Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What's on his mind...

...as he sits up on his haunches staring vacantly into space for several minutes?

The Buddha Squirrel
calmly contemplates his world -
decides to eat seeds.

Meanwhile on the west coast - "... somewhat fuzzy picture taken by Michelle Wheeler of the 'Buddha Squirrel,' who is known to frequent a San Diego park. The Buddha Squirrel is a figure of squirrel mythology, a rodent of great and terrible power whose appearance signals that the final uprising of squirrelkind is about to begin. When the Buddha Squirrel is sighted, squirrels everywhere begin to file their teeth and sharpen their claws in preparation for war.In case you doubt that this squirrel is something special, I quote this chilling detail from Ms. Wheeler's missive: 'The other squirrels seem to like him so much that they bring HIM food and he never has to move an inch!'"

Monday, April 28, 2008

They're Baaaaaack!

Mars and I are trying really hard to be ecologically conscientious stewards of the land. We don't spray chemicals on our flowers or vegetables, or add them to our soil. We grow only those things that are native to our neck of the woods. And we use an organic lawn care service. We like the results and we feel good about the horticultural footprint that we are leaving.

But damn it, the dandelions are back - almost exactly twenty-four hours after our grass received its first corn gluten treatment of the year. I know it seems inconsistent with our efforts to be green - but the sight of even one of those dumb blonde weeds in the yard really pisses me off.

It's not rational. As far as I can remember they never did anything bad to me. I was required to eat some of them as a youth, apparently some sort of Italian family rite. But now that is only a distant, bitter memory. I think I may have even liked to look at them once upon a time - when they were a part of other peoples' landscapes.

But if absence makes the heart grow fonder then sometimes proximity has the opposite effect - perhaps one of the reasons that we in the northeast feel differently than many living on the southwest border in regard to illegal Mexican immigrants. When you are trying to create your own little sovereignty you tend to get a bit paranoid about those annoying pieces of reality that keep popping up and preventing you from having things just the way you want them - no matter whether you are striving for a society built upon the ideals of justice, bravery and truth, or an aesthetically pleasing, totally healthy landscape.

A weed-free lawn is often perceived as the Holy Grail of grounds keeping - and not just because of its appearance. Healthy lawns are evidently also good for the environment.

"healthy lawns:
* Reduce noise by serving as a natural filter
* Cool the environment
* Improve infiltration, reduce runoff and filter the water which helps recharge groundwater supplies
* Provide better air quality by converting greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into oxygen
* Act as a natural air cleaner, trapping an estimated 12 million tons of dust and dirt from the air annually
* Stabilize the earth by knitting the soil together with grass roots and stems to prevent soil erosion and runoff"

So however are dandelions.

"Dandelions can be beneficial to a garden ecosystem as well as to human health. Dandelions attract beneficial ladybugs and provide early spring pollen for their food...Dandelions long roots aerate the soil and enable the plant to accumulate minerals, which are added to the soil when the plant dies."

But "The best defense against dandelions is a healthy lawn, since 'a properly maintained lawn' is less susceptible to weeds, insects, and diseases..."

An ecological conundrum? Not necessarily.

We simply need to look at the facts if not logically then at least syllogistically - remembering that a syllogism is just of a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is drawn (whether validly or not) from two propositions. Syllogisms are, of course, well known for their ability to resolve conundrums

So here we go:
A) Healthy lawns are good for the environment:
B) Dandelions cannot survive in a healthy lawn.
C) It is a good thing to kill dandelions. - KILL! KILL! KILL! (Sorry about that.)

But, to be truly environmental our motives and actions must be pure. Other than a dandelion slaying device called "Killer Kane" (a large, hypodermic-type dispenser that allowed you to apply toxin directly to each weed) we have never actually used chemicals on the lawn during our thirty-one years of gardening. Instead I have used the manual power of my hand-weeding tool to extricate the flaxen interlopers from the premises. But corn gluten is a far, far better thing than the seductively easy, Morgan le Fay-like super-syringe, or the Sir Gawain-ish brute force method of dandelion decimation. It is in fact the Sir Galahad of the all-natural landscaping world's herbicides - immaculately pure and ruthlessly deadly.

"Corn gluten meal is a by-product of processing corn to make corn starch and corn syrup...[it] prevents sprouting seeds from developing normal roots. This does not directly kill the seedlings, but makes them susceptible to dehydration if the soil gets dry. Established plants are not affected. The developing roots of a number of common weeds are affected by corn gluten meal: crabgrass, creeping bentgrass, smart weed, dandelions, redroot bigweed, purslane, lambsquarter, foxtail, barnyard grass, and Bermuda grass."

