Thursday, February 28, 2008

First Blooms of Spring

I looked out the kitchen window yesterday and staring me brightly in the face were several beautiful big clumps of yellow crocus blooms. I hadn't even noticed that the buds were up! (So much for my great powers of observation.)

When I looked back at last year's blogs, it appears that the crocus blooms are about a week behind where they were then. I'm actually quite thankful for that. Hopefully we will have a slower but steadier spring, without the trauma of a late frost cutting back weeks of tender spring growth.

Spring fever, however, is definitely beginning to rumble in my psyche.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Jackrabbit Redux

As is my habit when I encounter something new, I did a little research after seeing the jackrabbit a few days ago. What I found out is, as usual, interesting (at least to me!).

First of all, finding one in an overgrazed pasture is not unusual at all. They like shorter grasses that they can see over, since they are preyed upon by a wide variety of raptors and by a few mammals. What I haven't been able to find out is how common they currently are in Sedgwick County. Prairiewolf says he used to see them when he was quite young, but that by the time he was in high school, they seemed to have disappeared from the area. This was the first one he had seen in Sedgwick County since his childhood.

The species we saw was the black-tailed jackrabbit, Lepus californicus melanotis. It's actually a hare, and its young are precocial, meaning they are born fully furred, with their eyes open and ready to leave the nest shortly after birth.

Jackrabbits became a major agricultural pest during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930's. At a time when there was little vegetation at all because of drought, their numbers actually peaked, probably because of warm winter weather and subsequent low mortality. The attitude of "kill any predator you see on sight," prevalent at the time, certainly wouldn't have helped much either. The jackrabbits literally started competing with cattle and other livestock for what little grass was available. (One site, the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, states that hares can eat 1/2 - 1 pound of green vegetation every day, so you can see that large numbers of jackrabbits would definitely have an effect on vegetation.) Jackrabbit roundups were held to try to decrease their population, but these were of limited success. Their numbers seemed to decline naturally over the years, with a particularly sharp decline occurring in the late 50's/early 60's.

While I was unable to find definitive statistics about their current abundance in Sedgwick County, the concensus seems to be that recent changes in farming practices have decreased their numbers overall, especially in eastern Kansas. There seems to be little concern about jackrabbits reaching agricultural pest status again any time soon.

So I think I can enjoy my jackrabbit sighting with little or no concern...knock on wood!

Clash of the Titans: Winter vs. Spring

The last few weeks have included wild swings between signs of impending spring and strong reminders that winter isn't willing to loosen its grip yet.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, I heard the first meadowlarks setting up territories in our back five. We have a pair of easterns that seem to be staking out our land in particular, at least 2 other pairs of easterns within hearing distance...and I actually heard one lone western singing away in a field just a little south of us.

One morning last week, I noticed that the cardinals had joined the springtime territorial chorus, then just a few days later I heard red-winged blackbirds vocalizing their raucous, "Ogalee!!!" These bird calls just make my heart sing along when I hear them.

The crocuses are poking up through the mulch, too. Just an inch or so is showing, but the fresh, bright green is wonderfully promising.

So much for spring.

The strongest, yet oddest, winter phenomenon we've had recently was waking up on the night before last to thundersleet. This is the fourth winter thunderstorm we've had in two months, and I find that very odd. Having just one was strange; I really don't know how to react to four of them. I briefly researched this type of storm on the web, and all of the sites I looked at noted that winter thunderstorms were quite "unusual." What's doubly unusual to me is that the temperatures have usually been quite cold when the storms roll in (Wednesday night's storm occurred while it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit), and at least 2 of the storms have occurred in the wee hours of the night when the atmospheric energy should, theoretically, be less than it is during the day.

There's a little part of me wondering what the spring storms will be like if the winter storms are already bringing us such unusual weather.

Overall, I have to admit that I'm glad we haven't had any prolonged warm spells. As enjoyable as those are, I hate having the plants leaf out early, only to be set way back by a late freeze. Surprisingly, I'm not suffering badly from spring fever yet. Too much to do inside the house, still, I guess.

The Wichita Lawn and Garden Show is in 2 weeks; that's probably when spring fever will descend on me with a vengeance. I wonder what strange and wonderful things I'll find there this year!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Back Five Surprise!

Prairiewolf and I took the two young, energetic canine idiots on a walk this evening through our back five acres, enjoying the last of the warm air before the cold front comes through tonight. About 10 days ago, during the last warm spell, I heard a meadowlark pair beginning their territorial songs out there. They were there again tonight. I've seen a cotton rat, too, as well as occasional coyote scat, and I'm sure there are voles and other small rodents by the score there.

