Thursday, August 20, 2020

Here There Be Dragons

 

 
When I took this photo a couple of weeks ago, I was in the midst of my morning-in-the-garden-with-Molly Qigong practice, so the actual pareidolic "moment" got a bit fuzzy. It was somewhat more solid and dragony before I got the phone out of my pocket, got the photo app up, and actually shot it. But I think it's still pretty suggestive of the hot, fire-breathing critters that have found their way into so many human fantasies.
 
In fact, I had been considering a post on heat, in order to pull away for a bit from my rantings on things political and pandemical, but a front stormed through last Sunday night. Since then, the 100F temperatures have scooted down to the low nineties, the humidity has dropped, and we haven't even had the air con on for the last three days. Mind you, we're not your typical denizens of north Texas, since we only have four window units (there are thirty windows), and keep the thermostats at around 75F. At this very moment (1:15 pm CDT) it's only 89F and the ceiling fans (and one of two attic fans) are doing their jobs quite nicely for us all. Large Hairy Dog included.

So, I can't bitch too much about the heat. I've even been doing some put-off cooking projects (making ricotta and moussaka from stuff the co-op delivered last week--fresh cream-on-top milk and "exotic" eggplants). Last night I made a very nice pasta dish that was linked to Melissa Clark's New York Times recipe for fresh ricotta, and tomorrow will use up the rest to make a berry tart. Tonight we get leftovers from last night and a use-up-the-lettuces salad, because tomorrow is also delivery day from the co-op.
The same "farmlet" that provided the eggplants is now making baba ghanoush, which I ordered, so we'll be snacking on that for a bit, too. It's probably time to make some pita out of the Barton Springs Mill flour I've been squirreling away.

What I didn't realize about the consequences of buying from seasonal producers is the pressure to get it all used up before it spoils. Hence the cooking frenzy. But as I get used to the regularity of the delivery, the reduced need to hit Costco for anything but wine and San Pelligrino, and the occasional order to Whole Foods, my creative juices have been flowing (ahem), and my Culinaria board on Pinterest is getting a lot more use. 

Anyway. Back to the dragons.

Just the other day we had another visit from our friendly neighborhood Neon Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula croceipennis), an annual occurrence, at what seems to be mating time. The piece of rebar stuck in next to Molly's pond is really there to support a bit of Astilbe that comes up in the spring and needs support.

But it also seems to provide a nice resting spot for the male, who seems to spend most of his time trying to get the female (who's usually hanging about in the Inland Sea Oats patch next to the former fire pit/now watering hole) to pay attention. The image below was taken just about a year ago, when I did manage to get a closer-up image.

I suppose I should include the dragonfly sightings in my Phenology 101 collections from now on. It might help make up for some of the phenomena that aren't showing up.


It is rather reassuring that some of our wildlife is doing well enough to come back for a visit. The scarcity of bats and fireflies is troubling, but we've actually benefited from some of the environmental incursions occurring just to our south. A new housing/retail complex next to the highway "necessitated" the cutting down of a rather nice little suburban forest, which, in turn, de-homed several hawk families.  So, of late we're being treated to hawk vs. crow skirmishes and wonderful aerial ballets whenever the thermals provide the opportunity for raptor frolics. 

Sunday's storm inflicted some serious damage to the scraggly old elm tree growing on the property line with our next-door neighbor. A huge limb broke off on her side of her fence, and proceeded to bounce off her garage roof into our yard, where it took out a large swath of sea oats and knocked off some of the Virginia creeper that helps to mask the offensive fence.

But things could have been worse. The patch hit hardest was where we should someday have a greenhouse; had it actually been in place, there would have been serious damage--although since it won't be a glass house (due to the abundance of aging pecan trees nearby) at least it wouldn't have shattered spectacularly and rendered the whole place unusable. Sometimes procrastination (this time brought on by our reluctance to visit the retailer who handles the greenhouse we want during the Plague) has its benefits.

The Beloved Spouse was able to take care of our side of the fence and the limb is now in bits on one of the strategically located woodpiles, ready to house whatever critters decide to use it for living space.

The weather and the somewhat hopeful DNC broadcasts have lightened our moods a bit, although I'm sure the next atrocity and/or heat wave is just around the corner. Nonetheless, I thought it prudent to take this opportunity to post something appropriate for Skywatch Friday and spend the next couple of days seeing what other folk looking skyward are finding. 

Stay safe and be well. And happy Skywatch Friday.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Ways to Build Back Better

I've been so distracted by the sturm und drang of the current situation(s) here in the US that it didn't occur to me to check my gmail account to see if anyone had responded to my last post. I don't usually expect anyone to comment, but I'll try to do better in future.

So, for the two folks who wondered about how the wren drama turned out, the news is good. In mid-July it was cool enough in the mornings for us to read the paper in the living room with the French doors to the screened-in porch at the side of the house open. When I heard one of the parent wrens chirping away, I looked out to see Molly perched on the back of the sofa on the other side of the screen from the nesting box. So for the next couple of days, we closed the porch off to avoid upsetting the family. [In the photo, the bird box is to Molly's right, on the other side of the screen.]

