Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Plague of Locusts

I have several neighbors - you probably do, too - who can’t go a week without mowing the lawn. One in particular has a lawn service that comes every Tuesday morning.

As the summer heat has continued it has taken the lawn service less and less time to cut what must now be 1/100th of an inch of new growth each week.

What is it about the suburban man and lawn care? Another neighbor goes out with a small mower to do edges, then an edger to go around trees, then his big riding mower to get everything else. Each week he puts out two to five buckets of what I would use as compost for my pile for someone else to pick up, leaving behind stinking garbage cans.

I don’t see the point of watering to make grass grow and then mowing to make it so short the summer sun makes it go dormant - not dead - and brown.

Most of the rest of us on the street, whether we do the lawn ourselves or hire a service, have not been so fanatical. For instance, we do not go out every week but let the grass grow so it can protect its own roots from the summer heat.

There are a few of us with underground sprinklers, and you can tell who uses them even during a drought - especially during a drought - because their grass is thick and green while the rest of us have grass in various stages of brown crispiness.

This neighbor with the lawn service has a mainly brown lawn, too, with one significant exception.

A small forest of green locust trees.

The locust seedlings are the brighter green plants on this lawn.

Whoever thought the black locust would be a wonderful shade tree for my street 30+ years ago doesn’t have the misfortune of having a female tree, the one that grows the long seed pods that liberally litter the lawn nearly every year.

I have one such female tree. My neighbor does not. Even so, he has been agitating to have the two male locust trees cut down for years. Within the last year the town finally took them down. My neighbor was quick to seed the uprooted space and create a lawn. He even went out to water it.

Normally my town would’ve put in two replacement trees of a type whose roots don’t push up the pavement. It has not done so in this case, either because there were no funds or because at some point a sidewalk may go in and the trees would have to be uprooted anyway.

Or maybe my neighbor just paid a “fine” and made the problem go away.

Locust trees, however, are as tenacious as weeds. The town periodically goes through and trims back branches and within a year you can see little branches growing back. With the trees gone and the grass cut to within a millimeter of its life in summer, there are perfect conditions for tenacious things other than grass to spring up.

So now his lawn is covered with locust trees saplings.

The lawn service cuts them back but I don’t see my neighbor out with a spade to dig them up, as I do when I find one or two growing.

I expect there will be a point when he will have the lawn dug up and sod put down, likely over a sprinkler system that can keep the grass thick and green and surviving until the weekly decapitation by the lawn service. If he has the money to throw around on this, more power to him.

I, however, think it is a waste of time, energy and resources, and the only one who benefits is the lawn company.

Certainly not the lawn.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stately Mansions

I’m not part of the wealthy class, the 1%, despite living in one of the richest counties in the U.S.

Luckily, when I want to leave my middle-class existence for a while, I can find a way to pretend.

There was a time when, like Fifth Ave. in Manhattan, roads in Morris County were lined with mansions. The area was considered country, where the titans of industry could flee the city with their families in summer for cooler, fresher air.

However, as with the most of the Fifth Ave. mansions south of East 60th Street, most of those in Morris County were converted to office buildings or torn down for something else. (For pictures of Morris mansions, some long gone, some still standing as private residences, click here.)

Many Morris mansions only live on as street names. The ones I know are Mayfair and Idlewild in Morris Plains. Danforth and James in Madison. Kahn Drive, the road that led to financier Otto Kahn’s “country” mansion in Morristown. (His NY town mansion is still standing, at 1 East 91st and is a Catholic school.)

Then there’s the Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge estate in Madison, Giralda Farms, where the mansion came down and the grounds were converted into an office park (with a sidewalk around the campus for walking - outside the fenced grounds, of course). Florence Vanderbuilt and Hamilton Twombley’s nearby Florham is now a campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University. The mansion is the administration building.

But some of the biggest estates were donated to public or private entities and became parks, for the enjoyment of all, and that‘s where I go.

