Monday, April 22, 2024

Earth Day 2024: Rewilding in the 'Burbs

A recent purchase from Red Bubble; the Totoro decal is older.

Like my Beloved Spouse (who was born in Pittsburg, but lived in San Antonio for most of his life before college), I have spent a substantial portion of my own life as an exile in a place I never actively chose. Both of us were Air Force brats who followed where our fathers were assigned. When we met in grad school in the '80s, we bonded over not wanting to live Texas. Except for a two year hiatus in Chicago (where we were married), however, we've been living in the Dallas area for over thirty years. We didn't really mind Dallas so much, because we had enjoyed city life in Chicago. But the city was hell-bent on razing small historic houses to build oversized mansionettes that dwarfed the homes in old neighborhoods. The competition for the lots (not the houses) was so fierce that we had to look elsewhere to find what we wanted: a Craftsman style bungalow with a big enough yard for dogs and a garden. When we were both finally employed in full-time teaching jobs, we bought a house north of Dallas, in a then-sleepy, quiet, historic district in a then-smallish town about 25 minutes up the then-four-lane highway out of Dallas's growing disregard for little old bungalows. 

We moved to McKinney in 2001, a year short of the house's 100th birthday, and have spent the years since fixing up the old girl (but not transforming her), repairing some early "updates," and resisting the latest "trends." The only major refurbishment occurred about fifteen years ago, when we had the aluminum siding removed and replaced with hardy-board (proper wood siding cost more than the house was worth), got some of the plumbing redone, had a not-insignificant amount of sheetrock and sagging beaverboard removed, and had it repainted in appropriate Arts and Crafts colors. But most of the work we've done has involved the garden--especially the back 1/4 acre.

Over the last few years, especially after we both retired (2016 for me, 2018 for him), we've built a drive-through parking space for our caravan, Porco Rosso, and have added two brick patios, a greenhouse, and several "garden rooms," as William Morris called them: areas for enjoying the fruits of our labors, entertaining friends, and simply enjoying what we've wrought, along with our various animal companions--both dogs and cats. There's a nice area outside of the greenhouse (an aspiring Wunderkammer) with an umbrella table and chairs, a seating area just outside the study with room for another small table and chairs (plans are to build a pergola for growing grapes), and another area for eating and entertaining that includes a larger table (built by The Beloved Spouse his ownself) and umbrella, with an adjacent firepit area with Adirondack chairs and benches. 

The raised bed next to the greenhouse and perennial patch.

The back-door patio (at the beginning of the eclipse).

Big table with Firepit behind.

The wilding shade garden.

Recent work on some of the eight pecan trees located in the back yard (there are four more in the front and side yards), and the felling of a well-loved, but barely-alive Chinaberry left us with a significant amount of trunk and branch slices to use for our wood-burner and as borders for the several areas we've been allowing to go as wild as we can get away with. The upcoming annual Continental philosophy soiree we host has inspired us to complete one or two new areas: a potential shade garden in the northwest corner, and a pollinator garden on the south-and-east side of the front yard.

None of this is, of course, very "wild." In fact, although most of it tends to look pretty rustic, it can't be let go completely, or the townsfolk would come after us with axes and summonses. One small corner next to our garage (and adjacent to recently tidied wood piles and our two large compost bins) is  the one exception. A few years ago, I tried to build a h├╝gelkultur berm, but before I could finish what I'd started, health issues intervened, and nature pretty much took over. I'm in the process of taming it a little, but the berm has been used to foster mulching and more-or-less accidental composting with the result that we've provided some good habitat for critters. The fence on two sides also hosts honeysuckle a volunteer spirea--both in full, fragrant bloom at the moment. We've seen bunnies, cotton rats, and evidence of continuing raccoon and 'possum visits. There's a fox nearby as well, and he seems to have found is way through the hog-wire fence--probably to look for bunny chow.

About all the sky I can manage for this Skywatch Friday
Too many trees!

