Friday, December 30, 2011

A Time to Look Both Ways, Backward and Forward, As We Cross Into 2012

It's the time of year when it seems necessary to look back over the past year, and then right to look ahead towards the year to come.  After reading multiple such posts on other blogs over the past few days, last night I gave into temptation and looked back in my own journal to remember 2011 in our yard and gardens in SW Sedgwick County, Kansas....

The first day over 100 degrees was....(drum roll, please!)...May 9th, when it reached 101 on our sheltered breezeway.  (The average high temperature for that date in Wichita is 74 degrees.)  This was definitely a harbinger of things to come.

We had 53 days over 100 during the year, breaking the all-time record here in the Wichita area.

In my journal, I started whining about unseasonable heat and the lack of rain back in April.  Little did I realize what was in store for us over the next several months!  By August, I'd quit complaining (for the most part) and start cheering on the 100 degree days.  Heck, if we were going to suffer through the horrible heat, we might as well set a record!  And we did.  Several, in fact.

(According to The Wichita Eagle yesterday, Wichita also set a record this year for the widest range between high and low temperatures recorded here for any single year so far:  128 degrees.)

As far as the garden itself went....  We started cleaning and preparing the vegetable garden in February, then did our first seed planting in early March.  Despite my weather whining in April, we had our best spring garden ever.  We're still feasting on the broccoli and cauliflower that I harvested and froze from that spring bonanza.

The summer garden, though, was another story.  I put in some ridiculously large number of tomato seedlings for the two of us (at least 16) and they all took hold nicely and looked great as of May 31st.  I should have had tomatoes falling off the counter and rolling out the kitchen door.  However, out of all of those plants, I got one regular size tomato and 3 cherry (grape) tomatoes in early July.  The plants just didn't set fruit in the scorching heat that never seemed to quit.  Despite the fact that I stopped watering sometime in mid July, most of the tomato plants survived the summer and started to set fruit again in the fall, but a fairly early frost literally froze our hopes on the vine.  We just weren't meant to have tomatoes this year.

So most of our "gardening" this summer ended up being focused on plugging buffalo grass in an attempt to get some sort of decent lawn growing.  (Just for the record, growing lawn grass is NOT really gardening in my book.) The plugs we put in during early July look like they've taken hold pretty well.  The plugs we put in later look...pluggy, even now.  We'll have to see how they look in April or May, as the buffalo grass greens up and starts growing again.

By the time fall got here, I didn't want to step outside to do more than push a camera shutter button.  The thought of a fall garden was simply disgusting.

But it's been a couple months now.  We've had a bit of rain.  The heat of the summer is simply an unpleasant memory.  I can finally start thinking about what I want to do as the weather warms up in a couple months.  Hope, after all, springs eternal in a gardener's breast.

So, for next year???

1)  I'm going to start lettuce seeds indoors, sometime in January, since I learned last year that if young lettuce seedlings experience temperatures below 50 degrees F., it encourages early bolting when hotter weather comes.  Once the young seedlings have more than 3 or 4 leaves, low temperatures apparently don't have the same effect.

2)  I AM going to be home in early April, when the asparagus starts coming up, and again in early June, when the peas start bearing, so they won't all go to waste in the compost pile like they did this year.

3)  Any time now, we are going to put up the bluebird nest boxes that have been ripening quietly in the garage for over a year now.  They'll do a lot more good out on fenceposts where the birds can actually use them!

4)  If the weather gods are good to us and we have decent harvests, I am going to work harder at finding new recipes to utilize our home-grown produce.  Then I'm going to actually try them out!  The recipes I've got are good, but limited, and I know there are many more, wonderful ways to tantalize our taste buds as well as nourish our bodies.

5)  I am going to do a better job of getting our beds well mulched, so that we're ready for the summer baking season ahead of time and don't, hopefully, have to try to play catch-up as much as we did this year.  (I've already got the chopped leaf mulch piled and ready for deployment - its lack was our limiting factor this last spring.)

