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Odd Happiness

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I woke up this morning feeling happy. I’m not quite sure why–I had a vague impression that there was a smell in the air that I liked, or a quality of light or something. It had something to do with the garden, which suddenly looked a lot better than it has all winter (and not just because I spent three hours out there yesterday thrashing down dead stems and pulling up pepperweed.)

I went downstairs and there was coffee and even cream, and that was clearly a sign that the universe is good, or at least knows what’s good for it.

It must be said, I’m not always a happy person. I am a cheerful and busy person, and that looks like happiness from a distance. I like my life and my people and I do a thing that I generally enjoy and this all contributes to making life pretty good. But of course I am gnawed by anxiety like anyone else and I have deadlines that loom over me like the wave in that Hokusai painting…and this winter has been LONG.

So I am not entirely sure why I am in such a good mood. The likely cause is hours spent in the sun over the weekend–Tuscon is a blaze of desert sunlight–which undoubtedly kicked my vitamin D level up a notch, and yesterday’s gardening probably also helped in that regard.

Plus I finally started getting my hands back in the dirt, now that things have warmed up. And I could go on about the spiritual benefits and connection to the earth–which I do believe in, though I won’t tax you with it–but the more concrete element is Mycobacterium vaccae, which is a soil bacteria that increases your seratonin levels. It lasts in the system for about three weeks. In a short winter, I’m never not digging for that long, but this one has gone on (and on and on) and I have been busy and I suspect it kept getting punted. (Yes, gardening literally makes you happy, or at least less depressed. Humans and dirt have a long history. Incidentally, it’s apparently related to leprosy!) You can get it from vegetables that haven’t been brutalized, but it’s much easier to just dig around and inhale the stuff.

I was planting peas last week and getting my hands in the damp dirt and poking around. Maybe that’s the reason I’m feeling great today. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

Birds, Plants, Stuff

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Went out twitching today after a rare bird that was just plausible enough to be sighted in Durham…and discovered that some idiot had been listing the exotic waterfowl collection over at Duke. (I just map-quested the coordinates and didn’t realize where it was located until I got to the gardens and had a sudden sinking feeling. What I get for not checking closer.)

Oh, well. It got me out of the house, anyhow. I haven’t been birding in weeks, beyond glancing into the backyard occasionally. There are worse fates than a morning spent birding at Duke Gardens, even if it’s all yellowthroats and vireos.



I mean, I grow this stuff, and this never occurred to me. (I don’t have a slope like that, mind you…) It’s a clumping native grass with pink seed heads, grows about two feet tall, gets a pretty good spread. Never ever seen it used like that.

Then I stopped at the Botanical Garden on the way home, and there went the rest of the morning. Did you know there is a plant called “Farkleberry”?! (Okay, it’s been rebranded as “Sparkleberry” and is a native holly, but seriously, that used to be “Farkleberry.” The little tag informed me solemnly that not even google knew the origins of “farkle.”)

So that was my morning. Didn’t suck, even with the not-actually-wild goose chase.

Quite A Morning

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So as some of you know, there’s a couple of feral cats that’s been visiting my garden and eating my birds and my frogs.

This displeases me greatly, since I didn’t design this garden to be an ecological sink, like some kind of horrible avian Roach Motel, and I have been trying to live-trap the damn things with no success.

Had to stop trying to trap for the season because it’s gotten so hot that if they’re stuck in a cage outdoors for hours, the cats may well expire of heat exhaustion, and while I have no qualms about taking a feral to the pound, I have a lot of qualms about it dying one of the more unpleasant deaths at my hands. So the cats are back, although they run like hell when a human comes (so I’m pretty sure by now that they are ferals rather than strays.)

Went out in the garden this morning to fix the soaker hoses, not thinking about much of anything, and there is an explosion of fur as one of the cats, who has been lurking around the birdfeeders, takes off at a run…and hits the chain-link fence like an idiot and runs its damnfool head into the fence and is then stuck.

I grab my gloves and run up to discover the cat is in the process of strangling itself in the chain-link. (I’ve heard of this happening with wild animals on fences with a good run up, but it hasn’t happened here in over a decade–everything is undergrowth and trees and vines and you generally can’t get a good enough run at the fence to get stuck. But the cat managed.)

