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I'm a woman entering "the third chapter" and fascinated by the journey.

Monday, December 20, 2010


Is the winter of 2010-2011 going to be a repeat of last winter? Given that we have had snow on the ground for a solid week with more predicted (including the possibility of a VERY white Christmas), this scenario seems likely. I'm not sure that I'm going to approve. (Not that Mother Nature cares.) 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter visitors (again)

      Wasn't it just winter?  It's here again?  Although mid-December seems WAY too soon for all the snow we've been getting, this kind of weather does bring its compensations.
  • You can see who's been where. 
      Most noticeable, of course, are the hoofprints.  Not Donner and Blitzen, but the infamous North Parkersburg Deer Herd, several of whose members came very close to taking on a line of cars last night on Fairview Avenue. Fortunately, the lead cars in both lanes (one of which was mine) were able to stop, deer ran off in various directions, and we all went on our merry way. But the most casual glance out any window reveals lines of hoofprints criss-crossing the yard--
heading straight up the hill from Roseland Avenue, continuing up the side yard in the general direction of Hamilton Middle School, making random curves leading nowhere in particular, and concentrating near all the bird feeders looking for leftover seed.  It is obvious that these deer are fearless: one print was six inches from the patio door, and not even the barking of Lucy the Loud Labrador keeps them from the feeders near the neighbor's fence.  We're wondering if the deer have already exhausted the massive crop of acorns dumped on the back yard, or if they're simply saving them for later. 
      More welcome than the hoofprints are all the bird tracks.  I can't tell the difference between the toeprints of a finch and a sparrow, but we definitely have lots of little feathered somebodies looking for food in all kinds of places. New spots for birdfeeders, perhaps?

  • Winter visitors return.  The winter flocks of juncos are present in abundance, and the wrens are visiting the feeders that they mostly ignore in warmer weather.  

  • Light on snow.  Does anyone else love the way that night is never really dark when the ground is covered with snow?

Monday, December 13, 2010

A sad history

This weekend, breaks taken from grading research projects were generally spent on the exercise bike, watching bits and pieces of the PBS documentary on West Virginia history.  Though I've worked in the state for more than twenty years now, I've never really known its history. Watching the program, my adopted state struck me as a tragic place from its beginning.

Allen Eckert spoke of the neutrality of the area south and east of the Ohio River in the days before European settlement.  None of the indigenous tribes had permanent settlements here but used the land as a neutral hunting ground.  In Eckert's words: "when they were in this hunting ground it was a neutral ground. It was where they could co-mingle, where they could meet, they could talk, and nobody would kill each other." Of course, all that changed when colonists and rapid economic development (18th-century style) arrived, resulting in the Indian wars and the slaughter of numbers of people on all sides.  After the Civil War, when West Virginia was created as part of the Union, former slaves were persecuted for seeking education and their white teachers threatened.  One woman from Maine kept an axe and a gun by her bed to "sell my life as dearly as I may." Only five years after statehood, former Confederates were in control, with control by railroads and industry soon after that.

It had always seemed to me that West Virginia has been basically a colony of the wealthier areas of the United States, a place used for its natural resources but otherwise ignored.  The documentary confirmed that idea, but the real tragedy is that so few people here seem to resist their colonization by the coal and chemical companies.   When the Upper Big Branch mine disaster occurred, leading to calls for Massey Coal's prosecution, one of my students commented on Facebook that the disaster was largely the miners' fault and that the company shouldn't be blamed.  Visiting the southern counties last spring, I met people who worked in mountaintop removal mining and insisted that West Virginia "needed" to sell all its minable coal, since more than half of its mountains would remain.  The brother of a county extension agent sang the praises of the (not even ironically named) "King Coal Highway" being built with company funds on some of the newly-flat land.  I resisted the urge to ask who the peasants were if coal is still king.

Of course it is true that the southern counties are still poor, and coal is still the only game in many towns, but seeing people embracing coal and blaming those who want to break its grip on the state was an unsettling experience.  I wonder if West Virginia will ever cease to be a "dark and bloody ground."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The first snow days

The juncos returned to the feeders with the first snowfall this year.  Usually, I see them on the ground, but this week they were at living room eye-level, using the platform feeder a good six feet off  the ground. This is a good thing, as the snow also revealed lots of footprints of neighbor cats.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Another view

Another Toledo discovery: the Window on Wildlife at the Wildwood Preserve Metropark.  Several of the Metroparks feature a WOW, and basically, all it is is a window wall looking out onto a collection of birdfeeders and such. (My husband has already been told that we need to upgrade the feeding station outside our much-more-modest picture windows.) Why the excitement, you might ask.  The answer: urban biodiversity.

We probably only spent about fifteen minutes in the windowed room, and I didn't write down the number of feeders, but the area, backed by young woods, featured at least the following: peanut feeders, suet feeders, thistle feeders, high and low tray feeders, flat stones used as ground-level feeders, a pond in which a mallard pair had made themselves quite at home, stands of leafy plants for cover, and at least one fallen log.

What I remember seeing, in a few minutes on an ordinary Saturday afternoon, included the following:
red squirrels
a chipmunk
the aforementioned mallards
blue jays
tufted titmice
two male goldfinches
one of the sparrows with eyebrows
two downy woodpeckers
a red-bellied woodpecker
a nuthatch
and assorted LBBs.

