Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ask Doctor Flora

It's ten in the morning and I turn on the radio just in time to hear my favorite a.m. talk personality, Doctor Flora, the dispenser of self-righteous scolding on the everyday ethical issues of home gardening. Let's join today's program.

Doctor Flora: "Hi everyone, this is Doctor Flora. Let's go right to our first caller."

Caller: "Hi Dr. Flora. This is Darrell. I'm a first time caller and I'm a little nervous."
D.F.: "Deal with it! What's your problem?"

Caller: "Okay. Well see the other day my girlfriend and me, we was working in my garden - you know breaking up the soil and chopping out the weeds when my new neighbor wandered into the yard and said "That's a mighty nice hoe you have there."
And I told him, "You know that's not the only hoe I have. I keep my tools in the old barn and I've got a whole stable of them. But you're right. This is by far my numero primo hoe." So he says, "Well maybe some day I could, you know, borrow your hoe - just for a while - I mean I'd even pay you. I mean I agree - that is one fine hoe."
So I said, "Sure man. Anytime". Then, after he left. my girlfriend got real mad at me and said I should maybe let him have one of my other hoes. But certainly not my favorite one. But to me, you know, a hoe's a hoe.
Now from what I've seen and heard Dr. Flora, you really know how to hoe. So what should I do?"
D.F. "What! Where did you hear that? You didn't see that video, did you? No, of course not. I'm sure I've got all the copies now. Anyway,you are absolutely right. I do know everything there is to know about hoeing - not from personal experience of course, it's all from my academic studies. First I just want to say that you guys are just disgusting - passing your hoes around like that . Look, if you want to keep your hoe - you should never let it go.
Now I've got to make a few quick phone calls about, uh, some videos - so we'll go to commercial break and then be right back with our next caller."

Caller: Hello Dr. Flora. This is Jessica. And I'm so upset. This is such a personal intimate private matter that I thought I should go directly on nationwide radio and blab it to the entire world...so here goes.
I've been married for about two years now. When we first got married Todd, that's my husband, just worshiped me. He spent every second of his time and every ounce of his energy just doing things for me. Whatever I wanted, I got. And he couldn't keep his hands off me. Then he began to garden. At first it was just some annual flowers that he gave to me, but then it became vegetables and now, worst of all, perennials. He spends every minute that he's not at his job out working in the damn yard.
And now he's joined a men's garden club."
(Jessica begins to sob uncontrollably.

D.F. "Jessica - get a grip! No listen carefully. It's over Jessica, o-v-e-r, over! Pack up and leave. Maybe you had a chance against a few flowers or vegetables. But perennials. And now a men's garden club.
Have you seen any of the other members of the club? The glazed demonic blank stare in their eyes. The way they can't pass by a bush without breaking off at least one branch. The strange multipurpose tools they carry on their belts. Their constant blathering about PH levels and compost and whether salmon roe is a good fertilizer. Good God - I mean they are the poster child for hopeless.
Buy my latest book - "How to Survive Marriage to a Gardener - NOT!!" - then run, do not walk, to the nearest exit . Good luck Jessica. Next caller."

Caller: "Hello Dr. Flora. This is Reggie. I planted a persimmon tree in the spring in a very sunny location. The tree had some flowers that bloomed and were turning into small fruits. Two days after fertilizing the tree with a 10-5-8 fertilizer, all the flowers fell off. I did some research and read that too much nitrogen would cause this to happen.
However, according to the manufacturer, the fertilizer contained only 10 percent nitrogen. I also read that young trees tend to drop their flowers if they can't handle the stress of bearing fruits. So, was it the fertilizer or the tree itself? Will I get to eat persimmons at least next year?"
D.F. "What the hell kind of garden question is that? What do you think this is, National Public Radio? Next caller!!"

