This is the season when every turn in the road produces an “Oh!” and every glance at the garden elicits an “Ah!”—and for the photographer, another click.
We have added a few photo galleries to our website. You can view them from the links below or from the menu at the top of the web page.
My rain gage says we have had more than five inches this weekend. So as you dry out, enjoy some flowers and frogs and other April delights from earlier in the week. And keep your eyes open—there is a beautiful, but unwelcome Tennessee native in the lot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I like cars. I use the term generically, to include all the forms of four-wheeled, powered, personal transportation. I have owned nearly a score. None were especially expensive, powerful, or exotic. Each one was fun to drive. Every last one.
My first was a black 1962 Plymouth Valiant with a red vinyl interior, a slant-six engine, and push button transmission controls on the dash. The year was 1968. I was in college. It was a rather pedestrian (excuse the pun) entree into the world of car ownership, but then, I was a rather pedestrian college kid. I spent weekends exploring “gray roads,” those faint gray lines on maps that indicate “unpaved.” Among my college friends, the car had something of a low-rider reputation, as its semi-elliptic leaf springs had sagged into straight lines and the torsion bars on the front end were similarly exhausted.
In short order after college, I drove a VW Microbus and a Fiat 124 Sport Spider. Sitting over the front wheels of the Microbus and cranking that nearly horizontal steering wheel through the esses of a mountain road is an experience that stays with you. I can still feel the sway, still hear the pitch of that air-cooled four-banger in the back rise and fall as I accelerate out of one curve, then decelerate into the next.
And the Spider! Ah, the Spider! Mine was the color of lemon mousse. A curvy Italian beauty, with tan upholstery and (unusual for the day) a convertible top you could raise and lower without leaving the driver’s seat. I remember one fine summer day rounding a curve in Wilkes County, NC, and seeing a clear, sharp line in the road ahead, separating dry pavement from the thunderstorm I was about to drive into. I braked to a stop on the shoulder. The wet/dry line held its ground. I reached behind me, lifted the top and clamped it into place, cranked up the windows, and drove into the storm, snug and dry.
The Spider was also a great snow car. Snowfall is a big deal in Charlotte, NC, and leaving work with a surprise five inches on the ground makes for an interesting commute. I had to help push several cars out of my parking lot before getting my own turn. The little Fiat needed no help there nor on the hill near my house. I just had to wait for the other cars to slide off the road and give me driving room. Later that night, I double-dated in that car. The other couple were afraid to risk it in their big Buick.
During my graduate school years, I got bitten with the back-to-the-land bug. Attempting to grow a significant portion of our food led, as you might expect, to a pickup truck. My first was an early 60s beater with sprung hood hinges. As I drove, the rear of the hood would slowly rise until it crouched eight inches above the cowl and I could watch the engine in its labors. At the end of the trip, I pushed the hood back into place, ready for its next rising. To my chagrin, that truck also came equipped with a cracked block. It was a short-lived partnership. But that old truck set me on a different path, in which there are just two states of being: Either I have a truck, or I am between trucks.
It is possible to function between trucks. It helps if the gardening bug is in remission. I have hauled long boards on top of Nancy’s station wagon, and her birthday rock (a 300 pound boulder) inside. And, in all honesty, those “between trucks” vehicles each had their charms. The full size Dodge van was great for that two-week camping trip in the American Southwest. The mini-van was just what we needed for the cross country trip that followed Lewis and Clark west and the Oregon Trail coming back east. The Volvo turbo that almost got me ticketed for enjoying the switchbacks down to Leatherwood Ford in the Big South Fork was a blast. For a time, Jay and I shared a Nissan 240SX and, later, a Miata—happy reminders of my beloved Fiat Spider.
Nevertheless, I am no longer “between.” My current ride is a 14-year-old Ranger. It’s my fifth truck and our low-mileage vehicle—140,000 and counting. I rarely even sweep out the mulch and gravel anymore; the next load will not be long in coming.
