Summer Winding Down

“Is it normal for there to be no bird song and no insect buzzing?”

I am hiking to Hen Wallow Falls with West Coast son, who’s visiting this week, and have been conscious of the silence for the last quarter mile. Inwardly, I am reflecting that the older I get, the less I know about more and more.

“I was noticing the lack of birds,” he replies. “I do hear some insects, though.”

They must be masked by my tinnitus.

It is great to spend time with him. Last night we saw Violet at the Clarence Brown Theater. (Highly recommend) Today, this hike in the Smokies. During the week, the dew point has dropped from the high-60s to today’s mid-50s. After weeks of August’s heat-induced doldrums, it is energizing to be outdoors again.

At home, we are waiting for the turtles to hatch. For the third year (non-consecutive), we observed an Eastern box turtle leave the woods and deposit her eggs in the gravel walkway behind our house. Nancy placed an upended milk crate over the spot to mark it and protect from foot traffic and other hazards. Then she marked the calendar. The youngsters should be emerging soon.

School is back in session. Tomorrow is the last of the summer breakfasts to be prepared by our men’s group. One of Nancy’s bands will give its last summer performance on Monday. The black gum in our front yard is busily shedding its summer foliage into our pond.

Summer’s winding down.

Soon I’ll not be able to use the heat as my excuse to stay out of the garden, out of the shop. I’m glad. Some good projects await.

For all its joys, I will not miss summer. I am ready for what comes next.

The Xena Paradox

Inspired to learn that paper wasp faces are as different as snowflakes  (Sheehan & Tibbets, 2008), Nancy set out to identify the frogs who frequent our pond. The first to be studied, and named, was Xena, who has a distinct little swish on her left upper lip. We first introduced Xena as the bold frog, who allowed close encounters rather than diving for the bottom at the slightest approach. Nancy deemed it a female, based on physical characteristics (the size of the tympanum relative to the size of the eye, and its placement along the dorsal lateral ridge). Bold female, warrior princess, Xena. Nancy observed Xena for months. Quiet. No frog calls.

Then we scrutinized the frog fight. “Xena” and a smaller male. “Xena” definitely in command. Woman on top? Warrior princess? Most unladylike behavior for a frog. Typical frog fights are between males.

Amplexis
Calmly This Time

Next day, Xena was submissively sitting underneath the loser of yesterday’s battle. Ladylike again.

For a month now, “Xena” has been emitting male mating calls. There are two calls. The first is very elaborate while the second call is more typical.

Gender Examples
Left to Right: Male, female, Xena.

Male or female? Someone suggested that frogs occasionally change gender. My limited reading does confirm that at least one species has been observed to undergo spontaneous sex change. But I find no reference to that behavior in green frogs. There is evidence that female green frogs emit mating calls, but quietly. Not like this! But there was that long, complicated call. Hmmm.

Do we have two look-alike frogs, one male, one female? If there are two, then both have that bold, I’m-not-afraid-of-you, characteristic. Why do we never see both at the same time?

Can you figure out which frog is Zeno (aka Hercules)?

Nancy has been reviewing her photos and has tentatively concluded that there are two frogs. The identifying mark she has been going on is slightly different  between Xena and what’s-his-name. So we need to name the male. Zeno, of paradox fame, comes to mind. (Okay, technically, we are not dealing with paradox here, just mystery. Grant us just a little bit of artistic license.) Or should we forego alliteration and go with Xena’s partner, Hercules?

Frog-Mystery2

 

Add One Snake

“There is a snake in the pond,” Nancy informs me.

DSC03559I watched for a while before noticing a different kind of stirring of the water. Then, the head appeared. Alert. Curious. Tongue seeking clues on the wind.DSC03573

DSC03630It’s a garter snake. We watched it slide out of the water, more than two linear feet of it before the tail finally emerged. It hid under a nearby fern, then later was back in the pond.

We have noticed no frog-sized lumps in its sleek length, so speculate that it  feeds on eggs and small larvae as it hoovers along the edges of the pond, in and out of the gaps between stones.


