Thursday, July 30, 2009

Barefoot in the Grass

It's amazing. Three days ago I hadn't heard a thing about the research showing that shoes are actually crippling our feet in Western society, rather than protecting them. Suddenly I'm running into articles about going barefoot every time I turn around.

First I saw an article in our local paper, the Wichita Eagle, on Tuesday. It was based on an interview with author Christopher McDougall, whose book Born to Run has apparently become a recent bestseller.

Later that day I saw a blog entry about the benefits of going barefoot on a blog by Rebecca Clay Haines that Ienjoy and occasionally check on.

Now today a good friend of Qkslvrwolf has a blog post about running barefoot for the first time, plus she links to a New York magazine article from the NY Times on the same subject. (The article is excellent - I highly recommend reading the entire thing. The trompel'oeil paintings are just awesome, and the copy's pretty good too.)

That seems an awful lot like serendipity to me! Serendipity is becoming my new red flag, signalling something I need to try out or explore a bit more.

When I was a kid, I went barefoot all the time. I prided myself on how well I could walk on REALLY hot pavement or gravel. I only wore shoes when I had to. My feet were often dirty, but I don't remember them being particularly calloused or problematic in any way.

So this morning I decided to try doing a little walking in the yard while barefoot. I don't know why this seemed so adventurous, but somehow it did. The grass was rather chilly and wet from the dew, but it felt soft and good. I decided to stay barefoot while I did a little light gardening work.

Now, I know this sounds rather "woo-woo", but as I spent the next 30 minutes handpicking blister beetles off of the potatoes and tomatoes, I seemed to be much more in sync than usual with the process. At times it even felt like the beetles were offering themselves to me! I hadn't picked blister beetles in almost a week so there were plenty to pick, but I hardly missed any of the ones I saw. (As a predator avoidance technique, blister beetles quickly drop to the ground and get lost in the leaf mulch when they feel threatened.) By the time I finished finding all of the beetles I could in the garden this morning, I could literally count on one hand the number of blister beetles I had "lost". Normally, I'd say I lose about one out of every three beetles that I spot, so this was a much higher success rate than normal.

Of course, it could be that the temperatures were a little cooler than normal (maybe by a few degrees) and that, combined with the damp air, made the beetles a little less agile than normal.

I prefer to attribute my success to my connection with the Earth this morning, though!

In about an hour of roaming the garden and yard with nothing between me and the Earth, I only had one brief "ouch" moment - when I accidentally stepped on a weed with a thorny stem lurking in the straw mulch between our raised vegetable beds. Sorry to say, that is purely my own fault because I noticed that sucker about a week ago and didn't follow my own advice to pull it out as soon as I saw it.

It's going to be interesting to experiment more with this barefoot stuff. I'm not sure I'm ready to walk the prairie paths yet, due to dual fears of accidental poison ivy contact AND accidental snake contact. I find I'm not nearly so brave about those hazards when I don't have shoes and even long pants between me and them! (There is, after all, a fine line between bravery and stupidity.)

On the other hand, I've had low level foot problems off and on for many years now, and I chronically have trouble finding comfortable shoes. Maybe magic shoes aren't really the answer; maybe the answer is going barefoot as often as I can. It's sure worth a try.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Monthly Dose of Ideas and Insights

Last weekend I sat down and did something I don't do very often - read a magazine, cover to cover. The magazine that held my attention this well was Utne Reader, which used to bill itself as "the Reader's Digest of the alternative press". (I still think that's a pretty good description.)

It's not that this was my first time to dip into Utne. In fact, we've been subscribers for years, probably for decades now. It's just that, as with other magazines, usually I pick it up and read an article or two, then get distracted. Eventually the most recent issue joins the piles of other magazines parked around the house and I've only taken the time to "input" a few of the interesting ideas that each issue presents. (Need I say that, once a magazine joins the others in a pile, its chances of getting read go down appreciably?)

Whatever my excuses and my normal, somewhat delinquent, method of approaching magazines, I read the July-August 2009 issue in a timely and complete manner. Here are the fascinating things that I learned a bit about from reading that single issue....

The Living Library - This is an organization that lends "human books" representing different lifestyles and beliefs, such as The Atheist or The Old Man or The Immigrant, out to other people so that people can ask the "human books" questions and learn about the subject that the person represents. For example, The Buddhist could be "checked out" and would show up at your home or get-together. You would be free to ask all sorts of questions about his/her faith that you might feel awkward asking a regular social acquaintance, let alone someone on the street...or, indeed, that you might not know anyone at all you could ask.