The various members of the Freylingheusen family held wide swaths of land in Morris County. The mansion of Peter Freylingheusen is now the Morris Museum. Another one, George Freylingheusen and his wife Sara, an heir to the Ballantine Brewery (Newark's own) fortune, donated Whippany Farms, their summer home, to Morris County (and adjacent land to the Morristown-Beard school). It became the Freylingheusen Arboretum and the mansion is the headquarters of the Morris County Parks Commission.

This park  is one of my favorite places to walk, my go-to spot when I have to let off steam immediately.

Whippany Farms, from the back
I have been there at all times of the year - with boots and stick in 7 inches (or more) of snow, in spring when the many different birds pass through, summer with its resident nesters (including Baltimore and orchard orioles) and fall when the colors come. The garden plants around the parking lot are labeled and many garden courses and one big garden sale (always the first Saturday in May) are held there. You could drop me anyplace there and I’d find my way back.

Morris County isn’t alone, of course. Somerset County is lousy with estates, too. One that became a park is Natirar, whose last owner was the King of Morocco. It straddles the borders of Peapack-Gladstone, Far Hills and Bedminister.

After the king died his son, for some reason, wanted out of New Jersey. The estate was bought by a group that includes Richard Branson of Virgin Media. They donated the land down the hill from the mansion to the Somerset County park system. The mansion, which makes Whippany Farms look like a toolshed, is now an exclusive restaurant/spa.

(UPDATE: I have since learned that the land was NOT donated, it was bought by Somerset County for $22 million and the mansion leased to Branson and his group for 99 years. So much for charity.)

That’s fitting for this wealthy area, and the late King of Morocco would feel right at home, I’m sure.

I don’t find most of the park very interesting to look at, although if you want to just walk or bike or jog in a very large loop it will do you fine. The main path is wide open, with very little shade except for the area along the north branch of the Raritan River (Natirar is Raritan backwards). There is a second path, up a different hill, I’ve yet to try.

More interesting to me is Duke Farms. Like the Freylingheusen arboretum, this property is now set up to be a sort of teaching landscape with various habitats. But unlike the Freylingheusen Arboretum, everything is on a much larger and grander scale, as the Dukes were (Duke tobacco, Duke Energy) compared with the Freylingheusens (a colonial family, one of whose descendants is my congressman).

Duke Farms is so environmentally correct it’s almost scary. The paths are wide and walkable. Bicycling is encouraged. You can only park in one area across the road from the main park (a crossing guard stops traffic for you). Only one tram runs from the education center (the former stable) to three points in the park, every 30 minutes. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

After being there twice, I still feel I haven’t seen everything.

Duke mansion
But there is one path I took the second time where I could see the Duke mansion through the trees. This is where the reclusive Doris, only child of James Buchanan Duke, lived when she was in NJ., one of her four mansions. The mansion is still kept up but it is gated off.

That makes it rather sad. I doubt Doris as a child was allowed to explore the grounds. When JB was in town he was driven (first by horse, then by auto) to other parts of the farm to supervise whatever work had to be done. I can’t see him walking around for the hell of it either.

So much estate for one small family, just sitting there and not being enjoyed. It was a protective buffer for the Dukes, set up to be a self-sustaining farm and shut off from the world. I’m glad when Doris died the Duke Foundation decided to open up the land as an environmentally correct, self-sustaining park (growing its own seedlings, for instance) for the enjoyment of all.

But when I saw that mansion hiding in the distance and thought of the lonely woman who lived (at least part of the time) within, I’m reminded the rich are different, and not necessarily in a good way.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Random Thoughts

It is too hot and humid to go outside. If I don't see a bird from my kitchen window or porch, I don't care.

There are house wrens feeding chittering young in the nest box I hung in the apple tree. The babies must be pretty big because the adults can't get inside unless they make a determined effort to get to one being pushed aside by its stronger siblings.

Before Saturday's expected 100 degree heat, I went out just after dawn to water the garden plots. Behind the andromeda, where the house shields the area from strong winds and the sun is only there early, the catbird was not sitting on the nest I'd discovered by accident when watering another time. I looked inside and saw at least two newborn nestlings.

