Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Our" Catbird is Back

Our catbird is back.

Actually that's not entirely true. For one thing he is not really "our" catbird. Any more than any other of the wild outdoor animals - birds, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits - are "ours". But because he shows up every year at around the same time we do call him "ours".

Which brings up the second non-fact in my first sentence. This "return of the catbird" has been going on for about thirty years or so, give or take. Obviously, given the life expectancy of a bird - "Small birds, such as warblers and sparrows, probably live on average only a few years..." - it is most likely not the same friend-with-feathers that we see each year. But again - same time, same place, same bird.


Once again a Catbird is making our property one of the places that he spends a significant amount of time this summer.

Only twice in the thirty years have we actually figured out where he and his family - because before the summer ends there will be a wife and kids - actually live. And each time it was a different location.

One year, probably around mid-August or so, I was pruning one of the thick, leafy bushes that separate our back and side yards. Normally I try to keep this particular undergrowth at around my height, six foot five. But this year, for whatever reason, I had let it go since spring so the shrub had gotten to be about eight feet tall and the new growth had plenty of time to thicken up.

Mars had given me some new pruning shears with handles that, with a twist, telescoped to double their normal length, thus allowing me to take on tasks like the one in front of me. Using the longer version of the tool is a little hard on my arms since the center of gravity shifts and I have to operate it most of the time at full arm's length. But I figure that it's pretty good exercise for an area of my body that never had much of a workout until I discovered the joys of destructive gardening.

I had just started snipping away when I heard the distinctive cat-like "mew" call.

I hear the whispering voice of spring,
the thrush's trill, the catbird's cry.
Oliver Wendell Holmes

But unlike previous iterations of the caterwauling, the sound was not emanating from an invisible source on-high but rather from the immediate proximity of the slashing metal blades. And the tone was different - much more threatening. Also there seemed to be more than one speaker - although with the thick leaves I never really saw anyone. I did however hear the flapping of wings.

I stopped immediately and went inside to tell Mars about my accidental discovery. The bush remained un-pruned for the duration.

Another year my neighbor John told me that he thought the catbird had taken residence in his ten foot tall Rhododendron that stood against the fence between our properties. His cocker spaniel Casey had apparently wandered into that piece of shrubbery and been verbally chased away by the maliciously mewing militant, but thankfully not swooped at or otherwise physically abused. John likewise left that nesting area untrimmed for the remainder of the growing season.

The year after each of these events and on every subsequent summer I have checked these two bushes for signs of catbird life. But there hasn't been any. All we get instead are constant catcalls and occasional sightings as the small gray birds drink at our bird bath, try to steal our blueberries, or perch on the various manmade objects on our property.

Which leads me to believe that, unlike for example the falcon that nests annually in the uppermost regions of my former employers home office, the catbird is not returning to its ancestral living quarters. Each catbird might in fact be completely new to the area.

The Behavioral Psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized that human actions were driven by what he called a "Table of Needs".

Level # Type of Need - Examples
Level 1 Physiological Thirst - sex, hunger
Level 2 Safety Security - stability, protection
Level 3 Love and Belongingness - love and be loved, and gain a sense of belonging
Level 4 Esteem - Self-respect, the respect others
Level 5 Self-actualization - To fulfill one's potentialities

I would think that all animals are driven by at least the first two levels and are hard-wired to sense pretty quickly when they come upon a situation that satisfies them. That is probably what brings a Catbird to our yard every year - either with or without a genetic sense of place.

With lots of thick, high bushes and trees, a refilled-daily birdbath, fresh local berries and bugs, and no predatory pets even a first time visitor must instantly feel like he is truly in the catbird seat.

And providing that environment for "our" annual boarder, including listening to his acoustically abrasive scolding and complaining, is probably one of the ways that we get ourselves to level three. And beyond.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


It is probably the same way that they got started. People who find themselves living in a house with hundreds of rescued cats - and no one else. The ones you see on the Sunday morning local news programs from the "Friends of (fill in the blank)" Shelter seeking a permanent home for an abandoned dog of uncertain breed. They all began with just one.

I belong to our town's Beautification Trust, an organization "to enhance the appearance of Wethersfield by creating and maintaining public gardens and encouraging beautification projects." One of the gardens that had been established several years ago in what was then a sunny location is now awash in shade. As a result the sun-loving plants are languishing and the "we don't need nuthin" weeds are taking over. The Trust reluctantly decided to close down the site, rototill the land, and let some shade loving grass takeover the property. Whatever was there would be churned into the ground.

