Summer Reveries

Summer flowers

It is good to know in the midst of all of the concurrent crises we face, that nature  proceeds at its own pace unconcerned with all of the worries humanity has. Thus we return to summer in West Virginia, where the biggest issue is whether the cowbird will be successful in laying an egg in the wren’s nest up in one of our flower baskets.

We are loving it out in our outdoor living room, where we enjoy our coffee and newspaper in the mornings, and use its space for our afternoon cocktail. In between we can read or just watch  nature as it visits our porch. The finch feeder is in use most of the daylight hours, with the purple finches unafraid to visit while we sit there, though the gold finches are shy and only visit when we are not present. We were treated to seeing a hummingbird chase a finch away one day, though what the finch did to draw this attention is unknown. This year we are not seeing any non-conforming finches, where a brood is raised that includes a foreign egg from a cowbird. Last year we saw a young bird that was unable to use the finch feeder, though it tried valiantly. Instead, it chirped and waited for its father to deliver a seed directly to it, since it could not reach into the feeder with its own beak.

A wren built a nest in one of our hanging flower baskets. You can see it dart in and out, and it often scolds us, especially when we are at the table with our coffee. That puts us directly next to the nest, and that is obviously too close for the bird’s comfort. But it is the cowbird couple that is the most interesting. Last week I saw the couple, with the male perched a few feet away while the female scoped out the nest. At that time there were obviously no eggs there, and they flew away. But just yesterday I saw the female eyeing the nest again, and this time the wren flew directly at the cowbird, chasing it away. It remains to be seen if the battle will have future acts.

The fallout from the finch feeder keeps other birds busy who do not have the physique to feed directly from the feeder. Often we can hear the whooshing of the morning dove wings as they fly away after having poked through the rubble looking for intact seeds. And chipmunks cross our porch regularly, stopping sometime to search for seeds, while other times stopping under the hummingbird feeder and lapping up the spilled sugar water. Then they hustle off to whatever their business is.

This year I’ve seen not only the neon blue skinks skitter across the porch, but another color of skink. They are fast and you have to really be watchful in order to see them. So far they are the only reptiles we’ve shared our space with.

The flicker loves the hummingbird feeder. It will hang off of the feeder, and you can see it drinking as it brings the liquid into its beak and works it down its throat. The hummingbirds know that they cannot force the flicker away (too big), so an uneasy detente exists where the hummer will visit the side of the feeder opposite the flicker. It is amazing how much entertainment you can get out of a half-cup of sugar dissolved in water. We have seen at least one hummer battle, but know that more are to come as the alpha male perches on the wires leading to the house, keeping watch and driving away any other hummers who dare to intrude on its designated home turf.

2018 flicker

Several years ago we had to take down the hemlock tree that graced our front lawn due to storm damage. We replaced it with ornamental trees that won’t grow as tall so as to threaten the wires. The ornamental cherry directly in front of our porch is growing daily, as you can see the new leaves stretching higher each time you look at it. It may never give us shade, but that doesn’t matter to the birds who use any location as a handy perch.

We have apple trees which have very seldom given us apples. Not because the apples weren’t produced, but because the squirrels get to them first. But until this year, they’ve always left the crab apples alone. The tartness of them must be a turn off even to voracious squirrels. This year, though, the squirrels are taking the crab apples right off of the trees and eating them.

Squirrel

It is good to take the time to really see the world around us. If nothing else, this time of physical isolation and separation from the rest of humanity, has intensified the desire for watching the world of nature. It is good to realize that the life outside does not care about human pandemics, or divisive politics, or any of the other matters that occupy the airwaves. Just hearing the sounds of birds, and the chirring of the crickets helps to put things into perspective.

It’s Called Exponential Growth, Stupid

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The world and universe we live in operates according to scientific principles. That governs things like the rates of infection from a virus humanity has never before encountered. The response from humanity to exposure to this new virus is similar to when Native Americans were exposed to viruses like smallpox where there was no community immunity. It decimated the native population.

When this sort of illness is unleashed upon our population, mathematical relationships and principles become extremely important. In this case, the two figures are the infectivity rate, or Rowhich is the number of people that each carrier of the virus may be expected to infect, and the mortality rate, or fraction of people who will die once they contract the virus. In the journal Nature, this chart shows how the new virus stacks up against some of the other diseases feared by mankind.

Nature chart

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00758-2

This chart shows that the infectivity is estimated to be both much higher than the seasonal flu, and that the death rate is far, far higher. Higher even than the 1918 pandemic flu which was the last time humanity faced a global pandemic. Given these estimates, and observing the exponential growth in infections, it is the height of folly to believe that we will be able to “open up the country for business” in just over two weeks.

But that is what is being peddled by those who value money more than life. We face an enemy that has the potential to inflict more casualties than all the foreign wars the US has engaged in, during the timeframe of a few months. This wave of potential chaos sweeping across our nation’s health care infrastructure will finally open the eyes of this nation to the raging incompetence of the current administration.

