Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 06-02-2008

I had the good fortune of spending a year in Italy when I was nine and ten years old. During that stay, my family made a few trips into the Italian and Swiss Alps. On one of those trips, I imagine, we walked in a mountain meadow full of red poppies. I say I imagine, because I don’t have a specific memory of the event, but I know that poppies favor alpine meadows, and I know that we visited the Alps… So, for some thirty years I’ve had a romantic notion of fields of red poppies.

When I moved to rural Pennsylvania, poppies emerged as a recurring issue for me. In the spring, I’d see impressive concentrations of poppies sprout green in other people’s yards, burst into flower, and then fade—all in a matter of a few weeks. I wanted a similar display in my yard.

So, when I bought seeds for the vegetable garden, I also bought a packet of perennial poppy seeds. I planted the seeds in an unclaimed area at the south side of our deck, and watered them for several weeks. Sprouts appeared, but I couldn’t tell poppies from weeds, and the plants I guessed were poppies vanished when their leaves were very small. It was apparent the next spring that no poppies had grown where I’d planted them.

That next spring, I planted poppy seeds in the same place, and watched closely as sprouts appeared and then vanished within a few days. I wondered about soil conditions, but finally realized that wild animals in our yard like the flavor of poppy sprouts. Rabbits, woodchucks, squirrels, or chipmunks—I didn’t know, but there was little doubt they were biting off the tops of the plants before the plants could get established.

I laid off the poppy effort for a few years, but then heard Peter, Paul, & Mary’s recording of No Man’s Land written by Eric Bogle, and I really wanted to have poppies in my yard—as a reminder of the song’s sentiment (see my previous blog entry for more about the song). A verse of the song describes a graveyard in France where WWI soldiers are buried:

The sun it shines down on these green fields of France,
The warm wind blows gently, the red poppies dance…

Hearing the song—thinking about the song—makes me sad… and it further romanticizes alpine fields of red poppies.

I planted poppy seeds around a bush along the South border of our front yard. This time, one plant survived. I planted seeds there the next spring in the shadow of the lone poppy plant, and again the next spring when no new plants emerged. My wife planted again the next year, with one new plant resulting.

The good news is that once that poppy established itself, it proved indestructible. There is usually green visible all year except when snow covers it, and the plant puts out more leaves and more blossoms each spring. In five or six years, the two plants we’ve managed to start from seed may expand around the base of the bush and provide a gorgeous springtime bouquet that dances in the warm winds of spring.

Each spring for four years, I’ve marveled at the intense color and at the extreme contrasts of the poppy. The petals are soft—almost diaphanous; the leaves and stems are coarse—almost prickly. Seeing the leaves erupt in the spring, the hairy buds, and the glowing flowers makes me happy; the reminder of alpine meadows and graveyards in France makes me sad.

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Filed Under (rural life) by admin on 05-27-2008

Lewisburg sponsors a very modest annual Memorial Day parade. It involves a handful of veterans from various wars, the high school marching band, and a bunch of emergency vehicles—fire trucks, police cars, and ambulances. The parade goes through the center of town, and turns toward a cemetery that sits between the high school and the University.

The parade draws a respectable audience, and many follow along to the cemetery where veterans perform a ceremony in honor of the soldiers who never became veterans. One or two people address the crowd, using a sound system that is woefully inadequate; most attendees, I’m sure, cannot make out what the speakers say. During the ceremony, one of the veterans places a wreath on the grave of a fallen soldier.

In the years that I’ve attended these parades and ceremonies, I have come away very sad. I think about soldiering: about putting yourself out there with the chance that you’ll never again enjoy the very things for which you’re fighting. I think about the absoluteness of death—of violent death in a foreign place, while doing something you almost certainly didn’t want to be doing in the first place. I think about the kids who go directly from high school to war to the grave. I think of the chronic uneasiness a parent must feel when a son or daughter ships out to a war zone—and the absolute despair of learning your progeny’s tour ended along with his or her life.

