Nature’s Course

b gone duckIt was a good nesting site when she built it, but a little over a week after the duck settled beside our front steps, a fox moved into the backyard next door and had four kits. One morning shortly thereafter I came downstairs to find the nest abandoned uncovered, and this time I did not see Mama Duck lurking twenty or thirty feet away. When she wasn’t back in a couple of hours I went out with a stick and gently nudged the leafy-downy edges of the nest back over the eggs, hoping to help keep them warm, or at least camouflaged, till Mama Duck returned. But Mama Duck did not come back.

Doug went out and searched for signs of a struggle, but found not a single feather, neither here nor next door. The internet said a duck would abandon a nest if it sensed danger or was disturbed too often, and said the eggs were not likely viable after being abandoned for a whole day. Should we try to incubate them? Best, said the internet, to let nature take its course. The next morning the eggs were gone, too.

At least the lack of feather evidence made me think Mama Duck is safely somewhere else. My sources say she will probably build another nest soon, and try again. Mallard Ducks are still abundant, but their numbers are declining through loss of wetlands, both from climate change and from development. In other words, the real problem is my own species, not the foxes. It’s our human curse and glory that we’re so bad at letting nature take its course – great on destroying viruses, planting gardens, inventing tools, art, and cuisine. Not so great on backing off excessive improvements, or sharing the planet with other creatures. We’re willing to help, but we find it hard to get there.

Doug says next time we have a duck nesting in our yard, he’s going to sleep outside to keep it safe.

Mama Duck

b  eggsOne of my tree trimmers was standing in the driveway looking startled. I went out to ask what was wrong.

“Did you know you have a duck nest under that tree?” he asked. “She flew up at me when I got close, nearly scared me to death.”

I did not know. But there it was, a nest dug into the flowerbed, lined with leaves and bits of down, with four large white eggs. I had noticed a pair of mallards strolling about my lawn a few days earlier, but I’d seen that before without seeing a nest. There’s a creek two houses over, and the river’s a little further off. I asked the tree guy if he thought he could work without hurting the nest, and he said yes. This was good, because it had taken all this time for the trimming team to come clean up our damage from February’s ice storm (everyone in town had damage from the February ice storm) and I was relieved not to have to put it off. He was as good as his word. The duck was lurking maybe twenty feet away. When the tree crew moved off to a different part of the yard, she came back and settled on the nest.

b nestA day or two later she flew up to scare a random solicitor away – thank you, Duck – and I saw there were more eggs in the nest. Every evening before dusk she covered the nest carefully with leaf litter and down, and left for a while to feed, the nest so well camouflaged I sometimes wasn’t sure I was really looking at it (second photo). It was hard to see when she was on it, too, unless you saw her head move (third photo). The internet informed me that it was going to take a month for the eggs to hatch.

b sitting duckWhy did she build her nest so close to the house? Because the duck knew what she was doing. Predators were unlikely to come so near the house, and people, charmed by the cuteness factor of potential baby ducklings, were willing to concede a little space for a little while. I would give up using my front door for a month. Mama Duck had taken the habitat-trashing, ecological catastrophe of the human race, and promoted us to the role of Duck Protectors.

I find I am very proud of the promotion.


b tulip farmWhen the last of the deceased tomato vines came out of the garden in November, I put my tulip bulbs in. Come April and early May the result is what Doug calls The Tulip Farm. It’s a convenient arrangement because the fence keeps the deer and rabbits out of the flowers, which are all done blooming by time to use the raised beds for tomato plants.

b tulips gatheredEvery few days I go out with my flower bucket and cut a slew of Pink Impressions, Apricot Beauties, Salmon Pearls, and Darwin Whites from the garden’s largesse, and move Spring into the house.

b basket and vasesI’ve already been picking daffodils since late March, but the thing about daffodils is, if you put them in a vase with other flowers the other flowers will die. The culprit is said to be daffodil sap, which protects them from being eaten by critters and allows me to plant them anywhere at all in the whole yard. Fierce stuff. Cut daffodils have to be sequestered in their own vase for an amount of time that depends on how fresh the daffs are and how sensitive the other flowers. Some people give them just a couple of hours, but I haven’t had such luck. To get around the timing problem and still have mixed bouquets, I use several small vases set next to each other, for example like this basket containing three medium and three small vases.

