Wednesday, June 26, 2013

It's About the Bees

            Sometimes it's about the bees.
            They're the opposite of the Spanish Inquisition. Everybody expects them. We expect them to be where they're supposed to be, gathering pollen, building their hives, fertilizing crops -- but these days sometimes they're just not there.
            Honeybees are an European import brought to this country to pollinate the crops farmers from Europe planted here. Honeybees play an enormous role in bringing common food items to our homes -- crops like blueberries, applies, cucumbers, watermelons, cranberries. Native North American bumblebees also play a big role in fertilizing fruits and vegetables we eat.
            According to the US Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the food we consume benefits directly or indirectly from honeybee pollination.
            Some six or seven years ago beekeepers began finding empty hives, their bees simply vanished. Commercial beekeepers lost two-thirds of their bees in some cases, 90 percent in some others. A government survey showed a national average loss of one-third of all hives every year starting from 2006. Before that, the casualty rate was closer to 10 percent. The bees simply took themselves off, leaving their hives in completely uncharacteristic behaviors, committing a kind of mass suicide when they flew the coop in cold weather.
            Scientists termed this death spiral "colony collapse disorder" and explored various possible explanations. A combination of factors appear to play a role, including parasites, but the widespread use of commercial pesticides may turn out to be the crucially devastating factor by attacking the insects' nervous system.   
            Bees are one of the "beleagured species of pollinators" that people can help protect in their own backyard, according to Susan J. Weit, a field ecologist, speaker and author of 12 books, who writes on a blog on "home and habitat."
            You can find her recent post titled "Habitat Heroes: making a positive change in the garden" at:
            Many pollinators that help make our ecosystem go are in trouble, Weit writes: "Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating European honeybee colonies, whole species of native bees like bumblebees are vanishing, monarch butterfly populations are in peril, hummingbird populations are experiencing drastic fluctuations."
            The causes include "habitat loss and pesticide use."
            Americans can do something about those two.
            Weit points out that our yards and gardens are part of the natural environment. They're home for us, but they're also habitat for plants, animals, insects, and birds native to these parts -- whichever parts we happen to live in -- and they can play a role in keeping species that we particularly value healthy. Species such as birds, butterflies -- and bees.
            She recommends devoting a portion of our lawn areas to "wildscapes -- gardens that use native and regionally adapted plant species in designs that mimic natural habitat."
            Let some fallen tree branches rot somewhere out of sight. Plant some native groundcovers, herbs, perennials at the edges of things, especially where you grass is wearing out. Just let them go.  
            Let things grow a little wild. Don't cut your grass so often (this is me talking now). Let it grow higher, and let the clover that finds its way into your lawn stay there. Bees like clover. Don't let your lawn service use chemical herbicides or pesticides. They kill the clover, they bees. Cancel the lawn "treatments." They turn your yard into a desert.
             To quote from Weit's piece one more time. "Lawns occupy some 40 million acres of the United States and are some of the unhealthiest habitat around."
            Just growing plants that actually still have those little pollen-bearing flower parts inside their blossoms gives bees a reason to be, buzz around and explore in your garden. Not all commercially developed hybrids have them.
            The world, and life itself, feels more like the real thing when you can hear the occasional buzz along with the calls, complaints, warnings, and evensongs of birds. And when you can see the occasional flutter of of butterfly wings.
            We had bees here recently, climbing inside each of the bell-shaped blossoms on the foxgloves. If you're close enough you can sometimes hear a little resonance, or echo, when they buzz inside the walls of a flower.
            The lower photo on this post is one of the monarch butterflies who planted themselves on our butterfly bushes last year and stuck around for hours, sometimes days.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Longest Day: or is it Midsummer?

We don't have any holiday celebrations for the longest day of the year -- the summer soltstice -- which tends to be known in the US by the more commercially driven description of "the first day of summer."
Today is the longest day because the earth has tilted its axis as far north as it gets. The science is beyond dispute.
But in Europe, certainly in England, this day was traditionally known as "midsummer day" This nomenclature accurately references the annual journey of the earth's axis. Three months ago, at the spring equinox, the sun at its apex was directly above the equator, dividing light and darkness exactly in half. That's when the days begin to lengthen and bring on "summer."
The sun reaches that same halfway point exactly six months later, around Sept. 21, the day we call the autumn equinox. Those six months bound the warm season in the northern hemisphere, the growing season.
