Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, November 22, 2020

When Timing Is Everything

I am no expert. I do not have the training to understand what trees need to grow and thrive aside from the basics of sunlight and water. But this coronavirus year of 2020, which has been topsy-turvy in so many ways, has changed the dynamics of the trees in my front and back yard. 

In this case, events worked in my favor.

All in a day's work. There are more leaves on either
side of what you see here. Nov. 21, 2000
(Margo D. Beller)

I've written before of my front yard black locust trees. The ones on my property - planted on the orders of some long-ago functionary on my town's shade tree commission - are all male trees except for one female. The locusts are the first trees to drop their small, yellow leaves and long stems everywhere I walk. These are the leaves that get tracked into the house.

The amount of long, black locust seed pods on the female tree varies from year to year. Some years, when the tree is full of them, a wind storm drops so many pods the lawn turns black in some areas. Raking them is heavy, tiring work but at least it is only one tree. Several houses down the street have double the work.

Some years, especially the year after a bountiful year, fewer pods are produced, as tho' the tree is catching her breath. This turned out to be one such year, as it was for my apple tree and the white oaks' acorns. Most of the pods came down in one strong wind storm, and because they were so close to the curb there was less distance to rake them. What few were left hanging came down the other week after a particularly violent storm, where the squall line was thin and intense, the wind blowing the heavy rain to look like waves on my street. What detritus was washed away.

The apple tree provided few fruits this year, a relief
for me and the house wren that nests in the box
I put there. (Margo D. Beller)
Meanwhile, in the backyard, oak leaves came raining down earlier than usual. We had our first frost in mid-October and had a week of freezing temperatures, followed by a period of warmer than usual temperatures before a hard freeze at month's end. And we had rain. The white oak, ash (what I once thought were elm trees) and maple trees dropped their leaves seeming at once, thickly covering the grass. 

Luckily, MH had plans to do one more mowing and was able to mulch all the leaves. Mulched leaves help the lawn by decomposing and providing nutrients. Mulching leaves also means not having to rake them into loose piles in the street for the town to take away, presuming the November winds don't blow them back.

After the last intense storm - and we have had a number of intense rain and wind storms this season - I realized all the white oak leaves were off the trees. In fact, all the leaves were off all the trees (except for the red oak trees in the next yard; leaves on the lower part of these trees will stay on until spring), including the apple, the pear and the dogwood. The viburnum shrub still had leaves, which turned a deep bronze (so deep I had to look closely to see if the berries were still there; they were). But that was it. Even the walnut tree in the front yard on the border between our property and a neighbor's had dropped all its leaves. Many has been the year when we've finished with the oak leaves, generally the last to fall, only to find the walnut still leafy, giving me more work to remove the thin, red-brown leaves for weeks after.

So aside from sweeping up baskets full of leaves that had accumulated on the back patio and putting them into compost, I had done very little raking this year. That changed yesterday.

First, I went out with my rake to pull leaves away from the house, the areas at the base of the feeder poles, the flood wall, the patch where I have ornamental grasses. Then, as the leaf blowers elsewhere started their racket, I put on my noise-cancelling earmuffs and began my own blowing. Once MH got himself together we started hauling big tarps full of leaves to the street - ultimately, five tarps full. I left the leaves that piled up around shrubs and other plants. These leaves will get raked out and composted in the spring when the growing begins.

It is essential dahlia tubers be completely
dry before they are stored so they don't rot. This
was one of the many chores I did earlier
than I had last year. (Margo D. Beller)

Yes, it was aching work. The raking put a blister on my hand despite protective gloves while the blower's vibrations affected my arms and hands. MH's sore knees made hauling the tarps to the curb slow work for me and at one point I stepped wrong and hurt my ankle. But the job is done - what blows onto the lawn will stay there until the next time MH mows. Soon enough I expect snow to blanket the lawn anyway.

I keep a sort of almanac on old calendars. Today I looked at it. I didn't mark the last day we raked but last year - when I was underemployed until December and we traveled to Maryland and then to NH during November - I handled my winter prep chores in early November. This year, when I've been working at home and have no plans to travel very far for the holidays, I did those same chores on the last day of October, which was a Saturday. Why so early? On that day, I woke up to find the foliage blackened on the cannas and dahlias, and the coleus plants dead. So I composted and stored for winter. Last year I could do these same chores over the course of several weeks, maybe because 2019 was one of the warmest years ever.

