Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Sounds of the Season

I learned this morning on National Public Radio's "Living On Earth" that robins listen to worms.

Who'd have thought?

Actually it's probably more correct to say that they listen FOR worms - it is how the red breasted birds locate their favorite, free-range, organic, underground food and the reason that the robins tilt their heads to the side just before they thrust their pointy little beaks into the moist earth.

The program played a tape of those noises that was recorded with a high-sensitivity directional microphone in an an anechoic chamber (a room that is isolated from external sound) . They were barely audible. In fairness to the worms and the scientists I was lying in bed trying to wake up when I heard this, with my hearing not functioning at its best - or at least the portion that involves ear to brain conversations.

Also I didn't really expect be listening to worms at that early hour. Robins maybe, but not worms.

Now this is not underground singing, or rhythmic chanting, or communication of any recognizable form. So do not go looking for any "Songs of the European Nightcrawler" or "Red Wiggler's Greatest Hits" albums anytime soon. The worms apparently make these noises when their slimy, slithering bodies cause the particles of sand in the soil to hit up against each other. I guess technically this makes them "sounds made as an accidental byproduct of the movement of burrowing invertebrate animals with long, slender, soft bodies and no limbs" - perhaps a good name for a scholarly work but definitely not a smash CD title.

The whole thing is the result of a scientific study wherein captive robins were presented with situations in which the use all of their senses other than hearing (e.g. sight, smell, touch, cell phones, ESP, etc.) was eliminated. They didn't explain how, and I don't really think that I want to know. Hopefully it didn't involve the use of too much duct tape and cotton balls. The bottom line is that stripped down to their auditory abilities alone the robins still easily found their din-din.

Somehow I'm not that stunned that robins can hear worms. Having once had a Labrador Retriever/Irish Setter cross for many years I am well aware of some animals' ability to tune in to sounds and smells that just don't exist in the world of humans.

Worms do not have ears. But still I'm surprised that they can't hear the robins. I mean I can make them out just fine - especially early in the morning when I am trying to sleep. At daybreak there is nothing more annoying than that large thrush's sarcastic rendition of the classic "cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up" melody with a background chorus of "chup...chup...chup" provided by its fellow redbreasts.

I am reminded of a "poem" from my youth:
"A birdie with a yellow bill
Hopped up on my windowsill
Sang "Hey get up, get out of bed."
I closed the window and crushed its head."

And it's not like these noisy worm predators hunt by themselves. This spring, and throughout the winter, Mars and I have seen groups of as many as twenty-five of the red breasted persuasion bob, bob, bobbing along the grassy knolls of our area. Even without ears, to an underground worm the collective chant of this crowd should sound like a sudden blast of Handel's Messiah sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and accompanied by all of the trumpeters and percussionists in the world.

Maybe these same scientists should study the effects of robin songs on the rest of the world. They could start by putting the birds in the same soundproof chamber that they used to amplify the worm noises. And then leave them there until the rest of us get ourselves at least a couple of good nights' sleep.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Gardening For Guys Only

I am a member of the Men's Garden Club of Wethersfield Connecticut. We are the only male organization of this type in our town. And possibly in the entire state. But we're not the only ones in the world. Here are some of the other lesser known Men's Garden Clubs that I found - without even Googling.

The Gaelic Guy Gairdiners of Dublin was founded in the late 1950's by a group of flower-loving fellows who got tired of trying to have serious horticultural conversations in loud, smoke-filled, whiskey and beer smelling pubs. After a series of meetings at the home of one of the founders, Seamus McDoofus, the group realized that all they were interested in growing were potatoes and that basically all they had to do to propagate them was to throw an old spud into the ground and wait. So now they meet once a week in the barroom of a local tavern where they smoke cigars, drink Guinness, burp, and bitch about pretty much anything and anybody.

