Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Like greased lightning . . .

. . . That's how fast a flying squirrel runs when chased through the living room by two cats.

And it's as hard to catch as a greased pig, as the kitties learned after romping through the house after it all night long -- and as we learned the next evening when the chase resumed during dinner.

It took a day to figure out what the thing was. Mice are common, especially in winter, but this guy was too big. We kept seeing it streak across the floor between furniture, too fast to identify. Finally my husband got a glimpse that told him it was bigger than a chipmunk with a similar tail, but not russety brown, no stripes down the back; gray or beige, smaller than a squirrel. Definitely not a rat.

Once hubby joined the fray, which moved into the basement workshop, he got close enough to look the critter in the face, up in the rafters -- big black button eyes looked back -- and to get a hand on its hindquarters before it squirted free and sailed past his head about ten feet to the floor, disappearing again under the machine tools and engine parts.

A flying rodent! That was the big clue. A year ago summer, we found a flying squirrel climbing up the basement wall in broad daylight. Until then, we'd been unaware that flying squirrels lived this far north. But we had been aware of critters living in the roof gambrels and the walls, scurrying around between floors now and then, and driving the cats nutty. We'd always thought the noisemakers were chipmunks or mice.

Neither critter is as bold (or tame? or tired?) as this one, which kept sticking its face out right in front of the cats, allowing us to get sooooo close before it shot away. I finally donned gloves and followed the cats around until they had the little guy cornered. Then I pounced! -- and caught him before the cats could and scuttled him outside. He fit with room to spare between my cupped-together hands.

End of excitement. We hope he found a warm place to crawl into, plus some food. Most likely, he's back in the gambrel through that hole we can't find, and the scurrying we next hear will be him running his usual route.

As long as he stays up there, we'll live and let live. And the cats will keep sitting on top of the refrigerator, staring at the ceiling.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The switcheroo


The switcheroo

Twenty-four hours after my last post discussing season change, the season changed. Thump, just like that.

We're accustomed to early snows that don't amount to much and disappear quickly. This one was only 4-5 inches, but it was heavy and wet, and bowed over all the trees from the weight of white coating. We worried about power outages -- some leaves were still up, and this is the condition that snaps branches and karate-chops wires -- but nothing happened. What a relief! The longest power outage we've ever suffered was an October storm some years ago that left us juice-free for five days.

This time, it melted away within twenty-four hours.

Same thing happened a few days later. Another 4 inches of wet snow, no biggy for us but it walloped southern New England, which was still in full foliage. Tore down trees by the acre and left that heavily populated urban/suburban area out of power for a week or more! We felt for them, having recently endured the effects of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene. But our life went on as normal, for which we were grateful.

And then it melted off yet again, restoring clement conditions that allowed a final race against the calendar to get outdoor work done before getting snowed in for good. That finally happened with an 8-inch snow dump this week -- again, wet and heavy -- but this time not melting off. Sun came back strong but temperatures didn't follow. What's underneath the snow now will stay there until April. Or May . . . however long it lasts.

I suppose that's appropriate, given that we're now into December. It's rare to go snow-free this late into the year. We're now in full heating season and the longest hours of darkness, wearing parkas and boots and hats and gloves, mounting snow tires, scraping off cars.

It's the time of year when I begin my countdown. Only eleven more days 'til solstice, when the sun resumes its northward path and light starts returning to the land.

Can't wait!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Down to brown

Something that surprises me every year, no matter how often I experience it, is the speed of the season change. You see and feel it coming . . . you watch for it, record the signs . . . but then overnight the switch occurs, and you’ve jumped from summer to fall. Or fall to winter and so forth, as the case may be.

It just happened this week, the flip from foliage to stick season. The foliage change came late this year, and peak was short. A few days of wind and rain finished it off, and the cold rolled in. But there’s a lingering blend of colors that belies the seeming onset of winter. Grass is still green -- bright emerald in some places -- while the fields have turned beige and mustard, and the late-dropping trees glow with every variation between gold and brown.

Beeches, oaks, and birches paint the landscape around the naked trunks of maple, ash, and others. At the tippy top of the canopy, vivid yellows, almost lemon, stand out like blonde afro hairdos above the russets, coppers, ochres, siennas, and terra-cottas of the mid-story hardwoods. The understory features maroons and clarets and burgundies of burning-bush and sumac. All these are set against the somber purples and grays of the hills patched with dark evergreens, interrupted in sharp slashes, like exclamation points, by the bright amber larches.

Such colors become almost neon on the gloomy days of hanging moisture, then gain a celestial dazzle when the sun breaks through in columnar beams. The nice thing is, even when the last of the yellow leaves finally fall and the grasses wither, the midstory browns hang on, often through spring. This gives the landscape color and texture even during winter’s starkest months.

It all happens in reverse at the other end of the calendar. Then the bleakness suddenly gets fuzzy with incipient color, and next thing you know, the world is green and vibrant again.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A favorite seasonal poem

I’m not a big poetry fan, but there are a few simple, lovely poems I learned when young that have stayed with me. This is one of them. Was reminded of it this morning when I heard Canada geese gathering overhead.



Something told the wild geese

It was time to go.

Though the fields lay golden

Something whispered, "Snow."

Leaves were green and stirring,

Berries luster-glossed,

But beneath warm feathers

Something cautioned, "Frost."

All the sagging orchards

Steamed with amber spice,

But each wild breast stiffened

At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese

It was time to fly.

Summer sun was on their wings,

Winter in their cry.

--Rachel Field

“Something Told the Wild Geese”

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Where did all the birds go?

An unexpected by-product of Tropical Storm Irene is the disappearance of many songbirds from our corner of Vermont.

