About Me

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

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.