We are blessed, this last week of August, with a foretaste of autumn weather—low temperatures, low humidity, and clear blue skies. Today was a pleasant day for weeding, and Nancy and I pulled three large trash bags full. Also a pleasant day for the dog and I to take a long walk. We have several main loops and many variations, ranging from one to five miles. Today Mona pulled me into the longest one, the one with a stretch of gated-off utility access road on which I can remove her leash and let her roam.
An earlier signal of the end of summer is the return of the goldfinches to the dead seed heads in our coneflowers. From the first of August, walking out of the house or pulling into the driveway triggers flashes of yellow as the finches chitter off into the safety of tall trees. This year they have been especially present, in the flowers and drinking from the cup of water atop Nancy’s hummingbird feeder (the ant-stopping moat) just outside our dining room window. One morning as I ate breakfast, I was treated to repeated yellow flashes, lower right to upper left (coneflower garden to neighbor’s trees) culminating in a twister-like display as two spiraled around each other up into the forest. Fighting over a mate or food source? Or just a dance of delight?
Over the weekend, as I tended the compost bins, I uncovered two small snakes in the leaf pile. With some research, I identified them as juvenile black rat snakes. Apparently, what I have been calling a black snake could be either a black rat snake or a black racer. My weekend sighting gives me hope that the snake who met his/her end entangled in my bird netting (see previous post) left progeny behind who will continue the good fight against field mice and chipmunks and other vermin.
It has been a good summer for gardening. Not too wet, not too dry, not too hot. Some plants have inexplicably died, but others have thrived as never before. The deer have been merciful, the blooms long-lasting. Cosmos and hosta are still spectacular. And Nancy seems to have found a solution to the string algae that plagued her pond last summer. A single water hyacinth has multiplied and totally changed the nature of the pond, from a scum bucket to a prolific frog habitat.
We were driving to visit the in-laws this weekend when an image and a phrase popped into my head. The image was of the small patio/seating area we had recently completed at the Memorial Garden. The phrase, Not Afraid of Curves.
I have constructed things all my life. I have early memories of helping my father build a carport, a cabin/“fort,” fencing for our pony pasture. Mostly, the things we built then, and the things I have built since, were rectilinear. Straight lines and right angles. Sure, there is the occasional deviation from 90 degrees, roof slopes being an obvious example. But always for a good, practical reason.
Nancy and I build things, too. In fact, on one of our earliest dates, she informed me we’d be assembling a shelf—a simple shelf, it turned out— to sit on her desk. Early as it was in our courtship, I already knew her well enough to recognize that exercise as a deliberate test of our compatibility.
But building with Nancy often throws curves (pun intended) at my native practicality. She will introduce an angle or a curve, for aesthetic reasons, where practicality and efficiency would be be content with a straight line. Our mudroom is an example.
The addition to our house that we built early in our marriage included a long room that was mostly Nancy’s studio but also, at one end, the primary family entrance. Each time that outer door was opened in winter, an arctic blast cooled her whole studio. We needed a wall to subdivide the space into studio and mudroom. But the dividing wall was problematic as the existing doors and windows precluded a normal, straight wall. So the wall we built has three segments. It leaves the room’s sidewall at a right angle, then jogs to the left at 30 degrees, then returns to the original heading before contacting the opposite wall in another right angle. The doorway is a wide opening in the angle section, with French doors. We were to finish off the mudroom with ceramic tile on the floor. Then, Nancy threw in the kicker: “You know, of course, that the tile have to be laid on the angle.” Of course. Mutter. Mutter.
It turned out to be only a slight inconvenience. Ten minutes to make a simple jig for the wet saw we would have rented anyway, and cutting triangular edge pieces was as simple as the rectangular ones would have been.
Don’t get me wrong. Our joint building projects are collaborative affairs, and Nancy is open to the arguments of practicality. The retaining wall at left is an example. Nancy wanted a curve in the wall, and I wanted to use the existing rectangular brick floor as the foundation. My suggestion for the built-in bench satisfied both criteria.
