Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Life Happens

There comes a point when one realizes he or she is never going to do it all. That the grand plan is nothing but a grand illusion, that the mind may be willing but the body is weak.

When MH and I moved from the City of New York to the New Jersey suburbs, we didn't realize what a radical move we were making, especially as we've aged.

We knew we wanted more space. We knew we wanted less noise. We knew we needed a place where we could park a car for when we went on vacation - we didn't need a car in NYC thanks to its public transportation system so when we traveled we had to rent one, or depend on the train. 

Even tho' we picked a suburban town with a real downtown, sidewalks and a train that ran regularly into NYC, we still needed a car.

When we got that car, and then moved from a two-family house apartment at one end of town to a Dutch colonial at the other, everything changed.

While I continued to walk - to the train, on my lunch hour - on weekdays, on weekends I was not walking everywhere as I did in the city. The weight started to go up. This coincided with getting older, when the metabolism slows and it takes more energy to burn more calories.

The suburbs brought us to cheap Jersey diners where the portions were big and the food likely laced with all sorts of the wrong fat. Even eating half and saving the rest for the next day meant TWO meals of fatty food. Until we went on the South Beach Diet, Wendy's was our go-to place of choice.

With suburban parking malls I lost my city-honed ability to parallel park the car. I can still do it, but after 20 or so years of head-in parking, being able to park close enough, back up at the right angle and jockey for position is WORK.

The other day I discovered one other change created by suburban living. 

In the suburbs, MH and I get in the car and go birding far afield. We throw into the trunk our boots, our walking sticks, our cameras, binoculars, several books to help us identify birds and plants as well as a backup pair of shoes and socks in case of bad weather. In the backseat is a water canteen, maps, tissues and a book for me to read in case MH wants to go to bookstore later.

After we hike for hours and hours we limp back to our chariot and drive off to the closest diner where we rest, repair and then return home.

Once a spring, we go to Central Park in New York City. It is a large, green rectangle - completely man-made - that goes from 59th St. to the south up to 110th St. in the north, from Fifth Ave. in the east to what would've been 8th Ave. if the numbered streets continued past 59th Street. (Instead, it is Central Park West.)

We go with practically nothing. No water. No boots. No books. I wore a backpack to carry my big binoculars while MH took a smaller pair than his usual so he could put them in his pocket.

Then, we started walking.

There are many areas where one can find birds, but since we live in New Jersey there is no way we could get to these or any other part of Manhattan at dawn or even early morning, when the birds would be feeding and active. By the time we started walking, any interesting migrants were either resting or off elsewhere. We walked and we walked and we walked and craned our necks looking for birds we didn't find. Oh, we found some good birds eventually, but not before fatigue set in. 

At one point we left the park for a restaurant - decidedly not a diner - at Columbus Ave. It was a nice rest, a good (and costly, as usual for Manhattan) meal. But when we started back to the park, my legs felt like lead. We continued to walk up and around the Reservoir over to the east side, because MH wanted to eventually go to a bookstore on Lexington Ave. from the park and then home.

We got to an area of benches at one of the Fifth Ave. openings near the Reservoir and I put my foot down - and my backside. We sat. I tried to get feeling into my legs.

I thought of my car back in the Jersey City parking garage. I thought of how many hours it would be until we could get to that car via public transportation and drive home to my suburban home, bird feeders and a warm shower.

I sat there and felt very old. There was a time when I could walk over the Queensboro Bridge to Central Park, but I was a lot younger then and I wasn't a birder. What could I have found had I been one?

New York, specifically Manhattan, is a city for younger people (and the wealthy, who can afford to be driven around). I once heard someone say that when you feel good, New York makes you feel on top of the world, but when you feel bad it makes you feel like you're dying. It's a very fast-paced life and you have to work hard to keep up.

The Dutch founded New Amsterdam not as a refuge from religious persecution, but as a commercial venture. New York has run on that principle ever since.

Should we have moved to the suburbs? MH would remind me of the gunshots and the blaring music and the sirens of our old Queens neighborhood. Would the fast pace have worn us down? MH would remind me we didn't become birdwatchers until we moved to our home and got a house-shaped feeder as a housewarming present.

The day after our New York trip, I got into the car (stiff legs and all) and went to a flat area in a county park not far from the house and walked along the Whippany River. I saw a lot of birds in a quiet area with few people. 

When I got tired and footsore, I walked back to my car and drove home.

Life is what happens when you're making other plans, John Lennon once sang. He liked New York City. He liked walking around. He wasn't allowed to get older, his life brutally ended in the doorway of his apartment building across the street from Central Park. 

My life is now tied to the suburbs, where I hope to age gracefully and accept it. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Drills and Drumming

If there is one thing my husband reminds me every year it is that where we live in northern New Jersey is much more quiet than where we lived in Queens, NY. 

Many was the night we heard blaring radios, people in different languages shouting at each other and the occasional gunshot. 

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., land of car alarms, ambulance sirens and kids playing all over the street. As I was one of those kids the noise didn't bother me, it was just there. In Queens I wasn't bothered most of the time but when the fireworks would start going off in June I would get pissed off and then the gunshots would scare me.

Eventually, we left for the safer, quieter suburbs where we would have space. That is why, the longer I've lived here, what noise I hear now seems louder, piercing and unexpected.

In late February I would leave the house for my morning walk and I'd hear drumming, the sound of a male woodpecker - usually a downy but possibly any of the six types that would be around northern New Jersey - striking a tree branch to announce its availability to the opposite sex and/or defend its chosen territory.

Downy woodpecker, the smallest type in New Jersey.

That sound I don't mind.

I'm learning to tolerate the noise of barking dogs left outside on mild days and small children playing in their yards.

But with the warming temperatures at the end of March, the home projects have returned.

