Tag Archives: pond

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!)

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The Summer of Covid

It has been a long while since I wrote a piece for “The Frog Blog.” As Douglas Adams said of his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (on publishing the fifth book in the series), the Frog Blog is becoming increasingly ill-named. We are approaching three years at this place and have still not constructed a frog pond, despite Nancy’s fervent wishes.

Two problems keep getting in the way of that long-desired pond. First, our steep terrain and the layout of our house frustrate our search for the best location. So far, we have had more than a half dozen candidates and at least three front-runners. Second, and perhaps most important, life keeps happening. This summer, for instance, when we should be taking a break from our war on Japanese stilt grass and English ivy to build a pond, the stilt grass and ivy grow merrily while we are instead frantically trying undo the damage of having to replace our wastewater plumbing. 

The plumbing job is done. But there is a wall to be built in our downstairs laundry/kitchenette to hide the new piping, and flooring to be laid over the patched up four by six hole where the above-slab and below-slab pipes connect. And mud to be cleaned from the ceiling. (When the directional boring head broke through, the operator still had his lubricant water pumping.)

The outdoors part of the plumbing job left us with two large holes only partly refilled and excess dirt scattered over the 35 degree slope behind the house and the roadway below, which rain and heavy equipment left nearly impassable. So I have been moving East Tennessee clay and mulching with the wood chips our tree guy graciously delivered.

Morning

But the Frog Blog was always about more than frogs. It is broadly an irregular and unscientific chronicle of various nature observations. Despite everything, I am blessed to spend time each day (weather-permitting) on our deck—coffee, binoculars, journal, and perhaps a book at hand. The changeable sky is a constant fascination.

Sunset

In the past year, our neighbor to the north stripped a couple of acres of kudzu wasteland and built on it. More significantly for the local wildlife, about two hundred yards to our west, another landowner stripped 10 acres of fine forest. We have wondered how much this habitat loss will affect our neighborhood’s wildlife.

Morning Again

The verdict is not yet in. We are seeing fewer sightings of “our” red-shouldered hawk and “our” barred owl. Not zero, but fewer. Is that because of the habitat loss? Or is it an artifact of our changed habits? Since Mona died, we don’t make those dog walks through the neighborhood several times a day. We are still outside a lot, but our range has diminished. And now with Covid restrictions, we make fewer trips to town, particularly at night, which was the time we would usually see the owl. We have heard it, and an answering call, so we hope it found love and is still in the neighborhood.

This is very unscientific, but I think I see less activity by songbirds and squirrels and chipmunks during my sessions on the deck than I did last year. I am usually out there early in the morning and typically see little besides a hummingbird at our feeder. About a week ago, my schedule got reversed and my time on the deck came late morning. Immediately my eye was caught by five squirrels playing in Treebeard.* So I wondered if our squirrels were sleeping in on their summer mornings. But another late morning session a few days later yielded no squirrel sightings.

*Have I told you about Treebeard? Remember the walking talking trees in Lord of the Rings? Here is an early spring photo of the black oak not far from our deck.

Treebeard

We still have our blacksnakes. We saw a large one from the deck. I guessed seven or eight feet long, but Nancy says only six. Then a few days later, a three-footer was crossing our driveway. Two days ago, I saw that the large one had shed a skin. Nancy was right (what’s new?)—six feet.

Later in the day, when we are inside, we get frequent sightings of goldfinches drinking from the ant barrier in the hummingbird feeder. And deer have found the ninebark and swamp azalea we recently planted. So there is still lots of life going on, if I take the time to be observant.

As I was pondering how to wrap up this post, Nancy and I each had separate experiences that left us deeply touched and warm toward our fellow man. So I’ll expand the Frog Blog purview to include human nature as well. 

My story: I am a fan of Ann Patchett and especially her novel, Bel Canto. I knew it had been made into an opera, but somehow missed that it had also finally been made into a film, until running across it while browsing Amazon Prime Videos. So we rented it and watched. Pretty good film, but mostly left me hungering to read the book again. So I devoured it over the next two days. Devoured, yet savored. This third reading reminded me that really good literature strikes me more deeply each time I re-read it. Not only Patchett, I have had such experiences with Richard Marius, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende and others. And I realize that this love is much the same as an opera lover must feel on hearing a great opera. As one of the characters in the book says, “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it.” I found deep joy on re-reading Bel Canto. 

