Monday, November 23, 2009

A Really Tough Nut To Crack

It was a sixty-degree morning in an abnormally warm autumn. As I walked towards her house I noticed that my up-the-street neighbor was intently pushing something around with her red plastic snow shovel. I spoke softly in advance of my arrival so as not to startle her.

"Hi B***. Practicing for the winter?"

By then I could see that the targets of her seemingly non-seasonal labor were actually acorns -- initially on her driveway and now, as I stood next to her in conversation, along the front apron of her yard."They took all of the leaves", she said, referring to our municipality's removal earlier that week of the neighborhood's piles of dead tree foliage. "But they left all of these."

B*** pointed my attention to her blue recycling bin, the bottom of which was covered with at least two layers of the fruits of her oak trees.

"The worst it's been in forty years.

"And yet there's only one squirrel. He sits on my deck in the morning just looking up at me. I usually have whole bunch of them."

"We do too." I replied. I was talking about squirrels. In the past month our population has also dwindled from its normal level of eight down to a single tree rodent -- with occasional second and third ones. But, unlike B***, the acorn output in our yard has been decidedly sub-par this annum.

Mars and I have however experienced the overabundance of these oval nuts at our local golf course. A couple of tee boxes are located under some pretty substantial oak trees. And the ground there is littered with their fruit. Cascades of them have rained down upon me as I stood poised to hit my shot.

Except for our yard, it seems that acorns are pretty much overrunning everything.

But in many parts of the region this time of year, particularly this year, the sky is falling -- or at least it feels that way. Hard-shelled orbs are cracking windshields, thwacking gardeners, and tripping up joggers on their daily slog. (

Meanwhile at home, Mars and I are buried in pinecones.

In fact, until I picked them up, the area around our lone evergreen was so overrun that you literally could not put your foot down without touching one of more pieces of the dry coniferous fruit -- not just my size thirteens but even Mars' more miniscule ones.

We filled one of those barge-shaped, cardboard, "pick-your-own berries" trays with some, and gave the collection to A***, our next-door neighbor. She had been unable to find any for her holiday decoration plans and had just returned from looking for them at Walmart. Mars then filled a bushel basket with more cones as the basis for our own winter yard ornament. And there are still scores on the ground.

Acorn feasts and acorn famines within a quarter mile of each other. Pinecone population explosions, and a depleting squirrel census -- sounds like apocalyptic auguries to me.

Not to go too "Charlie Eppes" (who explains them in the "Sabotage" episode of the TV crime drama "NUMB3RS") -- but I think the ultimate answer lies in Fibonacci Numbers. And their connection to the Mayan Calendar, which ends on December 31, 2012 when the world as we know it will purportedly be totally destroyed.

"Fibonacci numbers and the Fibonacci sequence are prime examples of how mathematics is connected to seemingly unrelated things."

Fibonacci was a 13th century mathematician who developed his eponymous sequence of numbers in order to solve a problem about the birth rate of rabbits. The sequence begins: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...

"Each term in the Fibonacci sequence is called a Fibonacci number... each Fibonacci number is obtained by adding the two previous Fibonacci numbers together. For example, the next Fibonacci number can be obtained by adding 144 and 89. Thus, the next Fibonacci number is 233.

"One of the most fascinating things about the Fibonacci numbers is their connection to nature. Some items in nature that are connected to the Fibonacci numbers are: the growth of buds on trees, the pinecone's rows, the sandollar, the starfish, the petals on various flowers such as the cosmo, iris, buttercup, daisy, and the sunflower, the appendages and chambers on many fruits and vegetables such as the lemon, apple, chile, and the artichoke." (Fibonacci numbers)

And perhaps acorns?

But wait -- there is more.

"Solar systems are designed by nature in Fibonacci spirals...

"Spectacular patterns are found by applying the Fibonacci spiral to key numbers of the Mayan calendar: 20, 13 and 18. The sacred calendar (Tzolkin) uses 20 and 13 The civil calendar (Haab) uses 20 and 18. The common denominator of both is 20. If you apply the Fibonacci sequence to the number 20 and carry the sequence out to 26 places, then multiply each number of the sequence by 13, then divided it by 18 you will discover that the results of these factors shifts and starts new internal sequencing at the 13th place in each sequence. The 12th place [completes] a sequence and the 13th starts a new sequence internally." (

Could it be any clearer?

