Monday, September 24, 2007

The Second Solstice

Solo tomato
Preordained to stay unripe.
Eden garden's Fall.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Give a squirrel a seed...

I think that our yard-pet squirrels are up to something.

And it is not just another variation on these bushy tailed rodents' ability to weasel their way into any and all outdoor food venues. Or their seemingly infinite array of self-serving acrobatic stunts. Instead it is something that represents an actual quantum leap in the evolutionary development of this thirty-plus million year old species. All of the above abilities, no matter how complex appearing, are really just clever methods of a species that has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Now the squirrels are evolving to a state of total self-sufficiency.

They are becoming gardeners.

As we accomplished aces of the arcane arboriculture arts are aware a garden involves so much more than simply sticking something in the dirt and seeing what happens. It is instead, as expressed so well by an English landscape architect "an assemblage principally of vegetation, kept in a preferred state of ecological arrest by the craft of gardening". This distinction is what separates those of us with truly green thumbs from those whose hands are simply dirty - the growers from the diggers.

Squirrels it seems have always been the latter - as evidenced by the myriad of tiny acorn holes they dig into my yard with their tiny gray paws year after year after year. And which I subsequently mow down week after week after week. Undeterred by this continuing lack of success generations of rat-tailed residents have repeated this ritual with little variation on my land and other's properties since time immemorial.

Then this year Marsha noticed the little gray planters carrying sunflower seeds purloined from our bird feeders and stowing them away in the soft, fertile earth of our vegetable garden and in the empty spaces of the adjacent butterfly plot. And rather than the jump-around-like-crazy random planting patterns that we had seen with acorns these kernels were being planted in little groups of four.

(In truth Marsha told me this after the fact - not as it was happening. There was no "Jim, come quick! You've got to see this. The little tree rats are marking off sections of the yard and carefully placing quadrants of sunflower pips therein!"

Perhaps she actually saw it happening and I wasn't around or, if I was she figured that I was too busy at the computer fabricating real-life gardening stories to care about what was actually happening. In any event the resultant Helianthus annus crop, most of them arranged in quartets, seems to provide sufficient forensic evidence.)

Truth be told the squirrel-situated sunflowers are probably the most successful annual crop of the current season, providing displays of large golden-rayed flowers amidst my embarrassingly shorter tomatoes and Mars' multicolored Zinnias. You could easily make an argument that the Helianthus displays are by far the most orderly part of the landscape - neatly arranged tall islands of yellow, properly spaced within and between. And at some point the cone of seeds should provide locally grown organic sustenance for our hardworking tree-rodents - unless (ironically) the birds get there first.

Some philosophers and scientists will say that it is easy to reason backwards from a situation and to imagine a pattern of intelligent design that got you there. It could be that. Or it could be that Mars and I are among those fortunate few in history who have actually been present to see a major turning point in the evolutionary development of a new super-specie.

I prefer to believe the latter - that after generations of watching me create "an assemblage principally of vegetation, kept in a preferred state of ecological arrest by the craft of gardening" the squirrels have been moved to cast aside the shackles of human-dependency and emulate my efforts towards comestible self-sufficiency.

Give a squirrel a seed and you feed him for about a tenth of a second. Teach him to grow his own and you've fed him for life.

If this crop is successful, then next year I am going to introduce them to feeders containing tomato seeds, eggplant seeds, lettuce seeds, and several other vegetables that I would like to have flourishing on my property - as well as several more containers of sunflower kernels.

Our relationship with the squirrels is already more symbiotic than parasitic - we feed them, they entertain us. Now I think the time is ripe for our partnership to become even more mutually beneficial - as well as economically rewarding.

And the best part is that they work really cheaply and, as far as I can tell, are all here legally.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Adding A Little Mystery To Our Life

Mars and I were given an Aspidistra this weekend. It is the offspring of one that was owned by friends and former golf-partners Kyoko and Ron (now moved to Phoenix) who, upon their departure, entrusted it to mutual friends, Judy and Rob. The mother plant became ready for splitting, which Judy did, and surprised us with it.

Sensing our non-recognition of the common plant name Judy wisely told us the historic provenance - "that large plant in the Edward Gorey cartoons that people would hide behind. The Victorians liked it because it could grow in their darkened interiors" - rather than its formal name Genus Aspidistra, family Liliaceae.

Mars and I not really Victorian people. In fact coming of age in the sixties probably makes us anti-Victorians. And we don't watch Public Broadcasting's Mystery series but we have attempted to several times - really we have! Truthfully however I turned it on expecting to see it hosted by the leather-clad Mrs. Peel of the "Avengers" television program. Sadly it is not - instead there is some matronly Dame Diana somebody-or-other with a faint facial resemblance. We did however make it through the opening credits wherein Gorey's gothic line drawings appear. I think there is an aspidistra is in somewhere. Or maybe not - I was still sulking over the lack of zippers, Lotus Europas, and such things. In any event Judy's description got the idea across.