Nancy’s story: I was in Kroger, not a common experience these days, as we mostly order and pick up at the curb, but feeling optimistic since Kroger had announced a mask mandate. I needed only a few items, so headed off to the produce section. I became increasingly annoyed at the number of non-compliant shoppers. Biting my tongue, I patiently waited for them to move on before passing. I complained at customer service — pointing out a Kroger employee sans mask — asking if they were making any efforts towards compliance. She told me that she was prohibited from asking customers to put on a mask. As I was leaving the store, I saw three men coming through the entrance. I saw them hesitate just inside the store then turn around and leave. OMG! These men were leaving because they didn’t have masks on! Who were these unmasked men? I was touched that they would inconvenience themselves, when so many others seem selfish and uncaring. When I got back to the car I looked on the console and saw that I had another mask! I saw the men walking toward their vehicle and sped off in their direction. I rolled down the window and told them how grateful I was that they decided to do the right thing and not enter the store without a mask. Then I extended the mask toward them offering that at least one of them could wear it to make their purchases. Their faces lit up. They were so thankful to have the mask they offered to pay me for it. My faith in humanity is restored. Thank you Angels! I have no idea why there was a spare, unworn mask in my van.

Colorful skies, creatures great and small, great art, the good side of humanity. May you find blessings in your Covid summer.

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.

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.

The Things We Moved

The world’s greatest grandkids came to visit during the eclipse. Ages 1 and 3 and 5. Oh, yes, their parents came too. We all had a grand time, before, during, and after the celestial event.

The oldest’s interests are largely mechanical. He goes into long monologs about “long-reach excavators” and “pipe layers” and “ductile iron pipe” and “storage silos.” The middle one is a budding ballerina, thrilled with the tutus that Grandnan made for her. The youngest watches his siblings with adoration and charms adults with his smiles.

We have just closed on our new house and are in the middle of getting our old one ready to show. Everything must be just so in order to look attractive to potential buyers. So the brick and gravel roads our oldest grandson constructed during the eclipse weekend have to go.

We do sympathize with his interests. Nancy mourns having to leave the pond and its frogs behind. But, we can take some of the rocks and seashells that accent her gardens. There are rocks she has named: the sail, the Easter Islanders (more than one). There is her New England rock, a smooth beautifully-banded soft-ball-sized stone she picked up as a child. There are stepping stones from East Tennessee strata, displaying crinoids and other fossils, seashells from the tip of Pass-a-Grille, Florida, and exquisite corals from a beach in Taiwan.

Collecting rocks and shells is an interest we share. Together we have gathered multi-colored pebbles from a particular spot on Watts Bar Lake, grain-of-rice sized shells from a beach on Kawaii, massive eroded and fossil-encrusted stones uncovered by the grading for a new development (with permission), and endlessly variable chunks from our own woods.

Frog on Milky Quartz

My mother had outlined one of her flower beds with stones from a mica mine that had been operated on her family farm during WWII. Mostly milky quartz (at least that’s what I think it is), but there was one coconut-sized piece of quartz so clear that it had bright green moss growing underneath. Years ago, I told Nancy there was not much I coveted from my parents’ house, but I wanted that piece of clear quartz when the time came. I have it now, plus a smaller one, and some large examples of the milky variety. They will travel with us to the new house. And the red mystery rock I picked up near an Idaho ghost town.

Pond Flanked by Large Milky Quartz with Pagodas in Background

We debated about the pagodas. Weathered and moss-covered features of our landscaping, both had been rescued from oblivion years ago. The small one had been Mother’s. The large one was being covered by poison ivy in an unused corner of a lot down the street, whose new owner had been unaware of its existence. We had installed low-voltage lights in both pagodas and made them focal points. Should we leave them to a possibly-unappreciative new owner, or take them with us? We had almost decided to leave them behind, with a request that we be given first chance if the future buyer ever wanted to get rid of them. It was our son’s chagrin at leaving them that tipped the decision. If he was willing to help move the heavy stuff, we were happy to take it.

Mona with Small Pagoda

We have not taken all, by a long shot. The gardens here still look complete, to anyone but us. And we are moving to a place that also has been lovingly care for, whose former owners also had to decide what to take and what to leave, who also left a landscape that is, to an outsider, complete. The transition from grounds that were theirs to grounds that become ours will be gradual.

Large Pagoda Behind Iris

What to keep, what to throw away? Recurring dilemmas that we have debated, joked about, occasionally had fights about. For Nancy and me, reluctance to part with an object is usually less about emotional attachment and more about the likelihood of finding a future use. We are both do-it-yourselfers, so have an innate desire to hang on to odds and ends. It is a balance between usefulness and clutter. Can I even find it when that future use arises? Can I function in the meantime without tripping over it?

Some of what we moved to the new house, you might consider trash. I hauled one pickup truck load of paver bricks and blocks, tag ends of past hardscaping projects. Yes, we frequently find a use for two or three. I saved a small garbage can of two-by-four scraps, for blocking and chocking and propping. Nancy has drawer after drawer of feedstock for collages and craft projects.

