Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Mars and I parked near the bright yellow "PESTICIDE APPLICATION" sign and walked down to the river to see some of the bald eagles that have returned to this area since chemical usage around the waterway has been greatly reduced.

We heard about the eagle nest at a recent talk in our town Nature Center. The presenter, K, is a self-trained naturalist, and the son of good friends who we first met during the ten years we all spent in common at an apartment complex in Rocky Hill in the 1970's.

As we settled in to our seats the woman next to me commented on the makeup of the audience. "Perhaps only older people are interested in eagles." I replied that maybe it was only those of us who remembered when they were not here at all.

But they are now -- building aeries in the Hartford area eight to ten miles apart as measured by the land distance of the curving river. K spoke about two of the roosts. One, which he observes on behalf of the Great Meadow Conservation Trust, is in the Wethersfield/Rocky Hill section of the flood plain. A newer nest sits downriver on Gildersleeve Island in the adjacent town of Cromwell near the Tournament Players Club Golf Course. The TPC is an official PGA tour stop and, I would suspect, one of the largest chemically landscaped spots in the area.

The eagles however did not come to play the ancient Scottish sport. They are here instead because of the fish that now thrive in the river, and the tall trees that provide affordable housing alongside their new favorite angling spot.

Because they had been absent for so many years a lot of things are just not known about them -- such as how old they will live to be in the wild. The female of the Rocky Hill couple is calculated at twelve years of age. This is based on observations K made in 2001 relating to the amount of striping around her eyes -- a characteristic, he told us, which appears in youth and gradually diminishes until it disappears in the fifth year.

Learning about these birds requires people who will faithfully and carefully observe their behavior and accurately record what they see. For those of us with less dedication K's instructions were to get ourselves out to the areas he had indicated and look up for "a big dark thing [the nest] in the tallest tree".

We drove to the Cromwell site the next Saturday morning.

Mars was familiar with the route down to the river, it being one on which we traveled periodically during the days when K and our son Bram were still playing with their Matchbox cars at the apartment complex. At that time there was a basket and wicker outlet about one half mile down the road -- one of those "crafty" markets that proliferated off-the-beaten path in the seventies. I do not recall that we ever went much beyond that point.

The store is no longer open and the building is vacant. But the small, semi-rural, mixed style housing is still there with the occasional oversized vegetable garden, pickup trucks and not-yet-vintage "muscle cars" in several driveways, and, on one property, two horses still clad in their winter blankets.

As we got closer to the river the houses got much bigger, much newer, and much more professionally landscaped. The road ended at a closed metal gate on the edge of a neighborhood of what some would consider "McMansions" -- kind of a reverse gated community configuration.

We walked around the barrier for a quarter mile into an area identified by a bent and rusting metal sign as "Wildlife Refuge". Across the river was an island with a clearly visible "big dark thing in the tallest tree". We looked through our binoculars. It got bigger but not that much more distinct.

Then with her naked eye Mars spotted a large bird flying up towards the aerie. It landed, spent a few seconds at the top of the nest, then soared down towards the river in the opposite direction -- and out of sight. Both of us clearly could see the white head and tail. It was the first wild eagle sighting for each of us. After a few more minutes of looking at the action-less nest we left.

As we got into our car to leave I looked again at the yellow "PESTICIDE APPLICATION" sign on the bright green, weed-free McMansion lawn. Things can change a lot over forty years -- some for the better, some not. A lot depends on whether someone who cares is watching.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Reluctant Vegetarian

I am pretty sure that one is male, the other female.

Even at this time of year, when hormones and plumages are raging, it is hard to tell with birds whose only gender-distinguishing feature is a subtle difference in the reddishness of their breasts. A comparison made more difficult by the small amount of time these two birds have made themselves available for side-by-side sizing up.

But assuming that they are a he and a she, there being no other he's or she's on our property, then they are probably a pair as in "a mated couple of animals" rather than simply "two birds of the same denomination".

"The American Robin is a monogamous thrush. Mates stay together for the entire breeding season, but not for life...females look for mates who defend the best territory and resources...Extra-pair copulations do occur...Females actively seek EPC's with high quality males because females want the best genes for their offspring to survive."

