Saturday, June 18, 2022

It's Not Easy Being Green

For the last several years I've let the Virginia creeper take over large swaths of space in the garden, and it's become a tradition to let it overflow the decrepit, mangled (from branch that fell from the elm overhead) Adirondack chairs and an old sawed-off patio table. After the elm branch fell, I thought I'd just have to get rid of them, but now, more than a year later, they're still there, swathed in viney decorations that now include wild grapes (descendants of vines that grew on the south fence and once provided fruit for some really bad wine we found under the house) and English ivy from next door--as well as the creeper. It won't be long before wisteria and trumpet vine gain a foothold, since I've no plans to eradicate any of it.

An article in the New York Times (Yes, You Can Do Better Than the Great American Lawn) prompted me to muse on the unorthodox nature of our own "lawn," and to offer an alternative to the tidy, suburban, pesticide-laden, water-hungry model that presides around here. There is some attendant irony in that the city motto of McKinney, Texas, is "Unique By Nature." But the fact that there are no other houses on our block with fireflies may suggest the duplicity in that coinage. I'm clearly not the only one mindful of these problems (see especially Margaret Renkl's May 16 article for The New York Times, "One Way to Do More for the Environment: Do Less with Your Lawn," which I only just got around to reading), but the older I get, the louder and judgier I become.

This morning, whilst potting up a rescued plant from the back (one I'd tried to kill earlier in the spring, but that proved amazingly hardy), I watched the neighbor across the street mowing his smallish patch with a large, loud gas thing with a grass catcher. He dumped the clippings into a large paper bag for the city to pick up next Friday. He then brought out his new, also loud, also gas trimmer, tidied up, and then use a blower (also loud, also gas) to blow the stray bits out onto the street. Weenie that I am, I said nothing, because I have to live here, and most of my neighbors already think I'm a tree-hugging commie.

But we don't do that. We use our electric (battery-powered) utensils to mow and mulch, trim, and blow the bits back onto the "lawn." Such as it is. A large section of the front yard is composed of mulch from various trimmings of the eighteen Very Large Trees within the property boundaries. We've got another pile sitting in the driveway, waiting for The Beloved Spouse to distribute it appropriately after the most recent care-taking (see last week's post). 

We have in place a few rules that have endured for many years, beginning long before we moved to McKinney, and that have served us well:

If it's green, let it grow--at least until you know what it is (and if it's in a place you might want lawn, mow it).

We do have some hardy St. Augustine grass growing, but where it doesn't, we let anything grow that wants to. Our yard is also replete with edibles (henbit, purslane, dandelion, plantain, chickweed, cleavers, wood sorrel, onionweed, pigweed, mullein) that periodically get added to salads. I'm hoping to add lambs quarters to the list, if I can get some to root out of what I bought from Profound Microfarms. It used to grow wild, but I haven't seen any in some time. Were I to spend more time at it, I'd probably discover more, but it's getting harder to spend that kind of time out in the heat.

When we first moved in, everything was very tidy, with the southwestern section of the property set aside for growing veg. There were the grapes, too, and blackberries galore. Those kept up for a few years, but eventually got shaded out from all the squirrel- and bird-planted trees that now line the back part of the lot. After trying a more formal herb garden, I eventually gave up and let a copse grow, which (much later) was mostly cleared for a caravan driveway/parking area when we bought our little Shasta. 

Before we began the house renovations, the garage was painted white, and most of what grew around it was what most folk would call weeds. As below, to the left, where the garage peeks out from behind a stand of cow parsley. We don't grow much of that now, though, because it turns into burrs that love dogs' tails. So it only grows outside of the fence. Occasionally I pick it for wildflower bouquets, which I like to keep on my writing table on the screened porch. 

Above the back door to the garage (which you can barely see at left) we installed a miniature pergola (below) to support a heavy branch of wisteria.  It was so successful that the growth extended onto the roof--until one of this spring's storms knocked the whole plant over and off the support. Reluctantly, we cut it down and are now training stray shoots back up the structure, but it will take another year or two for it to offer much decorative cover. I'm trying to root some more, but am not having much success because the heat keeps drying out my twiglets. It will clearly be a while before it regains some of its flamboyancy.