Wouldn't it be awesome to attend a function where there were "human books" representing all of the different faiths living within the confines of a specific community? Community members could ask each individual about what is important to them, what makes them different from other faiths, what their "take" is on current world events, what makes them feel uncomfortable, etc. Talk about a way to learn about other groups in our melting pot culture!

A Warning about White Supremacists and the Military - This came out of an excerpt from Southern Poverty Law Center's publication Intelligence Report. Apparently white supremacists have been joining the military to get training in combat and weaponry that, when they leave the service, they can then take on to further their own political agenda. It actually makes a great deal of sense, but this scares the living daylights out of me.

Writing Advice - from an excerpted interview with author and undertaker, Thomas Lynch, in Willow Springs, a literary journal. " 'I'm a writer, so I don't wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there's nothing interesting, I'll make it interesting.' "

And... " 'The reason poets aren't read is that we don't hang any of them anymore. We don't take them seriously; we don't think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. ...Before there was so much contest for people's attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.' "

Also from that same excerpted interview with Thomas Lynch was this Social Commentary About Death and Modern Funerals - " 'Our culture is the first in a couple generations that attempts to have funerals with no bodies. We just disappear them.... But the way to deal with mortality is by dealing with the mortals. And you deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing. ...[C]elebrations [of life] are notable for the fact that everybody's welcome but the dead guy. This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species. There is an intellectual - an artistic and moral - case that can be made for not only fruit and flowers in a bowl on a table, but also a dead body in a box.' "

This last comment reminds me of the way most of us see our food supply too. We think of it as very sanitary and wrapped in plastic in a supermarket. Most Americans don't make the connection between that and the feed lots and the farm equipment mired in mud and the pesticides & herbicides and the overcrowded factory poultry operations and the migrant laborers and the millions of gallons of gas that are used to provide that food and bring it to our supermarkets.

We are getting amazingly good at fooling ourselves; avoiding reality, however, rarely has good results in the long run.

Books I May Want to Read -
Less is More, by Jay Walljasper (New Society), on simplicity issues, supposedly without oversimplifying the issues at stake.
The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, by Lawrence Rothfield (University of Chicago Press). I've never understood why, when our country precipitated the Iraq War, our leaders didn't plan to protect irreplaceable cultural artifacts and institutions when they made their invasion plans. The blurb about this book points out that the 400,000-600,000 artifacts that were looted and lost during the first few years of the war represent humanity's collective past, not just Iraq's past.
The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, by Riane Eisler (Berrett-Koehler). We say that taking care of people and loving them is important, but we don't value it monetarily at all. Consequently, caring for people (or the Earth) is pretty much systematically being removed from our culture. This book is an attempt to think through reworking our economic system to value the things we say we truly value.

Insect Art - a single page highlighting the work of an artist whose medium is insects, real (but dead) insects. I find myself both drawn to and disgusted by this art. It's gorgeous and intricate and interesting...and a pathologically human-centric reason for killing a whole lot of insects. Still, how cool it looks!

New Magazines to Search Out - Utne puts out an annual "Independent Press Awards" in various categories every year. From the list of this year's winners, I was particularly intrigued by...
Lapham's Quarterly: Piloted by Lewis Lapham, longtime editor of Harper's, each issue of this new magazine focuses on a single topic. Writings and artwork for each themed issue are selected from a huge range of sources, beginning with historical figures and classical authors through to the most recent of today's commenters. I found the Summer 2009 issue at one of the local bookstores - it's expensive, $15, but looks intriguing enough that I picked it up anyway. It's 221 pages long and has 89 entries, not including the "Program Notes". The theme is Travel. Included authors range from Apollonius of Rhodes telling about Orpheus and the Argo (c. 1200 BC) through an excerpt from Marco Polo's notes, Don Quixote's start to his adventure, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Columbus, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Lewis & Clark to Billy Collins. And I haven't even mentioned the range of quotes and illustrations scattered throughout.
The New Republic: a classic for political coverage.
Psychotherapy Networker: for exploring behavior, my own and other people's.
Miller-McCune: I'm really excited about the potential of this one. It's a new magazine whose purpose is to "bridge the divide between academic researchers and journalists", presenting current, solid research results that have bearing on the problems and issues of our times. (I was also able to get an issue of this locally, but I haven't read through it yet.)