This could explain their lack of cohabitation. While his scarlet woman is busily sleeping her way across the suburban landscape the hapless male robin, having built his personal best nest and expanded his tail feathers as wide as he can, spends the majority of his time in the company of doves and squirrels -- fretfully hopping among these less colorful creatures, and repeatedly pounding his little beak into the fallen seeds and discarded hulls under our bird feeder tree.

Mars and I have observed this little fellow for a couple of weeks and have yet to see even the tiniest piece of worm touch his lips. Initially I thought that it was a moral dietary decision, an ethical choice to eschew the ingestion of living, limbless, long invertebrate animals in favor of humanely harvested, free-range, plant reproduction units -- not an Ova Lacto vegetarian but an Oligochaeta Lumbricus one.

Now I think that he is just confused and panicky. He got here first (just like he was supposed to), established his territory (just like he was supposed to), shook his tail feathers (just like he was supposed to) and waited for the females to (so to speak) flock to his door. There was just one taker, and she seems to be commitment-phobic.

Now he is stuck.

The housing market is pretty bad in our area, so his chances of trading up to a bigger place are pretty much zero. It is totally a buyer's market and in this particular form of commerce all of the shoppers are finicky, fecund females.

This has got to be really tough for him to swallow. And it must make other things equally difficult to devour. As one version of the children's song says:

Nobody loves me, everybody hates me,
Sittin' in the garden eatin' worms.
First one went down easy,
Second one went down squeezy,
Third one stuck in my throat;
Fourth one choked me,
Fifth one poked me,
Sixth one got my goat!

I know it would be enough to make me go vegetarian.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

All It Takes Is One

Syllogisms got me into Philosophy.

All men are mortal.

Socrates is a man.
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

Syllogisms keep me going in golf.

I thought I had room about this big
The ball is smaller than that

Aristotle authored the first piece of deductive reasoning. Angel Cabrera the second. There was a time when the Greek philosopher and student of Plato was my B.P.F.F. Now it is the overweight and unstylish Argentinean winner of the 2009 Masters Golf Tournament.

Syllogisms always look true -- not in the "Wow I never thought of that before" sense of the word, but more in the "Oh yeah. Of course, it goes without saying" way.

As a college freshman I liked that. It affirmed that I already knew everything and simply needed the tricks of the trade for showing off that knowledge.

All crows are black
Socrates is a crow
Therefore Socrates is black.

Then one day I looked out on my front lawn and saw a real, live all-white crow. All it takes is one.

Angel Cabrera was in a sudden death playoff at the Masters Golf Tournament when he hit his tee shot far to the right of the fairway, onto a bed of pine needles, and directly behind one of the trees that contributed to that pile. From the angle shown on television it did not look as if he could even see the green that he was shooting towards, never mind land the ball on it.

The TV commentators agreed that he should "lay up", hit the ball back onto the fairway in the easiest way possible, even if it meant going backwards.

He didn't.

"'I thought I had room about this big [placing his hands about three feet apart] and I said the ball is smaller than [that],' he said."


"His shot caromed off a tree into the fairway." [into a perfect position to par the hole].

I am frequently in that same situation on the golf course. And, even though my skills are absolutely nowhere near Cabrera's, I have reasoned in exactly the same way.

I will next time too.

All it takes is one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Squirrel Evolution Update

At the same time that I was creating the previous posting our son Bram received this alarming secret photograph of evolutionary experiments by a right wing neocon faction of Sciuridae Sciurus.

More updates as the situation warrants.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sciurus Keramikos

Whence squirrels? And where to next?

"Science tells us that the bushytail horde evolved out of the primordial ooze beginning with Paramys in the late Paleocene (about 55 million years ago). Paramys sported a mostly squirrel-like skeleton but without the arboreal adaptations. It also had a primitive jaw musculature which modern squirrels still retain. "The first critter we would recognize as a skwerl was Protosciurus. It had the unique ear structure of modern squirrels and looked little different than today's slavering, over-agitated, arboreal nutzys.