Caller: "Hi Dr. Flora. This is Jane and I've got a problem with an old impatiens plant from which I collect seeds to plant around my house every year. You know that these flowers got their name because they spray their ovules at the slightest touch. Well, when mine was young all I had to do was barely brush it and hundreds of seeds would just shoot into the air like an out-of-control sneeze. Now I'm lucky if I can get one or two seeds to even drop and the plant is starting to droop badly. Dr. Flora, what can I do?
I'll hang up now and listen to you publicly humiliate me on the radio. I'm afraid that your histrionic screaming might damage my eardrums if I stay on the phone."
D.F. "Jane you ignorant slut! You are disgusting! Actually, you're not really. I just love to say that.
Jane, your plant is suffering from what we in the business call Projectile Disfunction or PD. There are some medications that you can try, Niagara and Go-Ask-Alice, but the side effects can be pretty nasty - dry-mouth, wet-mouth, Existential Ennui, Leprosy, Tourette's Syndrome and believing that O.J. is innocent - and that's just what could happen to you. As for what could happen to the plant, I just have two words - King Kong.
Dump it, and do what real horticulturists do when they need seeds - just buy them.

That's all we have time for today.
This is Dr. Flora - I am my kid's mum. Our thought for today comes from humorist Dorothy Parker who said, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think."
And remember, if you're on the Internet, and you think you see me in a tape - don't be fooled. It's really a Paris Hilton video with my face somehow digitally added. Yep, that's what it is. But you won't. Because I'm sure that I've got all the copies. And besides, I'm not worried - after all, I am Doctor Flora! Bye bye."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Seeing The Light

After Mars and I had vacationed in Malta in 1997 I was asked by a coworker - someone who obviously had asked others how their sojourns were and had gotten their detailed itinerary in response - "What was the ONE thing that was the most memorable?"

I wasn't prepared for this question but without hesitation I answered "The light."

Satisfied with my answer, or maybe even happier with the success of his question, he quickly made his getaway.

Years later I think I would still have given largely the same answer. There is something about being in bright natural light that immediately makes me feel like I belong there.

But not just ordinary sunny-day brightness. I mean really intense and all pervading sunlight - the kind of light which poets call effulgent, the kind that makes everything around you seem white, the kind I've only actually experienced a few times in my life.

We went to Malta because Mars saw a magazine article about "Vacations Off The Beaten Path" one day at our hairstylist - and Malta was one of the places. They showed a photo of the walled city of Valletta and Mars said "We have to go there."

So we did.

Dick, our Travel Agent at the time, had never booked a trip to Malta - in fact like us he was unfamiliar even with where it was (in the Mediterranean 90 km south of Sicily), who flew there (Air Malta), what languages they spoke (English and Maltese) and what you could do there (it has megalithic temples older than Stonehenge and it's called the German Riviera).

In fact Malta is a group of three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino (each one essentially a limestone plateau) with the Island of Malta where we stayed being the largest at 136 km circumference.

It was our first trip out of the country (Canada and the Bahamas didn't really count) and while we had a great deal of faith in Dick's ability to get us there and back safely, we were traveling independently to an unfamiliar place about which we basically knew nothing. I at least was a little apprehensive.

Being relatively flat and visibly surrounded only by ocean, Malta has as low a horizon as anyone can have. In September we were at the beginning of the Mediterranean rainy season so the days were not always bright and sunny. But when they were the sunlight was white-hot bright and seemingly everywhere.

Instead of gradually spreading over the area, the daylight just suddenly showed up and immediately took over everything. It reflected off of the deep blue ocean, off of the white limestone ground, off of the white limestone field boulders, and off of the white limestone buildings - making these objects almost painfully bright. The shade was just about entirely caused by manmade constructs and, rather than providing relief, accentuated the brightness by its passive darkness. There was literally no escaping it - and for me no reason to want to.

We wandered on our own through the narrow apartment-filled streets of Sliema and Valletta, strolled along the paved strand adjacent to the Mediterranean, swam in the sea from the sun-baked limestone "beaches", and laid our bodies out for sun-drying on the same rock-hard surfaces until the late afternoon cumulus shut off the sun and sent our chilled bodies back to prepare for the evening.

