Thursday, August 26, 2021

Deep Summer Busy-ness

As the summer begins to wane, we on the Farm find ourselves busier than we've been in quite a while. There are injured trees to fell, caravan projects to complete, software programs to learn, clearing out to accomplish--all in addition to the daily necessities of newspaper reading, puzzle solving, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and pet service. 

I suppose I've mentioned innumerable times that we do a large measure of the daily stuff without benefit of central air conditioning. This isn't generally a problem, at least in the morning, when things are cool enough (if we're sitting under fans) to read the paper, do the crosswords, and even tidy up. But after noon, we try to shut down and work in one of the rooms with a window unit (living room, snug, study, bedroom) in order to conserve power. Fortunately, Porco has its own air con, so any of the projects we're undertaking in preparation for our rather ambitious, month-long road trip west can be done in relative comfort.

We still take time in the morning and evening to spend time out of doors with the animals, and so our activities are pretty well-paced. Not long ago, we installed a more efficient ceiling fan in the kitchen, which makes it easier to cook. If I'm on the ball, I get something prepped and put together in the morning, then put it in the oven to bake later, rather than simmer on the stove top. Or we have salad nights. Having come from pioneer stock that made their lives in the western Nevadan and eastern Californian basin and range deserts, I have good models for dealing with heat, and because the humidity demonstrates the relative abundance of water in north Texas, there is really little to complain about. 

But climate change is certainly "messaging" us, and strongly nudging us in the direction of some preparatory gestures. Last winter's Big Freeze (as they're now calling it in the Daily Poop) has prompted us to buy a lovely ceramic cast iron log burner, which will take its place in front of the fireplace at the end of this month. The greenhouse also falls into the prepper device category, and after we're home from our trip, stepped up efforts to fortify our food-growing capabilities will begin: enhancing the veg space wherever we can. My old, battered copy of Ruth Stout's No Work Garden Book (saved from some flood or another), and Helen and Scott Nearing's books on the Good Life are on my autumn reading list, and there are several more books on my shelves with similar themes: making do with less, all written before it became trendy again to "make do and mend."

Work on Porco Rosso has produced new "classic" faucets with metal handles, a cargo carrier for hauling what TBS quaintly refers to as the "honey wagon" (don't ask) and extra water. We also installed, inexpertly but eventually adequately, a new awning. The old one was once white, but the spring rains and dying trees had ruined it, so we got something a bit too cute but much more serviceable. 

There are also a new lock and new keys, after it proved too difficult to get a damaged key replaced. We also got better locking devices for the exterior storage bins. Interior storage will be enhanced with numerous IKEA amenities, from boxes to baskets to small shelves for stashing spices. And my makeshift pillowslip curtains will finally be cut to fit and insulated. We're planning to leave just before the solstice, camping first at Cedar Breaks State Park on the night of the Full Corn Moon (they call it the Harvest moon around here, but I grew up with the Corn moon). The new binoculars TBS gave me for my last birthday will be put to use taking photos for a later Skywatch entry, from a good Dark Sky site.

The travel planning is pretty much complete now, and we've had time to clear out some of the winter damage and tired remains of spring's extravagant growth. Pottering around in the yard has led to a few wildlife discoveries, the best of which is another spider. Last time, I included a shot of a tiny argiope in a cedar tree--the first I'd seen in years. This last week, however, we discovered a much larger variety and I've been watching it faithfully over several days. The first time I noticed her, Nylah had already barged through her very large web (strung between the downspout and rain butt on the northwest corner of the house, and a large pecan tree about six feet away), and the spider (now known as Shelob; much smaller, but with similar habits, for those of you Tolkien fans) was already busy repairing it.

My feline correspondent, Tigger (see last post's comments) hasn't seen this variety before, so I thought I'd provide her a much larger example. Two days ago, there was also ample evidence of mayhem. I'm including a sequence of photos to illustrate the dramatic goings on, and to give you (perhaps) an idea of why my family has always been so fascinated by these industrious beasties.

Argiopes are orb spinners, which you should be able to see in the last picture; it and the one above it were taken after she had devoured her packet of Japanese beetle. The opening shot on this post is the only one taken from behind the web. At first she was pretty skittish, and every time I came near, she'd run up to the eave to hide. But more recently, I've been able to get closer--although getting my cheesy excuse for a Skywatch Friday entry required crouching down in back of the web. 

The next few days are forecast to be a little cooler (93F instead of today's 97), although the rain promised for the weekend seems to have left the map. But now that the major project work is done, I'll be spending a few more hours trying to master a new web design program (Pinegrow) which I'm hoping will allow me to get back to work on revising the old page and a couple of other web efforts.

Stay safe, folks. And have a good weekend (to those of you for whom weekends still mean something).

Friday, July 23, 2021

Midsummer Murders


The title of this post is a (shamelessly opportunistic) corruption of the perennial British crime fiction TV favorite, Midsommer Murders, but roughly describes the latest observations in the accidental/anarchist's garden.

