Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hour of the Hummingbird

A creature darts directly to the red bee balm. I see it see from my window because I happen to be having a good stare in that direction.
We have plenty of bees these days. I am little shocked when I can see about two dozen of them weaving through the flowers in a place where the taller blooms – loosestrife, phlox, larkspur, black-eyed susan – are pretty close together. You can walk a path between these and hear the hum of bright-lights and summer nectar gathering.
But this is not the flight of the bumblebee I spy from my perch by the window. It flew too directly. I consider this point for a moment or two before focusing in on the obvious conclusion. A hummingbird.
We have had them over the years – or perhaps one – since we only see one at a time. He always goes for the red-flowered bee balm.
I see him later the same evening when I walk out to the patio to fire up the barbecue grill. He is back by the fence visiting a spot where the butterfly bush borders the rose of Sharon. I watch. He escapes, flying to the shelter the mulberry tree.
Then a few days later, because I am dead-heading some blue balloon plants and clipping some gone-by flower stalks and otherwise paying no attention to what’s going on behind me, when I pause and straighten and turn around I see the hummingbird doing some early-in-the-day flower work of his own. He’s sampling each of the blossoms on a red lobelia that’s a fairly recent addition to the mid and late-summer garden party.
I’m only four feet away. Of course I don’t have a camera.
Birds don’t usually let you get that close. I must have blended in with the plants or otherwise resembled one closely enough for the bird to arrive and go to work with that long proboscis like beak, sticking into its nose into the feedsacks of the red lobelias without registering any dissuasive presence.
So I look at him. he appears to look back, though who knows which way bird’s eyes are looking. I’m not moving; maybe he only registers motion. Maybe he doesn’t really care if people stand next to him while he searches for food.
What do we say about the will, desire, and judgment of creatures not even recognized in the elevated mammalian order of being such as birds?
They choose where they move. To stay or go. To move left or right. To follow the flock or shoot out on their own.
Do they not have “minds”? How else do they make decisions?
I’m sure they respond to stimulus. But so do we.
I had a philosophy professor in ancient days who said in a discussion of the meaning of the word “mind” – definitions appear to be mostly what professional philosophers think about – that the word shouldn’t be limited to human beings. “Surely dogs and cats have minds,” he said. You can see them responding, making decisions, deciding on an action, or perhaps refraining from one. I seem to remember that he brought his dog to class on a leash. Is that any way to treat a “mind”?
People become experts on dog and cat behavior because we allow these animals to live with us, in our homes. We’re a little more distant with birds, though many of us feed them for a certain not easily describable species of entertainment we get from their presence.
But birds are small, they have small brains, they are bird-brained, and they are descended from reptiles.
Yet just the way we know from our pets that animals have personalities – we just don’t have a word for this quality – and their presence has the feel at times of “relationship” – something about standing next to that hummingbird while he went about his business, deciding to pay no overt attention to me, made me want to include him in this order of awareness. He neither darted off at the sight of me, or came closer for a chat. Clearly he can tell a flower from an imposter.
When he had investigated a sufficient number of booms, or pretended to for my benefit, he flew off without a second look. Or without more than a sidelong glance. Maybe birds only have sidelong glances. Maybe he was just pretending to sample flowers while he kept his sidelong glance on me, choosing not to dash off at once out of concern not to offend me, or merely out of a cautious desire to choose his own exit strategy.
Maybe he recognizes in some sense that I am the conduit of flowers in this particular spot on his territorial map (if there is such a thing) and that people here – vertical moving sort of structures, unlike trees – are responsible for providing nutritional opportunities for his kind in a place where otherwise vittles are rather scarce.
A minute or so later I saw him in the flowers that are his regular hangout, the bee balm – also red. I am not all sure the memory of our encounter endured for that minute.
But I think he knows when people are carrying cameras or not. We’ve brought the camera out with us once or twice during the dinner hour when we are dining al fresco, the hour when he makes his usual call on the red bee balm. On those occasions he never puts in an appearance.

