Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Matters of Life and Death

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” 
― Thornton WilderOur Town

In the past 18 months I have been in the hospital three times, twice by design and once in an emergency. For the two scheduled times, surgery was required and I was home that same day, but I had to be put under anesthesia.

Each time, in the days running up to that appointment, I prayed I would wake up afterwards.

It made me wonder, do we ever appreciate life while we have it? That made me think of "Our Town," where the entire last act is conversations among dead people and that very topic comes up.

I'd like to think there is a place where we can all sit around and have these types of discussions but I just do not know.

In the days leading up to this second surgery, I spent a lot of time cleaning the house, writing out instructions for MH "in case something goes wrong" and getting stuff done. Much of it was not important stuff, but the little things I knew I would not be able to do in the days afterwards...should I live.

Life and death were on my mind a lot in the days leading up to the second visit. They still are, and have been since the trauma that put me in the ER could've killed me.

The day of the second surgery, in the cool early morning, I watched the stained-glass window effect of my feeder intensely. I sat outside to watch the hummingbirds. I listened to the jays, cardinals, goldfinches and watched the chimney swifts catch insects aloft. I thought of my grand-nephew and the house his parents just bought. I'd like to see both it and him.

I thought of people condemned to die. They sit in cells and, when the appeals are exhausted, learn when exactly their lives will end. How do they feel? I thought I had an inkling.

Would you rather go quick and unexpectedly or spend weeks lingering on? There is a reason the "ideal" is to die in your sleep. But what if you left things undone the day before? I kept thinking of the "day after" should things go wrong.

I have not been very forthcoming about the state of my health with most of my friends and family. That reflects more on me than them. The ones I've told have cheered me greatly, but they have their own lives and families and troubles and live some distance away. After all is said and done, we're all really on our own.

I am lucky. There is much that has gone wrong in my life but much that has gone right. Am I neurotic in dwelling on the End? Perhaps. While I was in the hospital this last time I was reminded that catastrophic illness can be an equal opportunity killer. John McCain and brain cancer. The guy in the pre-op bed across from me telling the nurse he was in for an extensive hernia repair, much worse than the reason I was there. Children with leukemia.

Live each day as if it is your last. It's not just a cliche.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Fruits of My Labor

I am in no way, shape or fashion a particularly sophisticated cook. MH rarely complains about what I put in front of him, even if there are too many leafy greens for his liking, but I am not in the same league as various friends and family who really know their way around a kitchen.
Blueberry cobbler (Margo D. Beller)

However, while I wouldn't know what to do with an eggplant without instruction, I do enjoy making desserts. At this time of year I have all the ingredients I need.

First, were the apples. After weeks of cleaning up after the squirrels the apple harvest for 2017 is finally drawing to a close, to my relief and, no doubt, the tree's. After making six pints of apple sauce and swearing that was the end,  I had another two dozen apples that were either close enough for me to reach or the squirrels dropped while they clambered over the tree's branches. (This morning I noticed it took a lot longer, and the squirrel had to go a lot higher, to get an apple. These are at the very top of the tree, too high even for my extension pole.)

So I made another quart of sauce. This was a week after my last marathon cutting, cooking and Cuisinarting of sauce (not to mention a mess of pesto and an apple cake that was more apple than cake). However, MH, who had put up with the fresh zucchini I'd fed him for one meal, asked me to make a zucchini bread, which he remembered fondly from the last time I made it.

Thus, I went to my favorite farmstand and bought a couple of zucchini.

This is a wonderful time of year if you like heat and humidity, as various plants do. Zucchinis are coming in, tomatoes and corn are not far away and I have already picked one pepper that's now reddening on the counter. Next time in the market I'll be stocking up on more NJ blueberries to freeze for later on in the year. Why NJ blueberries? They are literally closer to home and taste better to me than fruit shipped from elsewhere in the U.S. or around the globe.

