Tag Archive 'backyard nature'

Aug 19 2011

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Year of the Rabbit

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They appear when least expected: late at night as I’m getting home from work; early in the morning when I’m retrieving the newspaper; sometimes in broad daylight, just sitting there in the middle of the yard.  There have been rabbits in our neighborhood for as long as I can remember, but never have they been so ubiquitous.  They are everywhere now, and in great abundance.

I told my granddaughter, Maddie, that she would probably see rabbits when she, her cousins, and her brothers came to visit Judy and me last week, and sure enough she did.  They all did.  We flushed one from the day lilies during the first hour of play.  My dog, Matika chased another one to the backyard fence late that afternoon.  Maddie chased another shortly thereafter.  On the last day, we saw a rabbit sitting in someone’s yard just as we were finishing a hike up Aldis Hill.  They’re all over town it seems – not just in our neighborhood.  Why the sudden influx?

Rabbits are closely associated with the idea of proliferation.  “Breeding like rabbits,” someone says, and a horde of cute, furry creatures comes to mind.  Then we smile.  Even in great numbers they are non-threatening – our vegetable gardens notwithstanding.  Come on now.  If there was a movie about rabbits taking over the world, could it be anything but a comedy?

When tough guys talk about the “survival of the fittest,” they think of themselves as predators not prey.  They identify with those fierce, toothy creatures at the very top of the food chain.  But there are other survival strategies that work just as well, if not better.  Proliferation is one of them.  The hungry trout gobble up the mayflies as they hatch, but the mayflies survive anyway.  There are simply too many of them.  Clearly rabbits “survive” the same way.  Breeding is the key to their success.

When I read Darwin’s The Origin of Species a few years back, I was surprised by the amount of sex talk in it.  We commonly think of Darwinism as a tooth-and-claw worldview, but it has more to do with reproduction really.  And rabbits, well, they do that quite well.

Fecundity.  That’s one of my favorite words.  I use it all the time when talking about wild nature. Top predators might get all the media attention, but it’s the breeders that dominate the planet. Most biomass consists of insects, vegetation and bacteria – all very fecund life forms.  In the animal world, frogs, rodents and certain species of birds proliferate . . . along with rabbits.  Yeah, rabbits.  Bugs Bunny was no dummy.  And the predators never did get the best of him.


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Jun 29 2011

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I looked in the dark, weedy corner of my back yard the other day and noticed that a newcomer had appeared.  The small, purple flower wasn’t anything I’d seen before, I couldn’t find it in my flower identification books, and I had no idea where it had come from.  And, quite frankly, I didn’t care.  Beautiful in all its delicate simplicity, its migration to my rough flowerbed had been a true act of wildness – what my so-called wildflower garden is all about.

As a three-year experiment, my wildflower garden has been something of a disappointment.  I expected an explosion of lush, floral wildness, but got a patchy, hardscrabble, weed-ridden plot instead.  By comparison, the domestic flowerbed in my front yard is a riot of color and beauty – carefully attended to by you-know-who.

I hacked the belligerent bindweed from the backyard garden, removed the timothy, maple saplings and unsightly dandelions, and cast bags of wildflower seeds into the plot, but to no avail.  At long last, I have agreed with my wife that it’s time to till it all over, and carefully cultivate the garden from scratch.  But I will miss the occasional newcomer.

Earlier this year, a patch of forget-me-nots broke into bloom amid the weeds.  Again, a newcomer from god-knows-where.  It has happened before, and I’m sure it would happen again if I left well enough alone.  But the hand of the cultivator is rarely idle, is it?

There is a lesson in all this, I’m sure, but I think I’ll just leave it hanging and let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusions.  After all, any legitimate philosophy of the wild is rooted in precisely that which is left unspoken.


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May 27 2011

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Cutting Grass

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Most people like the look of a well-manicured lawn.  Not me.  The green rugs surrounding homes strike me as the ultimate expression of human hubris – a patently absurd attempt to control nature.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  We cut the grass, it grows back.  Our mastery over this simple plant is temporary at best.

