Sunday, February 28, 2010

Hey guys, over here!

I couldn't hear him clearly because the doors were closed - but I could tell by his body language that the solitary crow was saying "CAAAWWW CAAAWWW CAAAWWW CAAAWWW" or (in more understandable human terms) "Hey guys, over here, something's up!" I also knew without looking that the exact same scene was being repeated simultaneously in several other yards in our neighborhood.

Later that day I heard pretty much the same thing on my television set at the beginning of the local news.

My late friend Peter used to say that the weather forecast was the only reason that anyone watched such programming. The job of the news director is to come up with things to keep the viewer paying attention until then. Hence the "if it bleeds, it leads!" format.

So for them it is even better when the "breaking news" is a "Weather Alert!" and the anchors can immediately toss the ball to the shirtsleeved meteorologist who tells us excitedly that he is going to tell us something exciting later on in the broadcast.


Sometimes the calling-crow is successful in garnering the interest of its fellow travelers. The additional visitors arrive en masse, strutting and bobbing across the lawn, looking for something to entertain their little bird brains. Their attention span is pretty short -- a few minutes at the most. They begin to look bored. One or two of them fly off to the top of some distant tree. Then some unseen something sets off one of these new higher-ups.

"CAW-CAW-CAW". ("Danger! Danger!" Danger!)

Everyone's interest perks up. Crows come from far-and-wide just to be a part of the great panicky group flyaway. "CAW-CAW-CAW" is now everywhere. The black blanket that briefly covered my yard now momentarily conceals the sky -- and then, just as rapidly, splinters apart to search for the next "CAAAWWW CAAAWWW CAAAWWW CAAAWWW" happening.

When the weather segment finally arrives the television screen fills with rapidly swirling clouds of bright colors. Those closest to pink are the scariest. Phrases like "at the worst possible time -- right during the morning commute", and "as much as six inches in places", hurl themselves across the room.

The "weather event" is at least two days away but a "crawl" on the bottom of the picture already announces the future closing of institutions you never heard of, in towns that you didn't know existed. Several school systems simply shut down for the duration of winter and cancel all summer vacations for teachers and students.

The program ends with the admonition to "stay tuned to this station for further updates" as well as a "final forecast at eleven."

Meanwhile my front yard has become quietly populated with various pintsized birds (finches, juncos, chickadees, tufted titmice, squirrels, and an occasional cardinal) -- more visitors but less noise. Our family room is also more subdued now with classical music from the radio providing background for reading.

At the beginning of Barbara Kingsolver's new novel "The Lacuna" a thirteen year-old boy who has just discovered the sounds of the underwater world asks, "What is the difference between talking and making a noise?"

"[It depends] On intention. Whether he wants another fish to understand his meaning.... If a fish only wants to show that it is there, it's a noise."

The problem is that it is not always easy to discern intention in the midst of clamor.

You can learn about these and other crow calls at

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Persian Flaw

A Persian Flaw

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer may have been many things - a writer of rhyme, perhaps a silly person - but he clearly was not a gardener. Had he been, he might have added one more enjambment to his opus.

Yet though He may hath breathed it life

Gard'ners improve it with their knife.

If you ask people why they garden you will probably get reasons such as, to be creative, to learn new things, to meet people, or to get outdoor exercise. But it seems to me that all of these answers just dance around the edges of why horticulturalists really horticult. They do it in order to create their own private floral Utopia - that idyllic kind of place that they personally want to live in - a world in their own image and likeness. In other words, they do it to put the final finishing touches on nature.

Makers of Navajo blankets, on the other hand, purposely weave a mistake into each of their creations. Other artists and craftsmen apparently create similar deliberate defects in their icons, paintings, statues, etc.

It is called a "Persian Flaw".

Legend says that Persian rug makers, being deeply religious, believed that only God could make something perfect. To demonstrate humility before their deity, these carpet crafters deliberately incorporated a small error into each rug. This "Persian Flaw" revealed the craftsman's devotion to the Supreme Being.

Doesn't this act of faked fallibility seem a bit disingenuous? I mean it's like "Sorry. My bad! Didn't mean to be perfect."

I'm a gardener and I belong to a garden club with men of a similar persuasion. Trust me on this one. No disrespect, but there are definitely no "Persian Flaws" in our flowerbeds.

I asked the Internet site Google "should gardens be perfect?" The great Answerer of Queries told me to be more specific. Did I mean "perfect herb garden; perfect vegetable garden; picture perfect gardens; simply perfect gardens; perfect garden tool; perfect home garden; [or] perfect garden party"

Clearly the answer was yes.

