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

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Today's birds

The best thing about winter is perhaps the flurry of activity it brings at the feeders. Within ten minutes, I spotted
  • the usual flurry of house sparrows
  • a jumble of juncos
  • a chickadee
  • a tufted titmouse
  • a Carolina wren
  • a male cardinal
  • and an unfortunate squirrel that just couldn't manage to climb the wet pole (and would have been disappointed, anyway, as the feeder atop that particular pole holds only safflower seed, not a squirrel favorite).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Inspired by a message from an old friend

That’s “old” as in “of long standing,” not “exceedingly advanced in years,” which neither of us is (though we are, to speak truly, well-advanced into our fifties). The message referred to “the shadowed journey we are on” and urged that we “with a lighter heart, sing gladly toward its inevitable end.”

Beautiful as the message was, my immediate reaction was “Wait a minute! I’m not going ANYWHERE yet!” then had to ask myself if I’m growing old ungracefully, hanging on when I should be letting go. Looking to my general sources for answers, poetry and the natural world, not necessarily in that order, I had the following revelation (nothing to do with Christmas): nature does not “go gentle into that good night” (though individual organisms may well do so). Autumn is perhaps the most alive and extravagant season of the year, so why not of our own lives?

Yes, spring is wonderful (literally, full of wonders), and for most of my life, it was my favorite season. What’s not to love about daffodils, dogwoods in bloom, and baby birds? Yet, beautiful as it is, spring is not the season of greatest abundance, though it may be the season of greatest energy. In earlier centuries, spring was often “the starving time,” when the last year’s harvest ran out and the new crops were not yet available. I remember reading somewhere that many Neanderthal children died in the spring, often when they were three or four years old. If their mothers had birthed new babies over the winter, the older children were weaned, and if no food were available, they all too often died. Spring is beautiful, but it isn’t always kind.

The spring of human life isn’t always kind, either. Think of puberty, high school, your first heartbreak, the difficulty of establishing a career and figuring out who you are. Would you really want to go through all that again?

Summer is the story of exuberance, busting out all over like June in the old song. There’s too much of everything—think zucchini and mosquitoes. Think July temperatures. Think of our own lives—too much work, too much responsibility, too much worry over having to be everything to everyone at all times.

But autumn—autumn has all the virtues of summer (okay, maybe not strawberries) with none of the vices. Temperatures moderate, the air clears, even the light seems crisper. Then, the miracle happens. The late crops come in--apples, wheat, potatoes, the glorious abundance of winter squash—all the good, solid things that carry us through the winter. The year as it ages puts on a show possibly more impressive than those of spring and summer. Besides the trees covering the hillsides in colors unimagined by spring’s more restrained palette, the warm-season grasses bloom, creating lower-level mists of soft color, followed by the bronze, tan, and orange of drying stalks that will last through the winter if we tidy humans can manage to leave the grasses standing. And the flowers haven’t finished, either: fall brings armloads of asters and gaggles of goldenrods, along with hangers-on of some of the species that were part of the summer show, all working with pollinators busily pollinating before the first real cold puts an end to this year’s growth. Whole flocks of birds settle in our trees and bushes, clearing them of berries, stocking up for the trip south. While the year is indeed moving toward its close, nothing is more alive than an autumn afternoon.

And so with us. The autumn of our lives is slower than the earlier seasons, and I for one am not enamored of arthritis, but we can take a hint from nature and revel in this phase of our lives. If we are ever going to make peace with ourselves, now is the time. Color change is part of the process (are you listening, L’Oreal?), as is the end of fertility (does anyone really miss periods?), but autumn is not a sad, shadowy affair. Instead, it dances out the door and leaves sustenance for the next phase as it goes. When those red and yellow leaves finish their moondance and turn brown, they are generally bearing eggs for next summer’s butterflies and bird food, and by the time they disintegrate, they have helped to feed the trees that feed the bugs that feed the birds that…you get the picture.

Now, at the age when most of us no longer have children at home, we can be in the world wholly as ourselves, free of the summertime responsibilities that took so much of our time. If we are lucky, we can work more on our own terms now, choosing the projects into which to put our energies; we need not take on everything. We can celebrate the lives we have lived, revealing our true colors as the decline of chlorophyll reveals the true colors of leaves.

Moving into these late phases of our lives, let us be gaudy as gumtrees, tenacious as turnips. Let the young ones see us with our roots in the good soil we helped build and our branches in the air, moving with the breezes, unwilling to miss anything. Let us be lighthearted and singing, unconcerned with the end (for which we should have prepared in some way during that hardworking summer). Let our legacy be remembered sweetness, but sweetness with the perseverance of pumpkin, the solidity of squash. Let us be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Solstice Musings

The shortest day of 2011 has proven to be an atypical one, beginning with heavy rain in the wee hours, shifting to seventy degrees and sun by early afternoon, then moving a variety of clouds with changing wind patterns by early evening. Whatever happens in the last few hours of Solstice 2011, the big news is, THE LIGHT IS ON ITS WAY BACK!