When my wife and I bought our home a decade ago, my main objection to the place was the grass around it.  From May through October, I walk back and forth in my yard once a week at least, pushing a noisy, carbon-emitting machine that turns grass into stubble.  The rain comes, the grass grows, then I do it all over again.  I am Sisyphus with a lawn mower, trapped in social convention.  Even if my immediate neighbors didn’t object, I wouldn’t dare let my yard grow wild.  The value of my property would plummet.

If I had the resources, I’d transform my yard into a lush garden.  But no, to be honest, I’d never put the time into it.  A friend of mine has done just that, but he spends half his life in his yard.  I’d rather be doing other things, like wandering around the woods.

I could always do what the affluent do and simply hire someone to cut my grass.  That is, after all, what the European kings did back in the day when they invented the lawn.  But no, that misses the point.  It matters little who cuts the grass.  The pertinent question is: why cut it at all?

The concept of high civilization is at the heart of any discussion about green space.   It isn’t enough to cultivate fields, thus providing ample food.  We must cultivate everything else in sight, keeping the wild at bay.  After all, it’s either us or them, where “them” is everything living that isn’t under our thumb.  Or so most people think.  But I don’t agree.

To justify mowing I tell myself that the lawn is good place for my wife to lounge, my dog to run, and my visiting grandchildren to play.  But down deep I seethe with rage.  Despite all talk about property rights, I have little control over my own yard.  Social convention.  I am bound by it.  So I dream of a cabin in the woods even while cutting my grass.   And maybe someday, if I win the literary lottery, I’ll make that dream come true.



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May 12 2011

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A New Day

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Just before dawn, I open the back door for my dog then follow her out.  I laugh as she chases a pair of rabbits to the fence.  The grass is cool to my bare feet but not cold.  The robins sing joyfully their early morning song, as if the sun rising was a long awaited event.  Matika grins from ear to ear.  Perhaps she is as excited as I am by the unfurling of leaves in the trees, and the long promise of the warm season that comes with it.

In an hour I’ll mobilize for work, but right now I’m grooving on the quiet wonder of wild nature right here in my back yard.  This would be a good day to hike in the mountains, I tell myself.  That’s out of the question, of course.  Duty calls.  All you 9-to-5 working stiffs out there know the feeling well, I’m sure.  But it’s new to me.  I just started working full time, you see.  For eighteen years I had only a part-time job.

I’ve had a good run.  I worked, then hiked, then wrote, then hiked some more, then wrote some more.  It was good while it lasted.  But all good things must end, right?  They do unless you strike it rich, and that hasn’t been my fate.  My dream of being able to support myself by writing alone turned out to be just that – a dream.  Perhaps if I had been a journalist, or a novelist working in some popular genre, or hip enough to catch the eye of the established literati I could have made a go at it.  But writing about the wild doesn’t get you there – not the way I do it, anyhow.  So here I am looking at a new day.  That’s okay.  I’ve been true to myself.  And thanks to my infinitely patient wife, Judy, I’ve had a very good run.

The fresh verdure thickening in the trees is more beautiful than I remember it.  That’s the way things always are at a new beginning.  We forget the charm of springtime during the winter months.  We forget the magnificence of daybreak no matter how many times we’ve seen it before.  Every day is some kind of miracle.  Okay, maybe that’s not true, but things certainly seem that way whenever I’m standing barefoot in my back yard at daybreak and listening to songbirds.  I could curse the gods, longing for that which I do not have, but I’m not going there today.  No, not today.

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Jan 27 2011

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Surviving the Cold

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Monday morning we awoke to frigid temperatures here in the North Country.  Thermometers registered seventeen below zero in Saint Albans, and even colder in outlying towns.  That’s the coldest it has been in years.  That’s cold enough for spit to freeze seconds after hitting the ground.  Furnaces worked overtime, everyone bundled up, and some cars wouldn’t start.  No one went anywhere they didn’t have to go.

