Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Birding for the Soul

The natural world is a gateway to the timeless and the infinite. We can never understand it completely, and so for us it serves as a bridge to the infinite.
 -- Thomas Moore, "Ageless Soul"

"These are the times that try men's souls," MH tells me as we slowly walk down a gentle incline, kicking through beech, red oak, white oak and tulip poplar leaves, trying to avoid the rocks and roots. He is not talking about what's going on in the world now. He is quoting Thomas Paine regarding George Washington and the War of Independence.

Looking back up from the hollow. (Margo D. Beller)
We are on a narrow trail through woods at the Morristown (NJ) National Historic Park known as Jockey Hollow. Washington and his army camped at Jockey Hollow twice, the first time for a few months in the winter of 1777 and then for a longer period starting in the winter of 1779 - much more time than the better-known winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pa.

I do not like winter, and since my last post on the subject, MH's father died. As we walk in the woods, past tall, century-old trees that sprang up after Washington's army left after clearing the original trees to build huts and cook their food, it is cold and quiet, only us except for the occasional dog walker.

There are a lot of hills and valleys in this park. This particular trail, named for the New York State Brigade, is leading to what may be THE hollow for which this park is named.

Our hike here was not planned. I stopped here because I like driving the paved tour road through Jockey Hollow when we are headed elsewhere, and then I had to make a stop to adjust something. MH suggested we hike the path near us. Our motivations were different. I was looking for a place for us to walk and maybe hear a few birds. He was thinking of our recent hike at Washington Crossing State Park, the area where, on Christmas 1776, Washington brought his army across the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise the British at the Battle of Trenton. We hiked near the river after looking at the artifacts at the park's museum. I was not expecting to find any unusual birds but I was pleasantly surprised to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker - a woodpecker I rarely see in our backyard - and a brown creeper.

Brown creeper, front yard (Margo D. Beller)
So here we were at Jockey Hollow. We walked a long while before we heard the contact calls of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and juncos, but MH heard something else - the scream of a red-tailed hawk. I did not hear it the first time but I did the second time, and so did the birds, which went quiet. I set about trying to find it with my binoculars. We slowly continued along the path.

Then, it flew from one tree to another.

I watched it watching me. It called several times. It must've been a juvenile - a male, judging by its size (female red-tails are larger) - because an adult would know that screaming would not get it any supper, winged or otherwise. Finally, it got tired of watching me and flew off. A minute or so later, the small birds started chattering again and MH said he wanted to start the hike back up the hill to our car.

I did not want to leave. A few winters ago I had to have surgery, and in the long recovery afterwards I only started to feel like myself again - well - when I went to the local park and started walking along the familiar trail and tried to find the birds I heard calling, something I enjoy doing.

Another red-tail in another tree
(Margo D. Beller)
In his new book, "Ageless Soul," Thomas Moore makes the point that there is a difference between aging well and getting old. As with the other book I recently read about global warming, this book has made me see another view of what I consider a negative experience. You can't change time. You can't make yourself younger, no matter how many pills you take or how much plastic surgery you have.

What you can do is enjoy the world around you, expand your horizons and make a difference.

"Work without play is a burden," he writes. "Play helps relieve some of the weight of labor."

For me, play is going outside for a walk and trying to find and identify birds, even if they are familiar ones I can see at the feeder from my kitchen. Birding is good for the soul and has been a way to help me heal through several winters of personal and professional changes.

The starkness of winter, Jockey Hollow (Margo D. Beller)
I think of all those Saturday mornings I felt compelled to get up and out of the house and go birding after a particularly hellish week when I was working in the city, away from home for 12 hours a day including work hours and the commute. Since working from home I sometimes feel a waning in my birding interest. "I've seen all these birds before. Why bother going outside?" I thought. That, I now know, is the wrong attitude.

As Moore writes, "[I]f you work without play, that soul work is neglected, and your work doesn't age you well. You get older as the years pass, but you don't get better as a person."

Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I now know I can change my ways before it is too late.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Two Ways of Looking at Global Warming

The Carolina wren flies to the porch and pokes around the overhang, looking for bugs. But this wren has flown to a porch in central New Hampshire. According to the owner of the property, this is the first Carolina wren he's ever seen in the state.

 As the name implies, Carolina wrens were once primarily found in the southeastern U.S. However, they are a common sight at all times of the year in my home state of New Jersey, which is north of the Carolinas and south of New Hampshire. These wrens, unlike the marsh and house wrens I see every summer, don't fly south for the winter. As long as there are feeders to provide suet and seed when the snows cover any insects, these wrens will survive.

Carolina wren at feeder in winter (Margo D. Beller)
Northern cardinals, despite their name, is another species once only found in the south, as were the northern mockingbird and the redbellied woodpecker. They are common backyard birds in my part of the country now. They have come north along with their food sources, managing to survive in northern areas in winter. I also happen to think that as global warming continues, as we are told more months of the year are the warmest ever, the birds can push north and stay, migrants no more.

If you've read my posts you know I am no fan of "development" and of the continued warming of the Earth, a process some call global warming but now has been dubbed climate change. Either way it means that average temperatures have been rising, weather has been getting more extreme, more 100-year disasters have been taking place more frequently and more carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases are being created, to the detriment of the atmosphere.

That's my usual glass-half-empty view because of what I see reported on the news, such as when the current U.S. administration thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax, wants to subsidize coal mining over cheaper and cleaner natural gas and puts in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency someone who wants to dismantle it.

