Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Spinach: An Endangered Species

Here's why I think that we may not be eating spinach many more seasons, if things continue the way they are:
Spinach seeds have to be planted directly outdoors instead of starting them indoors and then transplanting. That's one of the cardinal rules of gardening.  So every year, while there is still snow on the ground, and often in the middle of a blizzard, I go out and sow spinach seeds in the garden. 

The seeds take a long time to sprout, and the seedlings take forever to grow to harvest size.  I planted spinach at the end of March, and it seems like we only started eating it a couple of weeks ago.  But since then we've had a string of sultry August-like days, and today I had to pick all the spinach and freeze it, because almost every plant had started to bolt.  Spinach is a cool season crop, and goes to seed and becomes inedible when the weather turns hot.  So if you want lots of spinach for fabulous cream soups and yummy quiches in January, you need a nice, long, coolish spring.

The kind of spring I came to Vermont for.  The kind of spring we used to have in Maryland before that state's weather patterns became part of the Deep South..  The kind of spring we seem to be running out of, everywhere.

I expect the lettuce will bolt soon, as well as the mustard greens.  I picked the first head of broccoli to have for dinner tonight, and this too seems premature.  When I lived in Maryland, I used to have to pull up the broccoli plants in June, because the weather was too hot, and the cabbage caterpillars were all over the plants.  But in Vermont, the broccoli kept producing all summer long.  At the rate it's going now, that may not happen this year.

Vermont, I'm afraid, is turning semi-tropical, and this brings me to the topic of bugs, which are growing to semi-tropical size.  Yesterday I saw something large and orange flit by, and I thought it was a Baltimore oriole.  It flitted back, and I realized it was a bird-sized butterfly.  In the garage last night I met a wolf spider that, with its legs extended, was a full three inches in diameter.  As a result, I'm now storing my barn shoes up on a shelf instead of leaving them on the ground.

When the dreaded cave crickets arrive from the South, I'm moving to Alaska.  I hear you can still grow spinach there.

Friday, May 25, 2012


The spring avalanche takes me by surprise, year after year.  Only yesterday I was putting sheets over the apple trees, to protect them from frost.  Now they are covered with little offspring, as is everything else around here.

Today I saw that the spinach was developing those pointy leaves that, like a teenager's discontent, portend its imminent bolting.  This evening, as soon as the air cooled down a bit, I took defensive action, harvesting four big bags of spinach and mustard greens.  But you know how greens are.  By the time I got through rinsing and blanching and cooling and draining, the original six pounds had dwindled to five.

When I freeze vegetables, I always wish I had four, or even six, sinks instead of only two.  While one batch is blanching on the stove, another is being put through its two rinses of cool well water;  another is draining in a colander and dripping all over the counter;  the one that's just been blanched is cooling in a bowl filled with ice water;  and yet another is waiting impatiently, in yet another colander, to be put into freezer bags.

This year, I'm recycling freezer bags.  All winter long, as I used the veggies from our freezer, I rinsed out, dried and stored away the bags.  Now I am refilling them with this spring's harvest, relabeling them, and putting them in the freezer for next winter.  As I crossed out last year's dates, I noticed that this spring's avalanche isn't unique.  One year ago I was doing exactly what I am doing now--freezing spinach, mustard, and the first heads of broccoli--and feeling as rushed and harassed as I am now.

Besides recycling bags, I'm doing another weird "green" thing this year:  instead of yanking out the lamb's quarters that sprout in the vegetable beds, I'm letting them grow among the lettuce, spinach and mustard.  I'm snipping off those tender, buttery little leaves and putting them in salads, and even freezing them along with the greens.  I remember noticing in the past that when I threw a bunch of weeds into the chicken yard, the hens would go right for the lamb's quarters.  They knew what they were about.

(If you decide to try this, do not confuse lamb's quarters, which have roughly triangular small leaves growing along an upright stem, with lamb's ears, the low-to-the-ground, fuzzy gray ornamental.  I have no idea what lamb's ears taste like, but lamb's quarters are terrific.)