As I sit in my office trying to work there is hammering, sawing, drilling and other ungodly machine screeching as people add on to their houses, repair their roofs, rip up the blacktop for paving stones on their driveways.

They call this "improvement."

The borough is putting in a much-needed sidewalk on the next street, and that has meant cutting down trees and grinding the stumps, sounds I hate to hear because it means fewer trees for the birds. When they start building the sidewalks, the noise will get worse.

But it will eventually end, and since I want a sidewalk I can put up with it, albeit with difficulty.

What I can't put up with is the infernal racket of the lawn services.

I can tolerate my husband pushing our little Toro over our 0.4 acre or those neighbors, even the ones with the big lawn tractors, who do it themselves. 

But when the paid crews come in they bring huge, powerful machines making incredibly annoying noise, which means on a nice day I am rushing to close the window and put my headphones on the radio to try and block it out.

And different houses have different services that come on different days.

I don't know which I hate more, the mowers or the leaf blowers with their whiny arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr to get every last bit of nongrass debris off the lawn.

I know, I know, like the birds these guys gotta eat and they wait all winter for the first hint of warmth that allows them to hire seasonal workers and get some contract business on the account books. And there are homeowners who have waited all winter, put up with the house (only 4 bedrooms for 6 people? the nerve!) and now want to bulk up and spruce up the place to raise the property values so when the economy really improves they can sell the house for something better.

Besides, says MH, would you prefer living in the city with the salsa music blaring from the cars double-parked in front of the corner bodega and the gunshots? 

No, I don't. But I would also prefer people realize that cutting their lawns within an inch of their lives every single week and then watering them when the summer sun inevitably turns them brown is a waste of energy and resources, including water and their money. 

And that a pristine, weed-free, bug-free, worm-free, bird-free, uniform lawn is not a REAL lawn and far from natural. It's advertising that says, look at me, I have the perfect lawn. I'm better than you.

I am aware I am being unrealistic, and I can understand why I see people with earbuds stuck in wherever they go, including when they are driving, to block out the noises and distractions and provide the perfect soundtrack to their world.

That, in part, is why I go into the woods and listen to the birds. But I refuse to blare music into my ears all day from now until winter to disassociate myself from the world. 

I don't want to miss the birds singing and drumming away. They don't seem put off by man's inhumanity to nature. I must try and follow their example.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Leap of Faith

Last month I took some lettuce seeds and put them in a big container of soil and placed it in the sun on my back porch. Lettuce is a cold-weather crop, but the cold was expected to be very bad for late March.

So I kept it sheltered and last week it got warm enough to allow me to put the container outside where it would get more sun and rain. For good measure I took out a pot in which I had placed a runner bean that I hope will grow and twine itself around the pole where I hang a feeder for hummingbirds. That vine, I have found, cuts down on ants that climb the pole and drown when they try to get to the sugar water.

Growing seeds is a leap of faith. You hope they come up in spring. Last October, before Hurricane Sandy, I found this small sunflower seedling coming out from under a roof underhang. A bird, likely a titmouse, had cached it and it had germinated. But it did not survive the winter. It would've been nice had it lasted but I wasn't surprised at its passing.

However, when it comes to my garden, every spring I wonder if last year's plants are going to bloom or flower. Did winter kill them? Did I in my ineptitude? Should I have dug up the cannas rather than leave them? Did I cut back the Jupiter's beard too much?

Hardy plants such as the daffodils and the crocuses come back year after year, sometimes in places where I don't remember planting them, and I am always amazed when the irises come back.

Other plants don't make it. The Glory of the Snow disappeared. So far there's been no sign of the butterfly weed or the salvias. The purple coneflower I potted to save it from a bad location didn't respond.

But some years I get an unexpected gift. One year a lovely Siberian iris sprang up in one of my garden beds. I grow German irises that are brownish and yellow. The Siberian was blue. It was there one year and then gone.

I have a hellebore, also known as lenten rose, and I kept it in a pot in a shady part of the garden. Hellebores have a long taproot and I wanted the flexibility to be able to move it around if necessary. But chipmunks had been digging into the pot and the plant wasn't looking very happy after weeks of snow, ice and rain this winter. So I dug a hole and moved it out of its pot.

Just yesterday I was looking at it and realized it had provided a drooping, purple, rose-like flower, the first since I'd bought it several years ago. Today I looked closer and found a second flower starting to grow. These are my reward for hoping it would grow with room to spread out. My faith in myself as a gardener has been restored.

Birds don't have faith, as far as I know. When their instinct says it is time to fly north in spring, they fly. They show up and eat. They are not expecting to be provided with food.

If they fly to my backyard and don't find berries or worms or insects to eat on my plants, they go someplace else. That's why I have feeders offering different types of seed. That is also why I try to promote a bird-friendly habitat by growing plants with berries, letting a weedy area go to seed and let some leaves pile up in the corners of my yard for birds to pick over for the insects hiding beneathe.

House wren nest box
Today, a mild day that made me think winter might finally be over, I put up the wren box. This is a nest box with an opening just big enough for a house wren. The carolina wren may have a lot of interesting songs but the house wren's bubbling call is pretty in its own way. I enjoy watching the wrens use the box and create a generation (or two) of young. But so far there have been no reports of house wrens arriving in New Jersey. It's too early.

So why did I put out the nest box weeks earlier than necessary?

After an autumn when my part of New Jersey was devastated when acres of trees were pushed down by Hurricane Sandy (resulting in power outages and property damage) and a winter of short periods of intense snow and cold that never wanted to end, I want my world to return to something resembling normal.

I am trusting that with the return of the warm winds out of the south, the house wrens will find their way up to New Jersey, find the box in my yard and stay another season until it is time for them to head south in the fall.

It is my leap of faith.