It is certain that this administration has deliberately taken an approach that is aimed at protecting the popularity and electability of this President instead of focusing on the public health crisis we face. And now the evil is oozing out of those on the right on a daily basis, resulting in people saying that the “cure” (social distancing, closure of businesses), will have worse effects than the pandemic will cause. Thus we rescue our economy at the potential expense of millions of victims if we relax our social controls.

Only in an administration where the leader is violently anti-science would such virulent nonsense be allowed to be even breathed as potential policy. Only those who value the economy over the lives of so many future victims would dare to utter such folly. But that is the world we live in at present, where the fear of the deep state has overwhelmed the ability to respond to a real crisis that will not be bullied.

The real pity is that even with the duplicity and incompetence of this President on daily display, support for him is actually growing. Maybe part of that is a desire to pull together, and take common action against an invader. Maybe the naming of this virus by its location of origin is playing at the xenophobic gene, allowing us to turn against that country and all of its residents. Why blame our lax and inadequate response to this virus on the actions of our leaders when we can blame the Chinese?

It is not the bluster and false statements coming from this President that will decide the final outcome. Even if we do everything perfectly, and are able to slow the curve, we will likely have hundreds of thousands dying from this virus. But if we yield to the voices of incompetence and evil, and relax our vigilance just at the time when it matters most, we will be smothered by millions of bodies as the coronavirus tsunami withdraws from our shores. The difference between these future courses will be directly determined by the actions that our leaders take over these next few weeks and months. May we have the wisdom to choose the right course.

Only a Cold

2020 daffodils 1

I caught a cold last week. It showed its ugly presence on Saturday, with spasms of sneezing, a sore throat, and a developing cough. In the four days since that time, I’ve persuaded myself that it is not the dreaded new disease (no fever or chills), and that the disease is receding as I would expect it to. But its appearance even in the time of increased precautions against viral invaders shows that the new virus can be just as sneaky and opportunistic.

It is amazing how quickly the world has changed. Last week at this time, we were still looking forward to taking a trip to Key West for some hedonism. That was before I saw a cumulative display of disease cases day by day since January. When you see for yourself that the rate of reported cases was increasing by 12% per day, the numbers came alive for me and told me that if we ran the risk of taking a trip, we were not going to have a good time. Even if we safely ran the gauntlet and did not catch the disease, our time of relaxation would be ruined by worrying about making it back in one piece.

Having a background in math and statistics made it clear to me that we are in a global exercise we’ve not gone through since 1919. When a new virus emerges and passes into the human population, one that no one has immunity to, and one that appears to have a significant mortality factor, you have to watch it closely in order to gauge its infectivity and its effects. What is ironic is that China and the US shared an initial response to belittle the potential harm that this virus posed. In China, this resulted in the doctor who raised the initial alarm being censured by the Chinese state, prior to the time that the doctor succumbed to the disease. In the US, the potential for an epidemic was ridiculed by the President and his favorite press sources. We heard about the Democratic hoax that was aimed at bringing down the President. Even today, as of March 17, you can see a post by Dr. Ron Paul decrying the response to this epidemic as being overblown. In both cases, China and the US, precious time was lost in responding to the emergence of this disease. They will only take this disease seriously when family members are stricken by the pneumonia this disease can cause, and those family members are turned away from all hospitals because they’ve had to ration respirators and only those under age 80 will be treated. That’s the decision they are making in Italy, having to ration their available slots to the younger population.

It is a bit jarring to hear myself described as elderly, but since I’ve now crossed the age 65 divide, I now fall into the target demographic for this virus. So far the effect for us has been canceled concerts and canceled trips, and a lack of church services. The chorus we’ve been working on for months, a performance of Carmina Burana scheduled for April, has not been canceled formally but since no one can rehearse for it, it is on borrowed time. Our children are out of the house, and though one son is working in retail and will likely take a hit, we are able to help him out if needed. If we are not hit ourselves by the virus, we will weather the storm relatively easily.

2020 daffodils2

But for the economy of the world, we are now seeing the issues caused by the streamlining of supply chains by linking to non-domestic sourcing of parts. For decades now, the maxim of running public corporations solely for the maximizing of return to the shareholders has caused businesses to rely fully on foreign partners, either for finished goods, or for creating semi-finished goods that get completed elsewhere in the world. Quality improvement processes preached the benefits of lean assembly lines, since excess inventory hid systemic inefficiencies. So more and more businesses performed global integration of their supply chains. That process worked well until there was a supply disruption at the original point of manufacture. If the ultimate goal is to have product available to sell, then some inefficiency may be needed to allow for supply chain interruptions.

The disruptions in supply chains will continue to ripple through the world’s economy for months to come. Add to that the immediate disruption in the lives of service providers who will be laid off from their retail and food service jobs in the coming weeks, and we have the potential for a huge decrease in economic activity during the year. Already the governments of the world are generating proposals for helicopter money to be shoveled out and spread across the land. All of it with money borrowed from our distant descendents. This crisis has the potential to turn into a debt implosion, with the destruction of much of the seemingly secure capital in the world through waves of bankruptcy and discharge of debt. Will this black swan event be the one that causes the world to fundamentally reset its economic system? Growing economic inequality and growing dependence upon government debt to sustain the illusion of economic growth are at the point of totally collapsing. When no one can keep the appearances up, what happens to the world?