Don’t Take My Picture

Hummingbird hovers
Snorkles in a flowered sea
Zig-zags from the lens

7.26 The Joy of Shade

Hot days have their arc. It’s a longer arc than cold days, more of a journey, because in July, one month out from the summer solstice, the days are still long.
It was cool in the morning today, enough so that we didn’t have the fans on, and according to the forecasts the dry, pleasant air was still with us. But the day warmed up rapidly. The air thickened by midday and it was too hot to want to do anything in the sun. By mid-afternoon, when I went out to do errands, people weren’t lingering on the pavement.
I put off various garden “projects” – to give them an ambitious name; “chores” might be just as accurate – as the day heated up. Midday in a hot summer day’s arc discourages vigorous effort. Do I want to climb a ladder and see how far I can get up in the mulberry tree to remove some branches shading the garden? Not now, I don’t. How about planting some sun-loving annuals in a sun-delivering spot? No thanks. Maybe later. I notice lots of plants, whole garden precincts, that want water. But it doesn’t make sense to water in the full sun.
I’ll wait for the shade to cover these spots, and water then.
A whole lot appears to be relying on this promise of shade.
About five in the afternoon the arc of the day heads downward. I can see the shade advancing across the back garden from the room where I work.
Sun is necessary to grow, thrive, energize the planet, make food. Shade is necessary to survive, while the hay is making.
The shadows move and in some places grow while I watch. The shadow plays make intriguing little plant-like shapes against the bamboo fence. These semiotics invite me to go out there among the shady places and apply the needed water to the very bodies which transmitted these signals.
I do go out and hand-water some plants in the sunny front garden – a fading hollyhock; the thirsting lace-cap hydrangea with wilting leaves which seems to have no more flowers for us this year but still wants attention; some annuals, including a few in pots. Then I wrestle off the gun (what is the right term for this appliance?) from the end of the hose and replace it with the sprinkler, which I set up in a spot to sweep most of the back garden.
The day’s arc continues. Anne comes home. I barbecue. We go to the library, and on arrival back home I decide to turn off the sprinkler. Maybe, I think, I’ll splash some more water around the places the sprinkler didn’t reach, now that it’s cool, but I can’t seem to find where I put down the hose gun.
The day is over. The arc is complete. I’m in the dark.

Shade: a haiku

Things that live in shade
Delicate flowers hiding
Their passion// for night

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

7.20 Get Your Hands Dirty

A remarkable number of unwanted plants – I couldn’t call them all “weeds” – live among the day lilies. I manicured a patch of the lilies, but that’s a mischaracterization too, because there wasn’t much left of the plants to manicure. It’s astonishing that a native plant in full flower two weeks ago could disappear so completely, so quickly. With, of course, every promise of coming back next year on schedule. Day by day the lilies bloom and drop through their flowering time. I deadhead the flower stalks. Last weekend Anne cuts down the now drying flowerless stalks.
This week I worm my way into the lily patch, doing a close to the ground sweep while trying not to step on anything I want to keep growing, and discover that most of the day lily leaves, those bold pointy spears of spring and early summer, have lost their green and withered to a papery dirty white. I pull them out. I pull out the dried-to-straw flower stalks.
Now when I look at that hunk of space, the flowering daisy “patch” of a few weeks ago, I see almost nothing but a few remaining green leaves lying on the ground or across one another, mingled with whatever decayed fronds I didn’t get to. Our bold spears have fallen.
So naturally other still growing species want to do something with the space, namely grow there. These plants are familiar by sight but anonymous because I don’t know the names of familiar backyard visitors. Some I do – the omnipresent lawn violet – which I spread myself in my aggressive ground-covering days and now find everywhere. I find also the thick green creeper I call “carpet” groundcover – a made-up name in place of a real one – has forced its way in here. Then a familiar fertile light green intruder; shows up every year, especially in the back half of the garden. I pull it out, but it’s hard to get the full root; it’ll be back. A few saplings. Some vinca, some pachysandra sprouts; not really their assigned seating, but okay.
All of which took some time and resulted in relatively little beautification.
But it was a pleasure.
A time of stasis comes in mid-summer, when everything the natural world has to offer, and everything which you have expecting as you go through mental checklist of warm-weather pleasures, seems finally to have arrived, and already you are tired of them. It’s like being a kid bored with the eagerly-awaited but now rather long-seeming summer vacation. When you are a kid, the day comes when the prospect of going down to the playground to play the same games you played the day before and every day before that doesn’t seem worth the effort. You’ll go back to those games, the next day, or the next week, and eagerly anticipate them, but not today. Today’s the day of nothing doing.
When you’re older, you say it’s too hot to work, too sticky to sit outdoors under a tree, and there’s too much traffic between you and the beach. Things have come to a halt, and the day-lilies have wilted.
Maybe it’s another “beautiful summer day at the ballpark” as they say on TV when the baseball game is about to begin. But some days sitting in the stands watching others play doesn’t do it for you.
Looking forward to time off from work, or to that golden idle summertime of the soul, we say “I’m just going to sit around and do nothing.” We do it. But it doesn’t last; not for very long.
We actually want to do something. It’s doing, engagement, that’s fun.
So I go outdoors and get my hands dirty picking through the lily patch. I make no great discoveries. Some stalks of the volunteer plant with blue bell-shaped flowers – another anonymous standby – are still standing and I decide to cut them down. I pull up some other volunteers to expose the shape of a late summer phlox whose blooms we can still anticipate. I assess the water-needs of the tall shrubs whose roots lie hard by the fence and are generally obscured, judging them okay. These activities make little difference to the shape of things.
But I have enjoyed some time among the bees and the ants and breezes which wave the flowers of the still-blooming liatris and the red lobelia and the larkspur, reminding me why we have them. I have had some thoughts. (Don’t ask me what they were.) I have nourished the senses and revived what other natural impulses we have that keep us going.
I have put my hands on the earth and got them dirty. I’ll miss that in the winter.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

