Tuesday, August 31, 2010

3 Days Left to Win / Buy the Book

You've got 3 days left to either win a copy of my poetry collection, or buy it (or both?). September 3 is the last day to purchase presale copies which come with cheap $1 shipping.

Here's info on how to win a free copy of the book.

And here's where to buy it.

Without Such Absence will be released on 10/29 and will thereafter be available on Amazon et cetera.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Wonder

This is the first year I've become lost in the garden, and to some degree I mean physically lost. The smokebushes are 10' tall, the eupatoriums and ironweeds and sunflowers are thick masses, the grasses broad and unfurling their plumes of seed-like earrings / many small chrysalides.

The side of our house gets a half day of light, morning sun. It is a dark, damp place come mid afternoon, with dogwood, ninebark, 'Fineline' buckthorn, spiraea, willow, and crabapple. It is both a simple place in its lack of flowers, and a subtle yet complicated place structurally. For this reason I feel the most secluded and calm here, as do the many tree fogs. Last night I watched as one climbed the gold-leaved smokebush near the top, stopped on a leaf, and seemed to gulp the air. The night before 5 of them were spread on the south wall around the back door, catching insects attracted to the interior light seeping through curtain edges.
Argiope aurantia

A large female garden spider has made a web near the base of a clump river birch, tied fast to verbena and mountain mint. Sometimes I help her out. Fair warning. There are plenty of grasshoppers, and if I'm quick enough I can capture one in the curled palm of my hand. I'll rush over to the web, the grasshopper pinching and scraping at my skin, and toss it to the spider. She sometimes gets to them, but more often than not the grasshoppers work their way out and fall to the ground. But it's fascinating to see her spin a thick Saran Wrap-like film over her prey. Or, our prey. The grasshoppers feast in my garden.
Monarch on Coreopsis tripteris (tall tickseed)

When I got home from teaching yesterday, my wife and I released 7 monarchs (5 more today). One made a mad dash for the sky, the rest flitted and settled on the bald cypress, morning glories, or butterfly bushes. Nearby a preying mantis waited. The skippers and soldier beetles, numbering in the hundreds if not thousands, patrol every last bloom, often resting in my hair or on my shirt. Bumblebees wedge into shriveled up morning glories and thin-lipped turtlehead blooms. Recently, a hummingbird  has begun stopping by an hour or two before dusk to nectar at every last 'Nekan' blue sage bloom.

Bumble bee on Chelone 'Hot Lips'

Ants are harvesting the aphids. Tent caterpillars have invaded the baptisia (it looks like Halloween). A highlighter-yellow goldfinch picks dried coneflower seeds from a blackened stalk.

Soldier beetle pulling itself up to Eupatorium 'Wayside' bloom

Only 1,500 square feet and I think about how much I'm still missing, but know how much I've ceased to miss. Such a small place can become one that is infinite--the purest essence of wonder.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Lion's Tooth

Here's my short essay on plant rights, praising the weedy dandelion, the origin of flowers, and mass extinctions. I put this up in January 2009 (when it didn't fit in my memoir--it still doesn't), and am doing so again because it will be appearing in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment this fall (and is in fact already online, link at end of the post).


At the front corner of our yard when I was growing up, where a sliver of lawn separated our driveway from the neighbors', the mailbox stood covered in the full glory of a finicky, magenta-blooming clematis my mom finally got established. From a block away this mature vine was a beacon—the subtle and regal color, the thick petals, and the puffy stamens. Someone who knew how to garden lived here. But in the grass popped up the misplaced bright head of a dandelion bent on ruining the majesty of the queen of vines. You could see it from inside the house, fifty feet away, like a pulsing strobe light. You could see it from down the street. At night you could, invariably—according to my mother—see it from an overhead Northwest Boeing 727 making its final approach to Minneapolis-St. Paul International. It was like an overnight pimple on the rejuvenated skin of my mom's late-spring landscape.

Dandelions provide one of the first sources of nectar for bees and other pollinating insects in spring, and confirm the first glimmer of hope we had when, back in March, the temperature briefly hit sixty. With their proliferate seed heads, dandelions are a staple of the American landscape. Once, when English colonists came to the new world, they were also an imported food staple, a cultivated delicacy for garden salads. Still, as humans have spread over the last 100,000 years, reaching North America some 12,500 years ago, the development of agriculture has placed us above and out of the confines of our environments—leading to the inevitable disappearance of over 95% of the plants the pilgrims saw in the new world. According to biologist E.O. Wilson, the earth loses nearly 3,000 plant, animal, and insect species each year, or three every hour. This constitutes what many scientists call the sixth great mass extinction in the 3.5 billion year history of the earth.