The barren shelves in the stores and the anecdotes about pitched battles for the last shreds of toilet paper have shown us how close we are to unraveling as a civilization. As long as we had sports, and access to material goods when desired, and good restaurants to pig out at, then we were happy. But let us have one week where demand outstripped supply, and we see how thin the veneer of civilization is.

I figured that the tone of this post is so much bleaker than most of my posts, that I needed to leaven it with a reminder that there is still beauty in the world. The pictures are of my daffodils that have burst into glorious flower within this past week. Every year I have a couple of weeks of peak daffodils. This is their time, and a reminder that spring is coming, and better times are ahead. I leave you with a delight of daffodils. Stay well in the days ahead.

2020 daffodils3

Human Induced Extinctions

dodo

This is the sixth in a series of seven posts regarding the threats I see facing humanity. This threat is human-induced extinctions. Scientists have determined that we live in a new geologic era, described as the Anthropocene, where human activity is the predominant factor in describing how the Earth is behaving. It is reflected in the erosion that comes from agricultural practices, creating new river deltas much faster than in previous times. It is reflected in the effect of industrial and civilian gas emissions, which affect the composition of the atmosphere. It is reflected in the crowding out of wildlife due to the incursion of human activities into locations where wildlife has existed for millions of years.

Perhaps there is no place where the effects of humanity has been so pronounced as in the ocean depths. There we have found the ultimate repository of the plastic we use so gratuitously, single use plastic that finds its way into the ocean waters. Stories abound about the wildlife found to be starving to death, because inert plastic has filled the stomach and gut of an animal. It literally feels full, since the stomach is full, but will not take in new nutrients since there is no urge to fill the stomach. That is one form of human incursion into the oceans. Another is the cruel and indiscriminate fishing practices that go on throughout the oceans. Huge dragnets haul all creatures up and then the catch is sorted once it reaches the surface and is dying. Much is either discarded or kept as junk fish, good only to be ground up as food for other fishes, or for pet food. Some is from species we identify with as being intelligent, like dolphins. I remember the TV show Flipper, which anthropomorphized a dolphin beyond recognition. But it is undoubtedly true that dolphins are intelligent, and capable of compassion, since the stories of dolphins assisting humans to survive are common.

The worst fishing practices are those that drag the bottom of the ocean. Those vessels disturb all of the creatures colonizing the ocean floor. Very few of these species are considered as human food, yet those that are (like flounder) are highly prized. The ocean floor will not recover for hundreds of years, yet the fleets of fishing ships keep trawling continually.

Oceans are one thing, but no human has their natural habitat under the sea. The problems of species extinction exist for each class of plant and animal. Though it is extremely difficult to quantify (how do you prove a negative?), the rate of species extinction is estimated at between 10 to 100 times greater than the rate of extinction normally present on Earth without an external cause. And anecdotal evidence is that insect populations are being affected extensively. Journals such as Science in 2017 published a story titled Where Have All The Insects Gone? The article noted that scholarly research on insect populations is scarce, but that in certain long-term studies of populations, the number of insects found in fields has been reduced by over 80%. The study referred to the “windshield effect,” noting that many people have seen fewer insect / windshield collisions over the years. The damage to bee populations has been severe, with the colony collapse disorder causing massive losses to bee populations. A cause for the reduction has not been definitively named, but the class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids is, as the police would say, “a chemical of interest”. These chemicals were originally marketed as reducing the need to spray more toxic organophosphates and organochlorine insecticides. They often are used to coat the seeds, and when the plant sprouts, the insecticide is absorbed into the plant where it provides defense. But since it permeates the entire plant, it is expressed in the pollen as well. That is how it appears to affect pollinator populations. Since honeybees are used in commerce, the losses in honeybees was noted first. But concern exists for all other pollinator species.

Much has been written about the intrusion of humanity’s effects on tropical forests. Nowhere is that seen more clearly than when a road is cut through virgin forests. Once a road is available, it is soon followed by those who exploit the opening. Forestry now tackles the old-growth trees, reducing stable ecosystems into a maze of forest edges. Species that once had free range across a canopy now find themselves having to traverse new agricultural lands to get to the next patch of undisturbed forest. And when populations of people begin to live in these newly opened lands, a market in bush meat is created. The Amazon is ground zero to display the effects of roads and subsequent land disturbance. Take a quick trip on Google Earth to the Amazon, and note that wherever you see a road, you will also see the encroachment of cleared land and settlements.

We as humans do not always understand the impact of our actions. We do not know what will happen when insect A is eliminated from a portion of its normal range. What other species used insect A as a food source? What insects or plants did insect A help keep in control? Will we see a reduction in birds due to the lack of insect A? Humans, being emotional animals, are much more capable of generating sympathy for the large, photogenic animals that are endangered. But the smallest insect may have as much impact or more on the ecosystem as a large furry mammal.