Memorial Day is around the corner, a date made especially significant in these latitudes because it is the time to finally put in the hot weather crops:  tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, pumpkins and squash.  I'm going to get those transplants tomorrow, and the day after that, whether the spinach has bolted or not, they're going into the spinach beds.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Dog Remembers...

I did not have it in me, when I got back from Lexi's euthanasia, to dispose of her ancient leather collar and leash.  Instead, I hung them on the usual peg in the garage and told myself I'd get rid of them another day.

Today was that day.  I rolled up the collar and the leash in my hand, and was crossing the kitchen on my way to the trash bin when Wolfie intercepted me.  He stuck his big muzzle in my hand, sniffed, put his ears back and slowly wagged his tail.  The look on his face was one of gentle happiness, undiluted, as far as I could tell, by grief or regret.  He stood there a long time, sniffing and wagging his tail.  Bisou also came over and stood on her hind legs to sniff and lick,  jumping the way she used to jump to reach Lexi's muzzle in the eternal puppy greeting.

As I watched them, I remembered Lexi doing something very similar years ago.  My younger daughter, whom she adored, had visited and then gone back home to Montana.  She then mailed me something in one of those padded envelopes--probably a book.  I left the opened envelope on the stairs and later found Lexi with her nose inside it, ears back, tail wagging slowly, and that same gentle, ecstatic look on her face.
I myself was grieving my daughter's departure at the time, and if I had found, say, a sweater that she had left behind, I would have felt sadness, pure and simple, instead of Lexi's smiling reminiscence.

And it was sadness that I was feeling holding Lexi's leash this morning, sadness and the desire to dispose of it quickly so I wouldn't have to feel sad anymore.  Not so my two dogs.  They were remembering Lexi, their stern but kindly mentor, who inexplicably left one day and did not come back.  And they, unlike me, were wholly glad that she had for a moment been with us in the kitchen again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Phoebe Or Phoenix?

In the last post, I told you about the phoebe catastrophe, how I found the nest on the hard slate floor of the front porch, surrounded by three dead babies.  After that, I noticed that the parents kept flying into the porch and flying out again, which I interpreted as the phoebe way of mourning.  I hoped their sorrow would pass.

As it turns out, the phoebes weren't mourning, or, if they were, they didn't let it slow them down in the building of...another nest!  The day after the old one fell, the foundation of the new one was in place, just a couple of feet from where the old one had been.  Now the new nest is halfway finished, and the slate beneath it is covered in gobs of mud and other construction debris.

I'm not one to see moral lessons wherever I turn in Nature, but I must confess that these phoebes got to me.  I mean, what resilience after tragedy, courage in the face of adversity, optimism on the heels of abject failure!  They reminded me of Al Gore, who after the election debacle did not crawl into a hole, as I would have done, but went on to become the patron saint of contemporary ecology.

Persistence, thy name is Phoebe.

On the other hand, maybe thy name is Phool?  Didn't Einstein say that stupidity was doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results?

So I'm feeling a little confused.  Should I admire--even imitate--the phoebes for their persistence, or should I feel sorry for them and try not to look at what's going on in the front porch too often?

Meanwhile, all is well with the bluebirds, except that the parents are so busy bringing food to the nest that they actually look thinner to my worried eye.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Nest Sandwich

These days, I live sandwiched between two nests:  phoebes in the front, bluebirds in the back.  Sometimes, when I'm watching the bluebirds out the back window, if the light is just right the front window is reflected in the back window, and I can see the phoebes silhouetted against the bluebirds as both pairs flit to and from their nests.

It's not easy, living with all this bird procreation.  The phoebes seem particularly accident prone.  Every year they build their nest in a protected spot on the porch, where as far as I can see no wind or rain can reach it.  Yet almost every year there are mishaps.  Often, the nest falls down in mid-construction.  Last year, a couple of feathered nestlings fell out.  One was dead when I found it, but its sibling was very much alive, and upset.  It was a terribly hot day, so I put it under a hosta leaf and placed a dish of water nearby for the parents, who were hovering.  The entire family disappeared the next day, and I like to think that that baby survived.

