Thursday, November 17, 2022

Looking Up

Pelicans migrating over Cooper Lake, Texas, October 2022

As autumn progresses into winter, I spend a lot of time looking skyward. This particular photo was taken just as we arrived for last month's sojourn at Cooper lake, and we weren't really sure what we were seeing. The magnified version (taken on a newish iPhone 13 mini) shows them a little more clearly:

They were caught on the fly (ahem), so neither photo is particularly well composed, but I was happy to get them--especially after we asked the folks in the park office what we had seen. American White Pelicans migrate over and into Texas for the winter, and these were apparently making a flyover on their way to lakes south of Cooper. 

While we were scouting the South Sulphur Unit of the park for future stays, we caught some pretty interesting clouds and cloud-contrail combos overhead:

Back home, I caught a hot-air balloon on the camera for the first time this year. They're a fairly typical sight over this area during the fall, but iffy weather has prevented earlier appearances. The annual festival is held south of us, in Plano (quite close to where my kids were raised and The Beloved Spouse spent most of his teaching career) during the last week or so of September, but it's too crowded for us, so we have to make do with what floats north.  Our dog Arlo used to bay like a hound whenever they fired up their burners overhead. Nylah ignores them.

The tree canopy is still pretty thick over our little "farm," which means that our access to sky is still somewhat limited. But I did see some pretty stuff overhead yesterday while I was taking Molly out for an afternoon squirrel-stalk.

These days things are somewhat less dramatic than they were at the end of August:

While I was looking for the above, I ran across the first shot I got of our baby Mississippi Kite (the one who fledged and flew for my last post). I'm not terribly quick on the mark these days, but at least his (?) colors are showing.

In general, I'm in a much better mood than I have been in some time. The ticker is working just fine, and the elections turned out far better than we had even hoped (although Texas is--well, Texas). Feeling as though we have dodged a bullet, we've entered a stage of equanimity that's become rare and unfamiliar. It was good to see that the "Zoomers" are coming into their own. This is particularly reassuring, because they're the ones who're inheriting the world we've made. Here on the farm, we're trying to do what we can to keep things from getting worse, at least environmentally, but there's so much damage that repair will take far longer than I have any hope of living to see. 

Still, things are certainly looking up. And that means that my Skywatch Friday post this week is much more appropriate than usual. Have a good one, People. 

Monday, November 7, 2022

Not Dead Yet . . . Again

Sunset, Cooper Lake, 25 October 2022
Every few years (since 1995) I've been reminded of my mortality, and have managed to squeak through several cardiac crises. The most recent occurred a couple of weeks after my last post, and involved two visits to the heart hospital's emergency room (at the behest of my cardiologist's staff), and ended with a re-stent of the bypass that had been stented just as the world shut down with Covid 19. According to my cardio guy,  these things occasionally happen, and aside from some scary moments, I survived. Again. Despite my unfortunate genes, I've been amazingly lucky, thanks to exceptionally good doctoring and a rather moderate way of managing my be-ing. 

The upshot is that I haven't written much, and have spent most of my time cooking even more healthfully than I had been (even though my particular form of heart disease is little affected by dietary efforts), pottering about in the garden, reading, napping, and watching fall manifest itself. 

On our little half-acre, this often includes various droppings from: thunderstorms,  early leaf-fall, half-eaten pecan bombardments from the squirrels, or a misty icing of sap droplets from various trees (pecans, maples, hackberry). This latter phenomenon recurs regularly, but this year we got it far more heavily in the form of a pervasive, sticky glazing composed of what is essentially aphid excrement. Our local trees have all been stressed well beyond their usual tolerance, and the aphids arrived in a tsunami that feasted on sap through the leaves and proceeded to mist the air with their droppings. On our occasional trips away from home, we noticed that most of the trees in town looked as if they had been dipped in high-fructose corn syrup. 

Soon after, we started noticing ladybird beetle (ladybug) larvae everywhere, and soon after that, a proliferation of the lovely little spotted aphid-eaters. So for the last two or three weeks, we've been doing our best not to sit on larvae or pupae or adults. I spent considerable time locating the larvae from our backyard table to a nearby log, but could never keep up. One morning I opened up the garden umbrella over the table to see dozens of adult beetles busily running around on the underside. And even though the aphids (and their goo) have long since been washed away, the traffic still going on, albeit at a less frenetic pace. 

Ladybird Beetle larva, pupa, and various versions of the final product

About a week earlier, we had enjoyed a couple of days of kite-fledging. I managed to get a shot of the remaining "baby" as it prepared to leave. Not long after that, the distinctive "twee" of parent Mississippi kites abated, and then was gone. It was fun while it lasted, and I hope that old elm survives another winter, so that we'll be able to enjoy the whole process again. But we miss their graceful thermal-riding, and their attentive parenting; the absence of these behaviors is a reminder that we're moving on toward colder weather, with really no idea of what to expect. The shots below aren't particularly clear because of the fading light, but the first shows the last feeding, and the second caught the baby just before takeoff.

To celebrate the seasonal change--and The Beloved Spouse's 65th birthday--we spent three days at Cooper Lake State Park, which is only about an hour and a half away. It's also a designated Dark Sky park, which means that it's far enough away from urban light pollution for us to enjoy some pretty spectacular star-gazing. We camped at the South Sulphur unit, in a spot a few steps from the shore, and had got in some hiking and loafing, along with Molly and Nylah. Molly didn't venture far from our caravan, Porco Rosso, but Nylah was happy to walk along the lake. Water levels are low almost everywhere these days, and even though it had rained heavily the day before we arrived, the amount didn't change the shoreline much. The wind across the lake was pretty brisk, though, and produced whitecaps on the wavelets that first afternoon. (The opening photo was taken at sunset on the first night.)