The Necessity of Shifting Our Emphasis from "Save Newspapers (and Magazines)" to "Save Society" - the point of this article was that what's important is actually well researched and timely information about current issues, not the survival of newspapers per se. Good information allows us, as a culture, to make informed decisions about solutions to current problems. This article discussed what's not working (and why) as well as what's working a little bit (and why) and what the stakes are overall in this ongoing cultural change.

How Water Issues Seem to Be Fundamental Enough to Encourage Fighting Humans to Rise Above Politics and Religion in Working to Solve Them - with specific examples from the last 20 years, including some negotiation techniques that have worked.

The Need to Change Psychotherapy to Include a Person's Place in the Human and Physical Community - Humans are social creatures. We need to look beyond "What do I need?" to "What is my place in the world?" I love this quote from the article,

"As human beings we have a need for place - where we can be connected to a community of people, plants, animals, and the land. Without this, we feel lost, alone, and alienated. The world also needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it. If we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it." (p. 71)

The Taboo of Speaking About Our Money Isolates Us and Allows Us to Be More Easily Manipulated - The Depression was made somewhat more bearable because everyone was in the same boat and their money issues weren't private. Sharing our money stories helps us gain perspective by hearing about and learning from others' experiences; being secretive isolates us from each other and makes us more subject to manipulation by moneyed interests such as advertisers and employers.

A Call for "Community Earth Councils (CECs)" - "[groups of people] working together to address global environmental and social issues at the local level. CECs build community, helping young people find meaning and purpose, while providing elders with a way to give back, inspire, and impact the future." I wonder what the Clearwater City Council would think if I were to propose such a thing? Or whether there are any others in the Clearwater area who would be interested in putting together such a council?

So that's what I found interesting enough to highlight, dogear, or otherwise think about in the July-August 2009 issue of Utne Reader. It was a banquet of ideas, and I didn't begin to share tastes of all the dishes it offered. Some of the ideas I read inspire me, some support thoughts I've had for a long time...or clarify those thoughts a bit, and some of the ideas are simply interesting commentaries that may lead me to make different choices in the future.

It would be fascinating to hand copies of this month's Utne to a group of my friends (or any other group of people, for that matter) and see what captures their interest. After all, I left out 3 of the 4 cover stories ("Why Accountability Matters", prosthetic design, and an exploration of yoga), as well as articles on jazz, Louis Armstrong, the role MBAs played in the economic meltdown, media literacy, Polish poster art, "The Tao of War Photography", food for entertaining during the recession, etc., etc., etc.

Utne could serve as an inkblot, recording a person's interests at a certain point of time. For that matter, it could serve as a record of my own thoughts at a particular time! Well, before I get too convoluted, I probably ought to sign off for now. If anyone else has read this issue, though, what caught your attention?

Insects and Cameras - A Fun Combination

On the night before last, as I was wrapping up my gardening and coming in to make dinner, I noticed a hawk moth feeding at the summer phlox (Phlox paniculata). Not being in the mood to cook, I decided to see if I could capture a few photos.

None of these shots would make it into a magazine spread, but I've enjoyed looking at them. I love how the camera freezes enough of the movement (but not all of it) that I can see how the moth, a white lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), uses its wings and proboscis while hovering and nectaring.

I love, too, how I can literally identify the markings of the moth, even though it was constantly moving, by the photos that I took. When possible, this is a much more pleasant way of identifying insects than catching them, freezing them, pinning them (and spreading their wings), drying them, and then identifying them.

All in all, a satisfying way to put off making dinner.

Mystery Beetle...and Awesome BugGuide

Wow. Two mysteries in one week.

Better yet, two mysteries SOLVED in one week.

The second mystery of the week was a colorful beetle that I saw briefly (and managed a somewhat blurry photo of) a little over a week ago. Being on a roll yesterday, I decided to try to identify it...and got nowhere with the source material I had at home.

Even the internet didn't help least at first.

Enter BugGuide, hosted out of Iowa State University. I've used this site to identify other insects, including larvae and eggs, but this time just searching through it didn't seem to help. I was pretty sure that this beetle belonged in the leaf beetle family, Chrysomelidae, but there are LOTS of leaf beetles and I just couldn't locate one that looked like this. So I registered with the site and uploaded my rather sorry little photo last night before I went to bed.