While memorializing our dead soldiers raises in me feelings of awe and respect… and intense gratefulness, my sadness emerges from the certainty that the killing and dying will continue long into the future. It arises from a mental review of history that reveals war as a cornerstone of civilization. It arises from the USA’s young two hundred thirty years peppered heavily with armed conflict.

While standing at the Memorial Day service, I heard in my mind the third verse of the song, “No Man’s Land” written by Eric Bogle about a 19 year old soldier who died in World War I:

I can’t help but wonder now, Willie McBride:
Do all those who lie here know just why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
Did you really believe this war would end all wars?
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
You see, Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 05-19-2008

My daughter has expressed considerable interest in owning a horse. I like the idea, but balk at the expense and at the amount of work involved. My dream, when we left the city, was to move to a farm where having horses would have been a minor additional load—once you have a pasture to provide food, and a barn to provide housing, moving a horse in is a small step. However, if you live in a house in a subdivision, you must buy land, develop pasture, add a barn, drill a well, pay to have electric service added, and otherwise toil to prepare for a horse… unless you buy a farm—but then why did you buy a house in a subdivision?

So, there is a major intersection between my daughter’s dream of owning a horse, and my dream of living on a farm. But my daughter hasn’t been particularly whiny or persuasive about her dream… in fact, while she’s shown a lot of interest in horses, only recently did she start making bold, declarative statements about her wants—statements such as, “I want to own a horse,” and “We should live on a farm.”

So, to entertain our mutual dreams, on our way back from my daughter’s last horse-riding lesson, I took her for a drive past some of the farms I find particularly appealing. Along the road leading to my last sight-seeing destination, we came upon a large fenced pasture with a farm pond and a bunch of cows hanging around in the shade of a wooded area. On a hillside, far from the crowd of cows, was a small evergreen tree that had the attention of a solo cow who was enthusiastically rubbing its head in the branches of the tree.

My daughter and I watched for several minutes, musing about the cow’s relationship to the tree: Does the cow rub its neck often, we mused, or is this a rare treat that we happened onto at just the right moment? Does this cow have exclusive rights to the tree, or do the cows take turns scratching their heads and necks? Does the poor tree sometimes suffer abuse from several cows at once?

After a time, we noticed evidence that that lone tree drew considerable attention from the cow—or cows—in the pasture: there was a dirt track worn on the ground around it. Someone has spent enough time at the tree to kill off the vegetation that grew at its roots.

I imagine that being hairy and standing around outside most of your life might result in at least some skin irritation. I think if my cow spent so much time scratching itself, I’d take a break from the rest of the farm work, and give the poor animal a bath.

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Filed Under (rural life) by admin on 05-14-2008

I hate house sparrows. These beasts, also called English sparrows, are an invasive bird species that aggressively abuses native birds. A house sparrow is a rather drab brown and tan bird. It’s small and fearless, nesting among humans in just about any available nook or crevasse.

If a house sparrow has a song, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it. I have heard a house sparrow’s annoying, persistent chirp—the same grating tone again and again and again. A house sparrow chirps this way as it blockades entries to nesting boxes; impedes access to feeders; and generally harasses other birds, squirrels, chipmunks, dogs, and people.

In contrast, there are several bird species native to the United States that have all kinds of character and color. For example, the robin has its trademarked red breast and, while it also will nest anywhere and chirp harassingly, it tends to ignore birds or other species, and it offers up real songs from time to time.

There are far more exciting natives, and from occasional articles in the local paper, you’d think these birds would be easy to attract… actually, they are easy to attract. I hung a nesting box one spring, and almost immediately a bluebird couple moved into it. Another spring, I raised a twelve-room purple martin condominium twenty feet above my back yard, and purple martins came! (Purple martins are swallow-tailed birds that are blue on top and cream underneath–well, the adult males are all blue. They soar and swoop over a neighborhood, chowing on insects and flashing purple when the sunlight hits them just so.)

Most cool of all: every season that we’ve bothered to hang a hummingbird feeder, hummingbirds have come. When the garden fills with blossoms, we don’t even need a feeder to attract hummers… they arrive anyway.