I also felt this intense unyielding light in New Mexico on our first hike up to Chimney Rock at Ghost Ranch - a three mile trip where the only signs of humanity were the boot prints that were pressed into the bone-dry earth. And when we trekked by ourselves across the poorly marked footpaths of the Big Bend to the hot springs at the long ago abandoned Rio Grande Village. Or to Burro Springs in the same West Texas area.

Mars says that she doesn't believe in new-agey spiritual connections with places but all of these trips were things that she felt "We have to go there" - each with pretty much the same lack of advance knowledge. And although I certainly felt comfortable being there I definitely would not have done these things without her. On the Texas and New Mexico hikes we were pretty much the only two people in our part of the world. In Malta, probably because we were very much on our own, I felt like we were.

One of the UConn women basketballers is quoted in today's paper as saying she likes playing in games away from home because "all you have is your team".

Effulgence may be important, but it takes being with the right person to really see the light. Sometimes you just need to put yourself in foreign situations to realize that.

99 words about winter birds

It's a nice winter morning - sunny, low forties - and our bird feeders are utterly devoid of diners. The past several days, all with weather similar to this, I've barely had the need to replenish any sunflower seed.

On a previous Sunday, the latest snowstorm of the century, the feeding stations were overrun by assortments of titmouses, nuthatches, juncos, finches, chickadees, cardinals, woodpeckers and squirrels - hanging on tight in feather-rustling wind, squinting their eyes against fast-paced flurries, digging desperately for fallen food in rapidly drifting white stuff.

Now only starlings on the suet.

Are the rest just fowl weather friends?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Garden Guru Guy

It's the price I pay for being a member of a prestigious, world-renowned organization like the Men's Garden Club of Wethersfield. And the reason that I normally don't display anything with the club insignia when I'm out in a crowd - probably most of you saw the chaos at the Super Bowl when I mistakenly brought my official club bandanna instead of a "terrible towel”.

(I will wear our group's denim baseball cap to Angela's and Brad's latest wedding - but only because they begged me to. Then, when of course I become the center of attention, they'll probably unceremoniously ask me to leave.)

I just can't go anywhere without being asked "How do I grow ...?", or "What's the best way to...?" They call me "The Garden Guru Guy". And they send me e-mails and leave messages on my answering machine. Here are a few recent questions.

Question: Dear G.G.G. What is the best ground cover for a large flat area that gets only an hour or so of filtered sunlight each day?

Answer: Dirt. And plenty of it. But not just any dirt. Ornamental dirt. Some of the new hybrid dirts (such as Brownus Colorosa and Fruit of the Loam) stand up quite well to the harsh New England climate, require little if any care beyond careful planting, and are priced, well, dirt-cheap.

Q. My rose bushes are infested with aphids. How can I get rid of them without using chemicals?

A. Back in the early 1980's when the Gypsy Moths invaded our fair state, one of my wife's uncles showed me his own fool-proof method for eradicating those vermin. It's a butane torch. And over the years I've successfully applied Uncle Hank's "sight, shoot and scorch" technique to aphids, Japanese Beetles and many other invasive insects.

Unfortunately (as they say) to make an omelet you've got to break a few eggs. So, no matter how careful you are, you will end up searing the edges of the plant you are trying to save.

Well, actually you probably won't just singe the shrub. You'll decimate it - turning it into a fragile pile of hot black ashes that will retain the general shape of your formerly endangered bush until the backdraft caused by the rapidly spreading surrounding fire blows the residue onto your neighbor's highly combustible roof.

But that's good! Because as the conflagration spreads it will get rid of not just your annoying aphids but every damn bug in what used to be your neighborhood.

By the way, Uncle Hank has since moved to the Southwest - somewhere near those big forest fires you've been reading about.