Catbird, Duke Farms, June 2012
Once in the house I stay there. If I see a hummingbird at the feeder during the short, early time I am on the porch, I consider myself lucky.

I am lethargic today. The house windows have been closed for days. The only "fresh" air that has come in has been air-conditioned. It makes it cooler upstairs to keep the windows closed, but the upstairs is still far warmer than the downstairs. We work downstairs in summer, but now that I am working at a job from my home office, the AC must be put on by mid-afternoon.

The mulch I put down has cut back the weed population severely except in two areas. I have no inclination to deal with it. I wish my nephew and his girlfriend, who when not in college run a landscaping business in NH, lived closer. I could use their strong, young backs. His father, my husband's younger brother, works for a group protecting forests but he complains he almost never gets the time to go outside because of the administrative burdens. He spends off-time in a cover band, singing in a Bruce Springsteen style. As his children have grown and left the house it, the motorcycle and the tattoos help him forget he is aging, too.

The compost pile is out of control, and MH and I will be looking at composters today. He promises to help me dig out the finished stuff and shuttle what's left (minus the worms) from the far corner of the yard where the fence is falling over to the place near the back door where I will now keep everything. It will be a back-breaking job for both of us and I don't look forward to it. I wonder what I will use all that finished compost on anyway. I will have to pull down the deer netting to set it around the plants.

The neighborhood's lawns are brown and there have been few lawn services here this week. Even they know when to quit. The plants I water are hanging on but those at the edges are wilting in the heat. Most people have stayed indoors, and it is unfortunate I don't feel up to going outside unless I have to (as I did Saturday morning) so I can enjoy the quiet and desolation. But I, too, stay inside and when the weather inevitably cools and I can open windows I will hear the noise of others and their dogs.

I feel quite old. A friend cancelled coming out this weekend after hearing the weather forecast. When I told her we'd be cooking out anyway she warned me we have to be careful "at our age." I do not want to think about that. Three weeks ago I pulled muscles in my lower back that created constant pain, so bad that when I put a heating pad on too high I did not feel the first-degree burn until too late. I could not stand without pain, and now I had a burn that MH had bandage nightly.

Thoughts of Job were constant, particularly a week later when my husband and I went on a long hike in the Pine Barrens and we were bitten all over our legs. The back pain had been less that day but I was quite tired by the time we got back to the car and the next day I could barely move. Just being able to put on my socks in the morning was a triumph.

I got an unpleasant foretaste of what it will be like when I am truly old and need help from others for basic things. Three weeks ago my independence was threatened. MH was a great help, but in the end the only one who could help me was me, and I have worked myself back to 99%.

But at "our age" healing is slow and there is still stiffness. Heat and humidity are bad enough, but this restlessness caused by taking it slow with my back remains even as the burn has healed, the bites have faded and I can now rise from bed in the morning without using a cane.

I have friends at "our age" who are still looking for a job after a year. The longer that joblessness lasts, the easier it is for potential employers to believe there is something wrong with them and hire someone else, particularly someone younger who will work for sub-minimum wage.

Redtailed hawk, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, April 2012

I am lucky to have the freelance, nonunion job I have now, editing from home. But while the morning and evening commutes are extremely easy - back permitting - I find myself missing the train rides past the Meadowlands, seeing what's in the falling water levels. Bitterns, coots, gulls, perhaps a mallard with the Canada geese. Great egrets and great blue herons. I miss the Hoboken pier with the dozens of double-crested cormorants in summer, the ruddy ducks in winter.

I do not miss driving to and from Englewood Cliffs except for the birds I would find at Flat Rock Brook park or in the area around my office building, including the hawks that would fly south in autumn. By now Harold and Maud, the redtails I found near the end of my last job, would be feeding young, perhaps teaching them to fly and hunt for themselves.