But perhaps not as long as I thought, because just this morning I noticed that the  stump of the big vine we'd had to cut off was (as TBS had suggested it might) sprouting anew. Vigorously. So, we may have some well-established beginnings of a refreshed tangle of wisteria by the end of the summer. 

With humidity at tropical levels, things will continue to grow lushly until the summer drought takes over and I have to spend time judiciously watering to keep it all from dying off. 

All this has illustrated the lesson of letting things be: that it's not always easy to maintain any kind of order, even if one doesn't demand much. I'm not a total anarchist in the garden; I do decide where I want things to grow, and often move them about from place to place. Mostly, I'm successful--but then I have to ride herd on what I change. 

At some point during one of our evening animal outings, I realized that Woody's garden (a circular planting area ringed by tree stumps from previous prunings) really needs to be a butterfly haven. I've already got some attractors planted in there, so realized that a few more might help support the few visitors we see once or twice a day: Tiger and Black Swallowtails, an occasional Monarch, and various smaller and less regal types. This leads me to another rule: 

Focus on supporting wildlife, not people.

This morning I transferred some yarrow (suggested in an article I'd read only yesterday, but can't remember where) into Woody's garden, and will find some salvia to move as well. Because the summer heat is already here, I won't get more ambitious until next spring, but this will fill in some bare spots, and provide more food for the abundant number of pollinators who already visit. Unlike most of our neighbors, we don't try to get rid of most bugs (the main exceptions are the mozzies that see me as food dispenser), and thus provide haven for bees, wasps, fireflies, dragonflies, ladybird beetles, spiders, and others generally seen as beneficial. But we also harbor all manner of less well appreciated critters, like assassin bugs. As annoying as all the "baddies" can be, they still provide food for all the birds we capture on our Merlin sound-identification app and for the bats that whiz past us overhead in the evenings.

Occasionally we're rewarded with something especially nice, and late yesterday afternoon this beauty showed up on one of the repurposed logs:


I saw it from across the yard, and proceeded to sneak up on it--after having run into the house for my phone. Although it's not the first Luna Moth to show up in the yard, it came in earlier and stayed longer than the only other one I'd seen in the garden. One showed up on the front screen door several years ago, but this is the first one I've seen taking advantage of the habitat. 

 

Habitat lounging is common in this kind of a garden. The arborist who came to assess the recent tree job was very impressed with the number of places critters could comfortably occupy. Even the structures provided for plants can offer a perch for an anole on the hunt:


This one is lazing on the support frame for the fennel we use to harbor swallowtail larvae--not a good sign for this summer's prospects. But I'm hoping to harvest at least a few baby butterflies to host in my mesh hatchery, where I can keep them safely away from this guy. Although chances are that Molly will already have had his tail by then, and he might not be so spry. She's separated at least four other anoles from theirs already.

Many years ago, Kermit the Frog lamented the difficulty of greenness, which can still be seen as a metaphor for current problems in the human world. On several levels. But this gives rise to one more rule worth considering:

It may not be easy being green, but it's our only hope.

This week's events in Yellowstone are bringing home more of the reality of climate change. If we don't start making efforts to restore the environment immediately, precious habitats everywhere will just be washed away. Or suffer from another of the myriad plagues our species is inflicting on the planet.

Earth Island Institute's piece from last year,  "It's Not Easy Being Green: What if we were mutually accountable not only to the environment, but to each other?" takes this a step further, and challenges us to to embrace the whole: humanity and environment, persons of every color, all beings, the whole planet. Everything we do has impact. Responsible choices, meaningful gestures--anything we can do to acknowledge the fact that no matter what color or gender we are, we are all part of the natural world. It could all go away as quickly as a road can be washed into a raging river. 

I'll be celebrating Juneteenth with both the brown and green anoles in the garden tomorrow. I'll be remembering my father, who taught me that race was a human invention, and that color had nothing to do with being human. And I'll be grateful for every person I've known who has reinforced that understanding throughout my life. 

Recognizing that the earth belongs to us all and that we all depend on its survival for our own should be a universal goal. But starting small, in the garden, and keeping safe what we can is easier than it might seem.


Saturday, June 4, 2022

Sanctuary

Spring had been toddling along, with repairs to the plumbing having been effected, and maintenance of our forest canopy having been attended to (see above), and various garden entities having budded, bloomed, hatched, fledged, hopped, and flown. The process is continuing apace.