This year's brood was not so lucky.  Yesterday I found the nest--carefully made of moss, dried grass, and hairs from Lexi's white undercoat--on the slate floor of the porch.  Its three occupants were scattered around it, dead.  Aside from the disproportionately large yellow beaks (put that worm right here, Mom!) they were a mass of gray fuzz.  Their lids were closed over their bulbous eyes, and their thread-thin necks were bent at odd angles.  I got the broom and swept babies and nest into the mulch.  Earth to earth...

As the sun went down the parent phoebes kept flying into the porch, then out again, until dark.

So far, the bluebirds are o.k.  Yesterday I saw both parents flying into the nest box with big beakfuls of bugs, which meant the eggs had hatched.  I dragged a lawn chair to the nest, stood on it and shone a flashlight in.  All I could see was an amorphous grayish mass, but it was moving, alive!  I couldn't tell how many babies there were, so I withdrew respectfully, wondering how the parents managed to stuff those full-sized butterflies down those tiny throats.

The most dangerous part of those babies' life is still ahead.  I'm not sure I'll be able to watch the leaving-the-nest drama.  We don't have cats around, but all manner of threats lurk in the woods, the thickets of apple mint, the sky, the pond.  The bluebirds have hatched, but I'd better wait to count them. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Bluebird Emergency!

If I really prized my peace of mind, I would lower the blinds on all my windows in the spring and keep them that way until the fall.  There's only so much drama I can deal with, and every time I look outside I find some reason for concern:  the phoebes in the front porch building their nest too early;  the frogs  coming out of hibernation ditto;  the apples blooming in a rainstorm;  and worst of all, the bluebirds.

Initial elation (could it really be...yes, yes, it's a bluebird!) was followed by doubt (are they serious about this nest thing?) and then worry (why are they away so much?).  As I wrote in my last post, after consultation with my bluebird guru I looked in the box and almost fainted at the sight of those bright blue eggs.  After worry, ecstasy!

But feelings, the Buddha tells us, change, and sure enough, today my ecstasy was quickly followed by worry tinged with panic.

This afternoon the sun was out, the breeze brisk, the air like wine.  I saw the male bluebird bringing take-out (in the form of a fat white butterfly) to the nest.  I hoped that meant that the female had finally decided to settle down and keep those poor eggs warm.  Since checking the nest box involves my dragging a chair into the flower bed and standing on it, I asked my taller, more colorful mate to see if anybody was sitting on the eggs.  He said there was.

My bird experience being largely confined to chickens, I know that there is a big difference between a hen laying eggs, and her "setting" on them.  Even if the eggs have been fertilized by a rooster, if she doesn't set, doesn't "go broody," all they're good for is omelettes.  So I was pleased to know that the female bluebird was on the job.  And it was touching to see the male being uxorious, bringing her tidbits like a young husband going out at midnight to fetch the traditional ice cream and pickles.

I was basking in the glow of bluebird domesticity, reading a New Yorker article about the degradation of the English language, when something blue flashed in the direction of the nest box.  But it wasn't a soft, bluebird kind of blue.  It was an electric, iridescent blue.  It wasn't a plump and cuddly bluebird shape either, but smaller, sharper, and extremely fast.

A while later, it came back--fast and metallic and piercing to the eye--and fluttered around the nest box.  The third pass sent me to the bird book.  It is as I feared:  the prospecting stranger is a tree swallow, the bluebird's worst nightmare.  As I stared at the book, the recent conversation with my bluebird guru came back to me.  "Tree swallows," she said, "compete so fiercely with bluebirds for nesting places, that the only solution is to set out nest boxes in pairs, so that each bird can have his own." 

