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

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 14-05-2008

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, rural life, rural living) by admin on 02-05-2008

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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