A most satisfactory view.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Where does the time go?

Where does this thing/concept/whatever we call time go?  Thinking this evening,"gee, I haven't updated the blog in a while," I realize it's been over five weeks--weeks of meetings and conferences and drafting work-related documents and grading papers and wondering "will I live long enough to retire?"  (Consensus: maybe.)

It's been a strange fall--early frost, followed by warm weather, followed by rain and mold and a series of days that can't seem to make up their mind what the season actually is. I need, however, to report on a glorious weekend afternoon, though I cannot now remember exactly which weekend it was.  At any rate, the temperature was in the sixties, the sun was shining, and the unraked leaves were crunching underfoot in a most satisfactory way. (And I do remember the day--it was just last Saturday but seems longer ago than that.) The sugar maples had dumped a significant portion of their load on the Adirondack chairs in the back yard, necessitating uncovering the chairs in order to have a place to sit.

Basking in the warmth, too contented to grade the stack of research papers I'd taken outside with me, I started examining leaves, mostly dry by the second week of November.  Visible on a good many of them were tiny dots, quite likely insect eggs.  Biologist Doug Tallmadge of the University of Delaware, author of Bringing Nature Home (one of my favorite non-literary tomes), has noted that our native maples host something like 265 species of lepidoptera.  Those leaves blowing around our back yards are actually the nurseries for next year's butterflies.

Sounds like a good reason to let sleeping leaves (and potential butterflies) lie. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fall Fling

Wordsworth at 28 (when he seems to have felt very old, having no idea that he would live to be 80) pulled himself out of an emotional crisis with the thought that "nature never did betray the heart that loved her."  Considering some of the things that nature does (fading sight and hearing, the inconvenient effects of gravity, among others), it's hard not to find friend William a tad naive (as he noted a few years later when his favorite brother drowned in a storm).  But today was a day of unexpected grace and beauty.

Given the dryness of most of the summer, I've not been expecting much in the way of fall color.  (And yes, in our part of the world, we have recently had so many rainy days that some some of us were starting to forget what sun looks like, but rain the first week of October doesn't make up for months of drought.) Some of the trees in our neighborhood have been turning plain old brown, skipping everything that usually separates green leaves from brown ones. After driving across Ohio this morning, I am pleased to report that many of the states' trees are managing to put on their usual autumn show.

It started with a little yellow along I-77, then some red--sumac, maybe?  Skirting the edge of Amish country on Route 250, my hopes began to rise as a dogwood or two displayed their usual glorious burgundy.  By the time I was headed west on US 30, fall was in full fling.  The skies opened out as I left the hill country, pure blue, and there were the trees--maples, sassafrass, and something in clear, singing yellow.  (I don't identify leaves well at 65 miles an hour.)  Few things are more beautiful than a blue sky reflected in the clear blue of a farm pond, but one of them is the doubled sight of sugar maples strutting their stuff in this, their show-off season.  Perhaps this is the kind of sight that led Wordsworth to describe his "cheerful faith, that all that we behold is full of blessings."

Yes, indeed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A long journey

I have to confess that fall always makes me a little sad, even though I love the crisp air and the satisfying crunch of walking through fallen leaves.  So much is ending, and at this stage of my life, there seem to be more endings than beginnings.  Over the last few weeks, news of deaths and advancing illness have made this fall, still in its beginning phase, seem even more intense than usual.

My usual habit of turning to the outside world for solace has brought yet more meditation on endings.  This was a good year for butterflies, but the brevity of their lives has contributed to my autumn melancholy.  They add so much beauty to the world, but few of them live more than a few weeks.

One exception is the year's last generation of monarchs, which fly south to Mexico to overwinter, then start north in February or March, lay their eggs in the southern U.S., and die, leaving that next generation to complete the migration to our West Virginia hills and fields.  Knowing that the caterpillars busily defoliating our backyard milkweeds a few weeks ago were the last generation of 2010 led me to commemorate them.

The defoliated plant that led to the discovery

of the VERY hungry caterpillar
 caught in the act of chewing.

The last generation, who got to fly away.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

An urban haven

Today my other half and I discovered a truly amazing place in the center of Toledo--Wildwood Preserve Metropark.  This 500+-acre estate includes woods, meadows, part of the Ottawa River, remnant tallgrass prairie, a formal garden designed by Ellen Shipman, and the 32,000-square-foot house of a 20th-century spark plug magnate. While the noise of busy Central Avenue was generally audible as at least a background hum, and while the park was well-used--on this Labor Day weekend, the parking lots were nearly full, dozens of dogs were being walked, and picnics were happening at just about every table--sometimes it was possible to forget, at least momentarily, that we were in a city of more than 300,000 people. Here is a picture that gives some idea of how tall some of the grasses were.  This clump of big bluestem is much taller than my 5'6".

This monarch butterfly was totally oblivious to our presence, as was the Ottawa River in the following shot.

The Toledo Metropark system has impressed me in the short time I've been even vaguely familiar with it. This Rust Belt city seems to have made a concerted effort to make green space available to all its residents; five large parks are accessible by city bus, and many of the paths are wheelchair-accessible. At Wildwood, the water fountains include ground-level fountains for the dogs that people bring with them. While it is unlikely that much of any of the parks is pristine wilderness, I was heartened by the variety of plant and animal species we noticed in just a few hours at a time far from prime for wildlife-watching. It seems that vibrant urban life can coexist with a fair amount of wild nature.