So: not so wild, in fact. But one thing the garden has going for it is the absence of chemical fertilizers or pesticides: completely organic for as long as we've lived here. Some of the mulch from the biennial tree-trimming has replaced some of the inappropriate St. Augustine grass in front, and the rest of the "lawn" is gradually being replaced by a mixture of seasonal treats like cleavers (goose-grass), chickweed, henbit, plantain, dandelions, and various other "weeds" that most people pay other people to spray herbicides on. At our house, we eat these treasures, make tea and pesto out of them (chickweed pesto is every bit as tasty as that made from basil--although we grow basil as well). Volunteer flowering plants like mullein (which my cousin Charlie says is good for what ails me), and Byzantine Gladiolus have graced the garden for many years now, and I'm hoping to add goodies like Borage and Hyssop that I love but will have to plant.

The four-lane highway is now ten lanes wide at the exits, and the quietude has already suffered from that. But now the city has contracted to build a 20,000 seat open air arena ("entertainment venue") almost adjacent to the local hospital/trauma center ten minutes away from our house. The mayor is trying his damnedest to get us to pay for an international airport just east of the historic downtown area, which itself is in walking distance from us. We defeated the proposal last year, but he's still trying. 

Despite all this potential tsuris, we still waffle about moving west. Politically, this area couldn't get much worse, but environmentally the prospects aren't particularly promising. But neither are they in high-desert regions of California, where we'd most like to settle. So the current plans (but don't blink) are to soldier on here, visiting some of the glorious Texas State Parks, and in September (or maybe the following May) try to make at least one more long-distance sojourn west. 

In the meantime, our semi-wild half acre provides the perfect balm for soothing our aggravated souls, and I hope it can see us through the continuing political circus that would be hilarious, if it weren't so rife with unsavory and environment-threatening possibilities. Depending on how the summer goes, we could use that westbound road trip for house-hunting.

At this particular moment of the anthropocene, we seem to be sitting at a nexus. Many possibilities exist, some much more disagreeable than others. So here's some recommended reading: Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future; Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem (all three volumes, including The Dark Forest and Death's End)*; and Becky Chambers, the Monk & Robot series (A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy). 

Happy Earth Day, people. It will be interesting to see how things stand next year at this time.

*Note: I'm currently re-reading the three Liu books, after having watched both the Chinese version (Three-Body, streaming on Peacock) and the Netflix version (3 Body Problem). The Beloved Spouse has not read the books, so the experience is quite different for each of us. Both series are well-filmed, acted, directed, and visualized, but the Chinese version is far closer to Liu's original. The Netflix version is problematic because for those who have read the books, the changes to plot and characters can be jarring and confusing. So read the books first, and then watch the films, but be prepared to take notes. All three versions add interesting perspectives to our continuing conversations about climate change and technology--and the future of humankind.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Science Waiting for the Hour

This may well be the busiest spring I can remember, in terms of getting some things done but not others. It's been a couple of months since I last posted anything here on the Farm, in part because I've been healthy enough to be attacking the many garden jobs that I've been AWOL from during the last year (at least), and with all the rain we've had, the half-acre has greened up nicely and is now verging on jungle-hood. Days have been cool enough to enjoy a good deal of time out with the animals, sorting through felled logs, creating barriers between the wild and the tame, and creating new spaces for purposeful planting. I spend a great deal of time weeding, and some of said "weeds" have become pesto, tea, salad components and (ultimately) a good lot of compost.

We had also been awaiting the recent eclipse (like Wordsworth's personification of Science), obtaining the proper glasses, and hoping that for once (just this once) the weather would cooperate and keep the clouds away for a couple of hours on Monday. We got our wish, sort of, and the game of peek-a-boo made the whole experience rather entertaining. Our venue was our back yard, a couple of lawn chairs, and a side table to hold a couple of glasses of wine for celebratory purposes. I had my Merlin app on to catch the (very early) evening chorus of birds as the moon began to obscure the sun, and we were in contact with my daughter in Dallas and my son in Redmond, Washington (where it was cloudy and raining, and they couldn't even enjoy the 30% of the eclipse available to them, because it made little difference in the available light). The area was remarkably quiet, as it can be in the early afternoon before school lets out and rush hour begins, the stillness probably enhanced by the fact that so many were off the highways at appropriate viewing sites. 