Having grown up in South Florida, I have never fully adapted to the long dark of central Appalachian winters (and I know, winters are longer and darker in places like Wisconsin and Alaska). Summers in which the light lingers until nearly 9:30 are great, but 5:00 PM darkness makes for long, isolated evenings for those of us who don't drive well after dark. (Note to self: glasses that aren't so scratched would probably cause fewer problems with oncoming headlights.)

But our modern winter isolation is nothing compared to that experienced by our ancestors. In Beowulf, Danish king Hrothgar's reign is described as having lasted for fifty winters, a description that leads to a class discussion of what Scandinavian winters must have been like in the centuries preceding what climate scientists now call the Medieval Warm Period, which started around CE 950 (and which was not as warm as the decades we have recently experienced). No central heat, limited artificial light, lots of snow, and no roads to speak of in the lands of the Geats and Danes--no wonder these people experienced frost as the primordial element of their part of the world and believed that the first being was a frost giant. This Northern mythology gave rise to a literature that to this day often feels cold and alien when we first encounter it. Wrapping our minds around the cold, dark world of the eight century requires imaginative effort.

But less of it on the longest night of the year than at other times. Tonight we want to surround ourselves with light, to be reminded that the darkness is a phase, one that as early as tomorrow will be begin to pass. Our candles and bonfires and lamps are figures and reminders of the light that will always return, as long as the world lasts.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Signs of winter

While you'd never know it from the weather (right now 40-something and partly sunny), winter has officially arrived in our yard. Away since their sudden departure last April (or was it March?), the juncos are back. A glance out the dining room window revealed several of the northern sparrows scratching in the mulch under the bird feeders. These little birds breed in Canada or in the western mountains of the US, then after their summer in places cooler than the Mid-Ohio Valley, they come here to escape the worst of the snow and ice.

© Michael Hogan, New Jersey, February 2004. Found at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Given that winter tends to be my least-favorite season (maybe once I don't have to worry about driving to work in snow, that will change), it's always good to know that for some beings, West Virginia is where they go when flying south for the winter.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Okay, I’m a sloppy sentimentalist: I love commencements. In my twenty-five years at the college, I think I’ve only missed two: one for my stepson’s graduation in another state and one for his wedding. I love seeing the people who started out as clueless first-semester students reaching at least one of the goals they set for themselves, sometimes after a LOT of detours.

This evening’s commencement ceremony brought more national media attention than our little-known college generally receives. Jessica Lynch, etched into the national memory when she was carried out of an Iraqi hospital in April 2003, finally got the teaching degree that was her dream before she joined the military. While she was never my student, I have been continually impressed with this young woman’s integrity, her refusal to allow a false narrative of her capture to continue, her continual giving back to the community. But her story, while probably more dramatic than most, was not the only story of achievement found in that multi-purpose room tonight.

A mother-daughter pair from a rural county graduated magna cum laude. Two former students, a couple with an adorable toddler, graduated after a semester that found them dealing with problem landlords, moving, and the usual stress of a final semester in college. A young father who enrolled in an upper-level English course, even though it had nothing to do with his major and was filled with English types, finished the course successfully. At least one graduate was older than I am, so there has to be a story there. A student from a long-ago English 101 course, now on her own with two children, received her nursing degree and hopes someday to work in Hospice. Another wonderful woman, the mother of a special-needs student who is now in college, graduated with honors and is about to become a teacher herself. The endlessly helpful student volunteer from my former office may in a few weeks be teaching in Panama. More than three hundred people, all with stories, graduated tonight.

I hope the lives they are commencing prove kind to them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

They're getting closer...

The Black Squirrels of North Parkersburg, that is. Now I realize that the black squirrel is nothing but the melanistic form of the eastern gray squirrel, which is perhaps the most common wildlife in our neighborhood, but there's something about creatures a little out of the ordinary that sparks interest. When I lived across the river, we all got excited about the White Squirrels of Oak Grove Cemetery, though I fear that those particular rodents are too visible for their own good.

The black squirrels, though, are another matter. I've read speculation that back in the days of the Great Eastern Forest (that is, before extensive European settlement), the black squirrels may have been more common than the lighter gray ones because their dark coloring would have been an advantage in the dense forests of those days. With the clearing of the forests, however, came more light, so the lighter-colored squirrels got the upper hand and have kept it all these years. In our neck of the woods, though, the black squirrels are expanding their (extremely local) range.

Two years ago, I saw them for the first time about a mile from here. Then, last year, I saw that one had gotten as far as Broad Street. Given how busy that street is, I didn't feel good about the squirrel's chances, but evidently, our furry-tailed rodents are doing just fine. This morning, I saw a young black squirrel just a block from our Little Ranch on the (Eventual) Prairie. Stay tuned for further developments.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunshine on My Shoulders

“Sunshine almost all the time makes me high.” Listening to the John Denver special on PBS and hearing that music of my youth, I’m struck by how well so much of it still works. I’m struck, too, by how much richer some of the songs are now than when I first heard them as a teenager or undergraduate. I hadn’t lived enough for them to make sense, evidently.