We as a civilization do not yet seem concerned by the loss of species we are seeing. Even in countries where an effort has been made to reduce the loss of species, a change in the government can reverse decades of efforts almost overnight. In the US, there is no mistaking the intent of the Trump administration to roll back the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. There is a strong belief that laws and regulations limiting the ability of a property owner to develop property as they see fit, represent an unconstitutional taking of the owner’s property right. Since insects or birds or other animals cannot hire a lawyer to defend their right to life, it falls to environmental groups to challenge regulatory repeal. Still, the attitude of the administration towards science-based evidence remains clear. Science and scientists are viewed with disdain, and they are clearly leftist in their politics since they so often stand against the rights of those with property.

What can science do to deal with these problems? It would seem that an effort to develop new pesticides that do not have such systemic effects is required. These efforts are proceeding within the large agrichemical companies, but it takes years and sometimes decades before a novel chemical class is commercialized and finds its place in the marketplace. It appears that legislative action across the world may be needed to ban certain classes of chemicals shown to cause excessive harm. The role of scientists would seem to also include quantifying the loss of species, and doing research to show what happens when one thread of the web of life is pulled out.

Maybe the best use of scientists would be to increase their role in educating the public as to the risks we are running by conducting our current experiment of causing the extinction of so many species. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, humanity was given stewardship over the creatures of the Earth. If nothing else, we have been proven to be bad stewards.

 

 

North to Alaska!

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Hedonism, thy name is cruising. Nowhere else can you find the invitation to indulge each and every whim and luxury perk as easily than when you are on a cruise. You are offered the opportunity to purchase jewels, or fine art, or just have another drink any time you desire. Want to throw away your money faster? Just take a spin or two in our casino for a chance to come out ahead. Want a foot massage? We’re just waiting for you to show up at the spa entrance. Want to take a helicopter trip up to the surface of a glacier? Just buy the tour. All it takes is money. After you have spent the initial outlay for the cruise, and ancillary expenses like port fees, transit fees, and beverage packages, each additional charge for another luxury is just a charge card away. Money is the lubricant for cruise operations.

We went last week on a cruise and land travel package up to Alaska, including two days in and around Denali National Park. We were unbelievably lucky to enjoy clear blue skies as we drove into the park, and we had a crystal clear view of the mountain itself. If we had visited the day before, or the day after, all we would have seen would have been fog and clouds shrouding the peak.

If you go to Alaska for a cruise, you cannot help but feel sympathy for the salmon that are completing their life cycle in an attempt to return to their birth waters and spawn before dying. You see them crowding the waters as they surge upstream to their place of birth, ready to give up their entire existence for the chance to reproduce. Then they die, and their bodies serve either as food to the animals of the forest, or they decompose and release their nutrients directly into the waters to serve as fertilizer for the entire ecosystem. The salmon are the mechanism for sending the nutrients of the ocean back up onto the land.

Salmon.jpg

In much the same way, the passengers on the cruise ships migrate upstream as well, stopping at various ports of call, and spreading fertilizer in the form of money. Money spent directly in bars and restaurants, money spent at souvenir shops, money spent at the jewelry stores that crowd the docks of the larger towns. But the fertilizer goes to others as well. It supports people like Bear and Ryan up in Haines Alaska, where Bear came up for the season in a cargo van that has served as his home for this season. He’ll drive on back once fall hits and the cruise ships depart on their migratory routes across the Pacific. Ryan takes his independence a step further, and has lived in a tent on the outskirts of town. He didn’t share his future plans once the season is over, but it likely will not be to spend the winter in a tent in the Alaskan panhandle. But both of them served ably as driver and guide for tours in the town of Haines, sharing their stories and the beautiful vistas as we went to the Raptor center to see eagles and owls and falcons.

The monetary fertilizer also lands far from the ship route as well. Cruise ship workers are bound to the ship for 9 or 10 months at a time. There was Ivory, who is studying to become a sommelier and better her lot. Yes, being away from her 2 and 4 year old children is tough, but she’s hoping to have her aunt, who’s serving as caregiver, bring her children to the ship when they dock near her home in the Philippines. It will only be after her full term is through that she’ll be able to try to re-bond with her children for the 2 months allotted before she is obligated to return to the sea. Her fertilizer is being saved in order to eventually buy a house so she can stay with her children before they grow up.

Entire economic ecosystems are supported by the five month cruise season up in Alaska. That’s when the lengthened daylight makes the place tolerable for those who don’t love winter sports. Many people grab a piece of the money. There was the retired biologist from Wisconsin who served as an ecological evangelist and bus driver on our Tundra tour through Denali. Her stories of the relationships between species served as a reminder that the web of life is complex, and unraveling a single strand can lead to many other effects on the web. There was the petroleum geologist who used to work on the North Slope, but now had weekend gigs driving tour buses from Denali to Seward. There were the guide and bartender on our train coach heading up to Denali from Anchorage. Money helped to lubricate that trip as well, either for souvenirs or for beverages. Hot chocolate in August? Well, especially with a little peppermint schnapps in it to chase the gloomy clouds away.