But tonight I saw something that truly astonished me - a jackrabbit. We flushed him as we walked by, and I immediately knew this wasn't any cottontail. He was big, with black on his tail and black tips on his ears. Not surprisingly, the only view we got was of his hind end as he skedaddled out of there. For as long as we could see him, he was still running.

I'm hoping he's scoping out the area as a permanent residence. That would be an astonishing success, in my eyes, for the habitat in that back five acres was horribly degraded by years of overgrazing and, despite our allowing it to lie fallow this year, it is still covered mainly with weedy, low food- and cover-value species such as prairie three-awn grass. Watching the changes that occur is already proving to be fascinating.

The View To and From 1868

A good friend recently sent me a wonderful present, the 1868 Report from the Department of Agriculture. This is no piece of fluff, but a hardbound book, 671 pages in length.

I've been having a delightful time vicariously exploring our country and its agriculture 140 years ago.

For a little background and local scene-setting....

In 1868, the Chisholm Trail was 3 years old. Cattle drives from north Texas to the new railhead at Abilene, Kansas, had started the previous year. (These drives would only continue for another 5-6 years before fences across the trail curtailed its use.)

Bison were still commonly seen in this area.

Wichita did not yet exist. In 1865 William Greiffenstein, "Dutch Bill", had established a trading post on Cowskin Creek near the present site of Wichita. The entire area had been surveyed in 1867 and, by 1868, it was beginning to open to settlement. 1868 was the year, in fact, that Wichita became the actual gleam in its forefathers' eyes. A small group of men started the Wichita Land and Town Company that year to promote the establishment of a new city. The only buildings that existed there, though, seemed to have been built that year. They were a house constructed of cottonwood logs by D. S. Munger and a hotel known as the Buckhorn, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Vigus. The first church was not built until the following year and the first jail wasn't built until 1871.

Back to the 1868 Agricultural Report....

Lots of land was still available for homesteading and settlement. In Kansas specifically, only 20% of the land had so far been purchased or "entered under homestead laws"; approximately 80% was still available. In the country as a whole, 18 times the combined areas of Great Brtain and Ireland remained to be sold or homesteaded. To homestead, you were supposed to be a U.S. citizen or have "declared [your] intentions to become such." And, of course, you had to be male, over the age of 21 or "the head of a family", and planning to use the land for actual settlement and cultivation yourself.

Kansas was glowingly described. The Neosho River Valley was "considered the garden spot of Kansas." The climate of the southern portion of the state is described as "temperate and healthful, and especially favorable to stock-raising." Also, "[t]he climate is peculiarly adapted to the cultivation of the grape. Excellent wine from the Kansas grape has been manufactured."

With typical "grass is greener" greed, this notation was made, "In the year 1867 nearly 2,900,000 acres were surveyed in the Cherokee neutral and Osage reservations, situated near the southern boundary of Kansas. As Indian reserves, these lands had been kept out of the market, and are reported as among the most desirable in the State. They are now open for homestead entry."

Not surprisingly, agricultural commodity reports were given. Indian corn was the primary crop produced in Kansas in 1868, selling for $.99/bushel. Wheat was second, selling for $1.35/bushel. That year, averaged across the country, corn yielded 25.9 bushels/acre and wheat yielded 12.1 bushels/acre. Specific yields for Kansas aren't given.

However, on average in Kansas that year, corn produced $17.82/acre, wheat produced $21.06/acre, and rye $21.42/acre. The most lucrative crop per acre was tobacco at $143/acre, followed by potatoes at $79.90/acre.

A big problem across the country, as noted in this report, were losses and depredations by dogs. In Atchison County, Kansas, one correspondent noted that some farmers had disposed of their sheep because of "the destruction of dogs and prairie wolves. Dogs are quite numerous and the greatest nuisance, and I think our legislature should tax them heavily." In Ohio alone, it was reported that over the prior decade an average of 35,715 sheep had been killed and 23,374 injured by dogs each year.

Grape culture and wine production were reported on quite extensively in this volume. Only 1 county in Kansas, Leavenworth, actually reported any such activity, though. An average of 450 gallons of wine per year had been produced there over the preceeding 5 years.

Not surprisingly for a country being newly settled, hedge building was an important topic. The cost of putting in a hedge was compared to the comparable cost of building wooden fences, with hedges reported to be significantly cheaper. The total cost of hedging a quarter-section farm for 20 years, including maintenance, was placed at $1596, while board fencing during the same period of time was estimated at $4000. (Remember that at this time, through the Homestead Act, that same quarter-section farm would only have cost $200 plus $18 in commissions and fees.)

While the honeylocust (the species, Gleditschia [sic] triacanthos, complete with thorns) was mentioned as a desireable hedge tree, and it was mentioned that buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), Cherokee rose (Rosa laevigata) and other species had been tried, the osage orange (Maclura pomifera, then identified as Maclura aurantiaca) was the tree being touted as most ideal for use throughout much of the country. This could be obtained either through the purchase of seeds or through the purchase of "quicks", which we would undoubtedly call whips or seedlings today. Quicks were the recommended method of establishing a good hedge.

