Tag Archives: nature

Treebeard, R.I.P.

“Bang!” Nancy says it sounded like a large chunk of rock dropped into the bowl of our big electric cart, The Goat. Then, more bangs, sounding like gunshots, or was it firecrackers? She looked out the window to see a wave of movement in the canopy, then bark exploding from Treebeard and a big yellow flash as its trunk split, exposing the heartwood. I was 300 yards away walking the dog and heard the creaks, groans, snapping, and final crash as that big black oak fell into our West Woods.

Treebeard was named after the tree-giant character in The Lord of the Rings. A long-ago trauma had taken his top, leaving a stub of trunk and two arms. The effect was somewhat like one of those air dancers you see at gas stations, frozen in a joyful wild contortion. 

Treebeard Before and After

That old injury in turn led to his spectacular demise, as the open wound allowed rainwater and various organisms to pond and fester inside his trunk. Many years later, on a totally windless and rainless day, the fibers surrounding a cavity of rot halfway down the trunk were overwhelmed by the task of supporting all that stood above.

It is incorrect to say that Treebeard is no more. His bulk is in your face over much of our West Woods. In bringing tons of carbon and other minerals back down to earth and opening the canopy for more sunlight to reach ground level, he will have an impact on several thousand square feet of forest for many years to come.

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Broken Open

Despite that opening, this blog post is not going to be about the circle of life or life out of death. I’ll stick with the topic I have been chewing on for the last couple of weeks, which broadly has to do with my interactions with the natural world, especially the two acres of which we are the current stewards. As I have written before, our goal is to reclaim this small patch from the invasives and return it to something closer to its natural state—to make of it a haven for wildlife.

Some observations and thoughts over the past month or so:

Observation: We seem to have less Japanese stiltgrass this year. Is that my imagination, or does it just emerge later than I am anticipating?

Observation: There seem to be lots more violets this year. A solid carpet in some areas. I have mixed feelings about violets when they appear in the more formal flower gardens at church. But in our meadow, they fit perfectly and are most welcome.

I just read a post by The Humane Gardener, who reports violets taking over in areas where she has been pulling stiltgrass. That fits with our observations above. We have been pulling or cutting stiltgrass for a couple of years now, reducing its seed load in our soil and opening bare spots for violets to get established. Wow! Our efforts are paying off!

Observation: The butterfly weed has monarch larvae eating it. Great! That’s largely what it’s for. Our goal is a wildlife-friendly habitat, not a picture-perfect flower garden.

Observation (a few days later): Where are the butterfly weed? After missing them for two days, I get Nancy to accompany me. She finds the stalks, nibbled almost to the ground by deer. I wonder what happened to the monarch larvae: Did birds get them, useful food for growing hatchlings? Or were they wasted in the guts of the marauding deer?

The Indian Pink that Survived!

Observation: Our ironweed have also had their tops nibbled off. And the Indian pinks—just one bloom left.

I used up the remainder of my fencing roll to make a couple more cages to separate deer from our young plants. I could use a few more cages, but am not inclined to buy another roll of wire. Meanwhile, I’m pondering the conflict between the deer and the plants we are nurturing. Should I get more aggressive with the deer repellent? Or does the repellent also repel or otherwise harm the pollinators and insect larvae the I want to use those plants? A wildlife-friendly habitat, The Humane Gardener would say, has enough food for all, the deer included, with some left over for my enjoyment. So, instead of trying to repel the deer, should I nurture more food for them? I researched preferred deer foods and found that poison ivy is on that list.

Now, faithful readers of this blog may recall that poison ivy is on my ten least wanted list: the plants we are working to eliminate from our woods and meadow. And you may have noticed that it is the only plant on our list that is not an imported invasive. Poison ivy is a native to our part of the world. I’ve had a slight nagging of conscience about my war on that plant, but I really want to be able to walk through my woods without days of itching. That was impossible before I began wielding the spray bottle. (Generally, we try to avoid the chemical poisons, and much of our fight with invasives is fought by pulling, digging, and cutting. But, my record in digging out poison ivy is : Attempts, many; successes, zero. Spot spraying is the only way I know to fight this one.)

Could we leave some designated patches of poison ivy, while still maintaining pathways and other access to our woods? Maybe. I am still thinking on that one.

Observation: One technique we are using on ground ivy is to smother it under cardboard topped with wood chips from our tree guy. Preliminary results are that violets are seeding in the mulch on top of the cardboard. Will they find adequate nutrition before the cardboard rots, and will the ground ivy be sufficiently suppressed by that time? It is too early to tell, but the early results are encouraging.

Observation: The cardboard strategy takes a tremendous amount of cardboard and chips. Our more industrial scale experiment uses a 25’ x 100’ silage tarp (heavy black plastic) to smother the existing vegetation in our meadow. The tarp is left in place for a year, then removed, and the bare soil sowed with a native meadow mix. We seeded our first strip last fall and have been rewarded with a startling mix of poppy, batchelor button, and other flowers. The mix is not yet as thick or diverse as we had hoped, but some of the new plants will take more time to mature. Meanwhile, the tarp has been moved and is cooking another strip for planting this fall.