But then, a few days later, I just happened to see our local stray cat on the front porch, sneaking on her/his belly toward the nest, and immediately chased it off. In doing so, I most likely saved the baby's life, and while this was all playing out, Mom and Dad were very vocal and solicitous. I suspect that this was the last (or only) baby to get ready to fly, and by afternoon they were all gone. Parent-feeding was apparently still going on in the backyard area (the babies like to hang out on the garage roof and have food brought to them there), so the outcome seems to have been favorable overall.

Which is especially good, since (once again) my Black Swallowtail butterfly hopes were dashed. I had only seen two caterpillars this year, and one disappeared just after I noticed it. We have a large fennel plant, which is apparently the preferred nursery for these critters, and I often notice various stages of butterflyhood playing out on it. I've written about them before (here, on the Cabinet, and also on the Farm), noting that those outcomes are seldom favorable. This was no different, despite the fact that this one caterpillar got big enough and fat enough that I thought it would survive. In the end, though the cardinals or the anoles won out and once again I'm bereft of reward for keeping that scraggly old fennel plant supported and watered through the long, long, hot summer.

 Unfortunately, fortune failed us again while The Beloved Spouse was clearing overhanging greenery in the alley behind our property. After he had pruned problematic branches and piled them in our yard, he set about cutting it all up for hauling to the tip. Which is when he discovered this little nest (sparrows?). Ants had already gotten to one of the eggs, but I put it aside to see if anyone would claim it. After awhile, though, it was clear that these would never hatch, and these parents would never get to teach these babies to fly. 

Trying to foster wildlife in suburbia is very often a thankless job. Only a few of my neighbors abstain from chemicalizing their lawns, which accounts for the low firefly and butterfly population. And even though we keep a close eye on Molly and limit her backyard activities severely, there are several strays in the area, like the one I thwarted on my front porch.

I wrote some time ago about a writer I'd discovered at the New York Times, Margaret Renkl, the title of whose essay I brazenly paraphrased/plagiarized for my last post.  In a more recent piece, "The Death of a Cat," she eulogizes a feral cat for whom she harbored no love, but whose own predatory habits were caused by human neglect. She writes beautifully, and I urge you to read her stuff--if for no other reason than that she is far more successful at maintaining a suburban wildlife habitat than I am and is a much better model. I'm quite sure that many of the caterpillars whose mothers find their way to her yard actually survive.

And finally, this leads me to my actual topic for this post. 

If we do manage, eighty some-odd days from now, to elect a real president (whose choice as a running mate I heartily applaud), who will establish a genuine administration staffed with appropriately credentialed people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience, all of whom will help us rebuild this beleaguered nation, these are some of the ways I hope will be entertained in the discussion about how to accomplish the goals embodied in the somewhat stiffly-articulated campaign slogan, "Build Back Better."

Rethink national food production and distribution priorities. Early on in the lockdown, I connected with a local food hub: a distribution co-op of local farmers and other purveyors of home-grown products delivered directly to homes in our area. Not only do I now have a weekly source of humanely raised meat and dairy products, but I also have access to seasonal produce, fruit, and vegetables. I pay more for it, but am happy to do so because I have always maintained that family budgets should prioritize food in order to foster local farms that raise food sustainably. The national habit of looking for the cheapest food fosters inhumane animal production, industrial farming, habitat destruction, and the continued use of environmentally problematic pesticides and other chemicals. Farmers in the United States should be encouraged (with subsidies removed from industrial farms and redistributed to small-scale and family farms) to use regenerative grazing, permaculture, and other sustainable methods to ensure food diversity, availability, and adequate nutrition. 

Make rebuilding habitats a national priority. Victory gardens are back in vogue, as locked-down families have begun to use gardens as food sources and home-schooling tools. This is a beginning, but we should also, as a nation, begin to discourage the wholesale obliteration of pollinators, backyard wildlife, and endangered--but ecologically necessary--predators. Community design needs to abandon the suburban-sprawl model and focus on walkability, renewable resources, and small, local grids.

Progress does not necessarily require growth. The political economy of the United States needs radical rethinking. For way too long the measures of economic "success" have been based on how many billionaires there are, how big an industry can get, and gross national products based on how much stuff a country can produce--whether or not it's necessary or truly desirable. Some very serious thinking about building a sustainable economy needs to happen, immediately. 

Assess the differences between what we truly need and what we merely want. Readers of my stuff probably get tired of hearing my rant on about what William Morris called "the education of desire." But my brief stint in the "ad biz" made me realize early on that human beings are easily persuaded to want stuff they don't really need, even when it's bad for them, and when it's bad for everyone else. So supporting industries like fast fashion and industrial agriculture is most often founded on misconceptions about what people really do need. Yes we need clothes. But do we need clothes that require intensive overuse of land, severely underpaid and exploited workers, and a preposterous amount of waste? Yes we need food. But do we really need to be able to obtain perfectly formed, uniformly sized, out-of-season tomatoes shipped thousands of miles for our immediate satisfaction--or could we learn to eat vegetables and fruits in season and that need only be distributed to local markets? At best, luxury foods should cost far more than what's locally obtained, and the farmers who produce locally should be fairly compensated.

