Sunday, January 27, 2008

Doggie Memory

Meant to post this yesterday. Our sweet dog Watson died four years ago yesterday, on Jan. 26, 2004. We still miss him dearly. He was so adorable and funny. Watson was a completely blind Boykin Spaniel, named for folk/bluegrass legend Doc Watson. He was found abandoned on a roadway when he was about 6. Watson lived to be 17 years old. He never knew anything was wrong with him, so he was fearless. We had to take great care to keep him from barreling full-cannon into whatever life was offering him at the moment. He chased sticks and balls, using scent and sound, and loved to swim. In this photo, he is getting a good whiff of one of my brother's orphaned calves.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A tough broad and tough gardener

Before my uncle died last year, he let me rifle through a trunk of old photos that belonged to my grandmother. I found this one of her sister, my great aunt "Dodo" (her real name was Dora), who lived in Greensboro, N.C. I adore this photo of her, standing like a hardy plainswoman with a cigarette, daring the dirt to defy her. She lived into her 90s, but unfortunately her gardening career ended well before that.

A pin in her hip kept her confined to a wheelchair in latter years. But at one time, you could always find her toiling in her garden that in autumn was a jungle of dahlias. I don’t recall seeing them except in photographs—the blooms were head-high. Dad tells me that Aunt Dodo could coax anything to grow in "pure mud." She transformed the landscape with mulch, kitchen scraps and anything else she could turn into compost. Dad says she would order all manner of "oddball" stuff from catalogs and that she made the most of her space, training cucumbers, squash and any plants she could talk into growing vertically.

Aunt Dodo filled the table with vegetables from the garden to feed the family while her sister spent several years in a tuberculosis sanatorium. In the trunk, I found this letter she wrote to my grandmother Sept. 9, 1949:

".....I cut the last cabbage today. We have had plenty all summer. The 175 I put out are living all but few the pidgeons snipped off. We had our first tender greens yesterday with corn bread. The two new patches I planted few days ago are coming up —purple top and tendergreens. The new tomatoes are coming along and have plenty for the table. The last 12 plants are just ready to bloom. New snap beans almost ready to bloom. We get plenty okra - egg plant - lima beans - snap beans - hot & sweet peppers. So far very few things bought outside of staples. The figs are ripening fast. I preserve them for you. Lots of love, Sis Dora"

Aunt Dodo was a tough old broad, widowed young. She was a subsistence gardener and flower grower, a hard-working private duty nurse, devoted smoker and a faithful one-Budweiser-a-day drinker. Dad recalls visiting her in an apartment littered with dog-eared copies of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines and ashtrays with butts piled to the ceiling.

Aunt Dodo was one of my dearest relatives. When I was young, she clipped articles about Elton John and other rock stars I liked and tucked them into her shakily hand-scrawled letters to me. After both she and my grandmother were dead, my dad and uncle found her wedding ring among the possessions. It fit me perfectly, and they gave it to me as a gift, which I put on immediately and never took off. When I got married, I chose to wear it as my own.

The recession has trickled down to the birds

I hate to admit this but I have already boarded up the doors of the avian soup kitchen. I was at (generic home improvement megalomart) the other day searching for some sort of home improvement product, and I could not bring myself to even go near the birdseed aisle. It is too expensive. I know the birds will scarf it up in two days and I'll be right back in the same predicament. After all, we have a new mouth to feed in our home and, I think, are singlehandedly keeping the makers of Hill's Science Diet in the black. I'm starting to think that if I spent the entire $600 "rebate" check that Congress and the president are threatening to give us, it would be scarcely enough to stock the feeders through April.

Some years ago, I read of the staggering amount of money people spend on birdseed every year, and I dearly wish I could find the statistic. I think if the government really wants to stimulate the economy, they should breed and release a few million birds in communities across the country. Can't you just hear cash registers at Birds Unlimited going cha-ching?

There is an elderly couple across the street who live on a "fixed income." They still drive a Model T Ford and have rotary dial telephones, yet they have the fattest birds in the neighborhood (and they wonder why we're inundated with hawks). If they had to choose between buying this month's medication or birdseed, I have no doubt what call they'd make. Oh well, I guess I can always set up the spotting scope and watch their birds.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Crepe Murder" and beyond ...

Ian says he saw topped trees of every species all over London. Are trees safe nowhere?!! Stop the carnage!!!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Yellowstone Yearnings

I'm sitting here in Raleigh, awaiting the "significant" snowfall (always a relative term here) predicted for central North Carolina this afternoon. So far, nothing but a smidgen of rain. Last night I couldn't sleep in anticipation. Just like the night before Santa Claus. Waaaaaah! Santa didn't bring me anything.

I decided to go where there'd definitely be snow. So I visited the daily online journal of a group of N.C. teachers visiting Yellowstone National Park this week under the guidance of my good, kind and talented friend and colleague Mike Dunn. He is a tremendous environmental educator and photographer. The group is journaling and uploading their words and photos on the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences' Web site. Click here to follow along.

"We carefully passed a large herd of bison in Hayden Valley. It's much harder to pass a herd when they are traveling in the same direction as your vehicle. Tamarak, our snow coach driver, had to drive very slowly so the bison wouldn't run too much and use the energy they need to survive until spring."