The season we live off, stocking up on the necessities we need to survive the cold season when, in northern climates, the only thing that grows is mold.
So, to our ancestors, summer, the season of more light and warmth was crucially important,and when the calendar brought us to June 21, the longest day of the year, we were already midway through our good season.
Hence Midsummer.
The grass, the hay crops that fed the animals, was already high by this date and ready for a cutting. The spring vegetatbles, including the wild greens and herbs and some berries, were already harvested and consumed.
People celebrated Midsummer Day, the longest day of the year, the day the sun reaches its apex in our sky. They built Stonehenge and such other astral monuments as a solar calendar to tell them which day to celebrate.
They invented stories to celebrate the day as well. They invented fairies.
We know the "fairies" celebrated the Midsummer day because they do so in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," one of his (and our) most popular comedies, so named to reference the day celebrated by the fairies who are, in some sense, manifestations of the natural world.
The names of the faires who attend Bottom, the "rude mechanical" -- i.e., a working man and the closest thing the play has to a human hero -- reveal roots in the natural world: Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed.
According to some authorities at least "there is no fairy poetry in English literature before Shakespeare," so perhaps the greatest of English authors reached back to his own country origins to make use of the tales, legends, names, and folk beliefs that gave these airy creatures a poetic identity in his work.
Shakespeare's fairies are planning to celebrate on Midsummer's Night.
"The king doth keep his revels here to-night," declares the play's trickster spirit Puck.
The king of the fairies, Oberon, is quarreling with his queen, Titania, and arranges on this night for a potentially cruel practical joke to played by drugging her with a love potion to cause her to fall in love with Bottom, who has been transformed (by another nasty bit of fairy magic) into a "monster" with the head of an ass.
The scene is the subject of a famous painting. Fairies caught on in the popular culture, as we would describe it today, of the romantic 19th century. According to London's Tate Museum, from the 1830s "an increasing numbers of fairy pictures appeared on the walls of the Royal Academy, and by the middle of the century the taste for fairy painting was well established." In the famous treatment of this scene by the artist Huskisson, "Titania, Queen of the Fairies, has been lulled to sleep by her attendants, who are just disappearing from view in the shadowy distance to the left."
Fairies have been part of UK popular culture ever since.
According to a trademarked property called The Flower Fairies (they produce some delicious children's books), the fairies' "favourite pastime is dancing and having parties and balls, which they do often, but their particular favourite time of year is midsummer and therefore their most wonderful balls are held on the Midsummer's Eve."
How thin in comparison are our own customs -- at least as regards the Longest Day of the Year in our technically advanced, materially rich civilization.
Today is the longest day of the year in Massachusetts and we don't have a holiday, we don't a "first night" of summer, we don't build beseeching fires... we take it in stride as our due. "Well," as one radio guy said today, "we've made it once more. It's summer."
Well, by some reckonings it's been good around here for a while, and tonight the season doesn't begin -- it peaks.
But it goes by as a routine working day.
The best I could manage was to sit outdoors after coming home from our Friday night exercise session at the YMCA, the sun had already set for a few minutes, but the twilight was soft and delicious. I sat in the backyard garden for a few minutes enjoying the sweetness of the twilight, the birds silent after a long day of gatheirng berries while they may, the world growing silent, sipping my celebratory beverage of choice (a "seasonal" variety beer). There was even a full moon.
I looked hard. But fairies are famously difficult to see. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Ghost of an Idea

            Looking at the photos I took last week over the course of a few days whenever it looked like the light was right, I am tempted to say, OK, fine, it's a wrap, can't do much better with the materials at hand. Let's stop the universe right here.
            The sun comes out one day in the mid to late afternoon. The light falls strongly on the light-blue flowers of the mid-sized phlox I put in the ground at the start of the season this spring in a place that looks made for a plant of this size and shape. The sharp light divides sun and shade, heightening the contrast.
            In every garden there are a thousand gardens because points of view, light, season and the status of the plants themselves are constantly changing. They are like people.
            I think these thoughts after returning from the visiting family friends in Boston and walking through the city's Public Gardens. They do great floral displays there each summer. But it just hit me that all the plants in the flower beds are annuals. (No doubt I realize this every year and promptly forget about it.) Hardly any perennials make up their summer flower gardens.
            And the reason? They want steady color. They don't want to be changing their plants every week or two as the growing season unfolds.