But two weeks ago the unspeakable happened again, and I have (for me, at least) been rendered speechless. On May 25, The Dallas Morning News reported the killings in Uvalde with a one-word headline: "AGAIN." This week's New Yorker's cover (by Eric Drooker) says it all, wordlessly.

I grew up in a war-threatened world, but never had to worry that anyone would ever take a war-weapon and kill children, Black people, old people, religious people--anyone who got in the shooter's way. But it has happened here--in the country my father, brother, and both grandfathers had spent significant years of their lives defending--again, and again, and again. And it won't stop because our country lacks the moral fortitude to do what needs to be done, and our populace--in absurdly and frighteningly large numbers--lacks the interpretive skills to understand the very Constitution they insist they're "protecting." And Texas is at the epicenter of the madness.

I cannot do anything about it. Godless folk like me don't see prayer as helping anything, and I'm pretty sure any "thoughts" I might be able to "send" to the catastrophically bereaved families would amount to a teardrop in an ocean of sadness. I can send a little money where it's needed, and I can vote. Which I will do--to agencies that support children's welfare,  and for people who will try to rectify the damage done by intellectually and ethically challenged public "servants." But unless enough people are as angry as I am, these efforts may be for nought. We'll see in November.

In the meantime, with temperatures oddly low and rain uncharacteristically abundant at the right times, the seasons move along. My tomatoes are about to be turned into jam, and roasted, and eaten out of hand. In a week they'll be gone, and I'll spend the next three months trying to keep the plants from withering on their stems in hopes of a fall crop. 

And since I have little to add to any conversation at the moment, here are some photos of our little oasis--our sanctuary amidst the madness. These are the reason and the means for our survival.

Flora

Blue-eyed Grass

Yarrow

Alliums

Rain Lilies

Rose of Sharon

Late Wisteria
Baby figs

Rose of Sharon (double, blue)


Fauna, wild and domestic

Green and Brown Anoles

Lady Bird Beetle, developing (on oregano)

Molly, meditating next to Emma's grave

Bunny (near the hogwire fence, avenue of escape)

Molly, being lectured by a squirrel

Nylah, keeping watch nearby

As long as the weather holds, it's easy to find solace in our little patch. Word from our families is generally good, although my 99 year-old cousin, Willma Gore, died recently only weeks away from her hundredth birthday (which is today). That makes me one of the oldest surviving Chrysler-Tate women; time to get my part of the story set down in prose, which I should be able to do thanks to Willma's efforts to record my Grandmother's memories of nineteenth-century pioneering in Nevada and California.

The Beloved Spouse has taken over some of the burden of researching our house for historical registry purposes, so we're hoping to get that completed by the end of the year: a nice hundredth birthday present to the house we love--and in which hope to finish up our time on the planet. Meanwhile, we'll keep taking care of the house and garden, and I'll keep writing about it when I have something that might be worth putting down. 

My father's dying instructions to me were to "write at the end of your stint." He came from a family of historians (his mother Clarice Tate Uhlmeyer, his aunt Myrtle Tate Myles, and his cousin Willma Willis Gore, were all history buffs and also wrote about the family in many contexts), and he often wrote about family and Owens Valley stories for local outlets. My mother was a journalist, but her focus was on Taiwan, where she spent much of her adult life. Nevertheless, my genes have made it difficult for me to keep my mouth shut, which is why I've managed to keep this blog going for this long (fifteen years this month). Thanks to encouragement from some of my former students and occasional readers, I guess I'll keep going for another fair while.

Writing, as it turns out, is way of pursuing sanctuary: by imagining better times and better ways of living, we keep hope alive. Meanwhile, I guess I can just follow the advice of the old comedians, Bob and Ray (my Dad's favorites), who used to say, "Meanwhile, hang by your thumbs." Or at least by harnesses appropriate for preserving the welfare of trees.

Image notes: most of the photos were taken by iPhones, including my new mini; for the larger format ones I used the Canon Eos. Thanks to the guys from Preservation Tree, who have been taking care of our little forest for about fifteen years, for letting me snap shots of them doing their sometimes scary work.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Earth Day 2022: Avoiding Apocalypse

Swallowtail on Honeysuckle

It's getting so much more difficult not to submit to pessimism that writing my annual celebratory post for Earth Day is turning into a chore. And even though spring is burgeoning beautifully around the Accidental Garden, other stuff keeps impinging on my optimism--and my enjoyment. 

