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

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

May in January

This afternoon brought temperatures near 70--not typical winter weather in the Mid-Ohio Valley, not that I heard anyone complaining. A colleague rode his motorcycle to and from work, a friend and I hiked the trail in back of the college this afternoon, and I was able to drive home with the car windows down and spend the first part of the evening on the porch checking e-mail. This collection of phenomena is much more typical of finals week than of the third week of the term beginning in January.

I kept reminding myself that there was work to be done, but there were bird feeders to be filled, and wandering the yard to see what's happening was of course a necessity. Crocus and daffodil foliage is up in the front yard--no surprise--but unless my eyes deceived me, feather grass, nisella tenuissima, is showing new growth.The pink muhly grass isn't showing green yet (probably a good thing), but I am being optimistic that it will live through the winter and create a pink haze late next summer.

Tomorrow's highs are predicted to be in the sixties again, but we are looking at temperatures in the teens by the weekend, and snow is likely for Saturday.

Weather is the Valley is never boring.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Aesthetic guilt

 At the time of year when gardeners in our neck of the woods get starved for color (and are thankful for coleus cuttings that are surviving the winter, and for potted orchids that have managed to keep reblooming in the plant window), I also find myself longing for wild bursts of tropical color. I mean, there's nothing wrong with the view from our living room window right now,
but I am missing the palm and live oak forest patch we were wandering through last month at this time.
If all I were thinking about is avoiding snow and cold (and I'm thinking about it more and more as my joints age and ache), I wouldn't be feeling any qualms: humans have been a migratory species since we first wandered north from the savannah however many centuries ago that was. What I can't help wondering about is why even those of us with some ecological awareness, who go out of our way to make our places as wildlife-friendly as possible, still feel a longing for landscapes that are anything but natural. For instance, when I think of a South Florida garden, my first image is something like this:
Unfortunately, few of the plants in the picture originated anywhere near Florida. Less than five miles away from the botanical garden where the picture above was taken is a remnant hammock forest, with the real Florida "jungle" seen here.
And I have to confess: from a purely aesthetic perspective, I prefer the giant philodendron and wild fuschia-colored thing to palmetto and resurrection fern and have no idea why.

Florida has perfectly good wildflowers (and lots of them, and they bloom at Christmas!), but most of us still associate Chinese hibiscus with Florida. They were in nearly every yard when I was a girl, and still are, if my in-laws' neighborhood is any indication.

We don't only do this with tropical plants and landscapes. West Virginia and Ohio have plenty of wild roses, but the roses that make me drool the most are of the antique European variety, like this "Duchesse de Montebello."
In full bloom, a few hundred yards away, was an enormous patch of our native butterfly weed, generating not nearly so much interest from the humans despite its utter indestructible gorgeousness.
Given my general laziness, I suspect that there will be far fewer old roses and more prairie plants and forest trees in my future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Be careful what you wish for...

Okay, I wrote in an earlier blog post that maybe warm winters aren't always a good thing. I'm one of the people who gets worried when Grist posts an article explaining that the world hasn't experienced a colder-than-average month since April 1985. As much as I like being able to work in the garden in January, I get it: sixty-degree afternoons are not generally considered normal winter weather in USDA hardiness zone 6. But still--to go from a light windbreaker on Saturday afternoon to wind chills below zero on Monday evening? Could we not have a little transition time? And now I hear that we may get ICE PELLETS (officially in the running for my Least Favorite Weather Phenomenon) in a day or two.

At least the cold snap happened as our twenty-six-year-old refrigerator is wheezing its last. The new one won't be delivered until Friday, but the porch seems likely to stay cold enough to preserve any perishables.

Monday, January 21, 2013

More new beginnings

Last week saw the beginning of a new semester, which always feels much more like a new year (for those of us in academe, anyway) than January 1 does. I mean, really--January 1st isn't the solstice, so it doesn't mark the beginning of the solar year; here in the Mid-Ohio Valley, it's certainly not spring, the beginning of the gardener's year; it's not even Imbolc (February 1 or 2), the date when pregnant ewes in Ireland supposedly begin lactating. (And isn't that a great excuse for a holiday? One needs a little something to celebrate six weeks into winter.)  
This January, though, is already seeing a good bit happening in the garden. It's not totally surprising to see adorable little crocus leaves poking up through the mulch, but daffodil foliage is not generally this tall on January 13, when this picture was taken.
(Yes, I'm a lazy gardener, and one who was away from her garden all fall, so you will see lots of leftover leaves in today's pictures.)
It's not just daffodils that have been taking advantage of warmish temperatures. Creeping phlox has decided to spread, as has the delightful (though I fear, thuggish) coreopsis "Red Shift." Of course, is it possible to have too many yellow daisies with red centers that bloom all summer?
My beloved agastache "Tutti Frutti" is already forming next summer's clumps,
and the incredibly promiscuous neighborhood rudbeckia hirta (aka black-eyed Susan) has seeded offspring throughout various planting beds.
Given the variety we already have, I'm looking forward to seeing what the new varieties look like.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Get Thee to...