The transit experience to and from the cruise was the antithesis of the cruise experience. The fun of being shoehorned into 9 and 10 seat rows at the back of the massive planes for a 7 hour bout of claustrophobia. The joys of walking endless airport corridors, only to turn a corner and see another set of moving walkways for you to manipulate your carry-on bags. The ultimate joy of having gone through airport security in Vancouver, only to have to go through an entire extra set of security checkpoints and facial recognition software in Toronto to ensure that you matched your passport picture. And the final indignity inflicted on US travelers by the security system, having to have your luggage unloaded from your connecting flight, go through US customs inspection, and then and only then will your initials and destination appear on the giant screen, enabling you to finally leave and find your gate. After all that, the walk into the nether regions of the airport parking lot at 11:30 at night was a walk in the park. Admittedly, after the sweat drips off of you as you reacquaint yourself with the world of humid air, it is difficult to remember all of the good times you had on your cruise. Maybe the travel to and from the cruise is your penance for having been able to forget all of the worries of the world for your week of hedonistic pleasure seeking.

 

And the Living Is Easy (2018 Version)

2018 fawn

And the living is easy. This is a follow-up to my post a year ago when I evoked the bucolic aspect of my summer environment during the height of the summer season. Well, it is that time of year once again. As you can see, the new generation of hooved rat has been born, and is doing its best to persuade me that all members of the species are cute and adorable. So I find myself conflicted, deciding to not use my slingshot to poke at the mothers of the fawns that I find in my backyard. So far, I’ve seen one doe with a single fawn, and one with two. Since I don’t keep track of each deer around, I have no idea if that is the population growth for the year, but I’m good with that.

A week ago Sunday, we had just returned from a trip to NY late on Saturday. Accordingly, we decided not to make it to church on Sunday morning, and thus I was outside on my front porch, perusing the paper and sipping coffee, when it began to rain. It was not a normal rain, it was pouring down rapidly, so I looked at the drain in our driveway to ensure that we weren’t getting flooded. No problems. But then, the culvert across the street got blocked up and all of a sudden, all of the water from the hillside above us was cascading across the street and towards our driveway and drain.

 2018 flood

The street drains rapidly plugged with the same vegetable matter that had plugged the culvert, and muddy water inundated our driveway and blocked the grate in front of our garage door. It knocked down my simple paving block retaining wall, and ran across the yard, both above and below my car in the driveway. Having lived in the house for over 25 years, we had taken preventive action to keep water from infiltrating our garage and our lower floor. This was the first test of our new earthworks and we were pleased to find that no water made it inside of the garage except for a minor irritating amount that could be washed out with a hose. None of this 6″ of water soaking all of the miscellaneous material found inside of a garage. No mud coming into the lower floor of the house, requiring commercial assistance to prevent mold formation. I was pleased that I only had to move a bit of dirt and replace blocks in the retaining wall to return to pre-flood status. The picture shows the flow overwhelming the culvert across the street.

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The tomatoes and peppers are in their peak pre-BLT days. Lots of foliage, lots of small tomatoes set on the vines, but nothing ready to eat yet. Tomatoes got set out late this year because I had to do the deck cleaning and waterproofing before I wanted to set out the plants. Thus it was late May before I managed to get the plants out on our deck. The deer have still not figured out how to climb up the steps of the deck to get to the plants. Speaking of our deck, we moved into our house in 1992. At that time we had a deck made out of cypress that had clearly not been taken care of. We figured the deck was built sometime in the 1970’s, but it was nearly at the end of its useful life. We replaced the deck in 1996, and now our “new” deck is probably about the same age as the one we replaced. It really shows the advantage of ongoing maintenance – our deck has no wood rot or pitting problems, and the wood looks nearly like new. At this rate, the deck will outlast us.

 

We have our hummingbird feeders out, and they receive a lot of attention. It is too early in the summer for the alpha male hummers to set up ownership of the feeders, as they are still content to take their turns. But what was surprising to me is that another species loves the hummingbird feeders. The flickers are opportunistic feeders, and they will slowly draw nigh to the feeders, assessing the behavior of the humans who are sitting outside where they live. Eventually they start to suck the sugar syrup from the feeders, gaining sustenance from the red and yellow flower imitations. Flickers are omnivores. I have seen them on the ground, stirring up insects to munch upon. They also seek insects like other woodpeckers. Their ladderback feather patters and their clear call remind me that we are but trespassers in their turf. The other species we have a lot of this year are mockingbirds. They perch on the various wires leading to the house, and share their soliloquies of all other bird speech. I’ve often wondered what evolutionary advantage it is for mockingbirds to duplicate the sounds of the birds around them. That wonderful on-line source, Wikipedia, says that the birds sing the songs of others in order to convince rivals that this turf is already overpopulated with birds, and it is not to your advantage to stick around. My thought is that mockingbirds can be seen as lounge singers, doing cover songs of other birds, and it is up to you whether you think their act is good enough to stay for another round of drinks.

