout the countryside. Chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease and now sudden oak wilt are all examples of alien disease organisms; (Asian) azalea lace bug, soybean aphid and Japanese beetles are examples of devastating alien insects.

I've just hit the highlights of Tallamy's book here. He describes the concepts in much greater depth than I have here, plus he provides lots of interesting examples. He has also included a wonderful section about the different types of insects, including some fascinating and fun insect life histories. If you love to garden, especially if you love to attract wildlife to your yard, I highly recommend that you read this book.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Luck Comes in All Forms

We - all of us in the Wichita area - got really lucky over the last few days, especially yesterday. According to my rain gauge, we received over 5" of rain. We started yesterday with about 1/4-1/2" of ice on the trees and wires, but at our house the temperature hung at 32.1 to 32.9 degrees Fahrenheit all day. It wasn't warm, but it was just enough to keep all that rain from freezing as it hit. It was even warm enough to slowly melt much of the ice left from overnight.

Folks to the north of us and the south of us weren't that lucky. Oklahoma got hammered a couple days ago; north-central Kansas got it yesterday. I talked with a friend who lives in Holton, north of Topeka, and the entire town was coated in over an inch of ice, leading to massive power outages and major tree damage and loss. The face of the town will be changed for years.

Ice is such a good example of something incredibly beautiful that is also incredibly destructive. Wichita's turn came 3 years ago...and it will come again. Meanwhile I'm thankful for the luck that came our way, and mourning for the losses of those who were less lucky this time than we were.

Subtle Editing on Global Warming

We've lived in places - Topeka and Mobile - with strongly right-wing newspapers (supposed "left wing liberal bias in the media" not withstanding). The Wichita Eagle seems generally more balanced to me, but I notice that they do have a way of subtly influencing the news that I don't agree with.

Today's paper is a case in point. On the front page we have 4 local stories and 1 state story. Except for the story on the ice storm (which deserves front page coverage), all of the other stories are about on-going issues, any of which would have been sufficiently covered on page 4 or 5, and all of which will be forgotten in a year or two or three.

Buried on page 6A is a story about an issue that is probably signalling a major change in our world, about a warning bell of global significance. "Scientists Shocked by Arctic Ice Melt" is about the newly released report on the massive melting of the Arctic ice mass seen this summer. This melting is occurring much faster than even the most pessimistic computer model climate prediction. At the current rate, the Arctic may be ice-free at the end of summer by 2012. That's less than 5 years away.

This is a massive change.

Another fact from this article that startled me was that, according to NASA satellite data, the volume of Arctic sea ice at the end of this last summer was just half of what it was 4 years ago. Fifty percent (50%) of the Arctic ice volume gone in just 4 years.

So why doesn't this news deserve front page coverage? These are huge changes that signal a need to act decisively and rapidly before the process of global warming becomes irreversible. I think I found a piece of the answer in a couple articles I read recently. These articles talked about how the Coast Guard was going to start patrolling the Arctic as it was opened up for new shipping channels. The new shipping channels would shorten transport distances between certain cities - the Northwest Passage coming true at last.

Why worry about global warming if it's offering a profit opportunity?

"The love of money is the root of all evil." It's long past time for all the world's citizens, and for the American electorate in particular, to look at the proponents of each side in the global warming "debate" and determine who has the most personal profit to make from their stance. I can pretty well guarantee it isn't the scientific community.

Then it's time for those same citizens to take action to change our current course. The people making obscene profits from the status quo CANNOT be trusted to see the changes that need to be made and lead the rest of us to make them. Only the average informed citizen can remove these profit-mongers from leadership and chose leaders more qualified to lead us intelligently and carefully into the future. Let's do it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

My Favorite Part of the Season

My favorite part of the Christmas season began today - I dug out the Christmas cards and started working on them. Serendipitously, I received our first Christmas card for the year too.