The Compagni Planters of Corleone (Sicily) with branches in Newark, New York City, Las Vegas and Providence. This group is perhaps best known for their unique method for disposing of unwanted foliage by encasing the roots in cement and tossing them into the nearest deep body of water. They are also internationally recognized hybridizers for being the developers of the Floribunda Rosa Mafioso. The club's annual plant sale brings in record numbers of donors and patrons each year who say that the club's "offers just can't be refused." Additional funds are raised through the sale and distribution of other (shall we say) "under the counter" plant byproducts. The current President is Gino "The Zucchini" Gambini (husband of the actress Omerta Lollamangaiani). The immediate Past President has not been seen or heard from since the day after a dead fish arrived on his doorstep. Wait, late breaking news - The Zucchini has been replaced by Nero "The Kale" Di Toscana. There is no word on Gambini's current whereabouts.

The "We're More Born Again Than You Are" Men's Horticultural and Theological Society (know to the cynics in town as the "Hors and Theos"). The membership of this organization practices what they call faith-based gardening, firmly believing that literally all you need is prayer. Like us, this group is also responsible for the maintenance of their hometown rose garden. Due to their horti-theological beliefs this means basically that they show up there once a week, offer up a few invocations and then leave to do other good works. As a result the plot, at least in the view of non-club members, is (to phrase it as delicately as possible) as dead as a doornail. But not in the minds of the Hors and Theos who believe that nothing has the right to leave this earth until they, the members of the club, say so. The official club emblem is a "live" Christmas Tree from 1983 (their first year), which is propped up by wires and fed intravenously with a mixture of Gatorade, Red Bull and Miracle-Gro. Membership dues are ten percent of your income.

The West Texas Men's Quail Hunting and Sagebrush Gardening Society is comprised of a small group of multibillionaires who meet once a month to indulge in the manly activities of twenty-first century gentleman ranchers. It hasn't rained a drop in that part of the country since sometime during the reign of Emperor Julius Caesar so it is totally impossible to grow anything at all in that dry, dusty desert. As a result, gardening in West Texas is comprised entirely of a mysterious ritual called "clearing brush" - an act that is performed only when newspaper photographers are present and seems to consist of taking a chain saw and cutting up piles of dried, dead bushes. The decapitated brush is then piled up to be burned and otherwise disposed of by underpaid Spanish speaking ranch hands with dubious Social Security identification numbers. Most of the activities of the club therefore involve quail hunting. Shooting this prey however has become much more dangerous since a group of antigun activists began dressing up all of the game birds in tiny little orange vests and matching baseball caps. As a direct result the quail population has expanded and club membership has declined at a rate of one to two members a hunt.

The Brokeback Mountain Gardening Guys
, the other Texas men's garden club, was founded in the 1980's by a group of cowboys who, after several months on the trail together found that they had a common interest - and they enjoyed gardening too. This organization is best known for their success in developing and maintaining the world famous Gay Caballero Rose Garden in Dryer-Than-Dry-Gulch Texas where they display stunning examples of floribunda roses such as the Princess Diana, the Judy Garland, the Bette Midler, the Barbra Streisand and the Sir Elton John. They have even developed their own unique method of fertilizing which they call "cross dressing" - a technique that they claim can bring out the suppressed inner beauty of anything. Maybe the gang that maintains our town's rose garden should consider giving it a try this year - a free starter kit including makeup and boas is available through this organization.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bear With Me

We first saw the Three Bears tv advertisement when we vacationed last September at Emerald Isle North Carolina (a.k.a. The South Outer Banks, or SOBX). Since we consider ourselves F.O.B.s (Friends of Bears), and as a result had our own ursine triumvirate with us, we paid particular attention.

Apparently it also caught the notice of the folks at AdWeek magazine who named it a "Best Spot" for the week of September 19, 2005. (I don't know if they also had an Ursidae advisory panel.) Here's their summary of the commercial from their web site (www.adweek.com).

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairytale is updated for the Hummer generation. The Bear family returns home from vacation to their rather upscale home, only to find that it's been occupied in their absence. Someone's been watching TV, drinking coffee, doing the crossword puzzle, cooking, and sleeping in the Baby Bear's bed. In horror, they waddle out to their 3-car garage. Mama and Papa are relieved to find their vehicles still in place, while Baby Bear is inconsolable to find his H3 missing. The spot ends with Goldilocks out on the open road, her hair blowing in the wind. "The New H3. This one's just right."
Agency/Location: Modernista!/Boston
Principal Talent: Goldilocks: Sarah Jane Morris.
Papa Bear: Robert Daly. Mama Bear: Lori Mellmon. Baby Bear: Arturo Gil."


