Sunday, September 21, 2008

Whoda thunk it?

I used to think that as gardener I was either uninformed, or lazy, or cheap -- or possibly all three. Now I find that I was just ahead of my time.

Take my lawn for example. Having lived in naught but rented apartments until Mars and I purchased our house in 1979, I was totally baffled by the plethora of green stuff that covered most of my property. It probably had more broad-leaved weeds, ground ivy, and wild violets than fescue, bentgrass or ryegrass. But damn it, IT WAS GREEN AND IT WAS MINE. To my mind it was the perfect lawn.

We bought in April and (as I remember) it rained regularly for the first few months of our new occupancy. The grass grew. And the grass stayed green. What me water?

A few dandelions appeared. But I quickly excised them with the really cool fork-tongued weed remover that was part of the starter kit my father-in-law had given me. The new neighbors talked about fertilizing but -- not having any idea what they were chattering about, and not wishing to spend money to find out -- I simply looked at them with the superior air of a Smart Car owner staring down a Hummer SUV driver, and changed the subject.

Was I a "rebel without a clue"? Perhaps at the time yes. But who knew that thirty years later having a well-kept lawn, instead of being a sign of civic responsibility, would be viewed as an ecological crime against humanity. In spite of my self-doubts I was in fact a pioneer in the "Freedom Lawn" movement.

According to that scorekeeper of style, The New Yorker magazine, "The Freedom Lawn is still mowed -- preferably with a push-mower -- but it is watered infrequently, if at all, and receives no chemical 'inputs.' If a brown spot develops, it is likely soon to be filled by what some might call weeds, but which Bormann, Balmori, and Geballe [authors of "Redesigning the American Lawn" (1993)] would rather refer to as 'low growing broad-leaved plants.'"

Damn! If I had a better P.R. rep I could have been a glamorous trendsetter instead of just a guy in dirt-stained pants duckwalking around his yard uprooting weeds with a long-bladed tool.

Then there are our perennial beds -- which to some more closely resemble a science exhibit demonstrating the "Survival of the Fittest" than a functionally spaced assemblage of flowers, compatibly arranged by size, color and texture, blooming in succession

But what are you supposed to do when well-meaning friends offer you their overstocks and outcasts? Or when your hometown threatens the lives of innocent plants with its bulldozers of mass destruction? You find a place for them.

Fortunately there is a fancy-schmancy name for this -- a Monet Garden.

Claude Monet was probably the most prolific of the "Impressionist" painters. And he was a planter of perennials who frequently used the gardens at his home in Giverny, France as his subject matter.

Monet's landscapes tended to be busy with color and texture -- as did his flowerbeds -- somewhat like those that can currently be seen at our house. Okay, maybe his plots were not quite as crowded. That just means he probably didn't have as many "giving" friends as we do. And perhaps the placement of his plants went from short in front to tall in back, and perfectly followed the gradations of hues on the color wheel. But that's just because he actually knew the name (and perhaps other characteristics) of the vegetation he was using.

Still, he had a lot of stuff in his perennial plots, and so do we. And that is close enough for me.

Several autumns ago Mars asked me to cut down the seasonally dead coneflowers, daisies, rudbeckia, and other summer has-beens that blighted our landscape. I was feeling tired at the time so I suggested that we "let the plants stay for the winter so the birds can eat the seeds." (I actually was hoping that the little feathered invaders would chop the plants down completely and tote the stems away for firewood. I knew that they wouldn't, but I hoped.)

To my total surprise Mars bought the idea. As a result, not doing anything about the perennial deadwood is now an integral part of my annual fall cleanup regimen. Years later I read somewhere -- probably in a belatedly published back issue of "The Procrastinator's Journal" -- that I actually was right. Not only do the finches and their colleagues actually eat the tiny pits, but the tall stems also provide protection and temporary shelters for the little guys during the cold winter months. Whoda thunk it?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." (Shunryu Suzuki -- Zen Buddhist Priest)


(Tim Toady)

Cold above. Beneath
98.6 times 2 --
Northern comforters.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Now For Something Really Dangerous

Even though it should be, my biggest concern as a backyard feeder of birds is not the dangers to which I apparently am exposing them. It is much more personal than that.