Out in the garden the daisies and the butterfly bush are blooming and at least one hummingbird continues to visit the feeder. When it is not raining I have a thistle sock out for the goldfinches, although I've yet to see a visitor.

Half of one zucchini bread heading for
the freezer (Margo D. Beller)
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen I have the vegetable drawers filled with chard and zucchinis.

Ever since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there has been an inclination toward sticking close to home, locally sourcing the food you buy, and cooking things yourself. Maybe it is a yearning for a simpler time, a time before the 24/7 bombardment of the Internet, cellphones and movies on demand anywhere. For those who would like to cook like Mom or Grandma once did but haven't a clue you can enroll in one of the many cooking schools, or use a company that will ship you ingredients and directions for what to do with them. Presto! Home-cooked meal.

I'm not that bad. I can follow a recipe if I want to. The key is wanting to. When I have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables in my refrigerator and a picky eater, I sometimes have to be creative in what I make for supper.

In the case of the zucchini bread, I didn't have that problem since I was making it at MH's request. First, I had to find my old zucchini bread recipe. But in the course of looking for that recipe I found one for a ridiculously simple blueberry cobbler I'd clipped from the New York Times in 2008 and never made.

Since I happened to have a big container of blueberries I was getting ready to freeze, I decided to use the Cuisinart and make it. As I said, ridiculously simple, and MH loves it despite not being overly fond of blueberries on his cereal.

More apples than pancake (Margo D. Beller)
As for the zucchini breads (my recipe makes two loaves), that came after the cobbler and the apple sauce in another marathon cooking session. I recently bought a hand blender, a souped-up version of one I had years ago that collapsed, and this has not only made mixing things so much easier but has made me more inclined to bake things. (This may be good for the taste buds but not the waistline.)

For now my freezer is filled with, among many other things, one zucchini bread and half of another, pints of apple sauce, containers of vegetable stock and one of pesto.

And I just found an easy recipe for eggplant.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Midsummer Musings

Summer is the annual permission slip to be lazy.

-- Regina Brett

As the sun rises this midsummer morning, its light is filtered through the backyard trees, throwing patterns on the porch, where I sit on the shady end. At various times the light hits the medallion atop my bird feeder, creating a stained glass effect that is very pretty.

Stained glass effect (Margo D. Beller)
Behind me, through the opened window, I hear robins, catbirds, redbellied woodpecker, titmice and... is that a house wren? I go to the screen. Yes, that is a house wren. Perhaps it will discover the nest box now that the apple tree is done for the year and the attacks by squirrels have ended. As I look, a small chipping sparrow flies to the paving stones to search for insects. It still has its breeding red cap, but when it flies south in a month or so, that cap will have gone brown.

Every so often a hummingbird has come to the feeder but at this moment I see a downy woodpecker has discovered it too, just like last year. I go outside and chase it off, and am rewarded when a hummingbird suddenly returns, causing me to freeze so I don't spook it off. As I stand on the path by the apple tree, a family of house sparrows, several jays, a robin and at least one calling chickadee fly into one of the few trees on my property I can't identify, which is full of hanging seeds. The birds sound agitated. Is there a hawk in the vicinity or am I the cause?

I don't know. There is still a lot about birds I don't know, including why they all suddently appeared and then, just as suddenly, why half of them flew off.

Downy on feeder, Sept. 2016
(Margo D. Beller)
This is about as active as I get early on a summer morning, rising because I don't sleep well nowadays and I want to sit outside while it's cooler and do my birding by ear.

In NJ, where I live, you have to get up early - even on a Sunday - if you want to beat the traffic "down the shore" to the beaches or have a sporting competition (I can hear the crowd noise from the recreation area a mile or so away from my house) or even take a walk. When I look at the state birding list I see a lot of entries from Brigantine, one of New Jersey's premier ocean coast birding sites. But to get to Brig before the summer traffic it would require MH and me to rise much earlier than we'd like.