I know that a lot of people dislike the time, effort and cost of writing Christmas cards, but for someone like me, who has moved around a lot throughout my life, it's a wonderful way to keep connected with friends from long ago. Our lives may have separated us years before, but I still love to hear what they and their families are doing.

It's wonderful how some people remain close friends, no matter how long it's been since you saw them last. When you are lucky enough to meet with them again, you often feel like you were never apart.

For the longest time I tried to write personal letters to everybody, but I finally gave up a few years ago. I'd get a few letters written, then get overwhelmed by other holiday activities and end up inadvertently pruning my Christmas card list. Prairiewolf now helps me. He writes a great Christmas letter, which I then print off. I try to add brief personal notes, then I address and mail them. Our success rate at getting out all of our intended cards has increased significantly since making this initially unwelcome compromise.

But even joint cooperation doesn't help when a major move coincides with the Christmas season.
With our move occurring at the end of December last year, I don't remember being organized enough to send out any cards...and I'm afraid that if I don't touch bases with a few of my usual card-buddies this year, they too may move and we'll lose touch completely.

What a loss that would be. There's my best friend from junior high in Panama. We've been in touch for almost 40 years now. (Yikes! Has it actually been that long?!) Then there's my college roommate (in touch over 30 years now). There are friends from our early married years, and from many of the places that we've lived. Now I'll be adding many friends from Mobile.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Buffalo for the Broken Heart

I recently finished reading a fascinating book, Buffalo for the Broken Heart, by Dan O'Brien.

It was a random pick-up at the local bookstore. Something in the title caught my eye, then the jacket blurb made me look more closely. By the time I'd skimmed several pages, it went into my (admittedly oversized) "to buy" pile and made it safely home. Something about its promise made me pick it up soon thereafter; once I picked it up, I was hooked.

Buffalo is a quiet book. It's part personal memoir, part natural history, part cultural history, all interwoven into a well paced story that captured my heart and imagination. It's the tale of a relationship between a man and his South Dakota ranch, the Broken Heart. There's love and heartbreak, comraderie and loneliness in this book, along with beauty and unimaginably necessary daily gambles.

Having moved back to the prairie after several years in the longleaf pine forests of the deep south, I'm finding myself fascinated by the differences between the 2 places. I expected and was moderately prepared for the difference in vegetation and climate, but the differences in mindsets and cultural assumptions is surprising me. I find myself appreciating how the local history of a place infuses its people with a sense of identity that I'd never really noticed before, even people who move into an area rather than having been raised in it.

In Mobile, the people seemed to have a baseline identify still founded upon the old Deep South cultural identity of plantations, cotton growing, and the almost aristocratic society that it created. Entertaining was an everyday, gracious artform there, and the homes tended to be classic and richly decorated.

Here, the people seem to have a baseline identify still founded upon the "wild west", with its necessary independence of spirit and underlying rebellion. There's a mistrust of anything too "fancy", and a sense that cattle and farming are both intrinsically good and tragically fated to break people's spirit.

In Buffalo for the Broken Heart, O'Brien recounts how he (and countless other Great Plains ranchers) try to wrest a living from the prairie by raising cattle. As he describes it, it's basically a no-win situation, based on a disconnect between cattle and the prairie environment compounded by a disconnect between natural forces and the market economy. After almost losing his ranch (saving it only by taking a job elsewhere and sending money back, while a neighbor looked after it), O'Brien hesitantly decides to try running bison instead of cattle. It's an incredible gamble and an almost unbelievable amount of hard work, but he makes the commitment and describes both the joys and the fears of the process.

Our little 10 acres will never support a bison, but bison lived here 150 years ago and helped shape this land. There's even a depression behind the draw that I suspect may be the remnants of an old buffalo wallow. The descriptions of O'Brien's prairie lands, of how the cattle fought them and how the bison reveled in them, were evocative and haunting. I can picture bison on our land now in a way that I wasn't able to before reading this book.

I know where the past of this land has been. I wonder where its future lies.