Monday, July 30, 2012

Die, Chrysanthemum Lace Bug

It was bad last year, but this year it's epic. Lace bugs sucking leaf juices everywhere--and they make relatively quick work of even massive sunflower leaves, so asters, coneflowers, and goldenrods are goners. I'm not going to spray, which is the advised treatment. Sunflowers are annuals, so why bother (they just look ugly as the bugs work their way from bottom to top), but the other plants "should" come back fine next year. Of course, will they actually grow bigger or be stunted?

Click to expand and see the micro demons

That's the gorgeous blue leaf of Rudbeckia maxima

An aster 100% defoliated & trying to regrow

Grey-headed coneflower. Poof.
Corthucha marmorata adults can overwinter, and a female might lay hundreds of eggs. My aster count will be lower this year as a result of this insect, and couple this with genista moth larvae defoliating baptisia in days, and aster yellows forcing me to rip out most of my E. purpurea--and the freaking 100 degree heat and no rain for 5-6 weeks--this summer blows. The only satisifaction I get is walking by the sunflowers and whacking the leaves to see lace bugs fly off like dust, only to settle back down like volcanic ash.

But I should say, the garden is handling the drought fairly well. The lawn isn't. But I need $500 to replace the front lawn with buffalo grass and clumps of side oats grama for a nice shortgrass look, which isn't happening unless the serviceberry I can't save starts sprouting benjamins.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Speaking Prairie in Wichita, KS

Tuesday July 24, 7pm, at Botanica Gardens, I'll be regaling the Wichita Organic Gardening Club with tales of my native prairie plants and gardening methods. Expect door prices and giveaways, like plants and seeds and books and any pocket lint I may have. Organic, of course. Why not come on over? And don't say because you live in South Africa or France or something.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

From the New Memoir

After nearly three years of research I've finally begun dipping my toes into the book, Turkey Red--1,000 pages of notes and I've written only 7,000 words of attempted outline. What am I getting at? What's at stake? As I uncover and learn about who my grandmother was--so adamant was she to teach me about the past--I learn of her through exploring Oklahoma, a state I've loathed. Geology, conquistadors, prairie, Native Americans, German immigrants, oil. What we learn about Oklahoma we learn about our country--because this state is an accelerated microcosm of America, for good and bad. I'm not sure if we've learned our lesson.


          I leave the one lane paved road and turn in to the rutted, grass road that skirts the northern edge of what was once my family’s 1894-1960 farm. In the distance to the southeast is the barn and windmill, further from the main road than I’d remembered. I take the road slow, each hole and ridge carved by rain and tractor is magnified in my low sedan. I creep forward, the sound of weeds brushing the bottom, scraping and being caught in the suspension and axles, grasshoppers rising in front of me like fire against the nose of the space shuttle re-entering earth’s orbit. A few grasshoppers land on my windshield; I stop to photograph one from underneath—it looks as if I caught it in mid-leap.       
It’s 9am, and I got up early knowing that a soupy 100 degree days wasn’t far off. I sit in my car soaking in the last bit of cool air and organize my back pack—a hammer and saw to remove a funeral home rain gauge I’d wanted for a year from inside the barn, a notebook, my cell phone (in case I ran into a mountain lion), sunscreen, and glasses. Turning off the engine I swing out  my feet, switch shoes like Mr. Rogers on his way out the door, stand up and face the stubbled field of wheat, the sun pushing down on the landscape like a metal press.
            I knew this was my time, a moment I’d waited years for, a moment of re-entering and entering I needed to feel deeply. I was putting too much pressure on myself, for sure, but I needed to feel the landscape in ways I can’t describe. Everything in my life leading up to this point, and perhaps all the way until my death, in some way hinged on the next few hours in a hot, red Oklahoma field I’d visited grudgingly with my Grandmother some thirty years before. I didn’t want to be here, and more than anything I wanted to be here.
            The barn and windmill are a hundred yards from the weedy road. I hop over a gully and up the small incline covered in milkweed, and enter the wheat. Harvest was weeks ago, earlier this year due to a warm spring. My feet trip against the 6” high stubble, the sound like wrapping paper being torn from a box. I can smell the sweet dryness of it, remembering when I was a boy at harvest and my mom, along with the other wives, backed their cars up to the fields at noon and opened their trunks to tin-foiled casserole dishes and gallons of iced tea. I’d sit with my dad, propped in the shade of a combine’s massive front tire, and with each bit of a hotburger take in the wheat chaff’s dust. It is what I imagine cigar ash to be.
            I don’t stop but once or twice, just long enough to take a photo of the barn, which in the past year has lost more of its sheet-metal roof, peeled back by a southwest wind in a series of thunderstorms. The tree that hugs the northwest corner wall is dead—last year it was completely green, and I wonder if the owner of the land has poisoned it, making it dry and ready to be cut down, removed with the barn and windmill for another two thousand feet of cropland. Last fall the farm went up for auction, and my uncle had tried to buy it just to get it back in the family. But land prices are high in the Plains, some corn fields going for near $10,000 an acre, and my uncle was quickly outbid, forced to sit there a while longer watching the price double to what he was willing to pay. 