Professor Chris D. Thomas of the University of York (UK) has another, more positive view. You could say he takes a much longer view than the mainstream press - several millennia, in fact. He believes that thanks to warming and other changes there is more species diversity in many areas.

"The world is one in which the specific combination of species and genes in any one place is new but the fundamental biological processes that are in operating are the same as before," he writes in his new book "Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Evolution."

Northern cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
Thomas is a realist. He knows there are areas of the world where species have become extinct. But he also knows that while climate change and excess pollution are things to fight, the long-term view is this is evolution, right out of Charles Darwin. Nature adapts, like the Carolina wren in New Hampshire. The state now has an additional species, adding to its diversity.

And it's not just birds. Many trees and plants have moved to other areas and thrived.

"Accepting that ecological and evolutionary change is how nature works means that we must contemplate life as a never-ending sequence of events, not as a single fixed image of how it looks today," he writes. "This dynamic perspective of life on Earth allows us to put aside most of our doom-laden rhetoric and recognize that the changes we see around us, including those that have been directly or indirectly engineered by people, are not necessarily fundamentally better or worse than the ones that went before. They are just different."

What is creating change is us, not just with more industry and suburban developments but by more subtle processes. The ships that brought Europeans to the new world brought with them diseases, and insects and vermin that stowed away. They brought plants and vegetables to remind them of home in this new world. Some of these plants thrived while others did not. Some had to "move" to other areas through mankind's movements to survive.

According to Thomas, those that do not evolve will die. At the same time, he disagrees with those who want to eradicate "foreign" species, such as the American trees brought over to Europe and now thriving. They want to bring things back to the way things were. Impossible, says Thomas.

Prothonotary warbler, increasingly found
in NYC, as this was
(Margo D. Beller)
"We are living in a fundamentally human-altered planet, and there is no longer any such thing as human-free nature," he says. "We cannot reverse time. Instead, we should appreciate changes that are positive as much as we regret any losses."

This is certainly a different way of looking at the changes we humans have created - inadvertently and intentionally - in this world. So in future I won't be overwhelmingly negative when another bird that normally lives farther south starts making regular appearances in my area, such as the southern yellow-throated and prothonotary warblers. It's evolution in action.

At the same time we must work hard to keep the losses of different birds and other species to a minimum and encourage the positive. Everyone can do something, however small. For instance, buy and put out feeders to keep the Carolina wrens and redbellied woodpeckers of the world thriving when they visit your yard this winter, wherever you might be.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

I Hate Winter!

Every year it seems I feel the need to express myself about how winter makes me feel. I feel down. Why?

Winter is cold.
Snowfall, New Jersey (Margo D. Beller)

It is often as dry outside as it is in my heat-filled home and my skin quickly turns to sand paper.

There is a good chance of snow and ice.

It is hard to get out of bed in the morning, much less take a long walk.

Just as I am finally feeling awake and alert the shadows get long at 3pm ET, so I know darkness is only two hours away. That means I have to take in the feeders at 5pm so they won't be attacked by bears overnight (until they go to their winter dens. But who knows if they will if our climate continues to warm?). If I have water dishes out for the birds, they must come in because the water will freeze when the temperature gets below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the weather is expected to be very bad, say a major drop in temperature after an unusual warm spell, the birds attack the feeders. Chickadees, titmice and white-breasted nuthatches grab and go while house sparrows and house finches sit on the perches and feed until I chase them off so the other birds can eat.

Winter days are short and that depresses me. It reminds me of my mortality.

Winter intensifies a feeling of loss. One friend is mourning the recent death of his sister, while another's wife succumbed to cancer in August. December reminds me of friends who are out of my life such as the one who stopped talking to us five years before his sudden death in 2012, just after his 56th birthday. We found out about it through the most accidental of circumstances. He went to his death with his secrets. I turned his age two months later.

I used to send real holiday cards in the mail. Each year my card list grows smaller because someone has died, stopped talking to me or, more often, greetings are received virtually, via email and Facebook. And even when I do send a card there is little to say aside from I'm still here and still alive despite the best efforts of mankind (cars, diseases, stress) to kill me, and that I hope for peace the next year.

Maybe that's enough.

I try to remember things that are good about this time of year. There is a starkness to the winter landscape that is striking. Hanukkah and Christmas and Kwanzaa bring colorful lights, clothing and food to cheer otherwise gloomy and dark nights.

Winter landscape - Great Swamp (Margo D. Beller)
And, as MH reminds me, the beginning of December is the time when the sunset is the earliest it will be. It will remain that way for about a week and then the sunset times will gradually get later. (However, sunrise times will continue to be later, too, so the days will continue to appear short until the winter solstice on Dec. 21. Then the sun will start rising earlier.)

My friends should know I am working to give myself a reason not to be depressed. Seeing some family for Thanksgiving helped. Seeing some friends over the holidays will help, too. So will filling out the few cards I'll be sending, hoping to receive some in return. There are still birds to be seen during the winter including those at the feeders and wild ducks on all types of waterways.

If I can wake up, see the sun shining and have the energy to make my daily trips outside to put up the feeders and the water dishes for the birds, I'll be satisfied. But I'll be happier when spring finally comes.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

Getting Out to Sea

...(W)henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul...I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
-- From Herman Melville's "Moby Dick"

I am no sailor. After nearly drowning several times in my life, I stay away from water be it a placid lake or a raging surf. However, I have great respect for the power of the sea and those who work it for a living. When the wind howls and one wrong step can cost you your life, you are doing a job I know is important and I could not do.