Wildflowers in the New Meadow

The theme of this post, and of my recent meditations on our work in woods and meadow, is that we are still actively shaping our immediate surroundings. No less than someone else’s opting for turf grass and oriental exotics, our decision to favor native plants and wildlife involves active intervention in the ecological processes on our two acres. The very fact that we are maintaining a meadow, despite its natural tendency to revert to woodland (witness the dozens and dozens of sassafras and tulip tree seedlings that sprout each year), reveals our active role. This is more than an aesthetic choice, as that meadow overlays our septic tank’s drain field and must be kept open. But I am increasingly aware that our choices have consequences and that much of what we do is experimental. While we try to be guided by the advice of others with similar goals, our knowledge and observations are limited and some of what we do will probably prove to have been counterproductive. So much to learn!

Observation: While pulling some unwanted vines, Nancy came close to a yellow jacket nest. Somehow, she avoided being stung. In our growing sense of the interconnectedness of the various life forms on our property, we wondered if we could let the wasps be, and decided “yes.” That weeding job can be put off until cold weather and we can avoid that location.

Observation: The king snakes are prowling, doing their job to keep rodents and other vermin in check. I have spotted three in the space of a week. In one case, I had the dog with me (leashed). We stopped at a distance to watch, and the snake began a defensive coiling. I have never seen that behavior before, and assume it was because of Mona. In another case, I was trimming limbs off an arborvitae, in preparation for cutting it down. I had searched the tree for bird nests before I started, and was preceding with care. Suddenly, at head height and just an arm’s length away, I saw a small king snake on a branch of the tree. I backed off, leaving that job for another day and giving the snake a chance to get to safety. I never found a bird’s nest nor figured out what that snake was after.

Observation: All three bluebird houses are occupied, the phoebes are using the roost I made on the garage (instead of nesting on top of the floodlight), and two nests (unknown species) inside the garage seem to have evaded the king snakes.

One final observation: There are tadpoles in the frog pond! Nancy insisted that frogs and other wildlife would come when the pond was ready. First she saw mosquito larvae, and shortly after, tadpoles to keep them in check! Two different adults sighted so far. The pond is live and Nancy is delighted!

Frog and Tadpoles

Water and Stone

We have a pond!

The Frog Pond

For the three plus years we have lived here, Nancy has missed the frog pond at our old house and wanted to devise a replacement. But it was a long time coming. For one thing, there were other priorities—not for nothing have I dubbed our new place, “NEVERDONE.”

Besides, we could never settle on where to construct the new one. In our time here, we have had at least a half dozen “preferred” locations, each with notable drawbacks. None could top the convenience of our old pond, just two feet beyond the dining room picture window, so that Nancy could sit inside, camera mounted on a tripod, ready to observe and record at a moment’s notice.

I had pretty much succumbed to the notion that we’d build a pond sometime this spring or summer; though the location was still fluid, Nancy’s patience was wearing thin. Still, the suddenness with which pond building became the order of the day surprised me. I woke one day with a small, seemingly unrelated item at the top of my To Do List, and one thing led to another, as it always does.

I had suggested to Nancy that we should rake off the fall leaf cover in two small areas where she has established wildflower gardens around concrete pagodas and replace the leaves with some of the wood chips our tree guy has graciously brought us. This idea startled Nancy—I have a history of complaining about removing “natural mulch” and expending effort and cost to replace it with something else just because it is more attractive. So for me to be the instigator was a real change. (See my earlier post on “Conversion.”)

In the event, the “two small areas” kept expanding, so that before it was done, I had removed about as many leaves as we did all last fall. No small feat, as we clear our entire cul de sac in the fall! Removing the leaves uncovered more Italian arum, which had to be dug out. And then we re-mulched with about half a truck load of wood chips. All those leaves, by the way, will end up as useful mulch/ground cover somewhere else on our property.

Removing the leaves uncovered the stockpile of rock we’d brought along from the old house when we moved here. Lots and lots of rock! Beautiful rock, if used properly, but an eyesore just laid out along the driveway. 

More than a year ago, we had some earth reshaping done to solve a drainage problem. That area (“the canyon”) was functional, but we’d never gotten around to giving it the final aesthetic treatment. Another eyesore, another task on our vague “sometime this year” list. 

I am sure you can see where this is going. A small task, remove some leaves and replace with wood chips, becomes a larger one, remove a lot of leaves and replace with lots of wood chips. We are already beyond a morning’s work, into morning-afternoon-next morning. Now, let’s use these rocks to finish the canyon.

Working on The Canyon

Well, the canyon was a whole order of magnitude beyond trading one kind of mulch for another. For one thing, an aesthetic treatment requires that the rocks to be placed, not dumped—a task Nancy enjoys and at which she excels, but which takes time. For another, despite the lots and lots of rock we’d moved from the old place, and despite the even greater quantity of rock we had collected and stockpiled from the new place, we needed still more. A half dozen or so loads on my small pickup. And, while we are visiting rock yards, why not pick up some rock for the frog pond?

You’d forgotten the frog pond, I bet. But Nancy hadn’t! She’d been hearing those Upland Chorus Frogs in the distance. 

Me, “How big is this pond to be?” Her, “Oh, just like this” (arms not fully extended) … “right here.” (The spot is finally fixed.)

So, in the middle of the canyon job, we started digging a frog pond. And adding pond-bound rocks to our purchases. And pond liner. And bog plants.

