Monday, March 29, 2010

Suicide by Robin

"All worms have male and female reproductive parts. This means that all worms can mate with each other." (1)

"The good thing about being bisexual is that it doubles your chance of a date on a Saturday night." Woody Allen

So with every conceivable possibility for a rewarding sex life, why (every spring) do these slimy slitherers schlep out of my sodden sod and attempt to commit "suicide by robin" on my equally saturated driveway?

A[nswer]. Dr. Dennis Linden, Cindy Hale, and other worm experts say that worms do NOT surface to avoid drowning. In fact, they come to the surface during rains (especially in the spring) so they can move overland. The temporarily wet conditions give worms a chance to move safely to new places. Since worms breathe through their skin, the skin must stay wet in order for the oxygen to pass through it. After rain or during high humidity are safe times for worms to move around without dehydrating. It is true that, without oxygen, worms will suffocate. But earthworms can survive for several weeks under water, providing there is sufficient oxygen in the water to support them. (2)

When I was a kid I used to soak the ground in our back yard to bring the worms up to the surface. Ostensibly I was hunting for fishing bait. In reality it was just a cool preteen boy thing to do on a warm summer evening.

Sometimes I put them into jars. I would drop a handful of dirt on the bottom, and poke holes in the screw-on metal top to allow air into the chamber of captivity. In spite of my precautions most of the inmates died within minutes.

I did the same thing with a lot of other wildlife such as lightning bugs and crickets For a while I puzzled over why I -- not in any sense a collector of things -- did that. Now I wonder where all of the jars that I used came from.

Today I would have to go door-to-door attempting to borrow a suitable receptacle. All we have in our house is one jar of salsa and a few of jelly -- all of them in use. Is the modern quest for universal recyclability at odds with the natural curiosity of sadistic children?

The worms on my driveway however are totally the result of purely natural causes -- four inches of steady rain in forty-eight hours. And they are everywhere. Those that are not above ground on purposeless pilgrimages are just below the surface, ready to pop out at the slightest provocation.

Mars says that she can smell them. It is one of her primary fragrances of spring. I normally have a stronger awareness of the ambient aromas than she does but not in this case. I never totally believed that it was the scent of worms that she detected -- but rather that it was a simple transmigration of the "ick!" factor from her visual sense directly to her nose.


"The earth can smell funny when it rains after a dry spell. The vapor from the ground carries with it a certain bacteria that may be beneficial when inhaled. When the raindrops hit the soil they splash the bacterial spores up and they become airborne, carrying the scent of earth with them. Another smell associated after raining is the smell of earthworms. Like the bacteria in the ground, earthworms only come out when the ground is soaked.

So why does it smell like worms when it rains?

The answer is: Maybe because there are too many of them on the surface to begin with. Another reason is that the same bacteria present in the soil covers the earthworms' bodies. And yet, another reason is that the earth that earthworms have turned during their climb to the surface has released those bacteria spores." (3)

The converse -- "Do worms have a sense of smell?" -- seems less certain. "Worms have specialized chemoreceptors or sense organs ("taste receptors") which react to chemical stimuli. These sense organs are located on the anterior part of the worm." (4) So, do they? Or do they not?

All of which begs the question, how did worms survive evolutionarily when their primary instinct is to stroll around in the meat display case at the precise moment that those who dine on them, the robins, are queuing up at the deli counter?

It is kind of like those tiny sea turtle babies and little penguins whose rite of passage is a death-defying dash to the ocean under the hungry eyes of their predators.

The turtles and penguins have a purpose to their travels, while the worms appear to be just aimlessly wandering around. The higher species also are much, much cuter -- but, at the same time, more endangered. While the lowly worms are totally tricked out sexually.

Ponder that the next time you feel unfocused or unattractive.





Monday, March 22, 2010

New Neighbors

Mars and I live in what is commonly called an "old established neighborhood". This time of year it is normally busy with the sounds of lawns and gardens being raked and children playing. But for the past week or so the air has been thick with the sounds of new homes being built.