Montauk sunset, Nov. 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
For some reason, despite my antipathy for water, I find myself drawn to it. That may come from my upbringing on the southern coast of Brooklyn, NY, in an area called Sheepshead Bay. Back in my youth the place had the atmosphere of a fishing village, especially along Emmons Ave., which parallels the bay. Farther along the road, there is Plumb Beach, which is now cleaned up quite a bit from the garbage dump it was, when you walked carefully along the sand to avoid used syringes and condoms.

My mother, who grew up on the flat plains of Alberta, liked to come to Plumb Beach to watch the waves. Listening to the water must have been a way to stay calm in an otherwise less-than-contented life. But my old neighborhood has changed and the fishing village has been replaced by high-end real estate, traffic and tall towers.

When MH and I started taking vacations in November around the time of the Veterans Day holiday, we chose shore areas because the tourists would not be there in the same numbers as in the summer. Our first November trip was to Stonington, Conn. We have since stayed along the Delmarva Peninsula; in Cape Cod and Cape Ann, both in Massachusetts; in New Jersey's own Cape May, and down along the North Carolina Outer Banks and on Atlantic Beach.

There are disadvantages to this. When the wind blows in the winter cold it can be numbing. Not as many restaurants are open and some areas of state or federal parks can be closed. If unexpected snow hits, it makes for treacherous travel.

Male (L) and female long-tailed ducks
(Margo D. Beller)
But still we go, because we can enter parks without a fee and, if we are lucky, we find a wealth of birds.

This year we decided to stay closer to home yet not in Cape May, and so ventured to Montauk, on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. We have visited the town on many day trips but wanted to do some exploring of the South Fork, where Montauk is at the very end, and the North Fork, where we had once visited Greenport and Orient, two of the towns where wineries have replaced the old potato farms.

The Long Island scenery is wonderful. We also saw some impressive birds including hundreds of them in the ocean off Camp Hero, an old military base now a state park. Winter is duck time. Among those in the ocean below a sheer drop were black, surf and white-winged scoters and common eiders. Gannets dove from on high for food while cormorants and common loons would pop up from the water before diving back down again. The ubiquitous herring gulls were joined by greater black-backed gulls and even a few ringbills.

In calmer waters we found more common eiders, a scoter or two as well as long-tailed ducks. All of these are usually seen in the ocean but when you are at Land's End and a storm is expected, shelter is a priority.

Double-crested cormorant
(Margo D. Beller)
We had one picture-perfect day, which we spent on the North Fork, an area that shares more with the salt-box, shingled, harbor people of New England than New York. In Orient Beach State Park, dozens of robins plus jays and the occasional house finch and myrtle warbler were hitting the red cedars, which were covered in blue berries. We saw the same feeding frenzy the next day at a county park we found after we left Sag Harbor (like New Bedford, Mass., a whaling center once) but this time it was dozens of cedar waxwings and goldfinches hitting the berries.

If only we could've spent more time with the birds and less time trying to find an affordable place to eat and drive roads where the people who service the rich were in a hurry to either get to their next job or get home and drove one-lane roads at a high rate of speed. Even those who own property and live out there full time drive behemoths that fill your rear-view mirror when they tailgate.

All of this part of Long Island is New York City East. While the North Fork seemed more artsy, I did not like the South Fork much at all. The Hamptons have always been rich but now they are Super-Rich, with obscenely expensive megamansions crowding each other along any available waterway, screened from lesser beings in the road by tall, thick hedges of privet. Privet is everywhere. Once in a while I saw huge hollies placed in front for the same reason, which at least is interesting. Privet is not, and when it flowers it stinks. The mansions were of recent vintage - salt boxes are an endangered species where land is worth more than your life - and likely very empty, their owners back in their city penthouses.

Myrtle warbler
(Margo D. Beller)
A long time ago my family spent our summer vacation not far from the Hamptons, in a little town called Center Moriches. On this trip, MH and I drove through. I expected change and was not disappointed.

When I was a child I remember my family walking along the road from the old hotel - which later was bought by Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine dictator - past a duck farm. Hundreds of white ducks, bred to become part of the famous Long Island duckling dinner. My sister and I weren't told that, of course.

The duck farm was gone, the land cut up into luxury housing. The old hotel I remembered had been fenced in (likely by Marcos) and re-sided (likely by the people who bought it from Marcos) in a thoroughly ugly way. I expected this but it was still sad to see. I doubt we'll be coming back to the South Fork ever again. Aside from the sea, it is not our kind of place.

You've got to walk and don't look back, as Peter Tosh and Mick Jagger once sang.


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sweating the Small Stuff

Something wonderful begins to happen with the simple realization that life, like an automobile, is driven from the inside out, not the other way around. As you focus more on becoming more peaceful with where you are, rather than focusing on where you would rather be, you begin to find peace right now, in the present. Then, as you move around, try new things, and meet new people, you carry that sense of inner peace with you. It's absolutely true that, "Wherever you go, there you are.” 
― Richard CarlsonDon't Sweat the Small Stuff ... and it's all small stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life

My friends know I have a Type A personality. They may not know it was created from a household where my mother couldn't keep house, my father couldn't screw in a light bulb and my sister tried to make herself disappear whenever she could. So, I felt, I had to keep things running. I still do.