Working on the Pond

Nancy and I do lots of projects, and we laugh about the multiplier. The multiplier is the mathematical result you get when you take the final tally of time/cost/effort and divide it by the initial estimate. We typically find that our projects have a multiplier of two or three. For ponds, it’s more like five.

Our location is on the edge of the driveway, tucked up close to the carport. After roughing out the hole, it was clear we needed to build up the downhill side, working perilously close to a steep drop off. One of my enduring images of this particular project is from the morning I had a Zoom meeting on some church business, while Nancy was outside working on the dangerous, close-to-the-edge side of the pond. I set up a table in the foyer so I could monitor her while in my meeting—Nancy in her yellow Pikachu hat, tethered to my truck by her climbing rope and harness. (Failed to take a photo!)

The Canyon – Finished!

A couple of weeks later, it is all done—the re-mulching, the canyon, the pond. At least as done as any other project; like blog posts, they can always use some tweaking. Now we wait for nature to condition the pond and invite into it the frogs and dragon flies and other wildlife.

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More news from outdoors: Trillium and mayapple are unfurling and bloodroot blooming on the forest floor. Nancy’s on watch for morel mushrooms. Redbud and buckeye are blooming; dogwood, azalea, blueberry and several kinds of viburnum are getting close. The tulip poplars are leafing out. The young beech are shedding those lovely tan leaves that have graced the winter woods. Violet blooms carpet parts of the meadow. Squirrels are everywhere and birdsong fills the ear. The Indian pinks are ten inches high. I have seen our neighborhood barred owls four times in the last few weeks, and all three bluebird houses are occupied. And almost every morning for the last month or more, I hear mourning doves. (How did I go seven decades only hearing mourning doves across hot summertime fields, missing their late winter presence? There is always more to observe or learn!)

Please note! If you are a subscriber and getting this post by email, sometimes the more complicated media, such as videos, do not display properly. You can always go to the website and get the full effect. Thank you for subscribing! Happy Springtime!

Conversion

In a pre-Christmas issue of OnBeing’s newsletter, The Pause, Padraig O’Tuama tells a story from his late teens, a period of his life that he describes as “too interested in religion” and “too much zeal.” Working for a church in Dublin, he encountered an elderly woman in chapel nearly every day for five years. And every time, she would say, “I’m praying for you; for your conversion.”

He goes on to say how his initial dismay (“I was already converted”) evolved over time to a deeper understanding of conversion: “It is an embrace of the possibility of change and future. … It calls us again and again throughout a life.”

He might have said, It calls us to life—to a deeper, richer, more genuine life. 

In some contexts, conversion is seen in binary terms: yes or no, before or after, saved or not saved, sheep or goat. St. Paul is the prototypical example, to the extent that “Damascus Road experience” is a familiar idiom, even in the secular world.

In others, the pattern is more like that of St. Peter, conversion on conversion on conversion. Even after his uncomfortable post-Resurrection “little chat” over breakfast (“do you love me … feed my sheep”), even after Pentecost, we have the story of his dream on the rooftop in Joppa.

I have been blessed with many conversions over the course of my life. But I say “blessed” only after the fact. Conversion, in my experience, is not a pleasant thing to go through. Most of the time, when we say we are praying for someone, we pray for favorable external circumstances: May you get well, may you get the job, may you win the lottery, may your pain go away. To pray for another’s conversion is to wish pain onto them. Granted, a necessary pain that will lead to that deeper, richer, more genuine life, but pain, nevertheless. 

What a startling, presumptuous prayer! And one fraught with pitfalls for the pray-er. If I pray for your conversion, am I ignoring my own need to change? (E.G., May all you folks who voted the “wrong” way in the recent election come to see the light.) If I pray for your conversion, am I assuming that I know what you are in need of? I have repeatedly made the mistake of thinking I knew the particular way my spouse or child needed to change. And yet, more than one of my own conversions came at a wise and loving challenge from Nancy.

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On another front, signs of spring are all around. Shoots of the spring ephemerals are popping up through the leaf litter. The woods are full of birdsong. Nancy spotted a pair of red-shouldered hawks in the big pine tree below us.

As usual, the list of tasks we were going to accomplish over the winter is barely diminished. We did spend two afternoons crawling around under some rhododendron, pulling out the English ivy—a task I am only willing to do when it is too cold for the snakes and other critters to be active. In our observation, the ivy does not climb and cling onto the rhododendron and azaleas. And under the rhodies, the ivy was far less thick than just outside their reach. Too shady? Or does that genus somehow suppress ivy?

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A final aside: Here is a clip entitled “Mona Plays Basketball.”

Thanksgiving

I have been privileged on these cold and cloudless mid-November mornings to watch the daily purpling of the Cumberlands. My days begin when my dog pops her head over the side of my bed at daybreak, signaling “You are wasting daylight, and I have to pee.” To the north, the Cumberland escarpment is a uniform wall of deep blue, beneath a pale blue sky. By the end of our walk, however, the rising sun shines a red-tinted spotlight on the mountains’ face, and soon their ridged and folded topography is revealed, as the high places turn purple while the hollows remain deep blue.

For much of the year, only the mountain tops are visible to us, with the lower slopes hidden by the row of still growing tulip poplars that will someday cover the entire view. For now, their bare trunks and branches are almost black random mullions in our temporary window onto the full mass of these mountains—easy to look through and forget their presence.