Some bird advocates aver that home feeding causes the diminishment or loss of the ability of the feathered vertebrates to fend for themselves and the resultant creation of an entitlement mentality and/or a "dependent class" of avians. Others express alarm that these all-you-can-eat dining areas are de facto small game hunting ranches for bird predators such as cats and hawks.

There are however even more serious perils.

Backyard bird feeders and birdbaths can be sources of diseases that kill birds.

Diseases potentially spread by birdbaths and feeders include mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, aspergillosis, avian chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.

Potential dangers of feeding wildlife go beyond dangers to the birds that eat backyard seed and nectar. For one thing, those birds are often eaten by other wildlife, including raptors. Trichomoniasis, for example, is a significant problem for the Cooper's Hawks in urban Tucson. Second, in some parts of town, bird food on the ground may attract animals like javelinas, rabbits and squirrels, which in turn may attract predators such as mountain lions.
[Or in my state of Connecticut, black bears.]

I suspect that the Tucson Arizona squirrels Arizona mentioned above are of the ground variety. In Connecticut we have the more classic "tree squirrels".

(Although the term tree squirrel can refer to any arboreal member of the family Sciuridae, it is generally in reference to the common and widely distributed members of the genus Sciurus and close kin, the tribe Sciurini. These genera contain most of the common, bushy-tailed squirrels in North America, Europe, temperate Asia, and South America. The tree squirrels are close relatives of the flying squirrels.

They generally spend little time on the ground, preferring the heights of the forest canopy.)

And as a result they are attracted to the aerial birdfeeders in our yard -- and have adapted their behavior accordingly.

Most of the time, most of the squirrels are content to acrobatically array themselves on the food-tubes, gleefully defying gravity and the laws of flexibility and strength while they stuff their pouches with surfeits of sunflowers. Occasionally though they turn destructive.

One of our feeders has a plastic soda bottle as its seed holding area. It is a commercial product designed to accommodate to the very situation that I am about to tell you about. Yesterday I had to replace the bottle because it had a four-inch by three-inch hole eaten out of its side. Mars had observed the creation of this aperture over several days.

One of our regular squirrels, identifiable by the thin black band around its mouth, had been steadily working on it. Last week Mars' reading reverie was inconsiderately interrupted by the familiar sounds of tiny rodent teeth vigorously gnawing on pieces of molded polyethylene-terephthalate.

As she always does, Mars rose from her seat, opened the door, and heatedly berated the mini-marauder for its rude and destructive behavior, "Bad squirrel! BAD squirrel!" The miscreant immediately took leave of its chewing project and retreated to the branch from which the object of its dental desire descended, where it laid on its stomach, legs dangling, looking either sincerely repentant or absolutely disinterested depending on the observer's perspective.

Minutes later, the bottlewrecker was back on the job. Initially the hole was barely visible. Within days it was large enough for the squirrel to stretch the upper portion of its body inside the feeder and stuff itself amidst the climate-controlled, plastic environment. Mars suggested that we needed a new bottle.

When I went out to take it down a gray titmouse was perched on the edge of the cutout opening unsuccessfully attempting to lean forward and reach the remaining pile of seeds. Fortunately, rather than losing its balance and pitching itself beak first into the sunflowers, it righted itself and flew away.

But what if the titmouse was not unable to escape. Or worse what if the original bushy-tailed vandal had tumbled into the two-liter trap and either through panic, ignorance, or the simple laws of physics was not able to extricate itself. Once he finished eating all of the seeds left in the bottle -- first things first after all -- he would attempt to climb his way back up to the entry hole.