“Sunshine on My Shoulders” had never been one of my favorites. Living in Florida, there was often too much sun, and even though I enjoyed the beach, as most young people do, sunshine was something I took for granted. Now, though, in a place where winters are cold and dark and this fall brought so much rain that it sometimes felt as if I’d start growing mold, sunny days are cause for celebration. It’s possible, though, that I may get too enthusiastic sometimes. Taking a walk one sunny morning after days of rain, I got so chirpy that my long-suffering spouse looked over and asked, “Are you sure you don’t photosynthesize?”

Not in this lifetime (but I can’t guarantee that I may not have been a dandelion somewhere down the line).

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Late Flutters

Walking home from the library this afternoon, I saw two sulphur butterflies fluttering in grassy areas on two separate blocks. My eyesight generally doesn't allow me to get positive IDs of two-inch insects several feet away, so I had no idea which of the many varieties of sulphurs these were. My first reaction to the little guys was sadness, as there were no nectar plants in bloom that I could see--not even dandelions, which do occasionally throw up winter blossoms in our area--and I hate the thought of butterflies (or anything else) starving and freezing.

An online search revealed that what I saw was probably the common clouded sulphur, which flies in our area as late as December. Unfortunately, the adults that I saw are unlikely to last much longer; sulphurs overwinter in the chrysalis or egg stages, not as adults. Another possibility is that at least one of today's butterflies was a cloudless sulphur. Every year, some of these beautiful but ephemeral creatures do a reverse  migration: instead of flying south as do the monarchs and most of their fellow Phoebis sennae, they fly north, some of them actually arriving in Canada before winter sets in. Unfortunately, this is their last flight, as they do not survive the winter. No one seems to know a reason for this behavior.

Doomed as they are, today's butterflies were still beautiful.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Meditation on Thankfulness

Yes, I know that we've probably all had it up to wherever with Facebook "thankfulness" posts, but gratitude, as a habit of mind, has a lot going for it, even though neither the ancient nor the medieval philosophers put it on their list of major virtues. (For the record, the four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage, accompanied by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity--all good things and a nice balance to the seven deadly sins.) If nothing else, gratitude seems to be good for our health, at least according to people who study what has come to be called positive psychology: a mindset of thankfulness seems to boost the immune system and help people deal with stress. Counting your blessings seems to help more than counting to ten.

So, in no particular order, things for which I am grateful:
  • Biodiversity. Without it, how boring would life be? Imagine if all we ever saw were buildings and people (as delightful as humans and architecture can be).
  • Ecosystem services. While there are many more of these than I am aware of, given my lack of scientific training, let me take a moment to praise trees and other deep-rooted plants. They give us oxygen, filter pollutants from the soil, and hold soil in place so that the planet consists of more than bare rock and muddy streams.
  • Friends. Companions on life's journey make the trip much more fun and interesting.
  • Cats. Yes, outdoor cats may be the most destructive of all non-native species in North America, but the purr of a happy housecat is one of the most soothing sounds I know. (So bring your cats in the house and listen to them. Purring is especially soothing when one is trying to get to sleep, something that cats do much more easily than people.)
  • Beauty. The world is full of it, and too many of us are focused on electronic gadgets of various kinds to notice (writes a woman who is at the moment typing on one of said gadgets). I cannot believe that Skyrim's graphics are in any way superior to a morning or evening sky. So let me end this post by sharing one of the poems of my misspent youth (when I spent way more hours with my nose in books than paying attention to the world around me, moderation not being a virtue I had developed): Sara Teasdale's "Barter."
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sing,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The comfort of deep time

Friday evening I had the privilege of hearing Hollins College physicist Marshall Bartlett speak on "Global Warming Now and Then: Geologic Perspectives on Climate Change." The title was probably a little dry for the average person (although the talk packed the recently refurbished WVU Parkersburg Theatre--over 150 seats filled plus people sitting on the stairs and in extra chairs set up on the stage!), but Dr. Bartlett drew the audience into the contemplation of deep time--500 million years or so of time. He took us back to a time when the largest organisms on earth were single-celled.

This voyage was good for me as I'm the sort of person who too often tends to respond with despair to the latest news of what we humans seem to be doing to our beautiful planet. When I read about the latest uptick in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, my thoughts go to all the species being pushed to extinction by our species' behavior, and it feels as if the best thing we could do for the world is vanish in a puff of power-plant smoke and let the rest of life get on with living. Friday's discussion of the revelations found in ice cores was comforting.

Not totally comforting: CO2 concentrations now are higher than they have ever been in the history of humans on this planet, and much of the world's human, animal, and plant populations are likely to suffer as a result. Still, from the perspective of planetary history, our carbon dioxide levels are nothing new, and not particularly high. The dinosaurs stomped around in a world of CO2 levels several times higher than ours, a steamy world of lush, giant plants and warm oceans. According to Dr. Bartlett, humans will still be able to breathe even if we reach those levels again. Life, even if it's not life as we have known it, will go on.

There will almost certainly be losses, but at least some of Mother Earth's kids will be all right.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The wild city

I've become fascinated by the wildlife that manages to coexist with humans. It seems these days that everywhere I go, animals carry on their lives generally oblivious to us, or, sometimes, using our habits to their advantage.