A few days ago, during my first perambulation of the morning with Molly, I noticed evidence of utter mayhem: feathers everywhere, apparently from a mockingbird, which had met its demise at the claws of one of our local raptors.

She looks guilty, but is not responsible.

I attributed the carnage (although there were no grisly bits) to a hawk or an owl, both of which hunt in our yard, and went about my business. The next day, however, evidence of further havoc appeared in the same area, and this time it might have been a mourning dove. Since we often see barred owls, and sharp-shinned, red-tail, and other hawks flying about, activity like this does happen occasionally, and I thought I'd identified the culprit(s) when I captured some video of the swoops and glides of a group of raptors a couple of days later, after hearing their cries. The winds were up a bit and these birds (which I now think might have been Mississippi kites) were having a great time soaring on the thermals.

As it turns out, however, if these were indeed kites, as insectivores they were not the perpetrators of the previous days' butchery. If I were Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, I would be able to rely on the skills of an excellent forensic scientist and his or her team in order to solve the crime. But I'm not terribly good at this sort of investigation, and haven't even been able to reliably identify the birds I filmed for two minutes after I caught one of them in the opening shot. I've only managed to locate a couple of websites that can help with silhouettes, and will just have to keep the real camera handy for the next time I hear tell-tale raptor noises. Maybe then I can get clearer evidence. 

I should probably note that the day before all this happened, I had caught in mid-air a downy, floating feather from what was probably a large juvenile bird--possibly an owl. Since we've had experience with these chaps (one is likely responsible for the untimely demise of our beloved Emma, Molly's predecessor), one of their young'ns is now my chief suspect. 

In my last post I mentioned the relative absence of butterflies (exactly one monarch and one black swallowtail so far), but that at least means that I haven't had to spend any time protecting caterpillars from death-by-anole or -cardinal. Part of this has to do with the fact that my usually voluminous fennel and parsley plants were devastated by the spring rains, and there isn't nearly as much black swallowtail food around. One of our three cardinal pairs has successfully nurtured a chick (finally, on their third try), but they're all foraging elsewhere. 

I have had a couple of insectivorous surprises, though: spiders.

I finally have an argiope, which is my favorite garden spider. One built its web in front of my kitchen window when my daughter was a baby, and her first word was "'pider." Ever since, I've made sure to nurture any that show up, but we've only seen once in the twenty years we've lived in this house. Now, however, there's a small one in the cedar tree outside my study window. It has managed to construct its web next to one of the failed cardinals' nests, but nobody seems to have bothered it, and it's been a couple of weeks since I noticed it. It's also getting bigger by the day, and the characteristic stabilimentum that gives it the "zipper spider" common name is growing.

Also, just before our last rain (at the weekend), I almost literally ran into an orb spider in action, spinning an enormous web (the supporting ends had to be at least eight feet apart) across the sidewalk that leads out of our back door. The speed at which she worked was astonishing, and I caught a couple of minutes of her before I had become food for one too many mosquitoes. [Unfortunately, my lack of video editing skills and the file-size limits of Blogger have prevented me from uploading the evidence.] The web was almost complete, and I wonder if she managed to catch anything tasty before the downpour next morning obliterated the whole effort. I had left a note on the back door ("SPIDER WEB") to alert anyone letting out the dog or cat, but by the time I got down to check, it had disappeared without a trace.

So my efforts to track down predators this week have shown very limited success. Still, I'm glad that some of the faunal members of our little garden family are thriving; and even if some of them become victims of others, it's all part of the process. Sometimes it's comforting to know that something in the world is still working properly.

Image notes: The first "forensic" shot was taken in situ; the second is of a representative cluster of feathers, and the third was posed; Molly is not guilty of avicide, but rather had plopped down nonchalantly amidst the crime scene. The opening and closing shots were, unfortunately, obtained quickly and under sub-optimal conditions for getting the best out of an iPhone 7 camera.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Suburban Soundscapes

I was driven from my comfy chair just now by the onset of the weekly brigade of neighborhood lawn maintenance workers. Not neighbors themselves, because aside from us, I've only come across about two other households in the immediate area that "do" their own yardwork. Rather, there are a couple of "landscaping" companies that descend on our block and a couple of others nearby and drive us batty with their racket: usually on Thursdays and Fridays, as the homeowners prepare for visitors at the weekend. Their gas-powered lawn machines (not just mowers, but "ride-on" contraptions), trimmers, and (especially) leaf-blowers, all sporting noise levels so high that we have to close windows and doors and retreat to rooms as far away from it all as possible. 

The cacophony from each only lasts for a half hour or so, but it happens in sequence, from yard to yard, and it only involves two companies, so it goes on for as long as it takes to cover the contracts each day. There seem to be at least eight properties close enough to cause discomfort, but I've had to adjust my reading, writing, and gardening times to their schedules in order to avoid raising my blood pressure. 

