Sunday, July 31, 2022

Ett Hem

Carl Larsson, Stugen (The Cottage) 1899

Back when I was teaching art and design history to animation, multimedia, and graphic design students, I spent a good deal of time trying to find them historical sources of inspiration for their work. Beyond The Usual Suspects (the dead European white guy canon), I spent more time than most of my ilk on prehistoric and non-Western cultures. But I also looked more broadly into the Western tradition, looking for the origins of modern design: especially into the Arts and Crafts movement as expressed both in Europe and North America. But in addition to William Morris in England and the Greene brothers in the US, I also introduced them to Carl Larsson and the Scandinavian branch of the movement.

I know, I know. Larsson is in some ways the poster boy for dead white guy-ness. A Swede, no less. But just as I had found his work compelling for a number of reasons, my students were attracted to his depictions of domestic intimacy and his admirable hand skills. Like many of the great Scandinavian illustrators (Kay Nielsen, Gustaf Tenggren) Larsson plumbed mythic connections to the past, but depicted everyday life as well--as interpreted by him and his wife, Karin Bergöö. In the '70s, while working at a co-op book store in Philadelphia, I had come across his book about their home, Ett Hem (A Home) which in the real world is every bit as charming as in his paintings. I'm not sure why I didn't snap it up at the time, but years later I found a couple of nicely illustrated explorations of the Larssons' home life. I especially liked the depictions of their garden, which looks much more like ours than one might find in today's house-porn mags.

What interested me most about Larsson's work was the fact that he treated his home as a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total work of art. The concept was originally applied by Richard Wagner to his operatic integration of music and drama (especially in his Ring cycle), but has since been applied to works of art and architecture conceived as an aesthetic whole. In the most valuable course I ever took at UT Dallas ("Vienna 1900," taught by Charles Bambach), I began to explore the idea as it could be applied to something as seemingly mundane as one's own home--just as Larsson had done, and I began to see the integration of house and garden as part of a long-term domestic artistic process. 

I doubt that anyone who sees our place is going to be struck by its artfulness. At the moment, thanks to the heat, the front garden is a mass of dying annuals amidst the better-chosen, drought-tolerant perennials. I keep better care of the food plants and herbs on the back quarter-acre, but what once looked like overgrown rainforest in the spring now droops pathetically, and leaves are beginning to yellow and fall, as if it were already autumn. And it's not quite yet August. But learning what will grow, under what conditions, and how to keep things thriving under problematic circumstances, is part of the process.

However, as I mentioned in my June 18 post ("It's Not Easy Being Green"), living here is not just about us, or even just about us and Molly and Nylah and their predecessors. It's also about creating a home for the critters that are finding it more and more difficult to survive in this area.  As a result of local habitat destruction, we've tried to make this little half acre habitable for as wide a variety of wildlife as we can. And our efforts seem to have been rewarded. 

Last March, I discovered in Woody's Garden (an herb- and pollinator-focused memorial to one of our previous dogs) a hole that had been softened with what looked like feathers--but which later I discovered to be fur (top photo). I had used the spot to shelter an injured Carolina wren fledgling. I finally figured out that it had harbored rabbits. More recently, in our raised bed for growing fennel, catmint, and oregano, I discovered what was clearly a rabbit nest (evidence of a warren beneath?). I've often seen a bunny near the spot, so now I know why. These are not stupid rabbits, by any means, though. They've figured out when the dog and cat are likely to be afoot, and make themselves scarce during those outings. 

I included a photo of the pecan-knot-hole resident squirrel in an earlier post, but I recently caught it entering its nest for an afternoon kip, and then saw it snoozing a bit later.

I could go back into my archives and find an almost identical photo to the one below from each of the last five or so years. It's a Neon Skimmer, and for some reason they like to use our back yard as a mating arena. This year I had removed the rebar pole from next to the repurposed copper firepit we use as a bird bath. When I realized that this fellow seemed to be looking for a perch, I replaced it. Almost immediately, it was occupied. When they don't land here, they'll rest on the rusty hog wire cylinder we use as a fennel support.

Some years ago we brought back from California an old metate that a Paiute woman from Owens Valley had given my grandmother. Nowadays it serves as a toad pond, as does the blue pot with handy brick ladder inserted for Mr. Toad's convenience. 


When the weather's better, it's nice to be able to inhabit the hammock next to Porco's parking spot, and watch hummingbirds sip from the trumpet vine. There are four hanging feeders around, but the hummers seem to like a more authentic experience just as well. When I'm not out there reading Margaret Renkl essays, though, one of the local anoles will often explore the space, which is unfortunately too warm now for either woman or beast. Maybe in the fall.

Despite the heat, Molly and I are still spending an hour or so in the garden each morning; later in the day we spend less time, even though the entire yard is shady by then. For as long as we can stay comfortable, we both enjoy watching the squirrels splooting at the bases of the trees to keep cool. Squirrels are endlessly fascinating to Molly anyway, but she also seems to enjoy imitating them, with her belly plastered against the cool grass.

At some as-yet unforeseeable point, the 100F+ days will have faded into the past.  And I fully realize that along with the intemperate summer we'll no doubt "enjoy" its polar (ahem) opposite come winter. But knowing that these animals can find shelter, shade, habitat, water, and some comfort here with us gives me some hope that we'll all make it together. 

For all of us here, it is--in one form or another--a home.

Image credits: Carl Larsson, Stugen (from Ett Hem), 1899, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

In The Bleak Midsummer


The Ides of July have recently passed, and we've only had a single below-100F day in the entire month. The forecast for the next week or so is not only over100, but between 103 and 107. Our single 95-ish day brought surprisingly tolerable temperatures overnight (down into the mid-70s), and allowed our brick-clad solid wood house to cool down enough that moving from room to room didn't require walking through a blast furnace. 