Everyplace in the universe is awash in acorns except for our estate. And no one is reporting a surfeit of pinecones save for us. Plus we are faithful viewers of "NUMB3RS", and I think we may have learned something about the Mayans in an Anthropology class back in the sixties.

Clearly Mars and I are special people in a special place.

Our street number is 284.
The Fibonacci numbers surrounding that arithmetic value are 233 and 377.
284 minus 233 = 51.
377 minus 284 = 93.
51 plus 93 = 144
144 is the Fibonacci number immediately preceding 233!!!
2 times 144 = 288
288 minus 284 = 4!!!
The aforementioned Mayan calendar comes to an end in 3 years.
4 is greater than 3!!!

Ergo: a Fibonacci loophole -- our property will survive the apocalypse.

Good thing that the acorn conundrum didn't happen last year.

So my plan for the final day of 2012 is to stay at home admiring our pinecone collection, eating apples and artichokes, and watching DVD episodes 1, 2, 5, 8 and 13 of "NUMB3RS". We'll probably invite B*** and A*** over to thank them for their role in helping me crack this nut.

(click to enlarge)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Avant Gardening

This year I've decided to do nothing to prepare our perennial gardens for the upcoming winter -- not a thing, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat -- or something pretty close to that anyway. And once again my seeming act of lassitude can be rationalized as being out ahead of the gardening curve.

For example:

Thirty years ago when I first began my horticultural hobby we bought some blueberry bushes. My only previous experience in the planting biz was two months earlier when, under the guidance of my father-in-law (an inveterate plantsman), I put in my first-ever vegetable garden. So I simply repeated what I did then -- what else could I possibly need to know? I turned the earth, separated out the dirt from the sod, mixed in a bunch of peat moss (to which I had already become addicted), stuck the shrubbery in the ground, and occasionally watered.

The next year there were sweet, edible fruits some of which I converted into a Blueberry Teacake for a celebration at my workplace. I proffered a piece to my colleague Kwame who declined it saying he was unwilling to eat any of the fresh fruits of our area because of the pesticides, etc. that came with them.

"I don't use any of those things," I said, in a tone that implied moral superiority rather than apathy, laziness and a total ignorance of proper plant care.

"Oh", Kwame replied, sounding impressed as he gobbled down the pastry, "I didn't know that you were an ORGANIC GARDENER."

Neither did I. But I definitely went along with it.

Exemplar 2:

For years I have ground up the vast majority of my yard's autumn leaves and spread them back onto the lawn with a mulching lawn mower. It was, I quickly found out, way easier than raking hundreds of thousands of crispy pieces of dried vegetation into temporary piles and then herding the resultant wind-blown mounds into non-compliant, wind-blown plastic bags.

This, it turns out, is also actually good for the grass. Not that I knew that at the time.

But my newfound lack of attention to my winter garden doesn't stem from unwillingness to do the work. It's just a matter of when.

In years previous I would have by now chopped down just about any perennial that had turned even the slightest bit brownish, and consigned its remains to either the winter compost pile or the big green trash bin. The decimation would occur on the first warm sunny day after the initial rush of plant-deadening cold weather.

I gloried in the feeling of sunlight heating the back of my red flannel shirt, and cool air brushing my cheeks. And I deluded myself into thinking that this act of destruction in some way prolonged the gardening season -- when in fact it ended it prematurely and on a negative note.

The next day I would survey the barren wasteland I had created and complain to myself that the fun part of the year had ended -- only perking up when I espied some hidden hostas or undercover rudbeckia whose stalks and leaves I had missed, and whose eradication I could use as an lame excuse to prolong my time in the garden.

Then, several months later, with the advent of the growing season I would desperately search the landscape looking for any chore that would get my hands back into contact with the living things of the earth. Finally it occurred to me to defer all of that lopping and chopping until spring.

So this year I decided to convert the symbols of termination into emblems of emergence.
So far it's going great. I am seeing a lot of orange and yellow garden foliage in what would have previously been barren areas. And I'm looking forward to the winter snow and enjoying the three-dimensional patterns and shadow designs that will be created by my still-standing stalks.

And sure enough, that part of the garden writing community that actually knows what it is talking about is espousing the values of hands off autumn landscaping.

Tracy DiSabato-Aust, in her book "The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting & Pruning Techniques", says that many plants benefit from the layer of protection provided by their dead tops during the winter. And any leftover seeds provide food for the birds.