How We Said Goodbye to Grass

Five years ago I squatted on our mulch covered backyard, concerned that there was nothing much alive out here. Anne and I had made the bold decision to replace the grass, all of it – remove all the worn and woebegone turf we found here after moving into this house in Quincy and let the underpaid men working for the landscaping company throw it in a truck and drive it all away. At least some things live in the typical monoculture grass lawn (though not many; fewer all the time), I reflected. A few insects; ants, spiders, caterpillars – attracting a few birds to come and pick at the earth. But after we had said goodbye to the landscape company and discovered what they had left behind, very little in the way of actual soil, it was clear we needed to call in reinforcements, lots of them, before this new landscape could support a new ecosystem.
At that first summer’s close, my new plantings had not yet succeeded in covering large portions of the area which had been de-grassed and somewhat replaced – by us, using wheelbarrow, shovel, and rake to transform a truckload of soil into a series of planting beds. Some parts more than others, but much of our back yard remained – at least on the surface – no more than a brown covering of chopped up pieces of wood. Wood mulch. Even the weeds seemed slow to take advantage of the cleared canvas, the tabla rasa of the new landscape.
I was impatient. I wanted fertility, something green; growth. I wanted a living landscape. Until that landscape came alive, I confess to having some second thoughts. I though how nice it would be to sit in the grass in a nice green yard.
But even more than a nice place to sit, I wanted a plant world that would attract other creatures, even the crawly things of the earth we top-of-the-food-chain characters generally turn from in disgust. I wanted roots that would probe and tangle underneath the soil; something for the worms and the legions of invisible microbes which gambol in the subterranean universe to work on. Something to feed the birds, or attract them, make them want to walk around and peck at sprouts, leaves, twigs, and stems for nesting material; berries to temp them. Colors to bewitch the bees and the butterflies; something to buzz about.
I wanted flowers, of course, a kind of showy balance-sheet end product, the flash of color that appeals to that fleshpot of humanity all of us reduce to, a complicated concoction of carbon based cells with sense organs. Our sense organs, after all, have got us into this. Our senses are wide-range stimulation finders, and for many of us flowers – nature’s showiest, most brightly colored art objects –are top draw.
Why does color mean so much to us? Being neither artist nor scientist, I have no idea what to do with this question. But clearly we want color in our lives. Something dull or depressing is “colorless,” we say. Color stands out against a monochrome background, a too familiar routine, anything monotonous or numbingly uniform – color signifies life.
Having convinced myself long ago, by these and other reasons, of the desirability of a varied and colorful plant world in our landscape – a conviction serious enough to cause the two of us to jettison the ground we found here and start over, at considerable expense, on an experiment unlike anything we had done before – it’s hard to understand the satisfaction people appear to derive from in the bland green lawn and dark green low-maintenance evergreen shrub look of so much of residential America.
Certainly a nice green lawn can be attractive. I am a frequent admirer of them. It’s a cool summer look, soft on the eyes. Green is good; I’m a big fan of green myself. I suspect on some biochemical level we need to see it.
But then there are those times when a mono-crop grass lawn is not green. Here we are, once again, in our mid-summer drought – a predictable and often prolonged dry spell; last summer’s “unnaturally” wet July was a rare exception.
When the grass turns brown, a natural response to hot, dry weather, you need something else to look at.