Pods on the grass, the type of "small stuff"
that keeps me going. (Margo D. Beller)
I was watching TV the other day and saw one of those commercials for the new Real Estate Trap, aka, an "active adult" community. In that one the single woman, who looks to be in her 70s, says she couldn't believe she could be happy in her new environment. We see her with age-appropriate friends, multi-racial and of both sexes, and she's reading and making cookies and "can't want to see what tomorrow brings!"

The line that really gets my blood boiling is when she says how glad she is she no longer has to "sweat the small stuff."

What would that be, ma'am?

Would that be cleaning up your little room? Would that be cooking a meal for yourself? Would that be walking the dog, raking the leaves, working in the garden, running to the library?

No, of course not. You have everything you need right there and if you do want to go somewhere, the complex will put you in a van and take you there.

For those older, more infirm folks, I can see the appeal of this. My in-laws are in their 80s and very glad to sell their suburban home for a NH condo closer to their grandchildren, where there are lots of activities, a hospital is down the road and they don't have to shovel the snow or work on the greenery outside. I bless my father-in-law every time I use the tools he left behind.

But this morning, as I raked yet more pods to the curb ahead of my town's leaf vac coming by, I wondered what I would do if I no longer had to "sweat the small stuff."

My way of not sweating the small stuff.
(RE Berg-Andersson)
I'd never survive.

I have the type of personality that has to work against something. For many years it was a job away from home, where if I wanted to do anything I wanted to do, I had to either do it before my two-hour commute or once I got home from work 12 hours or so later or wait for the weekend. Even after I started working from home I'd have to work around my various shifts.

At the moment it's getting those damned pods off my lawn.

One of my friends envies me my now semi-retired status, semi-retired because I still do some freelance work, I just don't get as much of it or get paid as well as I was before my biggest client decided to go without my editing services. I have a lot of time to fill. Sure, I can read all day but how will that pay the bills?  I tell her that every day seems the same to me now, weekends and holidays are just another day. Most days I wake up and have to remind myself what day it is.

But at least I still wake up. I still put out the bird feeders in the cold dawn, refill the water dish, watch the Canada geese fly overhead (even if these are local geese flying north instead of south for the winter). I still make supper for MH and myself, and when I don't feel like it we go out. I even clean my own house every so often. I don't feel compelled to mingle with people if I don't feel like it, and I can still afford to pay the taxes on this property. The idea of an "active adult community" fills me with horror, mainly because I know I'd have to be in really bad condition physically, financially or both, to force me from my home.

As a couple without children, whose friends live some distance away and who are aging every day, the small stuff of what happens in future is a problem for another day.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Preparing for Winter, Part 2

If there is one thing I hate doing among all the things I must do before winter hits, raking is the worst. And the worst of the worst is raking black locust pods off my front lawn before they are chewed by deer and squirrels, the seeds scattered and a forest springs up.

Female locust tree, with pods. Oct. 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
I've written about raking before, how it is a way of communing quietly with nature as I listen to the early-morning calls of the birds, and how it is yet another way MH and I can work together as a team toward a common goal.

But every year, and we are talking about decades now, I take my rake to the thick mat of pods shaken down by the wind and curse out the person or persons on the Shade Tree Commission who thought black locusts would be a fine tree at the curb of my street.

They certainly can take the summer heat and car exhausts. But whoever put them in put them in haphazardly. I have learned you need male and female trees in order for pods to be created. On our property we have two males and one female, the female hanging over the driveway, which means if pods are down heavily here too they have to be broomed to the curb. I have done that twice today alone.

Some years, as with the apple tree, something happens with the atmospheric conditions and there are fewer pods to rake up. But this is not that year.

It could be worse. Several of my neighbors down the street have two female trees, with double the mess.

About a decade ago our town realized that when the locust roots spread, they push up streets and sidewalks. There was a move to remove these and replace them with walnuts. My politically connected former neighbor got one of those walnuts before the money ran out for the project. The walnut is the last tree to drop its thin leaves, usually all over my side of our common yard. In a few years, the mature tree will start forming fruits, which look like large green balls filled with the nut that only a squirrel can somehow saw open.

More mess.

Pods at the curb. Since this picture I added more
and the town came through to collect them. More to come.
2017 (Margo D. Beller)
Our town takes the pods along with the fallen leaves. MH did a close mowing, his last for the year, and that took care of the leaves but only temporarily. November is when most of our raking is done because the town will stop coming through in early December.

That is not all I do, of course. When a friend mailed up some bulbs of lilies and daffodils, they had to go into the ground. When the weather forecast showed a trend toward overnight temperatures in the 30s, I had to bring in my peppers, cannas and the tomato I potted after finding it near my compost pile. The dahlia was brought in, too.

And there was last week's chore of completely redoing my Bay Garden. Checking on things today I found a chipmunk did some small bit of digging, either to bury nuts for later or dig up past plantings. I can only do so much. The rabbit fencing is not small enough to deter a chipmunk but they will dig or jump over most barriers anyway. I have found plenty of small trees growing in my netted gardens where a chipmunk has been digging and forgotten what it has planted.