The tree swallow was clearly just scouting this afternoon, whereas my bluebird couple are clearly settled in.  But I wonder, are tree swallows capable of ousting bluebird pairs after the nest has been made and the eggs have been laid?  What if my bluebirds are young and inexperienced and/or frivolous and irresponsible enough to go off in search of better housing--perhaps one of those pileated woodpecker holes that dot our woods--and abandon their babies-to-be?

I'm also wondering what has made for the sudden popularity of this nest box.  It was already in place when we moved in, and in the past only wrens have been attracted to it.  But since the bluebirds came, not just tree swallows, but starlings also have shown interest.  Real estate always was a fickle business.

The sun is starting to go down now, and while I've been writing the swallow hasn't returned, which is a good thing.  But neither has the male bluebird.  What does he think he's doing?  Has he forgotten his wife?  Doesn't he know it's supper time? 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fertility Issues

It's been touch-and-go around here this spring, because of the extreme weather weirdness.  So as soon as the forty days and forty  nights of rain stopped for a while this evening, I went out to check on things.

The frogs, Gaia be thanked, are prospering, though back in March I'd worried about their survival.  There was a spell of hot weather during which a couple of them came out of the murky depths and sunbathed on the patio, and soon thereafter a mass of eggs was seen floating on the water.  That was succeeded by a week of hard freezes during which frogs and eggs disappeared, never, I feared, to be seen again.

But no.  The frogs this year are better than ever, a couple of them as big as pigeons, their offspring clustering sweetly around them.  There are so many that even Bisou, whose passion is to bump every single one back into the pond with her nose, has been known to miss a couple.

The second area of concern was the apple trees, which have been blooming their hearts out for the past several weeks.  But it's not been good weather for pollinators--too cold on sunny days, and rainy on warm ones.  "I saw a honeybee on your apple tree!" my spouse announced the other day, trying to cheer me up.  But what's a single honeybee for all those blooms?

Every day, as their petals began to fall, I would go out and peer at the tiny calyxes with close to the same attention that I gave my own flat stomach when I first became pregnant a million years ago.  Finally today I saw for sure than some of those calyxes are starting to "show."  Thank you, Flora.  Stick with us, Pomona.

And then there are the bluebirds in their nest box by the window.  For weeks they've been coming and going with, to my eyes, neither rhyme nor reason.  First he showed up in a blaze of blue and orange, bearing pieces of hay in his beak and strutting around.  Then she came and seemed to be more focused, actually carrying stuff into the nest.  But then the flow of building materials stopped, followed by casual visits during which the pair would stick their heads into the nest and then fly off, perhaps never to return.  Were they inexperienced?  Were they losing interest?  Were they scared of the frogs?  I didn't dare to look inside then nest box, for fear of putting them off

Today I had lunch with a bluebird-experienced friend who told me that it was o.k. to look in the nest--she had in fact once removed a nestful of parasite-ridden hatchlings, sprayed them with pyrethium, and returned them safely to their parents, who didn't seem to mind.  So the minute I got home I stood on a garden chair and peered into the box.  There, glowing in the dark, were three glossy eggs, the same bright blue as their papa's wings.

Right now it is almost dark, and the father is perched on the roof of the nest box.  I hope he knows what he's doing.  I hope somebody's going to keep those eggs warm tonight.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

In Memoriam: The Grand Fiasco

After Lexi's wild behavior in agility class, we never tried agility again, despite her obvious talents for it, as demonstrated by her walks on the perilous pier.  But I kept taking her to obedience, in hopes that she would settle down.

Lexi made a friend in that class, Balder, a Black Lab.  His owner had trained many dogs before, and one day, having watched Lexi do one of her fabulous distance recalls, he said to me, “She's so good you really should go for a CD (a Companion Dog degree) with her.”  He added that there were “fun matches” often held in the area.  These were practice trials to allow people and their dogs to prepare for the real thing.  “I'm taking Balder to one this weekend," he said.  "Why don't you sign Lexi up too?”  he said.

