Friday, June 25, 2010

We Have Nothing to Fear Except Well-Meaning Incompetence


I Came, I Saw, I Flapped About

They make hummingbirds feisty around in here in ways I don't remember Vermont's ruby-throated hummingbirds being. Our black-chinned hummers are highly territorial and will spend more energy driving competitors off from a food source than they could ever gain from eating it (or so it seems).

That's especially true at feeders. A feeder may have six--count 'em, six--perches, but only one hummingbird at a time ever gets to use them (with the possible exception of mates and just-fledged siblings). That's why I don't put out feeders. To have a bunch of angrily meeping birds zipping past at warp speed before I've had my coffee--no. Whether you find all that action entertaining or irritating, peaceful it isn't. That said, hummingbirds are generally better behaved where natural sources of nectar are concerned, and those I provide with pleasure.

Cut back to my first year in this house. I planted tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), an annual that I thought would nicely fill in one of my new perennial beds. Only one seedling survived, but that was plenty. It became a monster of a plant--eight feet high and at least five around. I had grown tithonia in Vermont, where it, too, had been better behaved (Query: Is there a pattern here?), but even though the New Mexican version rather took over the bed, that sunflower was glorious in bloom--157 cubic feet of greenery covered in two-inch, bright orange daisies.

Bumblebees and butterflies loved it; to my surprise, so did the hummingbirds, which would sip from the trumpets on the disc flowers. But they're territorial birds (have I mentioned that they're territorial birds?), and apparently, they're perfectly willing to turn that protectiveness against other species. One day a black swallowtail butterfly was calmly--quietly, peacefully-- feeding at one of the tithonia's several dozen flowers. (Just to be clear, on 157 cubic feet of plant. A large plant. With dozens of flowers. Room for all and sundry.) A hummingbird zoomed up and tried to chase it off, and an aerial battle ensued...

which the butterfly won.

The butterfly won! An insect that can't fly in a straight line to save its life and that has no offensive capabilities, vs. a 60-mile per hour bundle of irritation with a bill that could rip a butterfly's wings to shreds. Admittedly, the butterfly was bigger than the hummingbird and for all I know may well have weighed more. But still...

Cut back several years earlier, to a regular bird feeder I had in Vermont, a basic platform affair with an angled roof. The mourning doves had quite a time figuring out how to negotiate around the roof to get to the food, and I watched many of them fall off the feeder altogether (cheap entertainment at its best). Eventually they became more expert, but they never landed without a lot of fuss and bother. One day I was watching a blue jay at the feeder--blue jays being large, aggressive birds, right?--when along came a mourning dove, back-winging like mad in its effort to land. The blue jay jabbed at it a few times to no effect and ended up with a faceful of flapping feathers in return. It very quickly just gave up and left.

The moral of these stories: Never underestimate the power of a lot of uncertain flapping about. (Try saying that in your best James Earl Jones voice.)

The alternate but related moral: Incompetence wins over aggression every time. (It's the combination that you really have to watch out for.)

And do take your history books with a grain of salt. They're all about people being "competent."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Toad Hall


A Place for Everything,
and Everything in A Place

What I love about toads is the way they ignore me. They're useful bug-eaters, of course, and I appreciate that. But I love the way they go about their business as if--well, as if I didn't particularly matter to them.

My garden has a toad--a chubby, unflappable, cool cat of a toad--that has made itself at home in a potted mint plant. In my ongoing quest to encourage murder and mayhem in the garden (but only the good kind of murder and mayhem), I've tried to create a toad-friendly habitat. I've provided a "bug bath," a shallow dish filled with pebbles and water at ground level; and I've created toad houses from broken pots and cinder blocks, hoping that the shaded hollows would appeal to a cold-blooded creature during the heat of the day. And instead of these cool, private shelters, "Mr. Jackson" prefers the potted mint that sits in the sunshine on the patio. Every morning while I sip my tea, I watch him hop over from some other part of the garden and clamber awkwardly into the pot. I harvest the mint regularly; he blinks at me. I water it daily; he blinks at me. I occasionally whap him with the hose by accident; he blinks really quickly at me.

It's not even a pretty pot.

In its own mild way, the situation radiates a whole "the best laid plans" thing that I regard with wry amusement. (I'm reminded of how I originally designed my garden around Luther's habits. He always used one area as his privy, so I made a clear pathway to it and left it unplanted. He never went there again. That area is still an odd, empty space that nothing seems to fill properly.) In another way, it's eloquent of the best spirit of gift-giving--that a gift, once given, takes on a new life, new meanings, in the hands of the recipient.

The real gift in this case was water--as good as gold in a region that gets eight inches annual rainfall, and much more interesting to a toad in any case. The "bug bath" is what drew him and what encourages him to stay. One morning when I had forgotten to refill it, I found him looking at it (blinkingly) and watched him stretch out a foot to the basin and rest his chin on one of the dry pebbles. He stayed that way until I had filled the dish with water (he didn't bother to move), and after a good soak he went merrily about his business (which was to climb into the mint pot).

Of course, the water wasn't a real gift if I was hoping to get something out of giving it--a toad at my beck and call, ready to eat ants and flies on demand. I did get a toad, yes, but beck and call? Not noticeably. And I find his complete obliviousness to the choices I had pre-made for him so beautiful that it almost takes my breath away. The sense of interaction--of creative give-and-take with an alien species--fills me with delight, and that is far more wonderful than the smug satisfaction I would have felt had he moved into those concrete blocks. Above all, I can't help wondering now what he will do next, and what pleasure I might have in responding to his new choice.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Violence Is Golden


Why Gardeners Are Like the Mob

I wonder sometimes about the morality of gardeners, especially organic gardeners. Well, especially me. Here I am, trying to raise vegetables that wouldn't naturally grow in my environment. Every one of those succulent, juicy, tender salad greens and sugar-snap peas and tomatoes is adored by plant-eating insects--and who can blame them? But since I don't want to use pesticides to protect my produce, I attract carnivorous insects instead who will do their level best to devour all of the vegetarian ones.