If the wind direction is into the sunrise, the windmill tri-stars on Buffalo Mountain shine a brilliant white. On other days when they are turned oblique to the sun, they are hardly noticeable. Meanwhile, the ever higher sun lights up the nearer trees in the valley a yellow brown.

Now comes coffee. After trying several methods, we have settled on a slow pour-over. The ritual has become another nod toward mindfulness (and adding the used grounds to the compost bin is easier with this method than the messy disassembling of K-cups).

Settling into my easy chair with my coffee, I must choose: Will I start my day on a contemplative note, with my journal and/or a dose of Richard Rohr or Mary Oliver? Or will I succumb first to the blood-pressure raising siren call of the morning paper and news feed?

In any case, my time in the easy chair is limited. Mona needs to play, which she typically announces by dropping a tennis ball into my lap. Once, and only once, I snapped, “Go play with yourself!” and, as if I’d thrown a switch, she spun into her tail-chasing dervish mode. Mostly, though, she will charm me or wear me down until I get up and pay attention to her. 

Over the course of a day, we will have two or three sessions of chase-the-ball-down-the-hall; a couple of trips outdoors to harass chipmunks or race around with a nearly flat basketball that she scavenged from the woods gripped in her teeth; not to mention the four walks on a leash, poop bag in hand. The latter, pursued vigorously up our very steep street, double as my aerobic interval training. Our previous dog called me to Sabbath; this one calls me to action.

Our long-term project to replace the invasives on our property with wildlife-friendly native plants is slowly showing progress.  Our rogues’ gallery of undesirables has become a Ten Least Wanted: English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, ground ivy, Italian arum, mulberryweed, Oriental bittersweet, privet, mahonia, Rose of Sharon, and poison ivy. The work of many of our days consists of removing one or more of these pests from some small definable patch of ground. 

Arum is Nancy’s current villain #1. Impervious to herbicides, it reproduces by means of tiny underground corms. Dig a plant up and it leaves many corms behind. Her current strategy is to do “Mohs surgery” around the mother plants, digging outward and down until all the visible plant is removed. Then wait a few weeks for the corms that were left behind to emerge and do it again. And again. And again. Her hope is that by preventing the emerging young plants from producing new corms, eventually the soil’s inventory will be depleted. It is grinding work. For each young plant that is visible, she will find a dozen underground. Fortunately, this is cool weather work and their bright green leaves are readily visible against the seasonal brown.

How to do this on the greater-than-45-degree slopes below our driveway? We use a climbing rope anchored to my truck, with a prussic knot allowing the harnessed digger to hold a position on the rope and work with both hands.

Some days, it seems we only tear down. Yet the work also includes building up after the tearing down. In woodland patches cleared of English ivy, long-suppressed native forbs are coming back, and the wood asters we planted are propagating. A strip of our stilt grass meadow, weeds smothered under a silage tarp for a year, was recently planted with a native wildflower mix. An American holly, rescued from a choking, cloaking tangle of Oriental bittersweet, displays its glossy foliage once again. We added The Hazels—a pair each of hazelnut, hazel alder, and witch hazel—to define the northern border of the meadow.

Woolly Aphids on Hazel Alder

Our hazel alders have white fuzzies. Tennessee Naturescapes tells me that is good news. These are woolly aphids, food of the caterpillar phase of the Harvester butterfly—the only carnivorous butterfly larvae in the western hemisphere. You can read here how these meat-eating larvae manage to co-exist with the aphids and the ants who “guard” them.

Mary Oliver wrote*:

“I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy. But it seems impossible.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

(*From “This World,” in her collection, Why I Wake Early.)

Blue and Other Delights

I am sitting on our deck in the middle of a perfect September day. The sky, and the Cumberland Mountains, are an astonishing blue. I recently had cataract surgery, and my renewed acquaintance with the color blue is a constant delight. I opted for the multi-focal lens implants, so am without glasses for the first time since second grade. But the color intensity is still the most noticeable change. It as if I’ve swapped all the 3000K LED bulbs for 4000K ones.

My vision had become uncorrectable with glasses, one eye much near-sighted, the other extreme in the other direction. It had become so bad that, when driving at night, by the time I was close enough to read a roadside sign, it was no longer illuminated by my headlights. Now, I am watching a hawk sail overhead, a mile or so out over the valley, then back again.

Another recent delight is our new dog. It has been almost a year-and-a-half since the last one died. Nancy has been chipping away at my reluctance for a while, noting that our grand-dogs don’t visit often enough to satisfy her need for a dog fix. She has been haunting the websites of dog shelters, and Jay has fueled the fire with his own web searches. Our new addition looks amazingly like our former one, who, in turn, looked like Nancy’s first dog. So, Mona iii has entered our lives. A rescue, about a year and a half old, seems to be a mix of border collie and lab. And way too much energy for a couple of geezers-in-training. But she is attentive, wants to please, and is a quick learner.

The third major event of our recent lives is the publishing of the first virtual performance of the Oak Ridge Community Band. How does a band keep playing while shut down for a pandemic? Earlier this summer, several small ensembles made recordings while spread out on our deck. Most recently, nearly forty musicians made video and audio recordings of themselves playing in isolation while listening through headphones to a click-track. The piece, “The Distance Between Us,” was composed by the band’s director, Shaun Salem, and honors all who suffer through this pandemic, by isolation and other losses. Nancy has spent the last couple of weeks in a frenzy of effort to merge all the videos and overlay them onto the merged audio track. You can see this virtual performance, and the small ensembles at the ORCB Facebook page.