6) And I am going to continue keeping the garden journal that I started last spring and abandoned in June, when the weather was so discouraging that I didn't have the heart to go on.  I used it to note tidbits from magazine articles, timing for plantings and harvestings, wish lists for purchases and projects, and all sorts of other fun stuff.  While I only kept the journal up for 4 months, I'm finding lots of little notes in it that are getting my blood stirring as I think about getting started this spring! 

And that's enough for now.   The catalogs are coming in and the winter season of dreaming is upon us.  Here's wishing all of us a healthy and happy year in 2012!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Blue's Diagnosis: Leiomyosarcoma

Well, the pathology report came back yesterday.  Blue's intestinal mass was diagnosed as leiomyosarcoma.  The surgeon attempted to be upbeat, telling me that the margins were complete, so hopefully he got it all.

But in talking with Greg, he reminded me of the enlarged lymph nodes that were seen on ultrasound....  And it is a cancer known for metastasizing.  (Another bit of somewhat good news, though:  at least it wasn't in the liver.)

This is normally a cancer of older dogs.  Median age at diagnosis is a bit over 10.  Blue is 2 1/2.  Does this mean that he's young and can fight it better?  Or does this mean that it's a particularly aggressive variant of the disease?  Only time will tell us, so all I can do is try to move this news to the back of my mind and enjoy our time with him, however short or long it may be.  (Median survival appears to be 22 months after diagnosis.)

Ironically, in this case, it might almost be easier to have the mindset of a dog - and let the future take care of itself.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

FeederWatch Time of Year

It's the time of year when I switch from being unable to keep my eyes (and camera) off foliage, flowers, and insects to the time of year when I obsess over my bird feeders.  Indeed, sometimes I think that I almost prefer wintertime, with its stark silhouettes of trees and bushes highlighted against sky or grasses, its long vistas, and the constant color and movement of the birds in and around our home, to the lusher, more overwhelming and stickier summertime.

Off and on for about 20 years, I have participated in Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch.  This is a citizen science project that relies on folks who feed birds in their yards to watch those feeders for two consecutive days every two weeks, then report back about what birds they are seeing and in what numbers.  The Project FeederWatch folks then track large scale bird population patterns from year to year.

It's not a rigid thing to participate in observing your feeders for Project FeederWatch - you can miss weeks, if necessary, while you are away on vacation.  You report the approximate amount of time that you watched during each watch period, so that if you're quite busy one morning, you simply note that you weren't able to put in any time watching at that time.  Since your data is being combined with observations from many, many other bird feeders in your area, the individual variations in observation time cancel each other out.  Best of all, in my opinion, you can now enter your data directly online - my weakest link was always the juncture between writing down my observations and getting them into the mail and back to Cornell.

Along with online data entry, FeederWatch now allows you to enter data for weekly observations, so I've taken to watching my feeders every Monday and Tuesday...when I'm home and have the time.  It continually amazes me how much more I observe when I have a set time and a reason to keep my eyes turned feeder-ward.

One year I saw red crossbills in my yard for a day or two. These are northern birds whose uniquely shaped bills are used to pry open pine cones to eat the seeds.  By watching my feeders, I'm much more aware of irruption years in the northern bird populations, years where weather conditions have decreased food supplies up north and pushed the resident birds there farther south than normal to forage for food during the winter.

A couple springs ago, a small flock of yellow-headed blackbirds stopped by for an afternoon's snack.  I've seen these guys in large flocks at the big wetlands and reservoirs, but never in my "normal" landscape.  I do, however, usually have a couple red-winged blackbird males that actually overwinter in the area, rather than flying further south and reappearing in the early spring.  I'm not sure that I'd notice them without having them pulled in frequently to catch a quick meal.

So far this year, one of my more unusual feeder birds is a Bewick's wren who's been visiting regularly, although not daily.  (Sorry for how blurry this and the next photo are - handheld, long lens, poor light!)  This is a species I've seen before, but only once or twice in any year and only for a day or so at a time, foraging in my winter flower beds or around the deck during the fall.