Lo and behold, this morning I had 2 responses already. Better yet they had identified my beetle! It is a shining flea beetle, Asphaera lustrans. Once I had the species name I could research it a little more fully on the web. It turns out that the host plant of this beetle is the genus Scutellaria, skullcaps - and I have a Smoky Hills skullcap, Scutellaria resinosa 'Smoky Hills', located right next to the woodland phlox where I saw my beetle. That plant is still a wimp, having just been planted a month or so ago, but here is a photo of the Smoky Hills skullcap that I planted last year....

Obviously I need to get at least one more home reference for insects, one which gives me a better handle on beetles, because in going back through my books here at home, only one showed any flea beetle species at all. None of them showed this guy, despite his incredibly good looks. (Yes, I am trying to justify my inability to identify this beetle, at least to myself!)

Hmmm, an excuse to get another book. Isn't solving mysteries fun?!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mystery Plant

I like little mysteries, especially little mysteries that I end up solving without too much hardship. (A little hardship, though, makes it more fun.)

Enter a mystery plant, first noticed (and photographed) a 2 weeks ago in the back 5 acres. Since I walked those acres exhaustively last summer, I was really surprised to see a plant that I'd never seen before back there. Making it even more of a surprise, I saw quite a bit of the plant just on a single walk-through.

I meant to look it up when I got back inside, but got distracted and forgot about it...until the following Tuesday afternoon, when the agricultural extension agent stopped by the Master Gardener HotLine room to show us a sample of Sericea lespedeza, an exotic invasive that is trying hard to take over acres of grassland throughout the Plains. The specimen was dried and pressed, but it looked heartstoppingly like my new mystery plant. Having seen so much of the unidentified forb in the back 5 acres, I dreaded the thought that I might have to try to find some control that wouldn't take out all the rest of the vegetation back there.

Diving onto the web, I exhaustively read everything I could find on Sericea lespedeza. At length I realized that the descriptions talked about seeds that were borne individually, rather than in the dainty little pods that I had seen hanging from the stems of "my" plant. Whew. But what was it?

Tiny white, pink and white, or pinkish flowers, shaped like typical legume blooms....

Those cute little pods hanging down, about 1" long and 1/8" in diameter....

The plant standing about 18" tall, with branching stems and small, compound leaves....

Nothing seemed to fit, so I mentally set it aside for a while. This morning I collected a sample from outback and decided to try again to identify it. After unsuccessfully looking through all my wildflower books, the ones with pretty colored photos and pictures, I finally decided to slog through Bare's Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas.

There it was - prairie trefoil, now named Lotus unifoliolatus var. unifoliolatus. (It was Lotus purshianus, the old name, in Bare.) Haddock's site on the web (Kansas Wildflowers and Grasses) had it, but his wildflower book did not.

Prairie trefoil is a native annual whose seeds are relished by quail. Being in bean family, I assume it fixes nitrogen, and I'm always glad to welcome native nitrogen fixers to the homestead. It's not the showiest plant on the property, but I'm looking at it as a quiet hard-worker. Tomorrow I'm even going to return the sample stem that I took this morning to the back 5, so that the seeds in the cute little pods can feed quail over the winter or produce new little prairie trefoils next spring. It's another small piece of prairie diversity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Black Blister Beetle Season

It's black blister beetle season again. When I watered last Friday, I saw 2, then I noticed a couple more this morning. So, I went back inside for my trusty peanut butter jar filled with soapy water and started looking seriously.

Wow. The potatoes are just covered. Using a conservative estimate, I picked off around 50 this morning and saw at least a dozen more that escaped my predatory grasp by dropping to the ground and scurrying into the mulch. (For insects who theoretically don't get eaten much because of their "blister" potential, they sure do have good predator-escape instincts. I have to assume that they taste better to some sort of animal than would otherwise be suspected.)

I blogged about the blister beetles last summer, so I won't repeat that information again today, but suffice it to say that I find them much more interesting now than I did before I learned a little about their biology! In rereading what I wrote last summer, I noticed that I was still quite squeamish about handpicking them without gloves. Well, I can't promise that everyone will be this way, but I've found that I don't have any problem with "blisters" at all, whether I wear gloves or not. In fact, I now prefer gloveless picking because I can feel whether I have them in my fingers so much better. I just keep in mind that I don't want to squash them, so I handle them very gently, and I seem to do fine.

I did find at least one predator chowing down on the blister beetles - a wheel bug female who looked very well fed indeed.