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Speaking of birds, in the summer one of my favorites is the finch family. It’s really family groups, as 5 or 6 finches come to gather around our feeder full of thistle seeds. You can hear them coming from far off as they chatter flying up to the multiple perches available to them on the feeder. Occasionally a chickadee will share a perch, but mostly it is the red and yellow finches who take turns on the feeders. Since they are messy eaters, they spill as much as they eat, which spawns a whole ecosystem of other animals cleaning up the spoils. Mourning doves and sparrows hop around on the ground, and chipmunks scurry about, finding the whole seeds that have fallen from the feeder. It’s a good thing that our two black cats have gotten older and are not much interested in going outside, because chipmunks are definitely one of our cats favorite prey. Right now, the chipmunks are catching a break instead of being caught and eaten.

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Summer is if nothing else, a state of mind. We have the great fortune to be able to slow down in the summer, and enjoy the late afternoon warmth while enjoying our favorite beverages. It is good to observe the rhythm of life going on around us, knowing that we are doing our small bit to keep things going by providing space free of herbicides and pesticides, allowing nature to coexist with us on our bit of West Virginia.

 All pictures by the author.

 

Spring Encroached Early

spring 2018

So far, the famed groundhogs of the east are not proving to be expert prognosticators. Here in South Charleston, WV, we had our first crocus out on February 15, and the daffodils started blooming on February 25. Some of the purple crocus have already shot their wad, and lie listless and limp on the ground. The early bees liked the pollen while it was available.

The picture above shows a scene from the front of our house. A purple crocus fronts the first blooming daffodils. Hellebore, or lenten rose, is blooming directly behind. For us, this is the best time of year for flowers since these are the flowers that our hooved rat interlopers will not eat. Soon there will be thousands of blooms open in our yard, and the next 6 weeks will be the peak time for our gardens. But there’s work to do, especially with the hellebores, since last year’s greenery that lasted through the winter, has now wilted and browned, and must be pruned away from the vibrant new foliage. So I must arouse myself from the winter induced stupor and take advantage of any dry and relatively warm days that we have. Of course, last week with its 81º temperature reading spoiled me for a normal day like today, back in the low 50’s.

I assembled the new deep bed raised bed for my vegetable garden. Three years ago, when I had just retired, I bought some inexpensive 4″ high cedar beds. They’ve reached the end of their useful life, and I bought a new one to replace the one in the middle of the three beds. Now I have to get the fabric liner purchased and installed, and the extra topsoil to mix with this year’s compost. Even though we have had exceptionally early warm weather, there will be later cold snaps that would nip early plantings in the bud. So it will be the second half of March before I plant any of the cold-loving vegetables.

I’ve already seen courtship dances with some of the birds in the area. I need to mend our bluebird house before our residents come back and are disappointed at the housing shortage. Still haven’t seen the robins come back. The earthworms and other bugs are out and about though. As I shoveled out the dirt from my old raised bed, I saw many worms and beetles emerging from their enforced inactivity. You wonder what a beetle may be thinking about as it sleeps under the earth in winter.

Another spring crop has emerged on our roadways. The traditional American Pothole is appearing in all of its pestilence. This year, the crop is especially large, since there were a significant number of potholes that weren’t fixed last year, so they over-summered and are larger than ever this spring. I’m hopeful that these pests are soon followed by the blooming of the orange road flowers, indicating the attempts to eradicate the American Pothole. Our state committed itself last fall to significant bonding to fix our roads, so we are hopeful.

It is always amazing how filthy things get over the winter. On our front porch, remnants of bird seed are scattered all over the floor, along with bird excretions. Broken branches mingle with the last leaves of the fall, and the leaves that fell after the last raking. Bunches of wild onions are poking their heads through the uncultured lawn. In all my years as a homeowner, I have never attempted to develop a perfect grass monoculture. I prefer diversity in my lawn, so I’m just as happy to see moss develop as I am to see fescue or bluegrass. I think the reason why at this time of year, my lawn is riddled with blooming crocus, is because I don’t use any herbicide at all on the surface. I’ve never known how crocus spread as much as they do – I may have planted some 25 years ago, but those few bulbs have multiplied by the hundreds now.

daffodils 2018

I expect more cold weather to come, and more snow and ice before the end of winter. But since we’ve already enjoyed frozen drinks on our front porch in February, we can bear the brunt of late winter’s onslaught. But please, bring on the spring!

Winter Did Come

Snow in woods

Whose woods are these? They’re mine, you know. And they are really filling up with snow.

apologies to Robert Frost.

Poem paraphrase courtesy of my wife Carrie.