But apparently, like many knights in shining armor turn out to be, it is less than one hundred percent effective.

I can see the golden gluten flakes lying in between the blades of grass on my lawn. And on top of several thriving, jagged dandelion leaves! But I have to look really closely - just like moments ago when I was crouched down with my weeding tool trying to discern the underground origins of these lingering, uninvited lawn dis-ornaments.

So I (A) pay money to have manmade natural ingredients put on my lawn, in order to (B) prevent the growth of vegetation that naturally belongs there but which, if left to its own devices, would (C) prevent my lawn from being naturally healthy - and, as a result, (D) being all that it could be, environmentally. And (E) I still have to have to draw my sword in battle.

Camelot - or not?

Friday, April 25, 2008

And I still have to ask the produce associate.

I guess it's progress
When the self-checkout tells us,

"Move your cilantro."

Thursday, April 24, 2008

April Showers

In the gray downpour,
Under warm, pink crab-blossoms,
Gold-feathered drowned rats.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More Gardening Advice From Doctor Flora

Periodically Dr. Flora Fleshinger, a.k.a. "The Harridan of Horticulture" and sister of a slightly better known but equally bossy talk radio advice maven, writes a guest column for the Men's Garden Club of Wethersfield's newsletter, which I edit. Here is her latest.

A piercing nasal voice shrieks over the loud background noise of Amy Winehouse singing a retro/hip-hop/urban/new-age/acoustic/reggae/a cappella version of "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme".

Dr. Flora: I'M BACK! No time for niceties today - let's get right to our first caller.
Caller-1: Hello Dr. Flora. My name is Bob and I am a phone advice addict.
D.F.: And you called me on the phone because you want advice on how to stop calling on the phone to get advice?
C-1: Well Dr. Flora I am actually only addicted to one advisor - and it's not you.
C-1: Dr. Flora! Dr. Flora! Are you still there?
D.F.: I was sulking in silence Bob. Who is this other self-help charlatan that presumes to tell my listeners anything? Did I say other? I didn't mean to say other!
C-1: Well it all started because my wife and I couldn't get my peony to stay up. It would try - the stem would harden - but then the head would get too puffed up and the whole peony would just droop limply in her hand. Then my wife would take it and...
D.F.:(panting quickly) Bob stop! I'm getting distracted. Thanks to our one-minute tape delay you listeners did not get to hear all of the juicy details that Dr. Flora heard. But now I must calm myself down. Dr. Flora needs to be totally focused in order to save the world. I simply cannot mix work and fun.
C-1: Well I had heard about these hotlines for different problems and I figured there must be one for my flaccid flower. So I looked in the yellow pages under "W" and found this horticulture hotline...
D.F.: Bob. Horticulture doesn't being with the letter "W".
C-1: But I found this..
D.F.: Bob what you found was the "Hot Whore Line".
C-1: But it worked. Dominatrix Spadix told me exactly what to do..
D.F.: Bob. This is way too yucky. You have to stop.
C-1: But she gave me complete blow-by-blow instructions...
D.F.: Bob. Shut up!
C-1: Yes ma'am.
D.F.: Bob. You are to no longer call that filthy phone number. You are instead to send me all of your savings and I will send you in return a full month's supply of "Dr. Flora's Cute Little Magic Blue Pills." Just place one at the base of your peony one hour before - and relax. You and your woman might even want to bring your bathtubs outside and sit in them knocking back Margaritas while you are waiting, now go stand in the corner.
C-1: Anything you say Dr. Flora.

D.F.: (voice squeaking) Oh I do love my job! Next caller!
Caller-2: Hello Dr. Flora. This is Evelyn. Our single plants of eggplant, cantaloupe and zucchini produced nothing last summer, even though we have fantastic soil on a southern slope. Do vegetables like these require both male and female plants to produce crops?
D.F.: They're gay!
C-2: What?
D.F.: G-A-Y! Gay! The vegetables you mentioned and many more have both sexes on the same plant. Some, like melons, squashes and corn, have separate male and female flowers. Others, including eggplants, tomatoes and beans, have flowers that are called complete or perfect because they have both male and female parts. But sometimes the little boy parts are more interested in the other little boy parts. And the little girl parts likewise. And it is all your fault.
C-2: Because...?
D.F.: Now I know that lots of fancy schmancy scientists and religious clergy say that it is genetic. But I just know better than them - I just do! After all I do have my own doctorate - right here on the wall in front of me. I have a degree in MBSAHTSI (Male Bovine Scatology And How To Spread It) from this cute little mail order college that operates out of a temporary storage bin somewhere in New Jersey. Now here how YOU did it! You probably played Broadway tunes and opera music while you were watering the little boy flowers - maybe even some Judy Garland records. Or you were watched Ellen, or you listening to Melissa Etheridge when you were potting the little girls. It can happen that quickly! Or maybe you bought the plants from some prison outreach organization - you know what happens in those places.
C-2: But Dr. Flora, What should I do?
D.F.: Shun them! Condemn them! Burn them! Cast these heathen herbs into the eternal flames of perdition! (more heavy panting). And buy my new book "Straight Talk on Plant Fertilization or How To Recognize the Real Pansies in Your Garden!"