Well, now I’m sunk, because I can’t pull the cat back out without probably breaking its neck, I can’t go and get the wire cutters and cut the fence open because it will kill itself before I get back–its tongue is already hanging out and things are Not Going Well–so I do the only thing I can think of and grab the fence and try to haul the wires apart and hope the cat’s got enough presence of mind to go back instead of forward.

(If you’re familiar with the construction of chain link, you’re aware that this was just this side of useless–I couldn’t get my fingers hooked through the wire around the cat’s neck, all I could do was haul on the wires near it and try to compress them enough to give it a quarter inch or so more to work with. This had my hands awfully close to the cat’s head and I figured if it got loose, there was a 50/50 chance I’d get a really spectacular cat bite, which would be an exciting trip to the E.R. for the rabies shot and the really good antibiotics.)

Well, luck was with both of us. It got loose and my gloves protected me from any random flailing. I had a vague hope I’d get enough time to grab the damn beast before it got far–it probably injured itself, and I still hope to get it off the streets–but it was out of there like a shot, over the gate and into the woods. A ninja could maybe have caught it, but I am nobody’s idea of a ninja.

The cat is NOT in good shape, incidentally–leaving aside any neck injuries it may have just sustained, it’s nothing but fur and bones and there’s some kind of huge scar or mat along one leg that I didn’t get a good look at–and I would very much like to trap it, both for my birds and so it can get either medical care or a good home or a better end than nature will provide.

If you must have outdoor cats, people, for the love of god, spay and neuter them. This sort of thing is unconscionable and it’s entirely the fault of lazy-ass humans and swear to god, it’s things like this that are going to drive me to start drinking before noon.

Frogs and Sprouts

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The surface of the frog pond was rippling, little expanding circles, and at first I thought it was raining.

When I looked a little closer, I realized it was dozens of Upland Chorus Frogs. They’re sitting still, some of them engaged in amplexus, but their throat sacs are pulsing and every time they expand, another little ripple goes out.

The noise is deafening. We have opened up the house because it’s seventy degrees out, and in every room, you hear frog song coming through the windows.

The seeds I start indoors have SPROUTED! (Well, some of them.) The tomatillos have grown little sprouts and come up and are sproutlike and OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I DID IT! (I have not been this excited since the time I germinated corn on a wet paper towel in grade school.)

Sadly, the other seeds are not doing so well. My peat pots have molded rather badly, and the seeds with them. (I don’t know why the tomatillos are fine.) I went on-line and found a lot of contempt for peat for just that reason, so I’m going to chuck those and start over with something less prone to molding. Lost a week on the fish peppers, but meh, learning experience.


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The cedars aren’t gonna come out of this one well. One was already bent over from the last time we got a heavy snow, some years ago, and now two more have joined it. Instant weeping cedar! Just add snow!

Lots of ice. Lots of snow. Everything’s okay so far, beyond the cosmetic damage on the cedars…and two young pines…but it’s one of those where there is a potential to go really bad and you can’t do anything to prevent it from happening, so you go about your day and keep looking out the window to see if any of the trees are looking…scary.

There are a kajillion birds on the feeder. They vanish the instant it turns to freezing rain (or this morning’s delightful freezing mist!) and return when it goes back to snow. Birds are remarkably intelligent about things that matter to birds.

Lotta sparrows, lotta cardinals, lotta juncos. Yesterday was wall-to-wall doves, more than I’ve ever seen in the garden at one time–I counted fourteen–but they’re gone today. Very few chickadees. I suspect ice storms are hardest on the teeny tiny birds. Thrush-Bob is demanding frequent mealworm delivery and expects his water thawed on demand.

We were on the road for about twenty minutes yesterday, just as things started, getting gas for the generator. It was bad. I nearly ditched the car, even with ten years of Minnesota winter under my belt, because there is no amount of skill that can compensate for the guy in front of you stopping way too fast. I breathed on the brakes, slid, steered some direction that didn’t kill us, so it must have been correct. There was a conveniently placed driveway, and we stopped before sliding into the drainage ditch. (Kevin commended my reflexes, which is nice. Apparently “Guided Graceful Slide” is still on the active skill list.)