It was recommended to trim the newly planted hedge trees each year for several years to thicken the growth. "Pleaching" the hedges when they reached 2" in diameter at 3' above the ground was also highly recommended. (As far as I can determine, pleaching a hedge means to braid or interlace the shoots.) If a double row hedge was pleached by crossing the saplings alternately, a herring-bone hedge was produced, apparently a particularly strong type of hedge.

I must admit that I rarely see double hedges of osage orange, let alone hedges that appear to have been pleached at any time during their life, so I doubt that these recommendations were widely followed, at least around here.

County roads were a big concern. Throughout the country, it was common to require all able-bodied men between certain ages (for example, between 16 and 60) to provide several days free labor each year to build and maintain these roads. The number of days' labor that were required varied from one to fifteen days, depending on the state. A man reporting from Massachusetts highlighted one of the common, major flaws of this system, however, "The system is good where the people are all interestd in good roads, but there are many who are never ready to work or pay; and, if they pretend to work, it is more of a holiday affair than a matter of public benefit." A new system was proposed in this report that consisted of levying a tax in money, rather than in labor, for the purpose of constructing and repairing all roads in a county under the management of a permanently employed, "competent county road engineer".

Human nature doesn't change, does it? There are always those who want others to carry their load for them while they goof off or otherwise refuse to participate in projects for the good of the community overall.

Of course, 1868 was well before the days of chemical agriculture. I noticed several reports that showed how farmers, then, dealt with soil fertility and pest problems. Not all of their methods were benign.

One report noted how much better wheat did if it was planted after red clover, better even than after the application of manure or other forms of fertilizer. Clover grown for seed, rather than cut for hay or grazed by sheep, produced the absolute best crops of wheat the following year.

It was recommended that potato bugs be managed by first planting varieties that they particularly liked, attracting all newly emerging potato bugs in the spring and keeping them occupied, then later planting other, less tasty (to the bugs) varieties which can develop "unmolested".

Another farmer noted his experience with potato bugs too. He reported that the bugs appeared in patches in his field. He handpicked the bugs, larvae, and eggs for several weeks until a friend recommended a mixture of "Paris green" and dry ashes for potato bug control. When he tried it, he said this worked extremely well. [Note: looking up "Paris green" on the web, it appears to be a TOXIC double salt of copper arsenate and copper acetate. This WOULD NOT be a recommended organic pest control method!] Ultimately this farmer recommended specific methods of planting to increase the ease of finding (and thus picking off and destroying) the potato bugs; he felt that this way one could "sav[e] the cost of the pigment". He also recommended not planting on ground where potatoes grew the year before, where the potato bug population would already be well established.

Side notes....

In New Jersey, land was renting at $100/acre for market gardening, which seems fairly expensive to me.

"Camus", also identified as the bulb of Scilla Fraseri [sic], eastern quamash, or wild hyacinth, was noted to be an important food item for the Native Americans. It was reported to have a sweet, gummy taste and to be very nutritious, and therefore it was being recommended as a potential "new" culinary vegetable for cultivation. (Note: I have no knowledge as to the actual edibility of this plant. PLEASE don't try it! For all I know it's very poisonous.)

There were many variegated varieties of trees being recommended for planting, including a variegated osage orange, a variegated sycamore, and a variegated red maple. There was even a variegated ginkgo noted!

Many trees were discussed as suitable for street trees. I was rather pleasantly surprised at how many were somewhat unusual natives, like yellow wood (Cladrastis kentukea, known then as Cladrastis tinctoria), wild cherry (Prunus serotina), osage orange!, and even the Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus canadensis, now known as G. dioicus). Of course boxelder (Acer negundo), known then as ash-leaved maple (Negundo aceroides) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum, known then as Acer dasycarpum) were also recommended street trees! The boxelder was actually described as "one of the finest formed ornamental trees where it has space to develop its natural outline."

Last, but not least, it was interesting to note the climatological data recorded. In Kansas, the recorded lows for 1868 occurred on December 11, measuring from -6 in Baxter Springs to -20 in "Olatha". The recorded highs for the year occurred between July 20-22, with Holton reaching 111, Leavenworth 108, and Atchison 107. (Remember, fully 80% of the state hadn't yet been settled by Europeans during 1868; presumably the Native Americans would not have been measuring and/or recording temperature readings using European measurements at this time.)

So what impressions am I left with overall?

* The weather was quite variable in Kansas that year. Comparatively, we generally don't have anything much to complain about, especially considering that we have heating and air conditioning in our homes!

