Sunday, May 27, 2012

My First Bird Nest

I know they're just robins, but after 5 years living here it's our first nest. Well, second. Cats ate the brown thrasher eggs, who had nested in a honeysuckle vine on the fence. Below, looks like we're missing a bird. Wonder if a blue jay got to an egg?

Mom was not happy happy with me on the ladder. She jumped from gutter to gutter, roof to roof, and I though that at any minute she'd land in my hair. I didn't have my hair done up today, so maybe that'd be ok, but still....

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bushless Fertilizer (And Spider Milkweed)

How else to name a post suggesting that butterfly bushes are not butterfly magnets nearly as much as caterpillar host plants, or that the production and application of fertilizer is just plain awful for the environment (and the butterflies you want to attract with your bushes).

Debbie Roberts pleads with you to plant perennials, trees, and shrubs that butterflies need to reproduce.

"If you are trying to attract more butterflies to your garden, the first thing you need to understand is that more butterfly bushes do not mean more butterflies. Yes, butterflies do feed on the nectar of butterfly bushes but that’s where the attraction ends. The real key to having more butterflies in your garden is to find out which of the more than 700 species of butterflies in North America are common to your region. Once you know which butterflies are likely to visit your garden, you can start making of a list of appropriate plants to entice them into making your garden their home."

And Michele Owens warns of inorganic fertilizers (or any at all) when you can produce free fertilizer on your own via mulch and water -- i.e. feed the soil microbes. I guess this is what happens when a chemical company contacts a green blog before doing much research about said blog.
  1. The Haber-Bosch synthesis that allows you to manufacture artificial nitrogen from the air requires intense heat and wastes colossal amounts of energy.
  2. Plants often can't use these mega doses of nitrogen all in one go.  
  3. The excess nitrogen turns into nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
  4. The runoff from excess nitrogen is causing giant dead zones in our oceans.
  5. Artificial nitrogen sets up a vicious cycle that depletes to the soil's ability to store carbon and nitrogen.
  6. Edible plants raised on artificial nitrogen taste like complete crap.
And to lighten the mood--or not--here's a picture I took of a crab spider's catch on some common milkweed.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Rabbit Melancholy

A few weeks back I noticed the first monarch in the garden as she was feverishly laying eggs. I'd never seen one so early--and with last year's Texas drought, continued decimation of milkweed as more land is turned to chemical-ridden big ag, and as the Mexican overwintering forests shrink--I thought it'd be June or later until I saw a butterfly. If you've read my blog for any length of time, you know in what high esteem I hold this insect; it's a symbol for other insects, for ecosystem degradation, and a creature we take for granted. The slow and subtle loss of songbirds is almost imperceptible, but it's real. If you were to go back in time 10, 20, 30 years, the audible difference would be immense. But with the monarch, we're more likely to see the change on an annual basis.

Once the monarch arrived, three baby bunnies followed, as well. I have the chain link fence along the back chicken wired 1/3 up, but they found a small gap where it meets the wood fence. I noticed the gap when I saw a cat chasing a bunny and the feline nearly careened into the black mesh.

Two of the babies left, but the third stayed, devouring young stalks of milkweed of every species. I've lost 50-75% of my milkweed from young plants that don't have the reserves to put out much growth a second time, and will likely slowly die this summer. I raise 100-200 butterflies every year, and each year I run dangerously low on milkweed.

I hated this baby bunny with all my passion. On my daily walk another stand of Asclepias incarnata or purpurascens, and even tuberosa, was nibbled to the ground. Asters? Forget about it. Gone. Only the maturest, fastest growing asters escaped the bunny's reach. I divided a bit of dianthus and it chewed away all the stems. I chased Demon Bunny around the garden, leaping like a long jumper over liatris and coneflowers, stumbling over last year's tall coreopsis sticks and cutting my leg. I just wanted to scare it, make it feel uncomfortable. 