Along with spotting occasional visitors to my feeders, I'm also much more likely to see the resident Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk swooping through when I'm watching my feeders purposefully.  Sometimes I even get to see one of them feeding!

Occasionally I'll also see an abnormality among the common birds.  I've seen birds with injuries that seem to have healed.  More commonly, though, I see abnormal feather colorations.  This red-winged blackbird's unusual necklace is a case in point.

Sometimes I get to see birds behaving badly, too! Here a starling and a red-bellied woodpecker face off about who has the right to feed on the suet, while a cardinal acts as impartial observer!  (Conflict between these two species is actually pretty common during bad weather, at least at my feeders.)

Besides being more likely to observe more uncommon species of birds - or common birds that appear infrequently, unusual plumage or interesting behavior, I love the chorus of bird calls that I can hear faintly through the windows from all the birds attracted to my feeders.  Even better is that same chorus heard loudly every time I step outdoors.  Obviously the bird song isn't related to whether I participate in FeederWatch or not, but I do think it's more persistent and "multicultural" because of the feeders that I have up.

That said, I don't think that bird feeding really changes the species that winter around here.  I do, however, think that it brings the birds closer to where I can observe them frequently and comfortably from inside, increasing their activity in and around the house itself.

All in all, participating in Project FeederWatch is a very satisfying wintertime activity for me.  While I'm deepening my connection to my surroundings (and getting quite a bit of entertainment), I'm also getting the satisfaction of joining thousands of other bird feeders around the country to monitor certain bird populations around the country.  It's a win-win-win situation for me!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Just a little over a year ago, I brought home a 16 month old German shepherd male that I'd found through a classified ad in the paper.  He was wild and undisciplined, the result of having spent most of his young life (and all of the last 4 months of it) in a kennel with little human or canine interaction.

Between Becker and Greg and me, we've absorbed Blue into our home and into our lives.  (That's Blue on the left, Becker on the right.  This photo was taken near the end of August.)  Now it's hard to remember the wild thing that nearly pulled me off my feet during our first walk together, that tried his best to eat the cats during our first attempts to introduce them.  He's still a hard-headed adolescent at times, but he's an integral part of our family pack.  Like Becker, he almost feels like an extension of me as I go about my daily routine.

And he's not here tonight.  He's in a kennel at the Wichita Emergency Veterinary Hospital with an IV in him, replacing fluids that he's lost over the last few days, awaiting exploratory surgery in the morning.  On ultrasound this afternoon, they found a mass between his spleen and bladder, complete with (probable) enlarged lymph nodes in the area. 

A few days ago, Blue started vomiting copiously.  Huge amounts of slightly digested food.  He continued drinking...but he continued vomiting too.  My initial reaction that this was a normal stomach virus or a reaction to something he had eaten morphed into real worry by late yesterday.  An obstructed bowel seemed probable, although he showed no sign of the pain that normally accompanies an intestinal blockage of that nature.  This morning Blue and I were on the way to our vet as soon as I could get him in.  Their x-rays were inconclusive, so they arranged for us to head to the local specialists for the ultrasound.

So tonight I wait.  And worry....

Friday, December 09, 2011

As the World Turns....

In the latest issue of onearth (Winter 2011/2012, p. 64), Jill Sisson Quinn began an essay with the the lines, "It was forbidden to say the sun was rising.  Instead, advised leaders of the Earth Literacy workshop at Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey, say you are going to greet the sun as we, on Earth, turn toward it."

My first thought was, "How hokey!  Give me a break.  That sort of hair-splitting sounds so ridiculous."

But the concept stuck with me, and I've decided that it isn't so foolish at all.

To say that the sun rises and sets puts the sun moving relative to us humans, standing still here on Earth.  It's really not that different from the ancient concept of Earth as the center of the universe.  In fact, you could argue that "sunrise" and "sunset" are almost verbal anachronisms left over from that belief.

But to say that we, on Earth, are turning towards the sun in the morning and away from the sun in the evening?  Not only is that more accurate scientifically, it sets up a totally different feeling of our place in the grand scheme of things.  Come to think of it, this way of looking at the pattern of our days is fairly similar to the sun salutation more common in the Eastern cultures.