Was the roller coaster of freeze followed by warmer than normal temperatures followed by freeze this year why the oak and walnut trees dropped their leaves so early or why were there fewer acorns, apples and locust pods? Was it the long periods of summer dryness after a wet, cool spring? Or were the trees as stressed as we humans are by what is going on around us in this pandemic year? Did climate change play more of a part than usual?

As I said, I'm no expert. I just know what I see. The relief of finishing one of the year's hardest chores is tempered by a vague sense of dread.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Breakfast With the Birds

It is 32 degrees F at first light. Sitting on my enclosed porch I can see some frost on the neighbor's roof. In my coat, hat and gloves, a blanket on my knees and a large cup of hot coffee in my hands, I do not feel the cold. It is early Sunday morning and I am enjoying a time of peace while the washing machine works inside, behind the closed back door.

I have put out feeders and now I have breakfast with the birds.

Carolina wren at feeder. (Margo D. Beller)

Things start slowly on a Sunday, especially on a cold morning. No leaf blowers, no barking dogs, no shouting children, perhaps one or two people jogging or walking dogs. I take note of what birds I can see or hear as I rest from my week's labors. 

Two goldfinches, now in their winter brown feathers and the male with just a hint of yellow at his throat.

Larger house finches and house sparrows.

A redbellied woodpecker with his brilliant red crown.

Smaller downy woodpeckers, the male with a bit of red on the back of his head.

Blackcapped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches. All fly to the feeder, grab a seed and take off for a safe place to break the seed apart and eat what's within.

Not at the feeders but flying around the yard are juncos. As winter wears on these dark winter visitors will start coming to the feeders. For now, they glean what they can from around the yard.

A Carolina wren sings from various places around the yard, then investigates both seed feeders. 

Male redbellied woodpecker (Margo D. Beller)

A male cardinal calls from the pear tree, watches as the smaller birds come to the house feeder, then flies to the ground to pick at what is dropped, as the squirrels will soon do. This male doesn't seem to like the feeder but his browner mate is not as skittish. She flies to the feeder, shoos away the smaller birds there, has a few seeds and flies off.

Two larger birds fly a few backyards away, American crows. Had they been hawks, such as the Cooper's hawk, and closer the little birds would've flown to avoid the predators. MH always says the hawks have to eat, too. I understand that, but I don't want my feeders to be involved.

One bird not at the house feeder this morning, at least not right now, is the blue jay. It will come to the house feeder, scarf up a lot of seeds and then fly off to digest them, only to return for more. The force of their leaving makes the old feeder swing wildly, and I fear it dropping to the ground and finally breaking apart. So I am glad the jays have not come by while I'm here.

At this time of year, when I am no longer distracted by chasing migrant birds, it is easy to feel depressed and forgotten. There is less daylight. The majority of garden chores are done. Younger neighbors are wrapped up in their families. Older people like me are just part of the scenery, like the birds, and barely noticed. It is hard for me to get going some mornings.

Female cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
During this year of coronavirus, these feelings are intensified because of another element - fear. Older people are often shunted aside. Now they can be told it is for their own good. You give them "special hours" to shop because they are "vulnerable" to this virus. Most of us have longstanding conditions where exposure to the virus would put us in the hospital. It is safer staying home. Those of us with jobs can be "attached" to the world without being in it. But many seniors don't have that.

With the cold comes deprivation. It would be harder for the birds to survive without help from people like me putting out the feeders. Many people nowadays do not have that safety net. Unlike many of the birds, many of us won't be with our family groups this winter.

Sitting and watching the birds, the sun peeks through the clouds. I can see its arc is now short enough that the sun rises just past my neighbor's roof. Were it not cloudy I'd have the sun full on my face for a longer time until it rose above the porch window. Still, I close my eyes and time seems to stand still.

But time does not stand still. When the clouds move back in I can see a black cat in my backyard neighbor's yard, heading away from mine. The birds were not perturbed - I have frequently found this well-kept house cat curled up in the sun on my flood wall as the birds eat - but the squirrels rush up the trees and start their alarmed barking. This is when there is a sudden frenzy of birds at the feeder, eating as if there is no tomorrow.  