We found a spot on the back lawn that provided a fairly good view of the sky, which was a bit of a challenge because the trees have nearly leafed out fully and there are only a few small vacant areas in the canopy. Hence the following photos of the event, which (as is so often the case with photos I post on Skywatch Friday) are bordered with leafy edges.

Nearing totality (via The Beloved Spouse using the Canon Eos):

My iPhone images of totality:

And one from my daughter's iPhone in Dallas (no trees!):

And for anyone curious about which birds might have joined the Ecliptical Chorus, here's a screenshot of the Merlin list:

Science was, I think, well served on this occasion. All manner of data will emerge from the myriad instruments deployed, and vast numbers of children will remember the occasion because so many wise teachers had embraced this momentous teaching opportunity.

In all, it was a terrific experience, and perhaps my last such. I'd only be 97 when the next chance arises, so there is still hope--especially if I've moved back to the Owens River Valley in California by then. Much better chance of really clear skies.

Hope everyone got a chance to see at least a bit of this cosmic spectacle. Happy Skywatch Friday!

The Wordsworth poem can be found in its entirety at Poetry Nook: The Eclipse of the Sun, 1820

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Pre-Spring Ruminations

Dragon figure on the Nankunshen Daitian Temple in Tainan, ancient capital of Taiwan

I got a note on Friday from my local food co-op newsletter that old Phil in Punxsutawni PA hadn't seen his shadow when he emerged from his comfy den, so we may not have to suffer through a prolonged winter. This is good news, even if of dubious folkloric origin, but we've recently enjoyed a few balmy days before having to huddle through another bleak stretch, so the prospect of not slogging through a continuous cycle that lasts beyond the solstice is welcome.

I generally spend February 2 remembering my father, who was born on that day in 1921. Despite his carrying some of the same genes I do (the worst of mine came from my mother's side of the family), he managed to survive two separate coronary bypass operations and several years of thyroid cancer (probably an artifact of his service in the South Pacific during WWII) before he died of that not long after his 83rd birthday. My daughter and I flew out to Porterville, California for a Valentine's Day visit in 2004, and my son drove down from Seattle so we could spend some time with him together, and I made a vast lasagna for dinner one night--which he managed to enjoy a bit of. My Dad was a terrific guy, and these last twenty years have afforded many bittersweet moments. But I never stop remembering how much he helped to steer me towards becoming a more generous and appreciative person than I might have been, and I've never stopped being grateful. One of his final directives was to "write at the end of your stint." So my long rants on this blog are actually a response to my Father's orders.

Four years ago in mid-February, Texans experienced the direst bout of nasty winter weather in modern memory during what we called "Snowmageddon," from the 11th to the 21st or so. The worst day was probably the 14th, during which we had no power for the better part of 24 hours. (I wrote about it in a post called In A Bleaker Midwinter). As I've mentioned recently, we've spent the time between then and now providing ourselves with alternate sources of power and heat. But the state has also been trying to clean up its act, thanks in no small part to the efforts of renewable providers, and the grid held through a spell of sub-freezing weather last month. We did, however, take multi-day advantage of our ceramic-clad cast-iron wood-burner, so we actually enjoyed a few cozy mornings when our house thermostat was registering in the low 50s. Closing off the living room, pulling down shades and drawing curtains all through the house, and using an electric heater in the upstairs bathroom (we don't have a heat source up there, so this was to keep the water from freezing), kept us comfortable until the spell finally broke, with the weather returning to its usual cycle for this time of year. 

As I was writing this (on Monday the 5th) the temperature reached into the mid-60s, which meant that The Beloved Spouse was able to get some tennis practice in, and I managed to do some more garden prep. My usual Phenology 101 exercise this spring (see my 2018 post here) will probably be compromised by the 65-70-degree days we've enjoyed on and off for the last couple of weeks, and which fooled the daffodils into thinking that it's time to start popping up. But we had one brief freezing night that nipped the tips of their leaves, and those of the Byzantine gladioli and the alliums that managed to survive under blankets during the hard freezes and seem to want to get their mojo going. 