Triage

It has been a busy summer. We are remodeling two bathrooms, gutting them down to the framing and working back out. Although the physical work is hired out, the disruption of daily living and the time involved in researching and selecting materials still have a huge impact on our capacity to carry on with normal activities. Two years after buying this place, we still don’t feel settled in. 

The big event of our summer, however, was a trip to Ireland—two weeks with our church choir (and some groupies). We sang Choral Eucharist and Choral Evensong at St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast one weekend and at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin the next, plus a public performance at Bangor Abbey, our choirmaster’s home parish. As in all my musical undertakings, I feel I am the least talented and least experienced of the group. The music was difficult, and there was lots of it. So, telling about those experiences is much more fun than was the actual doing. 

The debut performance of Handel’s “Messiah” occurred just a few dozen yards from Christ Church Cathedral, and its choir, plus that of nearby St. Patrick’s, comprised the original chorus. We sat in the stalls of that choir and sang for eucharist and evensong in that church! Our recessional passed under its great organ just as Emma, our organist, hit the lowest, most powerful notes of her postlude. Those vibrations stay with you long after the physical echos have died away!

To get to the bell ringers’ chamber in the belfry requires climbing a narrow spiral tower from the south transept, and traversing an outdoor catwalk along the base of the transept roof. In ancient times, we were told, the belfry was also the treasure vault. The narrow spiral approach, corkscrewing clockwise as you climb, was designed to put an attacking (right-handed) swordsman at a disadvantage. I never realized these places did duty as forts!

View from Transept Roof

For all that, the most memorable parts of the trip were the more traditional tourist things. When asked about strongest impressions, favorite experiences, etc., I give some variant on “everything.” Was it the wild northern coast of County Antrim, or the crowded streets of Dublin with buskers on every corner? Or maybe the ancient stone ruins? The invariably lovely countryside? The food, the friendly people, the coffee? Ah, the coffee! And flowers everywhere!

Coast, County Antrim

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Dublin Street

Nearly everywhere you go along the Northern Ireland coast has a sign with a variant of “Game of Thrones, Season x, Episode y filmed here!” We were in and around Portrush a week before The Open. Astounding, the logistics of putting on a major golfing event in a fairly isolated location! Hundreds of acres of temporary structures, some 30 by 40 feet and two stories high! We stayed at the nearby Giant’s Causeway Hotel, a Fawlty Towers-looking structure set amidst the lushest meadows imaginable, edged by clifftops a hundred meters above the North Atlantic Ocean. The Causeway’s polygonal basalt columns are a marvel, but an after dinner, almost dusk walk along the clifftop meadows is the memory that feeds my soul.

Clifftop Meadow

We actually spent more time in the big cities. There, too, delights abound. St. George’s Market in Belfast, with its handcrafts and culinary temptations and Tennessee flags. (Nashville is a sister city.) A gourmet dinner on our “private” open-air balcony atop a department store. (Actually, that balcony would hold thirty diners, but all the other patrons that night preferred the smoking balcony.) Another dinner, a seafood mezza, at a Lebanese restaurant in Dublin. Extravagant floral displays in gardens and window boxes. Public art. Even rural roundabouts might have towering sculptures! And walking, walking, walking. One day, our phone app clocked nine miles of random “let’s see where this goes” meandering.

Mezza—Appetizer Course

Typically, when Nancy and I travel, we are ready to go home by the third day. Not since our honeymoon have we had a two-week vacation. I am happy to say two weeks was not too long. Still, it’s nice to be home.

The weeds did not go on vacation during our absence, and we are in a fight to prevent the mulberry weed and stiltgrass from going to seed. But those gardening activities have to compete for our limited time and energy. Church, band, the remodeling project—all want a piece of us. 

Three weeks after our return, we hosted the four grandkids and their parents. At the beginning of that three-week countdown, the downstairs room the kids were to sleep in had no ceiling and, in a few places, no subfloor in the still-under-construction bathroom above. The furniture from that room, plus construction tools and supplies filled the rest of our downstairs guest spaces. It would have been a busy three weeks even without the stiltgrass and band and other components of our everyday lives.

“No matter our vocation, we so often find ourselves living life as a form of triage.” (Michael Perry, Truck: A Love Story). 

Amen! Testify! Even in retirement. Even without remodeling.

Our house is surrounded by trees—mature trees that not infrequently shed parts of themselves. Even the slightest of rain showers seems to bring down one or more sticks you’re grateful not to have been underneath when it fell. Once last year I found a thirty-foot long limb at the edge of our meadow—a seemingly healthy arm ripped from an eighty-foot tulip tree. Did I sleep through a windstorm? Did an otherwise benign shower generate a freak localized burst of turbulence just fifty yards from my bedroom window?

Three days ago, I found an even bigger widow-maker in the driveway back to our garage. I stepped off about forty feet of chestnut oak, nine inches in diameter at the butt. This one, at least, was dead wood—woodpeckers had been at it. It seems to have taken a tip-first dive, then toppled sideways down the embankment to land ten feet laterally from the plane of its fall.