Another interesting note: while I was searching high and low in the potatoes for skulking beetles, I noticed droppings that I recognized as being from a horn worm. It took me 10 minutes of looking, but I finally saw the thing - about 4" long and fat as could be, about 2" from where I'd been looking the longest and hardest. Camoflage is a wonderful thing. (No, I didn't remove him. He was about ready to pupate, there was only one of him...and I love sphinx moths!)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Watering: A Simple Pleasure

It's due to hit 101 today and, since it's 99 in the shade at 2 p.m., I'd say there's a good chance we'll make the predicted high, even out here in the boonies. (With the heat island effect of pavement in the city, I'm pretty sure that Wichita is already 101 this afternoon.) When it's been more than a week since it rained and the temperatures are this hot, it's a sure bet that folks with gardens are going to be needing to water.

Nowadays, of course, the "in" thing is to have a sprinkler system. Then all you have to do is hit the switch and the system handles things for you. Meanwhile you get to stay inside and "be productive" (or veg out in front of the TV, depending upon your mood). I can see the appeal of that approach, but if I gave into it, I would miss some of the best moments I have in the garden.

Take this morning. Even at 9 a.m., it was hot. To be honest, I really didn't want to go outside and get myself all hot and sweaty and muddy, but I've only got one small sprinkler system in one flower bed and my choice was to go outside and water or probably start seeing some plant loss.

So I girded my loins, so to speak, and ventured outside. Once I got out and got the water running, it really wasn't that bad. Watering, for me, is rather meditative - like fishing in reverse. (I'm putting water into something, rather than taking something out of the water, but in both activities I'm standing still for long periods of time while holding something to do with water in my hand.) Watering gives me a chance to note what plants are looking puny, which ones are getting eaten, which ones are beginning to overrun their spots, and so forth.

However, watering does more than help me notice my plants more consistently. It engages all my senses, and immerses me in the life of the yard. Without realizing it consciously, I'm hearing and registering the birds that are living in the garden with me: a pheasant "coughing" near the draw, bobwhite quail calling, cardinals chipping anxiously because I'm too near to the feeder they want to check out, a Carolina wren coming closer and closer. In fact, the only reason I know that we have cuckoos nesting in the yard this year is because I've heard them.

If I'm lucky, the wind creates gentle breezes that cool me off and play against my skin. (If I'm not so lucky, it's dead still and the sweat pours down my back, or the wind is blowing so hard that I get unnecessarily soaked in overspray while my hair ties itself into Gordian knots of painful intensity.) I discover fragrances coming from flowers, like Knockout roses and oakleaf hydrangeas, that I didn't think were fragrant, or I note some blasted neighbor is burning plastic in their trash again. If it's the vegetable garden I'm watering, I even pick the occasional strawberry and pop it in my mouth, or chew on a piece of basil, just because it smells so wonderful.

But the ultimate benefit of hand watering is what I get to see simply because I'm standing out there, usually quietly without much movement, for such long periods of time. (I do practice what I preach in watering: deep and only about once a week.) This morning my best sighting was a dragonfly, perched about 2' away from me, savoring a fly he'd just caught. I didn't want to move and have him fly off, so the Brunnera and Asarum got a big dose of extra water as I simply stood there and watched, fascinated. His pedipalps acted like little extra arms, rotating the hapless fly around while he munched. In fact, his pedipalps were so arm/handlike that I found myself doing a leg count - sure enough, all 6 dragonfly legs were firmly holding onto the branch while the remains of the fly was moved this way and that, rather like he was eating a turkey drumstick or a piece of corn on the cob.

About the only time I see velvet ants is when I'm watering, but I see them frequently then, scurrying along the ground, obviously on a important mission to somewhere.

Two weeks ago, I saw a female tiger swallowtail circle around my single parsley plant, landing briefly to touch her abdomen to a leaf and lay an egg, then rising into the air to circle for a fresh spot, and repeating the process again...and again...and again...and again. I noticed on Friday, again while I was watering, that the caterpillars have not only hatched, they are past the brown and white stage and into the multi-colored striped stage that they'll stay in until they pupate.

I'm most likely to spot caterpillars when I'm watering. My meditative gaze will suddenly notice that the brown & white blob on that leaf is not really a bird dropping because it's moving in a very non-bird-dropping like way, or my eyes will pick out a misshapen leaf and notice the jaws systematically shaving its edge away. When I turn the leaf over, there is a rather large and brightly colored caterpillar staying stock still, hoping that I'm not particularly hungry this morning. Then I'll look the plant over carefully and realize that I can see 3 or 4 more of its siblings, munching away.