Years ago, when I was working in the city on a rigid schedule, on weekend mornings I felt compelled to rise before dawn, dress and rush out to a familiar birding spot so I could listen, walk and shake off the week's nonsense. Then I started working at home, still on a rigid schedule, where I could fit in walks and wandering during a long midday break. I wasn't restricted to weekends anymore.

Now, I am still at home but my schedule is far from rigid, and with all the time in the world the best I can do most mornings is creak my way downstairs to my porch chair and listen to the yard birds.

There are many reasons for preferring this. For one, it is summer and, unlike the spring migration season when I want to find the gaily colored warblers as they head north, it is harder to find birds unless you get out ahead of the heat, humidity and the mosquitoes to walk and listen. The birds, when seen, may already be starting to molt into their duller fall coloring. And, to be blunt, I am 99% sure I am not going to find any bird I haven't seen before many, many times over the years.

Once I have made my annual late May/early June trip to the northwestern part of the state, where you drive along a road and can hear hundreds of breeding birds singing their different songs at the same time - a challenge to identify, I can assure you - I can't be bothered.

Also, I am older and perhaps more than a little lazy. I'm not happy about the lack of energy but there were several times during my life when it could've been cut short and I'd have never met MH or bought this house or met many of my friends. So I can live with this alternative.

As I sit and time passes, I see more cars are now rushing about. I am in no rush, even with places to go and things to do. I know where this road leads. You do, too.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.
    -- A.A. Milne

Ground ivy (Margo D. Beller)
Summer is a time when daisies, brown-eyed susans, some flowering shrubs and other plants are at their peak. But it is also the time when I start to take note of all the weeds in my lawn, flower garden and in the waste areas along the road.

Any flower that is in the wrong place is a weed. So when you see the familiar yellow dandelion flower in your lawn, and you know that soon there will be the uglier seed head, it is time to go out and eradicate it before there are more.

My main lawn problems are ground ivy, quack grass, sorrel and assorted vines, some of which can be poisonous when handled.

I have a book that identifies weeds and tells you how to pull them out, their bad qualities and how you can use some of them. That is how I learned that lamb's quarters, picked when small, can be used like its cousin, spinach.

Knotweed and another common roadside weed I can't identify.
(Margo D. Beller)
Some weeds I leave alone. One year a clump of lamb's ears came over from a neighbor and started growing in my garden. I dug it up, moved it to another, unnetted area and it has since thrived, spread and flowered. Deer don't like it but the bees do.

However, most weeds I would not want in the yard. I don't mind clover or the yellow ground cover called cow vetch or its pink cousin the crown vetch, used by many to hold dirt on a hillside, but Japanese knotweed is invasive and will grow everywhere.

Some invasive plants can be useful. Raspberries, for instance, or wild rose. Both spread widely and, at least in my yard, I am carefully pulling them out of the wrong place because they both are covered in very sharp thorns and thus have to be picked when very small. I spent an afternoon recently crouched behind my rhododendron, behind the deer netting (always fun, gardening behind deer netting), because along with the many rose of sharon seedlings and wild mint (both active spreaders) was at least one wild rose.
Raspberries (Margo D. Beller)
But if you go along the roadside and find raspberries growing, pick your fill but carefully. They taste as good as the ones from the store. I have some wild strawberries in places in the yard and the small berries, while not as large or sweet, are tasty. But, again, they are not growing in the "wrong place" and so I leave them alone. What I don't eat, the birds or deer assuredly will.

Milkweed (Margo D. Beller)
Milkweed is another useful plant you'll find blooming along the road now. Butterflies, particularly the endangered monarch butterfly, lay their eggs on them and the resulting caterpillars feed on the leaves. Many organizations give away seeds to encourage more of these flowers, and many towns plant them in parks and other areas where they can spread. There is also butterfly weed, an orange milkweed, but this is a plant where once you have one growing it is not easy to move it because of the long taproot. But it draws butterflies the same way.