Now for the ugly part: within a day of the bluebirds moving into my nesting box, house sparrows started harassing them, and a day later the bluebirds left. Within a day of the purple martins moving into my condominiums, house sparrows harassed them and a day later the martins were gone. (Thankfully, house sparrows care nothing of hummingbirds.)

This spring, a pair of Carolina wrens discovered the purple martin condos (now standing only six feet above the yard), and nested in one of them. A Carolina wren is a very small brown bird with a tight, intricate pattern woven into its feathers—as though it’s wearing a fine tweed. Wrens actually sing, and they’re uncommon enough, that it’s always a pleasure to see them flitting around the garden.

Of course, the bad boy house sparrows descended on the purple martin condos, strutting in front of the entrance to the wrens’ home, and chirping that bone-headed chirp. The wrens—smaller birds than the sparrows—stood their ground. They didn’t directly challenge the sparrows, but they stayed on the nearby garden fence, on the play set, and on the ground beneath the martin condos. The sparrows carried on for hours, but I saw the next day that the Carolina wrens were still coming and going at their purple martin condo home.

I’m glad that some native American birds can hold their own against house sparrows. The bird books encourage: If you encounter these bad boys of birds, kill them. I haven’t figured out how to do that without breaking a law. But, when I find house sparrow nests in my yard, I destroy them repeatedly, seeing the sparrows rebuild day-after-day until finally they leave, or they build somewhere else out of my reach.

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Filed Under (my country home) by admin on 05-09-2008

On a few very special mornings each year, there is a nearly surreal nature show in the fields of rural communities. Overnight, thousands of spiders hang webs on nearly every stalk, twig, and blade of grass. That in itself may not make a great show—under normal circumstances you might not even notice the fine threads of the webs. But when atmospheric conditions are just right, a heavy dew gathers on the webs, turning them into clouds in the morning light: clouds in the weeds; wispy puffs of white.

When I see the webs on those dewy mornings, I marvel at how many spiders must live in every cubic yard of field-space. Can those webs capture enough insects to feed all the spiders? Are they all built by the same type of spider? If there are so many of this one type of spider, how many of every other crawly critter must there be? On a short walk through a meadow, it follows that I’m disturbing hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions of spiders and insects!

They don’t seem to mind… in fact, for all the insects and spiders that must surround us, it’s amazing how few of them we actually see.

In any case, nature produces these awesome shows but a few mornings each year. I wish a photograph could do justice to the subtle beauty of a meadow of spider web clouds.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 05-06-2008

Cocoa has a no-kill, bring-them-back alive sensibility as she hunts for ticks in the woods in our neighborhood. I remove a tick by grabbing it and slowly pulling it away from Cocoa’s skin. Sometimes the tick lets go, sometimes its abdomen pops off, leaving the rest to die and fall out days or weeks later. The bump over Cocoa’s eye is what’s left of a tick that didn’t let go.

My dog, Cocoa, is a hunting dog. She is a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, bred to float easily, and to withstand cold water in cold weather. As a lab, she is good-natured and very patient; the patience is a hunting instinct that would let a Labrador Retriever sneak up on prey while standing in plain sight. Perhaps you’ve seen a dog with this instinct at work:

The intended prey may be chewing grass or nibbling nuts on the ground. When the dog spots the prey—let’s say the prey is a rabbit eating dandelions—the dog freezes, gauging whether the rabbit has noticed. If the rabbit is calm, the dog keeps its gaze locked and gingerly moves forward. When the rabbit moves, the dog freezes. When the rabbit looks unconcerned, the dog moves.

As the lab gets closer to the rabbit, the dog may start to drool. The intensity of its expression and its steadfast deliberation can make the dog look deranged; if you didn’t see the rabbit, you’d consider calling a veterinarian or a humane officer.

Rabbits (and squirrels in the same situation) can be surprisingly oblivious: I’ve seen a squirrel look directly at a stalking dog just five feet away, and then go back to gnawing whatever it had in its hands.

