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The Full Nest

Sunday, May 29, 2016

I shared some sweet discoveries in my last post. Really it's been all I can do to post once a week, because so much is going on in my real life. There is also this:

Hibiscus Girls Gone Wild!

Note that The Path, cut back drastically in January, is roaring back full-size. And her understudy in the foreground is breathing down her neck. Creole Lady (left) is beside herself to be outdoors at last. I'm praying the periodical cicadas don't attack them. Ugh. It would be bad to have to bring them in the house when they just got outside. It's too hot in the greenhouse for them now.

Corey came in with a Waved Sphinx and a Virginia Creeper Sphinx one evening. We put them in the fridge to calm them down, and kinda forgot they were there until the next morning. Happily, they were fine, just sluggish at first.

 I love that my girl likes to handle insects, even big ones with grippy feets.

 The subtle beauty of a Virginia creeper sphinx.

And the great big Waved Sphinx.

Corey, who brought Phoebe home from back East after college finally let out, playing "Say Old Man Can I Have Your Daughter" with Bill (off camera).

The Bacon says YES. He loves, loves, loves being in the middle of the music. I believe he could hear a bit of the fiddle, because his smile wouldn't quit. He was also positioning himself so the near end of Corey's bow might touch him, which is a very Boston thing to do. When I used to do floor exercises with weights, Chet would position himself so my hand would touch him, usually on the inside of his thigh, his favorite place. He was like the highschool date with the popcorn box.

This team of expert dog groomers gave that funny, smelly little doggeh a baff. 

Then the Chief Groomer brushed his teef. She used two kinds of toofpaste: Liver and Vanilla. I much prefer Vanilla bref.

She kinda likes that dog.

 The Bacon and I are getting out running again, and oh my does it feel good. So missed and so badly needed. We did 4.2 miles this morning. Ahhh. Here, he's opening his peemail.

The field daisies are going wild. All that stuff that looks like snow? Field daisies. I could die happy on this spot. Yeah, I know. Alien import from Europe, emphatically here to stay. Welcome, cheery white and gold flowers. I've never known life without you. 

Double standard? Sure, sort of. I pull every garlic mustard plant I see because it invades native wildflower habitat and smothers diversity. Hayfield takeovers I'm not so worried about, because they constitute alien flowers duking it out with alien grasses. Couldn't pull them even if I wanted to. And I want just to enjoy them. So I do.

A mysterious glow in the dark green moth, just eclosed and still pumping fluid into its tissue-limp wings. Morning is the time to see such a thing.

 If only I could show you the prairie warbler, preening in the emergent persimmon to the left, pausing to sing his ascending alphabet, filling his little bottle with spring wine.

If only you could hear the two yellow-breasted chats, grunting, chakking, ringing and cussing on either side of the rutty path.

If only you could sniff the grapey bouquet of the feral iris, escaped from Scotts Ridge Cemetery and growing like they mean to stay on a wicked steep slope below. Don't miss the ones farther on down. The ditch is full of them.

I wish you could see the three kids, the boys in food-themed American Eagle boxers, which women like Phoebs and me love to give to them at Christmastime. Liam's wearing eggy fried rice, and Corey's got pepperoni pizza on his.

There is something rare and special about being able to run in your food-themed boxers on your road, knowing nobody will see you for the hour or so you're out there. May it ever be so!

And at bedtime, the dog gets an audience with his two chirren, who love him so very much.

We always say that Boston terriers are happiest when they look the  most miserable. 

Liam has something he wants to say before I close the door. Sticks his head in, like somebody's thumb. That kid makes me laugh, every hour of every day.

These are the sweetest days. I hold my babies close before they fly away.

This post is for Ida, who would have turned 96 on May 28. 

Now she's 2, 96, 18, 24, 41; whatever age she wishes to be. But I know she's with us. 

Surprises, Bizarre and Beautiful

Friday, May 27, 2016

Such an odd spring it's been, so cold and rainy and occasionally frosty that I lost my whole first planting of precious seed-grown tomatoes and peppers ten days after our usual safe date. Back to the drawing board. Peppers and tomatoes are going to be late this year. Really late. Like October.