Clicking on any one of these suggested shortlists of flawlessness brought up a long list of self-confident websites averring: "The Perfect...", "Creating the Perfect...", "5 Tips for a Perfect..."

In the real world, if a non-gardener were to check out the backyard of any one of us plantsmen they would see (depending on their mood and biases) either: (a) an out of control herd of plants tripping over each other in a packed-solid, overflowing, tapestry of color and texture, or (b) the Garden of Eden.

Meanwhile what we tenders of the land observe are: the perennial plant that could be moved three inches to the left to provide a more perfect contrast; and that errant weed worming its way through the otherwise pristine splendor; and the branch that needs a partial pruning in order to excise its dead portion or to eliminate its intrusion onto its neighbor; and the underperforming shrub that needs replacement. And we always notice that there is "room for at least one more" - even though we don't know where that room is until we return home with that plant we didn't know we needed until we saw it.

Psychiatrists might suggest that this compulsive quest for horticultural perfection is no more than plain-old delusions of grandeur. Others of a different intellectual bent might consider it a legitimate philosophical pursuit of Platonic Ideals. Our spouses tend to believe that it is just a sneaky way of avoiding real work, and playing in the dirt instead.

Here is what I think. Everybody has his or her own personal strengths and weaknesses. And in many instances the same trait that is someone's greatest asset can also be their greatest shortcoming. And thus it is with "green thumbs" - the outer sign of an inner obsession - the pursuit of perfection that makes all gardeners imperfect.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Will, Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Henry

It is said that Shakespeare has an observation on any and everything that could possibly happen in life, for example. "He hath eaten me out of house and home." (Henry IV).
And it's true. For years several generations of squirrels have been doing just that -- ingesting sunflower seeds, ears of corn and barbecue grill tires.

(A quick note on the middle item from "Ear corn or whole corn on the cob is fun to feed the furry creatures in your yard. As you might imagine, squirrels love to eat this entertaining treat...

Consider this, if you have a problem with squirrels dominating your bird feeders, buy some whole corn on the cob and establish a squirrel feeding station away from your bird feeders. Given the choice, squirells [sic] would rather munch on these cobs than hang from your feeders.")

That may be true of the "squirells" -- whom I actually believe were an American "Girl Group" of the early 1960's ("Dedicated to the One I Love"). But "squirrels" (at least at our house) still go for the forbidden seeds first, and then dine selectively on the yellow kernels, frequently letting them sit for several days in their special "Squirrel Corn Holder" (a wooden platform with a long screw onto which the cob is forced).

Maybe our mistake was placing that device on the oak trunk that serves as the main passageway from the tree-rats' penthouse drays to our centralized bird-feeding area located immediately across the front lawn. The rapacious rodents, with their little minds and big eyes fixated exclusively on the harder-to-get, and therefore more interesting sunflower seeds, rush right by the more phallic feeder station. It is only on their way back home that, now completely full but never totally satiated, they even notice the vulnerably placed kernels - a selection of amuse-bouches, which they linger to dine on at a more leisurely pace.

Squirrels, which tip the scales at around one and one half pounds per, eat about their weight in food each week. I would have thought "per day" but that is just based on my non-scientific, informal observations - and ever-escalating critter food expenses.

Now they are devouring the tires on my barbecue grill. The wheels are six-inch all-weather, crack-proof plastic. They clearly are not indigestible.

I have not actually seen them gnawing on the treads. And I have never, ever come across any polyethylene leftovers. I only really noticed the damage when I rolled the kettle cooker from the now dark backyard to our spot-lit driveway for some mid-winter, outdoor cooking. "Ka-thump." Stop. "Ka-thump." Stop. "Ka-thump. Crash" (as the metal ash catcher disk came loose.) Stop and curse.

This has happened before. Replacement parts are readily available online for a not unreasonable price. But that's not the point. I am feeling unappreciated and exploited by these ungrateful bushy-tailed little rats.

So, what to do? Are there thoughts of encouragement (or discouragement) specific to selfish squirrels anywhere in the 884,429 total words of Shakespeare's 43 works?

No. (At least according to

But I did come across "The Shakespeare Quote Generator" which will substitute terms of your choice into Shakespearean quotations selected by the website. Here is what it generated for me.