As the continents drifted apart long ago, separate and distinct ecosystems began to emerge. One such place can be found in the Hengduan Mountains of southwest China, the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. Over the course of one day, starting from the valleys to the high ridges, one can move through all four seasons as the climate changes. This strong box of genetic diversity was perfectly placed to survive the ice age's glaciers that ravaged the fauna and flora of North America and Europe. As a result, many of the world's most common ornamental garden plants originate here.

Toward the beginning of the cretaceous period, dinosaurs were flourishing amid tropical and moist landscapes. On the basis of the pollen spores found in ancient sediment the world over, the first flowers began to appear among these reptiles some 134 million years ago. A recent fossilized discovery by paleobotanists Sun Ge from China and David Dilcher from the United States, shows a flowering plant named archaefructus dating to around 125 million years ago in northern China. Though it lacks petals, and while alive had no scent, it is not primitive enough to be the definitive first flower—but it is the first visual record of such a plant in the world.

The end of the cretaceous period, 64 million years ago, marked the most famous extinction period the world has ever seen, that of the dinosaurs and an estimated 50% of the total species on earth. The largest extinction occurred 235 million years ago when over 90% of the species vanished. Niles Eldridge, paleontologist and a curator of the American Museum of Natural History, says scientists have discovered a recurring pattern in these extinction events that cycle at about every 64 million years; and though they are usually caused by forces such as tectonic shifts, volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts, the current period is clearly caused by creatures living on the earth.

As human agriculture, through the monoculture of its crops, brings an end to ecosystems that support vast species, as fences and poisons and suburbs create barriers to migration routes, as foreign invasive species are brought in accidentally or to beautify our foundation plantings, in our eyes, native species become pests and die away. Through farming, humans no longer fit into the larger picture, are no longer bound or balanced by a place's ability to physically sustain them. But eventually, at around 10–13 billion people, our agricultural effects may catch up with us and we will outgrow the planet's capacity to nourish us, even with the advent of genetic engineering of crops and animals. With projections of human population to be at 8 billion by 2020, we simply dwarf the estimated 10–30 million species of other life forms that we rely on to replenish and maintain our world. If we truly are in the midst of the sixth extinction, Eldridge says that the hope of our population cap will mean the level of lost species should not reach that of the largest extinction 235 million years ago.

Such statistics aren't meant to terrify, or even to humble in the strictest sense, but they should make one more aware of the value—beyond nature for nature's sake—of the biologic and human cultural diversity that needs to be preserved in order to balance ourselves with the world for the first time in our species' history.

When I was growing up my dad had a gas edger. He fitted a makeshift metal tube to the exhaust of this edger and shoved it down into holes we found in the yard. For my mom, if she could, she'd use as violent a means to rid the world of dandelions—with a passion for Armageddon that I've only come to know recently, all dandelions must die. Their seed must be wiped from the earth. One spring I casually mention over the phone how happy I am to see dandelions, that their emergence means the forsythia and tulips are not far behind. "I hate those damn dandelions," she replies. "I wish I could pluck every last one of them so we'd be done with it." It seems strange to me as I think about dandelions as a foreign species, brought here by us, thriving in spite of our chemicals. Don't they now have a right to exist, much as the fictional Frankenstein did?

In Switzerland, the government has requested that an ethics panel weigh the dignity of plants, or, to find out what plants' rights actually are. Is pulling a dandelion morally wrong? According to journalist Katherine Kersten, "The Swiss have added a provision to their constitution requiring ‘account to be taken of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants, and other organisms.’" The ethics panel was formed in an attempt to give such concerns practical examples and applications. One illustration is the following, where Kersten is citing Wesley Smith from the Weekly Standard:

A farmer mows his field [apparently an acceptable action, perhaps because the hay is intended to feed the farmers' herd—the report doesn't say]. But then, while walking home, he casually ‘decapitates’ some wildflowers with his scythe. The panel decries this act as immoral, though its members can't agree why. The report states, opaquely: ‘At this point it remains unclear whether this action is condemned because it expresses a particular moral stance of the farmer toward other organisms or because something bad is being done to the flowers themselves.’

This panel does not consider that genetic engineering is unacceptable to the plant's dignity, but it would be so if it caused plants to lose their independence as free, reproducing, and wild organisms. I wonder how many "introduced" cultivars of plants in the gardening industry have lost their own dignity over the centuries? But still, is my mom insulting the flora, feverishly yanking every dandelion flower and sharp-leaved stalk from the ground? The entire wildness? The creation itself? Or is she saving the native plants? If we genetically engineered a dandelion that acted more like a prim and proper front-of-the-perennial-border ground cover, what would change? Our dignity might increase at the expense of the plant's—perhaps.