We were so distracted by the storm’s messy aftermath that it took a while to realize that things had gotten really quiet. I saw birds as soon as the storm was over—the usual blue jays, mourning doves, and chickadees, plus a flock of (presumably) migrating flickers, as well as the pileated woodpecker, who made his first appearance in years although we hear him often—but the sparrows and finches and thrushes went AWOL. My bird feeders stopped needing refills, and the mornings and evenings grew eerily quiet. What happened to the other birds?

Yes, it’s migration time, which normally changes the backyard equation. But the numbers are way down, too abruptly. I keep note all year, and any time my mom visits we do a formal checklist. So we know, from past years’ records, who should be in the neighborhood.

Our range for any year is 35-42 species at peak of spring/summer, down to 15-19 in depth of winter. In the transition times, we average mid-20s. Yet two weeks after the storm we counted a mere 16 species over 4 days of good weather, with the wildflowers, fruits, and foliage still in full bloom and insects aplenty.


It’s a well-known phenomenon that big storms displace birds, sometimes well outside their normal range. Birdwatchers take advantage of this to expand their life-lists. Indeed, an online search for information showed many reports of southern seabirds blown inland by Irene. There was no mention, however, of land birds blown out to sea.

Of course, only sailors and fishermen would notice, and they probably aren’t plugged into the bird-sighting network. So we will likely never know. It’s worrisome, though, because despite Irene’s catastrophic rains, the storm wasn’t particularly violent in these parts. The wind portion of the event was short and within the scope of ordinary weather. Habitat damage was localized; in our area, just spot road destruction and a few downed trees. There’s nothing to suggest that our birds lost food or shelter, or gained predators, or were simply blasted away.

So where did they go?

All I can think of is the storm mass was larger and more powerful than I understand, and sucked many migrants way off track, and they kept going from wherever they landed. Birds that I recognize as migrants, such as goldfinches, hummingbirds, and phoebes, have been popping up in onesies and twosies but just passing through. The other day we saw a kettle of hawks circling high, with a skein of geese even higher above them. But the normal routine of waterfowl gathering and honking has not occurred at all.

We haven’t seen one song sparrow, which is usually the first to arrive and last to leave and can be utterly relied upon for a daily appearance. The juncos, which started coming a month ago, disappeared again overnight. A house wren, one of which had been ubiquitous and constantly singing before the storm, showed up for one day a few weeks after. And the wood thrush and veery, who normally stay until a killing frost, are long gone. Even the robins are missing. Ordinarily, we see or hear several a day, but I’ve only noticed three in the weeks since the storm.

We’re down to resident winter birds already. Ravens and barred owls, who live here year round, tend to be noisy and visible after the migrants have shipped out. Yep, there they are, almost every day now. The woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches never depart, and they too are increasing activity. Just this morning, though, I spotted two chipping sparrows in the garden after many days of conspicuous absence. They are probably migrating, like the hummingbirds glimpsed last week, so that’s I suspect that’s it for them.

It will be interesting to see who comes back in the spring. I hope there were no big population wipeouts, and all the birds currently absent are happily in transit somewhere else.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A One-Two Punch for the East Coast: Punch #2, the Hurricane

So how many times in history has the United States experienced both an earthquake and a hurricane within 5 days of each other, affecting the entire eastern seaboard?

None that I know of! (Though I confess: I haven’t taken the time to research it. If anyone is aware of such a combo, let me know.)

On August 28, while many of us were still twittering about the earthquake, Hurricane Irene rolled into town. She was aimed at the major population centers, which wisely evacuated or at least geared up, understanding the consequences better than in previous years since modern media have educated us about just how devastating such a storm can be.

Even in Vermont, we were ready, though all we expected was a day of high winds and heavy rain -- a common enough mixture that nobody was particularly worried. Perhaps we buttoned down tighter than usual.

Irene surprised everyone by devastating the inland northern mountains instead of the metropolitan coastline. Vermont topped the national headlines in the scope of its disaster.

At our place, it was a near miss: almost lost the pond, did lose a large hunk of the road and one tree in the dooryard, three elsewhere on the property, which both blocked the road and chopped off power. This sort of thing happened to many people, with scattered pockets of complete wipe-out. But in disaster terms, very few people were catastrophically affected for an event of this scale. Yes, a few deaths; yes, some ruin-your-life property loss and destruction, but nothing compared to having a hurricane wiping out a complete region or a tornado erasing a whole town. The damage here is mainly infrastructural, and causing one hell of a statewide headache.

In fact, it's a very weird disaster. You can drive around for a while with everything just fine, then turn a corner and whammo! Road gone. Or bridge gone, farm gone, house gone, whatever. Turn the next corner and everything's fine again. Over and over again.

What blind-sided us was the mountain flooding. You think of "flooding" as a valley / lowland / coastline / watershed thing, right? Here, every damn feeder stream, dry streambed, or path of least resistance flash-flooded into a nightmare torrent PLUS every river broke flood height records, all at the same time. The deluge came fast with near tsunami power and just ate through everything in its path. Even places like Killington Ski area, which is nowhere near a river and sits at 2000+ feet altitude, lost a hunk of one of its lodges, just to downslope runoff!

Another thing contributing to the scope of damage is how few roads this state has. Those of us who moved here from other areas often gripe about the lack of alternate routes to get anywhere. So when something like this happens, well, suddenly you can't get in, or out. Neither can the utility trucks or supply services. A statistic we've heard but not confirmed (but readily believe) is that every road in the state took damage somewhere along its course, whether a small washout around a storm drain, or a skinny slice across the road bed, or complete removal of surface and bed for full width and 4-20 feet down. Lots of bridges are gone; but, strangely, lots of bridges remain standing in perfect shape in the middle of a river with the approaches destroyed around them. As well, railroad beds have been undermined or damaged all over the place.

