Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Good Flight Ruined

I thought that I was having a bad time on the eighth hole until I heard the hawk.

He was screaming for help as he flew over my head, about thirty feet up, with a small bird perched on his shoulders, pecking at the back of his head. Both the predator and his attacker were pretty much identical shades of gray and white making it difficult at first to detect the latter. But Mars and I have seen scenes like this many times in the past so I knew what to look for and where. In fact I had witnessed the beginning of this drama three holes earlier while she was intently hitting her second shot from the middle of the fairway.

At that time the hawk was hightailing it across the golf course heading for the shelter of one of the few trees that dot the landscape and occasionally deflect my drives. As he rapidly descended into the confusion of branches the smaller bird released its grip and flew upwards. It swooped threateningly towards the quivering bird-of-prey four times and then flew away to the top of another perch, about a decent nine iron away from the beleaguered member of the twosome.

Twenty minutes later they were at it again. It kind of makes you wonder what it would take for the hawk to "get it". I mean isn't that how those "Invisible Fences" for dogs work - one or two zaps and the canine is trained? Pecked once, twice shy - done!

Apparently it is all about territory. The smaller birds are simply defending theirs. And, in fairness to the hawks, the borders of each little avian's homeland apparently changes throughout the year - and not just because of their resident's innate flightiness. During the nesting season the birds need to set up and maintain a "Green Zone" for their fledgling familial activities.

Sometimes the initial nesting locations don't work out for whatever reason - noisy neighbors, unanticipated maintenance costs, high taxes, etc. So the boarders move and the borders change. When the little ones actually arrive the defense of the homeland becomes even more intense. And then there are the remaining nine months when they could care less.

To compound the problem for the hawks there are no clear geographic or artificial demarcations to pay attention to. Their borders are all drawn in the air - unlike golf courses that likewise are arbitrary rearrangements of the natural world but with the purpose of moving its voyagers in an orderly manner from one sub-region to the next, each pilgrim in sequential pursuit of their own personally-propelled white orb.

For example the one from which I was watching this saga unfold. Popularly called "The Flat Nine" it is a links layout of the most rudimentary design. The land has been left level, no water hazards or sand bunkers have been created, and (with one incredibly maddening exception) it is a straight line from tee to green. And six of the fairways line up parallel to each other with nothing but high-cut grass in between.

Just prior to noticing the hawk incident I hit a shot from the far side of the ninth fairway onto the eight green, the hole from whose fairway I should have been playing. Such boundary incursions are common practice on The Flat Nine. And are graciously incorporated into the ebb and flow of each golfer's pace of play. Because other courses have wider fairways, similar shots there would not impinge on those groups playing ahead or behind, but would instead be swallowed up by various forms of adjacent man-encouraged vegetation.

These golf course hole demarcations are, I am sure, perfectly obvious from the air. For some mysterious reason however the birds are unwilling to use them as a template for defining their own territories.

Conversely - and I think that this is a good thing - the earthbound golfers seem equally averse to copying the behavior of their territorially impinged upon, higher altitude neighbors. Definitely a plus for those of us who otherwise would end each round of play with a series of serious neck and shoulder wounds and a thundering headache.

Staying within the lines is sometimes a good thing. A bad day on the golf course is definitely better than a potentially worse one above it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dishing The Dirt

I just bought some dirt.

It is not the first time that I have done this - nor will it be the last. If I weren't a gardener I would think that anyone who spent their money on bags of something that, other than water, is the most plentiful compound on our planet was just plain crazy. But I am a gardener. And therefore I not only think that my financial investment in this stuff on which we stand is not only not insane but is in fact one of the best uses of my disposable income that I am likely to make in this entire fiscal year.

Because this is really important to me I want you to read this very slowly and emphatically - IT IS NOT JUST DIRT, IT IS TOP SOIL!

Dirt, as one of the members of my garden club would say, is something that you find in your kitchen. This is soil. And moreover this is not just any soil; this is the very topmost soil - not bottom soil, or middle soil, or even upper-middle soil - but top-of-the-line topsoil.

And organic too.

Maybe you are saying, "What in the world is inorganic soil? Is it some glow-in-the-dark earth from the farms surrounding Chernobyl? Or perhaps a laced-with-lead, man-made dirt substitute manufactured in China?

Not to worry, this soil is from Canada, from the same company that produces the Tourbe de Sphaigne Canadienne that I also purchased along with it. I have been using Sphaigne Canadienne for many years and, in spite of its country of origin, have never found even the slightest trace of the dreaded "Four Canadian Ps" - Pucks, Poutine, Pork Pie, or Pea Soup in the peat. (There is a slight underlying maple syrup aroma, but hey, nobody's perfect.)