The cold snap lasted three days.  Now we’re back to normal temps – back to days with 20-25 degree highs, that is.  Yet people complain.  It’s midwinter, the snow is piled high and sub-freezing temps continue unabated.

I’m just about to start complaining myself, then I look out my kitchen window.  A few feet away from the warmth that I enjoy, a dozen birds are fighting for survival.  Literally.

Sparrows, finches, juncos and chickadees – they all take what they can from the bird feeders dangling from the naked branches of an old lilac bush before some other bird beaks them away.  Others vie for the seeds that have fallen to the ground.  Still others peck at the suet.

They all look fat and healthy, but looks can be deceiving.  Their feathers are puffed up, providing maximum insulation against the cold.  Most of their kind flew south for the winter, but these few decided to winter over.  Why?  Judy and I put up our feeders late last month, long after the migration ended.  What would become of these birds if there weren’t any feeders?  I shudder to think.

Like most people who spend their hard-earned money feeding wild birds, we enjoy seeing some sign of life out our kitchen window.  We especially enjoy the bright red cardinals and charming woodpeckers, but any bird will do.  Seeing them makes winter seem temporary.  The snow will melt and the grass will green again, no doubt.  It’s just a matter of time.

That said, I can’t help but wonder how a winged creature weighing only a few ounces can survive the punishing cold, day after day for months on end.  It seems highly unlikely that any of them will make it through.    Yet somehow most of them do.

Some wild animals can survive the worst conditions – conditions that would make the healthiest of domestic creatures keel over in a matter of days.  I can’t help but admire scrappy birds even while watching them fight over crumbs.  Then I turn away from the window, sip my hot tea, and return to my indoor work happy that I’m not one of them.  As long as my furnace keeps working and my cupboards are full, I’ve got it made.

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Jan 13 2011

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Planetary Awareness

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Recently my doctor prescribed an antibiotic for me that had to be taken four times a day.  I chose four easy times to remember: first thing in the morning, noon, dusk, and bedtime.  My wife Judy laughed when she heard this.  “Dusk?” she said incredulously, “Most people go by the clock.”  Perhaps so.  But dusk is a major event in my day.  Especially during the winter.

Dusk is when the world takes on a decidedly spiritual aspect, when it is easiest to comprehend the simple fact that we live on a planet.  On cloudy days this fact can be overlooked, but a clear or partly clear sky makes it hard to ignore.   At such times, the sun sets in a blaze of glory, the moon shows itself, and the first stars come out.  Sometimes it is quite the show.

At dusk I often stop whatever I’m doing and take a moment to acknowledge what is happening to the physical world.  My dog, Matika, is finely tuned to my habits and usually gets excited around this time of day.  She knows that we’ll be going out soon, and if she’s lucky I’ll toss the ball for her a few times while gazing towards the sky.  But not always.  Sometimes I like to just stand in the middle of the yard, taking it all in.

A few years back, when I dove into astronomy with reckless abandon, I eagerly awaited dusk.  When conditions were just right – clear sky with a late moonrise – I would set up my telescope just as the sun was setting.  While twilight faded, I would print star charts from my computer and map a route to some incredible deep-sky object: a nebula, star cluster or galaxy.  Now I’m not quite so fanatical about my viewing.  All the same, I still cultivate planetary awareness on a regular basis.  After all, it’s so easy to do at dusk.

During my brief sojourn in the Alaskan bush many years back, I enjoyed one sunset that seemed to go on for hours.  It was high summer and sun dipped beneath the horizon with great reluctance.  Then I experienced with full force the reality of being a creature living on a planet.  It might seem like a silly thing to say, but when you truly feel your presence on a sphere spinning on its axis, just being alive in this world seems absolutely remarkable.  The sky is suddenly a window to the cosmos, and planet that you inhabit is incredibly fecund.  Even in the dead of winter there trees, bushes and other kinds of vegetation patiently waiting for spring.  Even when this world seems cold, dark and hostile, the air you breathe seems to be made for you.