Probably the best part of the trip was being able to see the Milky Way, due to a new moon, which enhanced the clarity of the abundant visible stars. Our last visit to a Texas Dark Skies park (Copper Breaks, near Amarillo) occurred during a full moon. We got to see it rise, but it was too bright for us to see much more than the usual culprits.  

This experience wasn't as intense as it can be in the Owens Valley in California--where we'd traveled after Copper Breaks--but pretty satisfying, nonetheless. Living in the Dallas 'burbs offers little in the way of astronomical observation opportunities, so the highlight of the Cooper Lake trip was the discovery that there is a place to go to enjoy meteor showers and other events we'd thought we'd have to travel much further to see. Camping mid-week meant that things were quiet and the Bright Star campground was nearly empty. Just what we needed. Tonight there's another full moon, and the promise of a total lunar eclipse early tomorrow morning--if today's cloudy skies manage to clear in time.

Daylight Savings Time has just ended, which makes little difference to us, but is yet another sign that the seasons are moving on. We don't really have to adjust to anything, since we're no longer governed by clocks anyway. Any television we watch can be streamed whenever we want to watch it. We'll still get up when the cat tells us to, but that doesn't really depend on clocks either.  Our annual get-together with my daughter and her partner and friends at Thanksgiving is the next event to look forward to--but even that is "come when you can get here." I will have to start thinking about making the cranberry sauce (my only job, now that I've been retired from hosting duties) . . . but I've still got time.

The most impactful event to take place this season, however, happens tomorrow. We've already voted, but will be watching clocks as election returns start coming in. The future of our democratic institutions may well depend on what happens, and I'm trying to be sanguine. But the unimaginable happened in 2016, and I've learned to temper my hopes.

By the time I post this to Skywatch Friday, we'll have an idea, if the anarchists don't have their way and we end up with more chaos, perhaps even than what we suffered on January 6 of last year. May rationality endure, and may our better selves prevail.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Welcome Relief, For Some of Us

A resident Mississippi Kite near its nest
Biblically large weather events are becoming the norm, it seems. But for once, our little corner has had some respite from the very hot and muggy, but otherwise very dry days we'd been experiencing for over a month.

The weather that caused the "thousand-year flood" that hit Dallas the other day produced drenching but moderate rain for us, and the soil was able to absorb it without causing any damage to the Farm. The nandinas that I thought I'd lost have greened up, and the grass has needed mowing twice in the last two weeks (after not growing a smidgen for the previous month)--which is about normal for fall. So maybe that's what's going on now. The windows are all open, and we haven't had the A/C on for three days, even at night. The animals (especially the Great Hairy Beast, Nylah, who has shed an entire coat's worth of fur this summer) are coping well. It's still muggy, but cool and breezy enough to keep things relatively pleasant. Especially compared to recent days.

Our mornings out of doors have included entertainment from a couple of Mississippi Kite pairs who've built nests in the same elm tree. We're not quite sure what we're seeing, because we didn't realize that there were probably young ones involved until recently, but we haven't been able to spot a fledgling. So we could just be seeing fledged babies hanging around and testing their wings (and making lots of noise) before they migrate south. There seems to have been another crop of bunnies as well, and a faithful new hummingbird or two, so our efforts to sustain them all appear to be paying off. It's actually been cool enough that the squirrels have stopped spending all day splooting and have resumed their mad scrambles across the yard and through the trees.

Because this is Texas, we have learned to enjoy good weather while it lasts, so I'm not going to count on many more days of this, even though more rain is forecast for next week. [An aside: is anyone but me bothered by the fact that a couple of my weather apps, including the one that comes with the iPhone, have started saying "forecasted"--as in, "more rain forecasted for this afternoon"? Ack!]

Once again, though, even our spate of uncomfortable weather needs to be appreciated with some gratitude for not being even hotter. I do hope that the experience will encourage folks around here to take advantage of upcoming assistance with upgrading to more efficient appliances, electric vehicles, and the like. We will be looking into replacing our gas furnace with an electric heat pump, even though it will be more expensive to do so. But we've been trying to reduce our dependence on natural gas for some time, and although the monthly energy bill will likely go up, we should at last be able to afford the shift. 

TBS's fondest wish, an electric vehicle, is probably not on the menu, however. We only have the one car now (a Jeep Gladiator for pulling our travel trailer), and since we don't drive much at all anyway, we'll wait until after the household energy situation has been modified. When Chevrolet launches its new electric Silverado, though, and if the range is good enough, we may well trade in the Jeep. And then we could use the truck as backup during blackouts. Our portable power station worked well during the heat wave, when we lost electricity for a couple of hours, but one of those trucks (Like the Ford F150 Lightning) can power an entire house for a couple of days. One of the favorite television programs around our house is Fully Charged (also available on  YouTube), where up-to-date, accurate information is available for anyone interested in the whole question of rethinking our grid.

Mind you, my technological skepticism drives me toward more traditional mitigation efforts--like window coverings, water-saving and reclamation efforts, and energy conservation. But as careful as we have been to reduce our use of air conditioning and other efforts to lessen our impact on the grid, we were pretty restricted in what we could accomplish. And we're retired, with no real travel obligations. And some of our food is delivered every week. So we don't have to get out much. Folks who have more energy-demanding lives have been facing enormous utility bills, without many options. Clearly, alternatives to the status quo will need to be explored by lots more people, and not just aging hippies like us.

The end of August is upon us. September is often our hottest month. We'll probably spend the rest of the month, if it stays cool-ish, getting done what we've been putting off--like getting some fall "crops" in. But we're not particularly hopeful that our good fortune will last, so we'll relish the respite while we can. Stay cool, People. Peace out.

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.

Saturday, June 4, 2022


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.


Blue-eyed Grass



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.