Cooper's hawk, a common backyard predator. Not today.
(Margo D. Beller)

I don't know what goes through a bird's brain. I can make some guesses. I can guess the suet is being ignored because it is not that cold (the porch temperature rose at least 5 degrees during the time I was out) and it is more important to cache seeds for later, when other food might not be available. I can guess the birds "understand" the sounds of an alarmed squirrel mean danger and eat so they can have the fat in them to take off quickly and fly far if need be.

But when the squirrels and birds calm down, I find myself agitated. I am not free as a bird.

So I leave the porch before the dogs, leaf blowers and other disturbances start for my warm kitchen to tend to the laundry, consider my other chores and wait for MH to wake and come downstairs. Like the birds, he will be fed.

I look at the clock and see I was outside for over an hour. Time I'll never get back.  

It is too easy for people like me to feel depressed, shut in, fearful and forgotten. The birds don't have these "advanced" human feelings, thank goodness. Sitting on my cold porch and watching them on a Sunday morning helps me forget mine.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Creature of Light

Autumn is a time of long shadows.
(Margo D. Beller)
This year, we turned back the clock before going to sleep on Halloween night, a night where the moon was full for the second time in a month (a blue moon), three planets were easily seen (Jupiter, Saturn, Mars) and one could be seen with binoculars (Uranus). 

With the start of November 2020 we are on standard time. We get an extra hour to use. Many might not want more time in a terrible year of natural and man-made disasters. I know a few hardworking people who likely used the time for well-deserved sleep. I thought I would be doing the same after a lot of activity the day before. Instead, I used this gift of time to sit on the enclosed porch, watching the feeder birds and listening to the silence at first light.

I feel the lack of that extra sleep. Halloween started with temperatures in the upper 20s, our first hard frost of the year. As it happened, I had errands to run. In my travels I saw roofs, shrubs and lawns white with the frost. At home, as expected, the sub-freezing cold put an end to the coleus plants and the dahlias I had in pots in the front yard and dulled the foliage of the cannas. I also discovered at least one deer had, yet again, found a weakness in the deer netting and had gotten a head in to chew on what plants it could grab. 

So I spent much of the day lugging pots from outside to inside and repairing deer netting after I cut back enough of the plants in the front of this particular area to make it harder on the deer should they try again.

Dahlia tubers, 2020
(Margo D. Beller)

The cannas were moved to their winter home - the garage - and stored in a dark area once I cut off the foliage. The dahlias were moved to the enclosed porch where the plants were cut back and the tubers dug out of the pot so they could dry before being stored. The dead coleus plants were pulled, the pot moved to the porch and the four cuttings I had rooted were planted. The pot is now in the sunny front room until it is warm enough to go outside again next year. All the cut plant matter went into the compost pile.

By the time I finished all that and even some raking I was very sore and tired. Why push myself to finish that very day? Several reasons. Halloween was the first bright, sunny day in a long time and, while still cold, I was happy to be working in the sun. Also, rain was expected Sunday (it is raining now, as I write).

And it will be dark at 5 p.m., the down side of getting that extra light in the morning.

That is why I rose at 5:45 a.m. I can be exhausted, I can go to bed late but when light starts to creep into my room, I wake up. Just yesterday I would've seen this light at 6:45 a.m., and I am still adjusting to it being an hour earlier. But it was silent at 5:45 a.m. standard time, too early for many to walk or jog with or without dogs on a Sunday morning.

Female purple finch (Margo D. Beller)
The feeders went out at first light and were immediately visited by black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and a visitor from the north, the purple finch. Unlike the more common house finch, these have a distinctive "eyebrow" - white for the brownish female, pinkish for the male. The purple finch isn't really all that purple, more like raspberry (which is how Roger Tory Peterson describes it in his field guide). 

These finches are irregular visitors, once a lot more common until the house finches started pushing them out of many areas, such as my part of suburbia. Maybe because they don't show up at my feeders as often, the other small birds, even the pugnacious white-breasted nuthatch, leaves them alone. Only when a large bird such as a jay comes at it will the purple finch move. It is a bit bigger and chunkier than the house finch and it has taken me many years to be able to know one when I see it. 

Autumn scene, Westbrook Preserve
West Milford, NJ, October 2020
(Margo D. Beller)
This year there have been many reports of other irregular visitors from the north - pine siskins (I had three the other week) and evening grosbeaks. The grosbeaks, like all the finches (house, purple, goldfinch and their larger cousin the cardinals), will sit and eat until all the seed is gone unless something forces them to leave. Now that the southbound autumn migration is over, for the most part, finding a bird that considers my part of the country warm enough to stay for the winter is thrilling.