Lawn mowed, pods raked, Bay Garden plot redone, the pots
to the left brought inside. Ready for winter. (Margo D. Beller) 
In the coming weeks I will cut back watering all but two of the peppers and the tomato. These will come inside, to be protected from cold and lit by the bay window. The rest will be cut back and stored in the garage or taken from the pots and put into compost.

I know there are pots and garden plants that will have to be divided, but that will be for the spring. For now, knowing there is more raking to do soon, this labor has been more than enough.

Sometimes I worry what will happen when I am no longer able to do this work. That will be for another day, too.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Searching for Color

You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.  
― Ernest Hemingway, "A Moveable Feast"

I don't know when this ritual of looking for trees filled with dying, colorful leaves began. Doubtless, the good people of Vermont knew a good thing when they saw it, drawing those of us in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere up to New England to drive around, stay at a hotel, help the local economy and watch leaves color, die and fall without our having to sweep them up.

Ashokan Reservoir, Catskills, NY, Oct. 2017
(Margo D. Beller)
Watch a weather forecast and there's someone telling you which areas are "peak" or close to it. Look online and google "fall foliage" and see what you find. Regional websites, weather websites, tourist websites all trying to draw you to their regions to look at the colorful, albeit dying leaves.

This week I've swept dozens of long, hard, black pods from the black locust tree to the curb to allow MH to cut our lawn one last time before the raking begins. Plenty of leaves and pods to come. I can put some leaves into my compost pile but my pile is only so big and there is always too many leaves.

Rondout Reservoir during a brief moment of sunshine.
This and Ashokan are among the reservoirs that supply New
York City with water. (Margo D. Beller)
In my part of NJ this year the color isn't all that good. Yes, the dogwoods, Virginia creeper vine and some maples are showing red, some of the elms are starting to go yellow and some of the white oaks are going brown. But the overall picture is one of rain-starved trees trying to drop dully, tattered leaves as fast as they can to save energy and thus themselves for next year.

Yards with yellow and red maples are already covered with leaves so thick you can't see the grass. The whine of the leaf blower is heard throughout the land.

And yet, here was MH and me on a recent Sunday driving north to the Catskill Mountains, looking for color. Any excuse to get out of the house. Most of the day was cloudy and breezy and far from the expected 80 degrees, thankfully. At Rondout Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains of NY, a source of NYC's water, there suddenly appeared cormorants, common loons and ringbilled gulls in the water, and a shrieking redtailed hawk over my head.

Below, in the still-blooming daisies and goldenrod were Monarch butterflies. These delicate creatures were holding fast to the flowers in the breeze. They are flying south to Mexico for the winter, an amazingly hard journey for these little fliers.
(Margo D. Beller)
Rondout was our birdiest stop. The other reservoir we visited, Ashokan, had a great blue heron but not much else. As MH persisted in telling me, this was a leaf-peeping trip, not a birding trip. I watched the scenery go by and every so often got a surprise, such as the mature Bald Eagle sitting in a tree over the Neversink River or the female Common Mergansers in a pond near where we stopped to stretch our legs.

But color? Not so much.

Meanwhile, back at home, we've had a spate of clear, sunny, warm days and cool nights. More leaves are turning color. But is MH satisfied? Of course not, and when you read this we will be on the road again, this time in another state, looking for that mystical "peak."



Friday, October 20, 2017

Preparing for Winter

The love of gardening is a seed once sewn that never dies.
   -- Gertrude Jekyll

There are skeins of Canada geese flying in large Vs to the south at dawn and at dusk. Local Canada geese know there is something they should be doing but don't know what it is. So they fly up and circle and land on another field or playground or office park lawn, as in my photo below.


Winter is coming. It is inevitable as sunrise. If you have a garden of flowers, vegetables or both, you have to prepare it for those cold nights that will yield a killing frost, whether you like it or not.

Those who have plants they can ignore and pay someone else to take care of do not have this problem. Most of the shrubs and small ornamental trees in this area can withstand cold without being wrapped or otherwise protected. I, however, have always enjoyed growing flowering plants, and many of these have special needs.

So the first thing I had to do was to cut back all the perennials in the front and back yards that had flowered and then gone dormant. Then, after weeks of preparing myself mentally, I finally went down to our NJ county's mulch pile to fill five big buckets of free wood chips for a project in my front yard garden bed in front of the bay window. (Henceforth known as the Bay Garden.) I was forced to act by the weather forecast. After weeks of unusually warm weather in NJ during September and October, we were about to get overnight temperatures in the 30s. Many of the plants I keep outside are annuals that would die in the cold, especially if below the freezing mark, 32 degrees Fahrenheit. I persist in trying to keep these going for as long as I can rather than tossing living plants into compost just because the "experts" tell me to do so.

So I knew I'd have to bring my pots of annuals to the enclosed back porch to get them ready for being brought into my house. Same with my house plants already on this porch. But the Bay Garden was overgrown with ground ivy and Rose of Sharon seedlings and the shrubs needed pruning. This garden plot had, to be frank, gone to hell. It needed new fence posts, deer netting and a trench to keep the lawn grass and weeds from filling the area. I needed to dig this trench, pull out the weeds, cut the shrubs and then put down the mulch. Even with MH's great help the process took over eight hours and I just finished securing the netting before sundown.

The hardest part turned out to be pulling out the rabbit fencing, which was held down by garden staples I could not find and the grass and weeds that had grown through. It took MH and me all our combined strength to pull this out and we have been feeling the effects of our labor on our muscles for days now.