Thankfully that is all the time we have for today. Dr. Flora is exhausted and needs to relax and have some fun. Can you guys in the control room play that censored portion of Bob's phone call on my private headset? I am going to go to my dressing room and pour myself some Chablis. And put the tape on perpetual play - I'm going to want to hear it again, and again, and again. This is Dr. Flora - preaching, teaching and nagging. Bye!

What are all those white chunks on the lawn?

Suburban pigeons
unimpressed by hand-baked bread

demand wild bird seed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Do you know about Thomas Hickey?"

At a Golf Elderhostel at Penn State University last August I was asked by a self-described retired historian who had seen the words "Wethersfield, Connecticut" on my name tag, "Do you know about Thomas Hickey?" Hickey it seems may have been the most notorious Revolutionary War resident in the history of my home town - and neither Mars nor I had ever heard of him.

In retirement Mars and I have become members of the Wethersfield Historical Society and, that summer, we had helped to implement a section on the society's website that would present non-scholarly historical articles written by members of the organization. Now I was looking for a subject on which I could write a "members article". So I began a multi-month, part-time research project on Thomas Hickey - my first historical research since college in the early 1960's.

The "great work" is now completed and available to the public on the Wethersfield Historical Society website. I have included the link below. I hope that you enjoy reading it.


Saturday, April 19, 2008

Guido's Got A Girlfriend! - Or Not

Guido, our resident robin, may have a girlfriend -- or not.

A week or so ago we saw him hanging out with another slightly smaller, slightly duller colored, red-breasted thrush. In our neck of the woods it apparently isn't that easy to distinguish male from female robins. Unlike other birds, cardinals e.g. where the female is brown and the male is, well, cardinal -- gender recognition in robins is based on subtle degrees of difference.

Within a day or two Mars noticed the two of them building a nest in our neighbors' Star Magnolia. The tree was still budding at the time so visibility was not in any way obstructed and the roost was being constructed at a surprisingly (to us) low altitude of about four feet. Robins live for as long as twelve years averaging two clutches of eggs per annum and as a result may build more than twenty nests -- so hopefully Guido knows what he's doing. Unless of course this is his first one.

Should this be his initial homebuilding project I found the following nest-building directions on the web, although I have not figured out how to communicate them to him.

"1. Find a suitable building site

* The site should be protected from sun, wind and rain. It can be anywhere from ground to treetop in height; the site must be on something sturdy enough to anchor the nest securely in place. You don't want your nest to fall off!
* Your nest should also be very close to a good feeding spot so you can easily find worms while keeping an eye on it, and it shouldn't be too far from water.
* Choose a spot that is hard for predators to see. Remember, you and your eggs and babies will be sitting here for the next 5 weeks, so be careful to pick a spot that's safe, cool, and comfortable.

2. Gather materials

* Grass fibers: Collect about 350 dead grasses and twigs that are about 6 inches long. (The pile should weigh about 135 grams.)
* Soft mud: After a soaking rain, collect mouthfuls of mud in your beak and travel back and forth to your nest site a few hundred times.
(If you happen to be a person rather than a robin, you might substitute your hands for a beak to collect the mud, but don't forget that it takes a pair of robins hundreds of visits to build the nest!)

3. Build!

* Weave the grasses together, cementing them to each other and to the supporting branch or windowsill with mud.
* Next, use your tummy to shape the nest into a perfect baby cradle.
* Finally, line the inside with the softest grasses and hairs you can find so the eggs will stay warm and not get pierced by any twigs or sharp grass edges. The nest must be tight and snug enough to cradle the eggs and hold in your warmth, but large enough to hold four or even five BIG nestlings."