The minute those words left his mouth, it became my sacred duty to pursue the highest degree of obedience that Lexi was capable of.  After all, this was no mere pet.  She was an intelligent, extremely driven member of a working breed, who needed mental stimulation as much as I did.  If I couldn't give her a flock of sheep to herd, at least I could put her through the series of trials that would result in an obedience title.  Besides, taking tests was simple:  you put in a certain amount of work;  you took the test;  you got a good grade. 

What I found out at that first fun match, however, was that taking tests in partnership with a dog was quite different from taking tests in school.  Suddenly I, who from first grade had been a relatively  unruffled test-taker, became utterly stressed.  Lexi did not help.  She did everything I asked, but she did it with such intensity, with such barely-controlled excitement, that I feared that at any moment she might explode, which made me feel like I was about to explode. 

During the group down-stays, the dogs are supposed to lie in a row, with the owners twenty feet away, for four minutes. Lexi never moved, but her ears were pricked so high and her muzzle somehow became so pointy and arrow-like and her eyes were so intensely focused on mine that she looked like she was about to levitate.  By the time the judge said “return to your dogs!” I was shaking.

After a couple of these fun matches, which to me were anything but, but which she passed with points to spare, we were ready for a real AKC-sponsored trial. When the day came, I asked my husband to stay inside the car in the parking lot, out of sight of the ring.  I was afraid that if Lexi caught a glimpse of him during the test she would lose all self control.  Despite my nerves and her excitement, she got through the group stays just fine.  When it came time for our solo exercises, she performed better than ever.  Tail high and eyes shining, she heeled sweetly by my side, not rushing ahead, not lagging behind, sitting neatly whenever I stopped.  She was a beautiful young dog, alert and excited but, for the moment, completely controlled.  I heard appreciative murmurs from the crowd as we worked.

I was looking forward to the last part, the distance recall, because Lexi had always done it perfectly.  This is how it works:  you tell your dog to sit and stay, then you walk thirty feet away, turn to to face her, and call her.  The dog is supposed to come straight to you, and sit in front of you.

At the judge's instruction, I asked Lexi to sit and stay.  I walked away from her and turned around.  She stared at me, trembling with eagerness.  "Lexi, co-ome!" I caroled.  And she catapulted towards me.  Then, when she was about ten feet away, she gave a big grin, did a play bow, turned right, and leaped out of the ring.

A groan went up from the spectators as Lexi made the rounds, greeting man and dog, then disappeared into the crowd.  Would she take off for the hills?  Would I ever see her again? 

"Lexi, COME!"  I shrieked.  From wherever she was, she heard me and she came running.  She leaped back into the ring and sat neatly before me, wagging her tail, showing off her perfect recall. 

Never have I received so much sympathy from so many strangers.  The judge came towards me with an apologetic smile.  “I hate to do this, because she was so perfect,” she said.  “But leaving the ring is a disqualifying error.”  I assured her that I understood.

We made our way to the parking lot--Lexi triumphant, me holding back tears--where my husband had witnessed the disaster. “Please take me home,” I said.  And that was the end of Lexi's obedience career.

Years later, when  I was taking Wolfie to obedience classes, I thought that nine-year-old Lexi might enjoy it if I signed her up as well.  I used to do each exercise with Wolfie first, and then put Lexi through her paces.  I hadn't seen her so happy in a long time.  She pranced and strutted and demonstrated her mastery of everything.  I could see her thinking, "I'll show these benighted fools a thing or two..."

After class the instructor, who did not bestow praise idly, called me aside.  "You know," she said, "you could put Lexi in a show tomorrow, and she'd come in first."  For once in my life wisdom prevailed.  "Thanks, but I don't think so," I said.  "We're in this just for the fun of it."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In Memoriam: Lexi And The Long Pier

The minute I found an obedience class, I signed us up.  The class was taught by a painfully thin, gravelly-voiced instructor who chain-smoked during the break.  She knew dogs, and she knew people.  She had seen everything, and almost nothing shocked her. 

