Chance Encounters

One day in late July I had a chance encounter.  I might not have been so surprised if I had put two and two together while picking tomatoes the previous evening.  I stretched to reach a beautiful, small yellow tomato only to discover that something else had beaten me too it.  One side had a nice-sized bite taken out.  The next day I was cutting out brown leaves and I spotted a box turtle, my tomato thief.  This happens every year, and I don’t really mind.  Then I noticed the turtle was sitting on its hind legs.  Huh?  What a weird position.  Was it reaching for a tomato? That’s when I noticed another turtle shell right in front of the sitting turtle.  Ah, of course.  I have never seen turtles mating, but I knew that’s what was going on.

Sex in the garden!  Sure I know it happens all the time.  This is why I have to check my squash plant for squash bugs, my potatoes for the Colorado potato beetle, and my tomatoes for tobacco hornworms.  So what’s the big deal?  Well, usually I don’t see the act itself.  I encountered the baby rabbits in my garlic bed when they were a few weeks old, and they undoubtedly weren’t conceived there.  The black rat snake eggs were discovered in my mulch pile with no sign of mamma.  I did chance upon two squash bugs mating on my squash plant last week – I put a quick stop to their prolific behavior – but, except for insects, I can’t remember ever seeing an animal mating in the wild.  I guess with insects in the garden, I don’t tend to think about babies and life cycles and food webs; rather I think problem.  And yes, while the baby rabbits grew up to be a problem because they like my beans, I still feel as if I’d been treated to something special.  I know I’ll never see the baby turtles, the female will lay her eggs elsewhere, but I got to see a chance encounter.

I watched for a few minutes, not wanting to disturb them.   I have to say that it wasn’t very exciting.  There was no sound or motion other than the male turning his head a few times.  He saw me, but made no attempt to abandon ship under threat of attack from a giant face peering from above.  I caught a raptured look in his eye, rather than the alert look an animal has when suddenly discovered.  I later read that box turtle sex relies on chance encounters; perhaps this encounter was just too good to give up.  Then, because I was in a very uncomfortable position, I finished cutting the leaves off the tomato branch still in my hand, and retreated quietly to get my camera.

I actually managed to get a photo before the male removed himself awkwardly. He then walked away from the female a few steps and stopped under a thicker bunch of tomato stems.  I was worried I’d disturbed them before they were finished, but some Internet searching shows that they’d just continue later if so, and that what I saw was probably the third and last stage of mating.

I’ve seen a box turtle in my garden almost every year.  Sometimes one is walking across the garden, heading toward the fence, as if leaving.  Other times I’ve found one in the asparagus bed, and later in the season, in the tomatoes.  I always lose a few tomatoes to a turtle, and I’ve never minded sharing.  But I’ve never seen two at once.  Now I wonder if I’ve been seeing the same turtles as either (or both) of the ones today.  I’ve had a small garden most years since 2004.  It is possible these two turtles have been coming here since then.  Box turtles do not mate until they are 7-10 years old.  I like to think they like it in my garden and they’re putting down roots, just like me.

Turtles don’t have it easy.  A female box turtle may lay 200 eggs in her lifetime, but only a handful will reach adulthood.  Habitat loss, road kills – I will stop to help a turtle cross the road wherever logistically safe to do so – and collection from the wild for pets all make it tough for a species that matures late and lays few eggs (2-7) per clutch.  And then there’s that whole chance encounter stuff.  So I am feeling quite pleased with our property’s available habitat.  Including the two turtles mating, I have seen five box turtles on our property since May.  The locations were sufficiently far from each other and from the garden for me to assume that all sightings were different individuals.  Two individuals like tomatoes, perhaps have been coming to my patch for years, and by chance met this year.  I feel somehow a part of this improbable statistic.

I’m glad our species does not have to rely on chance encounters to procreate.  I find it hard to imagine an urge strong enough to follow through in high heat and humidity and in the middle of a tomato patch, and with a nosy neighbor peering down.

Eastern Box Turtle mating


They’re Here!

They’re finally here!  I feel like I’ve been waiting for them for years.  Well, OK, I’m not good at exaggerating.  I’ve only been waiting since mid-June when I placed my order.  But I’ve been talking about chickens, reading about options and talking to people about them for years, so it really does seem a lot longer than six weeks.  Finally, I have chickens!