The fact 2020 is looking like an "irruption" year should not have surprised me in this year of the coronavirus pandemic at a time when New England has already been hit with heavy snowfall, when we are learning the Greek alphabet thanks to a record number of named storms, when much of the west has seen a record number of wildfires. These birds are looking for food, just like the warblers and others that passed through New Jersey on their way south for the winter. Just as my apple tree produced fewer fruits and the locust tree produced fewer seed pods, the cone seed crop in Canada was poor this year. It has been that type of year.

Luckily for me, sitting in my coat with my steaming cup of coffee at first light, birds don't have to worry about travel restrictions.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

It Happens Every October

I know I've written before about late-summer blues and how December can be especially depressing, but in this year of coronavirus I am feeling particular sad this October for many reasons.

Speedwell Lake, Morris Township, NJ, Oct. 24, 2020. I had to walk
some distance to get away from all the other people and get this
picture. (Margo D. Beller)

October is when my mother died and when a good friend, gone too soon, was born.

October is when the lawn services switch from mowers to blowers, both the usual loud and the hurricane-level superloud types. If the services are not working the homeowners are, which means nearly constant noise at most times of the weekday and on the weekends (such as now, as I write with headphones on).

October is when the locust tree pods once again darken the lawn. This year we have far fewer than last year, which means less to rake to the street - a good thing because until this week MH has not been able to mow due to work on our street by the gas utility, including digging in our yard. When he mows he will crunch up the mat of leaves covering front and back yards but I don't want him to crunch the pods and spread the seeds to create a forest of locust trees. So I must still rake.

In October the garden gets cut back and the pots of cannas, coleus and dahlias are left out until frost kills them or their foliage, at which point it will be time to compost the plants or store the roots in the garage.

Makeshift greenhouse (Margo D. Beller)
October is when the house plants must come in from the porch and the table can now hold bird seed containers and feeders. I am trying an experiment this year. I have two pots of peppers and one tomato on the enclosed porch, in the corner that gets the sun the longest, in the cage I used to protect them this summer. The cage is wrapped with medium-grade plastic in such a way there is a flap I can pull up and over the plants at night. If the night is very cold, and we had at least one night so far when it got very close to freezing, I can add an old sheet as a cover.

As a control I have one pepper and one part of the tomato plant I rooted and potted in the house. This year I did not see white flies. However, if I see any in the house, or if the tomato grows like a weed, the plants will be moved outside to my makeshift greenhouse.

October is when there is a tug of war between warm weather and colder chill. More nights are in the 40s but some last week were in the 50s or low 60s, creating thick fog in the morning, making it even darker and so harder to get out of bed. When I sit on my porch now I have to put a throw on my knees on colder mornings.

October is when there is now less daylight than before, the sun's arc far shorter than it was in summer. I must bring in the feeders at 6 p.m. before it gets too dark (to avoid bears), and it isn't light out in the mornings until close to 7 a.m. If I want to get anything done before I start work at 9 a.m. I must rise in the dark, which I dislike greatly.

October is when the farm markets begin to close, if they aren't offering corn mazes, pumpkins, petting zoos or pick your own apples. The place where I go closes on Halloween this year and I've already stocked up on tomatoes, peppers and spinach. But they won't last forever, even if cooked or frozen. 

Pine siskins, visitors from the north, a
one-day wonder, Oct. 9, 2020
(Margo D. Beller)

October is when I realize that, for the most part, bird migration is over. The hummingbirds, house wrens and catbirds are long gone from my yard (tho' there have been reports from elsewhere). Yes, there are white-throated sparrows and juncos whose migration brings them to my area and there are plenty of the usual backyard birds visiting my suet and seed feeders. There's even the occasional surprise, such as the small flock of pine siskins, visitors from the north, that have been passing through lately in an irruption year. But now it seems I have little reason to get out of bed early most weekend mornings to look for new birds in the parks near me. New birds are now few and far between.