Although it took me a while to become comfortable with the concept of buying dirt, purchasing peat has always made sense to me - even when I was just a neophyte jardiniere and had no real idea of what it was or what it did. I knew that it came from bogs and, probably due in part to my Irish heritage, that was plenty good enough for me.

I was however pretty shocked to discover that it came in bags. I was expecting something more like a dripping bale of wet black, foul smelling stuff inefficiently bound together by hemp cords and oozing organic matter like an overexcited volcano. But I was even more stunned when I cut the shrink wrap container open and discovered that it had been mistakenly filled with old, stale cigarette tobacco. It did however smell great and my lungs instinctively reverted to that happy feeling of fullness that I remember so well from my Lucky Strike / Camel days.

This was all of course before I knew that:
"Prior to a peat bog being harvested, it is first drained of near-surface water and cleared of all surface vegetation. The bog is then harrowed to a depth of three to four inches to expose the top layer of peat to the sun and wind. Once dried, the peat is vacuumed with harvesting machinery. A vacuum harvester can harvest an average of 100 acres per day and ideally the number of harvesters per bog should enable the entire exposed portion of bog area to be harvested each day" (

This probably results in a pretty impressive bog-to-bag ratio but it does take a lot of the romance and excitement out of the consumer's usage of the product.

Nonetheless dried and vacuumed peat has proven to be just as addictive as its nicotine laden look-alike. I have pretty much never been without an open bag of Sphaigne Canadienne on the premises and I have used it faithfully to prepare every planting site on my property since my very first vegetable garden back in 1977.

So not surprisingly, according to experts in the horti-addiction field, my use of "soft" soil supplements quickly led to further experimentation with more potent, and more expensive additives such as mulch, vermiculite, composted cow manure - and ultimately imported Canadian topsoil. Once you've experienced that transcendent gardening high you will pay whatever it takes to keep it going.

Obviously the person who coined the phrase "dirt cheap" was not a gardener.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Double Black Diamond Golf

Mars and I are flat-landers.

Connecticut, where we live, while not totally lacking geographic ups and downs is nonetheless by no means mountainous. Its high point is about 2,380, feet, and an elevation map of the state shows most of the land in the zero to six hundred foot range.

When we skied it was cross-country - relentlessly gliding across the snow neither helped nor hindered by gravity except for an occasional downhill snowplow or uphill herringbone of thirty seconds of less in duration. It's what our native terrain gives us.

Likewise golf. The course on which we have played probably ninety percent of our games is familiarly known as "the flat nine" because, other than one hole where the tee is probably twenty feet higher than the green, it is.

So when we decided to go on a golf mini-vacation to celebrate Mars' birthday and rehab-generated quick recovery from hip replacement surgery (like Jack Nicklaus she was hitting balls at eight weeks and playing at twelve), we chose the golf course at Mount Snow - one of Vermont's leading downhill ski areas.

It was a Black circle, Double black diamond course. "Difficult. This is where the [holes] start getting scary. You don't want to take off your [soft-spiked shoes] on one of these [holes] because you never know if you'll be able to stand safely on the slope without them. Usually very steep."

The degree of difficulty of a golf course is indicated by two numbers - its "rating" and its "slope". "The Course Slope value is a two- or three-digit integer, always between 55 and 155, with 113 being the average or 'standard" value.'" This course had a "slope" of 117 to 129 depending upon from which tees your were hitting. That seemed low to us until we realized that "The Slope is a measure of how much difference a course's difficulty is for the average bogey golfer compared to the scratch golfer." - i.e. it really has nothing to do with the course's "slope". If it did, Mount Snow Golf Club would have a slope somewhere north of 308 - slightly less than Mount Everest but much higher than other courses which when they are shut down for the winter can only be used for Nordic skiing. This place would be just right for the X Games hot dog snowboarding events.

At the Pro Shop, when we asked, we were told that the altitude there was "about seven thousand feet". This turned out of course to be ridiculously incorrect - it is in fact about one thousand five hundred feet - but that piece of misinformation, plus our (we assumed altitude-induced) dry lips, and the fact that you could not see over the mountain into the valley from the first tee to the first green led us to believe that we were in for our first experience with the sport of "Extreme Free-Range Golf Trekking". It was terrain more suited to a funicular or a four wheel drive ATV than a golf cart.

Since Mars and I were playing as a part of a special off-season, midweek package we were not assigned any Sherpa Guides or Llama caddies. On the first day we were playing by ourselves and stood on the first tee looking hopelessly for some target to aim at - nada, nil, zilch.

The scorecard told us that there should be a green 372 yards off in the distance. I walked as far to the left as I could without falling off the side of the earth, stood on my toes, and saw what I thought was the very top of a white flag down in a valley off in the distance. So I gave up on my quest, took aim at the center of the part of the fairway that I could see, "gripped it and ripped it!". Mars did the same. Both balls disappeared from sight. For all we knew they could have rolled fifty yards, gone over the edge, dropped straight down, and landed in the first hole located three hundred twenty-two yards immediately below the drop off point.