So, the lab continues to inch forward until the rabbit is actually inside the dog’s mouth (in the case of a dim, inexperienced rabbit), or until the rabbit bolts. In the second scenario, the dog also bolts, and a foot race ensues until the rabbit is safely beyond the reach of the dog… or the rabbit is inside the dog’s mouth.

Cocoa’s Special Hunting Skill

Cocoa has demonstrated an uncanny hunting ability that I doubt dog breeders anticipated when they were mixing up Labrador Retriever genes. Rabbits and squirrels are safe in my neighborhood; Cocoa the purebred Chocolate Lab hunts for ticks. Amazingly, she doesn’t need to stalk or sneak or employ any stealth technology. She simply crashes about in the undergrowth and invariably captures several small pets each year.

I’ve pulled ticks off of her in spring, summer, fall, and even winter—it seems that a few warm days in winter can rouse those nasty arachnids and turn them into easy targets… easy targets for my amazing hunting dog to score. I never pulled a tick off a dog in the city; Cocoa’s special ability would be wasted there.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 05-02-2008

Until her hatchlings were big enough to strike out on their own, this mother made her home in my garden—coming and going through an opening I made in the fence just for her.

For the past four or five years, rabbits have made their homes in the yard of my country home. Two years in a row, I failed to get my vegetable garden in shape before there was a rabbit nesting in the humus I’d applied in the fall. The first year, the female rabbit dug down through grass clippings into the soil and gave birth to three babies in that hole.

One day, rain fell so heavily that every depression in my yard filled with standing water. It occurred to me that this couldn’t be good for the bunnies, and sure enough: when I peeked at the nest, I saw the babies had drowned.

Fenced In Rabbit

In the next season, I finished planting my garden and I erected the rabbit fence I’d built years earlier. I noticed immediately that a rabbit was eying the fence and looking a little anxious… and it dawned on me that this rabbit was a mommy and I had just cut off access to her babies. I opened a panel in the fence, and shared my garden for several weeks as two out of three rabbit puppies grew big enough to leave the garden and seek their fortunes. (A third baby died a few days after the bunnies left their nest.)

I haven’t had rabbits in the garden for a few years now, but last year one laid eggs under the forsythia in the front yard, and this year there’s a nest under the shrubs that grow outside my office windows.

Rural Living with an Old Friend

I like to think that this year’s mommy rabbit is the same one that started in my garden so many years ago. During that second year when we shared my garden, she showed little fear toward me. In subsequent years, mommy rabbit has shown the same fearlessness—letting me get within about six feet before freezing in preparation to bolt. Last night, for example, I walked past her to my car, opened the door, and sat on the seat as she lay in the grass next to the driveway.

I’ve come to like the wild rabbits for three reasons: 1. They’re cute. 2. They require almost no care—as if I have pets but I don’t have to do anything for them. 3. They eat weeds. I’ve seen this again and again over the years: mommy rabbit lays flat on her stomach and daintily snips a dandelion stem off close to the ground. Then she pulls the stem into her mouth bite-by-bite—vaguely suggesting the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-28-2008

Mommy duck maintains complete discipline with her twelve offspring. On land, her brood stays close to her. She was very gracious about posing for this photo.

Every season has its virtues, but spring, I think, has most of all. When the snow finally goes, the woods begin a subtle transformation from browns and grays. First, the undergrowth develops a vague cloud of green. Then the crowns of the trees turn several shades of red and purple and, from a distance, the forest delivers a color show as interesting as that of autumn, but considerably subdued. Eventually, the leaf scales pop, and a yellow-green haze lingers for a week or so as the trees make seeds. Finally, leaves emerge and the woods become nearly fully green.

As plants awaken, rabbits, mice, woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, and opossum appear more frequently. The birds change—not individual birds, but rather the types of birds you see. Varieties that have gone for the winter return, and some that merely pass through as they migrate appear for a time, and then not again till fall.

