Thursday, November 17, 2011

October Snow—Oh NO!

October Snow—Oh NO!      November 2nd
            “Welcome to Little House on the Prairie,” I greeted my son when he came home.           
“No it’s worse,” he said. “They had either a smaller room to heat or fireplaces in each room.”
It was Tuesday—the fourth day after the snowstorm—day five without electricity and heat.
The power had gone off at 4:30 pm on October 29th. We had been warned on radio and TV by weather gurus and public utility reps that an early snowstorm could bring down trees with the extra weight landing on the colorful–not yet fallen leaves.
            Sure, a snowstorm, I thought. How bad can it be? The ground’s still warm; it won’t stick. Predicting doom and gloom helps the ratings.
            But I was wrong—they were right.
            So, during a lull in the storm, while I was shoveling the wet, heavy snow, we lost power. As the dull daylight got even dimmer, I lit candles—half a dozen on the dining room table framed by an aluminum tray for reflection, two in wall sconces, two over the mantle, several over the kitchen sink, and one in the bathroom. To say I’m fond of candles is, of course, an understatement.
            “It’ll get cold in here when the temperature drops outside,” my husband warned.
            “Why?” I asked. “Isn’t the pilot light on the gas burner still lit?”
            “Yes. But the mechanism that tells it to turn on is electric.”
 So we sent our son to the garage to retrieve wood for the fireplace. Luckily we had scarcely used the half cord my brother-in-law had gifted us several years ago, having lit fires only for our annual Christmas Caroling party and on Christmas Day itself.
My husband declared he’d make dinner by memory—and by 3-candlelight.

During dinner the lights across the street went back on. No problems for them; they’d have light, heat, phone service, computers and TVs. I washed dishes by candlelight, grateful that we at least had hot water. I knew in other parts of the state, no electricity means water can not be pumped.

The next few days, when I awoke, the temperature was 51o. I felt like a pioneer—at least, I thought a great deal about those who had settled in New Jersey before there was central heating and electricity. When I worked in the school system we took our 2nd graders to visit the Lenni Lenape area of Waterloo Village each fall.  In winter the Lenape community lived in long houses—sleeping, bundled in furs, on bunk-like platforms within the perimeter of the lodge. We were told it became quite warm with the central fire and all the people there.
Seeing the long house each year, all I could think of was how cold it must have been to trudge out into the snow whenever nature called. I found myself wondering the same thing when my husband and I visited Clifton’s historic Hamilton House a few weeks ago. Out houses must have been frigid in winter.
This morning, trying to heat up some bread on top of our thank-goodness-not-electric stove, I was reminded of that historic Hamilton House. Living then and there, I’d have had to add wood and stir up the fire in the huge kitchen fireplace and pump water by hand to make my morning tea. Today I only needed a match to light the stove. However, Hamilton House had one device I could have used—the iron platform that held two slices o bread upright. You placed it on the floor in front of the open fire and, when one side was browned, you pushed a knob on it with your toe so the other side of the bread faced the fire. You stirred the bread by toe—a toe-stir. Today I was quite unable to brown my toast evenly on the gas stove.
My son had worked on his computer last night until the battery ran out. Of course the Internet was down. So today he had left early to spend the day at Starbucks and with a power-ful friend.  The PSE&G spokesperson said—via battery-powered radio—that some customers would not have electricity until Wednesday or Thursday. I gathered more wood from the garage.
At one historic house I had learned that the 2nd most common cause of death among colonial women—after childbirth—was death by fire, when their long woolen dresses caught a spark from their walk-in fireplaces. I also thought of the stories of Lincoln reading by firelight. Well, I can’t do that, not even with my half-dozen candles.  But Lincoln’s eyes at the time were younger than mine now.
So I sit, wrapped in a blanket, watching the dancing flames, while my husband, in another blanket sits nearby on the couch. We have become so dependent on conveniences that there is little else to do once the sun goes down but go to bed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Watching the Fauna

     We saw the blue heron at the bottom of the lake. He stood statue-like, with that long, long neck and beak, the stilt-like legs. Watching him balanced on the dock, I was reminded of the dance of the ostriches in Fantasia. He looked as if he might be that awkward. But then he unfolded his wings and took off in a graceful arch, commanding the sky. I couldn't take my eyes off him.

