Tag Archives: nature

It’s Iris Time in Tennessee

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.

Iris

Bleeding Heart

Frogs

April Miscellanea

From the (Frog) Front

Rainy Monday

In the photo, it’s a rainy Monday, and Mona longs to get outside. We did manage a brief foray into the front yard before the rain moved in, but she missed her long walk Sunday, and now she’s shut out by a mini-deluge. This image of her profile at the window is a familiar one, watching for perfidious squirrels and chipmunks and cats. What’s missing is Nancy at her frog-watching post (see tripod and binoculars at left). She’s behind the lens on this shot and cannot be in two places at once.

Competing male green frogs, Verdi (left) and Xeno (Right).

Xeno and Verdi are back. Nancy recognizes markings from last year. She also notes deepening of some markings as they move into their reproductive phases.

Xeno in Winter and Spring

Xeno’s still the bold one. As Nancy was changing the pond filter on Saturday, hands underwater, he pushed off shore heading towards her. Pausing right by her hand, he lingered long enough for her to reach up and touch his toes a few moments. Then he swam off to the other side.

The upland chorus frogs have bred and now are quiet. Some other species (so far not identified) were courting a few days ago and Nancy caught a pair in amplexus.

Unidentified Toads or Treefrogs in Amplexus

The green frogs (Xeno and Verdi and friends) are also into their season. We have heard Xeno’s familiar song.

The plant life around the pond is flowering also—figuratively in the case of the bellwort and Solomon’s seal and bleeding heart and just-emerging ferns, literally for the bluet and foam flower and wild geranium and coral bell and twin-leaf.

Bluets
Wild Geranium

It looks to be a good year for trillium, which are popping up in clusters, both in our garden and in the woods out back.

Sessile Trillium Luteum

The Lenten rose are done with bloom. While the seed heads are still pretty, they will soon spread seeds by the hundreds if I do not quickly remove them.

Bee in Lenten Rose

Bluebirds are nesting, and some chickadees were checking out another bird box last week.

Chipmunk Gets a Chewing Out

In this photo from a few days ago, Mona is chewing at the hollow log. Apparently she saw a chipmunk go inside. She’s usually ready to come back inside the minute her people disappear, but she stayed at this task for half an hour before giving up.

P.S.—Mona made up for lost walks today (Tuesday). We did our longest loop, four miles.

Of Chaos and Spring

Was it Luther? Somewhere I read something to the effect that he prayed for an hour each day, except on days he was especially busy—then he prayed for two hours. In that vein, perhaps I can justify taking some time to write.

My life is chaos. It is largely my own fault, and nothing that deserves your great sympathy. My desk is chaos, because of my own habits of procrastination and sloth. My shop is chaos, because (in addition to the aforementioned procrastination and sloth) in the midst of my latest project, my table saw’s blade raising and lowering mechanism failed, and I now have saw parts and tools layered over that project on the workbench and underfoot all over the floor. Our house is chaos because in selling the houses of my mother and Nancy’s parents, we have ended up with more stuff than anyone could possibly use. My “To Do” list is chaos because I have made commitments that I should have not made.

On second thought, as I look at the list, I do not regret any of the voluntary commitments. It is, for the most part, an exciting and life-affirming list. The To-Do’s I dread are involuntary, chief among them being the annual income tax flagellation.

The table saw has been a major setback. After scanning the on-line forums and evaluating my choices, I opted for an epoxy called J-B Weld. I knew that if I screwed up, there’d be hell to pay, but I was careful and as thorough as I knew to be. After applying the epoxy, I tested that the parts that needed to slide against each other would still slide, then laid everything aside for the epoxy to cure overnight. Alas! This morning when I tried to re-assemble, I couldn’t even jam the parts together, much less expect them to slide freely. Does J-B Weld expand on curing? Everything looks just as I had left it last evening, but I have lost a critical few thousandths of an inch in clearance. I will have to remove that from the polished aluminum casting with an abrasive. More delay in getting back to my projects. More tasks I have never done before and must learn on the fly. More opportunity to screw up and ruin what was a pretty good saw.