 A sixty-degree morning in January is a sign from the universe to Hie Thyself Outside, so that's what I did. My forty-five-minute walk through the neighborhood revealed a number of interesting details in an area that a friend and I were lamenting as boring only last night.
  • The chickadees were REALLY vocal this morning, more so in people's yards than in the wildlife refuge. I'm not sure if there were more of them than usual, or if they were just being noisy.
  • The tufted titmice are singing, not just doing their usual winter squawking.
  • A single Canada goose went honking overhead, leading to the temptation to burst into "The Lone Wild Bird." For the sake of the neighbors, I refrained but did wonder why this usually social bird was flying around by itself.
  • What appeared for a moment to be a pair of fiberglass deer proved to be two smallish but very much living ungulates, noted when the buck raised his head to give me the "are you going to bother me" look. The doe was so small that I suspect her to be one of this year's fawns, and seeing her hanging out with a male of the species prompted a reaction similar to the one caused by pregnant teenage humans: not yet.
  • Heading home, I noticed a flock of Canada geese flying in the opposite direction from the singleton sighted earlier. Did it locate its group?
  • A neighbor yesterday mentioned more hawks and falcons in the neighborhood, and sure enough, this morning a small hawk of some kind went sailing over the golf course. The light was too bad to see any markings, but from the size and shape, I'm guessing a Cooper's hawk. The LBBs at our feeders will need to be careful.
  • The coreopsis and obedient plant in the driveway beds are spreading.
Message from the universe: boring is in the mind of the beholder.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


The cold no longer agrees with me, so I am one of the last to object when January temperatures climb to fifty or more. Thoroughly sick of the damp cold that had been our weather since our return from Florida, I was delighted to wander in sun and semi-warmth for a while this afternoon. There was even a sunset.

The weather seems to have made our local birds happy as well. They were everywhere, twittering away, and flocks of robins were wandering around neighborhood lawns. I didn't stop to determine what they were doing, but I wouldn't be surprised if worms were near the surface and available for the grabbing.

I can't help but wonder, though, if robins should be this common this far north in January. We used to consider them signs of spring, but now, they stick around all winter. A good thing for us, since the sight of robins is always cheering, but perhaps a sign of a warming world. What is good for the Mid-Ohio Valley (and so far, we have been spared drought, blizzard, wildfires, and most hurricanes) may not be so good for other places.

Monday, January 7, 2013

And so it begins

This new year began with news that another former student had died, this time a gentle, artistic soul in his early forties who had been a constant presence in the arts in our community for many years. His death was unexpected and brought home, yet again, the message of the fragility of our lives and the life around us. Cliché, I know, but a reality nonetheless.

The fragility of some things is obvious, like that of the barrier islands that were the subject of yesterday's post, or of the flowers with which I become obsessed every gardening catalog season (another name for winter). Other times, not so. Large scowling young men in the back of a classroom look frightening (and we know that some of them, tragically, prove dangerous), but few things are more fragile than youth or more difficult than being young in a world in which the old rules are changing but we don't know yet what the new rules will be. Honestly, I'm glad to be a nearly-old woman. So few of the things that worried me a few decades ago matter anymore.

But some things become more important. Friendships matter more.  By the time we reach our fifth decades, most of us have lost at least one friend to death, making those that remain even more precious. Love is more important, even though we know we can live independently and most of us become more self-sufficient as time goes on. Looking into the lined faces of the people we fell in love with, we see the reality of the passing of time.

And for me, beauty is more important. The best way I know to acknowledge the great gift of being alive in this beautiful world is to pay attention. Even though they happen every day, few things are more fleeting than a sunrise. By the time most of us notice that the sun is rising, it's already up. 