     Back in Montclair, I encountered a young groundhog in my backyard.
     "You're back!" I said.
     He scurried into the driveway and stood about 12 feet from me, looking directly in my eyes, waiting for my next move.
     "Where do you live?" I asked. He's very cute-smaller than my large cat and quite fuzzy. But I don't want him to over winter on my property. He, or someone from his family, did enough damage to our garden this season.
      I took a few steps toward him and he crept along the narrow strip of hostas next to the house. He, or a sibling had made many tunnels there and settled under our sun-room. I had blocked all those holes several weeks ago. Not finding a hole-or perhaps not wanting me to know where his entrance was-he went into our open basement window.
     I called to my husband and ran into the house. We both hurried to the basement to find the young creature standing on top of the TV, just under the window. My husband encouraged him to leave with the straw end of a broom. Returning outside we tried again to find where he was planning to live. But he scooted into some thick bushes and we lost him.
     As adorable as he is, I really don't want him staying and eating more than his share of our vegetables.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rain Again

            Only an hour ago the radio weatherman said, “Chance of showers.” But now heavy rain is falling. While we are disappointed, we may be in the minority because it sounds as if there is a small crowd on my roof applauding. Strangely, the lake appears almost smooth, like a large field of slate. I wonder how that can be with so much activity. Thousands of concurrent raindrop wave patterns are rapidly intersecting each other.
            There had been a brief shower earlier and the sun peeked out of the gray. We took the opportunity to walk the path around the lake. Evidence of Hurricane Irene, plus the previous week of showers, was everywhere evident in stacks of sawed wood and erosion along the road’s edge.
            It began raining again—lightly at first—when we were two thirds of the way around. Luckily we got inside before we were soaked and in time to view the slate-like lake effects.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Groundhogs' Departure

My groundhogs have abandoned ship. At least they have vacated my property, presumably moving to higher ground. I can’t blame them—fully half of the days of the last two weeks their dens have been under water.
One dry day last week the mother groundhog appeared. She posed fetchingly in begging position and looked me in the eye.
I said, “There you are! Your place under the stump is still muddy. Where have you been staying?”
Perhaps for an answer, she turned and ran toward the back corner of the yard and crouched down in the tall grass. (My son has been happy to use the rain as an excuse for not mowing the lawn.) There had been a back door—a hole she had dug from under the stump—there. But we had blocked it quite a while ago with a large rock. I felt a pang of guilt. Poor creature, like many of the humans in nearby Wayne, she had been flooded out of her home.
“I’m so sorry,” I began.
But she dashed away under the fence to our back neighbor’s yard.
One of her offspring lived under our sunroom. One day after Irene had left everything soggy, I walked out the back door, surprising the kid, who was only two feet away at the entrance of the vegetable garden. The little guy ran around the corner of the house. I followed and saw the flash of a tail as it disappeared into a hole. Deciding I’d trap him and somehow relocate him, I blocked the hole with a rock.
Half an hour later I walked out to hang my wash—and there he was again! Once again he ran around the house. Once again I followed, to see him dash into a different hole. I took a good look then—and found two more holes to his den. Very enterprising youngster! After giving him several hours to leave home, I blocked all his exits and entrances.
I haven’t seen mother or son, nor evidence of their presence since then. While I do feel badly for them, I am grateful. The few vegetables mother and offspring left us in the garden now have a chance to ripen. However, our neighbors have recently found a groundhog hole. I believe they are not so grateful.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Good Grief-Irene!