b tulip basketWhen I put my current arrangement together the two small outer vases got only daffodils, leaving the tulips and other flora in peace. A little moss covers the vase edges, and the basket pulls it all into a nice, tidy, well-balanced array for the living room.

b full bloomBut sometimes nice and tidy just doesn’t cut it. For those times, I get out my big crystal vase and let the tulips go wild.

Forsythia Time

b combo forsythMy niece Cynthia once told me that when she was a small child, her mother told her these bright yellow flowering branches were named in her honor: For Cynthia. I can just hear my sister saying it, and I must add it’s an improvement on the truth. How much lovelier to have a brilliant source of cheer and hope named for a little girl, rather than for a Scottish botanist. But of course, it was the Scottish botanist who earned the privilege of horticultural immortality, through having introduced the Chinese plant to Britain. In China the fruit of forsythia was used in traditional herbal medicine to treat colds, fevers, bronchitis, and allergies, though in Britain the shrub was purely ornamental. You may be surprised to hear that forsythia has fruit. After putting all that gold into its flowers, the fruits are small, dry, and brownish, and look rather like husks of leftover sepals. Forsythia is also a member of the olive family, and doesn’t look like that either.

But they’re blooming in my backyard now, airy rocketing branches – they can grow as much as 24 inches in a year – carrying a payload of spring. Wherever a looping branch cascades back to earth and touches the ground, it can root and become a whole new bush.

b down moreNaturally, it has inspired many poets. Mary Ellen Solt’s poem is the one I always think of – an elegant example of concrete poetry. When you see some concrete poems you say to yourself, oh cute, or oh clever. With Solt’s you say of course! Perfect!

Forsythia is the gift of a moment – well, maybe two weeks, but what is that in the life of a garden? Which brings me to the other poem I think of with the first bright flowers of spring.

b flower closeupNothing Gold Can Stay

    By Robert Frost

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The Sign on the Truck

b broken pineWe finally had someone coming to give us a quote on the broken tree clean-up, so I was out making sure my list was complete. It’s not exactly subtle out there: what’s wrong with this picture?

b storm lilacAre lilacs supposed to grow horizontally? Is this redbud limb having a nice meet-cute with these wooden chairs?

b storm cgairsStill, there’s so much, it would be easy to undercount. As I inspected the fallen tops of some crabapple trees, hoping none of the gathering spring birds decided to build nests in these branches bound for the chipper, I noticed a DTE utility truck parked on the street. It had a sign I’d never seen before on its door panel: “Assaulting a utility worker is a felony.” With hotline number. I certainly never approve of assault – and isn’t any assault a felony? – but the image of DTE customers enraged by long, repeated power outages taking to the streets with pitchforks somehow seemed sad and funny at the same time. Funny, because I couldn’t really believe it would happen. Sad, because apparently it does.

b first daffsMeanwhile, cheery things are also happening. Between the fallen branches the first daffodils are starting to bloom.

b indoor tulipsIndoors, my tulips are going crazy on the windowsill. I’m a little late starting my seeds. Think I’ll go do that right now.

Winter Records

b printsThe garden in winter has a lot to say for itself even when there doesn’t seem to be much happening. Yesterday I tossed a hard loaf of bread and some tired old pumpkins out the back door. Some birds came to the bread loaf right away, and then a deer. The deer had her back to me, but when she heard whatever tiny slight sound I made behind my window, she struck a pose I’d never seen before, and my camera was not in reach. She swiveled her neck 180 degrees, so her face was turned directly toward me, while her body stayed entirely pointed the other way. I didn’t know deer could do that; it made her neck look very long. When she moved on, I found my phone and googled “are deer related to giraffes.” The answer was – yes!

