Friday, March 27, 2009

Achieve and Leave

The City of Hartford Mounted Police were at the golf course the other day while Mars and I were busily striking our first set of balls for the season. It should not have surprised us. We were after all playing illegally on a closed facility.

Use of the links is explicitly forbidden by a plastic sign at the parking lot entrance -- positioned so as to be totally obvious to anyone driving into the area but not so as to prohibit admission.

It is a public golf course located in a public park with golf in the middle, and playground, swimming pool, basketball courts, softball field, and paved road/running trail/walking path along the perimeter. Local residents walk their dogs across the fairways. Cacophonous music blasts from oversized speakers located within the trunks of low-rider cars. Hawks fly overhead, attempting to outrun posses of small birds protecting their urban digs.

The course was built in 1930. For many more years than Mars and I have been playing at golf it has been managed and run by a private company. This year that corporation has decided not to renew its contract and so, with the golf season looming on the horizon, the city is in the process of negotiating for a successor.

Until then, in spite of the weather, the course remains officially closed. But, because of the public course's even more public surroundings, its borders cannot be sealed. And on one of the nines, the "North Course" a.k.a. the"Flat Nine" where we play most of our golf, the flags and tee boxes from last year are still standing -- what the law would call an "attractive nuisance".

Mars and I drove by a week ago and noticed players on the course -- some on the part without any flags on the greens. A neighbor of ours, who has probably never even violated a littering law, played there with her "lady friends" a few days before.

This day the weather was in the high fifties and sunny. Had the course been open we would have gone to its driving range to try and reacquaint ourselves with our golf clubs and our golf muscles. Since it wasn't we decided instead to join the ranks of the encroachers and hit a few balls on the fourth and fifth holes of the Flat Nine.

We brought two golf balls apiece. Mars brought her seven iron. I carried my seven and my five. The grass was brown and scraggly. Desiccated goose defecation dotted the ground. Rap music floated through the air. A red-tailed hawk sat atop a leafless tree watching us. The bright sun warmed our backs. We stretched a little bit and hit our first shots of the season. Surprisingly our muscle memory, while it obviously needed some reminding, was largely in tact.

We played the fourth and fifth fairways twice and the fourth one more time -- didn't lose any balls and landed all but one shot in the fairway. A quartet of teenage girl golfers appeared at the third hole. Another group of boys showed up on the first. A father ran across the outfield of the softball diamond unsuccessfully attempting to get his trailing son's kite into the air. And across the street the Mounted Police were mounting.

We put the clubs in the car and drove slowly away, followed by the three blue-uniformed horsemen. As Coach Denise taught us at our Penn State University Golf School Elderhostel, "Achieve and leave."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hello Goodbye

Like many of us I am not very good at goodbyes. That is the real reason that I leave the deceased-looking sedum and other perennial flower stalks standing all winter.

I tell people that I do it because the fallow brown color and woody texture of the stems and the dried-flower look of the petals look really cool against the snowy background. They do. But that's not why.

I declaim that it is better for the local birds to be able to forage for all--natural meals from the dried seed heads of our Echinacea and Rubekia than to be dependent on the fast-food feeders put out by us and other armchair ornithologists. Even though just about all of the flowers are completely picked over well before the first snowflake falls.

I profess that pruned perennials will overreact to any rise in sub-zero winter temperatures and prematurely begin their spring rebirth with fatal results. Although it never, ever gets even remotely warm enough to make this happen.

Then in early spring I cut them all down.

When the snow finally stops, but before the weather warms enough to negate the need for down outerwear, the un-pruned vegetation, now totally surrounded by an equally dismally colored landscape, looks truly drab, verging on moribund. Concurrently the gardening sap in my own body begins to circulate and my desire to see something that is naturally green and alive drives me out into the wilderness armed only with my pruning shears and metal-tined hand rake.

Like a mine rescuer digging for life, I tear into the accumulated debris of four dormant months -- ripping, cutting, and scratching until all of the remnants of the previous year are evicted from the gardens and jammed into my trash bins.

And the previously buried green buds of sedum, iris, day lily and hosta greet the sun and me.

I say goodbye and I say hello.

Hello, hello.

Hela, heba helloa

Hela, heba helloa

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Spring Solipsist

There is astronomical spring, meteorological spring, and Punxsutawney Phil's spring.