Our little area began in the 1920's as part of a planned development called "Brimfield Gardens". The first map of the site was filed with the Wethersfield Town Clerk on December 14th, 1921 -- one-hundred-forty neatly numbered lots, the majority of them 50' by 140'. Our street's portion is comprised of lot numbers 37 through 78. Thirty-four residences were constructed on those parcels of land between 1924 and 1952 -- a lesser number, but larger houses and properties than was called for by the original proposal. Most are small colonial style, including ours, which sits on portions of parcels 50, 51, and 52. Brimfield Gardens, per se, never happened.

(A more complete history of our neighborhood exists in the "Members Articles" section of the Wethersfield Historical Society website -- "284 Brimfield Road".)

Although considered a neighborhood of starter homes in some quarters, most of the "starters" who buy them seem to stay. As a result our street has, for a long time, been made up of a relatively even distribution of young marrieds with young children, about-to-be empty nesters, empty nesters, and retirees. Over the years enough people have progressed through the ranks, exited at the high end, and entered at the beginning, to keep the ratio pretty constant.

The wildlife population, in contrast, has been just as steady in numbers, but much more transient in its membership.

(F.C. Hennesey @

Then a couple of years ago a duo of Downy woodpeckers built a brand new house in one of the trunks on the flowering crab tree beside our family room. They transferred the title to a young English sparrow couple who settled right in and reared a brood or two before handing the space over to more of their kind and fleeing the neighborhood. (Or so Mars and I like to think, there being no real way for us to differentiate between most birds of a feather.)

We were quite excited when we noticed the smallish woodpecker banging his beak into the bark of our flowering crab. Because of its size, but mostly because of its location, that tree is our primary viewing site for front yard wildlife.

We hang our bird feeders there. And we maintain bushes around the tree to provide safe cover for all of the avifauna that drops by for the seed and the suet.

For years birds have come for the "and board" but none have ever expressed interest in a room at our flowering crab condos -- or anywhere else on our property for that matter.

Several years ago we purchased a bluebird house. It was part of a program to attract the species back within the borders of Connecticut. The instructions said to place the presumptive nest holder three to six feet high in a woodland clearing among scattered trees. We have the latter but not the former. So instead we picked the tree on our property that was furthest away from our house -- an elm -- and mounted it there.

(Allan Brooks @

Unfortunately that meant we could not see the bird motel from any indoor location. And only from one or two outdoors spots -- both within reaching distance of the 4" by 4" by 9" structure.

The write-up also said to monitor the dwelling place for intruders such as chickadees, titmice, wrens, and nuthatches. We did, for a short while. Then, there being no apparent action and it being in the largely invisible part of our property, we pretty much stopped checking.

We never did see any bluebirds. One time, when I was in that neck of the woods for other reasons, I happened to glance into the bird box and discovered the rudimentary beginnings of a small nest.

I decided to leave it there, reasoning that even though the likelihood of it belonging to a bluebird was pretty much nil (none having been seen locally except in our bird book), whoever the builder was, they likely needed it.

I continued checking, but no one ever showed. So after a few weeks I cleaned it out and quickly forgot about it. This vignette was repeated several times over the next several years. Meanwhile the infrastructure of the domicile was rapidly declining. I took it down and tossed it just moments before it achieved full eyesore status.

We had a similar experience with a butterfly house that our son gave us for a garden we had just planted to attract these large-winged, colorful insects.

The Lepidoptera living quarters were intended more as a one-night-stand than a month-to-month rental. It consisted of an enclosed rectangular box about 30" x 6", the long sides of which contained slots intended to emulate the indentations in the bark of trees wherein butterflies would nestle down and spend the evening. Philandering was encouraged, and actually hoped for.

This housing unit was within sight and earshot of our bedroom window. I never saw any Lepidoptera land there, nor did I hear any little lepidopterous lust songs during the overnight hours.

In time it also deteriorated and departed ingloriously.

Now, a new armada of woodpecker homebuilders has descended upon our little corner of the world. They work from dawn to dusk, weekdays and weekends, pounding their chisel-like beaks into the middle-aged oak and maple trees that predominate in the area. Most of the noise seems to come from pretty high up, so I suspect that the tenants that ultimately occupy these exclusive penthouses will spend much of their time well above the day-to-day neighborhood fray. And as a result will remain largely invisible to most of us living down at street level.