Being born and bred in suburbia, where I learned nothing about farming,I am starting small.  I am the proud owner of four Australorp chicks, hopefully female.  They will live in a 32 square-foot arc-style coop that I can move around the yard for healthy foraging.  I picked Australorps because they can tolerate heat and cold as well as close quarters, they are consistent layers of large eggs, and I wanted a heritage breed.  They are also reportedly affectionate, and that seemed like a nice attribute for someone not used to farm animals.

A friend of mine shrieked when I told her I was getting Australorps.  Growing up she had an Australorp that actually would rub its head into her neck.  I never would have thought a chicken would cuddle!  I swear she said her bird lived for 17 years, but that would be one year longer than the hen listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.  I’ll have to check on this fact.  All this made me fall in love with my chickens before they arrived.  Now they’re here, and suddenly, already three weeks old.

Chickens are precocial by nature.  My chickens are especially so.  Not only did they leave the nest (incubator) in 24 hours, they travelled from Ohio to get to me.  As soon as I got them in their temporary coop in the warmest room in my house, they drank water and ate the chick starter feed I had ready.  They seem both independent and vulnerable, endearing themselves to me immediately.

Within days the chicks were trying their wings and by three weeks of age they easily fly to the couch or top of the cage when I let them out to exercise.  Twice, they’ve even flown onto my daughter Mauri’s head.  Their feet are amazing.  Once, in an attempt to fly onto their little cage, one missed and grabbed onto the side with its feet.  It then proceeded to climb to the top, easily maneuvering the wiring in the cage and using its wings for balance.  There are still some scientists who debate the dinosaurian origin of birds, and hence chickens.  For me, its hard not to look at their feet and the way they walk without imagining I’ve miniature T-Rexs in my house.

Amazing feet

I am fascinated by their eyesight.  It took a few days to realize they might not be associating our voices with our bodies, so we held them close to our faces or lay on our stomachs in order to make eye contact.  They became very interested in us.  Chickens are attracted to the color red.  Any little freckle or cut was fair game for a peck as they investigated their surroundings.  This quickly became annoying.  However, I discovered I can replace our freckles with torn bits of leaves containing squash bug eggs, which are orange.  With expert precision, each tiny egg is plucked off.  This is done very quickly so that whichever chicken was first to see the leaf handout, gets all the eggs.  I can’t wait until the chickens can walk through the squash plants and eat the adult squash bugs too.

By the third week of age, Mauri and I were able to name the chicks.  All along we kept watching for identifying signs, but they kept changing too quickly, not to mention hardly standing still enough to allow for a good observation.  The only one I could keep track of since day one was Poppy.  I named her this because she had enough white around her eyes and on her chest to remind me of a penguin.  Her eyes seem to also have a blue tint to them.  It turns out that using the coloration around the eyes seems to be the most handy for telling them apart.  So the chickies now have names!  There is Poppy of course.  And Darky because she has all black around her eyes.  There is Guapa.  Guapa means cutie in Spanish, and she has yellow colored feathers around her eyes.  The fourth chick is named Rita.  She has a beautiful striping of yellow and black under her eyes.  Her name is a contraction of Favorita.

My girls will be ready to move into their coop in two more weeks.  I’ve got several hours worth of work left to finish their home, but it will be ready.  I hope they like it and it holds up because I’m not keen on figuring out another option right now.  Mostly, though I hope it is predator proof.  I spent a lot of time weighing housing options with regards to predators because we have every type of predator possible, with the number one concern being our own dogs.  I know I’ve a lot to learn about chicken husbandry, but I am enjoying what my chicks have taught me thus far, and I want them to stick around for awhile.  Their safety is my responsibility.




The Honeymoon’s Over

I don’t really consider August 20th my first day in my new job because I have been working on my property all summer.  In fact, Halcyon was starting to look quite spiffed up until the Derecho on June 29 paid us a visit.  On the morning of June 30th, it was hard to see the forest for the trees; all the weeding and mulching and clearing that had we’d done could not stand out against all our tree damage.  Plans were sidelined while tree limbs were cut, hauled away to yet another brush pile, or split and stacked.  In my mind though, August 20 became a symbolic first day date because it is the day I would have gone back to teaching, and I would have been doing all that summer yard work anyway.

It was a wonderful first day, starting with getting a really good night’s sleep.  I usually eat, sleep, and dream school and its related plans, content, and students for at least the first month.  I woke up at 7 am instead of 5:30, and I made breakfast for my son.  In the past, I’d be gone before he awoke.