By a somewhat ironical coincidence, this morning's reading involved the newest issue of Dumbo Feather--one of the Aussie magazines I subscribe to digitally.  It's a quarterly that features "conversations with extraordinary people" on a broad range of topics. This time it's on music, and I had just finished reading a lovely little piece on "The Dawn Chorus"--the phenomenon of morning birdsong. Thus inspired, Molly and I then went out for our morning stroll in the garden, with the particular purpose of enjoying the relative quiet (post-rush hour) and noticing what birds were about.

As often happens, Molly was startled by a loud truck thumping by and was easily persuaded to "run like the wind" (an actual command) into the house, where I made myself a cuppa and prepared to resume my morning read. And then the mower started up, and I had to move in here to the study. I had already planned to hunker down with the air conditioner on later, when the temperatures rose along with the humidity (it's actually quite comfortable now, under the fan at 86F/62%) to work on planning the coming trip west in September. So I decided to use the opportunity to grouse about one of my current preoccupations: aurality. 

According to my elderly 1971 copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, compact edition, "aurality" isn't even a word, although Merriam-Webster says that it means "of or relating to the ear or to the sense of hearing," which I know only because the Fandom Wiki has a whole section on aurality in its article on "Writing Across Media Wiki." Discovering this was fortuitous, because it offers a perspective I hadn't thought of: aurality itself as a medium for conveying emotion, memory, and other phenomena often provoked by sensory input.

My own auditory capabilities are fading, slowly but irrevocably, into the common plight of the elderly: the hearing aid quandary. At the moment, The Beloved Spouse, whose own hearing is almost canine, is patient when I ask him to repeat what he just said (mumbled?), or to turn up the TV sound just a tad. And I'm actually happy that I miss some of the annoying noises that sift in and bother him. But this same condition means that I don't hear the far-off hawk calls or bullfrog choruses that he does, and will ultimately have to decide about taking advantage of my health plan's offers to help out.

For now, though, I'm still navigating other aural conditions that have arisen over the years. Like "stuck song syndrome" (earworm), which has afflicted me for some time now, so that I cannot bear to hear catchy tunes, and popular music-even my beloved early folk stuff--has become problematic. I'm still okay with jazz and classical music, because of their innate complexity, but easily repeated choruses and jingles can take days to get rid of, and often haunt my sleep.

But the Dumbo Feather issue I'm going to go back to reading (now that the lawn blowers are finished for the time being) is about music and musicians, and I'm thinking about winding up the old Victrola (I actually have one--see left) for a little Artie Shaw, or maybe putting one of my Musical Heritage Society tapes, or a CD from one of my old issues of Esopus, or even Bob Dylan's vinyl Blonde on Blonde album, because I woke up this morning thinking about "Visions of Johanna" for reasons I will probably never understand. Time to put all those old media to work again.

Come to think of it, though, Dylan's music was often punctuated by musings on sound, so it's probably fitting to consider lines like "Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet," and myriad references to the noises associated with cities, such as those in "Johanna." They didn't bother me much when I actually lived in cities, like Philadelphia and Chicago, where subway car screeches, Harry Caray's announcing Cubs games over the loudspeaker, and street urchins' playing stickball seeped into windows and onto balconies and stoops as part of their aural landscapes. But McKinney a sub-urban town, not a real city. It still wants to promote a country-like "vibe," claiming to be "Unique by Nature," all the while pouring more and more concrete for more and more strip malls. And the ambient noise is pretty mon-aural: traffic and lawn machines.

And occasional fireworks. The recent Independence Day holiday lasted for four days here, and sounded like a war zone, beginning Friday night and not abating finally until Tuesday. Fireworks are illegal within the city limits, but that doesn't deter the enormous number of scofflaws who go out of town to buy their ammunition and then fire away. On Saturday and Sunday nights, the blasts went on unabated until well after one a.m. Despite ample public displays put on by municipal and other groups, people around here just can't seem to survive the 4th without blowing stuff up. I'm pretty sure they were all making up for not being able to celebrate amply last year, but I'll never be able to enjoy fireworks again, after four sleepless nights with two frightened animals.

Our little half acre was considerably quieter twenty years ago when we moved up from Dallas. That quiet has gradually been overwhelmed by new highway lanes and increasing construction in what has become just another suburb of Dallas. The only respite came during the early part of the pandemic, when things shut down for long enough that I actually could remember what it was like in our early years here. And perhaps some changes in modes of conducting business will provide a small measure of noise-dampening as we begin to work out how we're all going to live from now on.

It's quiet at the moment, though, and the back yard is lovely and shady. The temperature's a little higher (88F, with a high of 91 expected), but the humidity is down to 56%--quite tolerable with the little 6 mph breeze going on. Time to stop whinging and enjoy the now-tolerable, rather peaceful late morning in summertime Texas. 

The opening photo was taken last year at this time, and shows just about how much sky we can see from most of the yard. The leafy canopy makes it difficult to grow food, but it does help keep the soil cool and the house shaded--which is about as good as it gets in July. I just wish all these trees were better at dampening the acoustical contributions of suburban life.