Still, it was more the elevation of the aerie rather than the structural integrity that concerned us. According to Bird Studies Canada the nest height for Robins ranges from "ground level (not common) to 21m, but usually between 1.4 and 3m." Hopefully Guido, a good "red breasted American" is not bewildered by these bizarre foreign measurement standards, although it looks to us as if he may be confusing his metric numbers with real ones.

The day after the nest was being worked on I noticed Guido hanging out by himself in our front yard. And the next day too. I am not the best reader of body language but I would say that his previously patient, confident demeanor had been replaced by a slump-shouldered, pacing back-and-forth attitude. Perhaps his perspective partner was hoping for something more like a penthouse on Wisteria Lane rather than a first floor flat on Magnolia. Or maybe Guido just didn't make her laugh enough.

Two days ago the Magnolia tree burst into full blossom. Then yesterday I looked out our window and saw her sitting on the nest. Later she was cavorting with Guido under our sunflower seed feeder. Like Mars says, "Flowers always work."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Spring Afternoon At The Dog-Blog Bush

Whet by damp headlines
Moist twitching noises read on -
Searching for subtext.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

10 a.m. Thursday @ Westside Market

Cadillac creeping,
Cataract sunglassed tourists -
Senior Safari.

Spring Cleaning the Iris Bed

Among cut brown straw
Green shoots revel in their first
Direct spring sunshine.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Playing Through The Pain

Four of our resident squirrels should be on the "Injured Reserve List", but true athletes that they are they are still playing the game as if absolutely nothing was wrong with them.

The most seriously ill-looking one is basically half bald - a not totally unattractive color combination of pink and gray, but quite a texturally unnerving sight. According to a Purdue University website the cause is most likely either notoedric mange or one of any number of superficial fungal diseases called dermatophytoses. Both result in substantial fur loss. With the fungal disease it is "typically broken off at the skin, leaving a fine stubble of short hairs". Mange evidently leaves no trace of tresses. Neither Mars nor I have gotten close enough to browse for bristles - nor do we intend to. Another web site suggested setting up a hair comb sprinkled with anti-mange powder so that the squirrel could brush against it and self-medicate. We are not doing that either. Since whatever is ailing "Pinky" seems to be having absolutely no effect on his behavior, especially his acrobatic eating habits, the actual diagnosis and how to cure it is at most of academic interest.

As the Purdue article says: "The next time you see a squirrel with hair loss, don't become alarmed. In most cases, the hair will return with no apparent ill affects to the squirrel, other than perhaps some embarrassment and name calling among his squirrel friends."

The other three "I.R.s" look to be the victims of some form of inter or extra species violence.

One also has some exposed sections of skin - but much less than "The Pinkster". The bare patches, from our closest viewing distance of six feet or so, seem to show signs of having been bitten. We frequently see the tree rodents quarreling among themselves at the feeders - or it could be sex games. But either way we have never seen blood drawn during these conflicts (or consummations).

There is no shortage of squirrel-averse dogs and cats in our neighborhood, including a Yorkshire Terrier named Emmie Lou who pretty much every morning drags her considerably larger master across our front yard during her a.m. blood quest. And there are hawks, at least one of which has committed squirrel-cide in our neighborhood. In short there are more than enough suspects with motive and opportunity to explain the bodily trauma.

The other two injured squirrels likewise could be the intended victims of any of the above - especially the one with the severely shortened tail. The fourth one hobbles along on three legs and may also be the result of a mugging casualty - or simply the consequence of a bad fall. With the number of times these rodents are forced to make unanticipated aerial exits from great heights you would actually think that more of them should limping around.

When our son Bram was young he had several pet hamsters. One of them, perhaps either "Ratso Rizzo" or "Cleopatra", broke its front leg attempting to pry off the metal top of their Habittrail Cage (a.k.a. home fitness center). Within a week, even though we actually had our veterinarian put a splint on the injured appendage, it atrophied and fell off. Still I remember being incredibly impressed throughout the year or so that it lived with the injury that it never acted as if anything was wrong - even though its tube climbing technique had changed, of necessity, to a "two feet forward, one foot back" technique.

Similar to the squirrels the hamster probably didn't know any better, so it just kept on truckin'. Of course with animals in the wild - even the "wild" of our front yard - we don't get to see the squirrels that fail to adapt to their maladies or injuries. Instead they disappear to that mysterious, secret place where squirrels (other than road kill) go to die. Like the proverbially famous Elephant Graveyard of Tarzan and Trader Horn movies there exists somewhere in the suburbs of Connecticut a Squirrel Cemetery. This super-secluded site contains the tiny skeletons of innumerable tree rodents who knew that their time had come and who - out of kindness for the sensitivities and sensibilities of the "Friends of Squirrels" who nourish and write about them - quietly slipped away to die.