Overly eager daffodil

The Lunar New Year begins on Saturday, and this is a special one in our family because it marks the Year of the Dragon. My son was born in 1976, also a Year of the Dragon--a most appropriate zodiac sign for an avid fan of fantasy and gaming. So on Friday night we'll bid farewell to the Year of the Bunny (well, Rabbit to most folks) and hope that the good fortune attached to the Dragon figure will see us through a problematic election. 

Not much sky drama (not much sky, actually) has been visible for the last couple of weeks, but bright blue and puffy white are still worth looking at between grey spells; here are a few that provide a glimpse of the range of possibility, including a bit of yesterday's lovely sunrise:

Happy Skywatch Friday, Folks, and Happy Year of the Dragon!

Photo credit: The shot of that lovely dragon (one of many, but I thought that this photo perfect for Skywatch Friday), "Dragon Roof Sculpture of the Jade Emperor Shrine, Taiwan," was posted on Wikimedia Commons by Malcolm Koo (MK2010). I thought of it when I was looking for an appropriate Year of the Dragon evocation, since I visited this temple as a child and remembered its many wonderful dragons, but haven't yet found a photo among my mother's voluminous archive of negatives.

Monday, January 22, 2024

World Endangered Writing Day: 23 January 2024

As regular visitors to this blog may remember, I've been supporting the Endangered Alphabets Project since its inception in 2011 or so, when I read an article about its originator, Tim Brookes, in the New York Times.

The first Kickstarter project I ever supported was designed to gain the Alphabets a wider audience and to fund an exhibition of Tim's beautiful carvings of passages from languages whose writing systems are in danger of disappearing. I describe this effort in some detail, and my reasons for getting behind it in this post from November 15, 2011: Losing Languages. That campaign was highly successful, and ever since then I've been happy to back every campaign Tim has launched. My favorite has been The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets, but the range of projects has included games (like ULUS: Legends of the Nomads), teaching and learning materials, and even a Sudoku puzzle book.

World Endangered Writing Day represents an international holiday devoted to the projects and results of all these efforts (and many more). At this main link you can find the rationale behind the holiday, the events that will ensue, and ways to support the continuing work to save these remarkable expressions of human intelligence, creativity, and community. 

Except for encouraging folks to participate in various Endangered Alphabets Kickstarter campaigns, I don't usually solicit monetary contributions. But I do urge you to visit the WEWD sites linked to the main page, and consider contributing, even in a small way. The primary purpose of this whole, long, worthwhile endeavor is to preserve the art of writing (and thus help stem the tide of losing traditional languages) and in doing so to keep the histories of these people from disappearing.

In addition, if you're at all interested in the history of writing and its associated technologies, as many of my former graphic design and humanities students have been, please consider purchasing this latest book by Tim Brookes, Writing Beyond Writing: Lessons from Endangered Alphabets. It's available for sale in multiple formats at the link. World Endangered Writing Day coincides with the book's official publication date.

This whole topic becomes all the more important as literacy in general appears to be declining in this particular political and technological landscape. Try to contribute if you can, but even by looking through the linked materials you should be able to enrich your understanding of the critical nature of writing as a vehicle of cultural survival.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

A Bleak Midwinter Journal

12 January 2024

The Beloved Spouse and I are well into our hunkering down preparations, because we're about to be slammed by some real winter weather. I'm hoping it will include a dusting of snow, instead of the deadly icicles we usually end up with. Our first single-digit temperature should happen on Tuesday, with a low of 9F and a high of only 24. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram weather people are in a tizzy about "three days of record freezing temps" and wondering how this could possible happen to Texas.