These are the concerns that preoccupy me on almost a daily basis. They're only a few of the many points that need to be covered in any kind of a national conversation about how to be better than we currently are. I've left out a great deal, including the vastly important questions of social justice and equality embodied in the Black Lives Matter movement, universal health care, and other manifestly critical issues. I will, no doubt, address these in later posts.

I am fully aware that at my advanced age, my relatively secure economic condition, and my lack of breeding progeny, I don't have much of a stake in the future.  But every time I go into the back yard, even during the blazingly hot, humid days of a north Texas summer, I'm filled with wonder and appreciation for this little spot on this huge planet--and hope sneaks in. 

In-person early voting in Texas begins on October 13.

 



Saturday, July 11, 2020

Occasional Small, Beautiful Things

Texas is one of the states in which the Plague is increasing its toll, so we've had to focus inward, to the spaces on our half acre that harbor lives floral and faunal. We've been out to vote (early, in a runoff) and the Beloved Spouse to gather supplies for some work on the property, but life is pretty much lived here, within the property line.

Every morning Molly starts mewling to be taken out to the back yard for her early perambulation, so I usually take the opportunity to inventory phenological signs of summer's progression, and to address pressing issues. Like wilting basil. I've also been doing a fifteen-minute Qigong practice most mornings, and sometimes another during the evening sojourn before suppertime. But it really is nice to move through the Eight Brocades or the eighteen forms of Shibashi out under the trees--especially if there's a bit of breeze.

Molly at her "pond"

 At any rate, by the time I've finished, Molly has usually decided that it's time to go in for "cookies"  (the announcement of which usually brings her out from under the shrubbery where she's been watching me), and happily follows or precedes me into the house for her promised bit of freeze-dried salmon. Now that she's settled into this pattern I can relax and not worry about her trying to escape, and she often follows me around as I check to see how many figs are ripe (only one so far, and it was luscious, right off the tree), how many new varieties of fungus have sprung up, what plants may be budding or blooming.

Occasionally we'll discover the aftermath of predatory violence, like yesterday when we found the feathers of a small, newly fledged mockingbird scattered about. Barred owls, sharp-shinned hawks, and other large raptors frequent the property, and although I admire them immensely, I'm ambivalent about their presence after the demise of Molly's predecessor, Emma.

Emma is not the only animal missing these days. There are exactly two pair of fireflies evident in our back yard. And I've only seen one bat this year. I imagine that the only reason we've got any fireflies at all is because we don't use any chemicals anywhere, and only BT bits in water dishes and bird baths (to keep the mozzie population down). But it's hard not to suspect that dire happenings are afoot. A heat dome is settling on most of the US over the next couple of weeks, drying things up while holding in the humidity, evaporating what's left of the recent rains from out of the soil. Cracks are appearing in the bits of the yard not covered by the recent mulch distribution. I haven't yet watered anything but the fig tree and the lone tomato plant with a little old-fashioned two-hole sprinkler. Everything else gets doused with water from a jug or a hand-held spray attachment. Humanity is dealing with its pandemic, but we seem to have inflicted apocalypse on the rest of the natural world.

Still, not everything seems quite lost--yet. Occasionally I encounter small, beautiful things that renew my natural optimism. Now that the local Carolina Wrens have hatched and raised their first crop of babies, they seem to be nesting again. It got quite noisy out back while the last birdlets were being weaned, but now it's quiet again. Just yesterday, I noticed that a wren had been nosing around a little bird house on our front porch, and I peeped in one of the two "apartments" to see three tiny eggs. A little while later I went back to take another look, and this time disturbed the mom, who flittered out--but was back soon after I left. So I put a couple of rocks into a metal bowl of water to give her a spot nearby to drink, and have been staying away from the nest.

 
After she's dealt with this batch, I'll move the box up to the top of a porch pedestal to lessen the chance of predator attack, and so I'll have a clearer view from inside the screened porch. Unexpected events like these come about infrequently, but they do provide a bit of cheer in increasingly dreary times.

As the numbers of Covid-stricken humans go up in Texas I keep hoping that the cost of running around "free" from restrictions will finally become apparent to the deniers. But watching the health care workers pleading for sanity on nightly newscasts is heart-breaking and doesn't do much to raise my regard for the willfully ignorant.

So much of what's happening is evidence of a massive, complex, problem that involves ignorance and anthropocentricity on a scale that might not be remediable. What our species has been doing to the natural world is a big part of what got us into this pickle and when I think of the future that awaits the children of former students and my own children's friends' kids, there doesn't seem to be much room for hope. If the world manages to pull through this latest test of our collective wisdom and ingenuity, we'll have earned another chance. But in this particular socio-political moment, the if seems awfully tenuous.

Right now, my focus on the future involves seeing whether or not those baby wrens hatch.