After the rain stopped, the winds began and it started raining trees, leading to situations like on our 0.9-mile dead-end dirt road: a just-passable washout caused by a seasonal stream bed flow overwhelming a culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a few dozen yards later by another massive boundary maple down across the road, followed a half-mile later by a deep washout of one-half the road width caused by a small creek overwhelming a big culvert, followed a few dozen yards later by a deep two-thirds-road-width washout caused by downhill current. Many citizens rolled up their sleeves and cut their way out, plugged holes, jury-rigged bridges, etc., while waiting for aid. Most everyone who could got out of their corner as soon as they could by whatever means was available and started reconnoitering to take stock, check on neighbors, and get started on putting things back together.

On our survey outings, we would find everything perfect for a couple miles, until coming upon a low spot in a village flooded by its river overrunning its bank -- and the bridge -- though when the water went down there was no damage aside from silt and debris. Often, when we sought out low areas that we expected to be devastated, based on springtime recurrences extrapolated to flash-flood level, things were just fine a day or two later -- while up high, roads were not just gouged out, but utterly destroyed, either in one gash or for hundreds of yards. Many of the worst hit were villages with in-town rivers, or hamlets where two streams converged. Every area in south-central Vermont, as well as scattered spots all over, saw these scenarios to one degree or another, some to the nth degree. I understand it was the same in the Adirondacks, Catskills, and other regions.

Several Vermont towns were headline-makers, where people were simply stuck on a wooded hill like an island. They’ve had to walk out, and it will be a long time before things are repaired enough to resume normal life. In our case, the partial washouts allowed us to come and go in cars, but large utility trucks couldn’t get in to repair the snapped wires and damaged poles until the road had been repaired. As a little back road with 8 houses, we were pretty darn low on the priority totem pole, so we expected to be at least a week without power. Thank goodness for generators!

Little did we know how resourceful power companies can be. After only three days without juice in our neighborhood, workers showed up in a small platoon, parked their big rigs outside the damaged area, hauled 9 guys in via pickup truck, and fixed the broken line and skewed pole by hand, whistling while they worked.

As in all disasters, people have been coming together and doing wonderful things. Neighbors who otherwise mind their own business went out and about talking and helping each other. Communities, particularly the hard-hit ones, banded together to solve their own problems while waiting for help, and organized themselves into productive coping. Generous business owners threw open their doors for community aid.

For instance, two towns over, in the ski resort town of Ludlow, whose main street was a deep river on Sunday afternoon and evening, and many of whose people suffered great property damage, there's a restaurant with a pub-style bar where spouse and I socialize once a week. The company is good, the drinks are huge and reasonably priced, and the food is comforting and tasty and also reasonably priced. The long-time owner, after watching the water lick at his doorstep, and who depends on both locals and tourists to keep him in gravy, opened early the first day after and set up a free, all-you-can-eat buffet, charging only for drinks. Didn't jack the drinks price, either, and all tips went to the town fund.

We went there both nights -- the first, for aftershock company and to avoid opening the refrigerator, the second by intent because the first had been so much fun and such a good resource for information. That night a cheer went up in town when a convoy of 20+ camouflage-painted heavy-duty vehicles hauling heavy-duty equipment drove through town (presumably National Guard but who knows). Road repair a-comin' soon! Then, when we arrived home, the power company called to get up-to-date info on what they needed to do to fix our service. Both responses were much quicker than anticipated, and heartening. In the week since the hurricane, we’ve seen awesome responses by all towns, services, and citizens, putting things back together faster than expected.

While waiting, we organized our life around the generator. Made sure it stayed running. Made sure we had enough fuel for a long haul. Figured out how long we needed to run it, how many times per day, to keep the refrigerator and freezer alive. Coordinated computer time, and using lights and plumbing, during generator runs. Then, in off times, going back outside and dealing with things -- cutting, hauling, talking with people locally or via phone (as holdouts with a landline, which is underground, we always have phone [until, that is, zealous reconstruction crews started cutting lines!]), resupplying, reconaissance, repairing equipment that broke just when we needed it, and so forth. I even managed to get a bit of paying work done, but hubby was shut down completely, since we haven’t kitted up to run his machine shop off the generator.

In all, for a disaster we fared pretty well, and our problems could be categorized as "major inconvenience causing lifestyle disruption and setback of income, but not unrecoverable loss." For which I am VERY GRATEFUL! We gained better perspective, once the power came back, by watching videos on the Internet about the Japan tsunami. Oh My God. In comparison to that, Hurricane Irene was a flea bite.

A One-Two Punch for the East Coast: Punch #1, the Earthquake

On August 23, as most people heard, there was a hefty but not catastrophic earthquake centered in Virginia, felt all the way up and down the eastern seaboard. Here in Vermont, many hundreds of miles north, we had the odd experience of hearing it.

Hubby and I were a couple hours into a paddling trip down a 14-mile segment of the Battenkill River between Arlington, VT, and Shushan, NY, which placed us between the southern Green Mountains / Taconic Hills and the Hudson Valley, snaking through the Battenkill's own river valley. Although the river loosely follows VT/NY Route 313, there is no regular rumbling of traffic, so things in general are very quiet, with just the chuckling water providing ambient noise. Recent rains had the river cantering along at 5+ mph, but there are no big rapids or cascades, so the sound level is essentially constant. A light westerly breeze stirred the foliage but that, too, was a low-level, susurrant background noise.