We thought that it was clever, amusing and entertaining, virtues perhaps enhanced because it appeared amidst the real and televised tensions of hurricane Ophelia which caused us to temporarily evacuate.

And, unusual for us, we also found it memorable. Tv ads in general don't stick with us - we often don't remember them at all, and when we do we usually forget what product was being advertised.

That is partly because we frequently watch programs that we have taped rather then viewing them "live" at their scheduled time. Then we simply fast forward through the commercials. When we are not watching a copy we usually mute the sound during advertisements. Mars reads while she watches television. I can pore over some magazine and newspaper articles while viewing, but for "serious" reading I need the tv sound off. Therefore I do a lot of my reading during the silenced product plugs.

There are exceptions of course - for example AFLAC. (Full disclosure: in addition to the three bears we also have an official stuffed AFLAC spokes-duck which, along with several other stuffed pets, did not make this particular trip with us to the N.C. beach. But we enjoyed and remembered the ads long before we got the bird. We still do not have the actual AFLAC product.)

AFLAC of course has the advantage, which they fully exploit, of being able to embed their product's name into the essential dialogue of the ad. We will actually "unmute" the tv when one of these commercials comes on - at least until we've seen it three or four times. We find out about a new AFLAC commercial either by catching a glance at one flying by in fast-forward mode, or by seeing a "live" one finishing up - we do have to look up every so often to know when to revive the sound.

We're also kind of taken by the Target ads - enough so as to only mute them about eighty percent of the time, but not enough so as to not fast forward through them.

But none of these commercials actually had us talking about them while we were away from our television sets. The Three bears did. Mars and I even added some of our own personal touches.

As we drove around the South Outer Banks we would scan the road for Hummers, pretending to be on a search for that "blonde bitch" who stole poor Baby Bear's H3. When we saw a Hummer we would check out the driver to see if it might be the "Hummer Harlot" (or alternately the "(W)Hummer Whore") who ripped off the beloved bears.

I envisioned an entire series of ads with the "b.b." tooling around the country and viewers being asked to identify her whereabouts in order to retrieve the purloined vehicle. And to win their own Hummer as a "reward".

When we got back up North in October we looked for the Three Bears commercial but only saw it perhaps two or three more times. That was it - haven't seen it or thought much about it since.

Then, on a recent morning, Mars spotted a Hummer and wondered if the "H.H" could have been driving.

I started Googling and found the stuff that I quoted above. I also found some still photos from the commercial. But to my surprise the video itself wasn't available on either the Hummer or Modernista! web sites - particularly odd since that ad agency did another tv spot for Hummer and that one is available in both places. I kept looking and finally found the video at www.vsocial.com/video/?d=9562, a video sharing web site independent of Hummer or Modernista!.

The video is available, but still it seems darkly suspicious to me that H.H. and the Three Bears have disappeared from the very media places that they were designed to be a part of.

There is definitely something afoot here! Something that requires good old-fashioned shoe-leather detective work, not just idle Googling.

So we are going to keep searching for that villainous vixen on the highways and byways of our nation. I think that maybe she really did take the Hummer and run, and now she's actually out there somewhere on the lam. That explains why the ad isn't being shown on tv or on hummer.com - although it does seem tailor made for America's Most Wanted.

And while we're hunting for our favorite blonde bitch I'm also going to be on the lookout for a small stuffed Sarah Jane Morris bed-pet to add to our collection. I mean after all, we already have the three bears and AFLAC. It just makes perfectly good sense to complete the set and have our very own miniaturized Advertising Hall of Fame - in fact it actually seems "just right".

Monday, March 06, 2006

99 words about Stoplights

I'm in Hartford, by the Convention Center waiting and waiting at a red light for nonexistent side traffic to pass by, thinking about "intelligent stoplights". I saw them in Santa Fe. If no one was coming, and someone was waiting, then they gave that someone the green light. Less gas wasted idling. But more importantly a place that acts as if it is actually aware that real people are passing through and should be treated with consideration. Smart signals aren't rocket science - just common sense. Unlike the "who gives a damn" lights that greet visitors to our capitol city.