The day continued to unravel in pleasant chores or tasks related to my new life.  I visited my chicks and cleaned their waste that seems to increase in size each day.  I made and canned 16 pints of split pea soup because I had cooked a ham on Sunday.  Or rather, I cooked a ham on Sunday because I wanted to can split pea soup.  I picked my son up from cross-country practice, and we had a real conversation about his first day because my mind was not writing a lesson plan or fretting about school.  I made a roast for dinner.  I did not have a meltdown when my son presented me with the mountain of first day of school forms.  These forms usually made me cry because I’d have spent the day sorting and filing 18 copies of these same papers.  By evening of the first day of school the exhaustion easily brought tears.  Admittedly the forms would only qualify as a hill this year, but I know I could have handled a mountain with the same relaxed mood.

All the teachers I know probably had a crazy day, but they know that their honeymoon period starts soon, when they are in the swing of things and everyone’s first day jitters settle down.  Their period of good feeling can last the whole year with a few expected bumps along the way.  What about my honeymoon period?  It’s over!

I don’t mean I am second-guessing my decision.  What happened was only a small part of my day, but it had me wondering about my naïve notion of biocentric living at Halcyon.  What I mean is that I have some unpleasant neighbors.  The one I met today was down right mean.  I was not bothering anything but the autumn olive tree whose berries I was gathering, when something flew full force into my chin.  That would be a minor nuisance except for the attached stinger that felt like it pierced my chin bone.  I jumped back a few feet fearing I had upset a nest and looked for a swarm to soon follow me.  Nothing.  A hit and run I guess.  Did my neighbor wonder what happened?  Do stinging insects always fly ready to sting or can they attack that fast?

I decided I was done picking berries.  This was not the first stinging event at Halcyon this year and so I had a recent memory that jewelweed (Imatiens capensis) can be used to ease the pain.  Near the creek I picked some leaves – the undersides really do look like silver underwater – and chewed them briefly to mash them before rubbing them on my chin.  I felt sort of outdoorsy and survival-like, playing Katniss Everdeen in my yard.  Mean neighbors, no problem.  By the time I got to the house, the pain did seem better.  I had a lump the size of a marble on the underside of my chin, definitely not attractive, but not horrible either.

Then it happened.  My brain was telling me, Honeymoon’s over.  It’s a wild world out there and why do you want to go around meddling in it?  This is not like me; I’ve been stung many times in my life.  I’ve slept out without a tent, suffered poison ivy, backpacked in grizzly bear country, and once rescued a snake tangled in plastic netting.  I’m not wimpy when it comes to the outdoors.  I realized the panic messages were coming from my throat.  My throat felt funny, then it felt smaller, and I grabbed some Benadryl trying not to panic.  Why do they package each tablet separately in such a hard to open manner?  I forced myself to stay calm and the best way to do that was to continue my to do list for the day.  So I went out to mow the garden, but I brought my cell phone in case I had to call 911.  A half-hour later I felt much better, though two hours after that I still felt like something was stuck in my throat when I swallowed.

Much later still all is well, Benadryl is amazing, and my mean neighbor will not deter me.  I know every day cannot be as Leave it to Beaverish as my first day.  I know there will be days I curse the mower or get too many mosquito bites, or feel hopelessly overwhelmed at the tenacious ability of plants to accumulate biomass, especially the ones I pull.  Overall, the second day of my new job still beats the day, early in my first year of teaching, when all the buses pulled away filled with students, somehow forgetting all the students in my class.

Jewelweed growing near Mouse Run



Weeds as greens

This blog is intended to be a record of my interactions with and learning about other species that share my property, Halcyon, with me.  I thought I’d start with an ubiquitous herbaceous species that we are all familiar with, Taraxicum sp., or the lowly dandelion. The seed heads thrill children, but the whole plant is the bane of many a landowner seeking a weed-free lawn.  At least it was the bane of my father.  To his credit though, he did not spray his lawn to rid him of this prolific weed (though this was probably because he didn’t want to spend the money on pesticides).  Instead he employed my sister and me to spend embarrassing summer mornings on our hands and knees digging the plants out by the roots.  We worked quickly hoping the neighbor children were not up yet to notice, and keeping our backsides toward our own house, just in case.  I used to imagine Maria across the street peering out the window and laughing while she enjoyed Sunday morning cartoons and air-conditioning.  I do not recall my father ever helping us with this task.  It was just part of our rent I guess.  I wonder if he knew that he could have benefited in other ways from our weeding efforts – a source of vitamin rich greens – that were instead thrown in the trash.  No, we didn’t compost either.  This was suburbia in the 70s.