Walking along the back fence of my small lot, I noticed my neighbor—who lives on a mostly wild three acres—came along his back property line and yanked out large prairie thistles. Then, apparently, he laid them down parallel to my fence, almost as if they were sacrificial offerings. I don't know if he thought I'd planted them, or what statement he might have been making. I do often seed just over the fence line—perhaps he saw me—simply because I'm amazed his wild backyard only grows invasive cedars, not one wildflower benefitting bird or bee anywhere. We need prairie thistles.

And we need dandelions. I need dandelions. They're the first bright sign in spring that winter is finally over, yes, praise be, finally over. And I've come to appreciate them for this reason mainly, but also for their importance to, say, emerging queen bumblebees hungry to start a new colony. I also have fond memories of frying their blossoms at camp one year, and drinking warm Kool-Aid to wash them down. In a way, this flower is my first flower—likely the first one I ever touched as a child, the petals staining my knees as I roughhoused outside or whose seeds I blew in to the air.

The dandelion is a weed because it doesn't belong here. The dandelion is a weed because it has the ability to spread quickly and thickly on disturbed land, and its progeny will always lay waiting just beneath the soil, hidden under other plants, caught between blades of grass or cracks in concrete where the rain settles it in so we can't get to it. The dandelion is a weed because it reminds us too much of ourselves, of how our own thoughts and actions can suddenly become loosed from our ethics and morals. It seems such a plant should be placed at the center of our gardens.

reprinted from ISLE, link here

Monday, August 16, 2010

Raising Butterflies

This post will confront my insanity, and provide some insight into raising monarchs and swallowtails. I hope. Did you all get my thesis statement? I hate thesis statements, and refuse to let my students use them, by the way.

I did not expect a banner year for monarchs (around 80 so far, with peak migration Sept 8-20 in Nebraska)--they are a threatened species in my mind (read my article on them here.) But I also have been bringing in monarch eggs religiously. Monarch eggs are often on the underside of milkweed leaves, though I have seen them on top and within blooming milkweed flowers, as well as on seed pods. They are little sesame seed-sized white / cream things that look like bullets. I've found that raising monarchs from eggs is easy, whereas for black swallowtails it's best to let them get going a bit outside through the first 2-3 instars (swallowtail eggs--on fennel and parsely most often--are yellowish balls of similar size to monarchs).

So a few weeks ago I bought a used 10g aquarium and did this to it:

You can see there are a FEW monarchs and swallowtails in there (30-40). Bottom is lined with paper towel. Picked up a fitted screen for the top at a pet store that I can easily lift off.  Gathered twigs from beneath my elm. Went CrAzY.

A monarch just went, you can see his twisting, long chrysalis in the middle above. Monarchs tend to cluster near one another as they form their chrysalis--if your friend pupated off a cliff, would you?

This weekend 11 monarchs got their chrysalis on, and today 4 did within 15 minutes of one another, and 3 more will soon go. (Also notice the brown swallowtail chryslides on the top right.) It's easy to tell when monarchs are about to shed their skin (not so easy with the slower swallowtails), look at this guy:

See his shriveled skin and antennae? The line on his side? (or her) I love seeing that skin slide up and off:

This monarch (below) attached to the side, and has a flat dent. Rumor has it things will work out. We will see:

And here's a closeup of a swallowtail. They secure their bums, too, like the monarchs, but also make a sling for their upper body to recline in:

And here is my assembly line:

Container 1 has monarch eggs on leaves. Container 2 very very tiny monarch cats (they will eat the eggs if you don't move them out). Container 3 and 4 are 2nd to 3rd instar cats. Container 5 holds small swallowtails. And then the 2g aquarium with a few more monarchs about to go.

It's overwhelming, and I've bitten off more than I can chew (the cats eat so much food I head outside 3-4 times day, and the poop, my god the poop cleaned out every day or two!). But, I have to do something. I feel like I'm doing something more proactive than recycling or gardening.

Tachnid flies lay eggs in monarch larvae with a vengeance, and often the monarch "J"s up early, dies, and hangs limp as the tachnid fly larvae slides out on a slime thread. Swallowtails get carted off by wasps and used as incubation chambers. Maybe I just see a lot of my life in this whole process (take that any way you want).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Last Act

I've been working on syllabi for the upcoming fall term. It's strange to be planning out December when it's August, warm, and the dewpoint has finally plunged from 80 to 54 today. Perhaps the dewpoint is setting the mood. Even the 'Nekan' sage began blooming today (a sage first found just a few miles away here in Lincoln, NE--beautiful sky blue blooms).

I'm thinking about migrations and transience, especially as my 70-80 monarchs go from egg to butterfly. I'm thinking about the goals I had set out for myself way back in May, full of hope and faith. I was to have finished drafting my memoir Morning Glory by mid June, then work on research for the Oklahoma / Mennonite memoir. It took me until mid July to feel happy with Morning Glory, and I have only read a few dozen pages on the ecology of the Great Plains or the history of Oklahoma Territory. And I know as school begins, research focus can either totally vanish or--in desperation--become intensely manifested in a few free hours here and there.