To describe the photo above as, "My spot on Earth turning away from the sun, turning towards the dark," gives me a frisson of discomfort.  However, at the same time, thinking of the change from day to night in this way comforts me with a welcome feeling that I'm just a tiny part of a magnificent whole, a whole that functions perfectly well without any input from me.  As Eliza Doolittle said to Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, "Without your twirling it, the Earth can spin! Without your pushing them, the clouds roll by!" 

In the final analysis, maybe we do need to search for a new way of thinking and talking about the daily movements of the Earth relative to the sun.  However, "My spot on Earth turning towards the sun, away from the night," and, "My spot on Earth turning away from the sun, towards the night," are horribly awkward and not likely to replace "sunrise" and "sunset" anytime soon.  Maybe it's time to speak of "turning to the sun" each morning? and "turning away from the sun" each evening?  A little humility never hurt anyone.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Gifting Question

Now that our children are fully launched into self-reliant adulthood (and there are no grandchildren on the horizon), we've started encountering a thorny question each year as we look towards Christmas - how should we handle giving each other gifts?

Our son, Sean, is an affirmed anti-materialist and flatly doesn't want "stuff".  He is continually trying to pare down his possessions.  He lives in a (series of) smallish apartment(s) in a big city and he prefers to be able to move between them with the least amount of hassle.

Jess, our daughter, loves gift-giving and receiving, loves to create beauty around herself, and finds her home a source of great comfort.  Holidays are particularly special to her, and gift giving is an important part of the feeling of love and family at those times.

Greg's never been a big one for Christmas or Christmas gifts - his philosophy is that he likes to give gifts whenever he want to do so throughout the year, rather than at a culturally determined time of year.

And then there's me.  I love Christmas cards - both sending and receiving them.  I've moved so much throughout my life that Christmas cards are a wonderful way, at least once a year, to feel connected to friends and family that I rarely see anymore.  And I love to give multiple small gifts - the sort that can really lift the spirit if you happen to hit upon a particularly lucky choice, but that leave neither giver nor receiver feeling bad if you totally miss the mark.  The sort that can be re-gifted without angst, but hopefully will give the receiver enough pleasure and/or use that he/she wants to keep them.  Most of the time, that's the sort of gift I'd rather receive, too.

(Anyone else sense a gender issue in my discussion here?!  LOL!)

Sean has suggested, again, that we don't exchange gifts at all.  Greg would happily go along with that.  Both Jess and I would prefer to continue with the usual gift giving tradition.  I've seriously debated just having Jess and I exchange gifts with each other, but that feels very Scrooge-ish.

It seems so ironic to have a tradition that is meant to bring nothing but joy and happiness causing such annual angst...but no one has ever said that the human heart is simple!

When all's said and done, I think Ranger may have the appropriate last laugh here - as he lounges next to his favorite indoor "chewy play-toy," the electric cords!  I suspect we'll figure it all out somehow!

Trees - The Natural Playground

I've been an absent blogger...and I apologize. Not surprisingly, I've got many, many photos to share...because I've been busy...and I haven't had time to blog. Funny how that works!

We got back a few days ago from a wonderful 10 day trip to the wilds of Florida's panhandle. While we were there, we stayed with Jess, our daughter, in her new house in Ft. Walton Beach, and also spent time in Pensacola visiting with my side of the family who were all gathered there for Thanksgiving and in Mobile with some of my good, good friends there.

Jess's new home was actually built several decades ago and the yard boasts quite a few large, picturesquely beautiful, sand live oak trees that corkscrew towards the sun in unusual and interesting patterns.

When the extended family came for a visit one day, it was truly amazing to see how quickly those trees attracted everyone - especially the children and the young at heart! I don't think the most expensive play equipment in the world would have attracted everyone as quickly and surely as these sand live oaks did!

From 7 to 17....

...from 5 to 47....

...from 30 to 57 - all the kids had to play!!!