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

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 26-04-2008

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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