He would of course fail. (1) The inside wall of the feeder being slippery plastic with no imbedded footholds would be unscalable. (2) Even if he reached the hole his newly acquired girth could prevent him from fitting through. (3) There being no food involved, it would never occur to the squirrel to chew himself an outbound opening. (4) Someone (me) would have to rescue him.

It is hard to imagine that, even as frightened as the captive rodent might feel, he could be anywhere near as terrified as I would be. And all of the possible scenarios that I can imagine for resolving the imprisoned squirrel dilemma end up validating that fear. Every ending to the story that I can foresee has me lying in some form of hospital receiving some form of anti fatal disease medication through some unpleasant delivery mechanism.

Still, feeling at least partially responsible for creating the attractive nuisance that seduced the squirrel into its chamber of horrors -- even though Mars tried to warn him -- I guess that I would feel compelled to at least try and free the little guy.

Besides, compared to washing out the bird feeders and baths and coming into contact with all of the life-threatening germs that reside therein, hands-on wildlife rescue sounds positively appealing.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's Lonely At The Top

Top is the toughest
Spot on human pyramids -
Tottering on trust.

(please click on picture to enlarge)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Marketing 101

It was an unusually warm and humid early September evening in the mid-Connecticut suburbs. We had just had finished dinner and S & D, our hosts, suggested that the four of us adjourn to the cooler confines of their front stairs to continue our post-prandial conversation.

The sun had set thirty minutes before and the street was in the early stages of darkness. Neighbors sauntered by walking their dogs. A barely visible, unlighted teenage bicyclist hurried past. Lights were being turned on in nearby houses. There was no automotive traffic to drown the sound of silence.

S and D mentioned that on the previous evening the quietude had been broken by the caterwauling of a female squirrel in heat -- attempting to drum up interest in her seasonal fecundity. Then a nearby smartass mockingbird answered the tree-rat's plaintive call. The call and response continued unabated at least until S and D lost interest and turned their attention to other matters.

At about that point in time I noticed some movement in the second floor front window of the two-story house diagonally across the street. The white colonial style abode was totally in darkness except for what appeared to be one light in the room with activity.

At first I thought it was my wishful imagination. Then I realized that it wasn't. "I think that I'm seeing a fantasy." I happily announced.

All eight eyes peered at the backlit window and we agreed that what we all were viewing was a woman, most likely fresh from the shower, wrapped in a white towel, preparing to go out for the evening -- either totally oblivious to, or absolutely aware of her public visibility.

S and D decided it was most likely the "girl" who lived there.

We continued to watch. She walked around a little bit and swung her shoulderlength hair back and then forward as she disappeared below the window ledge. When she came back up she was wearing a black bra that she had apparently put on when she was out of sight but which she now seemed perfectly willing to display to anyone willing to look. Which, of course, we were.

A few more hair swings and she bent forward in order to put on some of her below-the-waist clothing. Then she covered up the black bra with a white blouse, checked herself out in an out of sight mirror, turned off the light, and left the room.

A few minutes later she reappeared with a different light shining, looking out the window as if searching for her ride to wherever. But we never saw her leave.

Totally enjoying what I was seeing but still feeling a little slimy about my voyeurism I asked S and D how old the "girl" was. After some discussion they concluded that they actually didn't know but seemed to think late high school or early college. Since my view of the precedings was at least partially a phantasm constructed out of movie scenes, written descriptions, and my own imagination I decided not to feel too bad about it.

The show was over and the bugs began to bite. So we headed inside the house where we all vented about the misleading manner in which Sarah Palin was being sold to the American public, and D introduced Mars and me to the advertising concept of "the purple cow" -- that "the key to success is to find a way to stand out -- to be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins."

The randy tree rodent never reappeared. It was a little disappointing to Mars and me, but probably a good thing for her. After being mocked the preceding evening, getting totally upstaged tonight might have been more than she could handle.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Forgetting The Good Times

It is difficult to write about things that you don't remember -- difficult but not impossible.