Reproduction is a Spring Sport

Most entertaining to me as spring unfolds is the explosive reproduction taking place all around. Usually, rabbits make puppies somewhere in my yard—under a bush, in a pile of leaves, or in my garden. Three or four varieties of birds nest in the trees in my yard. This year it looks as though a song sparrow has settled, a house sparrow (as always), and a robin or two. Most entertaining of all: there are ducks in the neighborhood.

Year-after-year there has been at least one pair of ducks that eventually produces a crop of ducklings. While our local ducklings haven’t hatched, it’s easy to spot herds of ducklings all over Lewisburg.

At the golf course yesterday, I watched a mother waddling along with twelve ducklings. There’s a similar family there every year. Usually, they hang around for several weeks as the number of ducklings decreases gradually. It’s clear why the duck hatches so many eggs: with cats, dogs, cars, and hawks lurking, a duckling has a lot of obstacles to avoid if it’s going to become a duck.

Survivel Strategies of Yore

It would be hard for humans to rely on this strategy for survival: Imagine the emotional issues if our offspring were more likely to die in childhood than they were to grow into adults. It’s sobering to realize that not even a hundred years ago, the odds were close to that bad; people hatched a lot of babies to ensure that at least some of them would reach adulthood.

Sobered, I’m going to enjoy the ducklings while I can. Watching twelve of them follow one mother suggests controlled chaos. The ducklings move in twelve directions at once, taking as many paths, yet they arrive together wherever they go. It’s comical. It’s fun. It’s spring!

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-26-2008

I’ve played more than 100 golf courses, but only a handful where using a driver on the tee consistently got me into trouble. A “thinking person’s” course should make you consider where to aim your drive, what club to use on your approach, where to miss if you make a mistake, and how to play recovery shots. If “thinking” means, “I wonder how many yards to the first green-sized patch of fairway,” and you’re not playing a par three, something is very wrong with the hole.

Please forgive me if you’re looking for a vignette about rural living… today I’m stewing about a golf-related issue, and this whole entry is about golf. I try not to spend so much time on golf, but I have a bit of an addiction problem with the game, so it’s likely to come up from time-to-time.

You might remember my friend who likes yard work. I helped him dispose of sod he removed from his lawn: we loaded it onto his truck there, and unloaded it onto a low spot in my yard. He told me it’s OK to refer to him by name… it’s Heber. By way of thanks for the heavy lifting and the local landfill access, Heber treated me to a day of golf in the Poconos.

A Great Day Out?

We left home at 5:30 AM and drove about an hour and fifteen minutes to a resort for a morning round, lunch, and then an afternoon round. It was my kind of golf day; I’d play from dawn-till-dusk every day if I could afford it (and if my body held up).

The first round held serious promise as we left the starter’s area: a wild turkey scurried off the tee box and into the woods. We faced a par five that began with a massively down-hill tee shot, but the fairway turned sharply to the right at what our scorecard told us was about 180 yards away. We couldn’t see anything past that turn, so we wondered: can we safely cut the corner? How far do we have to carry the ball to safety? Should we lay up off the tee?

When I Wonder: Are They Kidding?

Information on the score card didn’t help—nor did the GPS computer mounted on the golf cart. Never having seen the course, all we could do was guess what to do. That’s a common problem with a first round on any course… and the reason we were playing two rounds on the same course. On the first round, we’d learn the layout enough that we could play intelligently on our second round.

So, I made mental notes of the holes: where were the safe landing areas from the tee boxes, and how far would I have to hit the ball to reach them? Unfortunately, cataloging this information led to disappointment: the course represented some of the most offensive design elements conceived in golf.

On fully nine holes that were par of either four or five, using a driver on the tee would be a mistake. What could you do with a driver on those holes? Blow the ball through a dogleg, or hit the ball into a waste area or hazard that crossed the fairway. On the twelfth hole, for example, hitting a driver straight ahead off the tee would send your ball over a bunker and into a heavy growth of mountain laurel. Cutting a driver over the corner of the fairway’s dogleg with modest fade would land the ball in the middle of the fairway, but the ball would bounce forward into a waste area that crosses in front of the green.