But I know, too, the narratives and stories and interviews I need for the next book are deteriorating, seeping into the Ogallala Aquifer as people age, as family become distant to history, and history to family and all of us alive today. But I am not ready to follow those stories, to know the context and ask the deeper questions and search out the sponged away places.

And yet the monarchs seem to never change, year to year the same regal four wings, orange and yellow and black. They appear the same, though they're generations upon generations removed. My college students look the same, except they seem to get younger and younger and I get older and older (I was never that young! Or, that young is very different than my young). And still, look at photos of college students 50 years ago and they aren't that disimilar. In another 50 won't they have the same desires and fears, joys and triumphs? How impossibly deep we are, how shallow, how transient and permanent. How little everything matters when it matters so much.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Watering Driveways and Streets A Good Thing!

I was as surprised as anybody when I started doing research on this topic. I mean, one would think that it’s a waste of water. It maybe isn’t.

What started my search into this topic were my neighbors, especially across the street, who have one of those sprinklers that snake along the hose. They always have the sprinkler shooting water out 10 feet off the lawn, on to the driveway or street. I assume they figure that this means they’re guaranteed good coverage on their lawn.

But according to experts at the University of Chicago extension, in a joint study with hydrologists in Arizona (where water is a precious commodity indeed), by watering at least 4 feet beyond the lawn on to impermeable services you help cool down the area around the lawn, thus increasing root growth and less grass burn. In fact, that water hitting hot asphalt vaporizes, becomes a quasi steam, and penetrates the grass through the blades, too. Here are the numbers:

-- 1,000 square foot sample lawn watered for 30 minutes produces ¼” of rain.
-- Burned grass watered just on the lawn took 2 days longer to green up, compared to the same size lawn watered 4 feet beyond the edges on to impermeable surfaces.
-- Soil temp beneath the grass before watering was 84 degrees 4 inches deep, soil temp after was 78. When you water beyond the grass soil temps stay cooler longer, too.

So, water the street! In fact, instead of sweeping your driveway of lawn clippings, hose them off! Water can do anything muscle power or prairie winds could do, but with more bling. Wasting water is fantastically good for the environment!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

One More Taaall Plant

On last week's extensive tall perennial plant list I forgot to add the big daddy of them all: Vernonia altissima 'Jonesboro Giant,' a lovely 10-12 foot ironweed. (And here's my tall plant list.)

I bought mine from Plant Delights last fall, after being on a wait list. It was found in Arkansas, and as per the description: "The giant clumps sway a bit in the breeze, but so does the Sears Tower. Warning lights may be required in some jurisdictions...please check local flight path maps."

Below is mine, aleady at 10' (the fence is 6' for comparison). Unfortunately, an early wind storm pushed it toward the clump river birch, so they are fighting for sunlight, but the stalk is quite sturdy and thick now in late summer.

If you want this herbaceous perennial beauty, go here. Why wouldn't you?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I Will Be a Hummingbird

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai's parable of the hummingbird--one little obstinant change can add up to inspire a billion of them, and before you know it BAM! we've done something good, and it wasn't as hard as we thought it would be. Whaddya know!

And God praise The Onion for this piece: 'How Bad for the Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?' 30 Million People Wonder.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dogfighting Monarchs

Pics of monarchs scrapping in the air for liatris nectar, and any nearby females, perhaps. One more round of eggs this month, then off to Mexico in mid September (for the butterflies, not me).

That front monarch is nearing the end of its lifespan, but the one in back looks freshly minted.

Sunset backlights the monarch on liatris ligulistylis. I counted 6 monarchs, mostly male, yesterday evening and again this morning. This is likely a record for me. As I stood out in the garden a chain of 3, then one of 4 butterflies zoomed past me within a few feet. If you can't live humbled and in rapture of such moments then you may never know how tightly we are all woven together, how one thread depends so much on the one next to it, how fragile and yet how strong we are when we live rightly on this world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Free Books

Surely you've heard about my book giveaway? I have exactly one month left on presales (9/3) for my second poetry collection, Without Such Absence, and sales have been only average at this point. The more presales there are, the more "free" copies I get to send to reviewers and such so I can hopefully sell more (I don't really make much if any money, in case you were wondering--it's more artistic satisfaction).

So, want to win a free copy? Link here to see how. Following that link you will also find more info about the book and some sample poems--several of which are garden / nature themed, of course, while others focus on family photographs from the Plains over the last 130 years or so.

A deep thanks for those who have already ordered a copy! That's 50% gratifying--the other 50% comes if / when you say you found at least one poem that blew your head off (in a good way, most poems are C4 free).