Stephen Orr writes "Think of yourself as the curator of your own winter sculpture garden." (New York Times: "Time to Tidy Up the Garden, or Is It?")

Who knew it was this easy to be an avant gardener?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

She Who Bats Last...

Even the most dedicated gardener can grow weary of all those colors and fragrances that constantly surround him and of the omnipresent green aura that encircles his world. Especially when he is constantly working his buns off to make it that way.

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all, and go to the desert.

Marsha and I have been going to New Mexico for more than fifteen years. We love to immerse ourselves in the infertile, dry, tan-colored dirt and sands. It's the all-natural opposite of our manmade quest for horticultural perfection.
This was our first early September visit. And this time the dry, unfruitful land was virtually overrun with a large variety of totally unplanned, fully blooming, floral vegetation. Nature had arranged its flowerbeds more sparsely than an over-eager eastern gardener with equally over-eager plants might have done. But the lack of green competition such as grass and deciduous trees allowed these widely dispersed floral pockets to stand up and shout more loudly than even the most overstuffed New England perennial garden ever could.

Who knew?
Some plants looked vaguely familiar, like attempted wild replicas of favorite domestic standards -- which is of course the exact opposite of the real story. Cleomies were spindlier, with smaller flowers, than their cultivated cousins. Asters were singular rather than bushy. Sunflowers appeared as delicate sun drops on anorexic stems.

But mostly there was chamisa.
This desert-loving, narrow-leaved, four foot tall, deciduous shrub with pungent, yellow flowers totally dominated the landscape. It grew unabated -- on undeveloped land, in private yards, and up against the roads with its branches drooping down onto the traffic. Homeowners posted "DO NOT MOW!" signs on their mailboxes in an organized effort to thwart the municipality's gas powered grim reapers from eradicating it. The updrafts caused by passing cars dispersed flaxen pollen onto the nearby ground -- a twenty-first century improvement on wind dispersal plant propagation. And visiting New England gardeners restrained their basic pruning instincts in deference to the "if it grows at all, let it be" ethos of the Santa Fe horticultural community.

Meanwhile back home in Wethersfield our own flora-culture had already begun its annual end of the season dance of death.

In order to survive from year to year the perennial plants in our neck of the woods "harden off" by either (a) dropping their foliage, halting photosynthesis, and reducing moisture loss, or (b) dying down to ground level and sheltering new buds in the earth until spring arrives.

The results, while momentarily colorful and flashy, ultimately leave the New England topography looking as ugly as sin and as ashen as death -- stripped of its flowers and its emerald ambience.

And what can we plantsmen extraordinaire, who have poured our blood, sweat, time, and tears (plus more than a few dollars) into the creation and maintenance of this Eden-like landscape do, to prevent this wanton usurpation of our agricultural authority?

Not a thing, not anything, nil, zero, naught, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat.

Environmentalist Rob Watson says, "Mother Nature always bats last, and she always bats a thousand."

If you don't believe it, go to the desert. Or just wait a few weeks and look out your window.

(Photos by Mars)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

A Theory of Mind

It is my favorite New Yorker magazine cartoon. Peter Steiner's drawing portrays two canines. The talking one is a black hound sitting in front of a computer with one paw resting on the keyboard. The listener is a black-spotted white pooch seated on the floor, staring up.

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

Now I don't think that dogs can really think -- not like that anyway. But sometimes they do things that make you stop and rethink what actually might be going on in their little -- brain to body weight 1/125 versus 1/40 in humans -- minds.

"Theory-of-Mind" is the belief that other humans and animals think in the exact same, conscious, self-aware way that we ourselves do

"There's no convincing evidence...that suggests dogs can replicate human thought processes: use language, think in narrative and sequential terms, understand human minds, or share humans' range of emotions.

"Yet that remains a powerful, pervasive view of dogs...It's almost impossible not to lapse into theory-of-mind reasoning when it comes to our dogs. After all, most of us have no other way in which to grasp another creature's behavior. How can one even begin to imagine what's going on inside a dog's head?" (Jon Katz in

"'I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,' Dr. Wynne [associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida] said. 'It's a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.'" (Good Dog, Smart Dog By SARAH KERSHAW)

Then there's what happened the other day between Mars and Emma.

For those unfamiliar -- Mars is my wife, and Emma is the Pit Bull /Dalmatian cross that lives two houses down the street.