Astronomical spring begins with the vernal equinox "the day on which the sun shines directly above the equator, making daylight and nighttime hours roughly equal in both hemispheres: about 12 hours (equinox means 'equal night'). This phenomenon occurs again on the autumnal equinox in September.

"Weather doesn't follow the astronomical calendar to the tee. Meteorologists have found it easier to classify seasons by changes in temperature and precipitation. Meteorological winter consists of the coldest, most wintry three months of the year, on average -- December, January and February -- and meteorological summer consists of the warmest months of the year -- June, July and August. Spring and fall are the transition months between the two."

And Phil's spring may or may not occur six weeks after his annual forced search for his shadow on February 2nd, "Groundhog Day".

One of the good things about being a gardener however is that you can ignore all this hoo-ha and make the spring season begin whenever you want -- within reason. So forget all that stuff about equinoxes and solstices -- and listen instead to the "Spring Solipsist".

In Wethersfield Connecticut, U.S. Growing Zone 5, "within reason" means among other things (1) the likelihood of a snowstorm is minimal, (2) the rain that has replaced the white stuff as the principal precipitation has not turned your yard into a total swamp, (3) the sun is shining and (4) the weather is somewhere above the mid forties Fahrenheit.

On Saturday March 14th, 2009, I declared spring to have occurred.

In past years the event that signified this seasonal transition would have been the turning of our vegetable garden. Last annum however Mars and I decided to spend more time supporting our local farmers and less time fighting cucumber beetles so, with the help of some castoff shrubs from one of our town gardens, we converted the annual vegetable patch into a perennial plot -- albeit still with room for several tomato plants.

As a result the six-by-thirty foot plot no longer needs to be tilled. Henceforth, beginning yesterday, the official rite of spring at our house is the unburying of the front Hosta bed.

This cleaning exercise is not at all to be confused with the official spring-cleaning of the yard, which will, as it was last year, be outsourced to the landscaping team of M and his father.

Although I have the time and, if spread over enough days, the energy to complete this task, I do not possess the equipment to make the job easier and faster, nor the means to dispose of the massive amount of leaves and sticks that have accumulated on our property over the past twelve months.

With Mars' urging I approached the one who turned out to be "the father" last year while he was blowing debris from my across-the-street neighbor D's yard. At the time he had an industrial strength leaf blower on his right hip and a lit cigarette in his left hand. I asked him about performing the same work on my lawn. He told me in halting Italo-English that his son would come to see me. Which he did that evening. While the father is about five-and-one-half feet tall, M is over six-feet in height and speaks without an ethnic accent and with the rhythm and style of a used car salesman. We quickly agreed on a price and shook hands.

A few days later they returned to do the work. Each armed himself with a leaf blower roughly the size of a Smart Car and proceeded over the next two hours to blast every piece of loose vegetation off our property and into the bed of their truck. The father worked non-stop, smoking continuously. M likewise chain-smoked his way through the job but periodically shut off his device in order to take or make a call on his cell phone.

At the end of the job I gave M a check for the agreed-upon amount, we shook hands, and I told him we would be looking to use them again -- which we hopefully will in a few weeks.

The only cleanup work I wanted to do on Saturday was to expose the incipient Hosta buds to the sunlight from which they were being blocked by that autumn's intentional accumulation of dead leaves, and to cut down all of the dead stalks that I had left standing over the cold season. I had piled the oak and maple leaves there in order to provide some warmth and protection to the shivering shrubs. I didn't prune back any of my perennials last autumn because, if left standing, some of the plants will provide winter seeds for the birds while others produce colorful foliage and/or nice textural contrasts to the surrounding white snow.

But even without those legitimate rationalizations I would still leave them around anyway just so I could walk outside with the sun on my back during the last days of winter, uncover something alive and green, and publicly declare, "Spring is here!"

Friday, March 13, 2009

Garden In The Dunes

Maybe it was the weather. Or "Gardens in the Dunes" by Leslie Marmon Silko, the book I was reading when the thought first popped into my mind. In any event I suddenly remembered the desert hot springs in Big Bend National Park, Texas that Mars and I visited several Septembers ago.