I prefer not to write about the deer that take over my neighborhood every evening. With no four-legged predators, they have found delightful new food sources in our daylilies and hostas. At least, they leave fertilizer deposits behind as they browse our yards.

The last weekend in October, downtown Marietta squirrels seemed to be enjoying an early Trick or Treat. For some reason, several of them dashed onto decorated porches as I meandered up the street. I half-expected the householders to start giving them candy (and if any unwary people had already put candy baskets outside, I expect the rodents got their share).

Ever since Charles deLint's Someplace to be Flying, I've been more aware of corvids, the crows and their relatives. We get a fair number of jays at our feeders but few actual crows where we can see them. They prefer to hang out in the tall trees at the back of the lot, ignoring us. On the same day that revealed the porch-visiting squirrels, however, I was observed by a pair of crows who called to each other from neighboring trees as my walk took me down to the riverside walking path. At one point, a jay burst out of the tree to my right and flew across the street. What they were thinking or saying, I've no clue, but if I could read any bird minds, the corvids would be my choice.

Yesterday took me to Juli-Anna Square in downtown Parkersburg, an historic neighborhood of mansions from the oil and gas boom days. Packed with humans for nearly 150 years, Ann Street offered glimpses of squirrels (of course), sparrows, finches, and, because of the heat island effect of so much brick and concrete, perhaps the last flowers in town. Roses aren't wildlife, but it was good to see a row of them blooming in wild cerise on a November afternoon.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Walking on Sunshine

This week's wind has torn the leaves off the trees much too soon, but one result has been that the yard near the sugar maples is covered with yellow leaves that never got the chance to turn their signature orange. The path to the compost pile and (what would be, if the plants would decide to grow) the shrubbery and the fern grotto is a sea of the brightest color available on these gray days. Luckily for the neighbors, the weather has been cold and rainy enough to squelch my urge to dance around the yard singing "Walking on Sunshine" (of which I can only remember one line, anyway).

Photosynthesis has always been a mystery to me (apologies to the scientists among us). Back in Biology 101, I tried to wrap my mind around the chemical reactions but never quite got clear on how the process worked. It was always enough for me to know that leaves turn sunlight into food and oxygen, a miracle that allows most of the rest of life to exist. And yes, autumn color comes from the exhaustion of the leaves' chlorophyll supply, but every leaf that litters (?) the ground has spent its life consuming the sun's energy; it has been eating the sunlight. Before you rake up all your leaves, consider that you are indeed "walking on sunshine." And we get to do it every year.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The last flowers of summer

For the last few days, we've been threatened with frost, and I thought I saw some on the grass early yesterday morning, but a few last flowers have been carrying bravely on even after the goldenrod and asters have called it quits for the year. This afternoon, I cut with abandon and now have bouquets for the house.
  • The lavender has decided to bloom again, giving the possibility of sweet scents through the winter.
  • The cosmos, which limped along in our nearly-sterile yellow clay all summer, have all decided to bloom at once.
  • Coleus aren't flowers (or at least, the flowers aren't what I like about them), but all three varieties in our porch pots this year continue to be spectacular.
  • Most of the rudbeckia have gone to seed, but several of the old-fashioned black-eyed susans have thrown out their endlessly cheerful, bright-yellow blossoms, keeping company with late gaillardia (which are going enthusiastically to seed, giving the hope of more to come next year).
  • The snapdragons continue to send up spikes in pink, burgundy, yellow, and white, and last forever in vases.
  • The deep coral-red hummingbird mint planted only this summer continues to bloom.
  • Salvia "Hummingbird Coral," lantana, and sedum make a symphony of pinks that go nicely with the burgundy-leafed physocarpus in the streetside garden.
  • And one last gaura has sent up a flower spike, which sits cheerfully on the table next to my chair.
Summer probably won't hang on much longer, but the show has been spectacular.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Restless Fall

"The leaves on the trees are fallin'
To the sound of the breezes that blow"--

Okay, our leaves are being ripped off the trees by howling winds, but October (which is nearly over--how?!?) always brings Van Morrison's classic "Moondance" to mind. In my vanished youth, it always seemed the most romantic song I knew. (And thirty years after hearing the song for the first time, I ended up marrying a man who has written at least two love songs set in October. Is there a pattern here?)

But this fall, I feel as restless as the leaves. For the first time in decades, my only caregiving responsibilities are to cats (and a yard, but plants planted by me have to be tough), and I find myself checking out city-data forums on the internet, imagining other lives. My spouse's decamping to the University of Toledo has no doubt contributed to this restlessness, since I've spent more time driving over the past fourteen months than in the previous forty years. The changing landscape as the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia give way to the rolling farmlands of Amish country and then to the open sky of the flatlands of northwest Ohio is a source of delight every time I point the car toward my home away from home. Discovering the southernmost part of Michigan's north woods a few weekends ago has given a whole new area to explore--but of course, never enough time.

I can't help wondering what the next adventure will be.

Friday, October 7, 2011

More Gifts

Little Ranch on the (Eventual) Prairie has been the recipient of a variety of gift plants this year. (Doesn't "gift plant" sound nicer than "volunteer" or "weed"?) Native asters have been particularly generous.