I had to leave everything in the greenhouse, closing and heating it every night, until May 25. Imagine! Usually by May 1, it's so darn hot in there I'll lose it all if I don't move it outside. Not this year. 

My poor geraniums have gotten so enormous and overgrown that I had to lop enormous hunks off just to be able to handle them; they've grown wildly all winter and most of spring, leaning up against the greenhouse walls, and when I pulled them out their overgrown limbs just flopped down like pretty octopi. I steeled myself and chopped them to a more manageable size. 

In a gigantic day-long repot-athon, I knocked plants out of small pots and kicked them up to larger ones; made group planters for shade and sun. And when I was sort of done, I stood back and said, "Good Lord. I have way too many plants." I don't know what I was thinking. If I liked something this winter, I propagated it. And I did give a lot of plants away. But I have SO many left. I've got 8" tall Achimenes "Pink Nighty" coming out of my dang ears. But they're such fun to grow! As I hope many readers are now discovering.

While I was repotting some fuchsias, I pulled a plant out and found a cylindrical tunnel running through the soil ball along the side of the pot. And in that tunnel was a series of neat cigars of what looked like rose leaves, rolled up into segments, and arranged end to end.

Here are three of the segments. Each one was capped with a little round section of leaf. They were quite amazing, and still so moist and fresh, as if they'd been made just today.

End view of a capsule. By this time I'd called my go-to bug man Corey, who's visiting here this week. We dove in like a couple of Science Chimps into  a termite mound, pulling the capsules apart, dismantling one, figuring this conundrum out.

 Of course I had to open one up. It was full of an alarmingly bright orange goo, and sort of swimming atop the goo was a tiny white flattish larva, no larger than this G. I was so intrigued that I had to taste the goo. From the color, I figured pollen was involved, and from the goopy texture, I figured there was nectar, too. Sure enough, it was sweet, with a bitter tang that might come from the pollen. So this had to be the provisions for the little larva for quite some time. The durn thing was floating in golden food. It would be like swimming in yogurt, or Brunswick stew, and just taking a sip whenever you felt peckish.

Corey speculated that it might be the work of a wasp, because wasps are good at carrying stuff; I had a feeling it was a bee, perhaps like the potter bees that invade my greenhouse and have twice filled every gas jet in my space heater with CLAY rendering them UNUSABLE.  No more of those please! Wasp or bee, it was dang cool, this series of little nectar and pollen-stuffed grub cigars hidden way down the side of a fuchsia pot. I hated to disassemble this careful creation, and never meant to. So after opening one to figure out the story, I carefully placed them along the side of one of my hanging baskets, hoping they'd be OK and hatch out.

 It didn't take long for Corey to come back with the answer: I'd found the work of a female leaf-cutter bee, genus Megachile. These harmless little bees look like a blackish honeybee with a yellow underside. In fact, they gather pollen and deposit it on their extra-furry bellies, which is pretty charming.

I couldn't do better than Beatriz Moisset's lovely writeup on the U.S. Forest Service's website.

"The mother megachile bee brings pollen to the nest and some nectar in her crop. She kneads the mixture into a bee loaf, adding some of her saliva, which may contain antibacterial and fungicidal substances. It takes many loads to build up a bee loaf large enough to feed one grub from egg to mature size. She diligently visits numerous flowers on her quest to gather the necessary pollen and nectar. When there is enough food, she lays an egg on top. Then she seals that small chamber with chewed up leaves. If you notice nearly perfect round holes in the leaves of your rose bushes, do not begrudge them that little material that they need to raise their families. She repeats this process of making bee loaves, laying eggs and building partitions until the entire nest hole is full. Then, she builds a final, thicker wall. Shortly afterwards she dies."
I remembered then that this is the creature that Floridacracker has been building little condos for, out of bamboo tubes. How sweet to build an apartment house for a pollinator like that. (He was going for orchard mason bees). I was also extremely stoked that I had tasted beeloaf, being a bit of a meatloaf artist myself. I resolved to make my next meatloaf in the shape of a megachile bee. I totally concur on the possible antibacterial and antifungal properties of megachile bee spit. Those rose leaves looked fresh as daisies.
Here's what rose leaves look like after that bee's had at 'em. They don't eat the leaves; they just use them for packaging. Pretty darn cool. I was also pleased I had recognized rose leaves, even in half-moons and circles. I wondered what it is about rose leaves that work for leafcutter bees. Maybe they retain water well. They looked like multiflora rose leaves to me, glaucous, as opposed to shiny and leathery like my tea rose leaves.