I went to see if there were any plants worth salvaging. There were two kinds of sedum: a small leaved, low-to-the-ground, almost lime colored one with burgeoning yellow flowers, and a larger leaved, paler green with overtones of maroon, mid-sized one - plus a number of daisy looking taller plants. I came back home and told Mars, and after a return visit with her we opted to dig out one of each variety for our own home gardens.

We also decided to contact Betty and Craig, acquaintances who are landscaping their recently acquired house. A couple of evenings later Mars, Craig and I went down to the garden and took out several plants which we each brought to our respective homesteads and transplanted.

That night I got to thinking that there were still a good number of healthy plants (I hadn't really counted them) that definitely deserved a better fate than to be devoured by the rotating blades of a rototiller. The next day I went down again to see how many there were. It was a lot more than I expected and I came back home with about twenty plants - mostly the small sedum.

Then I conferred with Mars. We decided that our niece Leslie and our neighbor and tax preparer Melissa (a.k.a. "the tax chick"), both avid gardeners, might be interested. Fortunately they were. Our niece took two of each and Melissa eagerly adopted the rest

So I got to thinking again. The next day I called the head of the Beautification Trust who assured me that if I dug out the sedum they could place it somewhere.

As result I now have eleven white kitchen trash bags filled with sedum - nine short, two tall - sitting in my driveway, waiting to be picked up and delivered to their new homes. They line both sides of the asphalt like over-sized luminarios (a.k.a. faralitos) - the sand filled bags with votive candles that appear at Christmas - after they've been de-luminated and rained on. I am certain that they'll be out of here soon.

Again I'm thinking. It doesn't really take that long to rescue the little guys - that last foray only took thirty minutes. And local television is always looking for segments that tug at the viewer's heartstrings.

I'll be sitting on the interview stool just to the right of the ebullient, anchor-babe wearing my F.O.S. tee shirt, dirt avalanching down my pants legs, and a motionless litter of sedum on my lap.

Please call.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just Another Henbit Horticulturalist

I am coming to understand the important part that weeds play in having a balanced and satisfying gardening life. But it can't be just any old weed. It has to be a certain type - like Henbit. I've probably had this purple flowered member of the mint family as a yard-guest since several years before we lived here. But I only recently found out what its name was. And just today learned to appreciate it

I found out the weed's identity a few weeks ago when I happened to notice a patch of it on my next-door neighbor's lawn right at the point where it abuts my (thanks to Harrington's Organic Lawncare) ninety-nine percent weed-free grass. I remembered similar displays of the unwanted plant on my own grounds in my pre-Organicare days. A crew from Harrington's happened to be across the street at another neighbor's so I asked them what the insidious invader was called.

"Henbit." One of them said after picking off a piece and staring closely at it. I was momentarily taken aback by what I mistakenly heard as a sarcastic comment on my marital dominance. Then he walked along the edge of my property with a concerned look on his face and said, "We'll have to keep an eye on that this year to protect your property."

I told him "I'd appreciate it."

And I do. Our lawn is totally Henbit-free and I am much happier for it. The little purple interloper has however pretty much imbedded itself into each and every non-grassy part of our yard - all those nooks and crannies that the lawn care folks are paid to stay out of - even organically.

From a distance the daylily and iris beds look pristine. But get up close and look closely at the telltale rounded tooth edged leaves and the dreaded purple flowers that entwine themselves around the base of these space-hogging perennials, exposing themselves only enough to absorb their RDA of sunlight.

The base of our side yard elm tree is swathed in a blanket of White Lily-of-the-Valley and occasional Purple Violets - both considered criminals of the same ilk as Henbit in some circles. I was surprised to see several L-o-t-V offered at my garden club's plant sale. I was stunned beyond belief that people actually bought them. We have three good-sized patches of them at the homestead - none of which we had any part in developing. The violets likewise voluntarily appear in various places on our land, although singly or in pairs - apparently not being as gregarious as the faux members of the Liliaceae family. (Not to be confused of course with the Soprano, Gambino or Corleone family whose interest in planting things was definitely not horticultural.)