It was our second excursion to this part of the southwest -- a land deserted in both senses of the word (1) arid, dry, moistureless, parched, scorched, hot, barren, bare, stark, infertile, unfruitful, dehydrated, sterile and (2) uninhabited, empty, lonely, desolate, bleak; wild, uncultivated.

It is one of our favorite places on earth.

Interestingly it was on our initial trip to that area that we were first introduced to the writing of Leslie Marmon Silko. We were attending an Elderhostel exploring the history, geology and paleontology of the Big Bend area. On the final morning of the program a local bookseller spoke to our group about the literature of the southwest. After the lecture we met him at his store and together selected several works to introduce us to a geographic genre of which we sequestered New Englanders were totally unaware. Among the books we purchased were "The Three Little Javelinas" by Susan Lowell, "Drug Lord: The Life & Death of a Mexican Kingpin - A True Story" by Terrence E. Popper, and "The Almanac of the Dead" by Leslie Marmon Silko.

The first two tomes were about exactly what their titles said they would be, and "easy reads". The "Almanac of the Dead" "follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot... the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

It was not a book to be taken lightly, particularly at 768 pages -- and I never successfully negotiated my way through it. Or maybe I did and just don't remember doing it. Back in my working days I had an unfortunate habit of selecting books that required more attention than my tired eyes and mind were able to provide. Now that I am retired and doing at least some of my reading during what used to be my working hours I find I can now handle these "more serious" works without falling asleep somewhere in the middle of the frontispiece.

"Gardens in the Dunes" at 479 pages is a relative sprint compared to the marathon "Almanac of the Dead". Yet, this shorter work still covers "American Indian tradition, economic imperialism, the material excesses of Victorian American culture, race relations in the early American West, European folklore and mythology, sexism and sexual repression, early Christian Gnosticism and the Brazilian rain forest. And gardening... desert gardens, English gardens, Renaissance gardens, Italian gardens and imaginary gardens -- and the characters who plant, tend, dream of and are defined by them."

At the time I was up to page 335, enjoying the story and perhaps even understanding it. Although my ability to follow the narrative may have less to do with newfound perusing abilities than the fact that the book jacket inexplicably provides a blow-by-blow summary of the entire plot, up to and including the ending. Where were cover notes like these back in the days when I had to do book reports?

Anyway, one of the four or five hundred themes of this book is the ability of the Native American Sand Lizard people to create food-and-flower-producing garden terraces in the sand dunes of Arizona. And it is that image, plus the recurring snake motif that slithers through the book, that reminded me of the hot springs at Big Bend.

We found out about the steaming mineral waters at the Big Bend National Park Visitor Center so we knew this walk explores the remains of an early resort built around the healing waters of the hot spring here. And that "You can still soak in the 105°F waters that bubble up from a hole in the ground."

Mars and I brought our cameras, our water bottles, and our hot-soaking aspirations -- but not our bathing suits. We had been to the park with our earlier Elderhostel, and several times on this trek. Other than our fellow travelers on the first trip, and the folks at the Visitor Center on this one, we had never seen another person. And we did not spy anyone on this spa trek either. Isolation is one of the reasons that we like this place so much.

"Nothing down there but rattlesnakes and bandit Mexicans." the natives told J. O. Langford, the developer of the resort that inhabited the area back in the 1910's.

We did not see any outlaws, even though the area is near the location that the above-mentioned drug lord Pablo Acosta and others conducted their cocaine business.

It was also pretty well devoid of any vegetation -- except right along the Rio Grande River and next to the abandoned limestone trading post with its trucked-in, totally out of place palm trees. And then there was the bamboo jungle.

The dense patch of giant woody grass was probably a quarter mile long and one half that in width, seven to eight feet in height, and, totally impenetrable, other than via the Park-Service-made path.

I was wary of the possible presence of what we have heard called "friends without shoulders" and as a result probably did not spend as much time looking up at the feathery tufts as I did peering down at the base of the plants. And trying to be aware of anything that sounded like scales sliding over stomped down stalks.

There were none, and Mars and I emerged from the shade into the unremitting sunlight and the remains of the ninety year old stone bathing tubs.