I recall being told a story about dandelions and Central Park in New York City.  In the 1800s Italian families would picnic in Central Park and while doing so made a habit of picking dandelions as a food source.  It was a popular ingredient in their salads.  In a discriminatory attempt to rid the park of these immigrants, a law was created that banned picnics and any other such enjoyment of the green space.  In essence, “Keep off the grass”.  Very soon the city had a problem with dandelion weeds and resorted to spraying to keep them at bay.  It seems to me much cheaper and safer for all invoved to have allowed the picking of free edibles.

The only reference I found to verify this story: states that the park welcomed the foraging by Italian immigrants each spring, an activity that now would be unwise due to the use of herbicides.  I don’t know which version is true; I just know that I have no problem letting the yellow blossoms populate my yard.  In a ‘root for the underdog’ mentality, dandelions have enamored themselves to me, largely in response to unhappy memories of having to rid our family’s front yard of what?  Pretty yellow flowers that weren’t bothering anyone.

Wikipedia states both that dandelions are native to North America and Eurasia and later that early European immigrants introduced them to North America.  I also learned that their long taproot brings soil nutrients up where more shallow rooted plants can benefit from them.  As a food source, all parts of the plant are edible.  All of these are sufficient merits for me to leave well enough alone, which I have.  We’ve never applied herbicides to rid our lawn of weeds, despite the fact that weeds outnumber grass more often than not.  We’ve never deemed it necessary to pull them out to impress the neighbors, a task on our 14 acres that would be grounds for checking our sanity.  But I’d never eaten them despite knowing of their culinary history.

For some reason, I just knew that it would be one of those things that did not taste all that great, but that die-hard foragers rave about.  I mean, if the Italians and French have used them for hundreds of years and elite New York City restaurants tout them as haute cuisine, then surely someone I know personally must love them and rave about them.  But I’ve never come across anyone who has tried them when I bring it up.  I’ve never seen any dandelion greens in our weekly CSA rations, and I might actually have been secretly delighted since I quickly tire of Swiss chard.  So try dandelions sat on my to-do list for several years.  Coming from someone who has tried all kinds of herbs, made my own tonic syrup for gin and tonics, and ate a home-cured ham, I was uncharacteristically hesitant about trying them.  This year I finally gave in.

I collected about two cups of leaves early this spring when I’ve read they are least bitter.  I decided to try sautéing them in olive oil with plenty of garlic.  I know this is cheating, but it just didn’t look as appealing as a gin and tonic.  I was pleasantly surprised, though I would not go as far as to rave about it.  I have since tried them two other times.  I picked enough to add to some mixed greens and ate them raw the second time.  It is definitely bitter, but not bad.  I also picked and chewed up a flower head one day after reading about a woman who treats dandelion flowers like lawn candy.  I liked the first bit of flavor that washed over my tongue, nutty and something else I can’t describe.  But then that bitter flavor took over and I quickly spat it out.  My lawn candy will be mainly for my eyes.  I will though, try dandelion greens again this fall.  I’ve read that after a frost some bitterness is removed.  I will think about immigrants collecting some nutritious greens – theirs to recharge after a long winter – mine to prepare for shorter days.   And I’ve added try dandelion wine to my new ‘learning about my land’ to-do list.

Aldo Leopold or Don Juan de Marco?

I am Aldo Leopold, the greatest naturalist that ever lived.  I have observed a thousand species on my walks and know their cycles and connections to my life.  Sounds delusional, right? Alas this reality exists only in my desires, in my wishes for growth and a need to be really good at something.  Why do I have a need to be the greatest at anything?  Am I hiding something, as the Johnny Depp character is in the movie Don Juan deMarco?  Or am I merely, as I think is my sincere intent, listening to a need in my life to know, to understand better the natural world, based on a life-long (but somewhere lost on a back shelf) love of nature, just as Marlon Brando asks his wife in the movie what became of their fiery love.