In case this post seems too sweetness-and-light, let me report that there was a literal snake in the garden. We saw this juvenile beauty pursuing a toad just below an elegant iron gazebo in the formal garden. The toad escaped.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I woke this morning to heavy mist, the kind that seems to signal some kind of change in the weather.  In this case, the two days of reasonably cool days and cooler nights that we've had are supposedly giving way to several more days of heat. (I guess the warm upper air that let the fog form is going to descend on us--oh joy.)  Fog, besides demonstrating atmospheric transition, has always seemed mysterious to me; as a girl, I loved walking, and even driving, in swirling mist.

This morning's fog seems an appropriate marker of the state of my life, since this has been a summer of transitions.  The shift in certain people's health statuses has caused different caregiving responsibilities, with additional and different check-ins.  We may have inherited a cat whose human can no longer care for her, bringing our total to five, way over the "one cat per human" guideline followed for most of my adult life.  (Anyone out there want a declawed, one-eyed, geriatric calico cat who wants to be an only feline?) There is the obvious transition of adjusting to life in a new place with what should have been a new garden, though the deer and the poor soil have left some of our plants in a pitiful state.  Here's hoping that the decrease in level in the compost bin signals that compost is in fact happening.

The major transition has been my husband's finding of the job he's always wanted, in a city five hours away.  Two committed adults with computers and cell phones can of course maintain contact under such conditions, but this was not a change we had planned for. Helping him get settled, I have found much to like about the new location, not least the abundant city green space, great birding, and mass transit, and his new dean has noted that there are likely to be positions in my field next year. This possibility seems worth exploring. The future right now is as misty and mysterious as the back yard.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Today I want to praise extravagance. Since the go-go years on Wall Street that brought about our current economic woes, and since more of us have become aware of our ecological footprints, extravagance has gotten a bad name, but there are multiple extravagances, and it is some of those that I wish to praise, in no particular order.

• This morning, the deep green of the dogwood leaves was broken by the arrival of a male cardinal, extravagantly red, noisy, and exuberantly checking out the state of the dogwood berries, or whatever else in the tree might have been edible. Other birds manage to attract mates without being quite so eye-catching (and as Julie Zickefoose has noted, being eye-catching is often dangerous for cardinals), but such colorful perfection was this morning’s blessing.

• Berries themselves. The next time someone complains about the seeds of blackberries, raspberries, or strawberries, remind them that the fruits we and the birds crave are really seed dispersal mechanisms. Those luscious berries lure us in so that seeds can be spread more widely than the parent plants can spread them, and aren’t we lucky that the universe opted for this extravagant method of plant reproduction?

• Seeds in general. Those of us who aren’t faithful deadheaders of spent blossoms find that birds help themselves to our coneflowers and coreopsis, and in the process, scatter seed and make new plants. If we don’t immediately sweep up all the purchased seed spilled under our birdfeeders, we are rewarded by free sunflowers and millet. Let’s hear it for the extravagant generosity of free plants.

• The extravagant laziness of house cats. Is there anything more totally relaxed than a fat middle-aged cat sacked out on the sofa? (Or more generally graceful than cats, anyway?)

• The energy and generosity of certain young humans. This afternoon, I was privileged to attend a benefit for a cancer patient, organized by her young adult children and their friends. They had acquired donations of goods and services ranging from massages to meals to football weekends, and people who knew the woman in question packed the town hall and opened their hearts and their wallets. Love is always a good kind of extravagance.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Taking nothing for granted

Having planned to do a lot of writing this summer, I find that life (along with my general lack of organization) got in the way, as it tends to do. But I’m in good company: Eric T. Freyfogle, editor of The New Agrarianism, a collection of essays I’m currently enjoying, notes that “agrarians have typically been happier to live their lives than to write about them” (xviii). And while I’m hesitant to describe myself as agrarian, having been contentedly ensconced in one town or another for the last thirty-five years, the low-key pleasures of a localized and semi-outdoorsy life have become increasingly important as I move toward old age.

This has been an unexpectedly rough summer, emotionally. An old friend, a highly competent Renaissance man active in educational, environmental, and artistic circles, is fading away from Alzheimer’s; a longtime acquaintance, a woman about my age, is experiencing serious unspecified neurological problems; a troubled relative in her early fifties, after decades of erratic behavior, has recently been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disease, always fatal and always hideous. Part of my next few years will involve helping this individual die as peacefully as possible. My own good luck—being reasonably healthy, gainfully employed, and happily enmeshed in a web of relationships—seems more and more a kind of amazing grace.  All I can do in response, it seems, is to pay attention as much as possible.

In our immediate corner of the world, this has been a good week: the yard drainage project has been completed, creating not one but three new planting beds in the process (though the heat and dry weather have not yet revealed whether or not the basement will remain dry). Friends and acquaintances have offered plants to fill in some of the new spaces, so a friendship garden is being created. (Not that there aren’t already plants with stories in the existing beds—these daylilies                            
were acquired by my Bulgarian friend Milena in 2007, from a nursery owner who gave her far larger clumps than those offered to other purchasers that day. We suspect an infatuation with her accent.)
Other joys of the week include these:
  •  Meals in which nearly all the food was locally raised.  Sitting down to a meal in which the chicken, the potatoes, the green beans, the tomatoes, the blueberries, and the wheat for the cookies all originated within a twenty-minute drive of our dining room is a reminder of what a rich area the Mid-Ohio Valley truly is.  Now if only chocolate, coffee, and grapes for Chardonnay could be grown somewhere nearby, I could truly be a locavore. . .