At some point, the weather will get cooler and dry out. At some point the scars from the bug bites will disappear. The birding lists will have much more interesting reports of southbound migrants than they do now. At some point I will be walking again, not fearing a spasm that will make me immobile blocks or miles from my house and MH.

At some point I may even stop feeling the strain in my hip and lower back and I can pretend I am not in physical decline. I will once again be able to rise from my bed in the pre-dawn and drive miles to a good birding spot and explore, maybe find something I've never seen before.

I no longer liken myself to Job. This, too, shall pass. But at the moment, I have no interest in a world that has no interest in me.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Second Chance

Nature has a way of correcting Man’s mistakes when Man doesn’t stack the deck against it and throw things out of balance.

A few years ago, my friend in Bernardsville, NJ, decided I needed an orchid. A moth orchid, to be precise, the one you are likely to see for sale in supermarkets, Home Depot and on windowsills or tables in Chinese restaurants.

My friend has been growing orchids for years and has several. She keeps them on a shelf over her sink where the humidity is high and the light through the window behind them is bright but not direct.

Orchids, Duke Farms orchid house, June 2012
They’re easy to grow, she said. You’ll enjoy it.

I know there are people who are obsessed with orchids. Books have been written on the subject.

I am not that person.

I like to think I have a green thumb. I grow flowers and vegetables around the outside of my house, and have had flowering or leafy indoor plants for even longer.

But the orchid was different. My kitchen doesn't have a lot of light and, this plant coming to me in winter, I needed to buy orchid food AND a humidifier.

Worse, the plant wasn’t in soil. The peat it grew in seemed to be wet all the time, even after two weeks without water. (The pot had a plastic liner.)The beautiful flowers lasted over a month and when they dropped off I cut the plant back, as directed.

Instead of the expected new set of flowers on the stem, it grew new leaves. I had helped create a baby orchid.

Then the plant seemed to stop growing altogether.

I thought it had rot and so dumped the peat it was in, trimmed back the roots and put it in a bigger pot with bark.

I nearly killed it.

Orchids LIKE all that moisture. They thrive on it.

When Doris Duke decided to open a small part of her estate to the paying public (including me) to view her exquisite indoor gardens, one of the biggest hits was the orchids. Now, Doris long gone and the battle over her estate (including what to do with the Hillsborough, NJ, property her father - JB Duke of Duke tobacco, Duke Energy and Duke University - built into a huge self-sustaining farm) settled, nearly all the NJ property (except the mansion where Duke lived) is open to the public as a lovely, free park (which is very good for birding, by the way).

The Duke mansion, as reclusive as its owner.
June 2012
 The only part of the old indoor garden kept (but moved to a different part of the estate and into a more energy-efficient greenhouse) is the orchid house. You go in and it is very humid and warm, although not uncomfortably so. The orchids attached to the trees seem to be holding on by the most spindly of roots.

Just like the ones I’d cut back on my orchid, thinking I was helping it.

I am happy to say that despite my mishandling, the orchid stayed green and did not die. I did not give up on it and it did not give up on me.

Hanging on by the most delicate of roots.
Duke Farms, June 2012
 I put it back in its original lined pot and the bark remains wet. I cut off the stem with the baby orchid and put it in a vase. They’ve been out on the back porch since mid-May in the heat and humidity.

I feed both of them and now both appear to be growing again - a new root and leaf on the parent and, incredibly, a tiny root on the baby. When the baby’s root gets big enough I can take the plant off the rotting stem and put it in a small pot of bark and hope it attaches itself and continues to grow.

Maybe they'll even flower again.

A couple of times, before I put them out on the porch, I admit I came close to dumping the orchids into the compost pile.

That might not have been as cruel as it sounds. In early spring I divided two pots of cannas, planted what I wanted and put the rest - dead matter, I thought - into the compost pile. After weeks of rain and warmth and being left alone, I discovered quite a few growing canna plants. I've since pulled them up and planted them elsewhere.

The orchid might have done better - in the compost pile or on my table - had I just left it alone and not messed up nature's balance and nearly killed it.

I’ve been given a second chance so I’ll try to do better.