The source tree was one of a cluster of three big chestnut oaks covered with English ivy, the removal of which had not yet risen to the top of our priority list. As the widow maker had damaged a rhododendron at the tree’s base, I climbed the bank to trim away the broken branches. While up there, I removed ivy from the trunks of the oaks, and Nancy resumed her long-interrupted task of clearing it from the forest floor. Triage.

Fortunately, that rhody is not a well behaved lawn shrub; it has gone native and formed the beginnings of a “laurel hell.” Loss of a few branches soon won’t make a noticeable gap in its overall form. 

The ivy is bound for the landfill; can’t risk its taking root again. The widow maker and its rhody victim I cut up and hauled downslope. Half a ton of matter added to our brush pile.

Yes, our place generates lots of work. But pleasures also. From our deck, we daily watch the antics of the hummingbirds, the clouds, the windmills on Buffalo Mountain. From the deck, I noticed the snakeskin in the redbud. That eighteen- or twenty-inch juvenile had climbed twenty-five feet up the tree and slithered out of its skin on branch tips so small you’d think they would not support a goldfinch. Just in the last week we’ve seen our raptors at hood ornament height on prey-catching trajectories just in front of our moving cars: the barred owl across Nancy’s bow one night; the red-shouldered hawk across mine the next day.

Snake Skin in Redbud

For two glorious weeks in Ireland, we put the daily demands aside and walked new paths. Even now, back to “real life,” I am blessed that my daily triage involves mostly responsibilities willingly chosen.

Our interim rector recently used the following prayer:

Gracious Lord, we thank you for setting before us tasks which demand our best efforts and lead us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done; let it be. Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, and new possibilities. Let us leave the past behind and look towards the future that you hold for us.  Help us to be thankful, joyful, and expectant for all you have done and will continue to do. In the name of the One who leads us forth. Amen.

Sightings

Looking down on the meadow below our deck, first time visitors to our new place often say, “You must see lots of deer down there.” No, not really. I did see three of them grazing their way up the slope this morning when I took my breakfast out onto the deck. But that was a rarity. We saw far more deer at our old place, a tight suburban neighborhood, than we do here, where the nearest neighbor is a hundred yards away.

Nancy still misses the frogs we left behind at the old place, and we still puzzle over where to construct a small pond. Frogs and deer notwithstanding, we see lots of wildlife. Before the weather turned warm enough to use the deck, I would spend my morning contemplative time at our bedroom window. Most mornings, the ground was alive with chipmunks and squirrels and rabbits, robins and chickadees and birds I cannot identify. We’ve woodpeckers—pileated and downy, the occasional turkey, a glimpse of a coyote. A red-shouldered hawk is a frequent sighting. And, of course, crows.

The prize is “our” barred owl. The first spring here, I spotted it perched high in a tulip tree. Later, on a dusk walk with Mona, it startled us by rising out of a neighbor’s yard into a nearby dogwood. Apparently, we had interrupted dinner. Three times last winter, my truck and that owl almost collided as I was driving home at night and it was swooping across the street in front of me, presumably aiming toward mice in roadside garbage. More recently, we have been hearing mating calls in the night and have seen it twice in early morning hours, perched just a few feet off the ground in a small tree, awaiting breakfast.

Our son’s dog alerted us to the skunk disappearing underneath our porch. (Fortunately, he was inside looking out the window.) Our builder, who once had a wildlife control business, recommended that we let it alone. That space couldn’t readily be made skunk-proof, and the skunk was not harming anything and might be useful in keeping the yellowjacket and grub populations under control. Days later, he saw a litter of skunklets (kits) out for a noontime romp. So far, no stink.

Last year, we reported on the crazed bluebirds banging on our windows. I am happy to report that this year they have settled down to nesting. Nancy has spotted pairs in all three of our bird houses.

In the past week, we have had a blacksnake hanging around the house. (I usually say “blacksnake” because I cannot reliably distinguish between a black racer, black king snake, and black rat snake. This one, I think, is a rat snake, as it still has some of the markings of a juvenile.) Ordinarily, I would not think this unusual, given the number of chipmunks we host. But it most recently ventured up onto our deck. What prey could it be looking for up here? Possibly, the hummingbirds that visit our feeder. However, given the location of the other sightings, I suspect it is trying to find a way up to the gable peak around the corner, where a pair of phoebes built a nest on the remnant of the old power cable that use to feed the garage.

Our landscaping ambition for this place has always been to move it more toward native plants and away from non-natives. That ambition was reinforced on discovering the book, The Living Landscape, by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy. Subtitled, “Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden,” the book argues that we cannot depend on a few large nature preserves (e.g., the Smokies) to preserve biodiversity, and that suburban lawns and gardens have an important role to play. The authors are not opposed to non-native plants, and indeed use some in their own gardens. But they note that an urban/suburban landscape that is highly fragmented and primarily planted in non-native species does not support native wildlife. As an example, they note that plant-eating insects (e.g., butterfly larvae) are adapted to specific plants, and that non-native shrubs from Asia, even those that have been in North America for hundreds of years, have proved resistant to becoming a food source for native insects. That is good for the shrub, but the larvae are critical food sources for baby song birds. A suburban landscape of non-natives does not support the butterfly larvae, which in turn do not support the song birds, and thus becomes much less diverse.