b more printsThis morning I found a fuller record of visiting diners stamped into the snow: more deer hoofprints, a bunch of squirrel pawprints, and prints of a cat, but probably that was Mac from up the street, tracking the birds. The front yard recorded an activity I didn’t understand right away: what were the deer doing over where the storm had put the top half a crabapple tree on the ground? I could see the drag marks of deer walking up, and then the crisper prints of deer taking short steps and standing around. A closer look, and aha, the top of the tree, which was now the bottom of the tree, still had dried crabapples on it. I wonder if deer know to look for this after a storm, or if they just stumbled on it.

b jet cloudsAnother record of recent past events was in the sky. It’s a bright, gorgeous day today, with not a cloud in the sky. Except where jets passed through it. The sky trails of enormous birds.

b spearsNearer to the house, spring’s spear carriers are on the job, trailblazing for the daffodils to follow. They start coming up while still covered in snow, but if snow surfaces show any signs of this I haven’t learned them yet.

b helleboresAnd here by the front door are the faithful hellebores, living up to their common name, Lenten Roses. They gave up snow, or possibly living underground, for lent. We have a lot to do before spring – clearing off the old seedheads and brushy bits I left standing as winter shelter for small critters; getting the fallen tree off the garden fence and making anti-bunny/anti-deer repairs; having a real tree service trim off breaks and snags. With so much damage in our area, it’s taking weeks just to get an estimate. At least I don’t have to worry about the woodchuck. Yet. When she does emerge she’s going to be very hungry.

Ice Storm

b damageWhen this branch was attached to its black cherry tree, some forty feet above the ground, it didn’t look so big. It didn’t look heavy enough to smash part of my garden fence and take out one of the blueberry cages.  We were in California visiting family when the February rain, which in Michigan should have been snow,  froze on contact with it, becoming an unbearable weight of ice.  All across southern Michigan branches, limbs, and entire trees fell, crashing into wires, roofs, and each other. The next afternoon was sunny and warmer. The ice all disappeared, leaving runways, freeways, and parking lots ice-free and dry for our drive home from the airport. It looked like nothing had happened. 600,000 people were without electricity.

b  fireIncluding us. No heat and, since we have a well, no water.  Also no internet, which is why this post is late. We huddled in front of the fireplace, swathed in sweaters and wrapped in blankets. I lured Zerlina under the covers to warm my hands.

b iceDTE (Detroit Edison) had made little progress on restoring power when another, slighter ice storm blew up the following day. There was very little left for it to knock down, but it did what it could. On the positive side, I was home to see the beautiful ice-twig effects, which are impressive if not comforting.  Definitely not comforting.

Seven powerless days later Doug and I were sitting out in the very sunny back yard – warmer than inside the house – when a wonderfully hopeful sight appeared: two DTE linemen in hardhats walking under the miscreant wires, three houses away and getting closer, heads up, checking power poles and connections as they went. “Yay,” I said when they were close enough to hear. ‘Won’t be much longer now,” they said.  Yay again. Seven days.

b scallionsDTE said it was a 50-year ice storm, but six years ago we had a 5-day power outage caused by some other kind of storm.  How many kinds are there?  Maybe DTE should spend more resources on tree trimming, line maintenance, and a better emergency plan instead of whatever else they’re doing with the rate increases they keep scoring.  They should have to count the woodsmoke from power-failure-fireplaces against their zero emission goals. We had to throw out everything in the fridge and freezer, another waste of resources.

b catInspecting the garden, I found a sign of early spring: last fall’s scallion seed sprouting in the open coldframe.  Indoors, Zerlina resettled happily on her favorite cushion, the nearby heat register back in business.

The Abundant Windowsill

b red amaryllis

Valentine’s Day was looking glorious with all this going on at the windowsill. What a wonderful collection of lace and froth a few amaryllis bulbs provide – and I still have some just starting to bud. This red one, bought in November, put up two short stems at once, with six blossoms on each stem instead of the usual two or four.

b stripey amaryllisThe Dancing Queen is making a repeat appearance, having gone through summer on my deck, an indoor rest, and a January wake-up call several times now.

b apple blossom amaryllisThe mostly pink Amadeus is the other one I bought new for this year, very elegant, rather more restrained than the Dancer,

b amadeus amaryllis

while this pink-touched white one is another veteran. I want to say she’s a Double Nymph, but she’s been with me such a long time I’m not sure I remember that right.