The air temperature was probably not that different than that of the steamy, mineral waters -- but still we had come this far; and no one else was around -- or likely to be. As we pondered our next move Mars heard a ground-level rustling noise moving rapidly through the dry vegetation -- away from us but toward the crumbled pool walls. And I spotted something long and black crawl out from one of the limestone lairs and rapidly disappear into another. It happened too quickly for us to see anything that would have answered the "poisonous or not" question so -- even though we had our trusty and totally untested snakebite kit with us -- we opted not to "take the waters" and simply take a few pictures instead.

I exited through the bamboo forest much more quickly, and significantly more cautiously than I entered. But still not so rapidly that that I failed to luxuriate in the incongruous joy of being engulfed by fertile, vibrant vegetation amid the dry, sun-baked Chihuahuan Desert -- and to burn that feeling irrevocably into my psyche.

A good book, like a good vacation, takes you to places that you have never been before. But some things, liking growing gardens in the dunes, are so unique that you need the real life experience in order to even remotely understand the written word.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Allegory of a Cave

If not for the snowstorm the feeders wouldn't have been overrun throughout the day by goldfinches. If not for the snowstorm the small seed-eating songbirds wouldn't have constructed the tiny underground chamber. If not for the snowstorm I wouldn't have been confined to the house, pacing in the family room, and looking out the window. If not for the snowstorm I would never have seen my first ever finch cave.

By then the snow was at least ten inches deep, higher in the drifting areas. I had already shoveled once, a few hours before, to clear away the accumulation of white stuff that prevented the opening of our two front facing doors, as well as to provide two paths for me across the lawn (1) southward to my bird food storage pail and (2) west to the feeders themselves. I also reloaded the thistle feeder that by that time (ten a.m.) had been three quarters decimated by the aforementioned representatives of the genus Carduelis, family Fringillidae.

This newest of our feeders has been a big hit with the finches since we acquired it in mid-January to replace a less sturdy, plastic one that was trashed by the squirrels during our hiatus over the Christmas holidays. Because the birds affix themselves to the metal mesh body of the tube shaped feeder, rather than sitting on a perch, the device can handle upwards of a dozen diners at one time. This S.R.O. condition is not common, but not totally unusual either. Today it was standard operating procedure all day long.

Anticipating the difficulty and discomfort of tending to the feeders during the storm I had filled them to the brim the night before. The snow began around two a.m.. When Mars and I arrived in the family room for breakfast, about one hour after sunrise, the thistle station was awash in a pulsating sea of green-turning-yellow feathers. With an equal number hovering anxiously on the adjacent tree branches, and possibly double that count scurrying around on the ground underneath feasting on the debris of the second story feeding frenzy.

Either we were the only game in town, or milk, bread, and toilet paper seeking grocery shoppers are not the only living things that get spooked into a consuming frenzy by the prospects of several inches of frozen precipitation. Goldfinches apparently are equally bird-brained.

As Roy Scheider observed in the movie "Jaws," when he first saw the great white shark: "we're gonna need a bigger boat".

But we didn't have one. So instead I replenished the thistle supply two more times during the day -- acts of kindness for which the goldfinches showed their gratitude by continuing their display of gluttony.

At one point during the afternoon I looked out and saw the usual suspects on the feeder, and what looked to be fifteen and one quarter finches working the bargain basement area within the walls of my previously cleared out access path. The .25 finch was seventy-five percent hidden within a tiny cavern in the snow located at the far end of the trail with its tail feathers bobbing up and down apparently in counterpoint to its front-end gyrations.

I watched in disbelief for a minute or two then invited Mars over to confirm my sighting. She did, and we both watched the same bird doing the same things for several minutes. Then she went back to her knitting. A few moments later something startled the entire charm of finches.

The bottom-feeders quickly leapt into the air as a group and joined up with the rapidly ejecting bottle feeders in a mass retreat. The solitary cave dweller backed rapidly into the daylight and merged in with the swarm of evacuees. Although I didn't check that often it was the last time that I saw anyone enter the minuscule grotto.

Later in the day I went outside to take a closer look at the tiny opening in the snow. I am not sure what I expected to see -- a nanoscale home entertainment center; a shrine to Our Lady of the Chaffinch constructed of green, yellow and purple colored pin feathers; an avian sweat lodge to warm and detoxify the little feathered guys; a stash for stockpiling thistle -- but I didn't see anything except a the covered-over remains of a thumbprint sized gap in the snow and lots of seed residue.