Mother Nature in the avatar of Hurricane Irene dumped more water on New Jersey than I’ve seen in one storm. The southeast corner of my garden is now a small lake. It covers the upended stump of the black walnut tree which toppled in Montclair’s ‘microburst’ about five years ago.  I believe the groundhog made its home under that stump. With the area now more appropriate for a beaver, I hope the groundhog vacated in time. I would not mind at all if it never returns. Neither would my neighbor. She had been extremely displeased by ‘our groundhog’s’ dining on her extensive vegetable garden.
            I’m grateful that our electricity did not go out. The sump pump was—and still is—working overtime. Nevertheless, we had to bail water out of the basement’s utility area.
On Tuesday we came to check things out at the lake—only had to take one detour, courtesy of flooding. Again I am grateful. Our power had only been off a few hours. The only damage was some serious erosion in the parking area.
We walked around the lake, saw a power line down in the road. Out here, where everyone has a well, no power means no water—and in some cases—not even the ability to flush. We passed a teen telling her friend that she took a shower at another friend’s home. Also passed a man and wife who were loading large, dripping wet bags of food stuff in their trunk.
“They don’t know when it will be fixed,” he said in disgust.
            We were surprised to find our small garden intact. There is plenty of lettuce, a yellow squash filling out, and a few cherry tomatoes. I thought they’d have blown away. There was even an Italian tomato that both my husband and I judged would be ripe for picking in two days.
Then it disappeared!
My husband accused a chipmunk he saw in the garden.
“How could a chipmunk carry off a plum tomato? It was as big as he,” I said.
We searched and found the tomato—with a few bites out of it—in a crevice between two rocks. Obviously somecritter thought it already ripe.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rain and other woes

           It rained for an entire week. Well, to be accurate, it wasn’t the continuous Noah-time-to-enter-the-arc type of rain. But a week ago Saturday afternoon we had a rattle-the-windows thunder storm and there’s been at least one like it each of the next six days. Twice I hung out my wash, enticed by a burst of sunshine, only to run out and snatch damp clothes off the line during a sudden downpour.
            And forget the garden! The tomatoes refuse to turn red. They are holding out for full sun. Borers have found my zucchini plant. Though it is still trumpeting male flowers, its fruiting days are over. We don’t even have lettuce to pick. The young groundhog took care of that—as well as the broccoli, cabbage and kale plants. He even ate the last promising zucchini.
            I knew a groundhog lived at the far end of our yard. Assumed—I can’t say why—it was a male. But one day I opened our back door and my eye caught a rustle of leaves in the vegetable garden. A small groundhog wiggled through a hole he must have gnawed in my plastic fencing. Young groundhog—the large resident is probably his mom. Now I have double trouble.
            My neighbor has begun to complain, “The groundhog that lives in your backyard is eating my vegetables.” She has volunteered to trap it. I haven’t told her that it is a THEM. I said, “You can put a trap back there, but do not kill the groundhog. Just take it far away.” I think either option is illegal. Seems the stealing of our produce should also be against the law, but our groundhogs make their living by stealing what others raise. Between those critters and the squirrels it’s been a poor year for harvesting. How did our fore bearers ever live off the land?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Water Lilies

The water lilies are in bloom again.  I’ve always loved them though I rarely had opportunity to see them. When we lived in Lower Manhattan and visited the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens I always dawdled around the lily ponds—tried to absorb their form and beauty. Now I’m happy to see them in the lake, though I have to paddle the kayak to the shallow, south end to find them. As a child, I had learned that the flower of my birth month – July – is a water lily so I guess I’ve always felt they should be a special flower for me.  But since the local water lilies seem to bloom in August, not July, either our locale or the deciders of things significant to young girls and lovers, such as birthstones and flowers, are a bit off.  
            I often wish it were more convenient to paint the water lilies, as Monet did from a bridge. Though I’m not sure he thought it convenient, going from one canvas to another as the sun moved. But the area where they thrive in great floating clusters is marshy. No way can I approach them on foot.  I toy with the idea of sitting in a canoe and painting. There’s hardly a current at this end of the lake, still there is drift and an anchor would probably get tangled in the lily stems. Last thing I want to do is capture water lilies in that way.  I try to slow the kayak to an almost standstill to photograph them. Even that is difficult. I hope the photos turn out. I’ll have to paint from them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fog and Little Duck Feet

We awaken Friday morning to find that the landscape has disappeared. Thick fog obscures not only the opposite mountain, but the entire lake. Nothing can be seen beyond the rail of the deck. But the railing itself is amazing. Beautifully formed spider webs appeared between many of the rungs—courtesy of the tiny droplets of water that coat everything. Certainly the webs were not all woven overnight. Only now, all gleam out their presence.
            I see other changes once the fog burns off. I can count on less then ten fingers the remaining dragonflies. But the butterfly bushes have flowered and yellow and black swallowtails and monarchs frequent them. And the ducks have claimed the lake. Ten female mallards travel together. A single mom glides by with a duckling at her side, reminding me of a motorcycle and side car.  Six larger ducklings paddle in a row. Toward evening two male mallards show up—boys’ night out I guess.