  • The serendipitous combination of rose "Lady Elsie May" blooming with a nameless bicolor daylily that has accompanied me to three houses 

  • •Sightings of two of the Black Squirrels of North Parkersburg

  •  Chipmunks becoming regular visitors to our feeders, and (drum roll, please)

  • •The return of the goldfinches!  The ratibida, sunflowers, and silphium are blooming just in time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

(Some of) the joys of summer

Yesterday I saw a hummingbird for the first time this year. It was not at the red honeysuckle, or the penstemon, or the lantana, or at any of the other hummingbird- attracting plants dotted around the yard. No, it was two blocks from here, in a front yard, on a manicured street, darting between a pink saucer magnolia of some kind and a shrub with no discernible flowers. Birds have minds of their own.

This is proving to be a good year for fireflies. Our laxness in mowing the back yard has allowed some of the grasses to start going to seed, and the yard at twilight is filled with tiny blinking lights. Visitors from Florida last week had to stand at the window and comment on the sheer number of the little insects.

And the daylilies are blooming.  Life is good.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

From a different window

This week I am viewing the world from a different window, this one in Oneonta, New York, at a conference in honor of John Burroughs. This part of New York is superficially similar to the mid-Ohio Valley—Victorian towns, rolling hills, small farms, lot of trees—but it’s the differences that have stood out for me. The air has a crispness that we lack (perhaps because the air here is cleaner), and the light is different; Thomas Cole and the other Hudson River School painters had it right, or maybe Washington Irving in the opening of “Rip Van Winkle,” when he wrote of the “fairy mountains” with their ever-changing appearance.

Vegetation differences are striking. The most apparent roadside tree is birch, rare in southern Ohio and west central West Virginia. The white birch bark shines when seen from the interstate, but up close the bark of the gray birches (or whatever birch has smooth gray bark) is perhaps more beautiful. It’s so much like skin that I had to touch the tree on the parking lot trail around the campus pond; it’s easy to forget that bark is alive. The evergreens are different as well: spruce and fir that don’t do well in our hot, humid summers are common here, and the white pines are different somehow, perhaps fewer low branches.

The season is less advanced here. Enormous lilacs are still blooming in a few places, and peonies and poppies are still in full bloom, while at home they’ve been finished for weeks. But there are anachronisms—roses are everywhere here, though they’re rugosas and old shrub roses.

I stumbled across a magic garden today, Brookwood outside of Cooperstown, that was full of just such anachronisms. It was part of an historic estate, now in ruins, but a group of volunteers is attempting to maintain and restore the garden. Things that shouldn’t be blooming at the same time were, and the experience came close to bringing a sensory overload. Entering through a stone gate with a medieval-looking wooden door, the traveler finds a lawn flanked by weedy but spectacular perennial borders. Peonies of all types dominated on three sides, interspersed with pale foxgloves, amsonia, and purple alliums, with daisies interspersed and ragged orange poppies for spice. At the end of the lawn was a hedge of rosa alba and a tall pink rose that may have been Maiden’s Blush (or as the French called it, “Thigh of a Passionate Nymph”). Protected as the garden was by walls, the scents of the flowers stayed close and mingled—almost intoxicating. Passing beyond the rose hedge requires stepping down into a small garden with a pool surrounded by lady’s mantle and billowing catmint. Hidden behind ostrich ferns in a secret garden next to an old fountain, tiny pink primroses were blooming. But the real surprise was on the stone porch of the old school building that houses the group responsible for the garden today—nicotiana in full, heady, tropical-scented bloom. Pure magic.

I have a meeting to go to, so I won’t get started on the wild swamp walk to which the garden path leads.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gifts of the garden

Weather that enables the spending of several hours a day outside is one of life's great gifts, taking my mind off things like oil spills and a house in need of a serious cleaning. A half-acre yard with lots of trees ensures that there's always shade somewhere, so the gardener can migrate in search of a (reasonably) cool and pleasant place to work. Since the work seems never to be done, life can be lived outside much of the time.

This spring has brought delights.  A weedy little plant that popped up in the yard has a tiny, nondescript bloom but is a favored nectaring spot of an exquisite little butterfly with red spots.  Woodpeckers have taken up residence in one of the oaks.  Geranium sanguinem, a lovely flower that has the unfortunate common name of  Bloody Cranesbill, has volunteered by the back fence. A salmon-pink miniature rose has shown up in the midst of a tangle of Oriental poppy and jimson weed.  (That area is going to be dug out when the yard is regraded, but the rose will be rescued.) The newest furry thief is a chipmunk that has learned how to climb the feeder pole and drape itself across the top of the birdfeeder to access the seed, to the great amusement of all occupants of our house.

I'm even glad that we didn't take out the yew hedge (yet).  A flurry in the bush revealed a young grackle that probably should not have been out of the nest yet, but like most adolescents, this one had evidently attempted a task beyond its skill--flying, in this case.  There it sat, in all its tufted glory, with wild "eyebrows" giving it the look of a mad scientist.  (No camera around when one wants such a thing, of course.)  My fear was that one of the neighborhood cats would get it or that it would starve, but the parents quickly found the errant offspring and brought food, and it was still in its evergreen hideaway the next day.  By evening, it was gone, so I'm hoping it learned to fly.