And here's one reason I love Facebook. A comment left by Erin Gettler, naturalist, writer, photographer and artist of The Familiar Wilderness and Birdseed Blog, Science Chimp Extraordinaire: 

Bet you 10-1 rose leaves are preferred b/c of antibacterial/antifungal properties. Take a whiff--those aromatics aren't just for smelling pretty... just did a Google search, and yep. Medicinal properties of rose leaves confirmed to be antimicrobial!

There were more surprises to be found in the Great Groanhouse Purge.  You might remember a gesneriad called Smithiantha. My garden friend Nancy gave me a very small rhizome from hers in August 2015. I planted it that winter, and a pretty little velvet-leaved plant came up. 

Then it did this:

January 9, 2016:

It was no taller than 8". It was sweet, and gave a needed dash of color to the proceedings. I wouldn't call it an impressive display, but then it grew from a tiny rhizome, maybe an inch long. When the blossoms fell off, I cut off the bloom stem, expecting the plant to send up more shoots or multiply or something, but it just sulked no matter what I did. All the side shoots dried up and it just sat there looking mopey. Finally, in the greenhouse purge of May 24, I decided it must have gone dormant, and I pulled it out of its pot to see what it had been up to all that time.
OMGGG. It was like finding something quite unexpected in your baby's dipe. Good LORD. What have you grown down there??

The rhizome of rhizomes, Madam. I gift you my giant rhizome, to bring you a little color next January. Why thank you, Mr. Smith!! I put the 4 1/2" monster in a Ziploc bag in my studio. I'll plant it come November, when I need a dash of color to look forward to. But I'm going to use a bigger pot this time! As you may have guessed Smithiantha is related to Achimenes, whose rhizomes have gone out far and wide from my studio mailroom. I love a plant with a dormant phase, and a surprise in its dipe. 

These are just a few of the wonderful things I have to share.  

Big Sean the Brush-Wolf

Saturday, May 21, 2016

I was headed for the car, which was loaded up with packages, a bit before noon on May 16. My destination: the Lower Salem post office. I was already pushing it for time, but I knew I could make it before the place shut down at noon sharp. I raked the meadow with my eyes, the way I always do, and picked up a distant anomaly.

First look.  Oh, that's something good out there in the meadow. That's a canid.

Grabbed my car binoculars to confirm. Coy-wolf, brush wolf, eastern coyote, hybrid canid. Take your pick. Big male. Catching and eating small things. Jackpot!

I happened to have my Canon 7D with me because going anywhere in May without it is just stupid.
There is so much to see and photograph in May. Every time the animal dropped his head, I ran closer.
Looking at these shots, I'm pretty confident he was picking off freshly-emerged periodical cicadas as they clung to the grass blades. Brood V is coming out of the ground in Ohio after its 17-year sleep!! if the rain and cold ever subside. The first few have started coming out. Bracing myself. It's gonna be huge.

 And thus I kicked off my personal Brood V Project: to photograph as many creatures as possible, exploiting the abundant food these cicadas provide. So far, coy-wolf is the first, and a new one for me. Cardinal: #2.  The way my biology professor friend Dave McShaffrey puts it, "This is like Halley's Comet coming around for astronomers. Brood V is an entomologist's Halley's Comet." Exactly. I don't pretend to be an entomologist, but I had a blast documenting species eating cicadas in the summer of 1999, when I didn't even have a proper camera. This time: look out.

