Monday, April 20, 2020

The Search for Sense

The Search for Sense

            It's easy to keep talking when you have nothing to say. I've done it often. After all, if I shut up people might forget about me.

            This 49th essay is the last planned in the series. The others, ostensibly, have been about gardening, though actually about my view of things. More traditionally, there would be one more, making 50. People like things that end in zeros. But, I'm finished here, resting comfortably at 49. If you enjoy my strange humor, go back and read earlier essays. This one doesn't continue that thread.

            Instead, I'll answer the question: why do I pursue the subjects I do? I know you never asked that, but memoirs are more for the memoirist than their readers. More encompassing than thoughts on my favorite color, or why photography is best appreciated in January, the road traveled here spreads behind me, waiting to be misunderstood and selectively remembered, as we all view our pasts.

            My father was a biologist, well versed in nature. He encouraged me to think about and experience the life around us. I well remember collecting insects, especially butterflies and moths, killing them in a jar with some gas (ether?), and pinning them in a box. I learned their species names, when they appeared during the year, what they ate and their life cycles.

            Soon after, astronomy beckoned and, delighting in a $30 reflecting telescope, I saw the craters on the moon, the bands and moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the crescent of Venus, sunspots, the double cluster in Perseus and the Andromeda nebula.

            The state of weather forecasting in the 1950s made it difficult to know when I could get out with my scope. This resulted in my studying the weather to be my own forecaster, and it became a greater focus than astronomy.

            The above hobbies seem unrelated, but on a deeper level they fit a narrative: why things are.
            Given our planet, the composition of its atmosphere and a temperature that allows a common fluid (water, in our case), life is possible.

            Given plant life, animal life becomes possible. Why are plants where they are? Temperature, humidity and soil type. Why do we have those? Geology answers: topography, water sources and soils. I read some works on geology. Amazingly, the size and placement of the Gulf of Mexico determines the economy of the US, the soil type and therefore, plant life. If you need to understand this intuitively, glance at a NASA photograph of the US at night, from space, and note the position of the lights. You'll see wealth and agriculture to the right of the 100th meridian, which rises north from the west end of the Gulf, desert and much poverty to the left. Neutral and acidic soils are to the right, basic soils to the left. Many animal and plant species act as if that meridian is a wall. The desolation continues west until meeting the Pacific, where wealth and agriculture hug the watery coast.
Water (rain) flows north and east from the warm Gulf. Elsewhere, you'd better have an oil patch or a ski resort if you want to build a community.

            The insects are where they are because they eat the plants that feed and nurture them.       Animals, especially birds, eat those insects. There are many more birds in the east than the west. Most plant and animal species treat the 100th meridian as an electric fence.

            Ah, birds! I became interested in birding about 1971 when this poor grad student needed a place to go on a super-cheap date with a new girlfriend (and wife-to-be, but who knew then?) A friend recommended going to Plum Island, a bird sanctuary near our Boston homes. Seeing a Red-winged Blackbird show off hooked me, and I've been a birder ever since.

            Birds are largely where they are because they eat the insects which eat the plants which grow in the soils under the weather on a planet with the “right stuff.” Yes, some birds are vegans, but they've just moved slightly down the chain.

            Do you see how things fit? Answering that is the thread of my interests. Before the word “ecology” made it onto posters, I was thinking along those lines. Of course, scientists making real contributions were working in that direction, but I was drifting along, too, metaphorically picking up bright pebbles along the way.

            I still follow the thread, trying to take photos of clouds, flowers, birds, butterflies, dragonflies and lunar craters.

            I garden a lot, now.
            I curse the insects, birds, rabbits and deer that devour the plants raised from seedlings.
            I try to create a soil mixture that will make the plants happy.
            I move the plants around the yard, finding places with the right amount of sun or shade for each.
            I kill a lot of plants unlucky enough to be stuck in the “wrong stuff” in the wrong lighting.
            I try to see it all as a whole.
            I can be seriously boring to talk to. Just excuse yourself and go back to the bar for a refill.
            Thanks for reading my essays. Perhaps we'll meet when the yellow sun is warm, the skies are blue and white, and the multi-colors stretch to the horizon!

Spring 2019 in the back yard

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Five Seasons

The Five Seasons


            Never-ending cold. The sidewalks are slippery. I hate having to be careful!

            Snow is forecast ten days from now. They've been right sometimes. I'll scatter some soil amendments on the beds before then, so they'll soak in slowly as the snow melts.

            Plenty of time to update garden maps using last year's changes. Drawn with Microsoft Paint, then printed for reference.

            Arranging photos of flowers, herbaceous beds, and fall colors can take days. Some even make the cut and wind up on the web. The garden didn't really look that good? It must have been a Photoshop trick.

            Deer eating the azaleas? NO! Bambi must die!

            The dark months, after the leaves have been picked up, are the time to get acquainted with your house's interior. The living room, kitchen, bedroom, bath. Got it. Stuck inside.

            Another two months of this? Get me out of here!


            The point. The full year of work comes to this: great looking flowers.

            Standing among them in the early morning, steam slowly spinning skyward from my personal coffee cup, shoes shiny with dew, nowhere else in the world matches this. Later in the day, visitors will enjoy the scene. Did I pick up all the dead leaves? I wish they were here Tuesday when that 'Amoenum' looked great!