It was a good week in the garden.  

Friday, May 28, 2010

Garden update

Where does the time go? It's been over three weeks since the last blog entry, and school is not even in session.

The days have been full, though, with more activities than will be reported today, some of them of an emotional variety. (I'm still processing my reaction to a Mountaintop Removal site, viewed in the company of the engineer leading the work.)  Most days, however, have featured at least a little yard time, so here follows the state of the garden.

"Muddy mess" is still an apt description, though the mud is in different places as new beds come into being.  This week's project was the creation of a butterfly garden along the street in front of the house.  To our surprise, the front yard is not all sand, as we had thought: an extensive portion of the area used for the new garden proved to be heavy clay--the joys of old fill dirt.  Some of the plants chosen may well struggle in clay, but we shall see.  The strong will survive.

At the moment, our hedge of burgundy-leafed physocarpus and one panicle hydrangea backs a more-or-less organized mix of the following plants, only a couple of which are in bloom so far.  Visit in July for what should be a riot of color.
white valerian
butterfly bush
cardoon (not sure why I opted to try this, but the thought of a giant, edible, thornless thistle that's actually cousin to an artichoke amused me)
"Cherry Brandy" rudbeckia
purple perennial salvia
"Hummingbird Coral" annual salvia
"Terra Cotta" snapdragons
mixed nasturtiums
creeping sedum

Empty spaces will be filled in with whatever's left over--and I have three wild lupines to find homes for.  Too bad West Virginia doesn't host the Karner blue butterfly.

Monday, May 3, 2010

A mixed bag of emotions

This week I have been unable to keep my eyes off the reports from the Gulf of Mexico.  I have never been to coastal Louisiana, but the marshes of coastal Georgia are one of my favorite landscapes, and the mangrove swamps of my Florida girlhood were magical places, full of birds that hardly looked real.  I mean, how could something as outrageous-looking as a roseate spoonbill manage to exist?  The thought of the numbers of deaths that are probably occurring as I write this--and that are due to a cultural addiction in which I participate--leaves me feeling sick and saddened.

But going into the garden-to-be always brings healing.  This week brought the sight of the first tiger swallowtails of the season, and the amusing spectacle of courting grackles.  For a few moments it seemed as if wild grackle sex would take place in broad daylight in full view of the neighborhood grandmothers as we chatted over the fence, but discretion prevailed, and the birds moved on.  The places where we haven't mowed yet are dotted with tiny seedling trees, at least some of them white oaks, offspring of the two giants whose pollen gave serious grief to my sinuses a few days ago.  What does it say that the sight of the babies brought delight, and a reminder to self to get the little things in pots for for an upcoming plant sale?  If they find homes, those two-inch trees may live for 500 years, more time than separates us from Shakespeare.  Such a thought is a true comfort.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Spring is definitely here...

Yesterday brought the first goldfinch in breeding plumage (or at least the beginning of breeding plumage) to one of the feeders.  The dogwood is in full bloom, the spirea is budding, and the violets are out.  Of course, so are the dandelions.  Did anyone else ever notice that the goldfinches and the dandelions match?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Double sigh

While the green beans are putting out new leaves to replace those munched on by Mittsy, the Bambis in the back yard have developed a fondness for daylilies.  Nature, green in tooth and claw, to mangle Tennyson.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


What is it about potentiality?  The rose garden and wildflower bed are muddy messes at this point, but I came in last evening (reminded by my long-suffering husband, who barely knows spinach from spirea, that it was 7:30 and we might at some point want dinner, which I had promised to fix) filled with the sense of well-being that (sorry, wonderful students) grading papers rarely gives.  Neither garden is anything to look at right now: the paths are laid out with cardboard and bags of Black Cow, the shrubs and daylilies are barely leafing out, the ornamental grasses are recognizable only from the last year's remnants, and the only bloom is one sorry daffodil that managed to hitch a ride on rose roots. The wildflower bed in particular is likely to need a couple of years to look like anything much as I'm starting little bluestem and blue fescue from seed (let's hear it for the single stems of baby grasses, which look like green thread in their little peat pots), so they may not even bloom this year.  But the garden of the imagination is in full bloom: in August, tall, sultry Madame Isaac Pereire will waft her perfume across the garden, accompanied by her entourage of magic lilies and "Mystic Merlin" malva.  The burgundy leaves of "Black Lace" elderberry will complement the smoky salmon and plum tones of rosa "Cinco de Mayo" while the clear green of daylily foliage keeps the various pinks from competing with each other.  Across the path, in the wildflower bed, purple coneflower and black-eyed susans will bloom happily amidst the pink sprays of muhly grass, while the gardener sits in Adirondack chair with a glass of chilled chardonnay and enjoys the view....

In the real world, the green bean seedlings on the dining room bookcase have been decapitated by one of the cats.  We suspect Mittsy the mutant, hurling champion of greater Parkersburg.