But even within this crowded bed of highly competitive (albeit decorative) weeds we will find a noticeable amount of Henbit. It apparently spreads itself by a process very similar to the one used by Captain Kirk and Mister Spock to transport themselves around the universe - or at least I can't see any other possible method. "Beam me up Scotty!"

Pick any other garden in our yard and there they are also:
a) In the shade amidst the Hosta, Ferns, Woodruff, and Ground Elder,
b) Amongst the rocks and pachysandra abutting the Butterfly Garden.
c) And in the midst of the False Dragons and Lady's Mantle within it.
d) Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera!

Major problem? Not at all. It's the perfect Friday-afternoon-at-work job - exactly what Mars and I needed at that time on that day. Even though it wasn't the last afternoon of the work week, and neither of us is employed anyway.

We had just finished two of the main events in the Retired Suburbanites' Triathlon - having walked nine holes of golf and then spread two yards of freshly delivered mulch. After lunch we placed some more mulch in the fussier parts of our perennial beds. It was now two in the afternoon and sunny, with the air temperature in the mid-eighties - but most of our yard was engulfed in a cooling shade and a slight breeze was blowing. We had nowhere else to go, and enough energy and yard-guilt to continue our horticulting - but not enough to knock of the remaining yard of mulch.

"I'm going to work on that corner over there" Mars said pointing at the portion of the Butterfly Garden immediately across from the Pachysandra, rocks and Henbit. I decided to crouch down across the flowerbed from her and work on that opposite junction.

When you get down to its ground level the Henbit doesn't try to hide at all. And it slips out of the ground effortlessly feeling like no more than a strand of silky-string between your naked fingertips. Because it feels so fragile and flimsy it is actually possible to rely totally on your sense of touch to distinguish the unwanted purple plant from its more deserving, sturdier neighbors. This actually gives the weed-plucker an opportunity to let his eyes wander over the rest of the plot and appreciate the beauty of its variety - while at the same time toiling away meaningfully in the dirt. It is a seriously addictive activity.

Before I retired I used to joke about finding those perfect Friday afternoon jobs - tasks that were necessary, maybe even important, and provided the satisfaction of a job well done. But did not really require you to be there mentally in order to do them. Other than yoga class it is as close as you can really come to a total out of body experience.

Which is probably why if you look carefully on any given Friday afternoon, you will see professional landscapers crouched down quietly over patches of purple, working efficiently and diligently - with their minds in a better place.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Net Progress?

When we covered the blueberries today we found some dead bird remnants in the netting - the desiccated remainder of a tiny head with a still largely intact beak, a few gray feathers, and a part of a claw. I am amazed that we didn't clean it out last July when we put the covering away for the duration - but obviously somehow we just didn't notice it. I am even more surprised that we caught a bird. The new bush-coverings that we use now are nowhere near as good a trap as the old tobacco netting that protected our blueberries for many, many years in the past - now that was a real bird-catcher!

We put in our first bushes thirty years ago, the same summer that we moved into our house. Our next-door neighbor John who was working at a nursery at the time, saw me planting the bushes, and nicely offered to get me several pieces of the white gauze cloth to protect them.

I was beyond thrilled. Tobacco netting, the widely acknowledged key to the success of Connecticut agriculture and its most visible and recognizable symbol, was coming to my very own little plot of land. Now I would really be a horticulturalist.

At that time tobacco netting was still a, possibly THE, major fixture on the summer Connecticut landscape.

"The Connecticut River Valley is noted for its shade grown tobacco and if you ever travel along Interstate 91 from Hartford to Springfield in the summer, chances are you'll see enormous fields, white with gauze netting, undulating in the breeze." (

This nicotine rich member of the Nightshade family is normally associated with southern states such as North Carolina and Virginia. Their tobacco leaves however were condemned to the lowly life of a cigarette - chopped and stuffed ingloriously, by machine, into (of all things) a cheap paper wrapper to be ignited and consumed in less time than it takes to say "The finest Connecticut shade grown tobacco". Which of course was what we grew.

Meanwhile our carefully picked and stored tobacco leaves traveled in luxury to the skilled hands of cigar rollers in exotic locations like the Dominican Republic, or Honduras - or perhaps (Urban Myth?) Cuba. There they were lovingly and skillfully turned into wrappers for the finest cigars to be savored by the finest people, at the finest parties, in the finest places.