Several times each day J takes Emma for a walk. The route never varies. It is a small loop that passes in front of our residence, crosses the street, goes back down the other side, and then home.

Emma has two stops along that trip that she earnestly attempts to make each time. One is at our domicile to visit with Mars, and the other is across the street to visit with B, the female resident of that abode.

As she passes each property Emma strains her neck to search for Mars or B. If no one is outside at our place she looks into our family room. When she spots Mars she lowers her center of gravity and hauls J up the driveway until she makes contact. If I am available she will give me a perfunctory sniff, but clearly my only significance to Emma is an indicator that Mars is probably around.

Periodically Mars gives Emma a squeaky dog toy. Emma immediately drags J back home where she sequesters her present and, over time, meticulously rips it apart. Mars gifted Emma several days ago but because of conflicting schedules had not seen her since.

A night ago I was in the yard barbecuing when I looked up and saw Emma towing J up the driveway towards me. In her mouth Emma had the remnants of her latest present. I called for Mars.

"She just grabbed it and brought with her." J said.

Emma swiveled her body up to Mars and proudly held up the torn-apart bunny rabbit for her to see. As soon as Mars acknowledged the dilapidated plaything Emma turned and dragged J back down the car path and home.

I suppose that she could have sent an ECard "thank you" instead -- but it probably wouldn't have been as impressive.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Where The Air Is Sweet

Last week Snuffleupagus made the first of his two annual appearances at our house. As usual he moved slowly down the street alongside the curb accompanied by his attendants, stopping for no one, and leaving nothing in his wake.

His general schedule is published on our town's website -- the Monday through Friday during which he will visit -- but the exact day and time is never pre-announced. As a result, frenzied preparations for his arrival usually begin on the weekend immediately before the ordained workweek.

Landscape crews brandishing high-powered leaf blowers with a wind-force and decibel count reminiscent of our village's mid-summer tornado descend on the neighborhood. Maelstroms of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns are swirled up in the air, and then arrange themselves into Quonset shaped piles along the outer edges of the snow-shelves.

On other properties, residents (us included) manually operate wooden poles with affixed plastic tines in a repetitive effort to coax their own dead foliage into similar configurations on their own lawn aprons.

By Sunday evening the neighborhood is a picture of pristine lawns bordered by neatly arranged, autumnal colored mounds of oak, maple and elm droppings.

Snuffleupagus does not appear on Monday. Instead the intermittent rains begin. And the swirling winds, which have been mysteriously absent when nobody cared where the leaves were, suddenly come alive. By Monday afternoon over fifty percent of the previously assembled foliage has been redistributed back onto the lawn areas from whence it came; twenty-five percent additional leaves have received their golden parachutes; and the entire mess has become too sodden to do a damn thing about it.

Tuesday: more precipitation, heavier breezes, and dead leafage from unknown trees in nearby towns all appear on the scene. Snuffleupagus does not.

On Wednesday the sun is out and the winds are calm. No sign of "The Big S". Mars and I decide to give it one more day to dry out.

Thursday we return from our mid-morning health club trip to the sight of our neighbor up the street, home from work, hurriedly blower wrangling her modest collection of maple leaves onto her snow shelf. Further up the street, heading in her direction, we hear, and then actually see, Snuffleupagus.

Figuring that we have enough time before he goes up that side of street and then comes back down our own, we decide to have lunch in order to fuel our upcoming efforts. We wolf down our sandwiches and then get right to work.

Mars and I live at at a three-way intersection. While raking the leaves onto our east-west apron we hear, and then actually see, a second Snuffleupagus at the far end of our north-south road -- slogging slowly towards our shambolic snow shelf.

Under pressure it is possible for two relatively robust, rake-wielding people -- even people whose introduction to the "real" Snuffleupagus occurred well into adulthood -- to arrange their leaves faster and neater than any monetarily-motivated posse of hired leaf-blower guns ever could. This is known in folklore as the "John Henry Effect". We finish the job just as the last leaf is sucked from our next door neighbor's collection.

On Friday, one day after "The Snuffster's" visit, landscapers for the house immediately across from ours blow hundreds of thousands of oak leaves from their lawn out onto their side of the road. At least fifty thousand of these leaves are now on our property -- with more arriving by the minute. Snuffleupagus is not scheduled again for several weeks.

Just call me Oscar the Grouch.