DSC03629

DSC03612

Threads

We were walking the dog, and I was telling Nancy about several ideas recently encountered and bouncing around in my head.

Item: Richard Rohr has been writing about liminality, sacred space. “We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. … That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. … The threshold is God’s waiting room. Here we are taught openness and patience as we come to expect an appointment with the divine Doctor.” It dawns on me that the disciplines of The Artist’s Way (see my post on the reading fast), and all the contemplative disciplines, seek to put us into liminal space.

Item: In two recent “Almost-Daily eMo[s] from the Geranium Farm,” Barbara Crafton writes of the creative arts as openings into liminal space (without using the term). In response to the Mary and Martha story (Luke 10:38-42), she recalls that she and her brothers were intense readers, to the point of being called lazy. But she defends them as “honoring their Mary selves. … sitting quietly with our hearts somewhere else.” On another day, she cites the impact of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans/James Agee collaboration illuminating the plight of Alabama sharecroppers in the Great Depression. She reports that David Simon, creator of the television series The Wire, writes, “Famous Men is the book that made me ashamed and proud to be a journalist-all in the same instant. Reading it made me grow up. Or at least, it demanded that I begin to grow up.”

DSC03034Item: I am pondering the role of reading in my life. For all its joys and its capacity to move me into sacred space, my reading fast illuminated for me how I often use reading not as a gateway but as a wall. Even after Nancy has opened for me the world of dragonflies and hummingbirds and frogs outside my dining room window, I am more likely to eat my lunch with a printed page or e-screen before me than to pay attention to the vibrant life just a few feet away. But it is not reading that is my problem. Rather, it is my underdeveloped disciplines of presence and attentiveness. As if to underscore the point, Nancy comments on how long it has been since she has seen “that pond” in operation. “That pond” is in front of the house we are walking past, a house I have walked past several times a week for many years. I have never noticed the pond.

All this and more is rattling around in my head, and I am trying to explain it all to Nancy as we walk.

“So,” I conclude, “I have all these threads and I don’t know what to do with them.”

“Weave,” she replies.

Here I sit with a lap full of threads. Ideas and ideals form the warp. My actions are the woof. I am trying to weave a life.

Prodigality

Prodigal Summer is one of my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novels. Among its many gifts is redeeming that word, prodigal, from its Sunday School connotation of degeneracy and firmly implanting in my mind the second definition, the more positive notion of nature’s extravagant and lavish abundance.

Lavish Abundance
Lavish Abundance

This is indeed a prodigal summer. The bank along our driveway is a riot of bee balm, cone flower, four o’clock, zinnia, black and blue salvia, butterfly bush,  black-eyed Susan, and wild bergamot. Despite a month wasted attacking windows and car mirrors, our bluebirds have managed to reproduce. An Eastern box turtle laid eggs behind the house. The daily show of goldfinch and cardinal and house finch and ruby-throated hummingbird and robin and bluebird continues just outside our dining room.


A few days ago, I glanced at the frog pond and saw the most frantic splashing and flailing about—two frogs in belly-to-belly combat.

The brief video clip here does not do justice to the ferocity I first witnessed; by the time Nancy had arrived and switched the camera to video mode, the pair were nearly exhausted.

Calmly This Time
Calmly This Time

A day later, the same pair were engaged in amplexus (frog sex). The female, on bottom, Nancy has named Xena. She’s the brave one who does not dive when humans approach, recognizable by a mark on her left jaw—a distinct blip in the green-black boundary. She’s a fierce woman-on-top in the video. From Nancy’s reading, territorial fights are not rare, but would be expected between two males. Why Xena was fighting her future sex partner is a mystery.


The Economist says of the campaigning leading up to the recent Brexit vote, “Knowledge has been scorned … (b)asic facts have fallen by the wayside …,” and that the campaigning has exacerbated “the growing void between cosmopolitan and nativist parts of the country, the diminishing faith in politics, the rise of populism, the inadequacy of the left-right partisan spectrum in an age when open-closed is a more salient divide.” Sound familiar?