I could give many other examples of things we have built over the past 25 years into which, by intention, some curve or angle violates the grid work of my engineering mind for the sake of aesthetics. And I expect that it would be true in each instance that there was a point in the planning or execution when I rebelled at the impracticality and the extra work involved, and had to be convinced that the outcome would be worth the extra effort.
Reflecting back on where we started, with an image and a phrase appearing simultaneously and unbidden, I realize that on this latest project, I did not have to be led down the aesthetic path, but followed it willingly, even eagerly. The site dictated the curves, and the fact that our floor was to be of rectangular elements (brick pavers) was not an impediment. Of course we would rent another wet saw and cut the bricks as needed. Of course.
My parents were born into large depression-era farm families. Growing a substantial portion of their food was an economic necessity and a way of life. “The garden” was the place where you grew potatoes and tomatoes, corn and beans and squash and a dozen other vegetables. Enough to feed ten people. All winter long. A place of hard work.
When they married and raised their own family, my parents brought that way of life with them, if not the necessity. In my childhood, “the garden” was still the place where hard work was converted into foodstuffs. In early adulthood, I went through a back-to-the-land phase and my own large vegetable gardens.
That phase ended. Lack of need, lack of interest (burnout perhaps?), and a series of houses that lacked adequate space and sunlight left my gardening days behind me.
Enter Nancy. Over the past decade or so, she has put her artist’s eye toward creating places of beauty outside our home. Using largely native plants, tons of native stone, some clever hardscaping, a small pond, and, yes, lots of hard work, she has transformed a blah yard into a garden of beauty. In the process, that word, “garden,” has come to signify for me the ornamental, not the vegetable kind.
Sure, my childhood home had ornamental trees and shrubs. My mother grew flowers. But in “beds.” The word, “garden,” was reserved for food. This shift in what gardening means to me has been subtle and largely unconscious, but nearly total. When I say I am a gardener, I never think of tomatoes, although many of my listeners probably do.
I’ve lately become aware of another subtle shift, this time in my relationship to the act of gardening. “Our” ornamental garden has been, and largely still is, “Nancy’s” garden. Her desire, her vision, her initiative. I was the, mostly willing, assistant—the muscle, her sherpa.
Then, a year ago, shortly after my (second) retirement, I took on the chairmanship of the committee that cares for the Memorial Garden at my church, the place where the ashes of deceased members are buried or scattered. And I took on this role at a time when the need for change had come due. It was time to expand burial space, remove some overgrown trees and shrubs, repair some damage. Unlike “Nancy’s” garden, which is in a maintenance phase with its basic form established, the Memorial Garden is in a process of moderate to major redefinition. And I find myself actively engaged in that definition, in helping to create the vision and carry it out. I have taken ownership of the process of gardening in a way that I still have not done with our garden at home.
When I was a child, I was a garden helper. As a young adult, raising my own cantaloupe and sweet potatoes and peas, I was a gardener. And then I was neither. In middle age, when Nancy began her garden, I reverted to garden helper. Now, I am a gardener again. With that title, I claim, or reclaim, an avocation. But the title goes deeper for me now. I find that in accepting the title, I also accept stewardship of something that is not mine. The plants, the infrastructure, the aesthetic, the soil itself are to be husbanded, cared for, nurtured. And I find that sense of stewardship creeping into my labor in Nancy’s garden as well. I am pulling weeds not for me, not even for Nancy, but for the garden itself. Interesting changes I did not seek and would never have predicted.
We just returned from a trip to visit my mother. That in itself is not unusual—she lives just a few hours away, and we have settled into a pattern of frequent but short visits. This trip, however, we decided to add an extra day and do some sightseeing in the North Carolina mountains, with Linville Falls as our major destination.
I have some history in this area. As a scout leader in my 20s, I rappelled from cliffs along the edge of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and spent one memorable snowy night under one of those cliffs without food, shelter, sleeping bag, or heavy clothing. I have visited the Falls and nearby areas as a tourist off and on since childhood. As a teen with a brand new driver’s license, I would sometimes explore the unpaved and un-numbered back roads nearby.