And this coronavirus year has brought additional challenges. I work in the house five days a week again (MH runs the outdoor errands). While I don't miss the commute, I do miss the daily walk to the train. On some non-rainy weekend mornings, unless I know we are going somewhere or I am busy in the house I feel an almost urgent need to get out, despite the dark. Unfortunately, other people (a LOT of other people) also working at home feel the same and not many of them are birders. Unless I travel in the dark somewhere to start birding at first light I run into walkers, runners, bikers, dog walkers. (Many times they are out at that early hour, too.) More people are on the local streets and in the parks where I used to have solitude. Not many of them wear masks.  

You can feel the intensity as people rush around on the weekends to make up for the time lost working or helping their children, also stuck at home, with school. When MH and I travel on weekends, I make our lunch and we have to hope there is a convenience store with an open bathroom because most park bathrooms are now locked, unless there are port-o-sans. We don't feel comfortable around people, including in diners.

As I write, this virus has been with us since March, nearly eight months. The infection rate went down a few months ago for the summer (in my state where there have been more restrictions than elsewhere) and we were able to make short trips to visit family or look for birds. Now, with the October cold, infections are starting to come back up as people gather with friends or family indoors. For those who fear this illness, even getting together with generations of family for Thanksgiving is threatened, and that is extremely depressing.

October's end means it's only a week or so later we turn back the clocks and it will be dark at 5 p.m. Winter, its deep chill and the potential for a lot of snow are not that far off. 

It is the inevitability of that and everything else that happens every October, even without a pandemic, that may be the saddest thing of all.

October means death.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Pre-Autumn Colors

Coleus, coneflower and euonymous bushes
protected by deer netting. (Margo D. Beller)
At this time of year it is hard to deny summer is finally ending.

Labor Day has been and gone. Children are either back in school or in their homes doing their learning remotely because of the continued coronavirus pandemic. It is now dark until about 6:15 a.m. and is dark again around 7 p.m. Even on warm days the evenings and overnights are cool enough to keep the air conditioner off. Several times this week the temperature will dip into the 40s for the first time in months.

Perhaps the best sign of autumn's approach is to see what is growing in the garden. It's more enjoyable to look around now that I've finished with my weeding. The late summer heat diminished the coreopsis, the coneflower and the daisies. However, now the garden is full of pinks and purples from the Rose of Sharons, the liriopes, the sedums and the big pot of 4 coleus plants I had indoors over the winter, and which grew and filled in with the summer heat.

Peppers on plant, 2020 (Margo D. Beller)
There are other colors. The green of the viburnum is contrasted with the red berries growing where the flowers were too high to be browsed by deer. The berries will be eaten by birds, I hope, rather than squirrels. There are a number of green peppers that started coming in with the late-summer heat and are now very slowly turning red enough for me to pick and use. Until recently there were tomatoes ripening to gold. But now chipmunks have picked off the small, green fruits and I've brought what's left of them inside.

The green lawn is looking lusher now that it isn't being blasted by intense heat. But when MH does not get to mowing it, the long grass hosts other plants, in this case some of the nearby sensitive ferns and small locust trees growing from the root of one or more of the trees at the curb. I do not care to dig up the yard so I must depend on MH's mowing or me cutting these mini trees down with a lopper.

Rose of Sharon, a favorite with bees
(Margo D. Beller)
The birds are in transition, too. I have seen no hummingbirds at that feeder since Aug. 31. They are on the move south. Now that nesting is over and the young have left, some of the yard birds are making noise again. The cardinal calls "teek!" as it flies around the backyard, waking me at first light, and I am reminded it will soon be time to put out the feeders. Titmice are coming to the water dishes and there is still a catbird calling from the bushes. The catbird will be gone by winter. On those mornings I can make myself get up in the dark and get out to look for them, there are warblers in their autumnal coloring and other birds I haven't seen since spring, all heading south for the winter.

Unlike the spring birds, these fall migrants are mainly silent, which means I must work harder to find them as they dart around in treetops feeding on insects after a long flight to my area from their northern breeding grounds. When I can find them I am pleased, especially if I can identify them. It doesn't make it easier that I must now contend with floaters in my left eye that make me think there is something flying above me when there isn't.

There are also raptors. They migrate, too and, unlike the smaller birds, they travel by day on the warm winds called thermals that rise off ridges and mountains. The hawk watchers have been been busy doing their counting since August, and I have been lucky to see hawks, eagles, accipiters and ospreys.