A lone gunman kills or wounds more than 100 people in a gay nightclub. Gun sales rise, as do the share prices of gun makers, and both sides in the gun control debate claim the carnage bolsters their arguments. Sound familiar?

The father forgives his wayward younger son and throws a party to celebrate his safe return. Steady, obedient older brother resents the welcome given his sibling. Sound familiar?


Despair comes easily in today’s world. We are beset on all sides by intolerance and tribalism and fear that “the other” is a threat to our livelihoods if not our very existence. Where can we find our antidote to despair? I turn to words: My weekly dose of Parker Palmer and the rest of the On Being crew, local writer Stephanie Piper, and others.

Bee and Bee Balm
Bee and Bee Balm

I also try to wrap my scarcity-oriented economist’s brain around the notion of abundance, to meditate on bee balm and bluebirds and the eggs of frogs and turtles, to shake off my older brother righteous indignation and trust the prodigal father’s lavish abundance.

Mid-June at the Frog Pond

Mopheads
Mopheads

I’m looking out the dining room window. Three green frogs—the regulars—sit in or around the pond, silently watching. Dragonflies flit in the ferns, but there is no egg laying going on today. The low evening sun lights up the hydrangea nearest the street—mophead blooms of mixed blue and pink. The pond and its surroundings are in shade, with just an occasional ray breaking through the tupelo and black cherry canopy to spotlight a fern frond.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds visit the feeder and, occasionally, the hosta flowers. A male goldfinch drinks from the ant moat above the hummingbird feeder, and a robin splashes in the bird bath. House finches come and go. (I mis-identified these as purple finches in my earlier post.)

Emerging Dragonfly
Emerging Dragonfly

Nancy is busy elsewhere, and her camera is at hand, so I pick it up and try to capture some of the action. Alas, photography is not in my skill set.

Above is a photo Nancy shot recently of a dragonfly emerging from its nymph stage. (Click on the photo and it enlarges to fill the screen. All the photos in this blog should do this. If you find one that does not, email me so I can reset the parameters.) Two empty nymph skins (exuvia) are behind the new adult, and one of the frogs is in the background. The adult is still deploying its wings; notice that the back pair are not yet perpendicular to its body.

And here are some more of Nancy’s recent photos.

Bathing Bluebird
Bathing Bluebird
Frog on Lettuce
Frog on Lettuce
Frog & Plop!
Frog & Plop!

Life Around the Frog Pond

Dragonflies returned to the frog pond today. They were the first we’d seen since last summer. Nancy grabbed her camera as she spotted a female dragonfly, hovering and periodically dipping her tail to deposit eggs on the water. Last year, she’d been watching a similar ballet through the viewfinder when the fly disappeared in a sudden splash, into the maw of frog who’d been watching from underneath.

Dragonflies Mating
Dragonflies Mating

Today, two frogs were on the surface watching as the female fly performed her dance: hover, dip, hover, dip. Meanwhile, her mate flew above her. Protection? No, waiting until she’d deposited that lot for his turn to fertilize another batch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a chipmunk approaching the pond from under a fern. Suddenly, one of the frogs leapt for the dragonfly, missing and startling the chipmunk back into hiding.

As the dragonflies continued their work of procreation, we saw another type of insect land on the surface with a light splash. Surely not an intentional move. It would rest for a few seconds, then flutter its waterlogged wings in a desperate attempt to rise and escape, creating tiny ripples and alerting the frogs to another potential dinner. The second frog waited several minutes, apparently preparing for the leap—and missed. How could it miss a helpless drowning insect while in its own habitat? Here is the second, successful, leap.

As if the insect-amphibian drama were not enough, a hummingbird came to the nearby feeder. And then a goldfinch arrived to drink from the ant moat above the feeder. In short order, a male bluebird and a purple finch joined the party. Red, blue, yellow, within inches of each other. Their combined presence was fleeting and the photo attempts failed. But here is a cardinal splashing in the pond just a few minutes later.