"Thou canst not say I did it: never shake Thy gory squirrel at me." (Macbeth)


"Banish plump Squirrel, and banish all the world." (Henry IV)


"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless squirrel!" (King Lear).

Cute, but not really helpful.

But wait. ABBA, the Swedish pop music quartet similarly boasts a lyric for every major human event. Back to Alas, there are no squirrel-centric ABBA lyrics -- even though their 139 opuses outstrip the output of the Bard of Avon by almost four to one. Not could I find an online algorithm machine to create any random ABBAisms.

However Henry David Thoreau, who had basically zero "Top 40" hits, did have this to offer. "The squirrel that you kill in jest dies in earnest."

I am not totally sure what it means. But my initial (and perhaps self-serving) interpretation is that a humorous turn-of-phrase can slay even the fiercest foe -- without getting any blood on my hands.

So here is my best, personally generated, shot. "The first thing we do, let's kill all the squirrels."

Actually that seems funnier in its original form.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Secret Life of Trees

Right now there is at least one good-sized broken branch lying on my front lawn. Guaranteed. I don't even have to look. It's been like that every single day for the past three decades.

Fifty-two weeks a year, thirty-two years, each tree has lost four to five branches -- all at least one foot, and often, four or more feet long -- and between a forefinger and a forearm in circumference. I have three oaks, a maple and an elm. They all should be getting smaller and smaller - but they are not. It is really quite spooky.

It's as if a bigger version of each tree is growing inside itself. Then, when it needs more room, it pushes through the bark and throws off the older, smaller limbs that are no longer adding any value. Sort of a business corporation definition of deadwood

Mathematically it makes no sense at all. Over the years the total amount of fallen lumber by any measure -- weight, area -- is (by far) much, much larger than the total amount of healthy wood that ever stood in my yard.

And I've had to get rid of every single piece. But that's been a good thing, because every week, just like the Monty Python comedy routine, I got to say "I didn't want to be an [Insurance Information Technology geek]. I wanted to be...a lumberjack!" Then the British troupe of humorists would sing "The Lumberjack Song".

"He's a lumberjack
And he's O.K.
He sleeps all night
And he works all day."

When I first got into the deadwood disposal biz you either drove them to the town transfer station. Or bundled them up. I had no vehicle to support the former so I did the latter. But the rules were a tad restrictive for someone attempting to use weekend yard maintenance as a Lumberman Fantasy Camp.

Each stick was to be no longer than three feet. Every bundle had to be small enough to be easily held in two open hands. Brown sisal two-ply twine secured with a bale sling hitch knot was required to hold the package together. (All right, I made that last one up, but you get the point.)

Lumberjacking is supposed to be manly, large-muscle work. This was more like a Christmas job in the gift-wrapping department at Nordstrom. Frequently the lumber rebelled during the wrapping operation and thwacked me in the face. The lengths of twine that I eyeball-measured proved too short. My tolerance for the work was good for at most three bundles per week. This was not enough to keep up with demand.

I was about to look for a new make-believe identity when the town modified its collection rules.

Now the wooden debris could be jammed into barrels and dragged to the curb. The only restrictions were those imposed by the size of the container and the strength of the trash-handler. I bought several large pails and proudly measured the degree of my lumberjack-ness by the number of them I put out each week. When the trees did not naturally provide enough deadwood I rampaged through the yard with my pruning saw looking for candidates to add to the pile.

Then I bought a wood chipper.

That was really fun -- a guaranteed easy Saturday morning transition from my weekday identity to my imaginary existence as the "Deadwood Destroyer".

"He's a lumberjack

And he's O.K.
He cuts down trees
He eats his lunch."

Now I'm retired. I have as much time as I want to play pretend logger -- and a lot less reasons to need to. The town has switched to big green bins that hold much more wood and are way easier to cram than my own pails. I have two of them.

I can easily pack half of one every week with the branches that spontaneously splay themselves across my lawn. Then with part of my additional leisure hours I can take my pruning saw and further explore my inner lumberjack -- and still have extra time to sit back and contemplate what my branch-dropping trees are really up to.

"He's a lumberjack
And he's O.K.
He sleeps all night
And he works all day.
He cuts down trees
He skips and jumps
He likes to press wild flowers
He puts on women's clothing
And hangs around in bars."

Or maybe not. I probably should just forget this whole woodland fantasy thing and find something more conventional to worry about. The secret lives of trees may turn out to be as bizarre as the private habits of lumberjacks.

(See Monty Python perform the "The Lumberjack Song" on YouTube )