And of course a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, in between eating chocolate and going out to dinner, is to enjoy your flowers with a cup of tea. In this case a big cup of foamy Hojicha Latte. Happy Valentine’s Day – well, it’s a little late for that. Happy Valentine’s Week.

b foamy tea

Snow At Last

1 b snowSnow! Finally, snow! If it’s going to be winter, and cold, and bare branches, then I want my snow.  It makes winter miraculous, that smooth bright overlayment that falls out of the sky, establishing itself across what was rough and tired.

5 blogAt last the snow came but, for Michigan, it was awfully warm to be snowing. The temperature hovered just around freezing, and the snow struggled. Where past snowfalls stacked neat cakes onto flat surfaces, this one, all six inches of it, sagged, drooped, and slumped. And then it got Michigannily cold, and all the slumps stopped mid-slide and froze into place.  I mean, just look at this – like it wanted to be March but changed its mind. It looks like cartoon snow.  And what’s with the bare spots under the chairs? There are six inches of snow out there, more than the patio furniture can usually protect.

4 blogThen we have this Craters of the Moon effect on the deck. It’s probably not the tracks of squirrel gymnastics, since our squirrelopotamus is mostly holed up with his massive supply of pumpkin seeds, and moving slowly when out and about. In fact, this is the snow that tried to stack onto tree branches, but was so wet it kept plopping off onto the deck, little winter asteroids pockmarking Planet Deck as they landed.

8 blog blogWhere no trees overhang the lawn we have a few ordinary trails of the drag-foot deer crossing east to west.. But then, what made this series of plops with the big spaces between them?  They’re further apart than I can step – something was jumping, or bounding. The best match from an internet search: a wolverine! Well, I support the local team but not to the point of importing wildlife; and it looks a little dainty for football players anyway.  I searched again and turned up the tracks of a marten, an animal once abundant in Michigan but mostly gone now. Could it be squirrelopotamus after all? A bunny? A large, energetic bunny? A bunny large and energetic in spite of there being almost nothing out there for it to eat? It was about 6 degrees outdoors, so I wasn’t inclined to go look into the bottom of the swooshes for telltale toe marks.

7 blogThis less mysterious track was made by Christen, the woman who plows my driveway, as she guided her truck around the curve of the asphalt. The temperature had already fallen some when she plowed, the snow being wet enough to take a good imprint of the tire tread, and the air cold enough to freeze it in place before it could slump. I love the row of mini-hoodoos.

3 blogMeanwhile, the bulbs I started are blooming, an indoor snowfall at the window, mirroring the colder fluff outside.

Poem: Winter, Love

Inside the window, paperwhites
lean jealously against the glass,
appraise the falling snow
for signs that it will not surpass
their raw ability to bring
glory to a winter hour.
But what do the narcissus know?
Saturated with delight
as the glass reflects their faces,
each ice crystal is a flower
to the viewer it displaces,
winter passionate as spring
fields of bloom on frozen lawn
harvest what they grow upon.

published in Bluestem

Bulb Story

b bulbs 1Bulbs are very determined.

These were quiet in my closet for months, but eventually something – the passage of time? sensitivity to teeny temperature changes? – told them it was their moment. They began sending up shoots, oriented to gravity but not to light.

b bulbs 2Since they were pretty tumbled around in the bag in the closet, they came out looking arthritic.  I felt sorry for them.

b 3 alsoSo I moved them into the sunlight and gave them water. They straightened right up and became what they were intended to be.

b bulbs 4Such an easy metaphor – deformed and awry from lack of light and nourishment; upright, ready to bloom and be productive, when resources are applied.  No need to belabor the point.  Use it where you will – plants, children, relationships.  Good advice from an indoor garden.