Lexi, who found being in the company of twenty strange dogs and their people overwhelming, could find no better way to deal with her emotions than to let out a high, continuous, unremitting whine.  She whined as she sat, she whined as she stayed, as she heeled, as she came when called.  I tried shushing her.  I tried ignoring her.  I tapped her muzzle.  I growled.  Nothing worked.  The instructor pretended she didn't hear her, but I could tell that she was dying for a cigarette.  So, for the first time in decades, was I.

The class lasted six weeks, and so did Lexi's whining.  Miraculously, however, when we showed up for the next six-week session, the whining stopped.  So did the panics at bicycles and skateboards and trucks.  Overnight, the puppy had grown into a self-assured, agile and fearless adolescent.  An adolescent girl-dog with an automatic adoration for human males, particularly my husband.

Never mind that I was the one who fed and brushed her, who took her to class and on walks--my husband was the one whom she adored.  One look from him made her day.  A word, a touch would literally fling her down on her back.  Perhaps he reminded her of the boy who was her first owner.  Perhaps she was captivated by his remoteness.  Or maybe it was pheromones.

From the beginning, Lexi hated water.  She never failed to walk around instead of through a puddle.  We used to take her to a certain beach on the Chesapeake Bay where dogs were allowed.  Invariably, there were flotillas of black Labs chasing sticks amid the waves, but Lexi would stand on the beach and concentrate on staying dry. 

There was an old, broken-down pier jutting a good fifty feet out into the water.  To get on it you had to scramble up some half-rotten pilings and then balance on a narrow plank laid on top of them.  My husband would climb onto this thing, and Lexi, left behind with me on the shore, would start to whine.  Then she would tremble.  And then she would go after him.  She would cling to the pilings with her nails and somehow clamber onto the planks and follow him, the waves crashing below her, to the very end.  There, with much anguish and whining,  she would manage her four feet so as to turn around on that one narrow plank and follow him back to dry land.

Despite her progress in obedience and her excellent house manners, she was quite a handful.  It was her intensity that I found so difficult to deal with.  Twenty times a day, while I was napping, or cooking, or painting, she would come to me, nail me with her piercing eyes and ask “What now?  What else can we do right now?”  Mentally and physically, she was exhausting to be around.

Try as I might to make her life interesting, Lexi was bored. She needed to be out rescuing lost hikers, or guiding the blind, or making arrests.  I was in a perpetual state of guilt and agitation over this.  When she was about a year old, I decided that agility might soak up some of that energy.  This was before agility had become as popular as baseball.  Classes were practically nonexistent, so I was glad that there was a group that met at a nearby park.

It was a beautiful day, and I was hoping that Lexi, who had, by dint of my signing us up month after month, become quite the star of her obedience class, would do me proud.  The minute I let her out of the car, I knew that this was not to be.  The fact that she attended an obedience class with a large number of dogs every week, and that she was used to paying attention to me in the presence of those dogs did not mean a thing.  This was a different class in a different place, and these were different dogs.  The time of day was different, too.  And because of that, every bit of work I had done with her went out the window.

Gone were her sits, her stays, her heeling.  She tugged at the leash;  she lunged, in the best of spirits, at other dogs.  The training collar, which I would snap and release to get her attention, made not a bit of difference.  But it did get the attention of the event's organizer, who told me in no uncertain terms that choke collars were prohibited in agility, and asked me to remove Lexi's immediately.

 When Lexi realized that she was only wearing her leather buckle collar, she lost the last shred of restraint.  I might as well have put a leash on a wild stallion for all the effect it had.  She flew over jumps and dashed through tunnels of her own accord, oblivious to my commands.  She had a wonderful time.

When the class was mercifully over, the organizer came to where I was putting the training collar back on Lexi, gave me a look of pity mixed with contempt and said, “We don't allow hyperactive dogs with no obedience training in our group.”  (To be continued.)