Q. I'm trying to grow holly bushes and someone told me that I had to get two of them in order for anything to happen. So, not knowing any better, I bought what turned out to be two males. Now I find out that I need a male and a female. I could just go out and buy a woman-bush but there's a rather large problem. The two males have gotten to, shall we say, like each other.

First I noticed that they each were growing in directions that had nothing to do with sun or water or anything other than each other. Then I found what I am sure are leaves from the bigger of the two bushes hanging from the smaller one. And last night I definitely heard giggling from the holly bed. Help!

A. First off, most likely it's not your fault. It may be genetic. Unless of course you placed these impressionable young plants in a bed full of pansies. Or watered them with luke-warm bottled water from France instead of hose-blasted, ice cold Connecticut reservoir liquid. Perhaps you even covered them over, sheltering and warming them from the cold New England winters, instead of letting them toughen themselves by standing naked in the harsh January winds. Or spoke to them in soft nurturing words of encouragement rather than brusque Patton-like commands.

In any event, simply introducing a hot-looking chick plant probably won't have any effect whatsoever. (Don't you watch Will and Grace?) Still it is worth a try. I would suggest adding both a new male and a new female to the mix. And continuing to add more opposite gender pairs until either the holly starts to flourish or the giggling gets too loud. If the latter happens your can try one of my answers to the two earlier questions - or (better yet) you can put on your party clothes and join the fun. It's a heck of a lot healthier than sitting in your room fretting about the sex lives of some waxy, spiney-leaved bushes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

99 words about CT's New Cell Phone law

So when is Connecticut going to pass that cell phone law?

You know, the one that politicians and the media talked about for months.

The regulation that makes it illegal to drive a car or truck while using a hand-held phone.

I know it's pretty controversial, and lots of people are really concerned about it.

That's probably why I see more and more people cruising along talking on their hand-helds.

They need to keep in touch so they'll know the exact moment when the regulation comes into effect - then of course they'll all immediatly hang up.

You're kidding! When?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Blood on the Pavers

There is blood on the pavers just outside of our family room entrance. And feathers - a few held in place by the congealed red liquid, a lot more blown by the wind onto the driveway and surrounding grass areas. But there are no body parts anywhere to be seen. And we've looked - not like CSI agents with flashlights in darkened conditions, but we have searched pretty carefully, in full daylight.

Using my best television-learned forensic jargon I noted that the victim had "bled out" on our walkway and apparently "died of exsanguination". Mars took pictures but unfortunately her digital camera doesn't make that great "whock! whock! whock!" sound like on tv, and it was too cold for her to wear a low-cut blouse so I don't think that the photographic evidence will hold up in court.

Nonetheless we've got ourselves a crime scene right here in our own front yard.

Personally I think there is a serial killer operating in our neighborhood. Once again my only source of knowledge on this is the mass media - I have no personal experience, which from my perspective is a good thing - and I've heard that mass murderers frequently perform their dastardly deeds over a long period of time - rather than bam, bam, bam (if you'll pardon the expression). And over the years we have seen the signs of several similar snuffings.

One winter we found a decapitated blue jay stuck head-down (well actually neck down) in a snow bank in our front yard. And there have been at least four other instances of carnage on our property - piles of feathers, a bone or two, occasionally an intact severed wing.

We've also seen a few likely suspects skulking in our neighborhood with both "motive and opportunity" (see I really do know all this stuff).

Predatory hawks have actually landed on our property, sometimes in the flowering crab tree outside our family room, other times on the fence behind it, and rotated their heads and death-dealing eyes searchingly. One time a shivering squirrel hid nervously in the pottery birdseed cylinder that hung about twelve inches below the falcon's fatal feet. Another time our former next-door neighbor called to alert us to a "NOVA moment" involving a young looking hawk and a dead looking pigeon that was happening in her snow covered backyard.