Joe-Pye weed, goldenrod, ferns at Tempe Wick Reserve,
Mendham Township, NJ 2020 (Margo D. Beller)
Of course, the most obvious sign of autumn's approach is the leaves starting to color. The dogwood's are going red, the apple tree has been losing leaves since the apples stopped in June and there are plenty of little yellow leaves in the street, on the lawn and tracked into the house from the locust trees. Soon the oaks, maples and elms will drop their colorful leaves and MH and I will be out with rake and tarp. So far I have not seen many locust pods so I am hopeful that, as with the apple tree this spring, this won't be a year of plenty.

I will enjoy all these garden colors for as long as possible, but I know that, inevitably, winter will return, too.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

At War With Weeds

As this coronavirus pandemic continues there have been many articles published about the medical, mental and culinary benefits of gardening.

The unidentified weed that is everywhere in
my garden in 2020. (Margo D. Beller)
No one talks about weeding.

At this time of year, after several heatwaves, there is usually a short spate of time when it is suddenly cooler and less humid, a time the media weathercasters invariably call "a taste of Fall." This is when I usually walk out my front door and around my property and see where the weeds are running rampant.

I write a lot about weeds, and that is because it is frustrating to deal with them year after year. It is a Sisyphusian battle because the types of weeds growing where I don't want them will continue to come back unless I do something drastic, and even then that will be only a short-term fix. I have one area where locust trees - actual trees - are growing from a long underground root (the parent plant is at the curb) and popping up under my andromeda shrubs surrounded by Sensitive ferns (that is their name, not their demeanor). I have neither the time, energy nor back strength to disrupt this area with shovel or backhoe so I must monitor it carefully and regularly use the lopper to cut the saplings to the ground and at least slow the growth.


This grassy weed gives me the satisfaction of
clearing a large area quickly, at least until it
grows back. (Margo D. Beller)
This year there have been other weeds that started popping up everywhere in profusion, perhaps because of the cooler, wetter spring. They are in all my garden plots, taking advantage of the deer netting, requiring me to make the effort to get behind or under to get at them. Lately, they've started looking like small trees. Worse, I can't even identify them. But to paraphrase what Justice Potter Stewart once said about obscenity, I know them when I see them and I've seen them off the paths I hike. If left unchecked they WILL become trees.

And then there is my balky back, which seizes up on me at this time of year because of the effort of battling weeds. 

Every year, I sit on my low bench, lean forward and pull. After a while I realize I can't sit up. This is when I usually stop and when I painfully rise this is when the spasms begin. A few weeks ago, when there was still light at 5 a.m., I worked in the area at the side of the house (where the andromeda shrubs are) and along the front garden plots (which are more difficult to get at because of the deer netting). After that I had to stop because of work but the rest of the week got hot and humid and then we were hit by Tropical Storm Isais, which brought down a lot of tree limbs. By the time I had collected and put them at the curb, my back was plenty sore. 


This area was cleared of grassy weeds but
I can only do so much. (Margo D. Beller)
That's how things stood until last week, when a friend sent me two of the exercises she does to relieve her back pain. It made a great and immediate difference. By the weekend, when I knew I'd have more than the short time between rising and work during the week, I girded for battle (or should I say "girdled"), warmed up my back and hips (something I should've been doing all along) and went out with my gloves, pail, pruner and my walking stick, which I found to be helpful in taking my weight as I stood up or bent forward to pull out the weeds, sparing my back.
Weeds are any plants that pop up in the wrong place. I've found some weeds pull out cleanly while others break at the top and you have to use both hands to pull the rest of it, with roots, out. Even then, there might be more below. Some weeds are grassy and can at least provide the satisfaction of clearing an entire area - for a time. Other weeds are vines. Ground ivy is a particular nemesis in my yard, as is the vine I can't identify that seems particularly fond of thorny wild rose bushes. However, lately I've also been seeing more wild strawberries, which provide smaller, drier versions of the stuff you get in the market. I can live with these, and the robins and other fruit-eating birds will enjoy those I don't choose to pick for my cereal.


Wild strawberries are a weed I tolerate. (Margo D. Beller)
I should also add even nonpoisonous weeds can have consequences. The plants have natural allies - the insects that use them for shelter. I was reminded of that when both my ankles suddenly felt as tho' they were on fire. I knew the cause - the flies referred to as "no-see-ums." I was not wearing ankle braces and the flies had free rein. I may have won the war but my ankles will now itch for days to come.