I need an attitude adjustment. Writing helps. Sitting here helps—sitting in a comfortable chair, watching my dog watching the life just outside our dining room window. Earlier this morning, that life included a flock of goldfinches splashing in the pond. Two days ago, the pond hosted a frenzied flock of robins (and a lone mourning dove) taking a post-winter bath. Bluebirds are nesting in the bluebird house. The upland chorus frogs are looking for love again—they’ve been sounding off for the past two nights. Spring is coming.

… There is a Season …

Last night we had our first killing frost—a full month later than normal. I had harvested the last of the zinnias yesterday, enough for two small bunches on the kitchen windowsill.

Not only has this been an unusually warm fall, but an extremely dry summer and fall. Only in the past week have a few brilliantly colored trees caught my eye. In my nearly 40 years in East Tennessee, this is just the second time I have seen the haze of wildfire smoke as a regional phenomenon.

I have been thinking about seasons. Although late—and less than visually spectacular—fall is here, and winter will come. The holiday season is upon us, and I am mulling the Thanksgiving Day menu.

But it’s more than the annual calendar that draws my attention. I am acutely aware of the seasons of the human life-cycle. Change is all around me.

This spring, we sold my mother’s house; she is in a nursing home. A few months later, our youngest son moved out on his own. Now, Nancy is helping her parents prepare for a move from large house to small apartment.

Of perhaps less significance, but still somehow looming large in my consciousness, are other changes. We will have six around our Thanksgiving dinner table this week; we have cycled through large family gatherings to just the two of us and now back to a family event. Last fall, Nancy’s artistic energy was directed toward the visual; this year, her music. Last fall, major gardening tasks drove me; this year, my shop is calling. Everywhere, I hear The Byrds singing, “Turn, turn, turn …”

I was doing some baking this afternoon, and had set my computer’s music into an autoplay mode. In the midst of my musing about seasons, I was serenaded by Jennifer Nicely singing Tom Waits’ “You Can Never Hold Back Spring.” Not for the first time, the double meaning hit me. We cannot hold onto our springtimes. Nor can we prevent spring coming again.

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

 

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.

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.

Let’s Go To The Woods!

Behind our house is a deep wooded cove running the length of our street and separating us from the rear neighbors by about four hundred feet. Our side of the cove is almost ravine steep, while the far side is gentler, so the wet weather stream that carved this cove is nearer our street than it is to the street behind us. Our property line, while near the horizontal midpoint, is well up the opposite slope.

We have almost no back yard; the woods of our cove come nearly to the back of the house. From our rear windows we watch deer, squirrel, chipmunk. We hear, then see, the pileated woodpecker flashing tree to tree. We hear owls. We watch the progress of the seasons, noting the specific day on which the spring leafing-out suddenly hides the houses behind us. We watch the stream braiding across the flat cove bottom during and after a heavy rain.

From my second story study window, I can see the forest floor littered with downed trunks. We have lived here a quarter of a century, and most of the deadfall still visible has fallen during our tenure. I remember those trunks as standing timber, and they tell much of the history of our association with these woods. A few are oaks, killed by lightening. Most are pines, or the victims of pines.

When we moved here, pines represented a small but noticeable portion of the canopy. Most have fallen, their roots simply unable to keep them aloft. We had an arborist on site shortly after one fell and he affirmed that the tree had been healthy. I don’t know if it is their natural life cycle to get tall and fall, or if perhaps the maturing hardwoods around them change their roots’ ability to grip the soil. For what ever reason, one after another of our stately and seemingly healthy pines has fallen. We had the few that remained preemptively cut down to control the hazard.

In one notable case, a falling pine lodged in a white oak. It was a wet season and, before we could have the pine removed, it had pushed the oak into a large tulip poplar, which itself then leaned farther. Ultimately, that pine pushed down six sizable hardwoods in a line stretching two thirds of a football field from its base and spanning the bottom of the cove.