Anyone who reads this blog probably already knows that we don't have "proper" whole-house (central) air conditioning. Rather, we rely on four window units in frequently occupied rooms. Old-fashioned portières (hanging door curtains) keep the cool in the designated spaces, allowing ingress and egress through the aforementioned over-heated areas. The Beloved Spouse has also brought in what we call "the auxiliary unit": a window-vented portable machine that we've placed in our upstairs bathroom (adjacent to the bedroom, which has its own unit) to help keep the dog from panting all night. It blows cool air in, helps lower the humidity (with the help of an overhead shower fan), and does a decent job of allowing us to sleep through the night fairly comfortably.

Our morning routine involves getting up at 6 am, turning off the auxiliary unit (but leaving the upstairs window unit on to keep the wood from heating up). Our overhead attic is well-insulated, but not the one that extends out over the front porch, and none of the walls are insulated at all (almost impossible to do, as we discovered when we began to renovate). We leave the downstairs windows open all night, with ceiling fans on. This manages to cool the house down enough that we can abide a morning in the living room under the ceiling fan, reading papers and doing crossword puzzles. Or it did until I started having to take Molly out for her morning exploration before the temperature rises to uncomfortable levels. So I've been reading the paper out under the trees and patio umbrellas, while doing some strategic garden watering. With a breeze, I can usually make it until 9 am or so before I have to go back in.

Then it's time to shut all of the windows, close off the screened porch, pull all the curtains and shades, and move to the one or two rooms downstairs we use during the day. I also try to get any meal prep needed for the day done as early as possible, because the kitchen doesn't have a good spot for an A/C unit. The fan works well to keep the cook from sweating all over the food, so we get by reasonably well. A small slow cooker and a "pizza" oven in the range keep both kitchen-heating and electrical use to a minimum. This situation doesn't strike me as particularly onerous, because I endured summers in Taiwan with no air conditioning at all, and my Owens Valley ancestors made it through countless high desert summers with hand fans.

The fact that this process will be continuing for the foreseeable future isn't what bothers me, however. My tolerance for heat is relatively substantial, and Molly is the most heat-tolerant cat I've ever known, Nylah just sleeps through it all when we can keep the humidity down. We bought a "cool pad" for her to sleep on upstairs, and when she's out of doors she finds a cool, shady spot, digs a shallow depression, and naps pretty comfortably. We spend time out of doors with the animals in the morning and late in the evening, with occasional short trips out during the day as necessary. Our back yard is generously shaded with a dozen or so full-grown trees, and our hog-wire fence on two sides allows for ample wind-flow. So we will no doubt be able to soldier on and make it through the next two months with only our high electric bill (for the curious, it's about USD300 for a 2300 square-foot house). 

Unless, of course, the infamous, badly planned, and inexpertly maintained Texas grid fails us yet again. My February 2021 post (In A Bleaker Midwinter; with apologies to Christina Rossetti for my multiple ham-handed uses of her title for what has become a beloved Christmas carol) I recounted our adventures during what has become known around here as "Snowmageddon." Although ERCOT (the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; I should probably place quotation marks around the "reliability" part) swears that it will be able to handle the expected summer demand, grid customers have been asked at least three times already to conserve electricity by restricting our use of it between peak hours of 2 pm to 8 pm--and the worst is yet to come. 

We do have the little backup Bluetti power station that can be charged with solar panels. We used it to power a heater during the winter 2020 tribulations, and we should be able to power our refrigerator if the lights go out this summer. We had hoped that the state would get on its horse and gin up the grid with additional wind and solar, but it's so beholden to the fossil fuel industry that change in a renewable direction will require a change of governor and the state legislature.

According to our Green Mountain weekly reports,  we've managed to cut our household use down significantly (we've never been exactly profligate in our use anyway). But it will be interesting to see how things work out once the McMansion owners can't "manage" with their thermostats up to 78F. One neighbor in the local Nextdoor group seemed positively giddy about keeping hers at 62, but her example doesn't seem to have been followed. One local news station reported that the initial request (which included avoiding the use of large appliances) resulted in the return of 400 megawatts to the grid: enough to power 80,000 homes. 

I'm not sure what's happened since, but did see that bitcoin miners were magnanimously going offline in order to preserve energy. Which is just plain benevolent of them, since they're potentially responsible for using as much energy as the city of Houston. Really??? I don't even understand what it is these people do, but I sure don't want to have anything to do with it--no matter how wealthy bitcoins are making their addicts users (or whatever they're called). The Wikipedia article is useful if you're as ignorant about this operation as I am, but I'm not sure I really want to know. Everything I do find out makes it sound more and more like an enormous, energy depleting, carbon creating scam. 

At any rate, if the gird does goes down, and we start experiencing the so-called "rolling" blackouts we did back in the winter version of this kind of dysfunction, it won't be just air conditioning units that go out. It will be refrigerators and freezers, and other appliances that make it possible for folks to live and work in the modern world. The only reason I can even imagine how people in apartment buildings and without any means to cool themselves down will deal with this (or die because they can't) is because I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson's description of a deadly heat wave in India that has haunted me since (see the first chapter of The Ministry For The Future).

Human beings are doing this to ourselves, with our refusal to do what needs to be done to reverse the damage we've already inflicted and to prevent future disasters. The deniers have had the upper hand for too long. We all know what to do, and we need to do it. 78 degree thermostat settings are only a baby step. But if enough people do it, it's not nothing.

Image note: The opening photo was taken on the day the temperature drifted downward to 95 and Dallas actually got a little rain. We only got clouds, but the difference between 105 and 95 is absolutely life-enhancing.

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.