When you dig a trench, as I did in another area back in September, you have to attend to it every few years or the ground will fill and the problem will return. I did not do this on the Bay Garden. It had been at least 10 years, and it showed. As you will see below, the grass grew so high into the rabbit fencing you could not see the plants behind it.

I can tell you now that the job is done and I am happy. Later in the fall I will put a second, temporary layer of netting on to keep the deer thwarted over the winter, when there won't be much growing. I've learned the hard way a hungry deer determined to get to my leafy shrubs will split through one layer of netting quite easily.

My grandfather did not have this problem. I don't know if Pop gardened back in the Old Country but when he came to the U.S. thanks to his older brother he lived on the Lower East Side, which was far from a garden spot. When he and my grandmother moved to Brooklyn, he must've started planting things in the yard. When they moved to the house where I knew them, they had a big corner lot. Besides shrubs Pop grew vegetables and flowers. I do not remember them having house plants. He came to our house and planted roses, snowball bushes and a peach tree. I don't know who inspired him but my having any inclination towards gardening in a family of brown thumbs must've come from him.

This is my garden story. (All pictures are by me and the caption is beneath the picture.)


Above is a "before" picture. You can see that the grass has grown into the low rabbit fencing and the ground ivy is thick. From the street it was very hard to see the plants.

 Another "before" picture, this time from an angle.


The fence posts were removed, the netting taken down and the rabbit fencing removed, with great difficulty, by MH and me. He used the pitchfork to soften things up and I used the spade to start a trench between plants and the rest of the lawn.


A better view. After the trench was dug I had to go into the garden plot to pull out the weeds, hand to hand combat. The ground ivy was everywhere, even in the middle of the liriope, which is the plant in the lower right. Normally it would not have to be cut back until spring but I don't think the early haircut will hurt it.


One of the many ways in which MH helped me was shoveling the mulch I'd brought home (and dumped into a tarp in a corner of the driveway until I needed it) into the wheelbarrow and bringing it over to me. This was harder than you may think. Mulch in bulk is extremely heavy, and I had to bring home enough to cover the Bay Garden. Luckily, I guessed right and didn't need to go back for more. He wound up making three trips to and from the tarp and then we both dragged the tarp over - still heavy - to put the rest down.


Here we are after the mulch has been put down on the weeded garden. It was a shame to have to put the new fence posts in and the netting back up but that very afternoon a doe was grazing in the backyard grass, reminding me why I go through this nonsense.


The nearly finished product, done as the sun was setting. I realized after the fact that I'd have to put the rabbit fence along this netting, if only to keep larger critters such as the squirrels and rabbits out from where the fencing ends, under the bay window overhang you can see behind the shrubs.


This picture was taken the next day. Unlike before, the rabbit fence is not held down by stakes. It just sits next to the tacked down netting. From the street you can't see it. MH mowed recently and, for once, was able to get right up to the edge with out fear of tangling the mower in netting.

Gertrude Jekyll had the advantage of a large staff of men to help her in the massive effort of getting her estate's many garden beds ready for winter. If you read her books, you'll see what kind of effort that was. Makes what MH and I did look like nothing.

Still, we sure could've used that staff for our one problem bed.



Monday, September 25, 2017

Autumn Colors

Goldenrod field 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
When I go hiking at this season, I usually look up, seeking movement in the trees that could be migrating birds. It is up to MH to look at things on the ground including caterpillars, toads and dog poo, and warn me not to step in or on it.

Lately, however, I've been looking at the flowers. What follows are pictures of flowers I've seen in my wandering. (Note: This was intended to be a slideshow but for some reason this template is not letting me put in page breaks.)

I used to confuse goldenrod with ragweed and would pull it out of my yard. I know better now. In fact, I have a small stand or goldenrod from a friend's garden, but you can see goldenrod in fields everywhere at this time of year, making even highways look pretty.

Virginia creeper in red, with blue berries 2017
(Margo D. Beller)
But there are even more flowers around and some weeds, such as Virginia creeper vine, that will turn color ahead of the trees it is climbing. This vine is not poisonous, unlike poison ivy. This one has blue berries for the birds rather than poison ivy's white berries.



Snakeroot (Margo D. Beller)

Speaking of white, one of the autumnal plants I enjoy seeing in my yard is a pretty cluster of flowers with the ugly name of snakeroot. As you can see, it can populate a whole field.

Another common white flower in Autumn, very low to the ground, is the ox-eye daisy.

(Margo D. Beller)

(Margo D. Beller)
The pink flowers of joe-pye weed are always a welcome sight in the woods and fields. This can be bought for home gardens, too. Some types have been bred small while some, such as the ones I bought, can grow over 10 feet. When the flowers bloom they are covered in bees and butterflies.


(Margo D. Beller)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Trench Warfare

It is the nature of Nature that when you have a mowed field, you have to keep it mowed or it will become overgrown. Then the trees will start growing and completely change the typography. There are people who want this. Second-growth forests, as this regrowth is called, are good for a variety of birds and animals.

Trench with sensitive ferns (Margo D. Beller)
But on a much smaller scale, in this case my yard, I need to get rid of a different type of forest.

I was out with the hose early one morning this week to water the plants and I could not help but notice that thanks to the September heat that has followed the unusually fall-like weather in August - a reversal of seasons - the weeds and grasses are growing by leaps and bounds, thinking it is spring. It is hard for one woman to keep up and it is times like these I wish I could clone my nieces and nephews.