Cardinal Bathing
Cardinal Bathing

All this action took place within a span of fifteen minutes—an astonishing compression, but just a small part of the life in and around the pond. Two nights ago, I was in the living room, awake in the small hours, when Mona had a fit at the dining room window. A raccoon was visiting the pond, reaching into the water with sweeping upward splashes, apparently trying to bag a frog. I turned on the outdoor light. It was not fazed and continued the hunt. I didn’t want to wake Nancy, who, as it turned out, had been wakened by Mona’s bark and was lying in bed thinking, “Surely Brent will tell me if it’s the raccoon.” Furthermore, I did not remember that her camera stays on the dining table, ready for action around the pond. And so, I failed a photo opportunity that I’ll probably not see again.

Phoebe Nest on Ladder
Phoebe Nest on Ladder

Later this afternoon, I chanced to look out our upstairs window and saw a blacksnake moving toward the back of the shop. Nancy was out, so I grabbed her camera and went to investigate. On a ladder suspended underneath the eaves of the shop was a phoebe nest. I watched the snake try to find its way up to the nest, then give up and move back into the woods.

Lady-in-Red Hydrangea with Honeybee
Lady-in-Red Hydrangea with Honeybee

The plant world, too, is booming near the pond and in our yard. The astilbe are gone, but purple coneflowers and black and blue salvia are coming into bloom. After two cold winters froze back the hydrangeas, we finally had a mild winter, and they are in full bloom this year. We have three kinds—mophead, oak leaf, and lace cap (lady-in-red)—and from each of the matures, Nancy has propagated youngsters that this year are finally coming into their own. The lady-in-red are especially showy.

Green Frog Up Close
Green Frog Up Close

Correction: In The Frog Blog, I claimed the first frog photo was taken without benefit of telephoto. Wrong. I made a last minute substitution of photos and failed to adjust the text. But the one at right was taken at 50mm and is un-cropped.

In Praise of Good Design

I mentioned that there were no personal injuries resulting from The Big Dig (see Fellowship). But there was one casualty—my reciprocating saw. The shaft that drives the blade snapped. I have had this saw for ten years or so, and while I haven’t put a large number of hours on it, those hours were hard, root cutting ones. For a near-bottom-of-the-line homeowner special, it has served me well.

Repair or replace? I find a parts list and diagram online, set out to tear it down, and hit a conundrum. All the screws I need to access are underneath the rubber boot that encloses the lower end of the saw, and to remove the boot requires getting to those same screws. In other words, to remove the boot, I first need to remove the boot.

I have been a critic of much industrial design. All too often, I pick up a consumer product, try to use it, and conclude that the designers did not take the obvious step of trying to use their own product. How else could we end up with garden carts that tip while being loaded, and whose undercarriages bang ankles unless the user limits his/her movement to all but the most mincing steps? Or vacuum cleaners whose accessories will not stay on their designated mounts? Children’s toys that do not work? What is the excuse for dishwashers that claim to hold a service for twelve, but have no place for cereal bowls, serving dishes, or leftovers containers? No one I know serves dinners for twelve; everyone I know has leftovers. Who are these dishwashers designed for?

HP-35, Remote, and iPod
HP-35, Remote, and iPod

Consequently, when I find a well-designed product, I want to sing its praises. In a drawer of my writing desk are three such products: one of the early click-wheel iPods (Apple); a remote control for a laptop computer (Apple); and a 1972-vintage HP-35, “the world’s first scientific pocket calculator” (Hewlett-Packard). My HP-35 still works off the charger, though the battery pack is long defunct. I don’t have much need for trig functions or exponentials these days, and if I did, would likely turn to my computer before digging the HP out of the drawer. But because I am still a fan of Reverse Polish Notation, and because this calculator brings back fond memories of my first professional job, I keep it. How many devices do you have from 1972 that still work?

