Friday, November 18, 2016

Well Fed or Well Groomed?

The Little Brown Birds (or LBBs as our D.I.L. and son call them) are making a day spa out of family room garden.

LBBs scatter
dry dirt outside our window –
dust baths at daybreak.
Normally this perennial flowerbed, which sits across the paver path from our family room, would be blanketed in Cedar bark mulch.  But this year, because of some on-going plant replacement work that Mars and I are doing, the bare earth is instead exposed.  And due to our recent drought that soil is preternaturally dry.  I vaguely recollect one of two instances of mulch-bathing in previous years.  But, I suspect that the extreme exfoliating effect of the cedar chips was not quite what the LBBs were hoping for – so they probably flew off in search of browner pastures.  This year however the softer silt surface is apparently just what the doctor ordered – if wild birds had medical coverage, and they paid attention to the advice.
So, is this strange but entertaining behavior a form of recreation, or a relaxation technique, or perhaps even some form of avian spiritual ritual?  No.  Evidently dust (or sand) bathing is a common grooming activity of animals in order to clean their fur, feathers or skin, and to remove parasites.
“Birds cower close to the ground while taking a dust bath, vigorously wriggling their bodies and flapping their wings. This disperses loose substrate into the air. The birds spread one or both wings, which allows the falling substrate to fall between the feathers and reach the skin. The dust bath is often followed by thorough shaking to further ruffle the feathers which may be accompanied with preening using the bill.” (
 I am particularly impressed by the part where the LBBs stretch out their wings to permit “the falling substrate to fall between the feathers and reach the skin.”  How did the first LBB use its LBB (Little Bird Brain) to figure this out?  And then teach it to its friends – “Hey guys, watch this!”  Or is the whole spread wing thing just a perfectly natural feel-good reaction to the pleasant feeling of finally getting that killer itch scratched?
I checked online and apparently, as hard as it may be for some of us to believe, the human spa business has not picked up on this holistic dry dirt idea – except as a food supplement. 
Now technically it’s not the same plain old whatever-you-find-on-the-ground dirt that our LBBs are happy to frolic in.  It’s called “Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE)” and it is made from the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms.    Unlike Rebeca the orphan girl in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” who actually ate dirt, this all-natural soil is simply mixed with water and drunk.  There is however at least one caveat.  According to, “there are two kinds of Diatomaceous Earth, one you put in pools (very toxic), and food grade. MAKE SURE that you purchase only Food Grade, and consult your physician (or naturopath) before you start.”
Many spas for humans however do offer wet dirt treatments in the form of mud scrubs and mud pools.  Mars and I have partaken of the latter several times at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring and Spa in northern New Mexico.  As their website puts it, “Where else can you slather mud all over your body and bake in the sun until done? As our special blend of clay dries, toxins are released from the pores of your skin and you come away feeling cleansed and refreshed.”
And for those of you who are curious, “Please note that the natural mineral content and coloration of the mud may stain bathing suits” – so the answer is yes, or no, depending upon how the question is phrased.
So here’s how it works.  Probably with some help, you coat the entire unclothed portion of your body with their magic mud.  Then quickly (before your limbs harden into position) stretch yourself out on a lounge chair in the warm sun, and let the mud dry while staying as motionless as possible – which becomes easier to do as the wet earth solidifies.  After a while you somehow get up and move yourself into the rinsing-off pool where the toxins you are shedding mingle with the toxins of those who have come before you and form (I guess) new toxic relationships.  Then you take a shower.  Your skin really does feel good – and you don’t have to worry about aligning yourself up with any plummeting substrates to get the full benefit.
This obviously is very similar to the animal behavior of wallowing – of which according to ethologists (those who study such stuff) dust bathing is technically not a sub-category.
Per, some reasons for rolling in the mud may include: thermoregulation, providing a sunscreen, removal of ectoparasites, social cohesion, relief from moulting, relief from biting insects, play (in young animals), skin maintenance, camouflage, and male-male conflict social behavior. 
There is some “social cohesion” at the Ojo Caliente mud pool – especially among couples – but I haven’t observed any “Male-male conflict social behavior”.  Tempers do however occasionally flare at our LBB Day Spa when a newcomer tries to usurp one of the established dusting pits that one of the regulars has hopped away from for a quick break.  In general though the atmosphere is peacefully spa-like, and the behaviors of the bathers is entertaining enough that Mars and I have decided not to mulch over the area until at least next spring.
But, just to confuse matters, some of the chatter on the web says that birds do like mulch covered beds – both for the insects that come along within the chips, as well as for the native bugs and worms that find a safe home under the pine bark.  And I have in fact seen both LBBs, and Mid-Sized Brown Birds such as Robins, turning over chunks of mulch with apparent success in this and other parts of our yard. 
To mulch or not to mulch?  Well-fed or well-groomed?   Choices Mars and I look forward to making in the next gardening season.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dancing in the Streets

Cold front coming in.
Dancing red leaf dervishes
spiral down the street.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Mulch Ado About Nothing!