            My pace is steady to the barn. I search for the house’s water line I’d seen in the field a year ago about a hundred feet north of the windmill, but I can’t find it. I guess where the house was and try to imagine the walk to the barn in the heat of summer, in winter, for morning chores and evening turn down. I find this hard to do. I have no reference, no personal experience other than being told to get the mail from the mailbox or to mow the lawn. I’m not even sure where the house was—the only picture I have is reprinted from the Corn newspaper for the town centennial, and the image shows the first barn. If the second barn was built in the same place, the house could not be where I think it is. Or at least I can’t make sense of the farm’s layout. Everything is flattened for the combine.
            Beneath the windmill I stand silent, looking up, using it to block the mid morning sun. Aunt Marge has said she remembered falling to sleep at night to the sound of its rotating blades, the occasional squeak, that she could not rest soundly without listening to it. But it’s long been rusted, locked into one position, only a few blades left twisted by heat or wind. Driving in the country only windmills remain, silent sentinels, markers of homes and families and lives that aren’t even ghosts anymore—so little is left, memory spread so thin and among distant relatives that the truth of a place is a mercurial distortion of senses only. I remember the smell of the wheat harvest, but it was not on this field, yet this field reminds me of harvest and so I will remember having been a boy here. Hearing stories from family in their 80s and 90s, I don’t know how much is the land’s truth and how much is their personal, lived truth through the warped ripples of time.
Yes, I remember being a boy here on this field, milking cows, cleaning chickens, washing the intestines of hogs for sausage lining, ice cream on Sundays, swimming in the catch pond, fishing in Gyp Creek for catfish. I remember being a boy here on this field, seeing Cheyenne wandering across, heading southwest to Big Jake’s Crossing, hoping they’d just keep on going. I remember being a boy on this field, hitching up the wagon to Bergthal church, looking forward to afternoon Fafsa afterwards—jelly on warm zwiebach—playing with other boys in the barn, chasing girls around the stock tank. I remember none of this, sentimental, nostalgic fiction, images more of movies and books than anything real. I have no idea, I only have now, my 35 year old body sweating, seeking the shade of what’s left of the barn.
I enter the east side, the wall long gone, and pretend I’m opening a door—I even reach out my right hand into the air and push aside the memory I don’t have. For a split second I think I feel another presence entering me, an image of a man or woman sliding into my body and passing through, another dimension perhaps intersecting my own. For a moment I know two worlds converge and pass each other like strangers on a sidewalk, unimaginable to one another and somehow so similar.
The old funeral home rain gauge is gone, the one with the three digit phone number from the early 1900s. There are the nail holes that secured it tightly to the post, but not nails—clearly, someone pulled them straight out. I want something from this place. I want something rusted, something that was used and touched. A few feet from the corner post is a light switch hanging in mid air, the electrical wires on both sides suspending it from the wall. I take out my hacksaw and make quick work of the wires—the switch still works. The wires trail to a light socket above. I’m amazed these things are still here, the roof so fragile, only the north wall left. An old washing machine lays nearby, who knows if it was my family’s or not, but I think about putting the basin into my back seat, turning it into a planter—but it’s excessive, isn’t it? What can these things give to me in the end? Another life? My life? No, none of that. Only imagination, only hints, guesses, some lost piece in a puzzle no one puts together anymore.