My iPod no longer works—hard drive failure. I keep it in part for nostalgia but mostly because it is still a beautiful instrument. The click-wheel was a clever interface whose misfortune was to have been quickly overtaken by an even better technology, the touch-screen. And the case, with its curved corners and edges, begs to be held.

Back of Remote with Battery Door
Back of Remote with Battery Door

I am frankly baffled by the concept of a remote control for a laptop. I never used mine. But the device is a visual delight and an engineering masterpiece. The case is a single bar of aluminum. No screws, no seams. “How did they put it together?” I wondered. The answer is that all the internals are inserted through the battery door. The same could be asked of the iPod: “How did they put it together?” In that instance, a flawlessly executed friction fit.

Which brings me back to my broken saw. How did they put it together? Amazingly, I have been unable to find a YouTube video or other answer to that question. Our best guess is that it involves heating and stretching the rubber boot, which is what Nancy and I did to get inside. She had to start with a palette knife, to make a place to insert a screwdriver blade and begin pulling the rubber back. Then gripping with pliers and turning the boot inside out as I held onto the saw body, we pulled. Hard tugging and pulling, the kind of effort that prompts you to check behind you for a soft place to fall if it gives suddenly. Tugging and pulling punctuated by our laughter at the absurdity. Uncovering the first pair of screws, we recheck the diagram. Two more pairs of screws to go! By the time we are through, the boot is a tangled mess, but has not torn.

Saw Rotor and Stator
Saw Rotor and Stator

The three visibly damaged parts would cost half of the price of a replacement saw. Is something else on the verge of failure? Would we be able to re-stretch the boot back into place? I have decided to replace, not repair. But the whole exercise of dismantling that tool has given me a respect for its designers. In its clean lines, its performance, its ergonomic feel, and its mysteriously hidden methods of assembly, it reminds me of the aforementioned Apple products. Even on the inside, where few would ever see, the components are cleanly designed and executed. No rough edges. The rotor and the frame for the stator windings are minor works of art. Well done, Ryobi!

Post Script—Friends Mike and Roni recently introduced me to the writings of humorist Michael Perry, and I was reading his book, Truck, during the above events. In a nice bit of synchronicity, while I was thinking about design, good and bad, Perry’s book introduced me to industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Check him out. Check out Perry too. Celebrate good design and good writing.

The Frog Blog

Green Frog
Green Frog

Nancy recently sent me this photo in an email labeled, “Photo of the Day.” It is a frog in the water feature just outside our dining room. Variously called the frog pond or Nancy’s pond, this miniature stream and pond was purposely constructed to be observable from inside the house. When the stones at the head of the stream are properly “tuned” to “burbling brook,” the water feature can be both heard and seen while seated at the dining table. This is version 2. Its predecessor was a simple tub-in-the-ground kit she won in a raffle, which served mainly to whet her appetite for something more natural-looking, more organic.

The pond is a source of great pleasure for Nancy. Constructing and tending the pond and its surrounding garden and photographing the results are creative outlets. More importantly, I suspect, the pond is often Nancy’s entree into Sabbath rest. Several times a day, she can be found standing or sitting at the picture window, watching and listening. The pond is for her an invitation to put aside doing and bask in being—to be present and attentive and receptive.

Bold Green Frog and Nancy's Hand
Bold Green Frog and Nancy’s Hand

One thing we have learned from our two ponds is that if you have a hole filled with water, the frogs will come. The girl in the photos is a green frog. She’s a bold one. The others dive for the depths whenever anyone nears, but she will grant a closer look. The first photo was taken with a regular lens, not the telephoto I used here to show how close she allows Nancy’s approaches. Her suitors sound like this and their calls are punctuated by long silences.

Months ago, in late winter, the pond’s active inhabitants were the upland chorus frogs. They are harder to photograph. And their mating calls are a cacophony impossible to miss.

Based on evidence heard but not seen, our pond has also hosted American toads and Cope’s gray treefrogs.