Our heating bill is already higher than it's ever been (even during Snowmageddon--but that's because we didn't have the electricity needed to start our gas furnace), and will only get higher. One of the pre-winter prep jobs TBS accomplished was to set up a switch that will allow our backup Bluetti power station to turn the furnace on if ERCOT (the state-wide power distributor of ill repute) shuts the grid down. We can also keep critical appliances going via another Bluetti, and will be stoking our lovely enameled cast iron log burner with the surfeit of seasoned pecan and elm firewood we've accumulated over the last couple of years. We can spend most of our days snuggled up with Molly and Nylah in the living room and conserve quite a bit of electricity in the process--although the furnace will still be cranking away helping to keep the pipes from freezing. 

100 year-old houses can be lovely, but are difficult to insulate. Rugs on the hardwood floors help, as do the insulated curtains we installed last summer to keep the air con bill under control. And because our study and bedroom both have expanses of south-facing windows, we get lots of helpful sunlight when it's not cloudy. In fact, one of the things that may make a big difference with the Texas grid this winter is that the wind does keep blowing out west (ferociously at the moment) and there's usually plenty of sun to follow whatever precipitation descends to wreak havoc on this hapless state. To their credit, the renewable energy purveyors in Texas have been amassing battery storage facilities so the power can stay on even when the wind's calm and the sun don't shine--and the fossil fuel sources fail for lack of foresight and need of more robust infrastructure.

Plans are underway for us to spend some of next spring and summer insulating the north walls of the house that lie behind built in cabinets and drawers, and trying to figure out how to keep some of the heat and cold from our small uninsulated attic from creeping into our bedroom and living room. 

One project, a decorative insulating quilt designed to cover the massive wooden grille that masks our two immense attic fans, is in progress. Now that I seem to be recovering from last year's medical "challenges," I've got the basic planning done, and over many years I've collected a delightful assortment of fabrics. So I'll be able to spend the upcoming chilly days putting it together--perhaps finishing it soon enough that it can be put in place before the next wintry spell. I look forward to being able to show it off here on The Farm, since I haven't done any quilting since my kids were tiny folk (and easy to quilt for), and I miss the satisfaction of actually getting something done. All those years of gathering textiles and hoarding them in the Museum of Unfinished Projects* may finally be bearing fruit. 

16 January 2024

The weather is, quite literally, all over the map. We got some snow yesterday, but it lasted just long enough to dust the sidewalk and thrill our Great Pyrenees mix, Nylah, who seems to long for French mountain weather. (Those are her prints on the sidewalk photo below.) This morning's wake-up temp was 9, on its way to (maybe) 26. Tomorrow's low should be 13 with a high of 41, and Thursday the low is forecast at just freezing, with a high of 53 (before it goes back down to 22/37).

Three winter moments, light snow remaining

So far, the prep has been worthwhile, and as long as the sun shines, things don't get too depressing. We can take the animals out for wee runs and then they're happy to run back in. TBS has lit morning fires in the wood-burner for the past three days, and it's lovely to sit in the living room, wrapped in blankies to read the papers and keep warmish. The overall average for the house (with a thermostat set at 65) is 55. So, we're clad in sweats and jumpers and serape-like garments. The furnace is working, and we haven't needed to jumpstart it because the electricity has stayed on. The power brokers have asked us to conserve ("turn your thermostat down two degrees"--which makes me giggle; even if we did that, the furnace would be running constantly), so we tend to occupy one or two rooms at a time and turn off lights where we aren't.

I've kept myself amused by a thread on NextDoor where there's nattering back and forth about how horrible electric vehicles are, especially in the winter, and how stupid renewable energy is when we're just fine with natural gas and gas-powered vehicles. I've actually participated a bit, but mostly by posting links to good articles that counter the "arguments" (low on logic, high on vitriol). One or two folks give me little hearts to signify agreement, but I know where I live, and around whom, so I don't expect to develop a fan club. We do own an ICE (a Jeep Gladiator), and won't be getting an EV until Jeep makes one with enough range for us to pull Porco out to California and back. But I have been going on about how much better off we are this year with the Bluettis than we were in 2021 (although we did have our first one then, and were able to use our travel solar panels to keep the fridge and freezer running, ironic as that may sound). If the juice goes out this winter, we can fire the furnace up with the new switch. 

