Sunday, March 31, 2013

In today's phenology, our resident phoebes are back.  In the fall they had lingered long, but eventually gone south.  Now enough insects are in flight for them.  I wonder if they will tolerate the bluebird.

I spent much of the weekend outdoors puttering, cutting up the winter's ample deadfall and burning a good deal of it.  Previous years I'd just made brush piles, but although our plot is only an acre and a third, there is just too much wood - especially as I'm clearing out some of the invasives like burning bush and oriental honeysuckle, and replacing the lilacs and forsythia with fruit trees and native plants.

The branches from the pines alone take a long time.  They burn with terrifying intensity and so I do them gradually.  A few years ago we set the peat on fire beneath our campfire.  Unbeknownst to us it smoldered for about ten days, turning the ground to ash, until it reached the woodpile ten feet away - which leapt into flame.  I'm trying not to do that again.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Since I've so far failed to create any sort of consistent phenological journal, I'll make use of the blog for it.

As yet I've seen nothing in bloom here but the crocuses and the snowdrops.  But I saw the year's first mourning cloak butterfly.  I think it was drinking where sapsuckers have been tapping the black maple.  The bluebird and the nuthatches are still contesting the bird house. 

One morning in Florida, while Monica and the boys went to Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park, I went birdwatching.  I navigated the bus system to the landing at "Fort Wilderness," a campground that sprawls along Bay Lake.  As I walked east away from the complex with its stores and dining halls, and golf carts, I was alone on a sandy shore.  A turkey eyed me warily, but calmly.  Winter warblers were active in the shoreline shrubs, and grackles and red-winged blackbirds were contesting noisily in the reeds.  As I walked along, the reed mats were undulating calmly - or more violently if a boat had passed.  Coots swam and moorhens stalked.  A little blue heron stood motionless.  I came to a canal where a large red-bellied turtle sunned itself.  A bald eagle soared overhead among the vultures and ospreys.

I notice a Louisiana heron in the reeds -- called a tri-colored heron nowadays -- who suddenly hunkered down.  A commotion was working its way down the shoreline.  There were two dozen double breasted cormorants diving among a half dozen brown pelicans.  But it was the accompanying flock of herons that was making the ruckus.  A half dozen croaking great blue herons, two dozen white egrets, a handful of snowy egrets were flapping and fishing as they came.  I saw a white egret trying to fly with a large sunfish and find a stable spot to swallow the thrashing thing.  The blackbirds and grackles and belted kingfishers raised more noise.  The flocks passed by me to the swampy eastern end of the lake, where they rose up to the cypress or disappeared down into the reedy marshes.

I crossed the canal and passed a locked and abandoned cabin.  A hazy network of footpaths mazed through the undergrowth into a woods of cypress.  Swallowtail and zebra longwing butterflies searched for flowers.  I made my way along the shoreline.  Red bellied woodpeckers were pounding on the trees.  A cardinal came to check me out.  I pushed through the shrubs to the marshy shoreline, stepping back when I began to sink.   On a dead stump an anhinga spread her wings to dry.  An alligator hunted among the coots and pied billed grebes, but the birds didn't seem fooled by the gator's log-like demeanor.  A grebe swam alongside, a few feet away, until they both passed out of sight.  A barred owl was calling from somewhere behind me, "who cooks for you?  who cooks for you?" 

I retraced my path back out of the cypress and the butterflies and walked up along the canal.  Men were fishing there.  I made my way out to meet Monica and the boys for lunch.

Friday, March 29, 2013


It's been a tough year for bees.  Colony collapse.  None of my three hives made it through the winter.  Two of them were abandoned before winter even set in.  The third was gone by the time I checked in February.    

The hive was three stories. The lower two were mostly cleared of honey, as you'd expect in a colony that is gradually consuming its winter stores.  The top story was full of capped honey.

I found the remains of the cluster -- a few dozen dead bees all gathered around the body of the queen.  (She's the one in the center marked with a dab of yellow paint.)

I can only guess that as the cluster dwindled, the bees couldn't maintain their heat and so they failed, freezing and starving where they were, just inches away from full combs.

A handful of bees were actually up in the honey comb, but just as dead.

There's a white mildew on them, but I think that came after.

I think this year's project on the beekeeping front will have to be learning how best to treat for mites and the other maladies that can weaken and kill a hive. 