In fact, the impending arrival of family from Idaho and Baja has boosted my morale somewhat, and hastened aspects of Swedish Death Cleaning that I've been avoiding. Calling it "spring cleaning" is probably less morbid, but it's all part of the same process. If it weren't for concurrent Old House Plumbing Problems, things would be relatively peachy. In fact, though, we're getting some practice with off-grid living, what with using Porco's loo as an outhouse, and disposing of dishwater on the north lawny bit of the garden. 

Having pretty much abandoned dreams of moving to somewhere more amenable, we've chosen to treat the property as an oasis from Texas nincompoopery. Re-wilding proceeds apace, with only a few domesticated areas, and the perennials are beginning to bloom. I'm promised an amazing show of Byzantine gladioli this year, since they've spread into odd corners of the garden, and the newcomers are actually blooming first--peeking out from spots far away from the original patch. I keep thinking that I should transplant more purposefully, but never seem to get around to it. So these lovely flowers (which began as a single plant under the nandina shrubs that came with the house) are doing it all themselves. A few have even made it around to the front border via the iris bed. This is what they looked like last year at about this time (in the right foreground):


However, everything's late this year. The wisteria bloomed about a week late, but now the vines and blooms have filled out and the amazing scent is already depleted. The Chinaberry tree suffered much from last year's bad freeze, and never did recover. It's leafed out in straggly bits, but there haven't been any blooms and there's just too much dead wood for safety. So it will have to be cut down when the arborists come to do their every-so-often pruning next month. 

But now, by Earth Day, the yard is teeming with wildlife. There have been some gratifying butterfly visits, including the swallowtail in the opening photo, and even an orgy of monarchs: three, all having at each other. The honeysuckle has grown to welcoming proportions for pollinators, and we get to enjoy them over a nice tipple in the evening. Two resident toads have appeared, as well as numerous anoles. Unfortunately for them, Molly is an expert lizard hunter, and we've had to rescue two, sans tails. But they love the greenhouse, which is being transformed into a wunderkammer*  (housing my collection of oddments as well as gardening tools). I have no way of heating it yet, so it's useless for starting plants. Better as an inviting outbuilding for gathering old nests, owl pellets, bones, skeletons, fossils, and little treasures picked up in our travels. Plus the abandoned egg cases Shelob left when she departed last fall. The anoles can easily escape through the vent when it gets too warm, so I don't have to worry about broiling them alive when I close the door.

Baby birds and animals have been abundant. Bunnies and squirrels mainly, and myriad wrens. We did have a bit of drama when Molly caught one little wren and injured it slightly. I managed to help it recover, and left it where the parents could do their work. I last saw it hopping down the alley with mom and dad in attendance, after a couple of days' recovery.
 

The occupant of a knothole in the pecan outside our study.

Baby wren recovering in a cushy nest of rabbit fur.

Even though she's done some damage to the wildlife population, Molly has become such an obedient and charming cat that if there is mayhem, it's almost entirely our fault for not keeping an eye on her. So when there's real work to do, we have to take turns cat-watching, or confine her to the house until we can be more responsible cat wranglers.

In 1970, when I celebrated the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, I was owned by another tabby--a manx born with spina bifida, and as a result couldn't wreak much havoc on local wildlife. At the time I had no idea of what my life would be like over fifty years later. We were all so sanguine then, sure that in the next half century we'd have addressed the problems that were becoming so apparent then. 

But we haven't. Things are much worse, and peril confronts us at every turn. I keep trying to find sources of hope, like Barack Obama's new Netflix series on the world's national parks and the possibilities they embody, and these serve as anodynes to help salve the anxiety of living in this moment. The best way to get through all of this, though, seems to be to keep the garden going and to enjoy the companionship of our two rescue beasts. And to enjoy their enjoyment of their own little peaceable kingdom.


Happy Earth Day, people. May next year bring better news, and renewed hope.

Photo notes: The leafing-out of trees has reduced available sky considerably. But if you look closely at the butterfly picture, you'll see some blue peeking through. So happy Skywatch Friday, too.
 
*Turning the greenhouse-that-isn't-really-a-greenhouse into a Cabinet of Curiosities is a new project whose progress will be documented on Owl's Cabinet of Wonders.