Weather was bright sun with big puffy clouds, occasionally darkening as a larger, possibly threatening cloud crossed the sun, but with low humidity and no storms forecast. Now and then between the clouds we saw high silver jet contrails but no low-flying aircraft, either private or on approach to airports or air bases (none in area), making for a dramatically fair-weather summer sky.

So, given all that, we were surprised to hear what at first sounded like a distant growling thunder; but it was prolonged and got louder, stronger, sounding at first like a commercial jet flying too low for the contrails we'd seen; but then started to sound like a military jet flying way too low on afterburners, yet not moving through space; it was stationary behind us, too low altogether to be a plane, and it stopped abruptly instead of fading off like a passing craft would. Conversely, it lacked the explosive quality of either thunder or something blowing up in the distance, or violent impact like an auto or train wreck. It lasted, I don't know, somewhere in the 10-20 seconds range, enough to get us looking over our shoulders and up in the sky and suggesting then dismissing the above explanations.

Ultimately my husband quipped, "Get ready for a tsumani!" since it reminded him of earthquakes. I felt kinda the same way. Then we forgot about it as the next section of quickwater came up and required our attention.

At the time of the noise, we were on one of the "rest" sections of the river, where the surface is still lively but you don't have to maneuver, can just float along side by side and talk or gaze around.

At end of day, when we returned to the outfitter's shop (where they provide shuttle service for paddlers), the owner greeted us at the door with "Did you hear the earthquake?" Perhaps she said, "Did you hear about the earthquake" -- unclear in the excited babble among us that followed. For all the rest of the day we looked up information about it online, talked about it with everyone, trying to understand how something so far away could have been audible.

We did not take a time note of when we heard the noise, but in reconstructing the incident realized it was near the time of the reported quake in Virginia. Could we have heard an air release through an existing fissure? An earth burp?

That's my guess. There's a phenomenon in Connecticut called the "Moodus noises" where the earth makes rumbling sounds and occasionally eerie ones in response to minor seismic activity. Since the eastern seaboard, especially the Appalachian chain, is networked with small, constantly busy movement at the micro level, it seems credible to me that we could have heard the quake as its tremors zipped all the way to Quebec.

At least, it's the only explanation that fits the nature and approximate timing of the noise.

The closest similar experience was two years ago, when a high-altitude beaver dam gave way after big rains and dumped a gazillion gallons of water down 600 feet, to carve a new canyon in the mountainside and wipe out the main road in our area. We live perhaps 2-3 miles away as the crow flies, and at the same time the deluge occurred (unbenownst to us), we suddenly heard a strange, not-quite-thunder roar out of a perfectly clear sky that lasted too many seconds. Turns out it was the sound of many tons of rock, water, and broken trees hurtling down the other side of the hill.

A bit creepy, on one hand, but fascinating and exciting, on the other.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A berry good year

Why some garden crops come in well and others don’t remains a mystery to me. Twelve years into gardening now, I feel that I’ve learned nothing, since every year is completely different. The obvious factors are varieties planted and a season’s worth of weather. Aside from that, it’s the same routine in the same ground year after year, with crapshoot results.

This year started with yet another cold, wet spring, but apparently which days that combo hits makes a huge difference. One year, it interfered with pollination so the wild mast crop (nuts and berries) was a disaster, which was reflected in our domestic berry patch. Another year, there was a shortage of bees. This year, the mushy start must have given plants what they needed, especially since hot dry weather soon followed—so dry, I used up both rain barrels in April just from watering the newly planted annuals and vegetables. Usually that doesn’t happen until August.

For the rest of the season, we had more hot and dry than wet, with rain coming just in the nick of time to keep the garden watered. And boy, did it grow! Weak and stunted veggy transplants turned into lush producers. I expect too many tomatoes this year, after a successive years of losing them to disease, pests, and wrong variety/wrong soil mixtures. But the award winner was the berry patch, which produced so extravagantly, we had to buy a stand-alone freezer to accommodate the abundance.

We got a good load of strawberries, too, and blueberries are still coming, though I’ve dropped the ball in getting them picked. This year we focused on keeping pace with the raspberries, and for once caught the entire crop. Briefly, we considered selling the extra, but after doing the math decided not to. The extra cash we might earn would be canceled by purchasing containers suitable for transporting and selling them to the public (we don’t have road frontage so can’t set up a little farmstand), plus fuel for getting back and forth to farmers markets, and paying for vendor space therein. This equation doesn’t factor in our time: 1-2 hours per person per day for 3-4 weeks. As well, it’s one thing to have 30 pounds of berries; it’s another to salvage 10-15 pounds of perfect ones to present to the world, and keeping them undamaged during handling.

That calculating exercise gave me an idea of what farmers must go through, year in and year out, to stay afloat. It also highlighted the different meanings of “assets.” Here we are, afloat in food, for which we spend more than we save in order to grow, and must spend much more in order to generate income from it. What’s wrong with that picture?

What’s right for us is that the rapsberries and blueberries are free. The bushes were planted decades ago by some previous homeowner and thrived from neglect. There’s also an apple tree, normally a scraggly remnant, but this year because of the just-right conditions it set fruit so heavily that I now have an apple problem, because after fruiting things turned so dry that it’s been shedding apples since May, several dozen a day, to the point of making the ground hazardous to walk across. So far I have picked up two wheelbarrows’ worth of apples to compost and a bushel’s worth of keepers. Guess it’s time to learn how to make applesauce, or to bake a slew of apple pies.

At least we now have a freezer to store the extra in, and will be enjoying fresh-grown, pesticide-free fruit all year.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Backyard butchery

Every time I mow the lawn, I feel like a mass murderer. Because we don't do the poison thing to create a greensward as perfect as a golf course, our lawn is chock-full of plants other than grass, many of which bloom -- and many of which I recognize as traditional edible and medicinal wildflowers. All of which feed bees, butterflies, and bugs, if not ourselves, and give shelter to snakes and toads.