The left-over honey I saved to feed to the new colonies that will be arriving in a few weeks.

Hope springs eternal.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Rhubarb is emerging, bruised by the frost.

Choke cherry

A bluebird is vying with nuthatches for a weather-beaten old birdhouse.  

As the bluebird peers into the house, the nuthatches noisily complain from the nearest limbs.  They spread their wings and flare their tails and make quivering pirouettes.  

This enrages the bluebird, and he flies at them angrily. 

The chickadees, titmice, juncos and woodpeckers make up the raucous mob of bystanders egging them on.

Shoots are coming up in the frame of mixed greens I planted.  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

I've just returned from 4 days in Orlando in the belly of the Disney Beast.  Monica, who grew up in California, has an affection for Disneyland and its Florida sistren.  She spared me the details, but she got some sort of a deal on a full package, and was taking the boys to Orlando for four days during their spring break.  Being of a more cynical bent when it comes to the Disney empire, I was meant to be excused, but when Jose had to return to Mexico unexpectedly, I was suddenly on my way south.  (Monica not only preyed on my frugality - the tickets were after all paid for and would go to waste - but I was promised some birdwatching and allotted a small quota of anthropological critique.)

I once tried to describe the magic of the Taj Mahal as the perfection of an aesthetic.  I don't think Disneyworld is quite perfected yet,  but if totalitarian capitalism is an aesthetic they are achieving something near.  30,000 acres of central Florida is given over to the Republic of Disney - the half dozen theme parks, two dozen themed resort hotels, (Polynesia! Wild West! Boardwalk Beach!), the shopping centers, golf courses, the vast parking lots, and the sprawling utilitarian infrastructure that is tucked away behind pines, palmetto and cypress.

I was teasing Nico that what Walt Disney meant by "magic" - was the control of human beings.  After all, he built a media empire based on the manipulation of fundamental myths and narratives, and harnessed it to a tidy, aspirational story of technophilic Enlightenment-lite.  He built in Orlando a landscape of human control: a geography of buses, monorails, ferry boats, cattle-shute queues, ramps, tracked rides and smiling employees waving the human currents into their proper sluices and eddies. He established a rigid caste system - employees are called "cast members"(!) - between those who are paid to be there, and those who pay to be there, with everyone assigned their costumes and roles.  

And with this he created a vast filtration system where every year 50 million "guests" and their money cascade in, and 50 million people without their money pour back out.

But you have to respect the level of detail and creativity and expertise that goes into this filter, this perfection of consumerism.  Our hotel (safari themed, with elands and cranes and wild asses grazing and disputing outside the balcony) was beautiful in its aesthetics and efficient in its design.  Monica and the boys (and me, I admit) thoroughly enjoyed most of the thrill rides and some of the shows.  We were encompassed in themes and "lands".  The food was very good and when it wasn't, it was always delivered with showmanship and flair.  And so we were passed happily through the filter.  And Wednesday night we passed back out of Disneyworld to return to the tawdry regular world of half-assed capitalism -- which is too clumsy and importunate and indifferent to hide its empty promises.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Sigmund Freud said some wacky things, but long ago I adopted his aphorism that, love and work are the cornerstones to our humanness.  Most of us understand that love is more than the hormone-addled romance of courtship.  It's all the ways that we step outside of our normal egoism to feel the value of others.  It's the unstable, passionate, dyadic connection of a lover and life partner; its the solid foundation of parents and siblings and bedrock friends; it's the terrifying dismembering of self that one's child enforces; it's the casual conversation that makes you give a person that second look in surprise or admiration; it's the spiritual transcendence that exposes the ego as a thin, vibrating note among the crowd or the forest or the cosmos . . . 

The more we love - the more we exist as a sound, true, richly experienced self enmeshed in a webwork of connectedness to things beyond our self, the more fully human we are.  That's a piece of cultural knowledge and experience that is available to people who haven't been warped in some way by their world or their brain's chemistry.