Finally I got close enough to the preoccupied coy-wolf to get his attention. I'm sure he smelled me before he saw me. He suddenly picked his head up. Imagine being able to smell a reasonably fresh human down the length of a football field.

He raised his head higher when he saw me.

There was that moment when he said, "Oh, crap. Now what?"

 He looked away in annoyance and confusion. How could I have let that woman creep up so close to me? What an idiot I am. Having so much fun eating these delicious big bugs I completely overlooked the fact that there's a house up there. And primates pop out of it during the daytime. Duh, Wile E.

Gonna mosey on.

I marveled at the heft and beauty of this animal. There is coyote in him, yes, but there's a lot of something else, too, something big, dark, strong. Eastern wolf, Canis rufus. We didn't quite manage to exterminate them. Left just enough of them in a Canadian refuge to mingle their genes with those of western coyotes and produce something larger, stronger, brainier and more adaptable than any canid we've ever seen. Evolution, afoot.

Evolution happens, right before our eyes. It's always and still happening, whether we acknowledge the process or not.  No Deus ex machina required.

The pattern of his coat, the fine white bib and the red flammulation. The fine stippling of his dark fur, tan, red and black; the thick ruff and long legs. The shorter, deeper muzzle; the robust dentition; the bigger feet. This creature is genetically set to take down much larger prey than cicadas. Groundhogs. Deer. Feral cats, to name a few. Welcome, coy-wolf! Eat hearty! We are serving all your favorites today. 

I was grateful to be so close, thankful to have caught him on my camera. What a gift. How do I know he's a guy? Too big and bulky to be a gal. I can't really see his bits in any of my photos, but there's enough to suggest his sex in his build. Though a radiotagged female coy-wolf in Massachusetts tipped the scales at 60 pounds, twice the bulk of a western coyote.

 "Coyote" just doesn't fit. I like "brush wolf." Might start using that.  And "Coy-wolf" is a lingual stumble. It has no music to it.

He glared at me. Thanks for wrecking my hunting, woman.

His ears, set backward in disappointment.

With a last stink-eye at me, he simply melted into the unmown half of the meadow.

I saw him enter it, but never saw him exit. There's an open path on the far side of the tall vegetation he's going into that he'd have to cross to gain the woods. I never saw him cross it, and repeated scans of the unmown half with my binoculars showed he'd simply disappeared. What he actually did, I'm almost sure, was come toward me until he was behind a small rise, then dart behind that into the woods. 

I love the gotohell look on his face. He's not afraid of me. He just knows he has to curtail his current, enjoyable activity (eating tender, freshly emerged cicadas) and beat it out of here. Because that's how the world works. He's the king of his little pack; his basso profundo howl makes shivers run up and down my spine, but he's outta here, because the two-legged pale creature cannot be trusted. Might be packing heat.

Because my kids have polluted my steady musical diet of Americana with the songs that most move them, I've named this magnificent animal Big Sean. There are times when his hit song is the only thing I want to hear. Had it up to here with it all, OK with explicit rap? Enjoy. Heck of a bit of filmmaking and acting--Big Sean manages to convey hurt and a sweet vulnerability despite his profane braggadocio. I can hear my kids and their friends (I'm lookin' at you, Thunder Squad) laughing at my pin-headed critique, reading my stiff appraisal aloud even as I write.

Easily offended? I pray of you, don't click. And if you do, and get all huffy, scolding me is not your best choice. Like coy-wolves, like evolution, explicit material is going down all around us.

I never made it to the post office. That's OK. I had an audience with Big Sean, whom I adore.

 Who hates me. 

 I'm OK with that, too.  

Burning Mustard, Burning Time

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The last blogpost was supposed to be about pulling garlic mustard, and the one before it was supposed to be about spring in West Virginia. Not sure what’s coming out now, but I think I’m done writing about my teeth. “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what it set out to teach.” Not sure who said it --was it the Dalai Lama or Rumi, Ralph Waldo Emerson or Paula Deen?—but it’s a good ‘un. Clop, clop, clop. I’m learning, slowly.