"The first fossilized Protosciurus bones were found in North America and date to the early Oligocene (23-37 million years ago). Thus, experts theorize that skwerls originated in North America, possibly in the Pacific Northwest. From there, they spread around the world culminating in a frenzied gambol into South America about 3-4 million years ago. "Sciurus, the modern squirrel genus, arose in the Miocene and has not changed since then. Among the rodents, squirrels are considered living fossils." (http://www.scarysquirrel.org/theory)

The Miocene epoch occurred between 23.03 and 5.33 million years ago. During all those intervening years either (a) things have been going pretty darn good for the little gray critters obviating any need to improve the species or (b) attempted renovations simply did not work either due to bad design, rotten luck, or poor marketing.

Now there is this, Sciurus Keramikos, Sciuridae version 4.0, the world's first pottery encased squirrel, currently in Beta Testing on the flowering crab tree just outside our family room windows. (Please click on photo to enlarge)

The outer shell is a fish-shaped bird feeder. Shortly after breakfast I normally walk out into the yard and place a small scoop of black oily sunflower seeds into the pottery holder. Its shape is designed to attract chickadees and other small birds that prefer to dine in close-fitting, dark environments. Occasionally it does.

Most of the time however it is immediately set upon by our regular band of a.m. marauding squirrels who either hang head down from the attaching wire and snatch food from either end, or crawl inside the device and contort themselves into positions that allow for the proper ingesting of all the food therein. By the time that the squirrels head back to their drays for post-breakfast-pre-lunch siestas the feeder is totally devoid of seeds.

"Natural selection occurs when an organism has a trait that enables it to survive and reproduce better than the rest of the population." (Squirrel evolution? by Shaun Doyle)

Hawks frequently circle over our yard, coveting the delectable meat dishes that unknowingly are offering themselves as the protein course on our tree limb buffet table.

Neighborhood cats prowl the area, searching stealthily for special presents to give to their providers -- for which in exchange they hope to receive a more civilized gourmet meal, preferably ahi salmon with imbedded lobster chunks.

It is only natural that during those rare moments in the day when the squirrels are not thinking about eating, they are considering how to keep themselves from being eaten.

Hence the makeshift armadillo shell.

It does seem to be impenetrable to either talon or claw and thus should enable the squirrels to survive with impunity from their natural enemies. As for the second variable in the natural selection formula I guess that depends on the tiny rodent's ability to contort itself, this time with a partner, within the confines of a small dark space.

Something I suspect that they had figured out well before the dawn of the Miocene epoch.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Life is good! -- the worms and the weeds are back. Truth be told, I missed them both. They are the Yin and Yang of horticulture -- the complementary opposites that make the world of gardening such a rewarding place to be in.

And like these two concepts of Chinese philosophy -- slow, soft, cold, wet, and tranquil Yin; and fast, focused, hot, and aggressive Yang -- the two harbingers of horticulture spent their off seasons in very different ways.

The laidback one chilled out, literally.

"When temperatures drop or soils get too warm or dry, worms know what to do. If it starts getting chilly, many kinds of worms tunnel deep into the soil before it freezes. Worms 'migrate' downward, burrowing deeper to get past the frost. Sometimes they dig six feet deep! There they stay in their burrows, prisoners below soil frozen hard as rock and topped by ice and snow. They coil into a slime-coated ball and go into a sleep-like state called estivation, which is similar to hibernation for bears. (The mucous, or slime, keeps the worms from drying out.) Worms will survive in frozen or dry soils by estivation until conditions improve." (http://www.learner.org/jnorth/fall1999/jsouth/Update102299.html)

While the Type A personality worked out.

"These weeds don't magically appear overnight; it just seems that way. They are called winter annuals. Most annuals germinate in the spring, flower in the early summer, set seed in the late summer or fall and then die. Winter annuals germinate in the fall, grow through the winter, bloom and set seed in the spring and die in the summer." (http://gardening.wsu.edu/column/01-04.htm)

We all probably would agree that worms are a gardener's B.F.F. They tunnel through the soil, bringing in oxygen, draining water, and creating space for plant roots. Their castings (a.k.a. "worm poop") provide valuable organic matter -- as much as 1/5 inch of new surface soil per year per acre -- yet are small enough, and sufficiently odorless that we bare-handed gardeners aren't aware at all of what is we are really handling and crawling around in. An acre of good garden soil may be home to as many as a million earthworms. And you didn't think you had many friends.