Coyote and foxes have prowled the streets, sidewalks and bike path around our house - heads turning side-to-side as they trot arrogantly among the residences. Their appearances have become more frequent in the past few years leading us to believe that they are probably finding something that they like in our neck of the woods.

Which brings us of course to cats - which, in my mind, are both the main reason that these carnivores are hanging around, and the most likely suspects in the series of bird homicides.

And when they finally arrest that guilty fatal feline I'm definitely NOT going to be the one on local news saying "Who'd have thought? He was a good neighbor and he seemed like such a nice normal guy." I mean, what do you expect?

As for the one eye witnessed hawk attack - I think it was just a copycat crime.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Good bye Car-by

I saw a disturbing image on the television news the other day. It included a burned out Sports Utility Vehicle that had been apparently set ablaze by narcotics smugglers who had been spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol. But that wasn't what I found upsetting - trashed SUVs don't really get my sympathetic juices flowing too much.

What bothered me was the setting of the pictures - the Big Bend Region in West Texas. My wife Mars and I visited there in 1998 and again in the year 2000. These trips convinced me of the common sense need for certain types of illegal immigration. I hope that what I just saw on television hasn't changed things so much that I need to change my mind now.

In Big Bend territory the Rio Grande River is not so grand - locals call it the "Rio Nada" and water rafting guides tell their passengers to "just stand up" if the boat tips over - and the towns are really, really small. Lajitas, where we stayed, is not even listed in the official population count of Texas towns and cities. It's neighbor, Terlingua, is credited with a population of about 250 people when combined for census purposes with the adjacent town of Study Butte.

Needless to say there isn't much in that part of the world: high desert geography, uncluttered landscapes, unremitting sun, a few places to eat (none of them national chains), a couple of old RV-based craft shops, and one flashing yellow traffic signal. The area pretty much defines the term "hard scrabble". We went there to hike, photograph, rest, and read. The people who live there, although they may have different interests and pursuits, are seeking similar solitary lifestyles.

Our first time in Lajitas was on an Elderhostel trip to Big Bend National Park. We took the second trip on our own and rented housing next to the Rio Grande at the only tourist spot in the area. Our living quarters were at the top of a small hill that overlooked that brown, slow-moving body of water from a distance of about a quarter mile. We were tired from our long drive when we arrived, so we barely glanced at the river from our back patio - until the next morning.

It was a Monday in mid September. We awoke before dawn and were both lying in bed, quietly pretending to be asleep in hopes that we actually would be. Our bedroom windows faced out to the river. Suddenly the room was filled by a sweeping white light. Then another. And another. Half awake, in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar house, in an unfamiliar location, it was really easy to imagine bad things were about to happen. But nothing did. Then my mind woke up a little bit more.

"Car-bys?" I asked, remembering what Mars taught me to call the vehicle headlights that played across our bedroom walls at night in our first apartment. "I think they are car-bys", she answered.

It was in fact the first wave of what we came to call the "morning commute" of workers and school children into the United States - something that we had learned about on our earlier visit to the area. The river at this location was about one hundred yards across and between one and two feet deep - about one half the height of a pickup truck wheel.

A paved road ran down to the crossing on the U.S. side and an unpaved dirt one allowed you to continue your trip on the other side. A small Mexican town, Paso Lajitas, lies about a mile down that road. The next village is an hour-and-a-half further along the dirt path, with nothing in between. It was, in Border Patrol terminology, an illegal but unguarded crossing.

The a.m. commute, which we sometimes watched from our deck, and other times saw indirectly via the lights on our bedroom walls, occurred every morning of our stay - just as it had each daybreak before our arrival. It became for us a very comforting way to start the day.

A portion of the traffic was four or five pickup trucks each filled with school children of pretty much all ages, looking pretty much like the young students we would see on our own streets including the mega-heavy backpacks. Other trucks without school children crossed throughout the day. Occasionally a rider on horseback would ford the river. A jonboat ferried the tourists and an occasional local back and forth - we took it across on our fist trip. At around four or five in the afternoon the commute would reverse direction.