For reasons I don't understand, most of those critters don't hear or feel the racket of the approaching mower and fail to get out of the way before it ravages through. I avoid anything I see but am often too late. It breaks my heart and pounds my environmental conscience every time.

You'd think that if I had an environmental conscience I either wouldn't mow at all or would use something besides fossil-fuel-consuming, air-polluting power mowers (one lawn tractor, one walk-behind). But country living has its own rules, and we live in a continual thrust and parry with nature that nobody wins. At best, we maintain an armed truce.

"Lawn" at our place means 2+ acres of open or oddly configured space surrounding a large house with four entrances and three driveways that must be kept open; two outbuildings, three gardens, massive woodpiles, parts vehicles, and materials storage that all must remain accessible by foot or vehicle. It's not the sort of space you putter through with a hand pushmower. (Believe me, I tried!)

Sure, we could wade around up to our armpits in growth and become tick magnets and be pestered intolerably by mosquitoes and biting flies. The moat of lawn keeps them to manageable levels in our living area, and also constrains predators: the cats can't ambush the birds from cover, and neither can the the foxes, coyotes, and fishers ambush the cats.

Then there's the neighborhood factor. Though nowhere near as bad here as in suburban areas, social or zoning pressure escalates when you leave the visible portion of your homestead in scruffy shape. This may change over time but remains an issue, because ungroomed yards make one's place look unoccupied or impoverished or just low-class. Most of us don't want to give that impression to the world.

We compromise by leaving lots of edges, and beyond the utility part of the property let everything run wild. This location backs up to other large parcels so a wildlife corridor remains, including diverse habitat for mammals, birds, and insects. So we feel free to maintain our piece of habitat within it.

When the day comes that disposable income allows replacing the mowers with more energy-efficient or alternative models, using "green" lubricants, and the like, we'll switch to less environmentally harsh tools. Until then, we mow high, not often enough, and cut interesting swaths around stands of wildflowers as they spring up -- and hit the brakes when we see small critters in the grass.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pagan holiday

It saddens me that the old nature-based holidays have been replaced by institutional ones, at least in this country in this era. I would much rather celebrate the seasons than gods or anniversaries of people and events, because those seasons are intensely real and current, whereas those people and events are long past or, in the case of gods, debatable.

Four holidays exist on my personal calendar: two solstices and two equinoxes, which divide the year into birth, growth, maturity, and decline -- just like life. This cycle is universal, unlike institutional holidays. The important people, gods, and events in, say, China, have nothing to do with same in the United States. How can we ever hope for universal peace if we have nothing in common to celebrate?

Regardless, right now is the three-day window that comprises my personal high holy day, the summer solstice. Fifteen-and-a-half official hours of daylight at this location; unofficially, more like 17 hours -- 4:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. -- if you count being able to see while outdoors. I’ve often been tempted to move farther north to enjoy the spectacularly long days that go with higher latitudes; however, those are balanced by spectacularly long nights, so I remain in place. For someone who measures hours of light and darkness all year long, it would be the wrong plan to seek out more darkness!

Lacking the ancient rituals that went with pagan holidays, I don’t do anything specific for this one. It would be nice to have a big bonfire or a bacchanal or some sort of celebration with fellow light-worshipers. There aren’t too many around here, so I satisfy myself by just being as awake and aware as possible, spending as much time outdoors or looking out the windows as possible, and startling people by wishing them Happy Solstice. It won’t come around for another year; meanwhile, we begin the long slide back toward 9 hours of daylight.

The decrease will become noticeable by August. The plants seem to know this, timing their birth, growth, maturity, and decline around the equinoxes and solstices. It wasn’t until we moved to Vermont that I caught a real sense solstice-as-climax. Garden perennials that grow in my home turf of Connecticut break out 1-3 weeks later here but have caught up by this date in a spurt that makes the air crackle with energy, as if the solstice is the target they all share. Up north, it’s probably so accelerated that you can see the growth if you sit still and watch. Here, you notice it the next morning, when something you observed 24 hours ago is suddenly 2 inches taller.

Then there are the birds, the sky, the colors, the position of sun and moon, and all the different indicators of the season. This year we’ve been fortunate in having good weather concurrent with the holiday, making it doubly special. I’ve been making sure to be up at 4:30 and not in bed before 9:30 so I can enjoy every minute of it!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shut the heck up, will ya?

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers normally summer in our region, though we don't get them in the yard every year. Usually they will blow in like a brass band (belying their quiet and retiring description in the field guides), well after the other migratory birds have settled in for the season; then disappear. Occasionally we'll see holes they leave behind, drilled precisely into a live tree trunk in parallel rows, from whence they get sap.

This year, the sapsuckers arrived earlier than usual, but they sneaked in instead of announcing themselves, blending in with our year-round fleet of downy and hairy woodpeckers. For the past week, however, two males have been disputing territory, first by chasing each other around and around tree trunks or through the canopy, chattering and shrieking, then by staging a hammering competition on our metal roof.

One of them figured out that the roof over the open shed attached to the house outside the kitchen gives reverberates excellently (which we learned years ago from falling pinecones). The other one -- or is it the same one switching off? -- likes a panel on the diagonally opposite corner, right outside the bedroom. He starts there between 4:45 and 5:15 a.m.

Yikes! That wakes you up with a jolt with no hope of returning to sleep. Good thing we normally get up early!