But why would I welcome back the weeds?

Truman Capote author of books such as "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and "In Cold Blood" had this to say about the literary value of the 1950's novel "On The Road" by Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing."

In the same vain I would submit that raising plants in the absence of weeds "is not gardening, it's just growing." -- something that any five year old with a Chia Pet can do. But we plantsmen are of a sturdier stock than that.

There was a time in my gardening career when I thought of weeds as a good thing. "A weed is just a flower for which we haven't found a use." "A weed is just a flower THEY don't approve of." "A weeds is just a flower in the wrong place."

Of course all of the weeds that I was talking about back then belonged to other people. And I, being a perpetual apartment dweller from a non-horticultural family, felt totally free to pass judgment on how these other people should treat their invasive plants.

Worms on the other hand, if I thought them at all at that time, were simply disgusting little creatures that we were forced to dissect for no apparent reason back in some dimly remembered high school biology lab.

Then we bought a house. It had a yard. The yard had flowering stuff. Mars wanted more flowering stuff plus some edible stuff. Pretty soon so did I.

Worms quickly became that welcome sign of the gardening season when I turned that first garden fork's worth of fertile soil and a fat, juicy one wriggled to the top of the clod, took a quick bath in the warming sunlight, and eagerly leapt to the ground to do its work.

But weeds turned into those useless things that I didn't approve of because they always appeared in the wrong place.

Soon I realized that most of the joy that I felt in the garden comes not from planting and watering -- the things that most non-jardinieres mistakenly believe is the art of the craft.

It comes instead from plain old diggin' in the dirt -- all those small individual acts of preparation throughout the year that provide nurturing homes for incoming plants, and worms -- and, to my great surprise, from protecting that turf against unwanted invaders

Like Henry David Thoreau in his vegetable plot at Walden Pond:

"Daily the beans saw me come to their rescue armed with a hoe, and thin the ranks of their enemies, filling up the trenches with weedy dead. Many a lusty crest-waving Hector, that towered a whole foot above his crowding comrades, fell before my weapon and rolled in the dust."

Now that, my friend, is gardening.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Its Over Now

The other day was the opening of the 2009 major league baseball season. But it rained too hard in Boston during the afternoon game time so the event never happened there. The same precipitation poured on my home property about one hundred miles south of Fenway Park, the home field of the Boston Red Sox. According to our rain gage we had about three quarters of an inch that afternoon. Most of the time it was just a light drizzle but when it come down hard, it came down really hard. And it was mid-March cold, and windy.

During the worst part of the downpour I looked out and saw one squirrel dining on the sunflower seed feeder and seven or eight goldfinches eating at the thistle station. When I checked again about thirty minutes later the tree rodent was gone, and two other gold finches had occupied its space. Several other Carduelis Fringillidae waited impatiently on nearby branches.

It was an unusual sight. Normally the critters eschew all al fresco dining during a deluge -- except on the second or third day of non-stop rain when a combination of hunger and cabin fever drives them out into the storm. But on this day the morning was relatively rain free and the feeders seemed to have received their normal complement of visitors. And the day before had actually been rain-free and sunny.

Neither the tree that holds the feeders, nor anything else provided any form of shelter whatsoever from the daytime deluge. The squirrel's normally pale gray fluffy coat had assumed a shiny blackish hue and, other than three or four randomly placed cowlicks, was plastered tightly against the tiny rodent's torso and appendages -- including its tail which under other circumstances would have provided some umbrella coverage for its owner. This squirrel however was hanging upside down, grasping the feeder perch with its hind feet, and its water-laden backbone extension succumbed meekly to gravity while the remainder of its body gracefully contorted itself in utter defiance to the most basic laws of physics.

The goldfinches looked equally hapless. The male of that species is changing from olive drab winter coloring to chick-magnet mating yellow. And the females likewise are brightening their appearance, albeit not to as resplendent a hue as their soon-to-be ardent suitors. Both genders were at the feeder and the feathers of both were water-colored back to their most dismal mid-winter hue, with an additional tint of sorrowful saturation.

I think that both the yellow birds and the scarlet hose were just rushing the season.

On the next day the University of Connecticut Women's basketball team won the NCAA tournament title. They were undefeated -- thirty-nine straight wins with an average victory margin of nineteen points.