One area around the side of the house was on the verge of being swallowed up by the ground ivy. Bad enough it is fighting the grass in front of the house for survival. It has also found some comfortable dwelling space under Spruce Bringsgreen, whose prickly foliage keeps me from going under it to yank out the mats of ivy anymore than once or twice a year.

A mat of ground ivy was removed, exposing the
sprinkler head. (Margo D. Beller)
But this side area has a number of sensitive ferns that have done very well this year for the first time in a very long while, and I did not want the ivy in it. So I had to dig a trench.

Specifically, I had to dig a trench border.  I had to go to the edge of the area where the big shrubs, called andromeda, were planted, put in the shovel (after loosening things with the garden fork) and pull up the dirt, angling it in such a way that the grass and ivy in the lawn could not cross. Plants won't grow in air, so the wider the trench, the better the chance of keeping unwanted plants, even lawn grass, out.

It should've been easy enough. I've dug these trenches before. The problem is, I last dug one 10 years or more ago, and unless you fix your handiwork every few years, rain and wind will inevitably fill in the trench and the weeds will cross back to where you don't want them.

My plan was to rise early and try to finish the work before the sun rose high enough to warm that particular area. However, several things went wrong. First, I could not get myself out of bed before dawn. Second, I forgot about the difficulties in putting a shovel into dirt that has rocks and miles of shrub and weed roots under it. Third, I forgot the hand-to-hand combat. It's not enough to dig the trench, you have to pull out the undesirables from the area you have "liberated." It is very much like war without the shooting. 

Good trenches make good neighbors.
(Margo D. Beller)
The finished product makes the garden bed look neat but my back and knees almost finished me off. My compost bucket was filled with huge mats of ground ivy, particularly from in front of the air conditioner platform. There were also crab grass, some wood sorrel and other plants I can't identify. I just hope I got it all and didn't harm the ferns or buried daffodils much from my labor.

My plan was to do another garden bed not complicated by deer netting but my aging body forced me to wait a day. I had to be content putting a month's worth of brush to the curb in several trips using a cart and a wheelbarrow. The next day it took another two hours to do this bed, which has even more roots and rocks to dig through. Somehow I survived.

And I'm still not done. No gardener ever is. There is one super-sized problem area in front of the house, bound by netting, poles and a small fence to keep deer and rabbits out of plants I never would've put in had I known better 20 years ago. It will take an hour just to take out all the netting and then there will be hours of work to dig the trench, pull the weeds and then, as long as I have the poles down, move around pots, cut back shrubs and put down mulch. My back aches at the thought.

The next frontier (Margo D. Beller)
Because this area is in the sun for most of the day I will need a cooler day, preferably cloudy, an October day that actually feels like October. I could do at least some of this with MH's help, even though doing anything in the yard aside from mowing the lawn fills him with apprehension. I don't blame him. Sometimes it is easier to just do things myself rather than bark orders to get things just so. 

I could hire someone but I like working in the garden, despite the pain. I can listen to a distant Carolina wren, one of my favorite birds. I can take care of everything at once and then, I hope, leave this area of the garden alone until spring starts things all over again. 

Mainly, doing this stuff allows me to check that I can still do it. As time has gone by I have been forced to give up many things, including long, rocky hikes up steep inclines. The garden, even digging a trench, is something I can still do. I garden, therefore I am. 

I am battling myself, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Coming Back to Life

I am still grieving the loss of one of my dear friends, and I still hate this time of year for the shorter days and dying leaves and pods that will soon have to be raked to the curb.

April, 2017 (RE Berg-Andersson)
But there are times I am reminded that with every loss comes rebirth.

My friend is gone but my grandnephew is nearly 15 months old and growing like a weed. The cardinals and their young are still flying around the backyard. The catbirds are leaving my yard but the white-throated sparrows will be here soon for the winter. I have taken in the hummingbird feeder and I will soon be putting out the seed feeders for those passing through or staying around.

I was at the Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, the closest New Jersey Audubon facility to my house, to watch for hawks on its observation deck with Birding Ambassador and author Pete Dunne and a small crowd of people hoping to see a large kettle of broad-winged hawks. The temperature and humidity made it feel more like mid-August than mid-September, which has followed the pattern of this wacky year when we had summer-like weather in spring and fall-like weather in late summer.
Same are, Sept. 16, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)

I left the platform after an hour to hike the hills and valleys. I saw little in the way of birds except for a young female common yellowthroat warbler I pished out of the weeds. Everything else were birds I could've seen or heard in my backyard, including several turkey vultures.

I was trying to walk off my internal agitation, trying to remember why I enjoy birding. I have cut back for a number of reasons, including health concerns. I need a reason to keep going.

Then I walked into a field that had been burned back in the spring to get rid of invasive plants and allow for the seeding and growing of more native plants.

So where there was once scorched, seemingly dead earth were fields of long, seeding grasses I believe are a type of fountain grass and brilliant yellow goldenrod, along the lovely white fall flower with the ugly name of White Snakeroot.

Life after death. The priest at my friend's funeral went on about her happy life now after death and I thought how in my particular religion there is no concept of heaven and hell, just the here and now.