            That's what perennial gardens do. They change the display. They show you something, then take it away.
            The upside is that your perennial garden is constantly changing, showing you something new all the time.
            The downside is that most of your perennials -- including many you wait for: irises, peonies, the weeping cherry tree -- are without blooms fifty to fifty-one weeks a year.
            Areas glow, light up for their moment in the spring, and then go green. Most retain the interest of foliage and shape (some wither away quickly). So you have to keep looking for ways to provide color interest in places where the plants have already finished their bloom.
            Last week was first time we could access the patio since the re-shingling of the house, which chewed up three weeks last month and ended on a hot Sunday, was finally over.
            First we clear the patio and gain an approach to the shed. The tools come out and Anne uses the hedge clipper to trim the weeping branches of the Japanese cherry to keep them off the ground and and out the circular path. We re-tie and re-tighten the over-enthusiastic spirea shrub, with some vigorous tugging to keep it off the brick path.
            Anne digs up the plants that have planted themselves between bricks in our spoke-paths, and I transplant some of them to a place where they belong. You get very little root when you are removing plants from between bricks, but a few of these blacked-eyed susans appear to survive the transplant.
            Meanwhile I struggle with the project of transplanting a perfectly happy pachysandra patch from a mature, sunny colony in the far back, re-planting the fragments as I dig them apart into the  troublespots in the dark front yard under trees in poor root-robbed soil. If nothing else does well in a spot, I try pachysandra.
            But the other reason -- the vain, human reason -- is I want their partly sunny, apparently favorable home turf for other plants that will give me more summer color.
            This is how we try to keep the wheel of the perennial-garden season turning. To keep the interest up, you tinker, tweak, add more, try something new. Space is finite, but time (in the local sense) may not be.
            The gardener may choose to rest content with an established pattern. It's probably the wiser course. But the human heart is restless. You want to try something new, a new combination. You keep playing around. Even with only the vaguest idea of what you hope to accomplish. Even with just the ghost of an idea.  
            You give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Remembering Taksim Square (at least a little)

We visited Taksim Square, the ground zero of the current anti-authoritarian demonstrations in Turkey, on our visit to Istanbul last year, but didn't stay. It was pouring a rain when we got there, a cold wintry rain in the last days of February that turned to a fine dusting of snow by the next morning. I was wearing my Massachusetts winter parka and was still cold. One of our three umbrellas shattered in the blast off the Bosphorus. We tossed the broken remnants into the nearest trash bin.
Taksim Square is located in Beyoglu, a part of the city settled first by Genoans in the 14th century, which earns it the title of the "new city" in ancient Istanbul (once known as Constantinople). Our plan was to walk down Istiklal Caddesi, the city's most fashionable avenue (according to the guidebooks) through the new “European” quarter of the city during what turned out out to be the height of the evening torrent.
This was the second day of our five-day stay in one of the world's unique places.
In the course of our first, frantic once-over-everything day, we crossed the Galata Bridge from the Old City, where where we were staying, to Beyoglu It was a Sunday and the bridge was mobbed. People go there to get the fresh air, for the exercise, to throw a fishing line over the side, to people watch, or eat or snack or drink in the long row of cafes and restaurants on the bridge’s lower level. The vitality is impressive. I christened it the Central Park of Istanbul.
This comparison tells you everything you need to know about the city's resistance to losing to Taksim Square and neighboring Gezi Park to the sterile makeover envisioned by Erdogan's edifice complex. Really old cities seldom have enough green park space; the concept wasn't invented when they were built. Green space of any sort is rare in Beyoglu. The city of Istanbul possesses great natural beauty due to the the wrap-around presence of three significant bodies of water; but in-town, so to speak, is short on parks.
After crossing the Galata Bridge, we passed on the funicular, the popular way to ascend uphill to Beyoglu. Instead we climb up a series of narrow stairs and inclined streets with the locals through a neighborhood of old buildings and apartments (restored and decaying) patisseries, cafes and small stores, until we get to the elegant Tunel Square, with views over the Golden Horn. We find a cafe in an elegant, very European alley, open air but under a roof. But that's as far as our energy lasts that day.
We plan to go deeper in our next day's excursion, after devoting the first half of the day to the world's most ancient great cathedral, Hagia Sofia, a building with slices of three great empries, Rome, Byzantium and Ottoman, in its DNA.