They didn't.

We left base camp and moved onward, expecting to find scores of abandoned oxygen tanks and left-behind rope ladders. Instead we found both of our balls. One swing apiece later and we saw the green. Six more shots each and we both heard the little rattling sound. Not the best start, but no balls had been lost, no one had fallen into a chasm or been attacked by a Yeti, and the sun was shining. On to number two. Three holes later we stopped keeping score and we started to play much better - really.

For one thing, like when you first look up at the mountain you are about to hike, we had initially been intimidated by the geography of the course. Secondly we accepted the fact that we would just never be standing on level land at all during our projected two-days / thirty-six holes of play, and adjusted our swings accordingly. And most importantly we began to enjoy the scenery. These are after all the mountains of Vermont.

Well-designed golf courses are landscaped to discompose, disconcert, disquiet, distress, and disturb. Hitting a small dimpled ball one hundred yards in the air over water is no more difficult or easy than whacking it the same distance over land - but it sure feels different when you are doing it. Objects are closer than they appear - or farther. Openings between trees are made to look narrower than they really are to discourage - or wider to seduce. You have to look very closely and analytically at all of your surroundings to realize where you really are, and where you are going.

It also seems that the relative elevations of here-to-there are fiddled around with to make one hundred forty yards uphill longer than that same distance on level land, and conversely much shorter downhill.

This concept of variable distances based on non-comparable altitudes I totally do not understand. In fact I never even thought of it until the second day of our foray. We were paired up with Lee and Dave, two really nice retired guys from Albany who were on one of their weekly golf trips to courses within two hundred miles of their home. Before and after very shot they verbalized their club and swing selection - "The scorecard says one hundred forty yards, but it's downhill so that's one less club."

Mars and I ignored their analysis, largely because we didn't understand it. Sometimes we "over-clubbed" (hit it too far), sometimes we "under-clubbed". I suspect that was more likely caused by our innate inconsistency than any esoteric aerodynamics - but who knows?

We started that second day with drives right down the middle of the fairway and celebrated with a modest terrorist knuckle tap. And we played better than we did on the first one in spite of being forced to perform in front of an audience of two better golfers.

It is possible that we might have even played within the "Course Slope" - or that may be what they call in golf "a good lie". We would know for certain if we had kept score. I lost several balls. But we did make some pars, and seemed to each hit at least two really good shots on every hole.

It was our first experience with Alpine Golf and a deliberately devious course. A good walk ruined, or an opportunity to see the natural world in a different way? Like any well-designed landscape, it all depends on how you look at it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Who Knew?

Who knew that a little sunlight could make such a big difference?

Over the winter we had a tree cut down on the southern border of our property. It was a fir that, like all of its fellow flora in that section of our property, was suffering from the surfeit of shade that each plant was inflicting on each other. The other major inhabitants of the region effected by the daytime darkness were several hosta of varying hues and variegations which we had been hoping would bulk up and fill in the area - but never had. Along with some woodruff, various ferns, and a patch of Aegopodium podagraria (a.k.a. goutweed) - each of which flourished but, like the hosta, never really grew to its full potential.

For the tree the lack of sunlight evidenced itself as an escalating abandonment of life in its lower branches; a decided anorexic quality to its mid-height ones; and a desperate reaching for earth's life-sustaining star at the top. With regrets, because the tree had a longer claim on this property than we did, we decided to have it taken down. (Had our roles been reversed I like to think it would have done the same thing.) We also thought perhaps the removal of the small amount of shade that it generated might lead to some minimal improvements in the health and growth of its shorter neighbors.

This May we noticed that the hosta were taller, more vibrantly colored, and no longer provided a convenient walking path between themselves. Then, a week or so ago, the goutweed opened the side door, marched into the family room, pushed me off the couch, and grabbed control of the television remote. Fortunately there was nothing good on at the time. After surfing the dial twice-around, the vigorous, rhizomatous perennial sighed and returned to its home in the south forty. And quietly began to take over that area.

We became aware of the vigorous growth of the groundcover when we heard what we thought was a choking sound from the area just to the left of where the shade-producing tree used to live. Just in the nick of time or it would have been not just "hosta manana", but "firme hosta la muerte" for the two "Plantain Lilies" that had the misfortune to reside right next to the goutweed. Now they were up to their peduncles in podagraria and quickly going down for the count.

Our preferred style of floral landscaping is what we have been told is a Monet Garden - named after the French impressionist painter whose gardens looked like his paintings (or vice versa) - large quantities of flowers merging into each other with little or no visible space between them.