(Image credit: http://www.public-domain-image.com/)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

They're back

Today I saw the first grackles of the season.  There were two of the yellow-eyed bullies on the dome feeder, seemingly daring any other birds to come near. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that the common grackle is a year-round resident in our area, but that's not been my experience.  One day, they're just gone, though grackles aren't birds whose absence I generally notice. When the robins leave and the goldfinches lose their color, I'm aware that winter is on its way, and the first junco is always cause for quiet joy, but I can go for months without thinking of grackles. I'm not sure why this is, given that they're such handsome birds, and when they'e around, they tend to come in groups.

One of life's little mysteries.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A meditation on noise

Walking around nearby residential neighborhoods yesterday, I was stunned by how noisy Parkersburg is. Maybe because winter has been so long and so cold that being outside for any length of time has been difficult, I hadn’t processed what life in an urban (well, okay, maybe semi-urban) environment is like. Our immediate neighborhood (where I spend most of my alone-outside time) isn’t on the direct route to anywhere except two schools, and the traffic there is confined to particular hours of the day. We get periodic traffic noise, but the noise is so periodic that it’s noticeable, not the norm. Working in the back yard, I can actually hear the last of the oak leaves rattling on the tree whenever the wind blows.

Visually, the neighborhoods where I walked yesterday are mid-American paradise: blocks of mostly smallish mid-century houses, set back from the street with a reasonable number of trees and shrubs giving living interest to the scene. This time of year, squirrels are everywhere, and the birds are getting active. But what struck me was the noise: the constant hum of cars, trucks making deliveries to Kroger, several blocks away, the incessant muffled roar from the interstate, over a mile distant. For a while it was hard to block out the traffic sounds to concentrate on anything else, a shame on a day as beautiful as yesterday was. My mood began spiraling into serious annoyance at the constant overwhelming presence of so many unseen motor vehicles. There seemed no escape from the omnipresent noise pollution.

Then, there it was: birdsong to “rinse and wring the ear,” as Hopkins said, sound so piercingly beautiful that it made all other noises temporarily meaningless. The song came from a tree in front of a small nondescript house on the busiest street on yesterday’s route: a wren, perched high and hurling repeated, joyous-sounding notes out over the neighborhood. I had to stop, and when I did, my ear focused on other sounds despite the cars going past only a few feet away: crows nearby, calling to each other, the buzz of chickadees not too far away, assorted unidentifiable (to me) chirps, twitters, and burbles. The realization of so many other lives being carried on, seemingly unbothered by all our busyness, brought joy.

My task for the upcoming spring break is to listen for the sounds of the world, the ones that exist apart from and underneath the machine noises that make up so much of the human world.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Today's post is inspired by Shelley:  "if winter comes, can spring be far behind?"

Today, I think not.  After what has felt like months of grey weather, we have enjoyed two days of sun with the promise of more to come, and at last, the temperatures have risen enough for the parka to be left in the closet (for now).  The daffodil leaves are up in various parts of the yard, so yes, spring must finally be on its way.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

More things to like about snow days

  • You get to chat with the neighbors while you're all clearing your driveways.
  • You can see who's been visiting.  A visit to the birdseed bin revealed that a number of little birds had braved the dusting of snow on the carport to clean up the spilled seed.  More exciting: a look out the window revealed that someone had gotten tired of waiting for me to clear off the tray feeder on the ground and had brushed off enough snow to get at the sunflower seeds.  Investigation revealed what I suspected: squirrel tracks.  I filled the squirrel feeders before heading back into the house.
  • It's a good time to try new recipes. Since I was making a casserole and the oven was on anyway, I made Grandma Effie's Irish Oatmeal Bread (thanks, Debbie) and applesauce-oatmeal bread with dried cranberries. I am very grateful to have been born after the invention of bread. Eating unbaked wild grains appeals not at all.
  • I don't have to go anywhere.  Snow gives a perfect excuse to stay home, where I want to be anyway.

Wanting what we don't have

What is it about wrens?   Is it their willingness to live around humans, the way that they always seem to be busy and intent on something-or-other, or the angle of their tails that contributes an air of jauntiness? Whatever the reason, the sight of one never fails to make me smile.

Part of my delight in wrens is the fact that for years, I was the only gardener I knew who didn't have any.  No warbling song welcoming me whenever I stepped outside, no hyperactive brown balls nesting in the hanging baskets, no LBBs busily checking all the plant stems for insects or eggs.  Sparrows, cardinals, even goldfinches, but no wrens despite how common everyone else said they were.  I developed a serious case of wren envy, a failing it would have embarrassed me to admit.

It wasn't only wrens that I lacked.  In three successive gardens, I have failed miserably with marigolds, those ubiquitous annuals that proliferate everywhere else. If seedlings managed to survive downy mildew or damping-off, I would walk outside one morning to discover en entire patch wiped out by cutworms. Luckily, summer brings enough yellow flowers that marigolds aren't missed, and despising marigolds is intellectually respectable among gardening enthusiasts, but I have another serious failure: rudbeckias.

Every hillside in eastern North America seems to be covered with black-eyed Susans of some variety or other.  Not my yard.  The same places that killed marigolds (and gave me asters by the armload and Oriental lilies eight feet tall) left me Susan-less.  My native plant gardens have flourished with coneflowers, Mexican hat, amsonias, and locally-endangered downy sunflowers that sowed themselves, but no cheerful roadside weeds.  I did finally manage one scrawny patch last summer, to my great delight and that of the neighborhood finches and butterflies.  This isn't fair.  Other people rip rudbeckias out by the handfuls; I have fought the urge to rescue wilting clumps from heaps left by the street on trash day, apologizing to them with the explanation that they would merely have a more lingering death under my inept care.