So we’re all still alive. Glad I work at home. (Despite that, I have the urge to scream “SNOW DAY!” and spend the day in pajamas, but y’know.)


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Snow snow snow! It snowed! It snowed! There is snow! It stuck and everything! EEEEE! Snow!

Snow is the best, when you live in a climate that doesn’t get it often. It’s the one childhood magic that doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. (It can, mind you, smother you under the weight of grim familiarity, but even after nearly a decade in Minnesota, I still found the first snow of winter exciting.)

Now, in a perfect world, where the weather gods have me on as a consultant, we’d have gotten about another inch, since it’s not quite enough to do that thick white blanket that obscures all the edges of everything, which is the best snow. But there is snow!

Every bird that ever visits the feeder is out–a whole fleet of White-Throated Sparrows, three Cardinals, one crazy-eyed Brown Thrasher, a couple Goldfinches and the local White-Breasted Nuthatch. Plus a handful of Juncos and Titmice and Carolina Chickadees. There are fat Mourning Doves squatting on the fence.

Thrush-Bob is sitting on the porch among his mealworms, fluffed up to softball size.

We have plenty of mealworms, plenty of sunflower seeds, and absolutely no reason to leave the house at all. We both work at home, the internet’s working, there is lots of coffee, and it is a glorious day to be snowbound.

Cloisters and Priest Gardens

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I have lately developed a moderate obsession with monastery gardens.

Mind you, I always liked monks. I’m a lousy Catholic by any standards—the bit about not actually being a Christian is problematic, and my failure to be confirmed is worse and the fact that I never really liked the Virgin Mary* is REALLY bad—but I retain a soft spot for monks. Franciscans particularly, but St. Benedict apparently also laid down in his Rule that the implements of the garden were to be treated with as much honor as the sacred vessels of the altar. This made me feel warm and fuzzy and then squirm with guilt when I remembered where I’d left the pitchfork.

Lots of monasteries were expected to be self-sufficient and so had very elaborate gardens to feed the monks, provide herbal medicines, and make beer. (See, this is why monks are cool. Nuns are terrifying and awesome but I bet they didn’t get beer.)

The whole homesteading movement sometimes leaves me cold—some parts are really great and I support wholeheartedly, and then suddenly the nice person telling you how to make chive-blossom vinegar begins telling you about how the ATF is coming for the guns and the End Times are upon us and how the hell are you supposed to follow that in a conversation? “Ah…heh…well…uh….so what kind of vinegar was that again?”—but I do like the self-sufficient monastery. Much more sensible than one person trying to do it in the backyard.

It was while digging around reading about monkish gardens that I finally (at thirty-five!) learned what a “cloister” is. I always had a vague notion that it was a box you kept nuns in or something, but in fact, it’s a covered walkway around a (usually square) courtyard. It was covered so your monks and nuns could walk in it in all weather, walking around and meditating or sitting and reading or what have you. The center was usually left as empty grass as a meditation on the unseen divine or something along those lines.

Dude. If I had known that’s what that was, I would have been trying to build one for ages. I think infinitely better when my feet are moving and as a small child would pace back and forth in the backyard, daydreaming. (Sit down, brain stops. Walk, brain starts again. I have gotten somewhat better in that I can now type and think at the same time, but I still have to wander around while talking on the phone.) A covered walkway around a courtyard? For walking and thinking in all weather? I would have killed for one of those!

…mind you, I would put some tomatoes in the center. Divinity is all very well but you waste good full-sun growing space, that’s at least a venial sin. And any god worth worshiping would understand about the tomatoes.

The French have a marvelous version called the jardin de curé or “priest’s garden” which is the very small one-parish-priest version. It was supposed to supplement the priest’s diet with veggies, provide flowers for the altar, and herbs for treating the sick. It’s as informal as a French garden gets, which is to say that it’s still about ten times more formal than mine, but still pretty laid back for the type—paths laid out in a cross, religious icon in the center, boxwood edging for the beds. Boxwood was always grown for use on Palm Sunday and was often used to sprinkle holy water. Many of these gardens also had religiously themed areas—plants grown because of their association with Mary, for example. (There’s an excellent little article about them here, which includes the sad fact that in this day and age, the jardin de curé is nearly extinct. Too few curés apparently.)