Note how the wild form of New England aster nestled in next to "Wild Romance," creating a delightful fall combination.
The "Dortmund" rose next to this white aster is not nearly as happy with its new neighbor as "Wild Romance" is.
But the aster is proving to be so spectacular (and so popular with pollinators of all kinds) that I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it.
It needs a new home--but it really does make a nice foreground for two other gift plants: a four-foot goldenrod and a ten-foot pokeweed, screening our view of the street.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Today I wish to chortle with delight over eupatorium, not the Joe Pye weed that so many of us know and love, but some of the lesser-known members of the genus. I'm not sure I have positive IDs for the various eupatoriums (eupatoria?) that have volunteered in our yard, but I can tell you that whatever the plants are, they seem to be popular with pollinators, and I've become fond of the flowers even though they aren't as showy as their tall pink relatives.

The photo above is from the USDA PLANTS database. I did not grow this lovely specimen of eupatorium album (white thoroughwort), but this species, or one that looks a lot like it, has been an enthusiastic colonizer in our meadow garden this summer.

The purple-flowering plant in the photo to the left is one I brought from our old house. I had always called it wild ageratum but have since discovered a much more romantic-sounding name, blue mist flower. Scientific names seem to keep changing these days, but the current name seems to be Conoclinium coelestinum.

The plant grows on roadsides in our area, but I've not been able to get it to spread yet in our yard.
The white-flowering plant next to it was a mystery volunteer in the meadow garden last year, was allowed to go to seed, and is now everywhere.

Fearing that we were being taken over by some seriously invasive thug, I finally got serious about trying to identify the plant.

Good news: our unknown visitor seems to be Eupatorium hyssopifolium, hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, a native that is actually threatened in neighboring Ohio.

 I am pleased to report that it seems to be happy here in wild, wonderful West Virginia.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Friday brought a monarch nectaring at the lantana on the porch ledge. It brought also the question that autumn always brings: will this be the last one? Not the last monarch in existence, to be (almost) sure, given the caterpillars that shredded the milkweed this summer, but the last monarch for this year? The last vivid flutterer before autumn arrives in earnest and the serious chill sets in?

The truth is that we cannot know when the last of something will occur. This afternoon will bring the memorial service for my mother, who died three weeks ago, so I’ve been meditating on “lasts.” She had failed seriously a few weeks before her death, bringing the flurry of activity and attention that such events generally do, but rallied, bringing a sigh of relief and the possibility that this “tough old bird” (as one of her doctors described her nearly twenty years ago—surely she wasn’t old then!) would cheat death one more time, as she’d been doing since 1983 when she overcame Stage 3 uterine cancer. However, after several days of good appetite, good humor, and visits with friends and relatives, she began shutting down for good. Thanks to a lot of good people, her last two weeks were among the best she’d had in years.

Would our behavior change if we knew that we might be experiencing something for the last time? If the noisy chickadee at the feeder were our last bird, would we take time to enjoy its hyperactivity instead of ignoring it and hoping to catch sight of an unusual fall warbler? If that rose on “Lady Elsie May” were our last rose, would we take the time to appreciate its subtle color variation and the gentle ruffling of its petals? If this year’s asters were to be our last flowers, would we be grateful for the cascades of purple on nearly every unmown roadside, or the weedy white wood’s-edge asters that are working with tiny pollinators and from a distance look like bridal-wreath spirea? Would the tidy among us cease to curse goldenrod and the giant purple stems of pokeweed?

I don’t know, but I do know that Buddha was right about at least one thing: most of us go through life not fully awake. Note to self: this is a beautiful world. Pay attention.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On Reaching the Age at Which, if I were Lakota, I’d be an Elder

Or so I remember reading in an interview with Russell Means in the AARP magazine fifteen or so years ago—or was it an essay by Alice Walker? (Memory jokes begin.) At any rate, I am now eligible for the senior discount at Kroger, and a few weeks ago, a clerk at Foodland gave the discount without even asking me. My spouse was amused.

This is a strange age to be. I can still do most things I want to, in terms of physical capability (including climbing a mountain to reach the Womb Cave of Nenkovo), but recovery time has definitely slowed, and the upper-body strength isn’t what it was in my twenties when my job required lifting 50-pound boxes of books from the floor to a waist-high counter. These days, I drag my course materials to campus in a wheeled backpack (though I still have no problem moving 25-pound bags of cat litter to and from the car—but haven’t had the nerve to buy 50-pound bags of birdseed for fear of embarrassing myself in the parking lot at True Value).

Serious limitations are also much more obvious. Time flies, and life seems shorter all the time. Optimists refer to this stage of life as “the last third,” and most of us in the US will probably live into our eighties, but there are no guarantees. This year brought the death of a treasured colleague who was only sixty, and a former student in her twenties is even now battling late-stage cancer. Yesterday brought a conversation with a nurse at my mother’s assisted-living facility about setting up a hospice consultation: not a surprise for someone in her ninetieth year who has battled depression and heart disease for several decades and dementia since 2006, but still a sobering reality. End-of-life planning falls to those of us in the middle if we have living parents who didn’t plan and whose bodies are shutting down slowly rather than in a single disastrous event. Note to self: update will and final directives while still able to do so.