And the white...gauze netting, undulating in the breeze, filtering the sunlight, were the churches under which this broadleaf transubstantiated from lowly weed to legend and, in the process, fueled the economy of our state. It made us smokers feel like we were Thoreauean back-to-naturists breathing in healthy farm air every time that we inhaled our pipes.

Unlike the tall spires on which the tobacco cloth was draped, the cheesecloth at my house was directly laid onto and wrapped around the blueberry bushes. As a result my back yard looked more like a meeting place for overweight burqa-wearers than a horticultural shrine. Nevertheless IT WAS GAUZE! - and the netting did its job. Year after year after year we were able to fill our cereal bowls and pancakes with fresh backyard blueberries with just a minimal loss of the crop to our avian visitors.

And I really came to like the look of the white bundled bushes.

Still several times a year I would walk into the back yard to find the netting heaving and bulging as if it were visibly acting out its own internal conflict. I would carefully peal back the cloth until the captured bird figured its way out and then rewrap the bush. Frequently this involved three or four aborted flights with accompanying squeals of panic. Fortunately I never had to detach any flying fledglings from their gauzy prison or take away any panic-induced corpses from the inner sanctums of the bushes.

Every time that we removed the covering however we did take a little of the bush with it - a part of a branch, a few crushed berries, a random collection of bird feathers - and ripped a part of the cloth in the process. Each incident by itself, or even in total, was not enough to damage the plants but, as it accumulated over the years, it was enough to ultimately remove any vestige of the white...gauze netting, undulating in the breeze ambience.

A few years ago I reluctantly decided that I really needed to replace the old netting. My neighbor was no longer a nurseryman so I set out on my own to purchase it. And I soon discovered that along with the demise of the tobacco industry in our state - not due to health concerns but rather to the invention of an artificial cigar wrapper by (another urban myth?) a Connecticut native - the white netting had also disappeared.

And been replaced by black plastic mesh - just as tobacco has been superseded by Indian Casino gambling as Connecticut's newest, and apparently much more successful, cash crop.
The black plastic is undoubtably more efficient also - it lets in more sunlight and air, and considerably less birds. In fact today's post-mortem forensic find is the only such incident that I can remember with the new coverings.

But better isn't necessarily always better. Life's just not that black and white.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Less Than 8 Seconds

He looked like Major "King" Kong (the cowboy actor Slim Pickens) riding the bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Except "he"was furrier, had no cowboy hat, his ride was definitely not voluntary, and his mount was a clear plastic soda bottle rather than a metal encased nuclear device.

The polymer projectile comprises the seed-storage portion of our nominal bird, de facto squirrel, feeder that hangs in perfect view from the flowering crab tree in front of our family room. "He" obviously was one of the tree rodents, although the entire incident happened too quickly for either Mars or I to determine which one.

It was at least partially my fault. The night before as we went out after supper I noticed that the seed supply was near empty, but I chose to do nothing about it. We returned from our meeting around nine and I opted to fill my own dish with ice cream rather than refill the feeder - although I could have done both. The next morning while I was outside before breakfast I once again let the now totally empty feeder stay in that condition.

In addition one end of the metal wire from which the bottle hung had become detached and the u-shaped hanger, draped over a tree branch, had slid precipitously past the halfway point. Although I actually didn't notice this until a second or two before the crash.

Mars and I were sitting in the family room reading the morning paper, and catching up on the latest Paris Hilton news with Meredith and Matt, when we looked up just in time to see the incident unfold.

What we saw was one of the squirrels (either oblivious to the emptiness of the bottle or irritated at its vacuity) move quickly across its supporting branch, then turn abruptly and accelerate down the thin strand of metal. The wire, which up until then had supported a basically weightless object, began to slip. And the bottle, being jolted by all of this action, began to swing from a vertical to a horizontal attitude.

Apparently sensing that something was going terribly wrong the squirrel let go of the thin medal thread. He quickly shifted his own body from head-down to what would have been a flying-squirrel-parallel-to-the-ground floating posture - if he were that breed, which unfortunately for him he wasn't. Instead of gracefully gliding to earth he landed flat-out on the bottle just as that object achieved absolute horizonticality, and in the process somehow severed the container's connection to its lone piece of supporting wire.