What work I can get done (like writing this post) is pleasant enough because there are two heating vents here in the study, and I can open a south-facing Roman shade/curtain combo to let the sun in--and it gives Molly a place to perch for spying on the neighbors and basking. I am thus reminded of T. S. Eliot's Old Gumbie Cat:
I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
Her coat is of the tabby kind, with tiger stripes and leopard spots . . . .  
Her equal would be hard to find, she likes the warm and sunny spots. 

Molly in the wan sun, yesterday

The Gumbie cat just demanded that I uncover the west window behind my Mac so that she can peer at birds and squirrels, and I've obliged her because it does let in some sun at this time of day (two-ish).

Our family is a bit preoccupied with cat-naming these days, because my son and his wife have just adopted two Gumbie cats of their own, and are thinking hard about naming them. As is always the case, his sister and I are in on the fun, but I'm wondering how one goes about naming two sibling kittens. How can they (or their cat-parents) figure out whose name belongs to whom? Ruminating on hard questions like these does help take one's mind off the weather, however. 

The quasi-absurdity of Texas's preoccupation with transient cold weather is not entirely lost on me. When I first started thinking about leaving Texas (and the too many trees around us) some ten years ago, I ached for Big Sky, and started house-hunting on Zillow for places near Anaconda, Montana. The high there today is 23, after a low overnight of -6. And a winter storm watch in effect for tomorrow with 6 to 10 inches of snow and wind gusts of 40 mph. As Margot Zemach reminds us in her lovely rendering of an old Yiddish folk tale, It Could Always Be Worse

18 January 2024

After a night that barely licked the freezing point (31 when we arose from our cocoon), it's now sunny and 55. And even though we should be getting another three days of sub-freezing temps, after that the weatherfolk are predicting a bit of rain and much balmier weather. TBS has just returned from whacking tennis balls around a local parks and rec court (one tennis court, eight for pickleball), taking advantage of the amenable conditions. 

Donc**, we've managed to make it through our Chicago-like weather, snickering at all the angst generated by the freeze. Our two years in Chicago (1991 and 1992) taught us a great deal about dealing with real cold, when we lived in a little rat-hole flat near Wrigley field (and still had to get to work and classes; no "snow days." The NextDoor app has seen a bit of chuckling from other folks who moved to Texas from the north and northeast, and who are getting a good laugh out of the pathos. Unfortunately, our own fortitude has diminished somewhat, since we've been back in Texas for the last thirty-odd years, and it took February 2021 to remind us of what a large part of the rest of the country has to put up with on a much more regular basis. With climate change making itself more and more of a tangible phenomenon, though, these early '20s winters may be but a harbinger.

At the moment, though, a pretty Skywatch Friday view is available upon looking upward, so I actually do have something to share this week. 

Wispy cirrus clouds, bald trees, and a balmy January day

Thus ends the winter-weather note-taking, at least until we get smacked with something worse. Time to get back to listening to TBS remark about how astonishingly bright the light is in Melbourne for the Australian Open. It's good to be reminded that it's summer somewhere.

Keep warm, Folks. And stay safe. 

Notes and Credits:

*The main takeaway achieved from watching interminable French murder mysteries; essentially, French for "So . . . ."
**The link is to a post on my long-neglected blog, Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--another item on my list of things to attend to during inclement weather (both the blog, and the since re-cluttered museum).

"The Old Gumbie Cat," from T. S. Eliot's Old Book of Practical Cats (with drawings by Edward Gorey). Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1967 (Eliot) 1982 (Gorey). I've just discovered (rather than remembered) that I posted an obituary for my previous Gumbie cat, Biscuit, on January 17, 2009. I hope Amy sees this; I miss her Gumbie cat, Tigger, too.

Weather map: "Tracking Freezing Temperatures in the U.S." The New York Times, Updated January 16, 2024 at 7:11 a.m. E.T.