Of course, I have not even gotten beyond the dream stage: I want to be the Aldo Leopold of my land.  But, I am stuck already.  The above 90-degree heat for over a week does not help.  My brain and blood seem too thick to think and move.  That is my excuse this month.  But what of later?  I have made the first step – freed up an incredible amount of time – by quitting my job.  I suppose this proves perhaps that I am a bit unstable (I wouldn’t go as far as crazy).  I was a teacher and summer always had a strange flow to it after the extreme time pressures of the school year.  It usually took several weeks before I felt able to morph into a different rhythm.  Yet, I was lucky to have summers off, a chance to garden and explore my property.  Somehow I seemed to always be playing catch-up instead of immersing myself in my dream.  There’s also the fact that I don’t want to be a part-time summer naturalist.  Aldo Leopold did not just write about the summer season in A Sand County Almanac.  I want to understand the cycles that are happening year-round, year after year.  My property is enough scope for me, a great beginning, a laboratory already stocked and functioning – just waiting for the scientist with time to observe.

There is nothing wrong with my life.  I love it.  I love my family, my house and land, our community, our chances to travel, and most aspects of teaching.  But it’s going by too quickly.  Being in nature always makes me happy, fulfills me, grounds ME, in the context of the world, into a proper perspective.  I feel as Leopold did that man is only a member of a biotic team.  This perspective has always comforted me rather than unnerved me.  And the more I put off this hike or that adventure (let’s get chickens) because I was consumed by teaching, the faster it seemed to go, until last fall I realized that I have missed the last seven fall seasons at Halcyon, our property.  This disturbing awareness nagged at me all year and became exacerbated by the death, too early in her life, of my sister-in-law, causing me to seriously evaluate and challenge some basic life and happiness questions.  This in turn led to my decision to change, to alter my reality, to pick-up dreams that were forming when I was 18 and 24.  If I hadn’t misplaced them under obligations and self-imposed notions of what really matters, I could be a great naturalist by now.  I think that is one key to many accomplished people: they simply followed their dreams, not necessarily setting out to be great, but their passion mixed with steady progress and diligence to their hobby, craft, science, discipline, etc. allowed them, years later, to really be an expert at something, or at least incredibly knowledgeable on a subject.  They kept the passion burning under the slow, steady flame that the Faye Dunaway character credits in Don Juan de Marco as the key to sustaining a marriage.

My husband’s vocational passion has been rocks and the earth.  He has kept this passion alive through 25 years of study and even today, when he is distant in his thoughts, I know (thankfully, yet sometimes wryly), that he is thinking of rocks and not another woman.  I have friends with literary passions and they have found their niches writing and teaching writing and literature.  I have friends with a passion for nurturing young children, and they are wonderful teachers.  My last 25 years of work have been more disjointed: medical technologist, mother, citizen water-quality monitor, environmental education volunteer, molecular research technician, and elementary school teacher.   Yet they all have a common thread in science and I can see in hindsight a trend toward my naturalist dreams.  Without taking a jump off my treadmill, I might continue to misguide myself for years.  In my Master’s in Teaching program I wrote how teaching young children would allow me to rekindle my love of nature.  And it did.  Some.  It also took me further from nature in many ways, with 9-hour days in the school building and more at home in front of my computer.  So instead of trying to fulfill my dreams in a sideways manner, I am facing them head-on.  I want a biocentric view of Halcyon.  I want to know of the plants’ and animals’ life cycles and interdependencies. Their ancestors were here long, long before me and I have a great respect for their tenacity in the face of human interventions.  I want to reconnect with the girl who loved reading the Laura Ingall’s series and who was nicknamed Bertha Biology by her brother – I’ll even accept the awful nickname if it means I am worthy of the title.  I want to rekindle a flame, keep it burning slowly, and never let it die down again.  I want a chance to approach self-realization in the context of Halcyon.  I don’t want to change my reality the way Don Juan de Marco did.  I want to live authentically in the natural world, in my pursuit of happiness, like Aldo Leopold.

Welcome to my blog

Welcome to my blog.  I’ve worn a lot of hats for the last 25 years.  My newest adventure involves exploring my land, its species, our interactions, and sharing what I learn.

I live with my family on 14 acres in Rockbridge County, Virginia.  We’ve been here 11 years.  During this time I’ve held two different jobs, gone back to school, helped with major renovations on our farmhouse, and lived abroad twice.  In winter 2012, I came to realize that life is going by too fast and that I am constantly resigning aspects of our property, Halcyon, to the ‘back burner’.

After a lot of thought, I decided to leave teaching, my latest endeavor, and begin a new adventure.  This blog is an attempt to blend two dreams of mine, writing and understanding the natural spaces around me.  I hope, through my quest, you too can find something to ponder or share.