There are two boarded up horse stalls on the north wall which are full of cloth scraps, barbed wire, and torn pieces of weathered lumbered. On the missing south wall four posts remain holding up the roof, a fifth has given way since last spring, and one is buckling in the middle. In another year I think the roof will be down, a barn that has stood since around 1940 when a tornado took the first.
I must walk around the structure a half dozen times, weaving in and out, taking photos of everything, which isn’t much really. I stand in the shade and feel little. A bird settles on the windmill platform but against the light so I can’t make out what it is. A quarter mile to the southwest I see the natural gas stock tanks, and the short tower with the exhaust flame flickering bright orange. I could walk south to the catch pond, but it’s so hot, my skin on fire even under a layer of sunscreen. Yet I decide to try for Gyp Creek to the west. When I’m halfway a series of electrified fences stops me—I think this is a narrow strip of pasture. So I follow the fence north to a tree on the northeast corner, and I wonder if this is where the baby daughter of my great great grandparents is buried, if this is where the lilacs were by the orchard, if this was even where the orchard was.
I just don’t know. I have no idea, not a clue about anything. The flat land, the perfectly straight rows of golden wheat stubble, it’s all an erasure, immediate, quick, and efficient. We leave so little. Maybe our families, our blood, but even they carry only a faint memory, in youth trying their best to shake off the shackles of stories they’re likely to long for years later. We pass on impatience and progress. This is what Oklahoma is—a symbol of speed, a glancing perspective of a few moments in history. A prairie one year, farms the next. Grazeland one year, fences and railroads the next. Bison one year, sodhouses the next. Cheyenne one year, European immigrants the next. Gold. Oil. Cotton. Maize. Interstates. Windfarms.
And then, walking back to the barn from the east, the sun to my back, it hits me so suddenly, a storm of three years, hundreds of books and articles, everything I could find which is only 1% of what I’d like to know. I’m here. I’m here in the land. My pace slows and my feet stick to the red earth. In the corner of my eyes there are tears. And only if they are tears of exhaustion, of traveling all this way across the Plains, across 130 years, they are my tears, my anchors to this place. Grandma is there in the distance, prodding me around the farmhouse she grew up in, the house where she saw her grandmother’s ghost lift up through the floorboards and on out the window when she passed away in the middle of the night.
I don’t want to be here. I hate this place, this heat, this oppressive backwater town linked to other backwater towns where it seems like electricity finally arrived earlier this year. This weight is on my chest, my shoulders, I’m sinking in the soil and dust. I can’t stand being here. I can’t move. There’s nothing I want here, there’s no life here. I’m thankful my parent’s moved us to Minnesota when I was ten, where there was life, richness I’d never known, opportunity like no other, challenges to lift me out of myself and to push me further than I’d imagined.
There’s none of that here. A person could die in their teens, and not physically die until they were 80. A person could cry here for the lack of that opportunity, for the misunderstanding of their lives, for their ancestor’s lives, for all the pain of starting a life in a foreign place with a  foreign language, with a weather they didn’t understand, with strange red men walking into your house and putting children in the cabinets. My land. No one’s land. 130 direct Janzen descendents. 200 indirect descendents.
No, this isn’t my land. This isn’t my country. The red dirt, the red wheat, the red men, painted with the soil and burned by the sun, everything the same color, the same hopes and dreams and fears, the same agonies, the same births and deaths. I was born here. I have this place in me. I want to live in a place like this, to raise my children in this peace that drives a person inward, makes them mad with their lives. When I die I will leave nothing but a flatness, a dryness, a stillness, the perfect silence of this field where the windmill is rusted and the tree leafless, both objects that will surely be the last things standing against the years. 

I give up and head for the car. Getting in I exit one world and enter another like flipping a light switch. My wife is at home. My home is far from here. I drive to the Bergthal cemetery a mile or two northeast and visit my family’s graves for the third and perhaps last time in my life. I walk the ground where the church stood before the community burned it down to dissuade vagrants. In my car I take out a notebook and write the following:

"In the field to the north, where the Bergthal church was, torn fake flowers litter the folds of grass and soil. On the northern edge a thin strip of wildflowers--thistle, sunflower, winecup--hold even more blooms, merging wild with synthetic sentiment and nostalgia."  

             "Wind comes from the southwest unimpeded across the plains like Coronado, searching aimlessly for the city of gold, perhaps to conquer an emotion in all of us that stirs and frightens--that we will never be enough, that the land will echo beyond our transparent lives, that we are as fragile and easily tossed into the wind as topsoil and song."
If you'd like to read about my visit to the Black Kettle National Grassland and the Washita Battlefield, please link here. It's another side to the above.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me and The Garden -- 2012 Edition

For a few years now I've gone all Walt Whitman and celebrated myself. It's just my wife and cats here, and the garden, so the blog is party central. Yee ha.

And as is customary for the next year, a wish list:

1) 100 acres of prairie with a mid-century modern home, solar panels, wind turbine, off the grid, walled veg garden.
2) To have completed Turkey Red, my Oklahoma memoir, and found a press for it.
2.5) To have found a home for the other memoirs, Morning Glory and Sleep, Creep, Leap, both garden related.
3) To have found a university teaching job (here's my CV). I love teaching. I love learning. I love connecting with students (hopefully over four years and not just one class!). The life of the mind and mad-texting youngins keeps me on my toes.