When you are retired, the concept of a Monday doesn’t resonate quite as badly as during a work week. But last week, we truly had a Monday. It started in the cold morning as the temperature was down to low single digits, after having been below freezing almost continually for 2 weeks. This was the longest sub-freezing cold streak I can remember since moving here in 1986. It finally got above freezing on Sunday, and the temperature in our unheated garage rose enough to allow water to flow through the copper tubing and find the hole which had burst during the extended freeze.

My wife was getting ready to go to the Rec Center to do her water exercises, but she heard water running. Never a good sign when you have no reason for water to be running. Turns out we now had an improvised car wash that was knocking the salt off of our car inside the garage. I stumbled downstairs in response to her call out to me, and was able to turn off the flow of water by closing the two valves leading out to our garage. Now the takeoff for this water line is upstream of the main house shutoff, so later this year, we will be plumbing this whole thing up right, including relocating the takeoff to downstream of the shutoff valve, and providing heat tape for the section of the line in the garage. Fortunately for us, we caught the leak shortly after it started, so no water damage, and we won’t be using the outside hose for a while.

Later on Monday we had cabinetry installed, so the kitchen was full of workers. Then we had a backup in our weirdly configured plumbing down in our laundry room, where the combined effluent from the kitchen dishwasher and the washing machine was backing up out of the floor drain and flowing across our basement floor. Discovered this just before I had to leave for a previously scheduled dental appointment. So I had to leave the mess to Carrie. An hour later, the workers from Roto-Rooter were in the driveway along with the cabinetry folks. I parked on the street but they had gotten the plug loosened (was related to the cold weather but wasn’t a frozen line). So add it all together, and I figure we’ve had enough Monday mishaps to last us for months.

Winter has settled in on our house, after having left us virtually untouched the last few years. Still not much snow – the 4″ we got this week was the biggest snowfall we’ve had, and it was so fluffy I could push it and not have to lift it. So the snow blower has yet to receive its first workout of the year.

The local birds and squirrels are pleased with the buffet laid out for them on our porch. Actually haven’t seen too many squirrels, but the morning doves come in droves. When I open the porch in the morning, the whirring of their wings as they take flight echoes from the feeder, the porch rail, the floor. We must have 6-8 of them who are focused on our feeder at times. The suet feeder is attracting many different birds, including a misplaced mockingbird I saw the other day. I always thought they migrated away, but I saw one last week at the suet.

morning doves

Its seed catalog time. This is the time when the marketing team for the Burpees and Gurneys and other seed vendors arrive unbidden, and they bring the hope and dreams of spring and summer. I have a new raised bed to install, replacing a 4″ x 4′ x 4′ with a 15″ deep x 3′ x 4′ version. When I made my garden 3 years ago, I crowded the beds too much, leaving inadequate space between beds. Plus my knees are much worse than they were, so having a 15″ high bed will be very nice. As the other frames deteriorate, I’ll likely change them as well. One thing I’ll say is that you will never receive a positive cash return if you are using raised beds for gardening. They are expensive and their yield is less than you’d need to make money from them. But if you just love to have the fresh vegetables, and enjoy the work to make things grow, the return is more than positive. The dreams of spring grow apace in winter.

The daffodils of spring are starting to poke their heads up. As the snow melts on the banks, you can see the green shoots start to emerge. They are smart enough to not grow excessively for a while, at least until the temperature really warms for multiple days. But for us, the earliest harbingers of spring will be the crocuses that pop up all over the lawn. I’ve never known how these corns moved all over the lawn, but they have naturalized everywhere. There will be some of them that will emerge on the first 70 degree day, but not yet. The snow must leave and the robins must come back before they make their appearance.

Balanced Between Summer and Winter

fall Summer is hanging on doggedly, not wanting to surrender the stage to the coming frosts and freezes. We were able to enjoy cafe society and eat al fresco on November 5 in South Charleston, WV. Normally the tables and chairs are stacked up awaiting spring by this time at our favorite Mexican restaurant. We even followed our dinner up with a pitcher of frozen drinks in the early evening on our front porch, a bit of our own farewell to our rituals of summer. But each time I say that, along comes yet another warm spell, and we extend our outdoor living room’s life just one more day.

No, it is true, we are sliding inexorably into our cold season. This weekend was the peak for leaf color for us. The picture on the top of this post shows maple trees through our bay window. The plants we had on our front porch have migrated inside, where they will stay cozily on the wood of our bay window. All of the plants had grown significantly during the summer. We barely had enough room to place all of the foliage.

The cats have definitely noticed the change. We didn’t have the heat on until about October 20, but as soon as it came on, our cat Blinky assumed his post in front of the heating vent. It is this time of the year when the cat reminds me of my thermodynamics course describing black body radiation. He absorbs the heat from a warmer temperature, then reradiates the heat back into the room at a lower temperature once the furnace stops.

blinky

The cats are definitely slowing down with age. They are both just at 12 years old now, and they sleep much more, and are less eager to head outside, although yesterday they did share the warmth of the evening with us. The cats are about to have their lives upended, because on Thanksgiving week our younger son will be coming to visit, and will be bringing his 8 month old kittens with him. As my wife has said, there will be much weeping and gnashing of kitty teeth during this time. Should be fun.