Ultimately I spent three hours, in several stages, to get around the areas I wanted to clear, pulling the weeds that were crowding the plants I want growing in the areas. As I worked I could hear chickadees, a Carolina wren, some jays and a catbird mewing. I was shielded from the sun by the trees as I worked, and there was a cooling breeze. Were it not for the physical effort of weeding it would've been an enjoyable time outside.

Everything I pulled is now atop the compost pile, covering the vegetable scraps feeding the worms. I have a feeling of accomplishment, and that should last at least until the next time I walk around the yard and see what has popped up in my absence.

Atop the compost pile. (Margo D. Beller)
At some point, as the days continue to get shorter, I will be cutting back the garden for its - and my - winter rest.  As usual at this time of year, I can't wait.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Sad at Midsummer, Again

Flowers from my garden, 2020 (Margo D. Beller)
Every year, in late July going into August, I start feeling sad. Perhaps it is the continued heat and humidity forcing me inside with the air conditioning while the weeds proliferate. Perhaps it goes back to the days when I was a student and I knew that, come September (or August when I was in college), it would be time to go back to school and I'd lose my freedom. Or perhaps it is seeing the darkness in the early morning when it was once light, or seeing the sun's arc getting smaller as the days get shorter.

So it is this midsummer, except it is worse because this is not a normal year. It is the year of the coronavirus and things may never be the same again.

My life is one example. Doing simple things such as going to the supermarket or getting my hair cut has become more complicated. I have been working from home since March and will continue working from home through the end of the year, and likely beyond. I am OK with that. I find I am less and less comfortable walking outside where I can come into contact with people except for when I can get myself out early to walk on a trail and listen for any birds. But getting up and out is getting harder to do and I am feeling disconnected from nature. I try to go out on the weekends for a walk with MH or to run errands such as to my favorite farm market, particularly now that it is tomato season.

Tomato, basil and peppers, 2020
(Margo D. Beller)
Here, too, things have become complicated. I must be masked, stand six feet from a guy behind the vegetable bins, pointing to what I want, asking it not "be so wilted." Where once zinnias and other flowers grew for picking, every inch of land is filled with a variety of vegetables. That's a good thing because this farm feeds not only casual shoppers like me but members of its CSA community plus it donates produce to local organizations feeding those who would otherwise go hungry. (But for the grace of God that could've been me, too.)

To keep myself from feeling too sad, I think of what COVID-19 hasn't changed.

My flowers - yellow coreopsis, white daisies, purple coneflowers, goldenrod and the deep red flowers of the cannas - are in bloom. If I can't pick the farm's flowers, I can selectively pick my own.

My vegetables are growing, finally. I am waiting for a dozen little green cherry tomatoes and two large, still-green Italian frying peppers to ripen, and there will be more to come. The basil continues to produce big, green leaves I pick for sandwiches and to make pesto.

Fritillary butterfly (RE Berg-Anderson)
Hummingbirds have been visiting the canna flowers in the front yard and the feeder in the back. At this time of year the females need energy to find insects to feed their young. Soon the young will need energy to hunt and may follow their mothers (the fathers will have left long before) to the feeder. The birds started coming later in July than usual but now they are more frequent visitors.

The house wrens are long gone. They and other birds will be heading south soon, if they haven't already started. Those passing through won't be as gaily colored and they won't be singing territorial songs but knowing they're out there might be just enough for me to leave the house and reconnect with the outside world, in spite of this pandemic. The birds need to head south to reach their wintering areas and what we're going through will not affect nor deter them. Those not flying as far south will be stopping (or staying) in my yard when I put the seed feeders back out after Labor Day, less than a month from now.

Monarch butterfly (RE Berg-Anderson)
Butterflies will be heading south, too. I have noticed more tiger swallowtails on the purple flowers of the butterfly bush and some of the smaller butterflies such as the fritillarys. I am waiting for the first monarch butterfly to come.

The days will get even shorter, and there will come a time all too soon when it will be dark before 5 p.m. The inevitability of that depresses me. August is my late mother's birth month and the month her mother as well as one of my good friends died. It adds to the sadness of the period, much as I try to enjoy the flowers, birds and butterflies.

I expect I'll get out of this funk eventually, as I do every year. This year it might take a little longer.