Musings to be continued. Today may be the birthday that marks my official entrance into elderhood, but at the moment, there are plants to be watered, student e-mails to be answered, and a cool and beautiful morning to be greeted somewhere other than at the computer.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nature Nuts

Yet again, I have managed to leave my poor blog unattended for an unconscionable time. Intentions were good, but we all know the road that such things pave. In my defense, though, let me say that I have had a wonderfully busy two weeks.

First, we got my beloved spouse moved from the neighborhood of the botanical gardens (sigh) to a nicer apartment closer to the university where he teaches. Luckily for me, the new neighborhood, while short on large parks, contains some interesting 1930's architecture and great gardens, so there are likely to be many pleasant walks in my future.

Then, it became painfully obvious that school was about to start and my handouts needed serious updating. Done--classes don't start until tomorrow. I even survived the week of in-service meetings.

But the best kind of busy-ness has been beginning the training for the state Master Naturalist program. Over the course of the next year, I will be spending one Saturday a month learning about West Virginia's plants, animals, soils, and ecosystems. Our chapter has already done ferns, rocks, and herps and has given itself an official name: the Nature Nuts. Given that the some of the high points of Saturday's activities were learning to identify copperheads (and yes, one came to visit the group in the company of a DNR naturalist) and petting a corn snake, we must be.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Things change

From the time we first saw our house in August 2009, I detested the hedge of Japanese yew lining the driveway on both sides. Why would someone, especially a plant lover, detest two rows of seemingly innocent greenery?

For one thing, Japanese yew is not native and has very little wildlife value. (It did provide cover for a fledgling starling that found its way out of the nest a day or two before it quite figured out the flying thing, so I forgave the hedge that month.) For another, Japanese yew is toxic: tiny amounts of the foliage or bark can kill a dog-not that the neighbors' dogs are prone to nibbling the shrubbery. Most importantly, YEWS WANT TO BE TREES! In the wild, they range anywhere from thirty to sixty feet in height, making them totally unsuitable for a driveway edging. Some of us like to see where we're going when backing out onto the street. Yes, hedges are meant to be trimmed, but any plant whose primary function is to be mowed or trimmed is not a plant that I personally care to live with.

 So--the yews are gone!
(Represses the urge to sing "Ding-dong, the witch is dead.)

Of course, one cannot leave one's front yard in this condition in a civilized setting, so I had been dithering over what to do with the newly-cleared spaces. The part of me that feels guilty about everything fretted over giving the birds evergreen cover to replace the yews, but I'm really not patient enough to wait for dwarf conifers to grow to fill the necessary spaces and not rich enough to buy them already-grown and have someone else plant them. I consulted with my online buddies at the Wildlife Gardeners forum and quizzed the people across the street (who at one point were requesting a row of asparagus) and arrived at a compromise: one dwarf holly to anchor the planting under the mature American holly on one side of the drive and mixed shrubs, some native, near the back of each driveway bed. Then--butterfly gardens!

We have rudbeckia, aster, and liatris volunteering in great numbers, so those species will be well-represented in the mix. Being cheap, I hit plant sales along the route back from visiting grandchildren and scored caryopteris, echinacea, butterfly weed, coreopsis, orange thyme, and lavender. The sedum edging the hell strip got raided for ground cover along the street. Here is the bed at 8:00 AM: 
And the neighbor-side bed at 12:30:
The presence of bumblebees, skippers, and an Eastern tailed blue butterfly before the plants were even in the ground assured me that this was indeed a good morning's work.

Friday, July 29, 2011


With all of the harm that we humans have (generally unintentionally) done to other varieties of living things, it's nice to run across a species that uses us for its own purposes. It's even nicer when that species is cute, helpful, and generally cheers us up. The species under consideration today is the Carolina wren.

For the last few days, a wren has been hanging around the shed that opens off our carport. The house's previous owners never bothered to put a door on the shed, and while we have intended to, other projects (fixing the grading so that rainwater doesn't run into the basement, repairing a foundation crack, . . .) have come first, and the shed has remained doorless. Given that not much ever happens in our neighborhood, we haven't worried about theft of our yard tools. We didn't think about the shed becoming a nursery.

But a large wren has been perching on the broken Adirondack chair (surely we'll get that arm replaced before the summer ends, won't we?) and generally fluttering around that end of the carport, often with something in its beak. I've been scanning the white pine next to the carport for signs of a nest, but never found one. This morning, however, going into the shed for a spade, I heard brief panicked cheeping, looked up, and there, on the ledge where the roof meets the top of the wall, was a small nest made of grass and twigs. No babies were visible, but I wasn't about to get out the ladder to check. As I've glanced over throughout the morning, the wren (no clue if it's male or female) has been making repeated trips into the shed, bearing insects.

