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Dogwood Victory Garden

Monday, May 10, 2021



Even as I write, the dogwoods are greening, the leaves are growing each day, covering the aging white bracts that so enchanted me for weeks. I am hurrying, hurrying this spring. It's all so rich and there's so much to be seen and listened to and learned. In April and May, life itself is a race, sometimes thoroughly exhausting, just trying to take in all the wonder. Add house and grounds maintenance to that, and I feel I am in constant motion. Someone said I'm like a shark, have to keep swimming to stay alive. Yes. Like a shark. 

I have to share these photos before the dogwoods drop all their bracts. I went out the evening of April 20 to shoot--the sky had just cleared and the cumulus clouds mimicked the floating clouds of dogwood blossoms. 

Curtis Loew loves taking these several times daily peregrinations out the orchard. He moseys along, usually in front of me, taking in the third dimension of smells as well as the sights and sounds I am able to enjoy. 

It was a most perfect evening--in the 70's, with a soft, gentle breeze. We meandered through the best dogwood passages slowly, spinning around to take them in from every angle. The cloud shapes echoed the puffs and platters of dogwood blossoms. It was like walking into a Maxfield Parrish painting.

This is what I've worked for, this is what I continue to work for--free dogwoods, floating. Dogwood waves breaking in the air, with nothing to stop their curling fall.

As much as I anticipated dogwood bloom this spring, it was so much more wonderful than I'd ever hoped. It was a visual spectacle, all the sweeter because I had freed almost every tree from piles of strangling honeysuckle and rose canes. I'd personally twisted those vines off their scarred trunks and limbs, gritting my teeth and smiling as I did it, thinking of what it would feel like to take in these sights. But still, they were so much lovelier than I had imagined.

In the morning, a sherbert like mix with blooming redbud and I am swooning with delight.

The peek of redbud at the end of the path...

Free open passages to walk without ducking or struggling; free trees with the breeze blowing in between them. My summer office, almost ready for occupancy. 

Phoebe and Liam got to be here for the start of the bloom, and for that I'll always be grateful. We resolved that they should try to be home each spring for this. Dogwood Bloom, our sacred family holiday.

For this, I cut the olive and rose; for this, I make the giant brushpiles; for this, I burn them. 
For this, I learned to wield a chainsaw, and that feels like a big thing to me. I feel powerful, indomitable, strong. I don't need to wait for anyone to help me now. For a woman alone in the world, that's big.

There is so much more to do. I will always be doing this, for as long as always may be for me. I know it isn't nearly long enough.

I so wish I'd started earlier, so I could have been living out here all this time.

But we start when we are ready, and not before.
If Bill were still here, I'd doubtless still be hoping that he'd come over and do a little chainsawing now and then. I'd never have hired the Amish crew to clear out the deadfalls and open the paths so I could get through to attack the work myself, never would have bought my own saw. I'd have been hoping, and none of this would have or could have happened. Life and death are strange that way. Sometimes it takes the death of someone you love to force you to realize you are capable. 

April is strange, too. This was my wakeup on April 21, the morning after I wandered the orchard in a T-shirt, smiling ear to ear. 

I realized that snow on white dogwoods just looks like more snow.

I knew the dogwoods would shrug it off. And they did, with not a mark or a wilt.

Everything came back just fine. I enjoyed the snow overlay on green for as long as it lasted, which was about six hours. Well, "enjoyed" isn't exactly the right word, but I took it in, even as I was dealing with the consequences of a late April snow event in other bluebirdy realms of my life.

Ain't it wonderful? Here:

 and gone:

The poison ivy has finally leafed out, which means I must stop for the season my mano-a-mano fight with invasive vegetation. I'm spot-spraying it in the interest of free access, as I continue to spot-spray the stumps of Russian olive and carpets of honeysuckle, and the small but countless tufts of multiflora rose re-growth. If I don't, all this hateful crap will simply come back, and after a year and a half of intensive clearing work, that would be a crying shame. Much as I hate to use any chemicals, I'm thrilled to say it looks for the moment like I'm winning this war, at least in one old ridgetop orchard somewhere in Ohio.

 Rather, the dogwoods are winning, and all native plants are winning. I keep finding amazing things coming up that I've never seen out there before. Onward we go, beating a path, ever beating a path, making strikes for the good and native against the horrid and invasive. 