So I Googled "Victorian people" to see what the world wide web could tell me about what we are not, or possibly would become, if we let the bulbous plant with broad tapering leaves into our daily lives. I was directed to a site called which returned a "503 Service Unavailable The service is not available. Please try again later." message when I attempted to link to it - possibly some of the famous Victorian reticence.

There were also suggestions for sites with Victorian cartoons and caricatures (precursors of Gorey), lots of photos of the eponymous queen (or is it vice-versa?), and an intriguingly titled book called "Victorian Babylon: People, Streets and Images in Nineteenth-Century London" (which suggested to me at least that our newest leafy family member might perk up our life a little).

I remember taking a course in Victorian literature in college. But I don't remember anything of it other than the name Matthew Arnold, and the consensus opinion of my fellow students that the class should be catalog listed as "writings of that period taught by a real life Victorian" - by which we were bitching to ourselves about our collective disappointment in the unsexiness of both the readings and the lecturer.

Ironically the day before we received the Aspidistra we came across a plant stand that Mars' father had made many years ago. He had removed the glass cigarette receptacle from an ashtray stand - a wedding gift, brass-legged with a shell decorated brass base - and replaced it with a nicely polished cross-cut from a tree trunk, absent the bark. An objet d'art from the 1930's - not Victorian in provenance but certainly close enough for our purposes.

Both the holder and the plant now stand in front of our west-facing living room window. That spot will provide the flower with pretty much all that Judy says it will need - not much light and very occasional watering.

Hopefully it will grow large enough to hide behind. And perhaps even inspire us to indulge in some clandestine spying activities - sort of a Victorian Secret Catalyst.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Not to worry...

Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril
New York Times - 2/27/07

VISALIA, Calif., Feb. 23 - David Bradshaw has endured countless stings during his life as a beekeeper, but he got the shock of his career when he opened his boxes last month and found half of his 100 million bees missing.
In 24 states throughout the country, beekeepers have gone through similar shocks as their bees have been disappearing inexplicably at an alarming rate, threatening not only their livelihoods but also the production of numerous crops, including California almonds, one of the nation's most profitable.

...they're here in our back yard carousing on the Crassulaceae.

Made drunk by nectar.
Belligerent by nature.
Sedum Gomorrah.

(photo by Mars)

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Before I went to Elderhostel Golf Camp at Penn State University, whenever I thought about how to play a particular shot or situation I would ask myself, W.W.T.D.?
Now I want to be like Phil.

For example I read that prior to last year's British Open Tiger apparently was not hitting consistently enough with his Driver. So he "left the club in his bag" and teed off instead using something called a "One Iron" - a golfing implement that evidently only existed because someone felt it was inappropriate to begin numbering the metal-headed clubs with the number "two", and which, by all accounts, had never been used on the links in either a competitive or non-competitive situation since the invention of the sport in the mid 1500's.

Tiger felt that his odds of hitting the less spectacular and shorter-distance iron into a fairway position that allowed easy access to the green would be safer than going for the longer, less accurate drive. He calculated that over the seventy-two holes of the four day tournament this more conservative approach would earn him fewer enough strokes to win. It did.

Over the Summer I also was not hitting my driver well. (Although it is perfectly obvious, it still should be mentioned that Tiger not "hitting his driver well" is definitely not the same as me having that problem. The so-called "cone of uncertainty" for a Woodsian drive, or any golf activity, is significantly smaller and more certain than mine is - or ever will be. My drives were not only not in the fairway but more often than not so far out of the playing field as to be deemed a recovery rather than a rescue as soon as I hit them.) I too put away the errant club and replaced it with my Three Wood, shaped similarly to the Driver but smaller and easier to control.

At Penn State, even though the course was longer than our usual one and therefore really necessitated a Driver on most holes to have any chance at all for par, I stuck to my "W.W.T.D?" style of play and played the percentages (and the Three Wood). I did not use the miscreant mallet until the Twelfth hole on the first day. There, for God knows what reason, I took it out and promptly hit a shot onto the four-lane roadway that runs alongside the course a good hundred yards or so to the right. Back into the bag it went forcefully. I don't remember anything else about the rest of that hole other than when I finished all of my clubs were still intact and above-water.

I returned to my Three Wood for my next tee-off. I should say here that in three days of playing on the Thirteenth hole I still never figured out its configuration. The first time I aimed for another green that was clearly visible from the Thirteenth tee - the actual Thirteenth hole it turned out could not be seen from that location.

The fairway it turns out goes straight from the tee and then "dog legs" uphill about forty-five degrees to the right. This entire canine shank, up to and including the green, is however hidden behind an undulating mini-mountain of mid-length grass and fairway bunkers. This entire pattern is clearly discernible on the scorecard hole illustration and from the Goodyear Blimp that, for obvious reasons, was not following our foursome. Intellectually I knew this. Visually however I could not get my mind to believe it. I felt instead like I was hitting into a corn maze without a recognizable entry point. I'm certain that Tiger would not have had this same problem.