It turns out that Carolina wrens have found all kinds of nesting spots in human-created habitats. They cheerfully (of course, I'm anthropomorphizing here, but wrens look cheerful) utilize hanging baskets, ledges, mailboxes, gardening boots left outside, and evidently,anything that provides a little shelter and will hold one of their small, cup-shaped nests. Some birds documented on the Sialis (not to be confused with the drug) website used an open window to nest in a bathroom, to the consternation of the human inhabitants of the dwelling: http://www.sialis.org/nestscarolinawren.htm

These noisy little birds consume quite a few harmful insects, sing prettily, and give us something to smile about. I for one am glad that they have found us useful.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Dog Days

With temperatures in the nineties for what seems to forseeable future (okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a teeny bit), I am reframing my frame of mind by focusing on good things that require heat in order to flourish. For one thing, some of my favorite summer flowers don't seem to take off until the weather gets too steamy for my comfort. (I was shocked to read a few years ago that many English gardeners lusted after rudbeckia, which don't do well for them because the summers aren't hot enough.)

Admittedly, they've been blooming for a while now, but this does seem to be the year for rudbeckia of all types.

Rudbeckia joined by butterfly weed is a happy summer combination.
The enthusiastic ratibida keep coming.

Cup plant is now coming into its own,    

with last year's bottlebrush buckeye finally blooming

and, as usual, the Joe Pye weed taking its own sweet time for the buds to open. Maybe it's not hot enough yet.
Something to look forward to in August.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A counting of blessings

      Some weeks the world just keeps sending you blessings, and this has been one of those weeks. First off, the visit of friends from Bulgaria necessitated the hosting of a rather large party at our house, which necessitated scrubbing the house siding in preparation for an outdoor concert by the band in which my husband plays. (The siding REALLY needed scrubbing, so this was a good thing.)

Because we needed to set up equipment outdoors, the fact that we had no rain that day was a good thing.
      The day was, however, a little warmer than was strictly pleasant, so late in the afternoon a slightly different cohort (as is the way of open house-type gatherings) moved into our music room, which we finally were able to get air-conditioned. Given that the room is oriented to the southwest, air-conditioning was also a good thing.
      The existence of this cool spot meant that we could have more hours of music with musicians of different cultures, styles, and generations, a very good thing.

Then today brought delightful surprises in the garden. A scraggly little volunteer that I've been watching proved to be a native lobelia, exact species yet to be determined.

 Asclepias curassavica decided to bloom,
   as did this monarda, both plants acquired only this season from Hazy Hollow Herb Farm.

      To add to the blessings of the week, yesterday brought rain but no downed trees or power outages to our neighborhood, and on this mid-July evening, I am contemplating heading for the dresser for socks because the air has cooled off so much.
      How lucky can one woman get?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

More delights of the TBG

I did venture over to the sunny borders of the Toledo Botanical Gardens on my last visit and am glad I did. I had been looking forward to the June flowering of the rose garden but was disappointed. It's possible that I have become too fussy about roses, preferring either highly scented old varieties or David Austin's wonderful big cabbage-rosy blooms, but nothing in the formal rose garden enchanted me. The hedge of white rugosas at the entrance to the formal English borders, however, was another story: dozens of chest-high bushes,all bearing tissue-papery blossoms with that unmistakeable rugosa scent. Rose-lovers' heaven.

Then, in the secret garden, was a plant with a secret. Looking toward the rudbeckia patch at the end of a walkway, I saw what looked like a giant caterpillar draped over a black-eyed susan. But the brown growth was no caterpillar.

No, what I saw was a rudbeckia with what seems to be a double seed head forming. There were actually several plants in the bed with the same odd formation, so I wonder if we'll be seeing "Crazy Daisy" rudbeckias marketed in a few years.
Then, crossing the bridge to return to the garden entrance, a glance at the lake island revealed a blue heron: not an uncommon bird, but one of surpassing elegance.

It was a good walk in the garden. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Shady Characters

Normally, I'm drawn to the kinds of flowers that bloom in full sun: roses, rudbeckias, all the usual suspects, but today I want to praise shade gardens, which have their own quieter kind of beauty, one that calls to us on warm summer afternoons. When heat and ultraviolet rays remind us that we can indeed have too much of a good thing (and after this past winter, who would have thought that?), I head for places cool and green and shady.

Today's post, then, involves some of the shady characters of the Toledo Botanical Gardens.

I've never been much of a fan of astilbe, but the astilbe walks are, literally breath-taking; I'd not known that astilbe had scent.

Well-grown ferns and hydrangeas (not the sort that manage to limp along in my yard)make wonderful companions to the varieties of astilbe.           

A companion of a different sort: the height of a happy ostrich fern measured against a six-foot spouse.                                                                                                                                                        

 The delights of changing light on impressive tree bark.

And a final joy:
the buds  

and blossom of a stewartia.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Advanced (Dis) Placement

A different window today: one in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and one that affords very little green and few birds, except for the canaries in the conservatory bar’s aviary. I did hear something singing as I walked back to my hotel this evening after the day’s scoring of Advanced Placement essays, but I couldn’t see what it was—no doubt some sort of LBB. This is not my usual sort of environment, but I am having a great time and encountering a different sort of diversity, that involving humans.