Oh, so it’s Par Three Golf

The correct play on the first hole—a par five—was to hit a five iron into a landing area, and then either blast a fairway wood at the green for a low-percentage shot, or pop a nine iron down to another landing area from where a second nine iron could reach the green. Basically, you’re playing three par three holes and calling it a par five.

I’m a happy golfer when I play a course that rewards me for good hits with a driver on all or most of the par fours and fives. I can forgive, perhaps, one or two cheesy holes where I have to hit a green-sized target with a lay up, and then play a similar approach to the green. So, while I had a great day out with Heber, and the course was gorgeous, I won’t play there again. With so many tricked-up fairways, you start to wonder why there aren’t windmills and clown faces on the greens.

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The old peach tree that came with my house rotted through and fell over two seasons ago. Still, it’s covered with flowers, and is likely to produce a decent crop this year. Woodchucks like this dying tree. In the fall they stand on their hind legs to reach the lowest peaches, and in the winter they chew on the tender bark (as you can see on the branch in the lower-right of the photo).

My county home came with three apple trees, a peach tree, and a pear tree. Having this convenient source of free fruit suits me very well: if I’m growing plants in my yard, I want them to provide food for me. Unfortunately, fruit trees are challenging.

As plants go, fruit trees are among the stupidest. They may produce flowers any time in April… with no regard for when the last frost is going to hit. Some years, this means a late frost destroys a tree’s young fruit. If trees had any brains, they’d keep their buds closed until after the last frost.

Fruit trees have no sense about their own personal space. They grow branches every which-way, filling spaces between branches with more branches. New growth shades out old growth, and branches often collide with and cross each other. In wind, they rub together causing damage where insects and fungus can take hold. To keep trees healthy and promote healthy fruit-production on all the branches, it’s important to prune the excess growth—usually in late winter.

Fruit Trees are Uncooperative

Fruit trees don’t automatically do what’s best for the fruit-eater. For example, trees with hardy roots often produce fruit that isn’t particularly appealing to eat. Roots of trees that make delectable fruit may succumb easily to insects, rot, and other problems. Many of the fruit trees you buy in a garden store have a desirable fruit variety grafted onto a hardy root of a different variety.

When there is no killing frost, a tree can produce thousands of flowers. If all the flowers mature, they’ll produce small fruits. Professional fruit growers pluck hundreds of undeveloped fruits, leaving only a few on each branch to mature by the end of the season. The survivors are often two or three times as large as they’d be without that early culling.

My pear and peach tree aren’t healthy. In fact, three years ago, we planted a second peach tree because the old one looks ready to go. How ready? The main trunk rotted part way through, and the entire crown of the tree fell over two years ago. But the healthy wood of the trunk didn’t break—it bent.

Last year, with its crown resting on the ground, that old tree produced a whole bunch of rather small, very sweet peaches… and this year the crown is covered once again with flowers. I imagine in a week or two I’ll be out there plucking off nascent peaches so the ones that survive the summer grow large.

Getting a Fruit Harvest Requires Work

All my other fruit trees are also covered with flowers—more than I remember from any past spring. This means work. While I want to eat the peaches pears and apples, so do hundreds of thousands of insects. They’re already lurking, but I can’t take action until the blossoms drop—anything that discourages fruit-eating insects can also put off the bees that will pollinate the flowers. I’ll need to spray the trees with bug repellent repeatedly through the spring and summer.

So, by the time I’ve done the winter pruning, the mid-spring culling, and the repeated bug spraying, I’ll have spent, perhaps, twenty hours messing with my trees. The bug spray will cost twenty or thirty dollars by the end of the season. Of course, I also have to pick the fruit, but that’s no more work than buying it at a farmers’ market.

If all goes well, I’ll end up with four or five bushels of apples, and, perhaps, a bushel each of pears and peaches. It’s a terrific return on such a modest investment.

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