Nonetheless they will still be an integral part of the community.

Homes, trees, and long-time residents give a neighborhood its character. But new blood gives it its soul.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Even Cougars Sometimes Shop For Their Food

The other day I was buying groceries at one of our local supermarkets when I noticed a strikingly dressed, mid-thirties woman slowly pushing her cart down one of the aisles. I was surprised, then I realized:
Even Cougars Sometimes Shop For Their Food

Spray-paint-skinny jeans,
leopard-skin stiletto heels --
prowling for dinner.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nature or Nurture?

I am a member of the Mens Garden Club of Wethersfield for whose newsletter I originally wrote the following essay.

Nature or Nurture?

The "Green Thumb" is one of the greatest of gardening cliches. And, at the same time it begs the major question as to what contributes more to a person's skills and abilities. Is it nature or is it nurture? Are we born with it, or do we learn it?
I have done all the research - looking through two entire screens worth of "" answers to the query "born with a green thumb" - and I was unable to find even one instance of an individual actually being brought into the world with a virescent thick first digit, or any other finger for that matter.

Phillip Iannucci, a former club member, had some thoughts on the subject. He told me once that the phrase "green thumb" came from the inability of dedicated gardeners to keep their hands off of even the tiniest branch that needed trimming, even when they did not have either their pruning shears or their gardening gloves with them.

Using their bare hands, they would break off the offending branch, frequently releasing the plant's green sap onto the tips of their fingers and tinting their skin with a greenish hue.

Phillip was prone to colorful descriptions - but never to my knowledge to out-and-out hyperbole. His explanations of "how to" relied more on metaphors than on step-by-step detail directions. For example he advised that trees and bushes should be cut back so "the birds can fly through them."

That seems pretty consistent with all of the more technically phrased tree trimming guidelines I have heard - lateral branches should be evenly spaced on the main stem, remove any branches that rub or cross another branch, etc. Phillip's instructions just make me feel a lot better about myself while I am executing them, and are definitely much easier to remember.

Since he was right about pruning I assumed he was also correct as to how we acquire our most visible emblem of gardening knowledge. And he seems to be pretty close on that also.

What I found on (an English website about the origins of words and phrases) is consistent with all of the other sources that I looked at.

"In Britain, they speak of a gifted gardener having 'green fingers,' although 'green thumb' is also commonly heard. 'Green fingers' first appeared in the 1930s, followed about ten years later by 'green thumb.' As to how one's thumb or fingers get green, there seem to be several theories, the most predictably implausible of which involves, as usual, British royalty. In this tale, King Edward I developed a love of green peas and kept a dozen servants shelling them.

The most proficient sheller, judged by the green stains on his fingers, was richly rewarded. You'll notice that this story is not only silly but doesn't really have anything to do with gardening. More plausible is the observation that the green algae that grows on pots often rubs off on the gardener's fingers.

But the saying, whether 'thumb' or 'fingers,' does seem to have a bit more of a story behind it. In the period immediately preceding and during World War II, one of the most popular programs on BBC radio in Britain was called 'In Your Garden,' the host of which was a Mr. C.H. Middleton.

The eminent etymologist Eric Partridge suggested that this program might have popularized both phrases, and that 'green thumb' was actually a reference to the very old English proverb 'An honest miller has a golden thumb.' Millers, merchants who grind corn for farmers, used to judge the quality of their product, corn flour, by rubbing a bit between the palm and thumb. But millers were often suspected of cheating their customers, and 'golden thumb' was often used sarcastically, including by Chaucer, to mean a talent for duplicity.

In any case, the proverb was sufficiently well known in Britain in the mid-20th century to make the 'golden thumb' and 'green thumb' connection plausible, and would explain why the thumb in particular is found in the most common form of the phrase.

But the more that I think about it, I suspect that Phillip was giving me more than just the simple etymology of the phrase "green thumb". I believe he was also telling me that a real gardener, by his nature, must snap off that imperfect stem - and then proudly leave the evidence of his labors out there for the entire world to see. He just cannot stop himself from doing it

Having a green thumb begets getting a green thumb.