            Best of all, the Jewel Weed wildflowers have begun to bloom. They’ve called back the hummingbirds. At first I think I see a huge insect darting by. It changes direction rapidly—like  a UFO, or so I’ve heard. Suddenly it hovers, feeding from the slipper-like blossom. Before I can grab my camera, it’s off again. One day I’ll be prepared and get a picture.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Squirrel Farmers

            The nearest oak tree is 50 yards away, in the park where my block dead ends. So why did I find and pull nine infant oaks from by Montclair back lawn? Actually, I know the answer—it’s the squirrels. Leave it up to them and they’d create another oak forest here. Apparently it is not enough for them to accept the hospitality of my pussy willow—from which they clip the blossoms, nor the pear tree—that’s another story.
            The pear tree is a real bone of contention for me this year. Last year a squirrel helped himself to one as yet not ripe pear each day. He took a bite, laughed at us from the treetop, and threw the rest of the pear to the ground. I hated the waste and, though I didn't appreciate his mocking attitude, I didn’t mind too much—there were plenty of pears. The tree was so prolific that we still had pears to eat, give away and make jam. This year, he must have brought his family because they have denuded our tree. I see only three still-unripe pears left on slender, low-hanging branches. Kind of them to leave some for us.
            I know they have their eyes on my sunflowers too. Two years ago I was able to save the seeds to feed the Cardinals in the winter. Last year the seeds disappeared before I could harvest. Can’t blame only squirrels for that. I bet the birds had a beak in it too.
            A few years ago squirrels attempted to chew their way into our attic. Luckily we heard their gnawing in time to call the Squirrel Hunter to chase them away and block up their tunnels.
            I’m onto their plot. We’ve provided them a safe haven with fruit. Now they are planting nut trees—well, acorns, anyway.  They intend to take over my yard and probably my house. But they will find that we will not easily give them up. And they will have to learn to share with the groundhog, raccoons and birds.     

Friday, July 29, 2011

Changes -+Ten Geese a Honking

The lake changes dramatically from day to day—sometimes from moment to moment. On Tuesday there were real waves—stirred up, as usual, by a wind from the southwest. Then came a driving rain and thunderstorm. The next morning, though high clouds still travelled from west to east, the water’s surface moved in tiny rivulets originating in the northeast.
            And the lake population has changed. Now there are many fewer dragon and damselflies. I had read that the flying stage of their lives was short—as little as two months and weather dependent. And of course, birds have probably feasted on them while fish enjoy their larvae stage. 
I watch one large dragonfly ride the wind. His double set of wings is a blur as he flies 12 feet upwind. Then, like the tiny helicopter he resembles (rather, they resemble him) he changes direction, rising suddenly and flying back less frantically on the wind. He repeats the upwind trek and downwind float many times over the next 15 minutes. I imagine he is enjoying it. Am I projecting my own feeling onto him? You bet! If I had lived in the water, dodging the mouths of hungry fish for about four years to finally earn my wings I would soar on the wind every chance I got!
This morning we were awakened by a gaggle of geese—ten of them—on our neighbor’s lawn. I suspect they were just stopping by. I haven’t seen geese here since I made friends with one some days ago. Then nine female Mallard Ducks caucused in the lake. I’m expecting to see eight maids a milking or at least seven swans a swimming.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Model Goose