 Duck Creek Road. One of my happy places. I love the way it curves on into infinity. It draws me onward.

So I’m coming back on a two hour drive from a dental procedure that shall remain unnamed and I turn up Duck Creek Road just to quickly stop in and check a couple of bluebird boxes I put up on Washington Co. Fish and Game Club’s property. I put them up last year, two brand new boxes with pole-mounted predator baffles, because I could no longer stand to watch the club’s old boxes rot and fall off the trees they were nailed to, bluebirds and tree swallows struggling, making nests in wet, rotten, roofless houses, soaked by rain. How could you stand by and watch that? And in the first of my new ones were four baby bluebirds—good!!in the most enormous nest I've ever recorded.

Four-day-old eastern bluebirds

 and in the second were five baby house sparrows—bad!! but what could I do? Nothing. Not throwing these gold-lipped jewels into the weeds; it’s too late to fix this now. 

I remember painting my house sparrows for Baby Birds. I’d kept dragging their nests out of the clothesline pole box until I got lazy and a clutch hatched before I could get to it. Phoebe asked, “Why don’t you paint the babies?” It was a lightbulb moment, the child leading the parent in insight and wisdom, and it wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last that my kids have shown me the way. 

While I take no pride in having allowed, by my travel-induced inattention, this nefarious pest to nest in a second one of my boxes, the artist in me is delighted to see young house sparrows again, such strange, flat-eyed, vividly colored three-day-old babes, lying in their many-textured fluffy grass nest. It’s lined with rock pigeon and Canada goose feathers. When they’re done with it, I’ll take it home and identify all the feathers inside; it’ll be like Christmas for a Science Chimp. And I’ll figure out how to trap the adults should they start a second brood. Such is the irony and pang of managing bluebird boxes.

While I was at the Fish and Game Club I checked the clubhouse and stage structures for any phoebe nests, and found a couple of robin nests, one of which looked long and strange. To my friend and club caretaker Sid’s quiet amusement, I climbed up on the banister, clinging to the rafters, and documented my first American robin duplex! Must not have liked the first one, because she stopped before she mudded it and built an addition. I wonder if the babes will spread out into the anteroom when they get big, feathered, 13 days old? Bet they will! Eggs in the main house were warm from Mama’s brood patch. Nothing like that blue, that blue.

Though I was in a hurry, I could not fail to notice the most incredible swathes of appendaged waterleaf (Hydrophyllum appendiculatum) I had ever, ever seen. Waterleaf must love rain, because this was just off the hook fabulous. It went on and on, deep into the woods, and in a panorama of shivery lilac, all along the road, completely covering the hepatica and Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn and trillium that had held sway only a couple of weeks earlier, which is done and gone anyway.

Ephemerals. No better name for these native spring wildflowers. I got out of the car and shot some waterleaf photos to share, because unless you happen upon this fabulous borage in bloom, you don’t know what it can do.

And while admiring the nativity, the real nativeness going on, I happened upon a medium-sized patch of garlic mustard, possibly the plant I loathe and fear the most of all invasive exotics. I saw red. I started to grind my teeth, and stopped. I looked at my just-washed Keens, shrugged, leapt the muddy ditch and lunged up the steep slope. Braced myself and started pulling, mindful of the poison ivy that always grows amidst garlic mustard on the shaded roadsides where it first takes hold. Got a big patch on my elbow despite being careful. I threw the plants down in the road, finished the job, then leapt back down. Looking at the siliques laddering up the stems, I could see they were nearly mature, and about to spread thousands of seeds into this heretofore pristine wildflower Valhalla. I couldn’t leave them in the road, where car tires would spread them even farther. I looked at my never-mudded new Subaru, sighed, and loaded the muddy plants into the back.

Now what? Head for home. Try to find time to burn the damn things. I drove, scanning the roadside. Another patch, this one three times the size! I growled and repeated the routine, adding to the batch in the back. The car stank of garlic. Now what? I had too much to burn. Take it home and bag it up? Lay it out in the sun to dry and burn it when I got home from Utah? I’d doubtless wind up introducing it to our forest in the process. What a mess.