In The Right Place

We've been following the progress of some Crocuses in downtown Hartford. At the moment it's the only indication we've seen that Spring might be nearby.

Sometime last week they burst forth in flower. And this past weekend, after what is hopefully the last snowstorm of this part of the year, they still appeared healthy and strong as they ignored the snow and continued to grow.

Fortunately for them they are in an almost ideal outdoor growing spot - up against a building, sheltered by other structures from the strong winter winds and frozen precipitation, and bathed in sun during that part of the day when it is at its strongest. Plus they are a part of a well maintained corporate garden so I'm sure that the earth that supports them is of the proper composition and has all of the best nutrients.

Still, even though this is a professionally maintained growing area and I've tracked its progress for several years, I'm surprised to see flowers flourishing so successfullly in an urban environment when their suburban cousins are either nowhere in sight or, at best, struggling for recognition.

In general I really like being surprised by plants growing, and sometimes flourishing in conditions that are less than perfect or are even downright hostile to their survival - a tiny shrub clinging inexplicably to a rock solid cliff or a wild rose bush in a darkened forest patch of sunlight.

Still I am admittedly a little upset that in order to see the initial indications of the coming of spring I had to either resort to some really clever fakery or exit (what should be) the garden gemstone exurbs and travel to (what should be) the horticulturally challenged metropolitan area

I mean didn't we all migrate to the burbs in order to replace the concrete jungles of the city with green lawns and thriving vegetation right outside our own front doors? (Perhaps along with good schools, and less crime.)

In fact, isn't that why the suburbs were invented in the first place?

Don't a lot of us spend a good part of our time, sweat and money in the acts of tilling, sowing, watering, weeding and pruning just so we can have this more natural world at our fingertips?

Isn't this, along with golf, the main reason so many of us are so itchy for Spring anyway.

Don't some of us snowbirds even head south to Florida this time of year just to hasten the process (boy, talk about desperate)?

And it will just get worse. On Church Street in downtown Hartford, in front of the "Stilts Building", next to The Hartford Stage Company is a garden that will have, when the seasons perrmit, the most humungous collection of Hostas know to man. Now my Hosta beds are pretty good, probably even a little crowded, and healthy as all get out. But the Church Street Hostas are just huge - I mean man-eatingly enormous. And blindingly colorful. And again, in a fortunately situated corporate garden.

But I've also seen things like this before in totally natural surroundings.

In West Texas' Big Bend National Park a few years ago we canoed, with a guide, up the Rio Grande into Santa Elena Canyon. In this area there just isn't any source of water other than the river, which itself is mighty low and mighty slow (think paddle, paddle, walk & drag, paddle, walk & drag, paddle). And, as an obvious result, pretty much no vegetation, particularly of the green persuasion - with a couple of remarkable exceptions.

At the entrance to the canyon where the dirt banks are lower and close enough to the river to absorb some of the water is a short wall of what would be (in a different setting) swamp grasses. On a subsequent trip we would take the time to walk among these phragmites but on this venture we were, at the insistence of our guide Taz, on our way to Fern Canyon.

Our son and daughter-in-law had previously told us about Fern Canyon after they had explored it on a similar canoe trek - and when we mentioned that to Taz she became commited to getting us to see it also.

After a couple hours of travel (paddle, walk & drag, paddle) we pulled the canoes to shore, made a short but difficult climb up the shore cliffs, and walked inland a few hundred yards across sun-whitened rocks and dry desert dirt. And into one of those startingly beautiful natural scenes that engender emotions like the ones that movies try to emulate when they show actors coming upon for example the Emerald City of Oz, or Shangri-La.

Due to a hydrological quirk of nature, a small pond of water fed from the rocks was supporting a stunningly large garden of deep green ferns - hanging down from the "ceiling"rocks, growing along the walls, and spreading out as far as the water could feed them onto the ground. Other than our clothing it was pretty much the only non-khaki color in sight. And a garden that any suburbanite would be proud to have anywhere on their own property.

Even with our advanced, twenty-first century horticultural knowledge, in the end it really comes down to luck and location, location, location.