I searched the Internet for information but found naught but a video of "a bird resting in a snow hole" from Oslo Norway. That cavern, which judging by its size and shape, clearly was handcrafted for its occupant, is strikingly similar to the one on my property.

The Norwegian grotto's Lesser Redpoll occupant seems to be physically comfortable but slightly uneasy, probably because of the nearby camera. I hope that the videographer backed away and let the bird have some well-deserved peace and warmth. That is what I plan to do the next time that I see a bird resting in a snow hole.

Initiative should be rewarded.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Dog Day Afternoon, and Morning, and Evening

Our sidewalk is one of the major dog walking corridors in the northeast.

The paved pathway runs along two sides of a property at a three-way intersection. The fourth way is the northern end of a bicycle/walking path and therefore prime territory for a canine outing.

The times are relatively predictable -- before and after work for the employed folks, mid morning and afternoons for the retired or those otherwise with a day off. And the participants are pretty consistent, with occasional visitors from outside of the area as the weather gets warmer and the foliage along the bike trail becomes fuller and more attractive.

Our relationship with them is mostly observational, with some sporadic small talk thrown in every so often. Still, in some sense, they do become a part of the cycle of your life.

For example Mars and I have watched a female German Shepherd and her master develop from a lanky, random explorers into a closely synchronized, proud-walking duo. On the other hand. the white Jack Russell "Terror" that circles, stops behind, and runs ahead of its steadily-moving, coffee-toting male handler always has, and always will behave more like a balloon leaking air than a well-trained pet. While the eighty-plus year old lady from up the street and her equally elderly red-haired spaniel companion move along every day, rain or shine, in their own slow, linear manner.

Throughout the day three different parades of pugs, each with their own set of handlers and never seen all together at the same time, trudge their portly little bodies along at the same steady cadence as if they are all graduates of the same drill school.

Later in the afternoon a Basenji, one of those small bark-less African hunting dogs, strolls along with its female human companion. It used to be tethered to a taller thin man, while the woman walked slowly behind with a slim, gray, arthritic dog that creaked to the edge of the path but never went down it, instead choosing to stand and wait while its younger successor explored the underbrush.

In the early morning Emmy Lou the Yorkshire Terrier, one of the few whose name we know, clamorously tugs her rugged looking master diagonally across our front lawn as she unsuccessfully pursues the squirrels. Other times she walks meekly and quietly, within the strict confines of the sidewalks, behind her "mom".

And then there is Emma -- the neighborhood Pit Bull -- who is holding us hostage. (Technically she is half Dalmatian as evidenced by the occasional black spots on her white coat. In body structure she is totally Pit Bull.)

She is the only one of her breed in our area, and the only bull terrier that Mars and I have ever met, although we did pull up next to her doppelganger draped out of an open car passenger window at a stoplight in our nearby capitol city. It was in the mid thirties Fahrenheit but the naked canine seemed quite comfortable in its al fresco situation. The driver had his right hand gripped securely around the back of the dog's cloth collar but it showed no interest in doing anything other than hanging out the car window and taking in the urban aromas. The light changed, we turned right, and they went straight ahead with the large terrier still quietly stretched out of the porthole.

We mentioned our Pit Bull sighting to J, who along with G, provide room and board to Emma. J takes her for walks around the 'hood, usually passing in front of our house. This is where the hostage taking kicks in. As she walks by, Emma looks longingly up at our family room door and frequently will not leave the front sidewalk until at least either Mars or I come out to see her.

If it is I, Emma crouches down on her front legs and sniffs my hand as if she is scanning a bar code to record the fact that she has officially made contact with me, and then immediately begins looking for Mars to appear. But Emma actually visits with Mars -- allowing her head, neck, and back to be scratched, and paying attention to what she is saying.

Emma has a similar ritual with B and M, the couple across the street -- except she allows both of them to get up closer, and more personal. She actually has a longer personal relationship with them that Mars and I suspect has also been influenced by a little under-the-table gift giving -- something that Mars periodically attempts to compensate for.

Other friends of ours, J and K, were over for dinner and they were talking about the friendly, welcoming ambience and feeling of community in the part of Maine that they frequent on their vacations. "It's just so nice with everybody out walking their dogs in the neighborhood."

Yes, it is.