Over the past few weeks, the property downslope from us was partially cleared. Much of the loss was kudzu, and we still have a buffer strip between us and the cleared land. Still, it is another disruption to the movement and sheltering of native fauna, and yet another reason for us to root out the invasives, thin the exotics, and plant more natives, restoring something closer to the native landscape in the small patch of earth we take care of. We intend to be kind to our fine feathered (and furred and scaled) friends, and hope to see more of them in the years to come.

Mona

We had to let Mona go last week. At 14 years, she had been showing her age. Declining mobility in her hindquarters put her on a daily regimen of pain killers and other medications. She always reminded us when it was time for her twice-daily doses and would hound us until we delivered—most likely because meds were served up with a dollop of peanut butter. (“A spoonful of peanut butter helps the medicine go down.”—Mary Pup-pins.)

Despite the meds, she’d sometimes fall down when in an awkward position, struggled to remain standing long enough to eat her kibble, and had recently reached the point being unable to climb the stairs from our basement. Yet, on her daily walks up the street, she would often insist on taking the long way around rather than turning back early. Later in the day, she would usually lead us down to the meadow, where, after a good poop, she would run and prance like a puppy. 

Pancreatitis was the last straw. After three days in doggy hospital, we had a choice: insert a new intravenous catheter and extend her stay, or do a “home trial” to see if she would rally in more familiar surroundings. Her night at home was agony. Of all the things we tried to ease her suffering, the most effective was to slip a sling under her and help her to walk out the driveway and around the cul-de-sac. The different position gave her some relief, or at least a distraction. On coming back inside, she would fall asleep for a time, until the pain took over again. We were back at the vet’s as soon as they opened. In her own way, she gave clear indication that she had had enough. Exhausted from the pain, she did not even protest at being back. Perhaps was unaware.

My most poignant memory of that last night is from one of those walks out the driveway. She stood and faced the meadow, inhaling the gentle upslope breeze, seemingly taking her leave of that beloved place. 

I have long been intentional, if not always faithful, in observing a set of disciplines—some daily, some weekly, some seasonal—what in monastic traditions is called a “rule of life.” As it happens, I am being aided in re-evaluating, renewing, and re-energizing my own rule of life, through two adult forum series at my church and through a secular series of classes given by the holistic medical practice of which I am a member. Mona had her own set of daily disciplines. Her day was not complete without a walk in the meadow and a nap on the sofa, resting her head on the thigh of one of her people. Not a bad rule of life. And since, for her, these were communal activities, they were a part of my own. From her earliest days, she was the dog who called me to Sabbath.

This year’s sequence of spring flowering has coincided with memorable dates. The snowdrops by the garage were in full flower on the early February birthday of our youngest son. The purple crocus by the mailbox appeared in sudden glory on Valentine’s Day. The daffodils in the meadow opened in splendor on the day Mona died. Her body rests in Mona’s Meadow, where her spirit still runs and plays.

Next Year

I once read about the Native American three sisters garden: A symbiotic mixture of corn and beans and squash (the three sisters). The corn provides the pole for the beans to climb, the squash provide a root-shading, weed-suppressing ground cover, the beans fix nitrogen for the trio. And the resulting produce is a nutritionally balanced diet. This summer was the first we had lived in a place with enough sunlight to grow vegetables, so I thought I’d give the three sisters a try.

Not a Threat!

As the photo shows, my garden is not a threat to the commercial food industry. That is my entire corn crop. The corn had stopped growing at about knee height, and I had to scaffold a substitute for the beans to grow on. The squash grew normally for a while, flowered but never set any fruit, then overnight disappeared entirely. I did get two subsequent pickings of beans—and remembered that I don’t like string beans. Ugh!

Breakfast Beginnings

Nancy, meanwhile, grew cherry tomatoes, peppers, basil, oregano, and thyme in pots on the deck, flavoring our breakfast scramblers all summer long.

A Blackoak Ridge Breakfast

I’m the country boy, scion of farm-raised parents. As a child, I helped plant, hoe, pick, and preserve bushels of beans and peas and corn and tomatoes and potatoes. Year after year after year. Nancy, suburban girl, is no stranger to growing food, but on a smaller scale. What can I say? Pride goeth before the fall.

Next year, I’ll try something else. Sugar peas, maybe. I like peas. Zucchini? Has anyone ever produced too little zucchini? 

“Next year … “ Is it just me, or is that the refrain of all gardeners? “Next year, I will try different varieties.” “Next year, I will plant earlier (or later), fertilize better, keep the weeds down.”

I’ve become increasingly aware of “next year” since I retired, and Nancy and I took on responsibility for some of the ornamental gardens at church. We are always behind on the in-season weed control and the out-of-season dividing and moving and digging out and adding in. “Next year, I’ll get those those toad lilies divided.” “Next year, I’ll clear out that overgrown corner and start again.”  “Next year, I’ll keep the mulberry weed and thistle from going to seed, eliminate the vinca and the poison ivy.” Yeah, right!

At our old house, Nancy had, over a period of years, achieved a low-maintenance, largely native plant landscape around the house. In our woods, I had kept the poison ivy under control, and together we had held the neighbor’s English ivy at bay. Now we are in a new place, twice as large. The trees in our woods are furry with a decades-old infestation of English ivy. Poison ivy is abundant. In the open meadow, we are “blessed” with ground ivy and Japanese stilt-grass. From what I read, even goats won’t eat the stilt-grass. To make matters worse, I let it go to seed this year, because I got behind and wasn’t paying attention! What fun to look forward to “next year!” To be honest, we had stilt grass and ground ivy at the old place as well, but so much less! Have we bitten off more than we can chew?