The worst part is that I can't photograph what I'm seeing, other than mentally in my own mind. Most of the drama that I witness when watering is something that I see only because I'm standing still, quietly, in one place for a long period of time. Running into the house to get my camera rather negates my "cover". I've thought about always carrying my camera with me when I water but, truthfully, I'm too lazy...and a little bit concerned about getting it muddy and/or wet accidentally. I love my camera, but it's a rather heavy and bulky for carrying for hours at a time while you're trying to manipulate something else, especially when that "something else" has the potential to ruin your camera.

So I can try to share some of these experiences verbally and through the written word. Hopefully, a few people will read this and want to experiment, then will recognize the simple pleasures and unique opportunities afforded by some quiet time in the garden with just you, your hose, and your thoughts.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Evolving Flower Gardens

Because it seems only fair that readers of my blog should be able to visualize the gardens that I'm working on, I thought I should post a photo of my newly "completed" front gardens. I took this shot a few days ago, when the sky was one of those jewel-like hues of blue.

I, obviously, like the cottage garden look - informal, blowsy, crowded, rich, vibrant.... The side of the garden closest to the house has been in for a year or more and the plants are thus significantly larger. The side of the garden nearest the camera is what I've been working on this spring. For the most part, this is the "year to sleep" for most of these plants - they are little and likely to remain that way at least until next spring. (That phrase is from another of the gardening mantras I learned in Mobile, "A year to sleep, a year to creep, a year to leap." For an impatient gardener who wants to see results NOW, this mantra helps remind her to have patience and give new plants a chance to get acclimated to their new spots before expecting them to look gorgeous.)

Don't forget, though, that native plants can be used in many different ways - they don't require a cottage garden setting to look good and perform well. In fact, if the focus is to be on the specific plants, a more formal garden or a more "manicured" garden can really highlight them better.

While I'm deep watering the new side of the garden every 5 days or so during the dry heat until it gets established, I've hardly had to water the older, more established side at all this summer. (I've spot watered the beebalm on that side a time or two, when it started to look wilted.) I've never fertilized, and I hardly have to even pull any weeds since the flowers have grown large enough to keep the soil shaded and covered on their own.
There's lots more to do, and it shows up especially strongly in a photo, but this is a start...and I'm learning tons while having a lot of fun. Besides which, a garden is NEVER truly complete, not even for a moment.

An Underground Life

This is the time of year when I start seeing cicada shells everywhere, as the nymphs come up from below ground and make their last transformation from subterranean root feeders into winged, adults. The discarded skins cling to tree trunks and perennial stems, to the side of the house and to anything else where they can get a grip. Each morning there are more, joining the somewhat bizarre yard ornamentation. Sometimes I wonder, if I camped outside, would I wake up the next morning with a cicada shell clinging to me?

However, despite the perennial evidence of all these cicadas living underground around me, I've never seen a live cicada nymph in its natural habitat. Until yesterday.

I was digging a hole, to put in a Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), out in my new "rain garden" bed. This is a low area that carries rainwater running off our driveway and the higher parts of the yard toward the front prairie, and from there to the creek. Prairiewolf and I want to put in a series of flower beds with small "dams" to help keep some of that rainwater on the land, rather than having it all drain off and head towards the Gulf of Mexico. I'm calling these beds my "rain garden."

Anyway, I was digging a hole in this low area of the yard when I noticed that I'd opened up a miniature tunnel or cave with my shovel, about 6 or 7" down from the surface and about 1" in diameter. I looked at it for a moment, wondering what had caused it, and saw movement in the open space. This freaked me out just a bit. (I always have nightmarish visions of accidentally busting open a bumblebee or yellowjacket nest in such circumstances!) Nothing seemed poised to fly out of the opening, though, so I watched for a bit more. Finally, frustrated at not having a better view, I got a big flashlight and my camera from the house, then contorted myself into strange positions to try to use both to take a couple pictures. As I did so, I realized what I was looking at - the elusive live cicada nymph I'd never seen before! The claws were a dead giveaway.

This face is truly one that "only a mother could love", but I still find it fascinating. Hopefully I didn't cause this little guy any lasting harm. Based on size, he/she must have been close to making the final journey up into the night to assume adult form. One of these days, maybe the cicada song I hear will be sung by this strange creature who let me get a glimpse of his life, underground.