This day's lesson is the Turks are tough. Nobody here apologizes for the ferocious winds and day-long driving rains of our first full day in Istanbul. The locals do not huddle inside cafes and whine to one another like self-respecting Mediterraneans. They do not wear hats in the rain and snow, as if permanently traumatized by the loss of the fez under Attaturk. A few have umbrellas; not a high percentage. A much higher percentage of tourists do carry umbrellas; our own little party is 3 for 3.
When we need to replace the broken umbrella, we buy one from a man who stands exposed in the rain all day selling them, holding his own in frozen fingers over his rain-swept body. Similar street-vendors stayed out of doors, unsheltered, all day; shifting their feet, but looking less miserable than I did after five minutes of wind-driven rain in my puss.
This day we take a "historic trolley," a classy vehicle made of polished old wood, up from Tunel Square, a hub not only for fine cafes and potted flowers but for transportation, to Taksim Square. My only lasting impression is it's a place near stores, workplaces and other services where people catch their bus to go home at the end of the day. The weather is wet and windy and we quickly agree that the only sensible thing for us to do is to walk the fashionable avenue back down toward Tunel unitl we give up and take a bus or train back to the hotel.
We window shop and stop a couple times to browse bookstores, a good excuse to get out of the rain. Then somehow, when we need to rest up and eat, Sonya’s guidebook skills discover a stylish and hospitable tappas-style restaurant located in a restored building in another of these old city alleys only a block or so from our current whereabouts. When we emerge a good while later, the Turks are still out there, striding bare-headed through the frozen rain.
We discover to our satisfaction that we are now close to Tunel Square, where we can board a tram for our ride home. Another of my enduring memories of Istanbul is how good the public transportation system is. Turkey's national government should run so well.
People need their public squares, their parks, their open gathering places. It should be up to those who live near and depend on public spaces to say what, if anything, needs to be done with them, not up to some national leader, however powerful, who seeks to play the uber-urban redesigner without a public consultation process.
The Lincoln Memorial would never have been designed by Lincoln. Prime ministers, like Presidents, should have more important things to do. And people everywhere should have a say in the decisions that shape their everyday world.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jumping June Jail Break

            The garden looks like a jail break. Everything we ever put somewhere wants to be somewhere else. Maybe everywhere. Paths are disappearing. Smaller plants are disappearing under the over-reaching of bigger, bulkier neighbors. The little pieces of brown earth that earlier appeared between plants of different species have been swallowed up by rapid lateral, as well as upward, expansions.
            Rapid springtime plant growth is kind of like monopolistic capitalism in an expansionist cycle. Everybody wants to corner the market.
            Actually, the first week of June is always an expansionist cycle. Every year we get to this point of saying, oh no, things are out of control. It's a green riot. 
            But early June is also an object lesson on how in the "real world," a world outside of human inventions such as borders, boundaries, claims, property lines, states, and governments is no respecter of species. It's impossible to keep natural entities -- material beings of any sort, such as people -- sorted into discreet units. Real things (like people) don't stay where you put them.
            My little plots of Mazus, forget-me-nots, evening primrose, et al. don't clump together, marching in step, saluting the flag, following the rules, respecting each other's territory. They don't form little nation states. They don't say all of us who live here are Mazus, true and blue, we all look the same, so get out of here, violets. And stay in your own place. It wouldn't do any good. Violets don't stay in any one place, ever.
            Some plants simply grow strong through their centers and push out at the sides in all directions. A new season begins and suddenly they're wider, taking up more air space, more ground space. The Coreopsis with lacy leaves and delicate yellow flowers has 50 percent or more mass than when we last put our heads together in the fall. Anything else in the neighborhood has to give.
            Other plant groups simply interpenetrate one another. The Dianthus survives and sends up bright red little flowers into the clear air despite rubbing stems with the Mazus that has otherwise apparently overrun it.
            All of this suggests (to me, at least) the historical dissemination of peoples -- families, kinship groups, clans, tribes, ethnicities, nationalities.
            I could spend all of my time fixing up borders and extirpating intruders, removing the new growth that wasn't growing last year from where it is growing this year, and trying to put the new world back into the order of the old work, but it would be absolutely all I did. I would become the plant police.
            I do a fair amount of policing as it is, thinning, cropping, trimming, weeding (having decided which is the weed and which is the plant of higher value) as it is.