So it was fun to be back in the area and to show some of it to Nancy. Our decision as to which trail to take to view the Falls was simple: Avoid the yap dog pulling its owner along the easy trail. We took the “strenuous” route, all the way down to the plunge pool. Quite a thrill for Nancy and her two bionic hip joints. A year ago, she was nearly wheelchair-bound.
We saw a glorious sunset from the grounds of our B&B, had a memorable breakfast next morning, then drove to Blowing Rock.
Our great good fortune was to arrive when the rhododendron blooms were at their most glorious. Gardens throughout the village were exquisite, especially those at the Episcopal church and the city park. We took in the vistas from The Blowing Rock itself, then drove on to my mother’s, passing two commercial structures I had helped build during my teen summers as a construction laborer.
If our short mountain sojourn was a homecoming of sorts, the visit with Mother was also a homecoming of a different kind. It is common to see relatives or her friends on these visits. But I have lived elsewhere for half a century and my connection with my hometown is slight. On this trip, however, the small-town-ness of my hometown was everywhere. And I mean that in the most positive sense. Running into my former Sunday School teacher, seeing cards created for Mother by my former math teacher, shopping at the local hardware now under the helm of the founder’s great-granddaughter, taking a walk in the neighborhood over fields owned by people I have known since childhood— I felt connections everywhere.
The small town sense of everyone knowing everyone came home especially with a visit to a business with which my parents have dealt practically all my life. Despite their long-term relationship, I had never had occasion to know, meet, or talk with the proprietor until a year ago. That memorable phone call began, after I had introduced myself, with the exclamation, “Brent! I am so glad you are not dead!” It seems that someone else with my name had appeared in the local obituaries a few weeks earlier. She had recognized the name and also that the list of relatives did not match. On finally meeting her this trip, she pulled out her notes of our earlier conversation, including the fact that she and Nancy were both among the first adopters of Macintosh computers. And talked and talked. About people I knew and others I probably should have known. About business dealings with my parents going back four decades. It was a true Mayberry moment.
I wish I had more Mayberry moments. I, too, live in a small town. Oak Ridge is not a typical Southern rural small town, but a small town all the same, with a parochialism all its own. Were I more gregarious, I could have those Mayberry moments here. Those mountain communities I have breezed through all my life are each their own Mayberry. But I have never lingered. I suppose a Mayberry can develop anywhere we let it: a college dorm, a suburban cul-de-sac, a downtown loft. At any rate, I am glad for last week’s brief return to Mayberry.
I’m sitting outside on a pleasant spring afternoon. In the sheltered nook before our front door, I have brick underfoot and at my back, a black gum tree overhead, and the green of Nancy’s garden sloping above me. Native Mayapple and fern and Jack-in-the-pulpit, Joe Pye weed and cone flowers, wood sorrel and bellwort, foam flower, hosta, little brown jug, trillium and more form a lush foreground. And Mona, napping in my lap with with her head hanging over the armrest.
Nancy found Mona at the pound, a tiny black-with-white-accents mix of breeds with an intense desire to engage and please. She’s ten years old and 50 pounds now, but still a tiny thing in my mind.
Sometime in her first week with us, while I was eating breakfast and reading the paper, she kept asking for something. Twice I took her outside to pee, but that was not what she wanted. Finally, I paid attention and let her lead me to a pool of morning sun on the living room carpet. She curled into the warmth, inviting me to join her. Forget the unimportant stuff, she seemed to say; come enjoy the sunshine with me. Forget the doing, enjoy the being. Come to Sabbath.
She still calls me to Sabbath. As her presence on my lap attests, she craves companionship and touch. Almost daily, we sit together on the sofa for at least a short time, her head resting on my thigh. Not infrequently, she whines and nudges and prods until I take her onto my lap as now and hold her as I once did my children. She’ll nap with her head hanging over the arm of the chair until my own arms begin to fall asleep and I have to move her off my lap. We say she needs her loving cup filled.
Wouldn’t we humans be better off if we had the sense to recognize when our loving cups need filling, and the courage to ask for the communion and Sabbath rest our hearts desire?