At least the show goes on every morning.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Barrier Island Sanctuaries

First off, I get it. Barrier islands were never meant to be permanently inhabited by humans, as indicated by the name. Barrier islands, however they came to be (and scientists disagree on the method of their formation), serve to protect coastal areas from tidal surges. I spent several years of my childhood on one and remember hurricane evacuations, after which we went back onto the island and shoveled the dead fish and seaweed from under our stilt house. (In the Sixties, back before high-rise condos took over, beach houses were modest structures elevated on pilings. Quite ordinary people could afford them. Sigh.) Barrier islands are environmentally fragile, endangered by global warming, and lack any moral justification for the taxpayer-financed flood insurance policies that encourage people to build on them. But still...
there is just something about knowing that the next land mass is North Africa.
The barrier island that holds the communities of Indiatlantic and Melbourne Beach is home as well to several parks identified by Brevard County as Environmentally Endangered lands. Besides the beaches that draw large numbers of humans and sea turtles to the island, the county has protected its dune communities

and maritime hammocks. I learned recently that the word "hammock" comes from a native term for a cool shady place, and compared to the blazing sun of the dunes, the hammocks are another world.
Over my decades in the Mid-Ohio Valley, I have developed a bias in favor of the lush greenery of northern forests, but subtropical forests often have a primeval feel,

filled as they are with interesting shapes. I think this tree is a gumbo-limbo (and isn't that a great name?)

The middle of the day is not generally a good time for birds, but we could hear them calling through the thick growth. Some I knew from the north, like the chickadees, but the screeks of ospreys were new to me. Unfortunately, they moved too fast for me to get any pictures. Luckily, this Gulf frittillary held still long enough to be photographed.
Yes, barrier islands are sanctuaries for all kinds of life. I hope they remain with us for a while.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A few Florida birds

Lots of people have written about Florida's magnificent bird life, but I of course cannot resist adding to the blog entries on this topic, given how many delightful avians are found in the Sunshine State. Having spent part of my childhood at the beach, I immediately associate Florida with shore birds, and there were plenty of those.

I've not made identifications of everyone on the beach in back of our motel, but watching the various waterfront skitterers made for great entertainment 

though not for this unfortunate shellfish..

Some of the shorebirds were actually in the middle of town, enjoying themselves in the fresh water of a city park. I did not expect to see an anhinga drying its wings in the middle of a city
and certainly not a snowy egret in another part of the same park. The snowy, like its larger cousin the great egret 
was hunted nearly to extinction early in the last century because of its beautiful feathers. 
Sandhill cranes have become fairly common in many parts of Florida. A cousin told us that the cranes have actually become a nuisance in their neighborhood; they're everywhere, attacking their reflections in sliding glass doors. Of course, no cranes materialized anyplace I was, leaving me still craneless. We did, however, see flocks of white ibises. These were grazing in the lawn strip outside a CVS in downtown Melbourne.

And no visit to central Florida is complete without flamingoes.

Erna Nixon Park

We were lucky enough to spend the Christmas holiday in Brevard County, Florida, visiting relatives, and were able to fit in a little wandering-around time, as the Space Coast is known for its concentration of interesting, sometimes endangered species. With only a little free time on Christmas day itself, we opted to begin at a small city park named for Erna Nixon, a Melbourne Village naturalist who was instrumental in convincing the county to preserve this 53-acre space, now surrounded by housing developments and shopping centers. For those unfamiliar with the Village, it was founded as an intentional community in 1946 for people who wanted to live an agrarian life close to a larger town. Now surrounded by the cities of Melbourne, West Melbourne, and Palm Bay, Melbourne Village is an incorporated town of 700 or so, with lots of green space preserved. Ms. Nixon, by the way, was in her seventies when she began nagging the county about the property, so it's never too late to be a gadfly.

The park is one of the most accessible I've seen, with a 3/4-mile boardwalk winding through hammock and swamp forest. Other trails are packed sand, easy on aging knees. Even though you're in the middle of the city, the entrance to the park gives the impression of wandering into a primeval forest (at least, a Florida forest of pine and palmetto).
Erna Nixon Park is not all pine. Deeper into the woods is the classic, magical combination of live oak and Spanish moss.
Patches of woodland include huge swaths of what we in the North know as Boston fern, a houseplant that I always manage to kill. (And since this fern is native to Florida, how did Boston get to claim it?) 
The park isn't just landscapes that remind me of my vanished youth and Tarzan fantasies. (Doesn't every little girl want to wander off and live with the apes?) The boardwalk winds past amazing details, like this red-blanket lichen, Chidecton sanguieneum
and this air plant, species unknown.
I had forgotten how high the humidity is once you're more than a mile or two away from the ocean, where the salt air does a wonderful job of drying out Ohio-Valley-clogged sinuses. The barks of ordinary trees become densely-populated ecosystems. This dahoon holly is a typical example.
While we could hear birds in the park, the woods were so dense that we saw very few. I suspect that Erna Nixon's legacy will be on our list of places to revisit.