But the situation may have changed.  Not only do we have multiple wrens now, one of the flower beds left behind by the previous owner boasts a large clump of black-eyed Susans.  Better yet, an examination of the weeds sprouting in the neglected grass of the front yard revealed dozens of baby Susan-seedlings.  Some of those were transplanted last fall; others were left where they were--surely that area should be a garden, not part of a lawn.  Surely if I ignore the little plants, they won't know that they're supposed to die on me.

Should we try marigolds?  The Park Seed catalog shows a new variety that looks like an old-fashioned football mum.... Nah.  No point pushing my luck.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Small pleasures

Today brought two unexpected delights--three, if you count the sun finally coming out after how many days (weeks? months?). Walking home from the grocery store, I heard bird sounds in an unexpected place--the edge of a parking lot just a few yards from Emerson Avenue. The area is urban for Parkersburg: behind several businesses, next to the parking lot of an apartment complex, on the edge of the enormous parking lot belonging to a bowling alley and music store. But there was a little piece of urban nature, providing everything small songbirds need.

The melting snow had left deep puddles in low places in the parking lots, and the planting area hiding the parking lot has been neglected. The tall yellow daisies (some kind of perennial helianthus, maybe?) and goldenrod that I remembered from fall had been left standing, providing a seed source, and there was an enormous twiggy rose of some kind, probably multiflora, given the setting--not an inspiring piece of wilderness, by any means. But the bush was full of song sparrows, fluttering and twittering away, and maybe other LBBs that I couldn't see. Something in that scraggly shrub was to their liking, and the action continued as I walked away.

Another delight, in another urban neighborhood off another busy street. Walking home, my husband and I were brought to a standstill by an almost overwhelming quantity and variety of birdsong . Someone had planted a small front yard with multiple trees and festooned them with feeders, while a closer look revealed that several neighbors had also chosen fruiting or other native tree species, one elderly dogwood being particularly lively. Cardinals, sparrows of various sorts, doves, and at least one wren surrounded us, making a February afternoon feel more like spring.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A great one gone

I just learned in The Chronicle of Higher Education of the death of poet Lucille Clifton. Today's words are hers.

homage to my hips (1987)
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The delights of snow days

1. Homemade soup. Today's selection is black bean and chickpea chili.

2. Lots of activity at the feeders. While I haven't spent a lot of time at the window today, I've seen a pair of cardinals, at least two song sparrows, and a wren. There is also currently a squirrel perched on the bracket holding the corn hanger. It climbs down the side of the tree, nabs a kernel or two off the ear of corn, then returns to the bracket, where it fluffs out its fur and daintily nibbles one kernel at a time. I hope it's as well-fed as it looks.

3. Unexpected visitors. We had a largish rabbit under the pine tree this morning. Unfortunately, the barking of Lucy the Loud Labrador next door frightened it away. Here's hoping that apple slices will lure it back.

4. Time for good books and good movies. I finally took the time to watch the DVD of Miss Potter, the story of Beatrix Potter's romance with her publisher, Norman Warne, and with the Lake District of England. Renee Zellwegger is radiant. I also picked up Scott Russell Sander's The Country of Language, which I've owned for years. Describing his childhood failure to teach his dog to read, he says that it

convinced me that reading and writing must be our own best tricks. We
couldn't run as fast or jump as high, couldn't hole up all winter
underground, couldn't make honey from flowers or dams out of sticks,
couldn't fly like birds or swim like fish, couldn't do a thousand fabulous
things the other animals could do; but we could read, we could write,
we could name everything under the sun.

Life is good.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Praise of the Ordinary

Why do so many people hate squirrels? People joke about ways to get rid of them. There are horrifying Youtube videos of squirrels being shot to death. Even some animal lovers have issues with the furry thieves that find so many ingenious ways to get at expensive birdseed. I remember the (admittedly lighthearted) “wanted” posters and mug shots of squirrels sold at Wild Birds Unlimited (my favorite store, now sadly defunct). Because I have just had the delight of watching a pair of the furry-tailed rodents chasing each other up and down the pine trees in our back yard, demonstrating a level of energy that I am unlikely ever to have again, I feel the need to put in a few words in defense of squirrels.

First, let me concede that squirrels and humans have sometimes been in competition for food. Early settlers in Ohio described how masses of squirrels could take hours to pass through the trees overhead; one (probably tall) tale recorded by the Ohio Historical Society asserted that an “army” of squirrels took nearly a month. Squirrels raided the cornfields on which these early settlers depended, and farmers in the mid-1800’s had to submit squirrel pelts when they paid their taxes. If most of us still lived at this basic subsistence level, I could understand the antipathy, but most of us in the US have the privilege of more than enough to eat, generally readily available and not wrested from the ground by the sweat of our brows. So let us consider the common eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

These rodents were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 19th century. Once killing them was no longer the price of property ownership, they began a comeback, but the world they came back to was not the world of their ancestors prior to white settlement of eastern North America. The gray squirrel evolved in the eastern hardwood forest, that blanket of tree cover that once spread (almost) uninterrupted from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Given that such forest density is not compatible with most agriculture, clearing of the forest accompanied the increase in the numbers of humans. One might expect that such habitat loss, especially combined with extensive hunting, would be the death knell for a species, but such was not the case for the gray squirrel.