One good thing is that you can clearly see your carbon footprint in the pattern of uncovered grass.  Another is that you can just as clearly see the organic good being done by looking more closely within that footmark at the tiny flecks of fall foliage suspended on the blades of green.
It’s the perfect visual for the ecological conundrum that I semi-seriously fret about every autumn – is it okay to pollute in order to be organic?
Back in college I studied the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a proponent of Utilitarianism – the ethical theory that an action is morally right if and only if it is productive of the most happiness for the greatest number of persons. 
Fun digression – Bentham’s fully dressed skeleton (padded out with hay) and topped with a wax head is on display, sitting upright in a wooden cabinet at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College in London, England.  The clothes are Bentham’s and he requested that his body be preserved this way in the will that he made shortly before his death on June 6, 1832.  Legend has it that this “auto-icon”, as the dead theorist dubbed it, attends meetings of the College Council and is listed in the minutes as present but not voting.  However the university’s website avers that this story is a myth. 

In any event, back when his cranium was real and still functioning Bentham created a “Hedonic Calculus” to be used in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action.  In its simplest form this mathematical exercise calls for totaling up all the pleasure and all the pain caused by an action and only doing those things where the scales weight more heavily on the pleasure side.  In other words – an ethical cost/benefit analysis.
Calculating the extent of the atmospheric damage is actually pretty straightforward; Footprint =  (amount of gas used) x (17.7 pounds of carbon per gallon) It takes about 60 minutes to mulch my entire lawn.  1 hour of mowing using 0.5 gallons of gas = 11 gallon about 9 pounds of carbon per mulching session.  That seems like a reasonably small number to me for 2 or 3 mulch-athons.
As for the effect on the lawn – it’s all good.  According to the Mother Nature Network (  “Micro-organisms that live in the soil beak down organic material such as leaves. Worms get in on the action, too. The roots of some grasses such as fescue can grow slowly in the fall and a mild winter and the decaying action of mulched leaves left on the yard will provide these roots with nutrients. Mulched leaves will biodegrade and disappear from the lawn by spring. The same type of activity with micro-organisms and worms that is happening in the lawn area is also happening in landscape and vegetable beds.”
This negates, or at least lowers, the need for chemicals.  If you don’t agree that’s a good thing then you probably bailed out of this essay a few paragraphs ago.
 So Bentham’s Calculus says – mulch.
But there is one catch.  Again,, “If the leaves are so thick that they make mowing difficult, you may need to add the bag attachment or even rake them.”
 I choose the latter approach.
 I enjoy mulching.  It’s lawn mowing, which I enjoy, with the added cathartic effect of immediately seeing the result of your work.  Raking provides the same therapeutic sense of accomplishment but without the noise and with more upper body exercise.  And I can do it at 8:00 am without disturbing my neighbors.
 On a recent Tuesday morning with the temperature in the mid-forties and the early sun barely warming my back, I set myself the task of re-raking my lawn in anticipation of a scheduled pickup sometime in the next few days.  Over the preceding weekend I had spent about two hours getting my first set of leaves onto my snow-shelves from which my town vacuums them up with a device resembling Sesame Street’s Snuffleupagus and then turns them into piles of publicly available mulch.  During a windy Monday part of that fallen foliage had been blown back into my yard, along with some from my neighbor’s, and another set dropping from my oak and maple trees.

In forty-five wonderful minutes I had completed my task – in the middle of which I actually stopped for a moment and thought, “Gardening just doesn’t get any better than this!”  And Snuffy cometh and taketh away that very afternoon.  How good a day is that?
The town will collect one more time this year, but I suspect from now on I will be mulching.  I’ve done it once and expect to do it maybe two more times.
Unless that is the spirit of Jeremy Bentham overcomes me and I decide instead to take some of my old gardening clothes and pad them out with the remaining leaves to create my own auto-icon.  Unlike the philosopher however I would display my self-image in an erect posture, striding purposefully and proudly behind my faded-red Toro mulching mower.
And that, according to the Calculus, might even provide me with as much happiness as writing about it.