                I want to learn to paint water. I’ve painted trees and flowers but they are very static except perhaps when there’s a gust of wind. But the lake is a very different story. Sometimes it is perfectly still, mirroring the mountain, trees, docks and shrubs. Then suddenly there’ll be ripples that break into waves. I can see light crosshatch the lake surface—but how do I paint the reflections under the waves with light playing over them?
                I decide to start small—some weeds at the edge of the lake.  The sun plays peek-a-boo behind a large cloud making it all the more challenging. Since I’m using watercolors, I have to paint from light to dark. I cover the lake surface with a wash of silver then start on the lightest green—defining the weeds. I’m hoping a dragonfly will land on them—they often do—but not today.
                I’m busy concentrating on the leaves when I realize that I’m being watched. A Canadian Goose is sitting in the water only a foot from shore. She’s showing me her profile—giving me a one-eyed stare.
                I try to keep my movements slow—dip the brush into water then paint, carry it to the paper, gently touch the surface—expecting the goose to leave any moment. But she doesn’t.
                I don’t have any food here,” I say quietly. “But if you stay, I’ll paint you.”
                The goose shows me her other side. It’s equally attractive. I switch colors. Black neck, brown, tan, even dark red make a scalloped pattern on her back, amber at the base of her breast. The goose starts to turn away.
                “Please don’t go yet,” I call. “I haven’t quite gotten your beautiful neck.”
                She glances back at me but turns away.
                I don’t speak goose. When I was eleven, I had two white ducks for pets—just from spring to fall then my parents released them to join others in a pond.  But I learned to quack well enough to call a duck from across a lake. So now I give a couple of low quacks. My goose turns back,  takes her position and poses for me again. I finish her portrait and even her reflection.
                “Thank you,” I say.
                The goose drifts past me and waddles up on shore a few yards away.
                “Well, hello,” I say. “Sorry. I still have no food.”
                She soon returns to the water and sails out of view. I have yet to paint in the water.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Heat Wave

In the lake is the only place to be today. Anywhere else is just too hot. Floating around, looking back toward land, I find that Nature has set up a light show. As ripples roll toward the shoreline, the crest of each is reflected onto a tall tree standing where land meets water. Curving lines of light continually cascade down the trunk, making it look like an upended movie marquee. I wonder if the first person to animate the lights of Time Square got the idea from just such a natural occurrence.

That tree affords the only shade on the nearby shore so I leave the water to sit behind it and attempt—again—to paint the water. I’m getting a bit better at it, seeing three colors—pale amber, slate blue, and a deeper blue-green-gray—and the crisscross pattern of the waves. I begin to block out the weeds on the shore but I have to drop my brush and slap my ankles—repeatedly. Seems I’ve either disturbed some tiny, biting insects or arrived just in time for their lunch. They refuse to stop so I retreat to the dock. No more painting that view for me today!

I rub my ankles. They still itch from a previous attack four days prior in Montclair. I had begun to water a corner of my garden when I felt a piercing stab in my right ankle. As I jumped back there were two stabs on the left. I looked down to see a swarm of tiny yellowjacket wasps. The water must have jolted their unseen nest. I ran for the house. Armed with a can of insect spray my husband made certain they wouldn’t attack again. I truly prefer to respect all nature and hate having to kill, but in the past I’ve had allergic reactions to such attacks. Besides, they had declared themselves my enemy.

I wish insects did not find my ankles so attractive.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lake Weeds and Eggs

Dragonfly eggs on weeds

The lake is full of weeds today. I’m tempted to call it seaweed, but that’s obviously inappropriate. Lakeweed? If the honor of naming what is floating there had been mine, I would have called it mermaid’s tresses. Long, thin, feathery green and sometimes yellow streamers tangle together. I find a number of websites for lake/pond weed identification. I think what I see is called coontail. I like my name much better. Walking around the lake later I see posted signs informing that an herbicide has been applied to control the weeds—seems to have uprooted them. It says the stuff is safe for wildlife and humans. I certainly hope so.

There are fewer pieces of a broad-leafed weed also floating on the lake surface. And near the water’s edge there is something very curious. Groups of tiny yellow bubbles sit on top of the broad leaves. They look almost gelatinous. I stare at them for a while and decide they might be some kind of egg. Many tiny orange dragonflies hover over them so, when I get to the computer, I begin by looking up the life cycle of the dragonfly. Seems I guessed well. It is dragonfly mating season and the female typically lays her eggs on the water’s surface or on floating weeds. 

I almost wish I hadn’t looked up the dragonfly. The nymph stage is a very ugly bug that lives in the water for several years. I hate the thought that I’m swimming with them. Now I also recognize the ugly shells of bugs that are clinging to the sides of the dock. Amazing that the beautiful, graceful dragonfly emerges from so unattractive a case. Apparently the nymph or larva stage is a voracious consumer of mosquitoes. For this great service I suppose I can overlook its ugliness.