Five-leaved Virginia creeper and three-leaved poison ivy
(Margo D. Beller)
Thanks to my guides I now know a bit more about vines, but not that much more. There is one vine with oval leaves I see waving its tendrils as it grows tall enough to grab onto something, usually a rose bush where removing it can be a painful experience thanks to the thorns.

I've learned the vine I find every so often in my hedge is belladona, which has purple berries that are poisonous. The vine, if grabbed with bare hand, will make you itch so put your gloves on.

Another common visitor is the Virginia creeper. It has five leaves and will grow up trees, around yards and generally all over the place. Unlike the trumpet vine, it does not provide the lovely orange flowers that draw hummingbirds. Or at least not in my yard. The leaves will turn dark red and it will produce blue berries for the birds but I usually don't let them get that far.

Dead areas of my lawn are quick to fill with ground ivy, quack grass and other weeds I can't identify except for the three-leaved clover-like leaves of the wood sorrel, another weed (like young dandelion greens) you can use for supper if you like. There are many other weeds in many other shapes that I can't recognize. I pull them out just the same.

Maple sapling (Margo D. Beller)
Even trees can be a problem if they are growing in the wrong place. Sometimes squirrels or chipmunks bury their nuts and don't get back to them, or forget about them. Then I walk around the yard and find small oaks, beeches, elms or the occasional poplar from another yard. These get pulled out, too, although once I tried planting an oak sapling with nut still attached in a pot. A chipmunk dug it up and took the nut, leaving the rest to die.

But for me the absolute worst is poison ivy.

Thanks to all the rain this past spring, it seems to be everywhere. If left alone it will climb up trees and get so thick it will kill them. I have to be very careful when I pull it out or if I spray it. If you do get into poison ivy you have 20 minutes to wash the affected area with cold water to have any hope of avoiding itching.

However, earlier this year, despite my best efforts, a bit of rash came up on my right arm two days later and lasted for weeks. It was after that I started using weed killer, which may seem like an extreme measure, and is surely less than ecological, but it is better than my arm getting covered with an itchy rash or my lawn covered with this pest.

Poison ivy covering tree (Margo D. Beller)
Many wild and native plants are good. They need less in the way of water or food and they look pretty. Many, such as yarrow, have been "cultivated" so their more destructive traits are bred out and they can sit in your garden and not take over while looking pretty. And deer don't eat native plants. (I wish they would take out some of that knotweed.) If a wild New England aster or more goldenrod springs up in my yard this fall, I'll be leaving it alone.

However, when it comes to weeds I do not like, I do my best but pulling or spraying them is a losing battle. I can only hope to keep them under control enough for the plants I like to survive. I can put mulch down to smother them, dig them out by the roots or spray them but they will always come back if there is a bit of dirt, some sunlight and water to make them grow. They are survivors. They will be around long after I am no longer in this house.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Family Time

It is a pleasant day for early July, and I am on my patio with my binoculars. Behind me, I hear my neighbor walking around her yard with her two little girls. She will soon give birth to her third child.

Unlike humans, who can conceive and give birth any time of the year, the birds are limited to a short period after they have migrated north to their breeding grounds in the spring but before they must leave for their southern feeding areas in the fall.

Jay (Margo D. Beller)
So now, in early July, even though the house wren box is empty, the yard is full of calling birds again. This time, it is noisy families of titmice, house sparrows, fish crows and blue jays.

With all the feeding activity, whether it is an adult going back and forth to a nest or being followed by hungry, raucous young, there are plenty of opportunities for birders to get out there and find something again.

Even the wrens are not completely gone - coming back up the driveway after putting the garbage can at the curb the other day, I saw several little birds poking between the paving blocks by the front door. One flew past me to a nearby bush. It was a house wren. Its parents have already taught it to stop begging loudly because it is no longer protected in the box but out in the open.