            “Kodak Moments”, toothy grins spread wide. Less clich├ęd when in front of a bright wall of flowers than during other seasons.

            Is that yellow bird fan-dancing through the leaves a Kentucky Warbler or a Yellowthroat? But, I know where my bird book is.

            Trees and grass show off a light green. The sun is warm and plans develop unhurried by distracting insects or cold winds. No rush. It seems this could last forever.

            Couldn't be better!


            Pushing through dense air and vegetation.

            Bug repellent, headbands, and hoses.

            I'm holding on in the face of extreme heat and drought, continuing into the next day, and the next, and … some herbaceous plants are giving up and collapsing. A few small plants in pots leave this vale of tears. Where do they go? Should that be “this veil of tears?”

            Main activities: dragging hoses all over the yard, mixing dirt for new beds, and top-dressing old ones later.

            Trees and grass settle into dark green.

            Ah, some summer flowers are showing off: daylilies, mimosa, milkweed. Butterflies are getting attention. I forget how to tell the Spicebush Swallowtail from the dark morphed Tiger Swallowtail. But, I know where the butterfly book is.

            Scratching bites. Where'd that poison ivy rash come from?

            Ahhhh (Finally)

            Temperatures tick lower. Mosquito clouds thin.

            I work in my undershirt without defending against bugs or cold. Neighbors look the other way.

            The best time of year for planting and transplanting.

            Dreaming of next year. We'll expand that bed and top-dress the other. Do I want to start a new bed by the fence now? Leave it 'til later?

            Fall asters and sedum are still attracting butterflies.

            Dragonflies! Is that an Eastern Pondhawk or a Slaty Skimmer? But, I know where the dragonfly book is.

            Tree leaves surviving, a little worn and bug-bitten. Grass browning.


            The world turns brown, up and down.

            Still planting and transplanting. Give the roots time to settle in and feed.

            Raking and making. Leaves turn into compost, which turns into top-dressing for beds.

            Is that leaf from a Pin Oak or a Spanish Oak? But, I know where my tree book is.

            New life amid the old strife: arum and rohdea japonica start to grow in the cool winds, to die back the next summer, now sharing the newly thinned beds with erect hellebores. Are those really crocus and daffodil shoots expanding above the surface?

            Flashes of orange and red. That's why I grow Japanese Maples. And some of the azalea leaves are blazing red and yellow. Wow, that sky is really blue!

And Again … Dark

            A new season of cold and stasis wraps around the calendar, and into my mind, pushing me back through the door, to room temperatures echoing the African savanna I was created for.

            Will this cold wind never end?

            Fade to Dark.

Monday, January 20, 2020

You're Being Put on Notice

You're Being Put on Notice

            Humans notice what they want to notice, though each has their own focus.
             Birds? What birds?:  A man enjoys a vacation in France, even taking the TGV from north to south. He reports to his friend, a birder, how much he enjoyed the trip and how much he saw. The friend asks, “Did you see any birds?” The man shrugs, “No.” The birder's eyes pop. “You traveled through a whole country and didn't even see one bird?” The reply, “No.” Of course he saw many birds, but didn't notice them or remember them.
             Lawn? What lawn?:  One day I showed a co-worker a photo of some of my azaleas taken in the back yard. Expecting perfunctory compliments, I was floored when he simply said, “Don't you ever mow your lawn?” I hadn't even noticed I had a lawn. At least, not in that picture. My yard-life is dominated by the care of azaleas and some other flowering plants. A lawn? I sort of remember mowing the lawn occasionally, I think. The area of the yard others call a “lawn” is, for me, a collection of low, herbaceous green stuff: clover, plantain, crabgrass, Stiltgrass, dandelion, Creeping Charlie and the like. They're green. I'm fine with green. My standard line is: “When the weeds in my yard green-up, it must be spring.”

Did you notice the Ground Orchid flowers? Don't look at the ground.
            Bushes? What bushes?:  Which brings me to an event last summer. A micro-burst had taken down a couple of large branches of Red Maples (note to self: don't ever plant such brittle, short-lived specimens!) The branches missed most of the azaleas, but were too big for my handsaw, so I called a tree service, and they came the next day. I had them take down a few small, dead branches from some oaks in the front yard, too, and they were done in an hour. They showed they were a complete service team by using a leaf blower to clean the lawn of debris, which was too small to bother picking up by hand. Where did this debris go? Yes, you got it on the first try! All over the azaleas, leaving them covered with “leavings,” leaving a clean lawn, and leaving me to pry off the leaves and other debris from my favorite plants. I'm sure they were sure homeowners would appreciate their cleanliness. I'm sure, on average, they were right, as they noticed the lawn and ignored the bushes.
            Bushes are for workers to empty excess paint behind, drape hoses and tools over, and hide other activities that would/should never be noticed by the homeowners.

            I've noticed that almost every hobby can be lonely.
            I've noticed that maintaining a large garden is a lot of work, not 100% successful as winds, rains, droughts, bugs, branches, and maintenance workers torture it.
            I've noticed that other people don't notice what I notice, though their variety make the world more interesting. I'll give the universe a pass on that!