* Kansas was truly a baby 140 years ago. So maybe when the policies of its people and politicians don't seem very wise to me, there's a reason - even now, as far as states and countries go, Kansas is still barely adolescent in its development!

* Going back to "the good old days" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Can you imagine the uproar if all able-bodied people were actually required to pitch in days of free labor to help our country run, instead of just allowing themselves to be taxed? The jury system is one of the only vestiges of the old system of running things left, and I know how most people go out of their way to avoid serving their time in that venue.

* Crop rotation and hand-picking insect pests have been important agricultural techniques for a long time.

* Wine was basically just another agricultural product. And the farmers and settlers in Kansas were being encouraged to experiment with growing the grapes and producing this popular product.

* Marketing is nothing new. From "finest formed ornamental trees" to "mild", "temperate" and "healthful" Kansas weather, promoters push the limits of credibility. Then, as now, the buyer had better beware.

Comparing aspects of life-then with life-now can certainly be fascinating. Overall, I guess, the truism that comes to mind is, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ordinary Serendipity

It's funny how, every once in a while, life throws something at you several times in a row, as if to say, "Hey, idiot! Pay attention to THIS!"

I've been getting that sort of notice over the last several days, but not about anything in particular. No, in fact I feel like I'm being reminded to pay attention to the wonderfulness of ordinary life.

There was the message in Thomas Moore's book, Dark Nights of the Soul:

One of the greatest things a human being can do is raise a child to be happy and wise. One of the most altruistic things you can do is be a good neighbor and an involved citizen. The soul is fulfilled by the ordinary....

...the deep soul longs for ordinary connection and engagement. It wants friendship and family and community. It longs for the simple pleasures...

Then in today's Wichita Eagle, Suzanne Perez Tobias's column, entitled, " 'Dalai Mama': Or how to stop and smell the Glade," dealt with the related theme of taking time to notice the wonderful in the ordinary - her example being the excitement felt by a young child smelling the air fresheners in the grocery store, totally missed by the child's mother who was busily chosing the perfect bathroom cleaner to rout out soap scum.

When I visited in Mobile last month, I remember, too, a snippet of conversation about how much we all deeply enjoy our ordinary routines, especially as we've gotten a little older.

Suddenly all of these reminders coalesced into the deep pleasure of luxuriating in my ordinary morning. The sky is gray, a little snow is spitting, the temperatures are nippy and the wind is blowing, but I'm warm inside, lazily lounging in my robe, sipping a cup of coffee and watching the birds filter into the feeders and then lift out again in sudden waves of caution. I've read the paper, had a bowl of cereal, fed the cat and dogs, and now I'm doing my daily computer check-in, complete with a purring cat snuggling into my arms and a content dog lying at my feet.

I don't think life can get much richer than this.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Interesting Winter Birds

This is one of those times when I'm both thrilled and sad at the same time. It's been an "irruption year," which means a year when large numbers of northern bird species are seen further south than normal.

Of course, as a birder, seeing birds at my feeders that aren't there during most winters is a lot of fun. That's the thrill.

On the other hand, the reason these birds have to forage so far south is generally assumed to be because their food supplies up north are so poor this year. This means that their habitat is compromised this year, which almost certainly means that their mortality will be higher than normal. That's the sadness.

First I saw red-breasted nuthatches early in the fall. Shortly thereafter I saw a couple purple finches, then pine siskins. Pine siskins aren't too unusual here during the winter, but the red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches are much less common. The nuthatches and pine siskins have been coming daily. I've seen the purple finches just a few times.

Then today I saw the most unusual irruption species I've seen so far: a red crossbill. That may be the first one I've personally seen in Kansas.

At first I noticed a very orangy-red bird that I thought might be an unusally colored purple finch, based on the amount of color. Then I noticed that it wasn't very streaky, and that the wings were almost a solid tannish brown, with a strong brown eye streak on its face. At this point I grabbed the binoculars for a closer look...and, low and behold, I noticed the longer-than-normal bill with the oddly offset tips. I checked against the guide book - sure enough, a red crossbill.

I wish it well. Hopefully it will fatten up on all the sunflower seeds I'm providing and be able to head back north, healthy and ready to breed this summer. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying all of my unusual visitors.

Officially Weird, at least in my book....

Okay, I know we now live on the prairie, which has strange weather almost by definition, but it's getting even stranger these days.

We had thundersnow a few days before Christmas.

About a week ago we had a big thunderstorm, complete with severe weather warnings, blow through at night with temperatures around 34 degrees F.

And at 3 a.m. last night we had another big thunderstorm with an absolutely impressive display of lightning and thunder. The temperature was 21 degrees F. and the storm was accompanied by freezing rain and ice pellets/hail that coated the ground.

If we're having this many thunderstorms in the middle of winter, what is this spring going to be like?