Today the apple tree has been visited several times by squirrels, and I have had to clean up after them. It is a temptation to knock down more apples but I still have too many that must be used soon. So I sit in my folding chair and watch as a noisy flock of jays goes into the trees to peck the apples for a cool drink or pick bugs off the apples and leaves. These big birds don't have to worry about danger as much as the small wrens and, like their cousins the crows, they call loudly to each other and stay in a flock. For the most part, they feed themselves. But when one parent gives a juvenile some food, they all rush to the tree branch and beg before the parent flies off and they go back to the apple tree and then to the next yard.

In the past I have seen grackles and both kinds of crows - fish and American - hitting the tree for the same reason as the jays. The squirrels are a little leery of these bigger birds but, despite some hesitation, they go up and the apples come down, some so ripe they fall uneaten for me to collect. Were the wrens still in the box I'd be more concerned because big birds will eat baby birds.

(courtesy of Mike Anderson, director, Scherman Hoffman)
Catbirds are flying around, a cardinal is calling and a speckled young robin, its breast in the process of turning red, is poking the ground around the lilac. Downy woodpeckers, the young male's red head spot not completely filled in, are calling to each other as they explore the bark of the various trees. I watch one in a hemlock and see that, unfortunately, the wooly adelgid is doing its destructive work again for the first time in years. In hot, dry summers this fungus is kept down but after all the rains this season, it is back and will literally suck the life out of the hemlocks unless I spray them with oil, a messy and time-consuming process.

Hummingbirds are also coming to the yard. At the moment there are two females, one rather dusky and fidgety, the other with a shiny green back and clear white breast. Until I looked at her with my binoculars today, the lighting of her head made her look like a male with a dark, ruby-red chin. This hummer comes to the feeder and sits to eat. You don't realize how long a hummingbird's tongue is until you watch her with binoculars and see the light rippling of the liquid below from her tongue lapping at it.

Both she and the dusky one - who hovers over the feeder, her wings going a mile a minute as she feeds - have nests somewhere but not in the apple tree, although I've occasionally seen one fly there to rest and preen when the squirrels are taking a break from their raids.

I've seen a hummer nest only once, and that was only because I was standing on a bridge over a brook at the Great Swamp and the hummer led me to it. The nest of moss and lichen was at the end of a thin branch hanging over the brook, to keep it safe from predators. She flew in and sat on her eggs. It was a remarkable construction, strong enough to support them now and two or three growing hummers later.

Goldfinch pair (Margo D. Beller)
Finally, I hear a calling male goldfinch. Goldfinches do their nesting later than other birds because they feed their young exclusively with seeds, and it is in the midsummer that thistle and other seeds are ready. If I put out a feeder at all during the summer, it is a thistle sock for the goldfinches. At the moment I have no plans to buy seed but that could change. In the meantime, I'll just sit and listen.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Wrens and Apples

The backyard is now lushly green. The flowers are gone from the shrubs and trees, and the grass is not too short or too long at the moment. There is very little other color except for the pink flowers of the coral bells and fringed bleeding hearts, the red hummingbird feeder and my bright blue bucket for collecting apples for the house.

Apple tree, July 1, 2017. Wren box is to right of the trunk.  (Margo D. Beller)
On the morning of July 1, I walked outside with my bucket and realized something was different. The constant chatter and begging of the house wren young was not coming from the nest box, as it had been the day before. No, one bird was calling from higher in the apple tree and two others were on the ground in the one area where not much sun shines during the day, behind me just off the porch.

I went over and found, barely, two very dark brown young wrens in the dirt calling for food while one of their parents scolded me from a nearby bush.

I went back to picking apples. Later in the morning, when the sun had dissolved the summer haze, I went out to find no wrens in the tree or on the ground, but they were calling from the thick hedges at the edge of the back yard. Later still I went out to pick up partially eaten apples dropped by the squirrels and heard absolutely nothing. I kicked myself for not having my camera on me the day before when I saw two of the young jostle for the best position at the box opening.