Making a Chickadee's Mattress

Monday, May 3, 2021


I have been so very busy with bluebirds of late...have left some teasers about fostering orphans on Instagram and Facebook, and I'm sorry about that, but the story is still unfolding and I am learning so much! I hope to pass it along soon--I've been keeping careful notes. Today, with work and springtime and grounds and house maintenance all smashing me, I don't have time for a bluebird story so I'll tell you a little chickadee story. I haven't been to the grocery store for two whole weeks, had to dig out a frozen pizza last night. But a Science Chimp has to blog!

I have had a pair  of Carolina chickadees nesting for the past few years in a tiny slot box along my driveway. I suspect it's the same female at least, because she has a habit of building a nice, deep, soft nest, then digging allll the way down to the floor of the box until she's clean out of nesting material. Let's call her Digger.

There's something about knowing this bird, and knowing she is going to do this every year, that brings me a little glow inside. Mostly because I love knowing it's her, in all her quirky sweetness, and because I always helping out.

I peeked in Digger's nest on April 18 and there were six beautiful tiny eggs. To the untrained eye, all looks well. 

Because my eye is trained, I could see, even in the dim interior of the box, that the eggs were in a peculiar order and spaced much too far apart for efficient incubation.  And why is the background so dark? No no no. She's laid them on the bare wood floor of the box again!

To confirm, I lifted the nest.  Mm hmmm.  Welp, we have to do something about this situation, and fast! Baby chickadees, born on hard bare wood, are at certain risk of splayed leg joints that could make for severe disability as they grow.  Luckily, I check my boxes often, and working backward, I see that I found this sorry situation on the first day of their incubation. 

I took the nest out. Oh for Pete's sake. The most important part of the nest--its cup-- is not even there!

Now, why would a bird as smart as a Carolina chickadee do something this apparently dumb, year after year?

I have thought about it, and I think it's the fault of the box. Designed to thwart house sparrows, who like a deep, dark nest cavity, this box was deliberately made shallow, with a slot opening to let in lots of light. A chickadee, like a house sparrow, feels safer in a deep nest cavity, so her instinct tells her to keep digging and building downward. She hits bottom way too soon in this shallow slot box, but by then it's too late, and she's laying her eggs. Poor wee thing. It's not her fault, it's mine. As usual. So it's mine to rectify.

Every spring, before the grass really gets green and growing, I go out and gather dried hair grass in my meadow. I believe the species is tufted hair grass, Deschampsia cespitosa, though I am always happy to be corrected. It's my favorite grass, not just because it is elegant and beautiful, but because it's so useful. I carefully curate the patches of it in my prairie meadow, and they have grown and expanded. I love it because its dried winter blades make such a fabulous bed for baby birds. I gather clumps of the dried stuff and put them in feed sacks for use all spring and summer long. When you are seriously into bird ranching, you value fine, soft bedding, because you wind up having to replace nests when they get infested by parasites, soiled, or wet. Mites, blowflies, nasty stuff, too much rain--all can make a nest sodden and stinky and downright dangerous, and I don't hesitate to jump in and replace such nests with fresh new grass, packed and wound tightly in the box.
 You don't want just any grass--it must be fully dried and cured, and it must be absolutely free of anything sharp, stiff, or pokey. 

So I gather dried tufted hairgrass by the armload before it rots in April. 

I cuddled the eggs in a temporary nest of hair grass while I worked.

I went to my handy sack of hair grass and pulled out a wad, from which I made a chickadee mattress. I added some dry moss to make it more like something the chickadee would make herself. I wadded and wound it tightly to try to foil The Digger, and installed it on the floor of her box.

I'm holding the original nest so you can see the giant hole in the bottom. The new Tempur-Pedic is installed in the shallow slot box.
You see the problem. She has nowhere to dig to!

It's so hard to believe there will be birds inside these fingernail-sized eggs, but there will! Just have to wait 12-14 days! I installed them on their new springy soft mattress and carefully replaced the original nest.

And on May 2, c'est voila! Three-day old Carolina chickadees, five of them, off to a much better start than they would have been otherwise. Lucky babies, lucky Digger, lucky me!

Happy spring! Help the birds.

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