Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Despite nearly 20 years in suburbia I still find the leaf blower to be at best a necessary evil and I try to use it as little as possible.

The first time I go out after the leaves start to drop I use the lawn mower to mulch them. The next time, after more leaves are down, I convert my electric leaf blower into a mulching vac and crunch up as many as I can stuff into the compost pile.

But after the pile gets filled I must use the blower to herd the leaves closer together to save some time and energy before I use my rake and tarp.

Unfortunately, I am in the minority. Most of my neighbors have lawn services that use leaf blowers, huge fans and tractors to shove the leaves into huge piles at the curb. The din is painfully loud and the gas smell pervasive. At least they finish quickly.

Those doing it themselves have their own blowers and fans that are just as bad and take longer to finish. My neighbors must work when they have free time and if that means going out as night is falling and working in the dark, so be it.

When I pull out the rake I am purposely slowing myself down. I can go out early and work quietly. I am not wasting energy but I am getting needed exercise. I can listen to the birds.

Also, I get time to think. Here are some things I have thought while raking:

1. I always know where my neighbor’s property ends and mine begins during leaf-blowing season because he will not go one inch further.

2. A pristine lawn won’t last more than a day before leaves come back on it, even if using a lawn service. So why fuss about it? “Let’s not finesse it,” my husband often tells me as we work.

3. Speaking of MH, raking is a nice way of bonding with your spouse. Every year MH and I start by getting in each other’s way but without saying anything we develop a pattern: he makes smaller piles, I sweep them into the tarp. Then we lug the tarp to the curb. The job goes faster and we rejoice in its completion together.

4. The birds aren’t happy when I work near the feeders but they are very happy when I clear the big leaves and uncover the bugs.

5. If you stop every so often you might find something interesting. One year it was a brown creeper heading up a tree. This year it has been a redtail hawk being harassed by crows and 15 black vultures circling over the house.

6. You can see how the lawn is doing up close, including where the mushrooms have come up, the ground ivy has taken over and the skunks have been digging for grubs.

7. Wind is the ultimate leaf blower. If I go out on a windy day I figure out the direction and rake accordingly. It amazes me how someone will try to fight the wind, wasting time and energy. Life is too short.

8. I would love to meet the person on the Shade Tree Commission who decided having locust trees on my street would be a great idea. Locust leaves are too small to be effectively blown or even raked, and the female trees usually have hundreds of hanging seed pods that fall and blacken the lawn. Luckily, this year was the one in three when the female tree on my property produced only a few pods. I would like to punch that commissioner in the nose.

9. Why don’t more towns require leaves be bagged? It’s hard enough driving on leaf-clogged streets, harder still to walk on streets without sidewalks where leaves on both sides make a two-way road into one lane. In the years I would walk home from the train every night I feared the oncoming car at my back that wouldn’t slow down. Luckily, I lived to tell the tale. When my town comes through the crew leaves almost as much behind as it picks up. I would think collecting ecologically approved brown bags of leaves would be more efficient and quicker.

10. You are going to see your neighbors and they are going to see you, whether you like it or not. So wave and be friendly. It might be the last time you see them until next fall.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Communing with the Cardinals

When my friends ask me which of the many birds I’ve seen is my favorite, I know exactly what to answer.

I have three.

The carolina wren: It sings its lovely songs - it knows a lot of them - all year, even in the coldest, snowiest winter. It flits around the edges of my yard, is wonderfully colored and easy to identify and I always feel honored when it makes an unexpected appearance at my seed and suet feeders.

The black-capped chickadee: This one will explore just about anything, isn’t afraid to hang upside down while gleaning for seeds and has a lovely song that starts up high and comes down. To me it sounds like “Hey, sweetie.” It will come to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed and fly to a nearby bush to eat. It is inquisitive and isn’t afraid to fly close. Even the “dee-dee-dee” call is calming.

But I have to admit the first among equals is the cardinal. The red of the male or the warm brown (red at the crest and bill and tail) of the female look pretty in a green bush or pine tree. The crested bird is big and easy to identify. It is monogamous (like the wren but unlike the chickadee) and when courting its mate he will give her a seed in a way that looks like a kiss. Both birds sing but the male is more obvious, loudly proclaiming from the top of a tree in spring.

What I like best about the cardinal is it is reliable, coming every day at dawn and at dusk.

We all know the phrase about the early bird getting the worm. I think it refers to the robin, which gets up in the dark to call and then to eat. But robins don’t come to seed feeders. When I am up at dawn I can look out at the feeder and know one of the cardinals will be the first bird to visit. If I am lucky enough to be home at dusk I know it will be the last bird to visit.

At these times I like to stand at the kitchen window and watch the cardinals, communing with them, if you will.

They seem so calm and comfortable with each other, like my husband and myself and other long-married couples I know. The gentle “kiss” could be MH greeting me when he first comes downstairs in the morning. The pair fly together, calling with hard “teeks” as if to say, “I am here, where are you?” “I’m right here, where are YOU?”
In winter I’ve had as many as four cardinal pairs jockeying for feeding position. Like all birds there is a pecking order, with the most inferior and his mate forced to wait off to the side until the others eat - these birds will sit at the feeder a long time cracking the seeds with their large finch bills - before they can have their meal. (I keep a lot of seed on hand.)

It is easy to put human traits to birds but cardinals aren’t people.

I keep four feeders going in winter but the cardinals, being bigger, can only come to the one that looks like a house. Last winter, when the snows were deep and the neighbors didn’t fill their feeders we had so many finches, sparrows and other birds at ours the cardinals would scream at them and attack. It was a horrifying reminder that Nature isn’t always placid and winter can be much harder on the birds.