I kept driving. And started praying that Randy would be out and about in his yard. He’d helped me last year when he saw me pulling and throwing. Though he’d never heard of garlic mustard, he understood what was needed immediately, and offered to load the plants in his truck, take them home and burn them for me. I rounded the curve and there he was, like a burly angel from heaven, only smoking a large blunt cigar. YAAAAY!!

“Remember last year when you burned some garlic mustard plants for me? Well, I’m baaack.” He smiled and pointed to his fire circle. “Load ‘em in there and I’ll burn ‘em for you.” I was only too happy to get the reeking pile out of my car. Randy looked at it and started for the shed. “Why don’t we  just build a fire and burn that right now?” He fetched a bag of refuse and lit it. It was going slowly.  I thanked him for taking the time to help. “I was going to burn anyway. I’m always burning.”
How kind of him.

“Right about now, my dad would go for the propellent,” I mused. “I was just thinking the same thing,” he said, and headed back to the shed, coming back with a jug of kerosene.

 I observed that it was a rare man who’d throw kero on a fire while smoking a large cigar. “Kerosene isn’t as much of a hazard as gasoline. It needs contact with an open flame.” Exactly what my dad would have said, I thought, a filmstrip playing in my head of the time my father, having lost some of his once excellent judgement to a brain aneurysm in 1989, spilled gasoline down his pants, then threw more on an open fire in our backyard. The flames leapt up his pant legs, and were just as quickly extinguished without doing much harm. But that image stays with me, the burning man who had once been a guy who wouldn’t have done that in a million years.

A man and his fire. If you live in the country, you need a place where you can burn stuff. I envied his setup—the sturdy stone wall especially. We have a rickety ring of stacked bricks that the deer keep knocking down in their quest for whatever it is they get out of ashes. It took awhile to get the plants all burned down, but I didn’t want to let a seedhead get by. I looked at my watch. Oh man. The time had flown. I’d been at this quest for two hours, and I had to leave for Utah the next day. I thanked Randy again, got in the car, and got about 200 yards down the road before I saw another patch of garlic mustard, bigger than the last two. The air went blue. I sighed, leapt the ditch, pulled it all—it was perilously close to going to riotous seed—and loaded it into the Subaru. Zick 3, garlic mustard, 0. I hoped. While I was pulling, a curious neighbor stopped to ask what I was doing. Never one to let a teaching moment go by, I showed her the plant, told her how to recognize its paltry white blossoms, and encouraged her to look for it and pull it wherever she saw it. It’s hard to convey to someone who may take them for granted how rare and precious such diverse wooded slopes are, and what a deadly threat garlic mustard poses, but I tried.

Randy watched me back up to the fire circle for the last time. “Didja miss me?” We repeated the dry wood and kerosene routine until the last plant went up in black smoke. It was starting to get dark. What a day it had been.

Best part? His last name is BURNWORTH.

There are those who say that, with massive introductions of exotic invasives worldwide, we have a global flora and fauna now; that it’s pointless to fight the Burmese pythons and the walking catfish, the Japanese honeysuckle or the water hyacinth. That we should just sit back and appreciate it all. It’s all natural, it’s all good. Well. I choose not to trade Duck Creek Road’s trillium, Dutchman’s britches, squirrel corn, hepatica, Jack in the pulpit, purple cress, dwarf larkspur, blue phlox and spring beauties for a solid stand of tall, gangly garlic mustard. I consider that a natural diversity holocaust, and I’m not scared to put in the work to prevent it. I’ll go farther, and say that you should care, too; that if you’re able, you should be pulling that crap wherever you find it, and disposing of it in a way that won’t spread it further. (Easier said than done). For me, choosing not to do anything is tantamount to watching a mugging in progress, shrugging and saying, “I guess he needs some money for drugs. Too bad for that person he’s robbing.” I can’t drive by the stuff, because I know what it’s up to. And neither should you.

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