These birds had flown.

Empty nest (Margo D. Beller)
According to last year's calendar, the wrens in the box fledged on June 23. These wrens were about 10 days late, which makes sense considering the adults didn't take over the box until a week after the chickadee pair that had gotten there first suddenly abandoned it. So while the wren parents were shuttling back and forth to feed their young at the box at my neighbor's, the ones in my yard were not quite as frenzied, and the young made the occasional peep.

In years past, such as in July 2011 when I wrote my post "This brood has flown" (which I'll have to republish someday after messing up the link), I have come out one day to hear wrens and the next day come out to hear nothing. This is the first time I have witnessed an intermediate step. I don't know if they have left my property entirely but today I still heard nothing.

What drove them out?

It could've been the high humidity and heat. That box, with three growing young in a confined space including a twig nest, must've gotten very crowded and hot. It could've been instinct. It could've been my taking my long stick to drop more apples, carefully doing my hitting of tree branches away from the area where the box hangs. It could've been the four or so squirrels going back and forth into the tree after sweet liquid from the apples on a hot day.

Whatever caused it, the wrens are gone. I will leave up the box in case a wren wants to start a second brood in it before it is time for it to migrate south in autumn.

Meanwhile, I am done collecting apples. If the wrens had been "on time," they would've been gone before the apples ripened enough for me to use that stick on the tree. Well, having collected over 200 apples (a rough estimate) in a bushel basket I had in the cellar, the squirrels can have the rest. All I do now is pick up the mess and dump it in the non-lawn corner, where evidence shows me the deer have been devouring them along with squirrels or chipmunks.

What do I do with all those apples, you might ask.

2017's bumper crop (Margo D. Beller)
Well, I have amassed many recipes. So far this year I have made 5 pints of apple sauce and one apple bundt cake. The apples I have not used are in another blue bucket in the basement, which I can carry more easily than the bushel basket.

The hardest part is the chopping. I used to peel apples but nicked myself too many times. So now I wash and cut. Long experience has taught me whether there will be a lot of usable apple or whether to just toss it after the first chop. I admit, after cutting up about 100 apples in two shifts (applesauce, then an apple cake, then more applesauce) with more I can use, I can afford to get picky.

These apples from my tree are smaller than the ones you get in the store, in part because I have to work fast before the squirrels get all of them. A farmer told me the apples look like a form of macintosh. In the picture above you see there is not a lot of red in them. I went for size - easier to cut a larger apple - over redness, and cutting into one bears this out. The redder ones are riper, and usually has evidence of rot or insects in them. The not-quite-ripe ones were firmer and I could use more of them, once I cut out the core and stem (as seen below).

My grandmother used to make apple sauce. I never learned her recipe but the sauce was delicious. She bought her yellow apples from the store. I can't say my sauce is any better but if I have any reason for making it - aside from having too many apples - she is it.

Making apple sauce, 2017 (Margo D. Beller)
But preparing the apples is not a task I enjoy, even though the finished product tastes fine to me and MH and to those lucky enough to receive a pint. So far most of the pints are in the freezer. Each year I have a good number of apples (last year was an exception - the apples were done the same day as the wren nest and I had so few I just cut them up and used them in pancakes), I collect a lot of them and then pick a day to do all the hard work. It requires a lot of time as well as standing and careful chopping, making sure I don't take off a finger or two.

The bundt cake was a first for me, and a really messy process because I don't do a lot of baking. I am more impressed by my baking friends than before, especially those with the right tools. I had to use my grandmother's very manual egg beater on the thick batter and was glad I had done some exercising recently because it gave my arms a workout. Did she use it to make her sauce? I don't know. As a small child at the time I had no interest in how the sauce was made, just that I wanted some. Nowadays people have more of an interest in what they eat and in making food themselves. This is a good thing.

As for the rest of those apples, I have bought an electric hand mixer, so I expect I'll be making another cake and yet more sauce.