So, on to the tour. The garden is 5, and I am significantly older and less wiser each year. The biggest problem in the garden this year has been the heat, plants a month ahead of schedule, and watering months earlier than I normally do. But also that I want to redo the garden. I think it looks too hodge podgey, and I wished I'd planted more prairie grasses and less iris. Please come take my iris. Surprisingly, the red monarda that had taken over is being beaten back by natives. Who'd have thought. Hey, did you see that alliteration?

Looking toward the garden gate
The weeping bald cypress is back!
Side garden

Clematis wilt on C. virginiana I guess. Grrr.
Just past the arbor into the main garden
Step to the right

Step to the left
Aster yellows on steroids. Time to remove this coneflower.
I ADORE coneflowers. And not those nasty cultivars, but species.
On the back hill

Culver's root -- #1 insect magnet right now
Love the tall Rudbeckia subtomentosa
Spotted balloon flower
Marsh phlox--the only phlox I allow here
Liatris ligulistylis--aka monarch magnet
Liatris, and where are the monarchs? In Canada.

Thus concludes another year. Please, no gifts (please do send many gifts). I'd love to hear suggestions on my garden (I wouldn't dare if I were you). Insist that you see no gray in my beard hair (please insist that you see no gray in my beard hair).

Monday, July 9, 2012

Where Have All The Normal Summers Gone, Paula Cole??

Every year the garden is different--though maybe you don't think so. Obviously, everyone's gardens are ahead of schedule; shoot, a few weeks ago I had asters blooming, and some eupatorium is just starting to flower a good two months early. Swamp milkweed bloomed in early June and never got pollinated. How do insects cope with this new cycle? I have seen fewer insects this summer--maybe I'm used to my garden blooming later (on time) when there are more insects, or maybe it's just a bad insect year. Or both. I suspect everything is out of sync.

Here's how I got myself in trouble this year, seeing my garden so distorted and unusual (with current. gratuitous garden images tossed in):

1) I pinched back a lot of things this spring, often too late. Every year I try to pinch earlier in spring, but get gun shy. I was earlier this year than last, but still so late that things are top heavy now and flopping all over the place. Next year I'll pinch in early April.

2) I wonder if the pinching is making things bloom earlier, or if in conjunction with the early warmth, they're blooming early anyway. Maybe the two, pinching and warmth, are a perfect storm. I wonder why plants are shorter and not as thick this year (dry spring?). I wonder if I'll have ANYTHING blooming in September and October, especially since I garden with fall at the front of my mind.

Cones, milkweed, monarda, wild quinine, ironweed
3) I need to divide perennials or just let them die off. I'm inclined to the latter, since much is self sowing now and the garden is making itself into what it wants. Still, I'm a gardener, and I want everything in its place
where I planted it. A conflict of interest for a "leave nature alone" kind of guy.

4) I have a 'Tiger Eyes' sumac that never leafed out fully this year (see pic #1). It just sits there in perpetual May 1 mode, looking bonsai.

5) It's muggier and hotter than normal, much earlier than normal. I know that in a usual August certain plants will always show significant stress, but with it so soupy and hot now, will certain trees and shrubs just cash in early? This summer will be far far far too long for some plants.

Sullivant's Milkweed
6) I've watered the trees and garden twice now. I usually water once in August. I designed the garden to use very minimal water but it's not minimal enough for some of the larger, woody plants.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Five Year Wood

My wife and I were married 5 years ago on 7/7/7. It was 105 degrees during our prairie reception. As the "wood" anniversary I'll be giving ourselves mulch for the vegetable bed. Or maybe something a bit more romantic? Suggestions?

Engagement in Jan 2007 (which my mom sorta did for me).
This must be the wedding day! I was upstaged. Still want more diamonds on my ring.
Audubon Spring Creek Prairie
Back in 2003, my apartment in Ohio, right before I move to Nebraska. No grey hair.

Monday, July 2, 2012

So This is Nebraska -- Ted Kooser

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Behind a shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.

You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,

clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like

waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around on the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.

This is an earlier Kooser poem, and I sure can tell. His later work is more sparse, modern, a focus on simple images and direct phrases, never a whole line devoted to a thick simile or metaphor. I don't feel as easily set down into this piece as work from, say, Delights and Shadows. But still, a good poem for a hot summer in the Plains.