We have a dream, a vision. In our vision, our woods have only native plants (minus the poison ivy). The meadow is kept open with native grasses and wildflowers. There are paths and nooks and benches. A frog pond (or two). Can we get there in our lifetimes? It’s impossible to forecast. But, so long as our health holds, each year will see some progress. And there will always be a To Do List for next year.

Meandering

Family business took us to the Florida Suncoast. We had planned to spend two days on the beach before returning to Tennessee: One day driving south, two days relaxing, one day un-relaxing on the return trip. Four days seems to be our limit for travel these days. Obligations, real and imagined, are the excuse, but frankly, we get antsy after a few days. Projects at home beckon.  

Florida’s “red tide” outbreak led us to cancel our beachside reservation shortly before departure, so we headed south with no more plan than to make it up as we went along. 

Day 1—Long and tiring, but mission accomplished. If not for the red tide, we’d have spent the rest of the trip at familiar places, restaurants, and activities. Instead, we had a three-day meander back home, filled with the unfamiliar. New routes, hotels, restaurants, and sights. And not a single mile on Interstate highways.

Day 2—From Tampa into Central Florida for our first-ever visit to Bok Tower Gardens.  Edward Bok was a Dutch immigrant. In 1889, at the age of twenty-six, he became editor of Ladies Home Journal, a post he held for thirty years and from which he changed American taste in household architecture and interior design. For instance, he published inexpensive house plans, to the dismay of architects. He converted the over-furnished and underutilized “parlor” into the “living room” as the nation was recovering from the influenza pandemic during which the all-too-often use of that room had been for laying out deceased family members. His autobiography won a Pulitzer.

As an encore, he acquired the top of a nearly barren Florida sand hill (the highest on the peninsula) and commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (yes, there was a Junior who followed in his father’s footsteps) to create a tropical paradise. The resulting “contemplative garden” is a haven for birds and butterflies and endangered plants (and people), with a gorgeous carillon tower and scores of nooks from which to enjoy the beauty in semi-privacy. Probably the most pleasant three hours I have ever spent at a tourist destination. 

Carillon Tower, Bok Tower Gardens

The day was still young, so we scurried back to the Gulf coast (safely north of the red tide) for sunset at Crystal River. Nancy finished off the day with a 50-Cedar-Key-clams-for-ten-dollars special, while I had Thai curry at an adjacent restaurant. The combination of sunset and seafood satisfied Nancy’s two criteria for a satisfactory trip; all else was gravy.

Days 3 and 4—Homeward bound via US19 along Florida’s gulf coast, US 27 through western Georgia, and TN58 from Chattanooga. Nothing on our familiar I-75 route remotely approaches the scenery we enjoyed almost constantly on that two-day, 650-mile drive. 

Georgia has 159 counties. They are, on average, about half the size of those in neighboring South Carolina. An advantage, I suppose, of small counties is that more towns get to be county seats. I don’t think we drove through a single town big enough to have a MacDonalds that did not also have a court house. At least one had a courthouse and no MacDonalds.

We stopped at Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreation Area in southern Georgia. Providence Canyon is a monument to environmental naivety: poor farming practices greatly accelerated erosion of the very vulnerable soils, creating massive gullies up to 150 feet deep. The nearly vertical canyon walls display a range of colors that rivals in beauty if not scale the spectacular canyons of the American Southwest. 

Providence Canyon

That was our second trip in as many months. A local friend wanted to buy some timpani. Nancy’s cousin in Chicago had two for sale. Take a break from the home projects and visit Chicago? Yes! We’ll do the transporting! We stayed in a boutique hotel right on the Chicago River and spent Friday evening and Saturday morning on foot, ogling the city’s architecture. By sheer good fortune, the weekend we chose for the trip coincided with an international dance festival in Millennium Park, just blocks from our hotel, and the samba band in which Nancy’s cousin plays was one of the featured acts. We joined the impromptu parade as the drummers and their troupe of dancers, clad in lots of feathers and not so much fabric, wound their way through the park and onto the main stage.

Samba dancers in Millenium Park

Sunday we meandered our way toward the northwestern suburbs to spend time with Nancy’s cousin and his family and her aunt and uncle, with a brief stop at the Baha’i Temple. An off-Interstate jog through the Kentucky bluegrass broke the tedium of the long return drive. Four days. Just right.

I’d be remiss in any narration of travel not to mention the food gems found along the way. When we’re traveling and stopped for a few days or just overnight, a good meal seems … well … expected and, thus, unexceptional. But when we’re driving and find a special alternative to the fast food chains … those memories linger. I’m thinking fondly now of the Kind Roots Cafe (Lexington, VA), and Bone Fire Smokehouse at the Hardware (Abingdon, VA), discovered on our trips to visit grandkids. And Chapati (Pakistani, Indianapolis, IN) and Masala (Indian buffet, Richmond, KY) from our Chicago trip. The latest of these treasures is Jerusalem Grill in Rome, Georgia. The staff is most helpful and their shawarma is not to be missed!

“Not all those who wander are lost” wrote Tolkien.