Although this does not happen annually, we the people of Connecticut expect it to. With total disregard for the quarterly calendar divisions of the year, in our state September through early April is most importantly known as the basketball season -- women's basketball that is. We Nutmeggers understand and encourage this. Even the April weather usually cooperates.

In our neck of the woods, winter ain't over 'til the tall lady cuts down the net.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


All roads lead to Malta -- at least for me recently

First our good friend J sent via email an article from National Geographic News entitled "Lost Crusaders' Tunnels Found Near Palace on Malta". Then I read "The Lost Painting" by Jonathon Harr about the search for the lost Caravaggio masterpiece "The Taking of Christ".

Caravaggio, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, is considered by the Malta tourism web site to be "the most famous name who worked in Malta". He spent one of the last three years of his life on that tiny Mediterranean island leaving behind two masterpieces, "Beheading of St John the Baptist" (the only painting which he signed) and "St. Jerome"; as well as several portraits of leading members of the Knights of Malta. Caravaggio was formally inducted into that Order, but shortly thereafter expelled "as a foul and rotten member".

Mars and I traveled to Malta in 1997. We saw Jerome but John was out being cleaned. We heard nothing at all, not even gossip, about the tunnels. But we didn't go there for the enigmatic works of art or the mysterious underground caverns.

We went instead because Mars saw an article about the island in a magazine at the hair-cutting salon we used to frequent, and instantaneously felt "drawn" to the place. It was an article about "Travel Off Of The Beaten Path", and touted Malta as a not too expensive, English speaking land with architectural sites older than Stonehenge, a mixture of European and Eastern architecture, and enough history for a country ten times its size. All that plus beaches, warm ocean waters and very few tourists.

I had never heard of it. Or thought I had but later realized it was Yalta that I was thinking of. But the photos of intensely sunlit limestone buildings and beaches beckoned to me also.

This happens frequently. We both seem to be naturally, maybe preternaturally, drawn to these almost blindingly-white-with-natural-light localities -- high desert in New Mexico, arid wasteland in the Big Bend of Texas, sand bunkers on golf courses.

This could be due to previous past-life incarnations that we have in common, e.g. in Cleopatra's ancient Egypt. Maybe our shared philosophic education in Plato's Allegory of the Cave made more of a lasting impression than we realized. Or perhaps it is just the result of living together through too many gray New England winters.

In any event, with images of sun-blanched desert skulls fresh in our minds from a recently seen Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, it took us about fifteen minutes to decide on our first illuminating trip to New Mexico. It was the same with the magazine photos and Malta.

Caravaggio probably didn't come to the small Mediterranean archipelago for the luminescence -- in fact he personally seemed to prefer the darkness. He was on the lam from a shady past in sunny Italy where he, perhaps unintentionally, had killed a man. The illumination in his painting often took the form of a singular, blinding shaft of light that spotlighted the subject amidst the overly dark surrounding shadows. Caravaggio "put the oscuro (shadows) into chiaroscuro."

Mars and I did occasionally come in from the bright Malta light to view some of its artworks, most of which were located in unlit church buildings as stumblingly dark as the blackest part of a Caravaggio canvas.

This was particularly true of the dimly visible Oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta wherein the most famous works of "the most famous name who worked in Malta" were sequestered. As mentioned above, the "Beheading of St. John" was not available for viewing during our visit. But we did get to see the portrait of "St. Jerome" which in itself was pretty awe inspiring -- even for someone who, like a moth drawn to a flame, had been lured to the artwork totally by its homeland's luminescent qualities.

St. John's absence however was quite distressing to a group of tourists from Ireland who, they said emphatically and often, had come specifically to view that particular painting of Christ's decapitated follower. As I learned in my recent reading of "The Lost Painting" there were at that time, and perhaps still are, a significant number of devoted followers of Caravaggio ("Caravaggisti") in the Emerald Isle -- some of whom were even willing to put up with the unremitting sun of the Mediterranean in order to see his work.

In fact hordes of these Irish esthetes may at this very moment be groping their way through the newly discovered subterranean Maltese labyrinths in search of further secreted examples of their master's work.

Not everyone needs the light to be enlightened.