So, is it nature or is it nurture? Are we born with it, or do we learn it?

Or is it nurtured until it is second nature to us?

That may be why some people who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth often end up hiring their own personal gardener.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The First Part of Coven Is ...

Apparently March 1st was the start of spring. Who knew? Clearly not the actual weather, which I at least believe should have some say in the matter.

I had thought that winter ended on the vernal equinox (around March 20th here in the northeastern United States.) There is however more than one way to define the seasons. My rule of thumb was based on an astronomical definition. But it is not the only result that you can get when you use the stars to determine the seasons.

The vernal equinox is determined by the angle of the sun and the amount of solar radiation reaching a given area (a.k.a. insolation). But daytime temperatures lag behind insolation by several weeks because the earth and sea, like most of us on a cold winter morning, have what is called thermal latency, and just take a long time to warm up.

Signs of spring -- crocuses popping out of the earth, woodpeckers drumming on the neighborhood trees, clamorous goose migrations, Major League Baseball training camps, "Important Tax Information" in the mail - normally show up before 3/20. This is probably why users of the Celtic and East Asian calendars (all of whom are huge baseball fans) consider the vernal equinox to be the midpoint of spring, not the beginning.

Half of my lineage is Celtic. There is probably even a dyad or two of druids in my family tree. But I had no idea that a Celtic calendar even existed - other than the Boston one of course. It does.

Or did anyway. Lots of them.

It is a solar/lunar almanac that begins each of its twelve months on the same phase of the moon, and is used by some Neo-pagan Wiccan cults to schedule their rites -- some of which relate to the coming of spring.

But now my wife Mars tells me that the TV weather prognosticators no longer will have nothing to do with this stargazing stuff. Raised to believe in Doppler radar rather than the heavenly theories of Nicholas Copernicus, they want hard data -- or at least computer models expressed in bright, day-glo colors. So they base their view of the four seasons on the average monthly temperatures.

Just like in the astronomical world there are four meteorological seasons, each one three months in length. The three warmest continuous ones are summer. The coldest trio is winter. Spring and fall fill in the gaps.

As a result, the seasons can start on different dates in different places. In the northeast it has been decided that meteorological spring starts on the first of March and concludes at the end of May.

Personally I find this all pretty confusing. And being a gardener I want to be able to accurately plan winter's end and the onset of my favorite season. Otherwise how do I know when to get my false hopes up?

Fortunately I live in Wethersfield, Connecticut on the banks of our state's eponymous river and home to our town's eponymous cove. And it is the condition of that small, sheltered bay that I use as my official arbiter of the seasons.

The cove is a popular launching and mooring spot for small recreational boats. In the summer scores of fishing boats, bowriders, and runabouts bob placidly on the barely perceptible waves, while dinghies and kayaks paddle among them.

In winter the water freezes deeply enough to have supported an ice harvesting industry earlier in the town's history. Today the cold, hard surface holds up small bands of ice fisherman, whose hunched bodies sit on upturned milk crates waiting for some unseen underwater action.

Around this time of the year the cove becomes part water and part thin ice. The percentages of each vary from day to day as the nighttime and daylight temperatures bob below and above freezing. Ultimately the remaining ice melts, the water wins, and the cove rises.

More water from more thawing up north runs downstream and overflows the banks of the cove. It wanders across the boat launch, up onto the entry road, and sometimes beyond -- shutting down several neighborhoods. On rare occasions some of the waterfront house are partially submerged.

Eventually the flooding subsides and access to the cove is restored.

Then it is time for The High Priestess Mars-ita to garb herself in her diaphanous, ceremonial Ostara dress and lead her adoring acolyte to Cove Park, where we will surreptitiously start a bonfire, sing the Pentagram Chant, light some sage to remove the negative energy, and officially declare that the real spring is really here.

And if the stars are aligned we should be back home in time to catch the Celtics on ESPN.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Romeo and Evel

Adjacent animal corpses on a nearby suburban street got me wondering.

Romeo and Evel

Two road-kill squirrels --

"Last one there is a dead rat!",
or "star crossed lovers"?

And here's a story about a more successful daredevil squirrel.