Deer at Pond
Deer at Pond

Showing still more frog photos, Nancy joked that we needed to add “The Frog Blog” to our website. The pond and its surroundings do provide lots of material. For instance, note the sequence at right: deer drinking from pond, then

Mona at Pond
Mona at Pond

Mona rushing out and striking the same pose. We believe one or more raccoons also visit the pond and snack on the inhabitants. (Somebody’s knocking things around and pulling the filter off the pump.)

Also, this is the same dining room picture window that is the target of our deranged bluebirds. Yes, they are still at it. I was premature in thinking that Nancy’s mealworm reset had worked. Lately, we see two males and one female cavorting nearby. The female is no longer interested in the window. She’s kept busy otherwise. But one of the males seems more interested in attacking his reflection than in his real-life competition. Perhaps it is safer that way. Consider also that a favored perch of the bluebirds is the adjacent shepherd’s crook upon which Nancy has now hung the hummingbird feeder. Lots of wildlife can be observed here, less than ten feet from our dining table.

We won’t start a second blog. What we have done, however, is to begin classifying our blog entries by adding Categories and Tags. Think of Categories as section titles in a book and Tags as the index. Each blog post is assigned to one of three Categories, but can have many Tags. Most posts are categorized as “The View.” This post, the bluebird one, and future posts that are mostly nature observations around the pond are categorized “Frog Blog.” The few that have introduced our static pages of creative output (accessed from the menu bar) are categorized “The Arts.”

You will find Categories at the bottom of the left sidebar, and a Tag Cloud at the bottom of the right sidebar. Click on a Category or Tag of interest and all posts with that label will be grouped for you. For instance, if you want the full blacksnake saga, click on “blacksnake” in the Tag Cloud. Speaking of which, Nancy spotted one in the back yard just a few days ago. It is a relief to learn that the bird netting did not wipe out all our rodent protection.

So, welcome to The Frog Blog. Enjoy. Good sabbath.

The Fellowship of the Shovel

We have in our Memorial Garden two ornamental cherry trees. There were four, but two had to be removed, as they were too close to concrete walkways and their roots were knocking the concrete off-kilter. The remaining pair are not so close, and yet could potentially disrupt other sections of the walks. The arborist-suggested remedy was to dig beside the walkways, snip any offending roots, then install a metal barrier against further intrusions. We had done one tree last year, the shortest section of walk, but still needed to treat the other. The task: a thirty-foot trench, one-and-a-half feet deep, with attendant root cutting. I invited some friends to the party.

Thus, “The Fellowship of the Shovel” convened one recent morning. There were five of us, and more willing to help. But, frankly, five post-retirement guys wielding mattocks and shovels and saws and sharp-edged flashing was quite enough to fit into a thirty-foot trench. I am happy to say there were no injuries, at least none reported to the crew chief. Two hours spent in pleasant company. Thanks, guys!

The “Fellowship” was mostly a subset of a group of men who convene early each Wednesday for prayer and study and fellowship.  David, our assistant rector, had the vision to assemble such a group, and with his leadership and patient encouragement, it has coalesced into a dozen or so regulars. These men are doers, responders to need. When I issued a church-wide call for help through a short-term staffing vacancy in our nursery, two-thirds of the volunteers were from its membership. We are about to begin our third summer of cooking breakfast each Sunday for the entire parish. The breakfast fills the space between early and late services left available by the summer hiatus of the education program and allows the two communities (early risers and the rest of us) to mingle. It is a group of men unafraid to show compassion, to be vulnerable, to talk of faith and doubts and joys and sorrows.

That I am a happy member of this group is a surprise to me. My earlier experiences with all male (or even mostly male) groups have left me feeling like the ballroom wallflower—watching from the sidelines, not participating in the action; I more easily integrated into mixed or predominantly female groups. How much of the change is due to some kind of growth in me or how much is due to the character of the individuals in the group, I cannot say. I am, however, proud to be one of them.