A Stroke Towards Understanding

On a totally different note, but still in book report mode, I'd like to share another book that I've read recently, My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.

Every once in a while, someone experiences something in life that can radically change how we understand something considered generally "unknowable." When that happens, if we're lucky, the someone who has had the experience writes about it cogently or in some other way shares it with the rest of us and, then, through increased understanding, we can change how we treat each other in those particular circumstances. That's what has happened with My Stroke of Insight.

Jill Taylor is a neuroanatomist who specialized in brain function during her training and early academic career, trying to understand (among other things) why a beloved older brother developed schizophrenia. She worked at Harvard Medical School and was active on the national lecture circuit, helping others understand what was happening on an anatomical basis when the brain doesn't work properly.

Then, at age 37, she had a major stroke effecting almost the entire left hemisphere of her brain. She was conscious during the entire time the stroke was occurring and she was able to figure out, from her training, what parts of the brain were being effected and why she was having the problems she was experiencing. Despite that, by the time she reached the hospital, she was totally unable to talk, barely able to understand what others were saying to her, and almost infantlike in her reactions to stimuli.

In this book, she shares with us what she experienced, how she recovered her abilities (which took 8 years), and suggestions for helping others to recover from strokes as fast and fully as possible.

Because her stroke basically incapacitated her entire left hemisphere for an extended period, this account is also a fascinating look at how the 2 sides of the brain interact to produce our normal view of reality as well as our normal personality, and what each side of the brain contributes to that "normality". Last, but hardly least, she gives us a view from a brain that is ONLY functioning with the right hemisphere - what she could understand, what she felt, how she could and could not communicate.

I read My Stroke of Insight while we were on our recent trip to Chicago, and it seemed like I was constantly noticing parallels between conversational topics and what I was learning as I read. I'm sure everyone was sick of the phrase, "In that book I've been reading....."! I've already had to watch my mother-in-law suffer (and eventually die) from a brain tumor many years ago. I've always wondered what and how much she felt and understood as she lay, basically unresponsive but with her eyes open, in the hospital those last few weeks; now I feel like I have a better understanding. Having read this book will certainly change how I care for someone with a stroke, if that ever becomes a task that I am called upon to do. By helping me understand what she experienced, Dr. Taylor also helped prepare me for what to expect, should I ever experience a stroke.

This is not a long book, but it's an important and interesting book. I highly recommend that you read it now...and reread it, if anyone you know is unfortunate enough to suffer the life-transforming effects of a stroke.

Freshly Discovering An Old Gardening Classic

Lately, I sometimes feel like I'm back in grade school, writing book reports - but these books are so good that I really want to share them with anyone else who might enjoy them! So, please, bear with me.

My latest discovery was actually written in 1951, then reprinted (along with its 2 siblings) by Timber Press in 1998. It's called Merry Hall, by Beverley Nichols.

I actually discovered its siblings...eerrrr, I mean its sequels, Laughter on the Stairs (1953) and Sunlight on the Lawn (1956), as used books for sale amongst more normal, new gardening books at Crosby Arboretum in Mississipii, when I visited there with the Mobile County Master Gardeners in May. They looked different, potentially interesting, and their price was quite low, so I picked them up on a whim. Once I got them home, I decided that it was unfair to read the sequels without reading the book that led the way, so I ordered Merry Hall, the first of the trilogy, from Amazon. When it arrived, I dug into it.

I loved it. While this book is about gardens and gardening rather than about animals and animal collecting, it nonetheless reminds me of the books by Gerald Durrell that I was introduced to in my early teens and that I've loved ever since. It's charming, in a very British-dry-sarcastic-wit-with-lots-of-good-plant-knowledge sort of way. Nichols flits from repeatedly skewering a couple nosy, neighborhood women who take rather too much interest in his newly acquired garden (Miss Emily and Our Rose), to opinionated statements about how cut flowers should (and, most emphatically, should not) be arranged, to how he came to design his garden (wishing he were back in the womb plays a not-insignificant part), to flights of fancy about the best height to be (mentally, that is) when exploring a rock garden.