Momentarily conjoined, the tree rodent and the plastic vessel began their rapid, gravity-controlled descent. And remained in that configuration as they passed by the bottom of the window and out of both Mars'and my view.

I got up in time to see the bottle slowly rocking and a gray bushy tail rushing away from the house. Mars asked if I was going to have to "perform mouth-to-snout resuscitation" - I didn't. I wondered if our former veterinarian, to whom I once brought one of our son's hamsters that had broken its leg, was still willing to take on the challenges of microsurgery. Fortunately I didn't have to find out.

So having no medical actions to perform I went outside, refilled the feeder, and placed it back onto the tree.

No squirrels visited the feeder during the sixty minutes. Then we went out for our daily health club workout. When we returned two hours later one of the little gray guys was hanging down the side of the bottle as if nothing at all had happened.

Which it probably didn't - to him at least. As Mars said, our involuntary bottle-jockey however was probably so traumatized that he would need to spend the rest of the day huddled in his nest recovering.

The next morning all five of our regular tree-rats were back at work - climbing on the bottle, chasing each other up and around the tree, and jumping from branch to branch.

If your everyday livelihood depends upon you performing without a net, then you have to have an extremely high threshold of pain, and a very selective memory. Otherwise all you get are the leftovers that fall to the ground - slim pickings indeed!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

No Cut Peonies This Year - Or Next!

One of our three peonies is in bloom. There is one flower on it - white with red marks along the petal edges. The other two show no indication of flowering. That's actually better than the way it has been for the past few years with these shrubby plants that have lived at our house for considerably more years than the thirty that we have been here.

I cannot say that I didn't notice them when we first moved in - after all I did mow around rather than over them. Nonetheless I was totally nonplussed when their pink and white flowers appeared apparently out of nowhere on an early June weekend in 1977 - having at that time no precise recollection of ever consciously choosing not to take their lives. There is apparently a form of perception where you can "see" something enough to avoid colliding with it but, not knowing what the thing actually is or will become, you can still be totally startled by its existence every time that you come upon it.

At that time there were three bushes located along the northern border of our front yard. The oak trees back then were thirty years shorter and that part of our landscape received almost a full day's worth of sunshine. We even had a small bed of miniature roses about twenty yards from the peonies - also prior residents.

Over the years, as the shade increased, the rose/peony output decreased. I took out the rose-bed first. Then a few years ago I transplanted one of the peonies to a sunnier spot and dug up the other two. Or so I thought. Two years later, two individual peony stalks arose in the former sites of their parents. I've left them there - but until this year none of the three current plants had produced any flowers at all.

In their hay-day however, every June, all three of the original bushes would spring to life with ten to fifteen blossoms each. Then, within twenty-four hours, it would rain - heavily - for several days - guaranteed.

Up close the wet, dense flowers remind me of peacock or swan bodies - layers of feathers over hints of a bony skeleton. The ball-shaped buds always looked too heavy for the long stems on which they were each displayed. They were not - until they multiplied their weight by totally absorbing every drop of precipitation that fell in their vicinity. Then they laid upon our sodden grass like a flock of long-legged prostrate pink and white birds - looking like the end result of a bird hunt like that depicted by George Catlin in his 1857 painting "Shooting Flamingoes" (a lasting memory of our visits to Rochester, New York during our son's college days, and the Peonies' prime years.)

I used to work with a woman who also grew peonies and who decided one June to save her flowers from their waterlogged fate by cutting them and bringing them into work for all of her co-workers to enjoy. There were several vases of them arranged nicely on the desks that made up her Help Desk seating area.

Then someone noticed a large black ant. And another. Soon they were appearing faster than Flamingos were falling in the aforementioned painting. Since we were on the seventh floor of a downtown urban office building, and since no insect of any form had ever been spotted previously within this hermetically sealed edifice this became a source of minor alarm. The ants however, being the orderly animals that they are, were marching in columns that, when traced backwards, led directly to the several vases of freshly cut flowers.

The Peonies were ingloriously removed from the workplace and several days later the ants were also gone. There may have been some nighttime insecticide committed in the process, but I'm not certain.

When I got home I checked out our plants to see if the office infestation was just an anomaly. It wasn't.

Which is why even though our one Peony lies prone, in solitary repose, in the pouring rain, on the wet grass, like the final act of a balletic swan - there was no way in hell that it and its squirm-inducing black residents were coming into this house.