Imagine, if you will, over a thousand college and high school English faculty from all over the United States, all in the same two hotels for eight days to read over a million Advanced Placement essays in language and literature. It’s a wild scene, with an inordinate number of faculty who look to me like high school students along with a fair number of grizzled veterans, in probably every possible human shape and color. Any time you sit down with anyone, a wide-ranging and energizing conversation is likely to result. I’ve met a California retiree inspired to visit the mountains of West Virginia after running across a copy of a Denise Giardina novel in a rented cabin, a Minnesota high school teacher who invited our table to visit her cabin at Leech Lake some February for the annual International Eelpout Festival (which seems to involve a lot of drunken icefishing), a smalltown North Carolina teacher doing work in modernism with her rural students, and (in the elevator) my dissertation director, whom I’d not seen in more than a decade. Yes, the variety of homo sapiens facultus is quite something.

Visiting AP faculty are of course not the only Louisvillians. Taking a walk along the riverfront this evening, I struck up a conversation with one of a group of elderly gentlemen fishing from the wharf. Asked, “What are you catching?” he responded, “The blues.”

Sometimes ya gotta love people.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Today's firsts

A brief posting today, but June is busting out all over. I wasn't able to get photographs of most things (need to work on those camera skills), but it was a good day in the garden.
  • the first coreopsis, from a clump donated by a friend last year
  • the first ruellia, our very own wild petunia, again donated by a friend
  • the first rudbeckia, "Cherokee Sunset"
  • the first fireflies!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excitement of the week

We can't seem to get enough of fledglings around here; my other half and I have taken to spending a good bit of time on the screened porch to see which avian adolescents are resisting their parents' attempts to teach them self-sufficiency. The finches and sparrows are still around in great numbers, but this week's amusement has been caused by juvenile cardinals.

The juveniles resemble adult females with their handsome rosy brown feathers, though they've yet to develop the pink beak, and they're nearly as large as the adult birds. This near-indistinguishability from Mama Bird makes the baby behavior all the more amusing as these ungainly creatures perch on the feeder pole or the sunflower feeder, lean over, waggle their tails and flutter their wing feathers, all the while making pitiful "I'm starving--feed me now" sounds.

Sometimes there were two hungry juveniles.
For some reason, only the male was feeding the babies. We don't know if the female was on the nest again or what, but the poor guy was busy, and the finch wasn't helping him.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Being Where You Belong

This is not a typical wildlife post, but a meditation on amazing good luck. Recently, I had one of those weekends that reconfirmed some of my major life choices.

On Friday, I attended the wedding of a former student. All but one of the bridesmaids had been my students, and the bride and one of the bridesmaids had met in a freshman comp class of mine in 2005. These young women bore out the cliche of being radiantly beautiful at weddings. Then, at the reception, I sat with a colleague, her husband, and more former students and their family members, and got misty-eyed when I realized that most of the people under forty in that room had been in at least one class of mine sometime in the last decade. It was good to be invited to witness this milestone, and to feel part of this community of love.

Saturday afternoon brought commencement, always one of my favorite events despite having to sit for far too long. Watching the success of so many people who had so many struggles reach a major goal is a very good thing.

Then on Sunday afternoon I attended the 25th birthday party of one of  Friday's bridesmaids, who had also been one Saturday's graduates. This young woman has had her struggles, not least among them spina bifida and cancer, and has overcome them. Again, former students, some of whom I hadn't seen in years, were in attendance, and shared with me what they have done since leaving college. Seeing them immersed in work they love is a good thing.

Some days, you just know that you're in the right place.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Born Free, Part Two

This has been a good week in my thoroughly middle-aged life. The spring semester has ended, and summer school hasn't started, so there is time for home projects, visits with friends, gardening, and of course, checking out the wildlife action in the yard.

This afternoon brought the first hummingbird of the season, drawn to the fading blooms of the pink rhododendron off the porch. It hovered only a moment, and then was off to the lonicera sempervirens on the back fence. This week has brought avian adolescents of various species, with today bringing young starlings the size of their parents, still demanding food. At first we didn't recognize them, given how different the juvenile plumage is from that of the adults. 

The first juvenile on the suet feeder

Starling in the clover
Then there is that bossy starling behavior.

Perhaps the most amusing juvenile of the week was a young house finch, the size of an adult but still possessing fuzzy eyebrows. It sat for some time on the arm of the feeder pole, cheeping pitifully, fluttering its feathers, and generally pleading for food. Its parents (or at least a pair of finches) remained on either side of the poor youngster, one on the sunflower feeder and one on the safflower, repeatedly demonstrating how to take a seed and repeatedly being ignored by their starving offspring. We thought we heard the finch version of "There's nothing to eat here" coming from the backyard equivalent of the open refrigerator.

Okay, we may not have lions, wolves, or even wild horses, but there is no shortage of animal life around our house.

The goldfinches are repeat visitors.
The birdbath attracted its first visitor, a grackle.
And of course, everyone's favorite rodent has figured out how to access the supposedly squirrel-resistant sunflower seed feeder.
Watching all the activity off the back porch, listening to the musicians practicing in the living room, it strikes me that I may indeed have lived out a version of my wildlife-and-art-filled childhood fantasy.