I could include quotes, but small snippets can't possibly capture the richness and humor of the tales that Nichols tells. Apparently lots of others have quoted from this book, though, and the most popular quote is said to be, "It is only to the gardener that Time is a friend, giving each year more than he steals." I certainly found that a great thought to turn over in my mind as I watered this afternoon, one of many gifts that I'm taking with me from having read Merry Hall.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Echinacea vs. Checkerspot Caterpillars, Revisited

If you've read my blog for a while, you know that I had an interesting experience pitting young Echinaceas against baby checkerspot butterflies (also known as checkerspot caterpillars) last summer. The last of 3 entries on the subject is here, linked to the prior 2 entries. I discovered that the plants weren't permanently hurt by the seemingly vicious caterpillar attack, at least not last summer. It was, in fact, a perfect example of the best cure being to do nothing but let nature handle the situation on its own, without my interference.

I thought folks might be interested in seeing those same 2 baby Echinacea plants this year.

As you can see, they don't appear to have suffered at all! They are waist high, "full and fluffy" (to quote Barbie), and covered with dozens of blooms.

Interestingly, I've planted several more young Echinaceas in the new half of the flower bed...and they are currently covered with checkerspot caterpillars as I write. The older, "more experienced" plants that dealt with them last year seem to have escaped becoming larva food this year. It makes me wonder if the adult checkerspot females preferentially seek out young plants to lay eggs on, or if the young (newly transplanted) plants are sending out distress signals until they get established...or if this was simply coincidence.
I'll probably never know, but it's interesting to hypothesize and try to figure out what makes sense.

Suet's Not Just for Birds Any More

I know that squirrels are acrobats, but sometimes it's just fun to look out the kitchen window and spy one doing something like this....

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Glowing Golden...rod

I love goldenrod. Solidago species of all shapes and sizes. Those bright yellow, frilly looking native flowers that bloom in the fall and get (wrongly) blamed for everyone's hayfever symptoms. Like milkweeds, they seem to have an entire mini-ecosystem of insects affiliated with them, plus they just brighten the landscape.

On our 7+ acres of "wild" land, I've found at least 3 species growing naturally:

Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)
Prairie goldenrod (Solidago missouriensis)
Stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

As I've been planting my garden beds, I've been adding varieties that I find in local nurseries. I currently have 6, maybe 7, planted in the flower beds:
Little Lemon goldenrod (a hybrid)
Wichita Mountains goldenrod (a variety of goldenrod collected in the Wichita Mountains of SW Oklahoma...but I've not been able to find a species name for it)
Golden Baby goldenrod (a variety of S. canadensis)
Gray goldenrod (S. nemoralis)
Stiff goldenrod (S. rigida)
Elmleaf goldenrod (S. ulmifolia).
I have one more variety in the beds that may or may not be Golden Baby - I planted two of them the first fall we were here and I lost the labels.... Hopefully I'll be able to identify them when they bloom this year.

Anyway, the first of my goldenrods is blooming already - (drum roll, please!) - and the summer speed demon is...Little Lemon! Here's a photo of the blooms taken from above:

The flowers remind me (rather appropriately, for this time of year) of bursting fireworks. The plants themselves are very dense - I put 3 in about a foot apart from each other, and now I wish I'd planted them farther apart, or even placed them separately. They've grown taller than advertised - these are about 22" tall now, rather than the 8-12" max height that they are labeled to attain, and I've done absolutely nothing special except plant them. Of course, they could be on "steroids" from the nursery-added fertilizer. We'll see how they do next year. Meanwhile, I'm enjoying their golden glow.
Beware. I'm likely to bore you with shots of other golden beauties as the summer moves on.

Fascinating Cloud Formation

Hearing prolonged rumbles an hour or so ago, I looked out the back door to blue skies and shrugged it off as fireworks being set off by the neighbors. Prairiewolf noticed the noise, too, and after a bit I decided to look out the front door. It was like being in an alternate universe! The sky was very dark, with frequent lightning flashes. There was no blue sky to be seen anywhere.
Even more amazing was the base of the cloud - a really unusal formation that I've never seen before. A circular area was distinctly set off, lower, from the rest of the base of the cloud. This circular formation was attached via a narrow band with a more linear, lowered section that seemed to run along the western side of the base of the storm. Almost a linear roll cloud on the backside of the storm, but much more layered looking and with no visible rotation.

I was able to get several photos. Does anyone know if this formation tells anything special about this thunderstorm? (The cell was an elongated single cell that seemed to arise, unexpectedly, in the middle of otherwise benign looking skies. Nothing was predicted, and it wasn't particularly hot - around 82 degrees F.)