Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Where did all the apples go?

No end to the natural mysteries we encounter in our yard.

Last year, right after Tropical Storm Irene, the birds vamooshed -- the most abrupt and total disappearance I'd ever seen at the end of a summer. Back then, we had the storm as an excuse; this year, they all seem to have disappeared with the same abruptness, but now no excuse. It's been a gentle progression from late summer into early fall, mostly fair weather, yet now they're all gone. Only the year-round species to be seen. Huh? It used to be a more gradual process. What gives?

In the same vein, we had disappearing fruit this year, as well. Our three ancient blueberry bushes put out an immense crop, to the point where I couldn't keep up with it. Fortunately, blueberries last longer, both on the bush and in the fridge, than the more tender fruits like raspberries, so I picked at my convenience.

Assorted events caused me to miss a week, but I wasn't worried. Pounds still remained on the bush. But when I went back to get them, every last one was gone, not even a berry on the ground. Presumably birds were the culprits, although that didn't feel right. In the preceding weeks I had seen only a few birds dipping into and out of the bushes, even when it was well loaded with ripe berries. So what made them suddenly descend like a plague of locusts and strip the branches bare?

The same thing happened with apples. Last year was the bonanza year on our tree; more apples than I could pick, process, give away, throw away. An insanely huge crop! So this year I didn't expect much; it's rare to have huge fruit or mast crops in succession.

Sure enough, this year the crop was light, but it was definitely there, and started to drop in August. Each morning I arose to half a dozen to a dozen on the ground, all sizes and degrees of ripeness, usually no good to eat owing to a worm or a fungus or a bird, rodent, or raccoon bite. But I salvaged a few for us.

Then, again, I had to leave town for almost a week. Upon departure, there were still plenty of apples up in the tree. Way up, where I would need a ladder to pick them. But no worries: Based on previous years, they would all come down.

So I was astonished to find the tree absolutely bare of fruit when I returned. None on the ground, either. How the heck did that happen? Deer are the obvious explanation, but hey, they don't climb ladders -- how could they reach the top ones? And birds don't carry away fruit of that size, and raccoons leave a bunch of broken stems and twigs when they shimmy up and grab, and squirrels leave a lot of half-eaten ones around. No sign, however, that anything had been there. No sign that any apples had existed.

I guess there's a black hole passing through the neighborhood that's sucking all the birds, berries, and apples into it. Can't think of any better explanation for the collective vanishing act!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

R.I.P. Garden Elf

In the wee morning hours of August 16, my mother passed away in her bed. She was 85 years old, and from what we can figure her heart just wore out, giving her an ending that’s becoming rare in the western world: a natural death.

I mention this here because she was a key player in my yard and garden life -- my personal “garden elf” -- and it’s fitting that we can use the word “natural” when discussing her demise. She was an ardent lover of the natural world, particularly plants and birds, and devoted much of her life to enjoying and supporting it.

As a birder, she ventured all over North America with folks who became her lifelong friends. As a mother, she exposed her family to the magnificence of our country through a trip across the United States featuring the national parks, and gave us a chance to know nature on a small scale in our suburban backyard and annual vacations to Cape Cod.

As a woman who lived her beliefs, she donated time and money to organizations that support the great outdoors -- The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, and a local preserve, Roaring Brook Nature Center. And as a gardener, she grew flowers and cultivated habitat wherever she lived.

Her biggest canvas was our home in south-central Vermont. This offered 11 acres of abandoned perennial gardens, new annual beds, retired hayfields, rock piles and walls, third-growth deciduous forest, a pond, and acres of irregular lawn. The whole has always been more than my husband and I can manage, so each spring, summer, and fall since we moved here -- 15 years -- Mom drove up from Connecticut every few weeks to spend a few days helping.

This is why I considered her my garden elf. While my husband manned the machines and did all the heavy work, and I did all the medium work and hand maintance, Mom did all the finish work: trimming edges of the lawn that the mower can’t reach, weeding spaces between terrace pavers and pots and garden borders, raking up mountains of pine needles, pruning neglected shrubs, making everything tidy and lovely.

Throughout, she listened to and watched the birds. Our location offers mixed habitats that attract 20-40 species according to season. Several of these species don’t frequent her neighborhood 150 road-miles south and gave her much joy. Their arrival each spring warranted a phone call or e-mail. Fox sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks, ravens, and the kestrel topped the list. Ditto the first daffodils, peonies, and black-eyed Susans.

We kept a species list whenever she visited; which, combined with the varying forms of journal I’ve tried over the years, built up a reliable record of wildlife in our neck of the woods. While I mainly bird out the window, Mom often would wander down the road in the early mornings and catch species that don’t come to the feeder. She taught me to identify many of them by song.

At the end of a gardening day, we would draw up chairs, pour ourselves a drink, and kick back to watch the feeders. Some of our best conversations took place during that ritual. After dinner, we would walk the property to admire our work and the view, along with the wildflowers, then turn in early -- country style -- to start again the next day.

Many of my friends envied me having a personal garden elf and offered to hire her. She turned them down, wanting just to do what she loved with her family in a beautiful place. Her devotion gave me an opportunity to develop a good relationship with my mother -- another thing that many people envy, for not all are so lucky.

Mom’s legacy is what I see and walk through every day, giving year-round reminder of all that was good between us. It’s comforting to know that once my turn comes to move on, the gardens we nurtured together will still be there for the next folks who come along.

Her formal obituary is at http://hosting-1512.tributes.com/show/marjorie-marie-haley-94286803

 Birding at Cape Cod, early 1970s

At home in Unionville, CT, early 2000s