The hammering goes on at intervals all day like spurts from a machine gun against a hollow metal target, so loud it drowns out conversation anywhere near. It was a hot week so we had the windows open, and while working could hear his claws screeching down the metal like fingernails on the blackboard as gravity interrupted his show. It was starting to get reeeeeeeally annoying -- then, abruptly, the contest was over and the birds vanished. I'm hoping he/they found a mate and they're off making baby sapsuckers.

Meanwhile, our normal backyard percussionist, the ruffed grouse, hasn't been seen nor heard from this year. He used to sit on the rock wall bounding the back yard in plain sight and drum away with his wings. (My spouse used to think it was somebody in the area unable to get a lawn mower started who refused to give up.) This went on every spring for 12 of our 13 years here. This year I heard it faintly in the distance once at the beginning of the season, and flushed a grouse from the roadside bushes a few weeks later when taking a walk, but nothing else.

Why the change?

We'll never know, just as we'll never know why the sapsucker chose this year to beat his head against our roof, or why a robin attacked his reflection in the living room window for weeks, 2 or 3 successive years, then went away.

Things should be getting quiet soon as all the seasonal guests hunker down to brood eggs and raise fledglings. Then it will get busy again when an assortment of half-finished birds emerges to try out their wings and their voices before the season turns again.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book review: Whole Earth Discipline

Outside, the yard and garden are burgeoning. Inside, reading and writing go on. I just read a book about the planet that thrilled me -- Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand -- and reviewed it on the New York Journal of Books. Here is the link:


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Book review: Vegetable Gardening in the North

At last—a gardening book germane to my reality!

And just in time for planting season here in the Northeast USA. Author Doug Green hails from Canada, our climatic neighbor, and presents in one concise e-book everything northerners need to know about growing vegetables. I read the book in one sitting and couldn’t wait to get started. But, true to our location, the weather disagreed with the calendar, so all I could do was prepare.

Doug maintains the popular Doug Green’s Garden website, newsletter, and blog (www.douggreensgarden.com), and publishes a steady stream of articles and e-books. Like most gardening gurus, he espouses certain horticultural techniques; but unlike most gurus, he also has a “whatever works” philosophy that encourages experimentation and enjoyment. In fact, his only two rules are (1) gardening is supposed to be fun and (2) it isn’t rocket science.

The feature I most appreciate in the book is his Rules of Thumb. I’m an unscientific gardener, and extremely lazy, so I look for basics and sloppily follow them. Doug provides useful, reliable guidelines that allow individual approaches while still leading to good results. He’s also one of the few pros who share my attitude about Zone Maps, which so many take as gospel, and which for so many years led me to planting the wrong things at the wrong times and thinking that gardening really is rocket science.

“A zone map is a guideline,” says Doug. “It isn’t a ‘rule’ to be carved in stone. That pretty much sums it up. These areas are more relevant to growing perennials and woody plants than they are to growing vegetables. . . . The important thing to understand is that the colder your zone (the lower your number), the shorter your growing season”—followed by information I’ve been seeking for 13 years: “For every zone colder than 4, wait a week [for planting]. For every zone warmer than 5, advance the date by a week.”

Thank you!

Doug also understands and addresses the ultimate gardening bugbear: microclimates. “Gardeners have more micro-zones than we have politicians,” he remarks, tongue in cheek, then provides tips on how to maximize microclimates to your (and the plants’) benefit.

The book emphasizes common sense and adaptability, general in the first half and specific in the second, with useful details about cultivating a broad range of vegetables. He writes it all in a friendly, shoot-from-the-hip voice that covers all bases without drowning you in data. Again, this is the right style for me, who just wants a few reliable guidelines to follow, plus a fingertip resource when I need particulars about my vegetables of choice.

Vegetable Gardening in the North includes tricks for dealing with insect and animal pests, as well as a straightforward glossary. In sum, I can throw away the library of gardening books I’ve amassed (and given up on), and just refer to this one for the rest of my northern life.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sounds of spring

The transition from winter to spring around here is a sputtering business -- a few steps forward, a few steps back, with a few steps sideways thrown in for good measure. You know spring has truly arrived, however, when suddenly the world gets loud.

Especially at dawn and dusk, opening the door presents a wall of sound. Peepers trilling at the ponds, accompanied by quacking frogs. (Yes, it's a quacking sound -- I keep thinking they're a flock of distant ducks.) The mallard ducks arrive with a splash and announce themselves with a real quacking, almost a honking, which in fact is made by Canada geese flying overhead. Wood ducks make a little stifled scream.

Meanwhile, robins are singing, sparrows are chittering, chickadees are dee-deeing and peeping, nuthatches are beeping, woodpeckers are drumming. The woodcock first peents in the underbrush then hurls himself into the air for a whistling spiral in hopes of attracting a mate.

Phoebes call their own name in a raspy voice while tree swallows squabble. Mourning doves emit their haunting cry, seeming almost owl-like until you hear the barred and great horned owls hoot in measured patterns. Crows caw, ravens squawk, hawks kree, blue jays blare. And always, underneath it all, the water roars.

It's a muffled roar of the hills emptying themselves of almost daily rain and the last of winter's snow, galloping down through well-established channels and into full ponds and rivers. Eventually these channels dry out, refilling briefly after summer downpours. We're a long way from that still, though the promise of the next season lies in the first thunderstorms flaring and booming during the night.

It's a happy cacaphony I look forward to all year long.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Taking down the wreath

When it happens, it happens fast -- one day to the next, the season changes. The harbingers that have been trickling in one at a time suddenly achieve critical mass, so that I draw up short and realize: The Season Has Turned. Today, it is spring. HOORAY!