I think what is less familiar to people (or at least to me) is the second part, what Freud called "work," by which he means the whole gamut of things we strive to create in the material world.  Certainly it is more than whatever it is that we do to pay the bills and earn our wages, and which puts a roof over our heads.  It's more than just objects you can hold, and words like these that echo beyond my own mind.  It's reaching out from the realm of the disembodied will and making a change to the world.  I try to map this idea onto that vast, expansive landscape of love, and it seems superficially more finite, more limited -- because it is anchored in real things and hemmed in by the hours of the day.  Yet too, there's something vast about mastering a craft, something infinite about inscribing one's will on the atoms of the world.

I don't pretend to understand it fully, but I accept that there are three cornerstones to the construction of our humanness, an expanding love, a solid self, and good work.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

It was a warm and sunny Sunday, and though it's not officially spring yet, in one of my cold frames I planted seeds -- spinach, mustard and greens.  It's foolishly optimistic, but there's no gardening without optimism.  Mostly it was a day for puttering around the property preparing for when spring really does arrive.  Gathering up the winter's deadfall and piling it up for my future hugelkultur; rooting the invasives out of the raspberry patch before it becomes impenetrable; cutting down sassafras and lilac to make room for a little orchard of plums; pulling out the endless supplies of burning bush shoots; digging out some mossy rocks for Monica's shade garden.

Inspired by this post on the blog, Of The Hands, (which I just came across) I walked back into the woods with Nico.  The last eighteen months, from Hurricane Irene through last week's nor-easter have torn at these woods.  Dozens of ninety-year old oaks have come down, either snapped off at the trunk or toppled over -- roots and all.  I wanted to pay a visit the old white pine three walls back to see how she'd fared.  Judging by the age of the oaks, these pastures were abandoned to the forest some time after World War One, but I think the white pine stood when sheep still grazed these fields.  Today there was a great wreath of limbs surrounding her, torn off and thrown down in the storms.  But she towers there still -- in a wood green with her smaller descendants.  Standing on opposite sides, Nico and I reached around the trunk, and by pressing our bodies into the bark we could just touch each other's fingertips.

Thursday, March 7, 2013


Rusty at Honey Bee Suite puts up a valuable post on the problems of genetics for honey bees.  The species is under severe environmental stresses, including the invasion of varroa mites (since 1987) and the introduction of a new class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, that science shows contaminate destroy colonies wholesale.  Unfortunately, as with so many other domesticated species, industrial agriculture has ruthlessly pared the gene pool down by disregarding all but one or two money-making traits -- in this case, honey production.  Rusty notes:

The lethal combination of mites and viruses quickly killed off most of the feral colonies in North America, removing a critical part of the honey bee gene pool. No longer able to find sufficient wild bees, beekeepers were forced to import bees from elsewhere. As a result, most of our managed colonies have been raised from production queens that, by definition, have a limited supply of genes.
. . . To meet the demand for replacement colonies, queens are produced in large quantities in the south and shipped all over the country . . . [But] there just aren’t that many genes to pick from anymore. As a result, the exhausted gene pool was spread from sea to shining sea.
And it gets worse. You and fifty other beekeepers in your county have bees with nearly identical genetics simply because everyone in your local bee club bought bees from the same producer. They all arrived in one truck, so in addition to having the same genes, they have the same diseases. It means the drones hanging out in your local drone congregation area have the same genes as well. So if you are trying to raise your own queens to overcome a shallow gene pool, the odds are stacked against you from the start. It’s one heck of a mess.
Genetic diversity is the key to any populations ability to adapt biologically,  and bees are teetering.  Ideally, I would find colonies that were survivors and breed my own queens to local conditions, but that is easier said than done -- especially for someone who is only beginning to learn the craft.  I'm 0 for 4 when it comes to over-wintering colonies, and this year again I will have to purchase bees from the breeders in the south.  If I can manage to establish colonies I will re-queen them with Purvis Gold or some other non-standard genotype, if only to break out of this vicious cycle of decline. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

Porter's school goes to the ninth grade, and one of the highlights of their final year is a 10-day class trip.  This year it's Hawaii.

More pictures below the jump:

Friday, March 1, 2013

Drawbacks of Home Ownership #116:

We were watching the film Batman Begins the other night.  There's a scene where the Batmobile is careening across the rooftops, shattering slate shingles, crushing dormers and wreaking havoc among the HVAC, chimneys and roof vents.  Monica and I just looked at each other -- all we could think of was -- "Oh the poor roofs!  Doesn't he know what it's going to cost to fix all those roofs?"