(Margo D. Beller)
So I am going to try to concentrate on the here and now. I am going to stop and enjoy the wildflowers now blooming, including the goldenrod and New England asters you see above. I am going to take walks and listen for what might be passing through. I am going to live in the moment. You can call it selfishness or mindfulness or whatever you want. I just need to get through this down period and hope for better days soon.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Cardinal Rules

I have always thought the period from late August through October to be the saddest time of the year. If you are not already back in school, you will be. The sun sets long before 8 p.m. Leaves are beginning to turn color and/or fall, as is the case with my old apple tree. The regular baseball season ends in early October.

Cardinal pair (Margo D. Beller)
Many birds are migrating south. I haven't seen a hummingbird at the feeder in quite some time. My mother, who was born in late August, died in mid-October. A dear friend, who was born in mid-October, recently died after a long battle against cancer one day after my mother's birthday.

The somber Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur usually fall in September or October. The anniversary of the worst attack in U.S. history occurred on Sept. 11.

By the time November rolls around you are used to the long, cold, dark nights and can look ahead to Thanksgiving and the winter holidays. But now you realize that the cold nights are going to severely hurt or kill your plants and you start to wonder whether to protect them or let them go.

At the same time, there is life.

Cardinal (Margo D. Beller)
Some plants bloom at this time of year. In my yard are flowering Rose of Sharon and liriope, with the sedum "Autumn Joy" not far behind. Mums dot suburban doorways.

There are still birds in the yard. A catbird calls, white-breasted nuthatch and chickadees come to the thistle sock and the cardinals are calling to each other. And there are young cardinals, too, a late brood for these parents.

Cardinals are among my favorite birds. Their size and coloring makes them easy to pick out in bushes and trees. They come to feeders and sit a while to eat, allowing you to admire and photograph them. In spring the red male feeds his mate as part of the pair bonding. It looks like they are kissing. Unlike a lot of other birds, they mate for life. Audubon painted the pair. The adults call to each other constantly, and the male will sit atop a tree and sing lustily during the breeding season, announcing that THIS is HIS territory.

Audubon's portrait of cardinals
(Margo D. Beller)
Cowbirds will drop eggs into cardinal nests. The young cowbird is usually bigger than the cardinal chicks and either grabs all the food or pushes them from the nest. The adults will feed it anyway out of instinct. I have seen a cowbird chick harassing an adult male cardinal, begging for food, following it wherever it goes until the chick grows big enough to leave and rejoin the cowbird flocks.

And yet, the cardinal is far from endangered. Today I watch young cardinals follow their parents around the shrubs in my backyard. They are nearly fully grown. When young, cardinals are smaller and brown like their mothers, lacking the red crest and bill. That is for their protection. As they get older, the brown females get their red bills and crests, the males start to grow the more familiar red feathers.

Relatively soon after they can fend for themselves, the young cardinals will find mates. When winter comes I might have as many as four cardinal pairs visiting the feeder. It will keep them alive this winter until they can breed and keep the cycle going.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Too Much of a Good Thing

Where do the natives of Tahiti go on vacation?

Our dry, cool, sunny un-August weather in New Jersey is like paradise after our recent, normal heat and humidity, but it may be too much of a good thing and it has me concerned.


Gift tomatoes (Margo D. Beller)
At some point during the expected 10 days without rain, I will have to go out with the hose and the sprinkler so the plants and the lawn don't die. There are two water dishes out for the birds (and the squirrels), and they've been visited frequently.

The peppers prefer heat, not evenings that fall into the 50s, as we've been having out here, so I am not sure if the fruits will ever get big or change from green to their expected ripe colors. 

The people who like the beach had a fine weekend (until the traffic home) and those who stayed home and have a grill and/or an outdoor fireplace enjoyed stinking up the neighborthood using them, too.

We aren't beach people but we did visit friends near the Brooklyn waterfront the other day and the wife's small garden put me to shame. Various tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger root, melons, coneflowers, sunflowers, herbs, all in a space about the size of a postage stamp. 

Like other gardening friends when the harvest is coming in, I got gifts to take home because they had too much of a good thing. That happens this time of year. I've had garden plants foisted on me because they'd otherwise be thrown out. One friend claims he will put a zucchini in every unlocked car he finds in his neighborhood, and I've been given zucchinis that look like green logs. A relative complains she doesn't know what she is going to do with all the fruit and vegetables she's picking. (She is a good cook and canner so I am not worried.)

My produce, in pots rather than in the ground, have it a little tougher because the roots are limited in how far they can grow. Some friends are using the new type of mesh pot that supposedly allows for greater air circulation for the roots and creates happier, fruit-bearing plants.


Gift cucumber, nearly 14 inches long
(Margo D. Beller)
Will my peppers ever grow to the right size? One friend in Delaware complains that all the rain she got this summer created a terrible harvest for her cucumbers and tomatoes. The farmers I've talked to in New Jersey have said the same. Too much rain is as bad as to little.

And yet the farm markets are full of peaches, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce. Some people are obviously doing a lot of things better than I am.

Meanwhile, our good thing in the northeast is balanced by too much of a bad thing in the rest of the country.

In California. there are major forest fires. In Texas, Hurricane Harvey strengthened into a Category 4 hurricane thanks to the abnormal warmth of the Gulf of Mexico before slamming into the barrier islands, which should've limited the damage but there are people living on them, and so there is damage. The continued rain has devastated Houston. The rain in Texas is being measured in feet, not inches.

Too much dry, sunny weather in NJ, a mega-hurricane flooding Texas. Global warming? You tell me.