The next day on the Thirteenth tee I aimed correctly - or at least not towards the wrong flag. My swing felt pretty good, the "plunk" sounded solid, and the ball totally disappeared. I never saw it nor did my three playing partners. It was simply gone. I decided not to hit another ball but rather to look for my first shot after Mars had hit her hers. And, if I did not quickly find it, to drop another ball next to wherever hers landed and hit my second shot from there.

From the tees I used it was, I'm guessing, about 180 yards to the hip of the dog leg - and another 180 more to the green from there. Mars' shot, the result of which I had decided to play from, landed to the right of the fairway, just short of the beginning of the wavy mounds of turf and sand - another location from which the green, as well as the fairway, was invisible, except by intuition.

"Hey, why not?" as the aphorism in the Dove chocolate wrapper frequently tells me. Without the slightest hesitation, doubt, or deliberate thought, I walked up to Mars' pink golf ball, dropped one of mine next to it, selected a Three Iron, swung, and hit up and over the lush wasteland onto the green. ("Cool!") Two putts later I had my slightly less than honest par.
Then I went back to "W.W.T.D?" golf.

Last weekend Mars and I were watching a golf tournament involving Tiger and Phil Miikelson. Phil had the lead. Tiger was methodically stalking him by staying within his plan and waiting for those around him to implode. On the last hole Phil had a one-stroke lead. In the same situation W.W.T.D?

Certainly not what Phil did with his second shot. "He is taking out his big club!" breathlessly shouted the announcer (actually it was probably said in a normal tone of voice, anything above a whisper sounds like yelling at a golf match). "The crowd loves it!"

Phil then hit "his big club" clear over the green into a clump of grass that I would have had trouble walking through never mind hitting a golf ball out, and from which he extricated the tiny white orb to a spot on the green, near the hole, from which he easily putted in.

But my mind was still back on the "big club" shot and the amount of fun Phil looked like he had in trying it. It was, I am imagining, the same sense of joy and freedom I felt on the Thirteenth hole when I hit that Three iron - not when it landed (I actually never saw it come down), but when I executed my swing and saw it start to take flight.

W.W.P.D? Hit the fun shot - that's what!

Monday, September 03, 2007

Projectile Dysfunction

Among the things that we learned on our Golf Elderhostel at Penn State University were: (1) white asparagus, while it may look different from conventional green does not (to us) have a discernibly different taste, and (2) our shafts were too rigid.

Neither Mars nor I had ever tasted the colorless version of Asparagus officinalis - or even seen it. That same lack of familiarity was present in the five other Elderhostelers with whom we shared dinner that night. Nor did anyone know how it was that the tender young shoots lost their color, or if they ever had it. Some opined that it was a special breed. Others thought that it was probably deprived of light at critical stages of its upbringing.

A check of Google when we got home confirmed the latter explanation. It "is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so that it never sees the light of day until the moment it is unmercifully hewn down. Green asparagus grows freely in flat beds, and, exposed to the sunlight, develops the chlorophyll that turns it green." ( In short, the ashen asparagus is the natural result of an unnatural growing process.

The stiff stick realization had occurred that morning on the driving range. Mars asked one of the Golf-Pro instructors, Mary, to watch her hit a ball with her driver in an effort to find out why that shot perpetually angled to the right. Since I also have the same problem with the same club, (only farther to the right and more consistently - like 110% of the time) I paid close attention as the coach made her analysis.

After a couple of swings, both of them to the right and both outwardly perfect, Mary took Mars' driver, placed the head on the ground with the shaft upright and tried to bend it. "There's nothing wrong with your swing. It's your club. It's not flexible enough. Even I couldn't hit it straight with that club."

A little while later she showed the club to Steve, another instructor, who concurred. I gave him my driver to check and he diagnosed that one also as afflicted with the same fatal flaw - Projectile Dysfunction. To prove it Mars and I were, for one round of golf, each equipped respectively with a "demo" set of "Lady's Flex" and "Senior Flex" shafted clubs. Although neither of our sets were the correct length for us, and we were totally unfamiliar with them we both hit the ball better and more consistently. Point made.

This condition is the result of clubs that were sold to us eight to ten years ago when our bodies had within them enough pliability to move the club-head into the proper position, at the proper speed, during "impact". Now, aging and other things being what they are, they don't. Unfortunately the clubs weren't intelligent enough to become more resilient as we became less so.

Not being gourmet cooks (or even eaters), or devotees of television cooking shows we knew nothing about white asparagus except that it existed. Being good New Englanders we made do with what we knew and had. Now that we are more aware of it we will probably try to incorporate it into our lives.

Likewise with golf equipment. We might have heard the words "Lady's/Senior Flex" but, not being interested in "gadgets" and not caring about having "the latest" equipment we instead dedicated ourselves to conquering the course with what we currently had in our bags.

Still our best shots at the Elderhostel came with our old clubs. Like the asparagus, outside intervention can pretty much always alter the outcome - but can improve it only if the plant (or animal) already knows what it is doing. In other words no matter how white it becomes, a carefully buried weed is still just a weed.