Dragonfly nymph in water- from

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Monarch Season

The Monarchs have returned! Well, to be more accurate, at least one monarch female has laid eggs on the milkweed plants in my backyard. I still haven’t spotted an orange and black butterfly in my yard this summer. They are very late. My friend, Trina, who is an expert on the subject and has raised hundreds of butterflies, was worried because she too, had not seen any yet. 

But now the evidence says they are back. It is surely a mixed blessing. When I innocently accepted a milkweed plant from Trina some years ago, I didn’t realize what was involved in being a butterfly farmer. The plants spread rapidly—they are, after all, weeds. And Trina told me that 98 percent of the eggs do not make it to butterflies. Eggs or caterpillars are eaten or do not survive weather conditions. So of course I felt obligated to: search for the teensy eggs, bring them into my home on a milkweed leaf, and each day toss out the frass (insects get a special word for their poop) and replenish their supply of milkweed. Then, when they are ready to go into chrysalis, I find a container for them to cling to.

Each butterfly release is a reward as is sharing them with others. People are excited to get a butterfly chrysalis of their own and watch the amazing metamorphosis. At least three teachers in the school where I used to work expect me to supply them with last stage caterpillars at the beginning of each school year. And of course, with so many people using insecticides along their pathways of migration, monarchs might well be endangered if it were not for the many people who are raising them.

So I expect tomorrow morning to find tiny holes in my milkweed leaves indicating that the newly hatched caterpillars are now at the business of eating. The caterpillars start so small that I cannot see them without a magnifying glass. But that will change all too soon because they are eating, pooping and growing machines.

The tiny dots on the leaves in the picture are monarch eggs.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Damselfly in Distress

A glint of light at the edge of the lake catches my attention. I go closer. There, floating in the shallows where grass meets water, is a silvery damselfly with iridescent wings. I think, Poor thing must be dead.
            Even while feeling a pang of sadness, I decide to retrieve it. Damselflies and dragonflies are such jewels of the insect world. I’ve always wanted to paint them but never got a long, up-close look—as if I could do justice in water colors to wings so transparent I can see the lake through their membrane.
            To my surprise the damselfly, which lies on its back, kicks its legs and waggles its wings. It’s alive!
            I dip one finger under the delicate wings and right it, conveying it to the nearest wild flower. It latches on and flutters its wings. Now I get that close-up look. Only the eyes of this fragile insect seem large—making its head appear the greater part of the pale yellow body. The yellow is accented with silver-gray stripes running down along the tail, which extends the creature’s length by a factor of four.  Even its incredibly narrow legs are striped. Remarkably, it seems to match the colors of the wild flower.
            The damselfly folds its wings and continues to hold on. I take the opportunity to return to the house and come back with my camera. After an hour it flies off. Someday I will try to paint these jewel-like insects.

Lots of great info about damselflies at

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Sharing with the Fauna

            The local fauna is definitely taking unfair advantage of us. Yes—we had our Montclair backyard certified as a wildlife habitat. I provide birds with seeds and fresh water and lots of places for them to nest and for small animals to hide. So wouldn’t it be fair if they left us a share of each fruit we’ve planted?

            I really don’t mind that the birds eat all the wild blackberries; after all, they planted them. Though those brambles have become so thick that I can’t get close enough to harvest cherries. Who am I kidding? We saw plenty of blossoms on the cheery tree this spring, then saw small, green orbs on their way to becoming fruit. That was all. Before they could turn red, they were gone.

            The nectarine tree is a total loss too. We planted that about five years ago and have given up hope of ever eating a nectarine. I can’t blame the birds for that, however. Some insect bores into the small, developing fruit, causing it to ooze nectar. Then it turns dark and falls off. I thought to head off those insects this year by purchasing traps that lure the insects. The traps seem to have worked. They are full of small dead nectarine-destroyers. But apparently I did not get enough of them because we lost all those nectarines once again.