One more reason for us not to "become alarmed" about our hairless yard pets - we never have to see the consequences of our inaction.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Buffeted by winds
Steadfast squirrels hold tight to
Slick plastic feeders.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

So these four birds walked into a yard...

So these four birds walked into a yard...

The Mallard pair arrived a few days after one of the many pre/early spring deluges that have afflicted our neck of the woods this March. Although there were multiple inches of rain in our area it should be mentioned that the actual effect on our lifestyle was that of a minor nuisance - certainly nothing like the actual damage that has been and is being done in other portions of the country.

Nonetheless for several days our yard was comprised primarily of standing water with islets of sodden sod in the higher spots. Unfortunately these pieces of land were (a) too far apart from each other to provide a dry land route through our yard and (b) too damn wet to provide a dry land route anyway. My daily trek to the bird feeders and the squirrel corn station was accompanied by the slurping sound of Muck Boots being sucked into the land as well as the appreciative chitter of early morning avians and the enthusiastic chatter of our always-hungry squirrels.

Webbed footed water birds have visited us before - sometimes couples, sometimes families - but always when it was wet. They waddle around the waterscape, sitting on the puddles and then arising to wander some more when they discover that there isn't enough liquid depth to extend their legs and expand their membrane-attached toes.

Occasionally they feed on the sunflower seed remains that have fallen beneath the bird feeders. Mostly they peck at the kernels that get tossed aside by the squirrels as they ravage the cobs of corn that we provide them. Some, apparently able to amuse themselves with a minimal amount of H2O and an even lesser quantity of unrefined cereal, have stayed for several hours. Most however quickly assess the situation as being considerably less than meets the eye (as seen in their initial flyover), grab a kernel or two, and leave.

Our most recent duck visitors however waited until the yard was completely dry before dropping in to see us. Mars noticed them wandering back and forth seemingly in search of something. He had a furrowed-brow look on his face like "I'm sure I saw water here somewhere." She acted as if it was their first time out together and she had allowed him to plan it - last time that was going to happen. After several back-and-forths she spotted the corn kernels under the oak tree and ambled over to peck a few. He watched as if protecting her, constantly scanning the horizon. Actually he was probably trying to figure out what had happened to the neat little wetlands area he thought he was taking her to.

Soon she hopped up and flew away at the dangerously low altitude that ducks assume for the first quarter mile of their takeoffs. He of course dutifully followed hurrying to catch up so that it would look as if he had thought of it first.

Robins also have been coming and going for the past couple of weeks - in dry and wet weather. But one of them seems to have stayed. Normally he stands motionless under the bird feeders looking like the perfect gentleman waiting for his date - too polite to show impatience or concern by pacing or looking around lest his expected companion see his state of agitation and think less of him. As evidenced by the dietary choices of other redbreasts, worms are plentiful on our modest estate. Nonetheless our steadfast visitor, whom Mars has named Guido for reasons I do not totally understand, seems to limit his food intake to sunflower seeds from the ground under the feeding stations.

Perhaps his solitariness is attributable to his food choices. And what I am interpreting as his dignified demeanor is actually the annoying aloofness of one of those provender purists who feel that their diet entitles them to a mien of moral superiority. Time will tell, but I personally am hoping that he is Vegetarian. The worms are much more beneficial to my gardening efforts than are the birdseeds and look a lot less attractive going down.

Our other potential permanent resident, or at least seasonal, is a male House Sparrow who has been busy remodeling the living quarters in our dead Flowering Crab branch. The space was first hollowed out two years ago by a Downy Woodpecker who never actually lived there. Apparently, even though he and his friend still hang around the tree and its suet restaurant, they have zero interest in residing there. He was apparently just another real estate speculator who "flipped" the newly improved property to family of Sparrows at his first opportunity. It is one of the few properties in our town that gets off the market quickly.

The ducks have not returned, in spite of another outbreak of wet-followed-by-dry, days. Guido the Robin, still by himself, continues to display his dignified countenance and patience and has yet to be seen indulging in the less dignified, higher-protein eating habits of the other visiting thrushes. And the sparrow seems to have been joined by a female interior designer.

So what's the punch line? There isn't one yet.

When reality writes the script the climactic ending doesn't always come when you want it to. You just have to be patient and wait. Exactly like Guido seems to be doing.