Take the 1960's for example. It has been often said that if you remember the sixties, then you weren't really there. Yet many musical performers, as well as others whose self-described chemical usage would lead you to believe that they should have little (if any) recollection of that time, have nonetheless shared their memories of it -- in pretty significant detail.

Just for the record I have perfect recall of that decade.

Obviously the sixties-memory-loss-as-certification-of-participation is meant hyperbolically. But effective hyperbole is rooted in reality -- in this case a recognition that during intense involvement in an activity our self-awareness is oftentimes significantly diminished.

Except for Woody Allen. Yesterday Mars and I saw his latest movie "Vicky, Christina, Barcelona". And a few weeks back we had watched "Cassandra's Dream." Allen directed both but does not appear in either. But as our son Bram commented to us, "he's always there."

Some may wonder why we willingly subject ourselves to ninety minutes plus of angst-filled, Upper Eastside New York City dialog -- even if it is spoken with a charming Spanish or faux working-class English accent. In the most recent case it was truthfully the setting of the movie, which we visited in 2002. Without going into any more detail I would say "V, C, B" - four stars (five for Barcelona), "C D" - two and one half.

In both cinematic works, as in every Woody Allen film, all of the characters seem to be able at all times to perfectly, albeit somewhat psychotically, articulate their feelings and motivations. And so they do -- ad nauseam -- as if they are experiencing them and recounting them to their shrinks at the same time. Actual people -- or at least the ones that I know -- are just not like that.

In fact, much of the time in real life we are largely unaware of many of the details of the act we are performing -- never mind what motivates us to do it. Sometimes this has dire consequences, as when we nervously pour the red wine on our guests sleeve instead of into the goblet. Other times, as in deeply ingrained habits, nothing bad happens at all. And occasionally absolutely wonderful things happen because we, for whatever reason, are able to shut our minds off from outside distractions and the inessential aspects of what we are attempting, and focus in on the bare essentials of getting it done.

I myself seem to remember every excruciating detail of every bad golf shot I have ever hit -- what I was thinking of, any pains in my body, the bug that landed on the ball, the copse of trees on the right, the water in front, the preceding shot that I just topped, yada, yada, yada. Probably because at the time it was happening I was equally, if not more, aware of each of them. Yet all that I can recall about the good ones is seeing the path of the ball and the final result.

As another New Yorker, baseball legend Yogi Berra, purportedly said, "Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?"

I had two of these good swings during our recent Golfing Elderhostel at Penn State University. I like to think that I actually had more than that. And I probably did. I'm just not aware of them. But these particular ones seem to persist in my long-term memory because they were shots that I would have not even attempted just the day before.

Both of them went between two trees that were probably a couple of driver club-lengths apart -- although now in my mind the opening has shrunk to about one and one-half golf balls wide. In each instance I was probably twenty to thirty yards away from the barricades. But the truth is that I never really saw the impediments -- just the open space between them and the path that the ball would take to get to its target. I took one practice swing, aimed, and hit the shots cleanly through the trees. Each one landed where it would have if I had hit it perfectly from a totally open fairway. And that is all that I remember.

The next day, attempting similar if not simpler shots, my mind was picturing the trees even as I pretended to be focused on the target. And my thoughts were anxiously analyzing and delineating all the mechanics of the simple swing I was hoping to perform. Of course I hit the trees. And I immediately began to agonize about my golf game.

In a personality profile in our local newspaper ESPN Sports Anchor Georgie Bingham is quoted as saying "I play a lot of golf.....My skills ranges from truly terrible to wonderfully brilliant....."

At a social gathering -- or even writing this -- brilliance can come from having the observational abilities, self-perception, and verbal talents of a Woody Allen. But on the golf course you are much better off with the skills of a man who can't think at all -- at least when he is hitting.