It ran under the deck to my super slow compost pile of grass and brush, likely where it spent its nights. I came to know its routine though, its own daily path through the garden. I bought a humane cage and filled it with apples, corn, and carrots, but no go. I tried another more sheltered spot, put in fresh apples, and in two days I had caught my nemesis. What pure joy!

I took it out to a quiet, nearby country road and released it into a thicket of red cedars. And now that I'm free of the bunny, the garden feels empty. Stagnate. Motionless. Soulless. It screams of some great lack.

Why in the world do I feel this sadness? Why does my mind wander, imagining the bunny terrified, uncertain, so alone, perhaps mulled by a hawk or barn cat in a field a mile or two away? For a split moment I thought about going back to the dirt road and trying to get it back, bring it home. Why? Perhaps I'm jealous of how alive it is--its deep biological awareness of the landscape, its fear and fight for survival an echo of my own evolutionary past nullified by air conditioning and grocery stores and ipods.

I walk the garden and nothing stirs. There's no life. Just some baby preying mantises, a few skipper butterflies, a bumblebee or two. The garden is in its late spring limbo, between the first great flush of spring flowers and the summer torrent of color and insect nirvana. Life will return. There are plenty of bunnies in the world. And my garden is a haven for so many other creatures. And for monarchs--I found a few new eggs on the taller milkweed. The absence is slowly filling back in, but it will never be quite the same. I hate that bunny even more for making me feel this way.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Snake CSI

Live in a place long enough and you see a lot. Create a thriving ecosystem in that place and each day is a treasure map or a crime scene investigation.

We found this creature in the lawn by a pile of brush I refuse to clean up. What happened? What's that thing sticking out of the stomach? Did the baby bunny get medieval on the snake? Help. I won't feel safe in the garden until I know.

Those are some teeth. I hope it ate some mice.
What is that???
This is beautiful.
First person to solve the mystery gets a front row seat at my native plant talk at Finke Gardens and Nursery on 6/9. VIP treatment all morning (vacation (at) invisible prairie).

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Picture Post

Who has time to read online? So many sites to visit, so much attention span to erode. In an attempt to keep my posts eclectic, have some pictures I've been taking this spring. In fact, have twenty of them.

We're halfway in the garden, past the arbor, looking south
Looking southwest, where storms come from
Viburnum dentatum, globemaster alliums, Spiraea 'Ogon'
Bumblebee hummingbird moth
Sphinx hummingbird moth
Peony bud
Moth caterpillar going to town on peony bud
Copper iris unfolding
Copper iris after fog
Sizzling copper iris
I forget
I forget again
Stop asking, I don't remember this iris either. In fact, I'm ready to get rid of my iris.
Morning cloak on gold ninebark--ninebarks swarmed with butterflies this year!
Ninebark "fruit"
Martagon lily
Prairie smoke
Hosta leaf

And on elderberry blooms
Honeysuckle unfurling

So, which one is your favorite shot? The winning image will be tattooed on my cat.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Oklahoma Fortune Teller

Two weeks ago my uncle and aunt from Oklahoma dropped off a box that belonged to my grandma. It's filled with photos, funeral announcements, farm records, and even more photos. Grandma took a picture of every car she ever owned, from a 1940-something pickup to combines balanced precariously on small truck beds to her last 1990-something Cadillac sedan. There's a picture of my 20 year old parents in front of a GTO in about 1972. There are pictures of houses going up in divisions my grandpa and his sons built. There's an image of Grandma and her sisters in front of the 1894 homestead, the paint on the house still white, the windows intact--unlike the image I was in years later when I was about 9.

Back: "May 18, 1969--Dad would have been 80 on this Sunday.  We went to pick up a few last things in the house."

What was the ultimate treasure were some pieces of paper stapled together in my grandma's handwriting. Here she told of her courtship, marriage, and the immediate move to a Texas shack 100 feet from a railroad track. Someone on the passing train would toss them old magazines since they couldn't afford subscriptions and had no radio, let alone electricity. She had brought the top of their wedding cake with them, but the rats--who had chewed through the roof and were often on their bed--had eaten it.

