Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees

Native ginger emerging
Spring is coming on by fits and starts, mostly fits so far, which is appropriate for our continental
Bloodroot, past bloom already
climate, but frustrating after a record cold and snowy winter. Yet I’ve noticed that my native plants are coming along just fine. The ginger, which is always expanding its area, has suddenly jumped after two years of slow movement. In the fall the patch was about two and a half feet in diameter. After months of snow, it is three feet wide, moving in among the native strawberries. The honeysuckle draped over the fence is bushier and healthier than in several years. A single bloodroot has become several. Various other prairie plants are emerging slowly, as they always do, waiting until sure the season has definitely turned, but clearly thriving.

Why is this? Did it take this long for full recovery from the effects of the drought in 2012? Do these plants really respond better to cold winters than the string of warm ones we’ve had for a few years straight?

Robin. After reading What the Robin Knows, I've become much more conscious of bird behavior in relation to my presence. A friend of mine told me that the same robin has come back to his yard for the third year in a row, a bird easily identifiable due to a genetic mutation that has caused  white streaks in its red breast. I have often noticed that the robin in my back yard seems to know me, though it doesn't have easy i.d. markers. It’s always about, standing stock still in the middle of the yard, or pecking at the ground to pull some hapless insect up for eating with relish. I’ve seen it chase another robin away. When I go outside, as long as I move respectfully, it watches me with its fairly large, white-rimmed black eye, and doesn’t fly away, or give any kind of alarm. It does keep a distance of several feet, moving backwards or sideways as I move towards it. It also seems very interested in my digging, delving, weeding and planting activities and seems to follow me around the garden as I work, often sitting on the fence nearby, watching me and everything else going on.

What are its birdy thoughts? How does it view me? Am I an interloper, keeping it from its own morning rounds? Is it hoping I’ll turn up a tasty worm for it? Does it see me as simply another denizen?

Cooper's Hawk from below
Cooper's Hawk. Another local bird that seems to have no fear of me—or much else, for that matter, is the Cooper’s hawk that’s taken up residence in the neighborhood. I assume there are actually two, and that there’s a nest somewhere nearby. One several occasions in the last month I’ve noticed it up in the maple in front of the house, watching intently as I move about. Viewed from below, its brown wings and streaked breast blend right in with the pattern of bark, branches and sky, so it’s hard to spot: but the noise it makes is unmistakable, an almost squirrel-like scolding. After I stop moving, it shuts up. All is still for a moment. Zoom! It takes off down the street flying at speed below the canopy, straight as a torpedo, not noticeably slowing as it disappears into a tree 150 feet away.

If I didn’t know that Cooper’s hawks hunt songbirds, would I still think of their affect as fierce? It’s definitely not so friendly as the robin in the back yard. Do I imagine the hawk’s glare is sharper and fiercer, or is it a trick of the shape of eye and bone structure? After all, the robin is also a predator.

An enduring mystery is where the bumblebees that frequent my backyard have their nests. Every spring two or more young queens zoom around my yard with a zig-zaggy flight pattern peculiar to them, feeding and getting ready to nest. They are drawn to the patch of Vinca minor I tolerate purely for their pleasure, working the little blue flowers, but also apparently sleeping, or at least resting, in among the foliage. Later in the season, of course, males congregate on the blooming cup plants. And all summer numerous workers visit the yard, which is, after all, designed to attract them. Yet they don’t seem to nest in the yard. I wish they would, for then I would know they are relatively safe. I often imagine I’ll follow them down the alley or across the street and discover their homes; but they can fly where I cannot trespass, so I may never know. They nest under prairie grasses’ dry last-year’s leaf hummocks and in disused rodent holes in the ground, both of which the yard has, but no luck so far.

Why do the bumblebees find my yard a great pasture area, possibly even a good place to winter over, but not a good place to settle in and raise a family? What element is missing? Or what am I missing? Could there be a nesting area I’m simply overlooking? I must keep sharper watch this summer.

Related Posts:
Listen to What the Birds are Saying
Spring Dispatches from the Backyard
Happy Spring!
Non-native Plants I Won't Deep Six

Monday, April 14, 2014

April is Poetry Month 2014: Kumin's "The Brown Mountain"

Maxine Kumin
This past year, we have lost fine poets that I grew up reading. Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Maxine Kumin all made nature their poetic home and the source of their word-hoards.  Each was from a different home ecosystem and thus utilized different language and imagery. Yet their subject matter carried in common the themes of beauty, death, love, and life with others that great lyric poetry entails. Walcott’s high-flown eloquence, Heaney’s stubborn earthiness, Kumin’s plain speech; all are worth reading and savoring.

Just recently I was out in the backyard stirring my still-frozen compost heap, muttering incantations--imprecations--under my breath as I endeavored to wake it up for spring.  Maxine Kumin lived on a horse farm, and her compost heap was of another order entirely. For Poetry Month this year I present her meditation on compost.

The Brown Mountain

What dies out of us and our creatures,
out of our fields and gardens,
comes slowly back to improve us:
the entire mat of nasturtiums
after frost has blackened them,
sunflower heads the birds have picked clean, the still
sticky stalks of milkweed
torn from the pasture, coffee grounds,
eggshells, moldy potatoes,
the tough little trees that once 
were crowded with brussels sprouts,
tomatoes cat-faced or bitten into
by inquisitive chipmunks,
gargantuan cucumbers gone soft
from repose. Not the corn stalks and shucks,
not windfall apples. These
are sanctified by the horses.
The lettuces are revised
as rabbit pellets, holy with nitrogen.
Whatever fodder is offered the sheep
comes back to us as raisins
of useful dung.

Compost is our future.
The turgid brown mountain
steams, releasing
the devil's own methane vapor,
cooking our castoffs so that from
our spatterings and embarrassments--
cat vomit, macerated mice,
rotten squash, burst berries,
a mare's placenta, failed melons,
dog hair, hoof parings--arises
a rapture of blackest humus.
Dirt to top-dress, dig in. Dirt fit
for the gardens of commoner and king.
 (From Where I Live: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010)

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