It's not as good as snow in my own yard, but it'll do for now. The color of envy is .... white?

Update: It just started snowing!

Note: Wanted to include Mike's feedback here, in addition to the comments section:

Thanks for making people aware of our journey. The daily journals are written (with some slight editing by us) by teams of teachers in the workshop on a rotating basis. And the bison photo was actually taken by my able-bodied colead, Melissa - out the back of our snow coach. We will be posting more of our photos to the Museum web site in the next few days. The snow was awesome, and the temps got down to -25 degrees F!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Bluebirds of Yore

These are babes from the spring of '06. Didn't have any blues last year (2007). Was diligent against the steady campaign by English sparrows in early spring. They took a liking to the box. I dumped their nesting material every day for 8 days straight before they surrendered. I was glad they finally did because I'm not one of those diehard bluebird people who will wring the necks of non-native sparrow offspring and chuck them out of the box. But I am willing to commit to evicting their nesting material, and, with a tad more squeamishness, their eggs.

A few days after the sparrow retreat, the bluebirds came and began nest-building, but they abandoned the effort in a couple of days and didn't return. The only other activity in the bluebird box in '07 was a clutch of chickadee eggs that were marauded by something. I'm hopeful that I'll get bluebirds this year. I went out two weeks ago to check the box and clean it if necessary. I was unprepared to find, as I removed the nest cup, a dead bird with about a week of stink on it. I was unsure what it was, but I photographed it and sent it to one of my bird-expert friends. He replied that it was an English sparrow. I'm guessing it was seeking winter shelter in the box and died for some reason.

For a photo diary of the 2006 nest, from days 3 through 14, click here.

Monday, January 14, 2008


They're back. Pecking stray thistle seed on the ground underneath the finch feeder. I love these little "snowbirds." I'm glad they don't shun us even though we rarely have fluffy precipitation. I haven't had any juncos for two years, which is as long as I have been not feeding the birds on a regular basis (via artificial feeders, that is. The goldfinches visit to pilfer the seed heads of poppies and coneflowers in the garden, and the hummingbirds feed on just about every blossom in sight). Sometimes I am broke and just plain lazy, and other times it's just too cold to go outside. I don't really feel guilty. People don't fill feeders with overpriced food for the birds. We do it for us. So we can delight in them on a more reliable, predictable basis. Sort of like ... if you look out your window long enough, you'll see someone strolling by on the sidewalk. But if you want to be guaranteed to see a variety of people in droves at a particular time, just advertise that you're having a yard sale that starts at 8 a.m. with the stipulation "no early birds." Your doorbell will start ringing promptly at 6 a.m. Another sure thing: If you want to add a very senior citizen to your life list, be queued up in the lunch line at K&W cafeteria at 10:55 a.m.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Farewell, Ed

Driving home, I heard the news of the passing of Sir Edmund Hillary, the first person to scale Mt. Everest and an influential environmentalist. A modest man, he reportedly preferred to be called Ed. I love that.

Bird Food and Other Money Pits

I went to [unnamed home improvement store] tonight to get some lengths of chain to hang some new grow lights. I was sucked into the bird feeder area just "to browse" and saw a nifty three-part feeder that was intriguing. The middle part was for the basic songbird mix, one end was a suet cage, and the other end was, I thought, for thistle seed. In my head, I imagined how fun it'd be to watch a diverse array of birds all visiting one hub. But the mesh on one end looked too big for thistle. I read the label, which said this compartment was for "suet nuggets." What the heck are suet nuggets, I wondered, and why would I need them?

So I looked around and indeed found a bag of suet nuggets, pondering the advantage. Less messy to handle than blocks perhaps? Having suffered from lard-fingers, I can appreciate that. Or are birds following our lead with respect to hectic dining habits? Do they prefer the portability of McSuetNuggets to a sit-down (or, as it were, hanging-upside-down) dinner at the table? Whatever the answer, I resisted buying any of the above. And though it strained my willpower, I also rejected one of those cute corncob-holder squirrel feeders and bag of corn to stock it. Why buy a squirrel feeder? That's what bird feeders are for.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Move over, rose hips ....

Saw this curious sight at the Raulston Arboretum today: a gardenia with hips?! Looked it up and indeed, Gardenia augusta produces "narrowly ovate drupes, usually with six linear persistent calyx lobes" (Tropical Ornamentals: A Guide by W. Arthur Whistler). Nice.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Year in Review, continued...

Other "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is" moments of 2007. Spending a beautiful, clear night on the beach waiting for sea turtle hatchlings to emerge. Meeting and sharing plants with a kindly, seasoned gardener from the mountains who was immortalized in one of my favorite books. Riding a go-cart at full throttle with my husband. Spending the weekend with my uncle several months before he died. Witnessing 100,000 purple martins come to roost for the night at the Mann's Harbor Bridge in Manteo. Exploring a preserve I'd never heard of near Jockey's Ridge (pictured). Watching the Green Bay Packers kicking butt and taking names! Learning how to make jelly. Eating the first two figs off a three-year-old plant. Getting to hold a piglet. Surprising a coyote.