Remember that the next time you complain about 4 inches of snow on a weekday morning. At least you know where you’ll get your next warm meal.

Winter aside, there are other hazards like cowbirds (which frequently drop their eggs in cardinal nests), hungry hawks and people who chop down a tree or bush with no thought as to what might be nesting inside.

Cardinals are in no danger of becoming extinct - at least not yet.

Give man the time to think of ways to jar Nature’s delicate balance and perhaps the cardinal, along with the rest of us, won’t be around much longer.

In the meantime I’ll watch for the cardinals to make their regular visits at dawn and dusk, a bit of certainty - for now - in an uncertain world.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Politics of Open Space

Friday morning I got an email from one of my neighbors.

We’ve won the fight. Governor Christie has dedicated himself to preserving the 160+ acres of vacated property at Greystone as open space. This means that it will only be used for parks and passive recreation – no housing or commercial development!! As for the historic buildings, we do not yet know their fate. What matters is that no matter [what] happens with the buildings, the land is protected as green open space!

I have written before about the good and bad of living near 600 acres of open space. The old mental hospital was closed in 2000 by another Republican Gov. Christie - Christie Whitman - after years of bad publicity involving abuse of patients. A smaller, more modern facility was built at one end of the state property. The rest of the land, about 400 acres, was sold by the legislature for $1 to Morris County in 2001.

When my husband and I first moved to Morris Plains in 1993 I walked up Central Avenue to the steps of the old administration office, a hulking stone building whose exterior has been used in movies and on TV, including an episode of “House.”

Along Central Ave. were other hulking stone buildings where the patients had been kept. Although empty, the whole area was eerie and I quickly left. Since the county took over many of the large buildings - although not the administration building - have been pulled down. Some of the resulting space is now used for athletic fields. I walk there and it is no longer eerie and I have found a lot of interesting birds.

But after the new hospital was built a lot of that 200 acres of state-owned land was left over.

The governor in power by then, a Democrat by the name of Jon Corzine - the same man who is now in trouble for some bad bets he made on Europe that sent his company, MF Global, into bankruptcy court - thought the land should be sold for housing or commercial use. A group was set up to study the possibility.

This is when the organization created by my neighbor and a lot of others, Preserve Greystone, came into being. New Jersey is already overbuilt. Go to central NJ and count the number of farms for sale or the number of McMansion developments that sprang up on former farm land to get an idea of what could've happened to the Greystone land.

Had Corzine been successful, the little borough of Morris Plains would’ve become a very different place and a lot of us would’ve moved. While Greystone is in Parsippany, most of the traffic, already bad, would’ve been coming though my town’s streets.

But Corzine lost his re-election bid and Chris Christie, whose previous political job before becoming U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush had been on the Morris County Board of Freeholders, was elected. Preserve Greystone waited to see what the new governor would do.

With a reputation for wanting to do as much as possible to bring business to the state, even if that means weakening a lot of the laws that protect our land, water and air, no one could be sure what that would be.

I was amused by his press release, which read in part:
"My Administration is committed to implementing a plan that finally provides a responsible resolution for the future of the shuttered facilities at Greystone Park and the property they sit on. By doing so, we are fulfilling the state’s obligation to clean up this dormant site in an environmentally and fiscally sound manner."

Of course, the man was elected in January 2009 and he waited a helluva long time to decide to be the Housekeeper-in-Chief. With state funding to towns and counties cut hard by his administration it‘s a wonder he found the $27 million to do this cleanup at all.

Or is it?

As I said, I got the email Friday. That day the Star-Ledger ran an article about the Greystone plan.

On Saturday morning I went to the Post Office early and got the mail from Thursday and Friday. In it I found the mailing pictured here.

I got a sick feeling looking at these two Republicans announcing how they and others had procured Greystone’s freedom from development, and urging me and others to vote for them and other Republican candidates.

Notice there is no mention of Preserve Greystone.

Was this all a coordinated plan to help the Republicans stay in power in Morris County - as if the Democrats were putting up much of an opposition?

I have no doubt as to the sincerity of my neighbor’s bipartisan organization and its hard work in giving Christie the push he needed to finally do something.

But I don’t think it is any coincidence the Republican governor should announce this plan the same day the Republican candidates for borough council sent me a mailing proclaiming their part in it.

Politics as usual.

I got the same sick feeling in 2002 when Democrat Jim McGreevey became governor, threatening to undo the legislature‘s approval of that $1 land sale.

He said it was a giveaway to the “rich people” of Morris County and the land should be used for low-income housing. McGreevey knew that while a mainly Republican county, the towns of Morristown, Dover and others tend to vote Democrat. They are not rich towns.

But he was playing to his more solidly Democrat urban base elsewhere in the state.

It was an insult to those of us middle-class Democrats who happen to live in Morris County.

By the way, McGreevey was mayor of Woodbridge Township in Middlesex County before running for governor. Woodbridge is one of the worst examples of overbuilt suburban sprawl in the state.

Politics as usual.

Just like Corzine and his plan for commercializing the remaining state land. Just like the Republicans running for council grabbing the coattails of movements like Preserve Greystone to proclaim their part in the victory.

It’s hard not to be cynical.

At least Greystone remains open, a shelter from suburban sprawl and a buffer against the kind of build-out a lot of other towns allowed, taxing their resources and changing their character.

In this case I guess we of Morris Plains are indeed rich, and very lucky.