The Grass Not Greener: a faux haiku

The grass is not always
Greener in the other fellow’s yard
Sometimes it’s brown

Monday, July 12, 2010

7.10 Ahead of Ourselves

Everything, both backyard gardeners and market farmers agree, is two or three weeks “ahead” this year. So far it’s the signature truth of the of the 2010 growing season in New England.
I’m getting ready to cut the flower stalks off my stands of native day lilies. Might as well since there are no more flowers on them. Native orange day lilies, which grow in traffic triangles, on road sides, in countless backyards all over this state – one of the most reliable sources of mid-summer color in Massachusetts – are a flower whose blooming season start-up I used to date to July Fourth. This year they were pretty much done by July Fourth.
It feels a little bit like moving Massachusetts to New Jersey. Are we on route to North Carolina? Virginia?
At the end of last week I noticed a first blossom on a tall young Rose of Sharon bush this year. A freak vanguard bloom? No, within a day or two both our bushes were in fully blossoming. A gardener I spoke to yesterday made the same point. Her Rose of Sharon bushes were going great guns. It feels less like a gift, and more like a conspiracy.
It’s hard for gardeners to be happy over this early performance of old friend perennials, whose habits we thought we knew and understood, since most of rely on these plants a stable provider of late summer color. Judged by what’s going on, they won’t be this summer.
I’m not sure what if any perennial flowering plants will provide late season color this year. My dead certain lock for August color in the front garden – a dark purple hibiscus with sandwich plate-sized flowers – opened its first bud three days ago. It was easy to remember when this plant started blooming last year – exactly Aug. 1. With about a three weeks supply of blooms, the “August hibiscus” may finish before its month begins this year.
Can we all take August off, like the Europeans, and go away somewhere cool by the sea? There may be nothing much to occupy us in the garden here.
Here’s the hot-button question. Is this undeniably accelerated bloom schedule a clear forerunner of climate change?
You can’t make generalizations from the particulars of a single season, or course. Every time we get a cold snap in the winter, somebody says, “What happened to global warning?” as if it were killing thrust of logic? Not long ago Jon Stewart satirized climate change skeptics by having his correspondent fearfully predict the end of the world one evening because the sun was disappearing.
But long-term weather trends are statistical glaciers advancing at a snail’s pace (by human standards of time) punctuated by occasional bursts into the open – and I think we may be seeing one now.
Last summer was unusually rainy, short on sun, and some usually reliable annual plants – such as tomatoes – were either late or absent in blooming and fruiting.
This year a warm spring followed by a stretch of hot, sunny summer weather has brought about the opposite effect: accelerated blooming.
Both more rain and higher temperatures are predicted effects of global raining. As I said above, amateur weather-watchers should be wary of drawing conclusions about long-range trends. And these are clearly amateur observations. But I think we’re seeing something unusual and quite possibly portentous. We may be seeing the blooming clock of our garden perennials move forward.
If we’re smart, maybe we should start looking now into hot-weather plants.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

7.6 Dry Run

One Hundred Haiku

One hundred degrees
Sweat-stung bodies peel their petals
And gleam like the sun

Farmers’ Market Haiku

I like it, he said
When you have trouble sleeping
My corn is growing

I’m doing midsummer patchwork. Summer perennials have been finishing their run much too early this year, even before this week’s heat spell. Hot dry weather – with temperatures approaching three digits today – dry out the last healthy blossoms on plants that usually flower through July. So now I’m thinking of ways to brighten the dull spots of the garden, where all the perennials with the colored blossoms have spent their ammunition. The fireworks come early, and diminish early.
We turn, in part at least, to annuals. I have a couple score of cosmos seedlings which I grew, starting them late, in the seedbed in the vegetable garden. I surprised myself by how well the cosmos grew from seeds. Full disclosure requires me to report that other seeds, such as those mixed summer flower seed packets given away as promotions produced absolutely nothing.
I had a vague idea a few years back that I could plant a lot of late-summer annuals by seed, the idea being to save myself the expense of buying flats or nursery grown single plants each year. I usually find myself haunting nurseries in late July to see what they have on sale, regardless of how poor condition they’re in after sitting in a flat or tiny pot six weeks longer than they need.
This year without much conscious intention I have mostly done that. Besides the cosmos, I grew scores of morning glories – currently assaulting the back of the house – and a couple dozen ornamental pea vines, which I’m also teaching to climb.
But the thin lacy cosmos seedlings, about six inches high now, are our best hope for new life in late summer. I am parceling them out, a few here, a few there.
Also, of course, we have another privileged class of annuals known as vegetables. Tomatoes and peppers turning red in July are a cheering sight.
And low and behold, underneath the spreading awnings of a squash plant the other day I spied two large, fat green zucchinis. Everybody else in the world grows them to sickening excess, but after repeated failures here – my squash plants tend to develop the white mold disease on their leaves before they yellow flowers turn into fruit – I am ready to throw a zucchini festival to celebrate our first successes.