1940 Chevy or Ford? First of nearly two dozen cars.

Though there's still a lot to go through, still much to fit together in an old ceiling fan box, one thing is clear--Grandma wrote this down for me. At the beginning of her story she asked how my cat was. If I went to church. That being a missionary would be a rewarding life. Somehow, she knew I'd become a quasi custodian of the remnants of her life, and would dine feverishly on the ashes of my ancestors. Maybe it was because I was the only male grandchild--I'd often get perks because of this. But is this memoir genetic or grandmotherly? Nature or nurture?

It is so overwhelming to me, this inevitable book, being the caretaker of fading echoes, piecing together scraps to form some half translucent image that is only 1/1,000th of the truth. But this is becoming my truth, a sort of gift evolving through a distance of time and place I'm always loathe to travel. Grandma knew, or she willed her knowing. And now I have another box of images and handwriting that seem like a second skin. Without me, I feel, nothing of this will last. Yet with me, the truth of these objects will change. Which makes our lives more unrecognizable? Which makes them more worth living?

If you'd like, read more about my book project via my trip to Oklahoma last spring.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Deere John

A lawnmower poem this morning since they woke me up at 7:30 and literally have not stopped since. Please don't think this is a good poem, like one forthcoming in any of my books. I mean, the meter is WAY off--but I did try to get some feminine and slant rhymes in to mix it up. Gosh I'm a nerd.

Deere John

All day the mowers hum
making me deaf and numb.
I can’t hear the cardinals
warning each other of hawks,
I can’t trace the sweet smells
of coneflower or prairie phlox.

The dust billows over my fence
trailing butterflies torn from solace.
Thick exhaust makes me swoon
as my head fills like a balloon.

From dawn to dusk, and a little later,
I feel trapped inside my house,
unaware of what I’m missing.
If only I had a sledgehammer
to carefully, subtly announce—
look at what we’re missing.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Facing The Storm -- Story of The American Bison

"This land still has the memory of what the bison means to it."

I've read a lot in the last year on bison and prairie ecosystems, and the PBS documentary Facing the Storm hit every subject in under one hour (watch it here). Of course, it infuriated me and made me cry and made me leap for joy, but I'm a prairie nerd.

What most strikes me about our legacy with bison is what's now and next: that Montana continues to sponsor hunts / kills for bison who "escape" Yellowstone in the winter. How neat our national parks are. How contained like a garden. Here is where some things may be partially wild, but only here, and only how and when we want them. Our national parks are reflections of ourselves--we fear ourselves, we work so hard to control our wildness, our emotions, our passions. And the harder we work, the tighter the coil, so when we snap we snap big. We can't stand the illusion of our civilization, but we work hard to pretend we do--with helicopters and snowmobiles chasing animals.

Bison may be saved from extinction, but wild bison hardly exist at all. We pick and choose traits we favor, and breed out the wild. We try to breed out the wild in us, too--in cubicles, in ipads, in crazy bloggers using computers to ironically convey a message of the wild. Words fail here. Out there, out there they do not.

I want to see a buffalo commons in western Kansas come to fruition. Soon, the Ogallala aquifer will run dry there and the last remnants of duped settlers will be gone. I can't think of a better way to heal the land, our country, and ourselves then to see the apex creature return to the Plains--one that manages (what an awful word) the landscape far better than we do. That's why when I saw the image of bison grazing in a prairie dog town I fist pumped the air. Prairie dogs create lush vegetation for bison. Bison create landscapes for prairie dogs. Then all kinds of other wildlife come in and benefit even more.

We can't stand that the land still remembers the past. Our rows of GMO, chemical-infested corn can't cover it enough. Our doped-up, super fatty cattle can't cover it up even as they foul streams and trample grasslands and wildflowers. I think the Plains will return to some echo of their memory. But we carry that memory in us, too--the wonder of first coming across the ocean of grass, and the reverberation of rifles from passing train cars filled with sport hunters.