            We share our pears unwillingly with a squirrel. He helps himself way before they are ripe—still only about a third their final size. Every day he appears in the tree top and picks a pear. I’ve yelled, “Stop thief!” But he calmly takes a bite and drops the rest to the ground.  Last year he seemed to have entered into a contract with the groundhog who dared the closeness of our back door every morning to finish off the partially eaten pear. So far this year the groundhog is ignoring pears. Maybe he, like us, wants them riper. I hope he’ll soon help himself to the squirrel’s leavings. I hate the waste.

            I’m thankful that at least there’s an abundance of raspberries. The birds leave just enough for our breakfast. They must be too stuffed on cherries, seeds and blackberries.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Relenting Robin

            Something was different one morning when I entered my back yard. The dew wet my bare feet as usual. My large black cat predictably lounged in his favorite place under the hemlock bush. The garden gate was as I’d left it – closed.
            Then a bird whistled, “We greet you. We greet you. We greet you.”
            That was it! There was no scolding yell of the robin—bird song had returned.
            That robin had been the tyrant of the trees throughout May and into mid-June. But this morning I didn’t hear or see him. I looked again at my large cat. “I hope you didn’t have anything to do with this,” I said.
            “What happened to the robin?” asked my husband when he came in with his harvest of salad greens for dinner. “He’s not screaming or chasing today.”
            Now I was concerned. Yes, the robin was annoying—had practically made our backyard unusable. But I hadn’t wished him harm.
            I told my friend Steve about the robin who had seemed to claim our backyard as his own private preserve—and that he had suddenly stopped. Steve is a lifelong camper who knows much from observations of nature.
            “Ever see a baby robin?” he asked.
            “No. But I’m sure they have them.”
            “Your robin was protecting his young. They must have left the nest,” he said.
            Seems Steve was right. What really convinced me was the starling that took over the front yard shortly after the robin’s reign of terror ended. I located its nest in the weeping cherry tree in front of the house. Whenever we crossed the lawn to the car it scolded loudly. And it chased after my little orange cat yelling, “Cat, cat, cat,” so that she always scurried back into the house. Thank goodness that lasted for only a week.

            The cardinals have reappeared—two pairs of them—as have a couple of tufted titmouses (titmice?) The mourning doves and sparrows still visit. They were never intimidated. We even see an occasional gold finch flit through the cone flowers. And I do see a pair of robins browsing through the grass each afternoon. Life’s so much more peaceful now that we have an empty nest.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pernicious Weeds

A friend defines a weed as anything growing where you don’t want it. By that definition I have a bumper crop of weeds this year.

Following the Square Foot Gardening plan I attempted to plant a four by 5 foot section of my garden in mid April, when we had a warm week. I carefully planted carrot seeds, four by four in one square, placed beets in a three by three array, and Swiss chard seeds were only four to a foot. Then the rains came—and they were heavy. Now that seeds have sprouted—only some of them, I watched birds feasting and many never made it—I have a beet growing among the Swiss chard, a head of lettuce trying to share a square with a Roma tomato plant, and carrots attempting to flourish outside the raised garden plot.

I refuse to consider these plants in the wrong place as weeds. They are, after all, still edible. Live and let live, I say. However, it’s also a good year for real weeds. Most annoying is the succulent weed that has come back every year. Years ago a woman who is a master gardener visited. Looking at those weeds she said, “Just throw out that soil and start new.”

I should have asked her, “How do you throw out soil?” but didn’t. I mean, where do you put dirt that is—well, dirty? So I just attempted to pull out each and every one of those weeds. Obviously I didn’t do a good job because today, I was pulling more of them out.

Maybe the problem is with my compost. I have put weeds that don’t appear to be going to seed in my compost. I know compost must heat up to destroy unwanted seeds. And I’m fairly certain mine does not heat enough. That happens best with coffee grounds and grass clippings. But we have a mulching lawn mower and don’t drink coffee so there’s a dearth of those warming elements. I knew one man who stopped at Starbucks each night to pick up their coffee grounds for his compost. He even had thermometers in the bins to measure the heat. His compost was really cooking!

In the parable where the weeds are collected and burned and then the wheat is collected— Matt. 13:24-30— an enemy sows weeds in the master’s field. Whenever I hear that story I laugh. I need no enemy to sow weeds in my garden. Or perhaps, if my compost has weed seeds, I am my own worst enemy.

