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.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

On the Cusp of Summer in the Anarchist's Garden

This weekend has become both nationally and cosmically momentous, what with our first federally official Juneteenth celebrated today, and the occurrence of the Summer Solstice tomorrow.  Fathers' Day doesn't much come into the equation, since we are both now fatherless, but the children usually send greetings and often bring up a nice beer; if they do so this year, we'll have even more to celebrate. 

As the early onset of summer heat has settled into our daily lives, we've already begun to take mitigation steps. Those who live in drafty old houses without central air conditioning probably understand better than anyone that cooling is an especially expensive enterprise around here. We are, however, fortunate to have a two-level attic fan that draws air both in and out of the house, forty windows to help direct that flow, and numerous large shade trees. 

The garden is so shady, in fact, that finding a place in which to deploy our solar collectors to juice up the Bluetti portable power station isn't easy. It turns out that the best spot is on the north side of the house, next to our already-sagging veggie garden, where a strip of lawn gets sun most of the day. Elsewhere, nothing stays sunny for long, which in summer is mostly a good thing. I discovered this morning, however, that the solar panels are killing the grass, so we'll have to figure out how to elevate them. The power companies are predicting grid problems, and it will be up to consumers to deal with blackout periods in August. This being Texas, there are no plans for actually correcting the problems. So the solar collecting effort is designed to give us a couple of off-grid air con when we need it.

Our habit now is to open up the house in the early morning, for as long as it's cool enough to get by with just the fans. As things warm up, we vacate the living room for the snug and/or the study, where we can turn on a room air conditioner. The real challenge is cooking, since the kitchen has no A/C, but the ceiling fan usually does the job for as long as it takes me to prep for the main meal. We're keen on salads or casseroles for supper, the latter being fairly simple to deal with in the "pizza oven" in the range. So I try to cook what needs to be cooked while it's still cool, and then chuck the results into the fridge until time to assemble.

My early childhood experience without any real air conditioning in both tropical and desert conditions has made me fairly tolerant of heat, but the combination of high temperatures and humidity is more difficult to accommodate than desert conditions.

These days, Molly and I have begun a new routine of walking in the garden early, where she can lurk and pounce on unsuspecting insects and reptiles while it's still somewhat cool, and I can practice what I'm calling Mao Qigong (cat Qigong). This involves following her around to make sure she doesn't 1) reduce our already endangered bird population or 2) leap to the top of the fence in pursuit of squirrels. Yesterday I managed to complete an entire Ba Duan Jin (the Eight Brocades) while she explored her usual haunts. I don't get to concentrate much, but I do get to practice out of doors which is supposed to be good for my Chi (Qi). I'm not a believer, but I respect the discipline, and the exercises have helped me to not turn into a blob. The neighbors who walk their dogs past our yard have long since decided that I'm a complete nutter, so I'm no longer bothered by being spotted. 

The garden itself, after being totally sodden for so long, is baking out, and I've had to water the tender herbs. Mosquitos are rife, despite the fact that I've used Bt granules everywhere water stands for more than a few minutes, so I have to spray myself down as soon as I get out. Because my warfarin-laced blood is so attractive to the mozzies, I must rely on a low-level DEET spray, but it's the only deterrent I've been able to find that actually works. When bitten I welt up and itch for days.

My efforts to attract bees seem to be successful again this year, even if butterflies haven't discovered the non-toxic pleasures of my abundance of parsley and fennel plants. I even have a butterfly shelter to help save larvae from the anoles and cardinals that have had their way with caterpillars and chrysalises in the past. As soon as I notice a caterpillar, I'll tie a mesh bag around its feeding area (courtesy of a local farm from whom I buy seasonal veg and which packages them in these rather than in plastic), and when it's big enough, I'll transfer it to a pot of food in the shelter until it pupates and then hatches. Or so the plan goes. Last year my one successful chrysalis rescue in October ended when the butterfly froze after it hatched during Snowmageddon last February. I hadn't thought it would overwinter and hatch, and left it unattended in the greenhouse, only to discover its beautiful corpse after the storm.

The Accidental Garden invariably becomes the Anarchist's Garden as I let nature take its course after spring efforts to get things established.  Except for mowing and occasional weed-yanking, disorder reigns. Of necessity, we do little out of doors after about ten or eleven in the morning, unless the humidity drops below 50%. The critters like to get out later, though, so I bought a collapsible swimming pool for them, hoping to engender some frolics in the evenings. Both Molly and Nylah are fond of water, but I'm not sure how eager they'll be to hop in and wade about. They both examined it when I unfurled it next to the greenhouse, in an especially chaotic corner of the garden that gets swamped when it rains and has thus been shamelessly neglected. But they quickly lost interest when Molly noticed something moving in the sea oats. We shall see. This morning she stuck her front feet in the scantily filled pool and took a drink, but withdrew before too long. We'll find a better place for a more formal test later.

Our mychorrizal habitats (large amounts of dead wood) continue to fruit, with both the usual culprits and some interesting newcomers. I've recently found some "dog barf" fungus (slime mold, in a rather lovely orangey color) in the copse next to where we park Porco. And our long-dead hackberry stump keeps feeding a colony of some variety of inkcaps; these commonly arise after rainy periods. They look very pretty for a day or two, and then collapse into goo.

The weatherborne energy of nature is also expressing itself in aggressive growth and abundant flowering. As I showed in my last post, the Virginia Creeper and our neighbor's ivy are taking over wherever I let them. The Creeper is sending out tendrils everywhere, and I've had to trim it back when I notice it. But the extraordinarily long flowering season for Wisteria is particularly welcome, and I've been documenting the development of new blooms on a daily basis. One of the spaces for Mao Qigong includes our "secret garden" behind the garage, where a mass of Wisteria grows unsupported and unconstrained, and it's just lovely to breathe in the heady scent as I move through a practice.

It was by this very blossom that I watched a veritable orgy of Cardinal sex the other day, and wondered what would result. Today I got my answer, since one pair (of the three involved) is reestablishing its home in the cedar tree outside my study window. Two nests have already been built there, and several eggs lain, but only one bit of fluff ever seems to have emerged, and I'm not even sure that it survived to fledge. The weather was so stormy and wet for so long that even in the dense cedar needles I doubt that the mother could have protected any babies for very long. Three pairs have built nests in various parts of the garden, but only this couple has persisted. Shepherding Molly past the tree every morning will once again become part of our daily routine.

I'm not sure what to think of the coming three months. There's little chance that we'll be able to travel anywhere, since state parks are booked up forever. We do plan to head west to visit family after children are back in school and the roads less traveled, but things have changed over the duration of the Plague so much that this summer should be somewhat different than what we've experienced over the two decades we've spent on this little plot of land, and certainly in the last year. 

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Image notes: The photo of the sun rising over Stonehenge on the morning of the Summer Solstice (21st June 2005) was taken by Andrew Dunn and used with a Creative Commons license. All the others are iPhone 7 snaps.