            But restoring the old regime, putting Borbons back on the throne, locking up the border, building up the fences, removing the plants without papers from the established flower-state homelands and sending them somewhere -- to the mulch pile, possibly -- is... Well, it t'aint natural. Plants will mix and some of this mixing will change the nature of the garden.
            I think it's the way of the world.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Shocking Days

          Why do the ends/beginnings of months so often herald radical changes in weather?
            Eastern Massachusetts' shocker days held off this year until the last two days of May. These visitations of shock and awe, for which nothing can truly prepare mind of body, usually come in May or April; sometimes March. They're the day or days when, all of a sudden, the temperature shoots up, the superego collapses, the body wants to do nothing but lie around and hope for a breeze, iced coffee and ice cream sales shoot up, and everybody says, "Oh, so that's the way it is, huh? So much for spring! Now we go straight into summer!"
            Yes, it's what everybody (almost) has been asking for. Then comes the creeping realization that there's a downside to getting what you wished for, and that includes even summer.
            A neighbor who insists on using only power tools to maintain his modest bit of landscaping chooses the middle of the day, when you absolutely have to have the windows open, to manicure his lawn and trim the edges. First, the loud and persistent whine of the power mower -- directly provoking nostalgia for the old rotary blades whose rapid metallic clacking was one of the leitmotifs of the nostalgic neighborhood summer, the lifestyle choice of another day. Then comes the high up-and-down whirr of the weed whacker.
            Common enough annoyances, but mere whispers in the dark compared to the full day's diet of re-shingling the house the one of us who works here has been treated to for three weeks. (Subtitle: 'Canceling May.') 
            I persevered with a minimum of griping (for me) so long as the work crew was separated from me by a few thin layers of window glass. This sonic fig leaf was maintained for the first two weeks when the temperatures did not require opening the windows.
            The protracted vernal cool meant I could keep the windows closed while the carpenters ripped off the old cedar shingles from three sides of the hose, removed storms and frame wood, Tyveked the whole place, disappeared (sometimes for whole days) in order to paint the stain on the shingles, one by one if I understand correctly, before returning to mount a scaffolding, place ladders everywhere like an an invading army determined to reach the top of the battlements, and fired their guns... into, presumably, the new cedar shingles.
            These were "air guns" I am told, and whether they drove the staples in, or the nails in, or both I never quite discovered, but there was some old-fashioned free-swinging hammer-slamming going on as well, as my ears can testify. Even with the windows shut as tight I could get them, noise was a daily companion.
           Steadier and even more punishing than the hammering was the heavy electric buzz of the capacitor, the machine that was necessary to -- I have no idea how to say this -- blow the air into the air guns? 
           That machine, I ask one morning,  what does--?
           "You mean the capacitor?" 
           "Is it a generator?" 
           "It's a capacitor." 
           "What does it do?" 
           "It's for the air guns."
            My hidden agenda is, of course, a way to turn this uber dentist drill buzz off. I am about to offer our carpenter-guys the opportunity to plug directly into the grid through my conveniently located outdoor outlet -- freely absorbing the expense of all the electricity they end up using -- when I happen to notice that the "capacitor" (OK, clearly not a generator) is already plugged into my conveniently located outdoor outlet.
            Guess what? The juice is on me!
            The thing about the buzz is it steadily grates away whether I hear any other noises of productive labor or not -- in which case it's capacitating what, exactly? -- and then, at regular intervals, the thing leaves behind that steady nervous grating to shift into its triple-volume ear-splitting electronic pneumatic drill impression. These moments sound like the guys are working off that extra energy by digging up the streets.
            Days are lost to rain. Hours are lost to failure to capacitate. Then there's painting those shingles, until ol' Tommy, the crew's head. decides to paint them on one side, and then spray paint the other once they're up on the house. 
         So the job has already lasted a week longer than promised when the sudden days of shocking and awful heat/humidity for which we are never really prepared arrive, and human life (mine at least) cannot survive without ceiling fans and open windows.
          It is at this point that the work has at last arrived on the wall section directly beside my study window. Which is open when a sweaty face appears in the foot and a half of open window across the desk from my own. Phantom faces in the window! Other body parts appear in this window of opportunity at regular intervals as the work ascends. The shoulder shot. The belly shot. The thigh shot. Inevitably, the butt shot.
            Of course I remain hard at work, and undistracted throughout. A big ha-ha to that one! LOL!, as we like to self-report these days. After all, no one can doubt that summer fun is suddenly here.   Shocking days!