This is my planet, I often tell myself at dusk as if uttering a prayer.  This is the exact place in the universe where I belong.  And no matter how alienated I might become during the course of daily events, nothing can take this sense of belonging away from me.  I am a man on Earth and that is enough.  Everything else is superfluous.

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Aug 26 2010

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Goofing Around

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Once a year, Judy and I gather together our grandchildren for a four-day “summer camp.”  No parents allowed.  Every gathering has a different theme.  This year it was all about the jungle so there were lots of apes, frogs, insects and other wild animals in the mix.  Imagination turned our back yard into a rain forest, and there was no shortage of fun.

Brightly colored orangutans dangled from strings stretched across doorways.  We watched part of a documentary about the rain forest canopy to see the real ones in action.  We painted lizards, opened a coconut, made tribal masks, swung from a rope like Tarzan in the movies, and hung out in the tree house that I built for the occasion.  The kids loved the tree house.  It spoke to them in ways that I, as an adult, just barely understand.

With a theme like the jungle, there are plenty of teachable moments, but for the most part it was all about goofing around.  While I was pretending to be a wild man living in the tree house, the kids stole my mascot, Peewee – a monkey carved from a coconut.  And somehow that became the driving symbol for this year’s frolic.

Peewee is silly looking and silly is good.  I was all excited a couple weeks earlier when I found Peewee in a store.  Judy thought I’d gone crazy when I showed it to her but somehow I knew the kids would love it.  Perhaps I’m more of a kid than I’m willing to admit.  Despite all the gravely serious philosophical rumination that I do when I’m alone, either at home or in deep woods, I still gravitate to silliness.  That’s for the best, I think.  It’s not healthy being serious all the time.

Kids like to jump, run, laugh, play, imagine and generally goof around.  Judy and I did our best to keep up, but we were exhausted by the last day and glad to see it all come to an end.  Now back in adult mode, a couple days after reordering the chaos, we sink into melancholy.  We miss the kids even while thoroughly enjoying the peace and quiet.  We look at the pictures taken during the gathering, amazed by how much we missed, and speculate about what we’ll do differently next year.  One thing’s for certain, though.  No matter what the theme is, silliness will abound.

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Jul 12 2010

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These Summer Days

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Nothing symbolizes these summer days in Vermont better than day lilies.  They are big, bright, cheery flowers, no less beautiful for being commonplace.  They grow all over the place this time of year: in front of humble homes like mine, along roads and lanes, in uncut fields with daisies, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers, and in carefully cultivated gardens.  This morning, while walking a logging road, I even saw a patch of them in a clearing deep in the woods.  Yeah, this time of year, they seem to be everywhere.

Wild or domestic, good soil or poor, they are herbal phalanxes that shout vitality.  They are equal to any insult or injury, as anyone who has dug up their complex network of roots and rhizomes will attest.  So bring on the heat waves, bugs, droughts, torrential downpours, or anything else that summer can throw at them.  They are ready.  They are strong.

But day lilies do not last forever.  While this tight knot of plants may bloom a month or more, each individual flower lasts only a day.  Hence the name.  The bud opens in early morning, shouts floral joy into world all day long, then withers at dusk.  Surely some of them must bloom two days or longer, but I haven’t seen it.  I don’t despair, though.  There are still plenty more buds to open.  There are still plenty more days.

Yeah, day lilies are physical manifestations of the summer season that launch themselves into the world around the Summer Solstice, and then gradually fade with the gradual shortening of daylight.  Like summer heat, they seem relentless, overbearing, unending. . . but their days pass much sooner than we expect.  So if you’ll excuse me, I’ll sign off now.  The day lilies are marking time, and there is still so much I want to do this summer.