I used to define spring as when the grass turns green and flowers bloom. After more than a decade in Vermont, however, I consider spring a fleeting transition between winter and summer. "Winter's back is broken," my elders used to say, which runs through my mind when the sun becomes strong enough to vaporize the snow and rot the ice, even if the air temperature stays below freezing. But more often and for longer intervals, the temp stays above 32. Dry stream beds on the hillsides start to gurgle, then flood, and the rivers below begin to gallop. The first migratory birds arrive: robins, red-winged blackbirds, the woodcock, the fox sparrow. And the first bulbs protrude through the first patches soil.

Up north (in the real north -- Alaska, Yukon, etc., not here in the middle north) they call it "breakup" -- a term used to describe the ice letting go, and people going a little crazy. Here it's similar though less dramatic, and it constitutes a few weeks of messy change. Once it gets underway, I know the time has come to take down my Christmas wreath.

The wreath goes up in November, when the leaves have fallen and the snow begins -- and Holiday Season consumes consumers. Some of us display our wreaths for the entire winter, seeing them more as an icon for the cold season than the holidays. I was unaware that this might be a regional custom until a relative visiting from the southwest asked why my wreath was still up in February. She had noticed on her way here that many homes in the area still sported holiday decorations. I had failed to observe this, feeling that it was a perfectly normal practice and as much a part of the scenery as snow and trees.

I keep my holiday wreath up for the winter because, well, why not? It's the only splashy color in a world of black, white, and neutrals; and winter includes most of the major holidays, of which Christmas is the biggy. Ergo, a Christmas wreath seems the perfect symbol for the whole season. Only when I know for sure that the season has changed do I take it down.

Then it becomes a spring-summer-fall wreath, for I hang it around the fence post near the garden until next year's wreath comes down to replace it. The balsam circle browns as the rest of the world greens, reminding us of the never-ending cycle.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The archaeology of snow

When the land has been covered by deep snow for one-third of the year, you start to forget what lies underneath. Reminders emerge during this transition season, when winter begins decaying under the strong sun that holds temperatures above freezing for a few hours, then a few days, finally evaporating the snowpack an inch -- or a foot -- at a time.

And so the discoveries begin. Oh my, there's the pile of lumber we ripped out of the house during remodeling, and didn't have time to de-nail and stack under cover before the snow came! And there's the jumbled stack of pine boughs, hastily picked up during a blowdown between big snow dumps #1 and #2.

Why, there's the corner of a big planter I shoved clear of the anticipated plow path, now protruding from the pushed pile that just days ago was impenetrable to shovels and ice picks, and long since immovable by the plow.

Oh wow, that lump is actually a parked car! And here's the layer of turds that accumulated when the turkey flock came through a month ago, along with a layer of saturated niger seed below the finch feeder. Over there, summer tires we didn't get stowed in time after rushing to mount snow tires on the cars.

Around the countryside, white depressions are turning milky blue as softening ice defines ponds, and runoff channels are carving through to the snow surface, churning and brown and filling the air with damp noise.

Now, and for days or weeks onward, snow-and-ice underfoot changes to ice-and-mud and back again, making for challenging walking and sometimes driving. The infamous "mud season" turns frost-heaved roads into quagmires that, instead of busting vehicle suspensions, suck vehicles down to their belly pans to the point they can't move.

Spring may be sloppy, but the excitement of rediscovery cancels out the hassle. We're all crossing our fingers against the chance of a late-season blizzard -- the biggest snow we've ever experienced occurred the last week of March some years ago, burying us in 5+ feet (on top of 3+ already on the ground) in 10 days.

And yet: When it finally went, it happened in less than a week. Through melting, sublimation, rain, and fog, winter's snow gives way in a wondrous hurry when Nature signals "It's time." Already, the bird population is changing, and I can almost hear bulbs stirring below ground. A week from now, the landscape is certain to look completely different. Will it be buried beneath a fresh white blanket? Or be a green-and-brown mess with shoots poking through?

Sunday, March 6, 2011


This afternoon we saw the coolest thing. We live near a river that runs alongside the main road then turns 90 degrees to plunge down a steep gorge, over which hangs a suspension footbridge on the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail where they run jointly throughVermont.

In previous years, during spring thaw, we’ve visited this site and seen massive ice jumbles at the turn before the bridge, and wished we could see the power that creates it.

Today we finally did! Conditions have been right -- we’ve been scoping the river for days -- and this morning we went down to check progress. No, not ready yet, but break-up felt imminent. We decided to return after lunch.

At that point we donned our hardiest weather gear and went out into the rain. Temperatures were falling through the 30s. Crossing the bridge out of our village, we saw that we were too late: What had been an ice sheet with a channel snaking through it was now a bank-to-bank raging brown torrent. Damn!

Yet we continued the few miles to the gorge, thinking the spectacle would be worth it. En route, when the river came back into view, we noticed it was still iced over. Wait a minute -- we weren’t too late after all -- rather, we were running just ahead of the flood. Yes!

Within ten minutes, we were in position at the suspension bridge. Local people began arriving, saying their friends who live alongside the river had phoned. “It just passed the Ford dealership!” “It’s at the second Cuttingsville bridge!” And about 15 minutes later, a five-foot wall of ice-choked water roared into view and swung around the corner, packing the cove solid within seconds as it decimated the ice before us then raced under the bridge, filling the gorge to river height. The roar was so loud, punctuated by clunks, cracks, and rumbles, that we had to shout to hear each other standing shoulder to shoulder.

It reminded me of pyroclastic flows from volcanoes, and made us understand how people can be overtaken by flash floods and mudslides. For long minutes after the wall swept through, the river hurled ice floes into the air and busted them apart against boulders. Trees tore by like matchsticks. Gradually the ice chunks became smaller, the water browner, and its level sank back to seasonal norm, leaving scars and ice packs against and above the banks. On the drive home, we saw floes up to the shoulder of the roadway.