The adults worked in one or the other of the two towns and the children attended school in Terlingua. According to what we were told on our previous visit it had been that way for many, many years.

Against the law? For sure. Secret? Not to anyone in the area - resident, visitor, or (I would bet) the Border Patrol. Unsecured? Probably not - the openness of the arrangement and the common knowledge of all the players pretty much eliminated the danger.

There aren't a lot of employment opportunities in this area, but there are even less people than that to do them. This is not a part of the country that attracts many people. And those that do come to live here are pretty adamant about being able to take care of themselves. But there is stuff that needs to be done just to keep things going. And the few businesses around do need workers.

As the old joke goes, "There's no shortage of jobs here - in fact just about everybody has two or three of them." Schooling for the children is simply a part of the employee benefit package. All things being equal, a lot of the current school children would become the future adult workers. Some wouldn't. What needs to be done, gets done, the laborers and students return to their homes every day, and the commuter vehicles don't even cause a traffic jam.

According to humorist Josh Billings (an American) "Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done." Sounds to me as if that's pretty much what was happening here at the border crossing in Lajitas.

Drugs were also a part of the picture at that time and it was said that pickup trucks loaded with Marijuana frequently drove across in the river into Lajitas. The Mexican Drug Lord Pedro Acosta operated in the Big Bend Area and was gunned down in 1987 by helicopter-borne drug agents in Boquillas Canyon, another illegal but unguarded crossing a short canoe ride up the Rio Grande from Lajitas.

So in one sense I wasn't absolutely shocked to see a drug interdiction at an almost identical looking West Texas location. I was however surprised to learn that the authorities were apparently actually guarding the crossings. So I did a little research to see how things were going at the Lajitas entry point.

It's closed.

According to an article in the July 2002 Texas Observer (the most recent information that I could find) "On May 10, 2002, the Border Patrol, which has always pursued narcotics traffickers and illegal immigrants, began, without warning, to enforce the law against crossing, period. Twenty-one people were arrested, including "Gordo," the 18-year-old boatman who rowed the jonboat back and forth at Paso Lajitas."

It's the post 9/11 Border Patrol with new priorities and additional resources.

The Observer also reported that the resort where we stayed had recently erected a sign at the crossing: "Tracks across the centuries indicate that pre-Columbian native Americans used the Lajitas crossing thousands of years beyond the present horizon.. Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to cross here in the 16th Century...Comanches and Mescalero Apaches arrived after the Spanish. In the 18th and 19th centuries, red raiders from the north crossed the river here in the fall...In the 20th century bandits, bootleggers, businessmen used the crossing...Today the historic crossing connects two nations and cultures and is used by tourists and travelers from around the world".

"They're not stopping anyone who shouldn't be here." said the Chairman of the Visit Big Bend Tourism Council.

The San Antonio Express-News (also from July 2002) reported that the town of Paso Lajitas was almost empty as residents had already moved closer to the nearest legal crossings in Del Rio or Presidio.

"It's pure mean-spiritedness. It's gunboat diplomacy," growled Enrique Madrid, 54, a longtime local resident. "There have been human beings in the Big Bend for 12,000 years, and they have been using those crossings for just as long. To think you can shut down a crossing that ancient is just cultural ignorance. The border is just a political boundary. It just separates a society that is the same on both sides - the same people, language and religion.".

Father Melvin LaFollette, a retired priest in Redford who served the faithful on both sides of the Rio Grande using many of the local crossings, said it is absurd to close them. "Their excuse for closing the Class B ports was they didn't have enough staff. Well now they've got plenty of staff, and they should facilitate people who have legal reasons to cross back and forth."

Jobs are not being done, people are not working, and children are not being educated. We can all sleep better knowing that there are no longer any car-bys at Lajitas.

I mean, it's just common sense, isn't it?