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Apr 30 2010

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Mixed Messages

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I mowed my lawn last week, right before going back to Ohio to see my folks.  First time I’ve ever cut my grass in April, but it needed it.  The grass was already thick and high.  Spring has come early this year, or so it seemed until yesterday.

Back in Ohio, the spring season is in full swing.  The trees have leafed out, everything is green, and flowers are blooming everywhere.  I saw honeysuckle on the verge of opening – something that doesn’t happen in here in northern Vermont until late May.  It was like jumping ahead two or three weeks, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Three days ago, when I was still at my folks place, my wife called to tell me that a winter storm was raging in Vermont.  Judy said a foot of snow had accumulated.  I found that hard to believe.  But there was no denying the snow I saw on the summits of the Green Mountains as I drove back into the state.  By the time I reached home, there were several inches of it on the ground around me.  Melting fast, though.  After all, the air temperature was pushing 60 degrees.

This morning early, I went out to inspect the broken branch of our lilac bush and putter about the backyard looking for other storm damage.  I noticed red fragments of catkins – the flowers of our big, old maple tree – scattered across the remnant patches of snow.  Deep green grass framed the patches, sending mixed messages to my brain.  Happy grass, slowly filling in the barren spots.  How odd.

The other day I was reading a book about prehistoric man and how the climate stabilized about twelve thousand years ago, making it easy for our kind to resort to agriculture.  Before that, the climate changed radically from century to century, from year to year.  That made me wonder what kind of impact the weather would have on modern civilization if the climate suddenly destabilized. What would be able to grow?  All this is very hypothetical, of course.  The climate could never destabilize like that again, right?

Well, enough speculation already.  I have to go hang my laundry outside to dry.  After all, it’s a nice, warm day.  I think it’s warm enough to melt the brand new snow piles in my yard.  That would be good.  I need to cut my grass again.

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Mar 18 2010

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The Red-wing Returns

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When does spring begin?  Everyone has a different idea about that.  For some spring arrives when the crocuses pop up.  The more skeptical wait for lilacs.  Many look for robins feeding in their front yards.  For me it’s the return of the red-winged blackbirds.  Once they’re back, everything starts changing and changing fast.

I heard the red-wing’s unmistakable call the other day, while I was indoors reading.  I got up and went to the kitchen window and, sure enough, there it was on the ground right below the bird feeders.  The red and yellow markings on that bird are distinct.  The red-winged blackbirds are back.  The calendar on the wall tells me they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Judy and I spotted a tufted titmouse at the feeder nearly a week ago.  According to my bird book titmice don’t migrate, so seeing one doesn’t really count as sign of spring.  But we couldn’t help but take it as a good omen.  The red-winged blackbirds appeared shortly thereafter.

The grackles and cowbirds have also returned.  My wife doesn’t want me badmouthing those troublemakers like I did last year, so I won’t say anything more about them.  It’s clear, though, that the red-winged blackbirds are only the beginning of a great migration north.  The robins can’t be far behind.

We have twelve hours of daylight now.  The Vernal Equinox takes place the day after tomorrow.  While that doesn’t necessarily mark the end of winter this far north, there are several indications that spring has come early this year.  The first green shoots of day lilies have pushed up in my front yard.  The grass is greening.  Mud wasps have already appeared on my porch.  And while there’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the snow piles around town are almost gone.

Where are my binoculars?  I keep hearing an unfamiliar bird song and want to go out and identify it.  Yeah, I’ve got the fever already.  No, I’m not foolish enough to put away my snow shovels just yet, or peel the caulk from my windows.  But there’s no sense denying what I see, hear or feel . . .

Suddenly a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders.  Soon my hiking boots will be caked with mud.  Bring on the cold rain.  I’m ready to wander aimlessly through a misty awakening forest as polypody and evergreen woodferns slowly spring back to life.  Something deep within me is stirring.  You can wait for a 70-degree day if you want, but I’m calling it right now.  It’s spring!

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