I don't know about you, but I know how I feel during films at the natural history museum when T-Rex goes for the peaceful plant-eaters. Or when the pride of lions takes down the lonely baby elephant. Or when the fox finally catches the despairing rabbit. Wicked predator! Poor prey! Sure, it may all be the course of nature and blah blah blah, but how the heart weeps for the harmless little creature that's writhing in agony, desperate to stay alive...

Yet in the garden I happily go out of my way to attract the predators, which, in a masterful Orwellian move, organic gardeners call "beneficial insects." Oh, the irony: first I invite the planteaters to a banquet the likes of which they've never seen, and then I call in the big guns to kill 'em off. As I recall, the Borgias did stuff like that. Is it good? Is it moral?

Frankly, it's irresistible. After the first radish gets eaten to the midrib by cabbage moth caterpillars or the first tomato leaves start to curl with an insect-borne virus, I am more than happy to consort with the thugs of the insect world. "Ladybird?" A charming name for an entire species of serial killers. "Lacewing?" Oh, yeah, sure--as in "Arsenic and Old..." "Praying mantis?" Soulmates with the crusading Abbot Amalric ("Kill them all--let God sort them out."). I love them. And I will gladly take out a contract on the life of every last aphid and leafhopper.

Meet my cousin Guido, little planteaters...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Surprised By Rue


Rue—Who Knew?

From a distance, rue is such a quiet plant. Its delicate, blue-green leaves happily fade into the background, its flowers are small and unassuming, and its height begs for a nice, invisible spot somewhere in the middle of the garden bed. It’s a useful member of the chorus, but as a soloist? Please. We have roses for that. (Actually, I don’t. I have “Wild Thing” autumn sage for that. But that’s another story.) (And not a particularly interesting one.)

Rue may walk softly, but it carries a big stick. Its foliage can cause blisters like poison ivy, especially if you brush against it on hot, sunny days. It has a host of medicinal uses, none of them particularly pleasant. Cats tend to avoid it, even Sir Marley, who has adopted my garden as his combined litterbox/feeding ground/scratching post and is not deterred by much. And, as one of my favorite gardening books says, “It is a preferred host plant for swallowtail butterflies and their larvae.” (Which, translated out of gardenspeak, means that “big fat caterpillars will munch on this plant.”)

But none of these are the reasons that I’m impressed (and surprised) by rue. The real reason is that, up close and personal, it is still a quiet plant, but one that shines with the joys of quietness. Alone, each leaflet has the finely etched precision of frost on a windowpane; en masse the foliage plays with light and shadow like a Dutch master. The flowers in bud are fascinating little buttons of green; when the petals open, like nesting dolls, they reveal a smaller button within. In winter the stems and leaves turn a rich purple—in fact, it was the winter foliage that first taught me to love this plant.

In a large garden, rue might well be overlooked in favor of more outgoing plants; in a small garden, however, every plant can have its say, and the plants that slow us down and encourage us to take our time in the garden, to savor each leaf and blossom, are the more valuable. For all its quietness, rue sends a powerful message. Stop. Look closer. Be surprised.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Little Foxes


About This Blog

Solomon once complained that "The little foxes are ruining the vines." That statement has always puzzled me in a way--do the big foxes leave them alone?--but the gist of it rings true. It's not earthquakes or volcanic eruptions or plagues of frogs that we generally have to worry about at harvest time. No, it's the little pests that we never notice the rest of the year, small beings whose lives have nothing to do with ours (but who appreciate our planting all of those grape vines for them), that destroy the careful labor of months.

Little things have a way of eating into our lives, whether for good or ill. Mosquitoes drive us in from the yard, paper cuts make us howl--and one ripe grape fresh from the vine can send us to straight to heaven. And, like those punch-drunk little foxes,
small things have a way of putting larger issues in perspective. The Song of Solomon is not, after all, primarily a book of agricultural advice.

This blog, Microcosm, explores the minutiae of everyday life and their occasional relationship to things in general. Literally, of course, a microcosm is just a "small world," and sometimes a small world is exactly that--a tiny, self-contained sphere of activity. But in its greater sense, the diminutive world of the microcosm represents something in the world at large, and it is that sense of nesting worlds, nesting meanings, that I'm interested in exploring.

I'm prompted to write by my own small world, especially by two aspects of it. The first is the small, courtyard garden in my townhome. In it I'm attempting--however haphazardly--to create a miniature ecosystem that will harbor a healthy complement of plant and animal life, feeding us all in the process. The chain reactions set in motion by one small change--the addition of a small water dish at ground level, or the placement of an "ornamental" rock to provide shade and shelter--have astonishingly (disturbingly?) far-reaching results. And if anything was tailor-made for someone hunting for symbolic meaning, a garden would have to be it.

The second factor prompting this blog is the presence in my life of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). This illness has reduced the external part of my life to a fraction of its former size and focused my attention more intensely on those things right in front of my nose. While I would vastly prefer to be well, I do appreciate the gift of focus that illness has taught me--the deep enjoyment of small pleasures.

So I am writing to share some of that enjoyment, especially as it pertains to that greatest of all pleasures, gardening, together with any musings and speculations that might come along for the ride. I am also writing to explore the beauty that can reside in smallness--the ways in which small lives, small worlds, can yet have great meaning. Welcome to my microcosm. I hope that you, too, will find enjoyment, interest, and meaning in the small pleasures unfolded here.