Tag Archives: wildlife

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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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.)

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.

First Spring at New House

“I haven’t seen many trillium so far,” Nancy commented. It’s our first Spring at New House, and what will come popping out of the ground is still a mystery. At Old House, we had a couple of sections of woods that were almost carpeted in trillium. 

I replied that I had seen a few, all in our paths, being trampled by our feet and The Goat. (More on The Goat later.) “Maybe we have a rare subspecies, path trillium.” That was many weeks ago, and we are indeed blessed with trillium, in woods and meadow and, yes, even in the paths. Trillium and so much more! 

First came the crocus. Spring begins for me then, when the crocus push their thin green leaves up through the winter brown, six weeks or so ahead of calendar spring. I am not one of those gardeners who keeps records of the what and when of emergence and bloom. Not even in my head do I remember the order, and there are so many plants, even ones Nancy has long cultivated, whose identities I can’t recall. Regardless, Spring is always one “Wow!” after another, from crocus emergence until well into summer. Our first spring at New House has been a delight. 

We have had an abundance of Spring’s showy flowers. Daffodil and redbud and dogwood and azalea and rhododendron. Even the carpet of violets in The Meadow was stunning. I could never make up my mind about the violets in the yard at Old House: Were we aiming for suburban lawn or wild meadow? Here at New House, the choice for wild meadow is clear. 

As exciting, however, are the more subtle plants. The aforementioned trillium. The unfurling umbrellas of the mayapple. Wood hyacinth. Bloodroot. 

Nancy first noticed the white blossoms of bloodroot peeking from the edge of a leaf pile. We are still trying to figure out what to do with the bounty of leaves our trees drop in the fall. Some of my choices in the rush of last fall were … well, it won’t happen again. I had to move that pile of leaves to unburden the bloodroot. 

Have I mentioned that our new place is steep? Take an already steep hillside—it falls seventy feet in three hundred. Cut a bench for driveway, house, and garage. What do you get? Escarpments above and below the bench. We live at the top of the lot and much of our gardening will take place below. We have not found a way to get from bottom to top without some forty-five degree climbing. (Nancy’s father will testify to how steep it is. He experienced a pacemaker event after climbing back to the house.) Lugging tools and materials is a challenge. So we bought The Goat. It’s a four-wheel-drive electrically-powered walk-behind cart. Not a toy, it has a ten cubic foot bed and a flat land capacity of 750 pounds. On our 1-to-1 slopes, it has no problem controlling heavy loads going downhill and hauling tools and trash and rock up. So, The Goat and I moved that huge pile of leaves from beside the driveway to the bottom of The Meadow.

(“The Goat,” by the way, is our nickname for our more prosaically-named Overland Cart. We wanted to convey the idea of a sure-footed beast of burden. Kawasaki had co-opted Mule; Yak and Llama are too exotic. I’m not being prudish, but The Ass does not roll off the tongue, although The Donkey almost does, despite the extra syllable. The Jack? The Jenny? Nah! So we are back to the gender-neutral Goat.)

What’s missing from our normal spring sensory feast is the mating calls of the frogs. Nancy hasn’t yet replaced the frog pond we left behind at Old House. While the new occupants of Old House occasionally send a photo, and we can sometimes hear frogs in the distance, it’s not like having that cacophony just beyond your picture window. 

In other wildlife news, we have a pair of crazed bluebirds who have been flying against our windows for the past two months. As happened last year at Old House, this jealous pair is more interested in attacking their reflections in the windows than in settling down to raise a brood. So far, they have inspected and rejected the woodpecker hole in our house siding and the bluebird boxes that I put up for their convenience. Nancy had tacked a long fluttery piece of plastic sheet to the side of the house to drive off the woodpecker. It worked on the woodpecker, but is no deterrent for the bluebirds.

If there is a downside to spring, it is poison ivy. Would Tennessee still be “the greenest state in the land of the free” without poison ivy? We are “blessed” with the stuff, and with English ivy as well. We have declared war on both, a statement that will draw laughs from all who hear it. We will keep you posted. 

Nancy has been finding four-leaf clovers. She has a facility for seeing that pattern in seemingly casual glances at the ground. I have always found it a remarkable skill, having never found one myself without her first pointing out a general location. But it occurred to me just a few days ago that I have a similar facility for finding poison ivy. A nearly subconscious part of my brain will register the distinctive pattern of leaves (or patterns, plural, as the plant has lots of variety), then I stop and consciously search it out so I can spray or pull or step over. In a recent episode of “On Being,” Krista Tippett’s guest talked of the 500,000 generations of mankind as wild animal before civilization (the invention of agriculture) a mere 500 generations ago. Is it that wild animal part of our brains—the sub-conscious, pre-conscious part—that recognizes the pattern of the four-leaf clover or the three-leaved poison ivy? Occasionally, as I am walking, it will come to me that, for instance, the ball of my right foot will land on a particular sidewalk crack five steps from now. It is not a trick I can consciously replicate, nor is that insight always present. But when it comes, it is invariably correct. Useless in the current context, but not hard to imagine the survival value of sensing where your foot is about to land, or distinguishing a copperhead’s pattern in the leaf litter. 

Speaking of snakes, one day, as Nancy was going up the hill from The Meadow while I was still below, she called back a question: Do blacksnakes try to “rattle?” She’d seen it and was confident it was not a rattler. It turns out that they do try to emulate that hair-raising sound. We have not seen it again. We are glad it is nearby, though would prefer to only see it at a distance. All the more reason to roll that rodent-friendly ivy farther from the house.

It is nearly Summer now. Spring’s yellow and white and magenta and red and purple have mostly morphed into the deep green of a Southern summer. The early morning tapping of bluebirds on the window has waned. We have some vegetables in the ground, and some wildflower seeds sprinkled in The Meadow.

There is “a ton” of work still to be done, in our house and on our grounds and at church. But we wake every morning thankful that we find the work is mostly play as well, and that we have the capacity to do it and the opportunity to choose that day’s agenda.

It was a wild and wonderful spring. Anne Lamott says there are only three prayers: Help! Thank you! and Wow! So, “Thank you!” and “Wow!” Amen.

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.

The Xena Paradox

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

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

Amplexis
Calmly This Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frog-Mystery2

 

Threads

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Weave,” she replies.

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

Prodigality

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

Lavish Abundance
Lavish Abundance

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


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

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

Calmly This Time
Calmly This Time

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


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

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

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


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

Bee and Bee Balm
Bee and Bee Balm

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