We had hoped that the multiple blends of hosta would do just that, giving us a canvas replete with subtle variations in color and texture. Mars and I got the Goutweed over five years ago to fill in the little empty spaces within the area. We were told at the time that it would "take off everywhere" but figured that, since very few other plants went wild in our little shaded wood-let, we would take a chance. And for all these years the Goutweed docilely stayed close by to its original home, cautiously venturing perhaps a foot or two into the realm of its fellow flora - but never exhibiting the least lust for Lebensraum.

Now suddenly, instead of Claude Monet's Garden, we were being confronted with Thomas Hobbes' State of Nature. And it looked as if the life of the hosta was going to become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Violent action was required. Rolling up my sleeves I tapped into my inner Noble Savage and gently but firmly tore into the pushy podagraria, removing its tenacious tendrils from any hosta contact, and redirecting the survivors either outwards toward one of the few remaining blanks spots or inward back into themselves. After thirty minutes of ripping, tossing, cursing, and sweating I had restored spaces for the hosta to breathe and a sense of order to the garden - although probably only temporarily.

One of the tenets of Claude Monet's Impressionism was an "emphasis on light in its changing qualities (often accentuating the effects of the passage of time)..." Legend has it that he would set up a series of easels in front of a single subject matter and move from canvas to canvas as the visible results of the radiation began to change - thereby capturing the precise impression of each exact moment.

As an artiste, and probably also as a jardinier, Monet was in tune with the consequences of sunlight or the lack thereof. Something that Mars and I, as tenders of our plot of earth, apparently are just beginning to learn.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

284 East-West

It is spring. The lawn grass is thick. And the squirrel bypass is open.

According to my online dictionary a bypass is (1) a road passing around a town or its center to provide an alternative route for through traffic. (2) a secondary channel... or (3) an alternative passage made by surgery...

1) Although this bypass actually pretty much goes through the center of town, it does function as THE one alternative route to the branches-and-wires beltway that encircles our yard, potentially providing access to every bushy tailed tree-rodent on the planet. This high-speed/high-altitude route leads into a network of "blue highways" within our property that allows any one who uses them an easy entrance to all of the tourist sights therein.

2) It is most definitely a channel. Again borrowing from my computer-based list of words and their meanings, a channel is:
- a narrow gap or passage...
- a tubular passage or duct...
- a groove or flute...

That's exactly what we've got - a groove in the grass.

3) It was created by an act of surgery - albeit not one that was performed with the noble goal of reestablishing a life-nourishing flow of blood to an artery-clogged patient but rather done with the intent of providing its practitioners with even faster and easier access to free food. So I guess, in at least some sense of the word, it does aid circulation.

The squirrel bypass is most visible in a lawn needing mowing but is of sufficient depth to be easily discerned even when the grass has been freshly cut to its recommended height of five inches. In fact I would calculate the depth of the ditch (DotD) as: DotD = (H - M) where H = the current height of the lawn and M = the matted down thickness of several blades of grass repeatedly run over by rapidly moving squirrels laden down with pouches and stomachs full of sunflower seeds.

The path of this pedestrian parkway runs from the base of one of our oak trees to the base of the flowering crab apple that holds our cache of birdseed feeders. It is, I am absolutely certain, the most direct route from one point to the other. The thoroughfare has existed for probably as many years as we have had feeding stations and squirrels to raid them - about thirty. Although invisible during the grass dormancy months (except when snow covers the ground) the tree-rats seems to have no trouble at all staying on the road as they dash across the yard in single-minded pursuit of their sunflower seed prey.

I have never scientifically determined it, but I would suspect that it has followed, within a fraction of an inch, the exact same track all of those years. While we may think that the squirrels' food procurement antics are amusing, acrobatic, and even artistic I suspect that they approach these meal missions with an obsessive efficiency matched only by that of a deadly heat-seeking missile, honed in inexorably on its hapless target. Extra travel time means less time at the dinner table - lack of haste makes waste.

Mars was saying just the other night that we ought to do something to make the squirrels' dinner theatre more challenging and hence more entertaining to us. Maybe we should decorate the path with some tiny little barriers such as those used in dog agility trials - tunnels, teeter-totters, tire jumps. weave poles, and orange plastic cones.

Faced with the choice of altering their beeline byway or learning new tricks, I have no doubt that they would choose the latter. And, after a momentary increase in the pace of their commute, they would quickly learn to negotiate their newest challenges with no resulting loss of face-time with the feeders.

Who knows - it might actually increase traffic on the thruway. After all I'm sure that even Tiger Woods, known for his extremely intense focus on the putting green, would enjoy the challenge of hitting one through the windmill blades and into the clown's mouth every so often.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Gazing Into The Present

Victorians spied
on their daughter's dates, while we
reflect on ourselves.