I recently reviewed composting instructions on the Internet. They said don’t add “pernicious weeds” to compost. Well, I never put poison ivy or nightshade into the compost. But perhaps I should call that reappearing succulent pernicious. “Pernicious weeds” makes me think of Willy Wonker’s “vermicious knids.” I pull weeds and dream of Willy Wonker taking me to “live in peace and safety” away from the pernicious weeds. I wouldn’t mind all the chocolate either.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Encounter with a duck

Duncan (on left) and friend
Duncan paddles softly up to shore, climbs out onto a flat rock. He approaches us cautiously walking pigeon-toed, body swaying slowly side to side.
            “It’s okay, Duncan,” I say. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
            The Mallard duck cocks his head sideways, holding my gaze with one eye. I’m fascinated by his iridescent head—dazzling with royal blue and emerald as the sun plays over it. I suspect that Duncan is looking for a handout. He certainly has reason to expect one. I gave him a cracker the evening before when he waddled through our campsite, closely examining the ground of our cooking area.
            We were on Little Harbor Island in Lake George where my husband and I joined some old friends from my college camping club for a reunion.
            “He’s the same duck that was here last year,” says Sam.
            It’s obvious to me how he knows. I had recognized the duck from the previous day because he’s missing a part of his right foot. Some of the webbing was cut off at an angle. I decided that such a personable duck deserved a name.
            “I’m calling him Duncan,” I say. “He keeps going back to the lake for a dunk.”
            To my surprise, nobody groans. So Duncan Duck he is—for at least as long as we are on the island.
            I think Duncan must be a loaner. He’s come solo to our campsite several times each day.           But Laureen said, “Why not. He’s done his duty for the year.”
            She’s right. I saw a mother Mallard leading six tiny balls of fluff into the lake at Bolton Landing the day we arrived. She kept them all in line with gentle quackings. No Mallard dad was in sight.
            Steve, who prepared dinner last night, had deliberately left vegetable scraps on the ground for Duncan. So I left some apple peels this morning. I offer a tiny piece to Duncan. He takes it from my hand but lets it drop.
            “No apples for you Duncan?” I ask.
            “He doesn’t have teeth, you know,” says Sam.
            “Okay. How about a crasin?” I drop a dried cranberry at the duck’s feet. He gobbles it up and looks at me. I toss a few more. He eats one after another.
            “I wonder what the park policy is about feeding wildlife,” says Sam.
            I hadn’t thought of that. But I can’t be the first person to feed this duck. He’s too people-friendly. But anyway, Duncan’s had enough. He ignores my last crasian, waddles down the sloping rock into the water, and paddles off.
            I knew we’d see him again.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Walking by the Lake

            The surface of the lake was perfectly still as I approached from the dirt path. Quite close to the water grew a cluster of tall, yellow flowers, appearing, with their added reflection, twice as abundant. They looked like daffodils but it was June 4th—too late for that flower to bloom.        
            As I went closer, curious to see what they were, one flower toppled completely over from the bottom of its stem. Startled, I looked for an explanation. There was no wind. None of the other flowers had moved. Then the iris—for that’s what it was—took sail on the lake. A brown nose of the culprit who had felled the blossom broke the surface of the water. Nose and flower swam quickly eastward. I followed along the shore, trying to keep up; curious now to know—was it a beaver? –a muskrat? What did it intend to do with that yellow iris?
            The creature’s body was shorter than the stem it carried, too short, I thought, to be a beaver. Perhaps it was still young? I needed a glimpse of its tail to know for sure. I stepped closer to the water’s edge. “What are your plans for that flower?” I asked it. “Will you eat it? Or weave it into your home?”  
With a splash, the brown nose disappeared, dragging the stem below the surface.
            A clump of trees blocked my way, just where I guessed the animal was heading. It was the place where the lake ended—where a trickle of water crossed under the path into the woods. I hurried around the trees and back to the water’s edge. No brown nose, no stem appeared. I waited a while but then, with a sigh, continued my walk, disappointed that I could not discover the creature’s species, or its purpose in harvesting the flower.