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, 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 (my country home, rural living) by admin on 28-03-2008

The 9-month-old, shriveled ornamental cherries at the end of our driveway attract Hitchcockean numbers of hungry robins when winter holds on past the end of February.

Migratory birds apparently don’t have the inside track on knowing when spring-like weather will start. Some years, it comes as early as the first week of March. Other years, it doesn’t come until April. The birds arrive pretty much at the same time each year.

This year, robins arrived from the south as usual in the last week of February. Snow still covered the ground, and it was very cold. I imagine that from a robin’s point of view, arriving in Lewisburg in February seemed like a huge mistake.

During warm weather, when I see a robin eating, it’s almost always eating worms. Though, just before our blueberries are ripe enough for human consumption, robins pluck them from the plants. I also remember as a kid seeing robins in my dad’s strawberry patch—presumably, snacking away. A Google search reveals variety in a robin’s diet: insects and fruit of all kinds. But it’s hard to imagine any of that being available in the snow and cold of late February… except for the ornamental cherries.

There’s an ornamental cherry tree nearly on the property line between my neighbor’s and my driveways. In late spring, gorgeous flowers cover the tree, and when the leaves drop away in the fall, bunches of tiny cherries cling to the ends of the branches. With the extreme cold and late-season snow, quite recently that tree was also covered with robins. There weren’t just a handful of robins; there must have been fifty or more kicking about in the tree. Apparently, in the absence of worms, caterpillars, insects, and fresh fruit, dried up ornamental cherries are good stuff.

The snow has melted, there has been another storm, and the snow has melted again. In fact, the lawn is starting to turn green, and there are worm castings between the blades of grass. Judging from the lack of robins in the tree, there is more interesting food available than nine-month-old dried up ornamental cherries. Maybe next year the robins will wait until mid-March to return from the south. I’d wait until May.

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Filed Under (my country home, rural life, rural living) by admin on 06-03-2008

Only two days ago, four inches of snow covered most of the secrets in my yard.  With the snow gone, a couple of unfinished jobs have become apparent, and the first flowers of the year have appeared.

Two days of rain nearly melted off all the snow. It also revealed secrets: reminders that last fall, I left some projects for the spring. With the snow off the lawn, I see the grass is quite long. My son had stopped mowing in the fall when a cable popped loose on my mower. I’ll need to get that fixed before the turf thaws.

I see that both garden hoses still slither through the grass—well-entwined no doubt because we rolled them out after the last mowing, and left them as the grass grew over them. Oddly, a spray nozzle sits on the grass rather than in it, and I wonder if I had taken the nozzle off and tossed it aside when I gave the dog her last bath of the season.

The leaf pile my kids raked together in the fall has become a massive dead spot on the front lawn. Believe it or not, I wanted the leaves to kill the grass there—I plan to plant Zoysia this spring (a patch I planted three years ago now lives up to the claims in advertisements), and it’ll be easier to cut the plugs into bare ground than it is to cut them in through growing grass.

I’m not surprised to find other items kicking about the yard: there are a few lawn chairs, a jump rope embedded in the lawn even deeper than the garden hoses, a spool that’s supposed to hold one of the hoses, many golf balls frozen in puddles left by the rain, and a basketball half-covered by the forsythia bushes.

Just two days ago, the entire yard was beneath four inches of snow. Today, there are puddles standing on frozen turf. Until the sun struck them, those puddles were iced over. Still, there are daffodil sprouts in the garden, and on the south side of the house, one crocus blossom peaks out from under the leaves. Yard work has become inevitable.

I get no pleasure from doing yard work, but I stumble through the minimal to keep my neighbors from complaining. I did some serious rationalization and procrastination in the fall, and winter snows hid my secrets. The thaw has laid them bare.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 05-03-2008

A small creek runs through Lewisburg’s most elaborate park—the bridge in the photo spans the creek’s normal width. On dry, warm days, the playground area is busy with preschoolers, and you might find folks playing basketball and tennis. When we have enough rain, much of the park goes under, and the township closes nearby roads. Ducks enjoy the park under any conditions.

Yesterday’s flood watch stretched into this afternoon. The rain finally stopped overnight, but flooding often follows hours after the last raindrop. This thawing rain proves it. By the time people headed into work this morning, low-lying roads were closed all over central Pennsylvania, but flooding rivers and streams won’t crest until tomorrow.

Floods turn so many of us into gawkers. Most days, the local rivers and streams look lazy; you can wade safely in many of them. How cool it is, then, when 24 hours’ rain and accelerated snow-melt turn them into raging rapids. On these days, “river watchers” take up posts where they can see the water rise. Today, they reported the Susquehanna River deepening by a foot every hour.

In the aftermath of a hurricane when I lived in Boston, I once saw a car nearly submerged in an underpass that had filled with water. Amazingly, that’s the worst flooding I ever saw there. The sewer system in the city must be sensational to provide drainage for even modest rain storms… there’s almost no place for water to soak in in a city, so if there weren’t massive powerful rivers underground, the streets would often be under water.

I noticed an odd change in my basement office today: the floor is so cold that it seems to radiate coldness. The floor is never warm, but neither has it ever been cold as it is now. I guess the rain and snow melt have raised the water table to my house’s cement slab, and they’re acting as coolant. All winter, socks have kept my feet warm in here, but today I’m wearing shoes as well and my feet are still cold. It’s a minor inconvenience when I consider the hours that commuters have lost due to closed roads, and the aggravation many of my neighbors will experience as the water recedes and leaves their homes and businesses soaked and muddy.

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Filed Under (rural life, rural living) by admin on 04-03-2008

Water gathers on the edge of the shingles before dripping into the rain gutter. Dark skies and the sound of rain on the roof sometimes make me envy my dog’s schedule: up at dawn, and back to bed an hour later.

When the weather service announces a flood watch, it’s likely there’s going to be rain. Lewisburg sits in a river valley, so we can see flooding even when the rain falls elsewhere. Today’s flood watch, however, has come with a dark, overcast sky and a steady cold rain.

When I’ve grown weary of winter, a dreary rainy day can actually raise my spirits. While there are several reasons, one really stands out: If it’s raining, chances are the snow is melting.

As long as the field across from my house is covered with snow, winter is in charge. There’s no planting the spring garden (lettuce, spinach, peas, and some herbs don’t mind cold, but you can’t work the soil when it’s under a blanket of snow); there’s no soccer on the grass; there’s no golf.

Around here, the snow is usually gone by early March… and I’m poised to bolt for the outdoors. But late-winter snow—and rain melting it away—means lots of early-spring mud. So, while the rain melts the snow and raises my spirits, at least this year my favorite outdoor activities seem destined to start late.

In the meantime, the flood watch does provide entertainment. Ponds will appear where there usually are none. Drainage ditches that are dry most of the year will run deep with water, or even overflow onto roads. There will be deep puddles to spray with the car’s tires into people’s yards. There will be ducks swimming in some of those yards. There will be one kid—the same one as always—wading knee-deep in the runoff when I pick my kids up at school.

Inside, the dog will seem a little cuddlier than on most days (and she’ll probably sleep more soundly)… but she’ll reach a nadir of popularity when she demands to go out—without a fenced yard, when she goes, someone must go with her.

It’s a small inconvenience; spring is almost here.

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