The back of a neighbor’s lot was once mostly pines, until pine bark beetles killed them all. On one not-notably-windy day, Nancy heard crash after crash from that part of the woods. Later investigation showed that the dead pine trunks had nearly all fallen or been snapped off high up, like some cultic mass suicide. The forest floor was littered with newly downed trunks. Most frightening were the trunk sections that had done a 180 or even a 360 in their descent, diving stunts that left fifteen foot sections planted upright in the soft ground.

Those woods have always been a playground for us. That first year, we built a “fort” at the bottom of the cove for my two boys to use—a two-story affair topped with a tarp in pup tent configuration. Straddling the stream bed, its first floor was two feet above the ground level, reached via a drawbridge from the steep side of the cove. Occasionally my sons would sleep out in the fort. I remember one night all four of us were on its upper deck, watching a deer just below us coming to the stream for a drink.

When we moved in, there was just one path down into the woods from our yard. It went straight down the slope. That was convenient for dragging the lumber for the fort down the hill, but misery for coming back up, not to mention the erosion potential. So we soon began laying out alternative routes using switchbacks. Over the years, various tree falls have necessitated slight alterations, but our original paths are still largely intact.

We use these paths almost daily. Mona and I take long walks on neighborhood streets more days than not, probably logging 400-500 miles a year. But even after a three mile morning walk, she will typically get restless in the afternoon. “Let’s go to the woods!” I’ll say, and she’s alive with anticipation. She will take off down a path, scaring up squirrels, chipmunks, occasional deer. In the woods, she can be free of her leash, roaming freely. She never strays, always staying within eyesight.

Pumpkin, our first dog, I also associate with these woods. She was a skinny stray, abandoned and hungry, watching us build the fort. She was pumpkin-colored, and came to us at harvest time. After we’d adopted her and filled out her ribcage, we had to keep her on a leash in the woods. She was a runner, liked to come home an hour later after a good roll in deer scat.

Twenty-five years of these woods. One dog’s lifetime, and more than half of her replacement’s likely lifespan.

Mona and I used to walk some of the downed tree trunks, ’til the good ones rotted too much for safe footing. I slipped off one of the huge rootballs once. Wet weather. It crumbled underfoot and I ended up flat on my back in the watery hole from whence the rootball had come, briefly stunned, wet and cold. Now I carry my cell phone, and think of my age before embarking on acrobatics.

Nancy, too, uses these paths often. With camera in hand, or just with Mona. We wage a one-family war on poison ivy, English ivy, vinca minor, privet. We gage soil moisture by where the dry stream bed becomes wet, enjoying watching water boil up through small underground passages. We scratch through the gravel beds newly deposited after a major storm.

Over a quarter-century, with near-daily familiarity, you notice changes. Falling trees open up the canopy and then it closes again. The understory changes. Small plots of various ferns and trillium wax and wane with the changes overhead. The past several years have seen our Mayapple area expand ten-fold. Our one patch of bluet shrank to nothing as the canopy closed. It will be interesting to see if it re-emerges this spring; we had to have a large, lightning-damaged white oak felled, re-opening the old bluet site to the sky.

I called the woods our playground. Exclusively ours, it seems. Once in the woods, several acres of forest are open to our enjoyment. None of the neighbors seem to know they exist. We’ve never encountered another person in this playground. In twenty-five years, I’ve heard children’s voices down there only a handful of times, with the exception of my own boys. Seen evidence of children’s play even less, except for paintball hulls, mostly shot from the “safety” of a back deck. Even our youngest had little interest in playing there. This is more than surprising to us. Both Nancy and I grew up spending many happy hours in our own wooded playgrounds. The alleged “nature deficit” of today’s children seems real in my neighborhood.

Time and weather took their toll on our fort, and no one was using it anymore, so we removed it. The corner poles and some of the better flooring got repurposed; the rotted stuff hauled to the landfill. Today, the only evidence of the old fort is a small bench fashioned from part of the drawbridge substructure. I think we have been good stewards of our small piece of nature. We’ve intended to be. We will probably walk those paths until our bodies give out, and then watch from our windows.