It was the case for the only other species that, as far as I know, existed in greater numbers than the gray squirrel. The Smithsonian Institution posits that passenger pigeons once composed more than twenty-five percent of all the birds in North America, numbering in the billions. The Europeans who came to these shores marveled at the size of the flocks, estimating them at over a mile wide and 300 miles long in the early 1800’s. Because the pigeons existed in such great numbers, they were exploited as cheap food for slaves and were killed in almost unimaginable numbers, often as many as 50,000 in a single day’s hunt in a single roosting or nesting area. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in 1914. I for one am glad that the gray squirrel escaped such a fate.

Our world would be seriously diminished without the presence of squirrels. While I don’t ever intend to hunt them myself, squirrels are an important food source for bobcats, foxes, hawks, owls, and eagles, and I don’t want to imagine a world without sightings of such creatures. Many of us in urban and suburban areas are used to thinking of trees as things that we plant, ordering them from nurseries where they are specially tended and sent out for special events like Arbor Day, but the truth is that wild forests are partially planted by squirrels. Because squirrels are so industrious about storing nuts and seeds in numbers that even they cannot consume, they make much forest regeneration possible. Think of that the next time you see an oak, walnut, or hickory tree.

Besides, I admire the squirrels’ persistence. These creatures with brains the size of the walnuts they eat have managed to make our human habits work for them. When the hardwood forest shrank, they moved into our neighborhoods and made themselves at home. When wild nuts became less common, they found that sunflower seed feeders work at least as well as oak trees as food sources. When we put up baffles and “squirrel-proof” birdfeeders, they figure out new ways to get at the seed they want (providing many hours of wildlife-watching amusement for some of us). When we attempt to move them to new places, they often find their way back, sometimes swimming distances as great as two miles, with their furry tails held up out of the water. The only human habit they can’t adapt to is cars, as the numbers of dead squirrels on our roads attests.

I admit it—I enjoy and encourage the presence of squirrels. No other common animal is as smile-provoking as a furry-tailed rodent running up and down a tree, or sitting upright using its little hands to give itself a major case of seed mumps. Today, I praise this “ordinary” animal for its extraordinary ability to brighten a winter’s day.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A break in the weather

At last, the snow ends. For someone who grew up in Florida, this year has brought more than enough frozen water. Despite spending more than half my life (and how strange it feels to realize that) in the north, I am still not used to driving when the road surface is covered by white (or gray) stuff that could be covering who-knows-what. Life's little mysteries are fine, but the surface under one's tires should not be one of them.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Signs of spring?

Today brought an unexpected sight. Glancing out the floor-to-ceiling windows into the courtyard of the college where I teach, I saw what at first seemed to be livelier-than-usual mourning doves in the hawthorn trees. Not so. The movements were those of a sizeable flock of robins scarfing down the hawthorn fruit. Each tree held a number of birds, each bird seemingly intent on ingesting as many of the red berries as it could fit its beak around. Given the ice storm predicted for tomorrow, I'm glad the robins found our trees before the berries became ice cubes.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The beginning

February 7, 2010

I woke to a SciDev editorial entitled “Biodiversity loss matters, and communication is crucial” by David Dickson (http://www.scidev.net/en/editorials/biodiversity-loss-matters-and-communication-is-crucial.html?utm_source=link&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=en_editorials ). Casting about for a purpose for the last third or so of my life, it strikes me that aiding biodiversity in my own small way is probably the most useful thing I can do. Hence this blog on some of the varying species noticed in my little corner of the world—specifically, Parkersburg, West Virginia.
For those unfamiliar with the Mid-Ohio Valley, it’s not the “Almost Heaven” part of West Virginia that John Denver sang about (and the geography of which the song got wrong). This is a highly industrialized part of Appalachia, a fact which has had both positive and negative results. Dupont is here, along with other chemical companies, a phenomenon that has brought reasonable prosperity and a population that includes a fair percentage of highly educated people. My neighborhood, for example, runs heavily to teachers and engineers, many retired, who serve the community by volunteering for various educational and arts organizations. They’ve planted or encouraged native tree species in their yards and created a haven for songbirds in the middle of one of West Virginia’s largest towns. On the down side, because the chemical plants were here years before anyone thought of emissions reduction, we have been for decades a highly polluted part of the country. I personally have been part of a federal study examining the relationship between manganese levels and cognitive functioning, and people here joke about the “Ohio Valley Crud,” the breathing problems that plague almost everyone in the area. We have, like everyplace else, lost species (I personally mourn never having seen a Carolina parakeet), but my task (at least as currently envisioned—who knows what will cross the mind of a middle-aged woman who’s been told she has ADD) will be to chronicle some of what remains.
Snow days are a good time to write of birds. My first cup of coffee yesterday was accompanied by the song of a house wren in the rhododendron beside the porch. In terms of numbers, the day probably brought more European starlings than anything else, but Saturday was a good day at the feeders. Let me end with a partial species list (starlings excluded):
House wren
Tufted titmouse
Downy woodpecker
House finch
Chipping sparrow
Mourning dove
Assorted LBBs (little brown birds, for the uninitiated)
We have no doubt lost many birds over the years, but those that remain represent a glorious variety worth preserving.