The leaves are at peak, and since you can’t ever stay balanced on such a peak of color, the rain that we had overnight seemed determined to start stripping the golds and reds off of the branches. This is the time of year when I have to make the decision of whether to rake the same area multiple times, or wait for the large mass of leaves to fall before tackling the removal process. Since I abhor leaf blowers, it is the old fashioned arm power that gathers the leaves and carries them to the compost pile. I keep two piles going back behind the fence. One pile holds last year’s leaves and this year’s weeds, and it has decomposed down to a good powdery dirt. The leaves from this fall will enrich the vegetable gardens in 2019.

I’ll be making an investment in a deeper raised bed in one of our vegetable gardens. When I designed the gardens, I put in three 4’x4’x4″ beds in the space allotted. That did not leave enough space between the beds, and 4″ is not high enough to alleviate knee and back pain. So I will order a 3’x4’x15″ bed for the middle slot. One thing is for sure, you do not plan for a positive dollar return on investment with back yard vegetable gardens. The gardening infrastructure is pretty much just a sunk cost, but the benefits of picking your own produce makes it worthwhile. I figure out that if I get enough produce out to offset the cost of the seeds, it’s a good enough return for me.

I completed my annual task of digging up daffodil bulb clusters that had worked up to ground level. I spent an hour or so dividing them up into plastic bags holding a dozen bulbs each, and offered them to whoever wanted them after church one Sunday in October. I figure that I distributed about 750 daffodil bulbs this year, and hope that they bring smiles all over the valley once they bloom next spring.

In another week or two, the trees will be bare. They will hold no memory of what they looked like with their mantle of greenery. Their bare fingers extend into the air, awaiting the falling snowflakes they know are coming. And the earth will sleep until it awakens again in spring.

Try To Remember, the Kind of September

bulbs in ground

August slid seamlessly into September. We have missed the normal stressing of the tulip poplar trees, since we’ve had plenty of rain during the summer. Sometimes by early September, the poplar trees are half denuded, and shriveled brown leaf corpses skitter along the driveway, but not this year. If you look carefully though, you see tinges of color beginning to affect some trees. Most leaves are still bright green, but some trees have a yellowish cast to their edges. Dogwood trees have taken it a bit further, and have red tinting the edges of their leaves.

We just got back from a quick trip through the Potomac highlands of West Virginia. Up at 3500′ elevation, some trees had already transitioned to bright red, and not just the ground sumacs. Before long, the entire woods will look tired, and ready to adopt their brief display of fall brilliance before they drop their yearly crop of leaves to feed their roots. I’ve begun to harvest the daffodil bulbs for use by others. When I met up with my son for the eclipse, he received a plastic bucket filled with bulbs for his use in landscaping in Richmond.

The picture at the top shows what a cluster of daffodil bulbs looks like when they begin to crowd the surface. I’ll see these bulbs as I’m out weeding, and wait till the heat breaks a bit before digging the bulbs out. The bulbs keep budding and going higher till they break through the surface in the summer. After living in the same house for 25 years, I can harvest hundreds of bulbs each year and still not touch many of the clusters that could stand to be thinned. I’ve found if I keep the foliage intact until it dies back, it may look ugly for a month or two, but you will always provide the bulbs with enough energy to grow, multiply and prosper into the future.

bulbs

This second picture shows how many bulbs come out of a single cluster. You never know how many bulbs are hidden below the surface. In this cluster, I took out 35 bulbs, and left 6 back in the hole to reproduce, ready to bloom next spring. I excavated a second cluster, taking 40 bulbs out to spread around. In 5-10 years, I’ll be digging the bulbs back up again and harvesting the next batch for springs to come.

We managed to keep our outside plants watered and growing through the summer. Just now we have a bit of stress showing on some of the planters where we missed a watering or two. Normally we have shriveled baskets by this time of the year, so we are happy to have blooms still gracing our porch and deck. The hummers are still around, fighting their aerial combat missions trying to gain access to the feeders, while the alpha hummer tries to play Spitfire and beat up on the Messerschmitt fighters. One day soon, we will notice that we’ve not seen a hummer for several days. That’s when we know the peak of summer has gone away to stay.

The vegetable gardens are winding down. Squash and cucumbers are yellowing and dying back now, but the Roma tomatoes are still providing salad and sandwich slices. Our green and hot peppers are producing – it took forever for the hot peppers to grow to maturity. With luck, they’ll produce till the first freeze of fall. We have the last crop of green beans coming to maturity and should have some good meals out of them yet.

A thunderstorm is approaching as I write this. Thunder is rolling from ridge top to ridge top as it heads towards us. It is ushering in a cold front that will drop our temperatures down into fall-like levels. As this front droops through the southeast, it is expected to steer Hurricane Irma up onto Florida, and keep it from marching across the Gulf. My hope is that this storm will lack the punch and destructive power of Hurricane Harvey. But with its winds at 185 mph, it will need to shed a lot of energy if it is not to generate its own weather catastrophe.