From door to door we spent a chilly and soggy hour. Arrived home just as the precipitation turned to freezing rain. Hubby got pictures plus a mini-movie, so we can relive the excitement and share with friends and family. It was a wonderful, surprising way to spend a winter afternoon!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Winter blue

Whenever I'm overtaken by the winter blues, I turn my attention to blue -- my favorite color, which appears in unique shades only during the winter and gives my heart a lift.

The most magically beautiful blue: Full moon on snow. This is like a bright, sunny day with an indigo filter over it, etching long, sharp shadows and crisp details into a blue-and-white world.

Its opposite: The day after a fresh snowfall. The sky, as my spouse calls it, is "severe clear," giving sheets of azure above sheets of dazzling white.

In between: Pastel tints of bluish lavender outlining the contours of the land beneath the snow and crossing it with shadows. Reflected above in cloud striations that promise more snow to come.

Then there's ice: Frozen waterfalls down escarpments, where groundwater is captured in the act of succumbing to gravity, its minerals glowing teal through silvery masses.

Local people harness the same flow into free-form ice sculptures by sticking a hose into a spring and letting its pressure spray the surrounding landscape. These accumulate into huge, sea-blue mounds that can last until May! I guess that's their way of dealing with winter blues.

Carolyn Haley

Books at: http://carolynhaley.wordpress.com

Editing business at: www.documania.us

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Remember our feathered friends

February is National Bird-Feeding Month, did you know? I'm happy to learn that this activity rates the attention of people who decide such things!

For me, every month is bird-feeding month. I invite wild birds into my yard for two reasons:

(1) I love having them around, easy to see from the window or while puttering in the yard. Also, my mom is an avid bird-watcher and enjoys the show when she visits. Birds are my neighbors; my companions; my entertainment; my reminder of what's going on out there in the natural world.

(2) Birds are also a gardener's friend, feasting on bugs that might otherwise feast on my vegetables. As well, they spread seeds around, resulting in delightful surprises.

A third reason, which I don't like to think about, is habitat destruction and climate change, which are making it harder for birds and other critters to survive. So I feel obligated to provide an additional food source for them.

Mostly, though, birds are part of the whole garden equation: soil, plants, bugs, birds, bees, butterflies, mammals, water, sun, and the eternal cycle of birth-growth-death. And this time of year, the tail end of a hard winter, food is particularly scarce for wild things. No matter where you live, there are birds that could use some extra seed or suet to help them along.

Here at (approx.) latitude 43N, longitude 72W, and altitude 1300 ft., our midwinter bird population comprises a dozen chickadees; one or two each of titmouse, red- and white-breasted nuthatch, and downy and hairy woodpeckers; the recently arrived red-bellied woodpecker; a family of crows and at least one pair of ravens; wild turkeys in male (5) and female (15) groups; intermittent mourning doves and ruffed grouse; around ten noisy blue jays; invisible but occasionally heard barred owls; and every few years (this is one of them), visiting flocks of redpolls. Most of these feathered friends await my arrival with freshly filled sunflower and thistle seed tubes, along with a brick of suet, every morning.

If you don't already feed the birds at your place, brighten up your February and start!

Carolyn Haley

Books at: http://carolynhaley.wordpress.com

Editing business at: www.documania.us

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Snow diamonds

With the exception of New Year's weekend, the temperature here has held below freezing for weeks and weeks, during which we've had multiple snow dumps adding up to 3+ feet. Most of that time has been overcast and often windy -- making, altogether, for a some serious winter.

It also makes for the best of winter, for two reasons.

First, the snow is powder, which is light to shovel and easy to plow (and a dream if you're a skier). One appreciates this after many winters spent scraping up the equivalent of wet cement, or skidding on ice as impenetrable as concrete.

Second, the snow remains crystalline, and that makes for breathtaking beauty when the sun -- and moon -- finally come out.

Two nights ago, the clouds parted to allow a half moon to bathe the white-robed landscape in silver gleam that thousands of snow bits caught and reflected like summer fireflies. The following morning, below cloudless blue, the sunrise caught more diamond points and lit the day with sparkle. When wind came up and lifted the powder, the very air glittered.

Conditions are right only a few days each winter, if at all. So it's hard to mind the season when it turns the world into a visual wonderland.

Carolyn Haley

Books at: http://carolynhaley.wordpress.com

Editing business at: www.documania.us

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here comes the sun

A new year is born -- both on the calendar and in the natural world. The dates fall about ten days apart but announce the same change.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, and especially in the northerly climes, it's hard to think of birth in the middle of winter. But this is the point where gardens begin each year. As day length increases, plants and creatures begin to stir, or at least change their behavior in subtle ways. Under the ground, roots, corms, and bulbs are processing themselves for the upcoming growth season. Aboveground, birds change their songs -- for example, by New Year's Day I'd heard the chickadee's spring call for which it is named ("dee-deeee") -- and early breeders have started courtship. Meanwhile, the seed catalogues are rolling in, allowing humans to start planning this year's garden.

I am a daylight junkie, so I count the returning minutes of light after the solstice. It creeps in asymmetrically: for a week or two, daybreak comes later while sunset seems to stay the same. But then we start to see more light on both ends of the day, and its pace of return accelerates.

On the official winter solstice, we had 8 hours and 51 minutes of daylight. Since then, we've gained 10+ minutes. So few, yet already perceptible at dawn and dusk. This starts and ends each day with joy, and helps keep my chin up during the three months of cold, snow, and ice still to come.

Carolyn Haley

Books at: http://carolynhaley.wordpress.com

Editing business at: www.documania.us