A decade or so ago, a couple we know was downsizing. They offered, and we accepted, a box of wood scraps. Small stuff, mostly hardwoods, mostly non-standard sizes. Some had acquired a mildew smell, so the entire lot ended up in the attic to bake out. And stayed there for years. For a constellation of reasons, that wood scrap collection has become the go to source for a number of recent projects.

A band that Nancy plays in recently did a piece called “Instant Concert.” At one point, the score calls for hammering on an anvil, which in this case was a length of I-beam suspended from a cymbal stand. (Percussionists have more fun!) So, when I was moving tools from the old shop to the new one and picked up the section of railroad rail that I use when I have occasional need for an anvil, Nancy said, “You look at that and see a tool; I see a musical instrument.”

Organizing guru, Andrew Mellen, says don’t save things that don’t have a good story. A lot of good stories are traveling to our new house.

The Age of Active Wisdom (or Seventy is the New Fifty)

Why? Why, when I do not feel old (69 is middle-aged, right?), why, then, was our hearing aids the topic of conversation among the guys I cooked breakfast with Sunday morning?

Age and aging has been on my mind. Nancy and I have been house-hunting. Our current house is a special place— light and airy and connected to nature. I have written about Nancy’s gardens and the frog pond just outside our picture window. (See the Tag Cloud in the right hand column of our web page.) As I write, I am watching hummingbirds and goldfinches in a front yard shaded by a magnificent black cherry and a somewhat lesser black gum. Our small patch of suburbia is a riot of late summer bloom—coreopsis and zinnia and Black-eyed Susan and coneflower and crape myrtle and four-o’clocks and hydrangea. Our “back yard” is actually “The Woods,” a small forest of Appalachian cove hardwoods.

But—and it is a major “but”—we have been struggling for some time with how to make Nancy’s painting studio and my workshop more functional. So far, all our ideas involve major contortions that only take us part way towards a solution. So, we thought we should look around.

Someone asked if we were downsizing. “At our age,” that would make sense. We are certainly factoring into our decision-making the capability of living on one level (not an option in our current tri-level), and we are actively shedding possessions. But downsizing the inhabitable number of square feet is not a primary concern. A larger studio and shop might actually result in upsizing.

During all this deliberation, I have kept coming back to the question, does this make sense? And the undercurrent of the question is its continuation—does this make sense “at our age?” [Re “our age,” I am, as I said, 69. Nancy is … younger.]

OnBeing recently broadcast Krista Tippett’s interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and author of Composing a Life and the more recent Composing a Further Life: the Age of Active Wisdom. Two ideas I heard in the interview resonate with these deliberations. First, “at our age,” many of us can still look forward to an extended period of active life. Second, Bateson describes those who compose their lives as participant-observers—observing but at the same time fully present.

The term, participant-observer, strikes a chord with both of us. Much of Nancy’s graduate studies involved participatory action research, combining intentionality and reflection. For me, he term calls up Richard Rohr’s call to action and contemplation, emphasis on the “and.” It reminds me, too, that in walking a labyrinth, we go inward, but then we come out again. To be deeply observant and open while at the same time actively engaged—that is how I hope to live out my life. And that brings me back to our shop and studio. To honor the deep joy we feel when gardening or painting or crafting or building—to honor that joy by paying it due attention and by spending ourselves in its service—makes sense, even at our age.

I am reminded of a passage I recently read in Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams.

(Aside: Kingsolver is one of my three favorite novelists; the other two are Ann Patchett and Isabel Allende. I have concluded that I could never be a book critic, because I cannot tell you why I respond powerfully to a given passage. But my experience on re-reading Animal Dreams—actually a common experience with any book I like—brings to mind a road trip we once took. We were driving US 26 east through the Wind River Range in Wyoming. On rounding a curve and catching a view of cliffs ahead, an involuntary, Oh!, rose from my diaphragm. But even as the Oh! was forming, the curve continued, exposing more of the spectacular view, and more, and more. And my Oh! came out as a long undulating O…o…o…oh! So with this book.)

In the book, Hallie, volunteering in Nicaragua as an agricultural pest consultant during that country’s civil war, admonishes Codi, her sister back in the States, to not put her (Hallie) on a pedestal, and to let go her (Codi’s) fear of loving and losing. “Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. … I can’t tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. … I wish you knew how to squander yourself.”

Remember parable of the man who built more barns to store his abundant harvest? At our age, at any age, to hoard may be a greater sin than to spend, even squander, the gifts we are given.

Update. We found a house we like, with lots of potential for shop and studio and gardening and observing the natural world. Nancy will miss her frog pond, and the topography of new place will make creating another so close to the viewing window a challenge. But there is potential for a wetland in the distance and a vegetable garden.

Sure, it’s a risk. But later in the week, from an essay by Natalie Goldberg (“A Student Again,” in The Great Spring), I read, “I don’t want to die. … But death will find me … Then this single thought: Give everything while you can.”

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.

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