This appeals to me greatly, and if the topography of my garden had not completely ruled that out, I would be laying out cross shaped beds right this minute.

I have no idea why I like this so much. You already know my feelings on Mary and my idea of a medicinal herb is vodka, but still…something about the whole thing just pokes me right in the hindbrain going “This! This! Like that! Yeah! That’s awesome!” Possibly Catholicism has a genetic component unrelated to the actual faith, which would explain a few things when you think about it. I haven’t the least interest in going to a Catholic church, but the idea of building a Catholic garden causes something to punch me in the back of the head.

Maybe it’s just any spiritually themed garden, and you just don’t see many Protestant gardens out there. (Unitarians, I imagine, do a lot of gardening. It’s probably all community plots and organic vegetables, too. More power to ’em, sez I.)

Although I couldn’t do a Zen garden. Getting the weeds out of the raked gravel in this climate would leave me anything but Zen. Catholicism seems to keep coming up by default.

I’ve already got the boxwood, valiantly as I have tried to slay it. And while you will find no representations of St. Fiacre, patron of gardeners (who was a total dick to women) there’s at least a half-dozen icons of St. Francis in the house. Kevin is a fan. You don’t feed birds and do cat rescue without developing a certain appreciation of Francis. And there’s a couple of Frida Kahlo, who is at least 30% religious icon by now.  Mind you, I’ve got not one but two statues of Ganesh out in the garden, so I’m probably covered on the religious icon front, and I imagine Ganesh and Francis would get along just fine as long as they kept the conversation to the care and feeding of small animals and large elephants.

I’m not sure what I’d do about the medicinal herbs. Perhaps I should just pick very obscure medicines. For example, I recently learned that Virginia iris was used by the Seminole Indians to treat “shock following alligator-bite.” I can’t cure the common cold, but you get bit by an alligator, I can hook you up.***

Probably can’t manage the cloister. But man, if they ever make the blockbuster Dragonbreath movie and I have a bizillion dollars, I am so building one in my dream home…




*I don’t know why. It’s not just her, I suppose, I never had much interest in any mother goddess figure.** Blame it on my utter lack of any maternal instincts whatsoever. I know it’s all vital mythological stuff, but it left me cold. Isis didn’t do it for me either. And Mary never DID anything. There were lots of saints with interesting lives that you could totally get into, and instead everybody’s ga-ga over Mary, whose chief claim to fame was virginity and apparently did nothing much of interest beyond that point. At least Isis went wandering around turning into a bird and engaging in recreational necrophilia. I don’t blame anyone for being boring, but something about Mary just rubbed very young me the wrong way.

**Except Freya. Freya had a cloak of feathers and Valkyries. If Mary had Valkyries, I might still be Catholic.

***My apologies to my readers at BWG who had to read this factoid twice, but seriously, that is just so COOL!

Twelfth Day of Christmas

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On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

twelve seed catalogs!


eleven no great big hawks!

…ten tufted titmice!

…nine frogs a-croaking!

…eight vultures circling!

…seven spiky yuccas!

…six types of milkweed!

…fiiiive! naaaative! plaaaaants!

…four hummingbirds!

…three moorhens!

…two mourning doves!

…and a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!


Seed catalogs are the great glory and bane of my existence. I can sit in a hot bath with a cold bottle of cider and a seed catalog and not get out until the water is tepid and planting eight packets of forget-me-nots seems like a good idea. I highly recommend Prairie Nursery, Plant Delights, Niche Gardens and Baker Creek Heirloom Seed catalogs, but frankly, there are no BAD seed catalogs, just catalogs from bad companies.  (Spring Nursery, seriously, give it up.)

Our poor hero is getting pretty battered at this point, isn’t he? I promise it’ll come out all right in the end. But you probably should check back for the day AFTER Christmas, just to make sure…

First Day of Christmas

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On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

…a replacement for a Bradford pear tree!

Wretched trees, Bradford pears. They stink like dying tuna, they fall apart in snow or wind (the official reason is, I kid you not, “weak crotches”) and the bloody things sucker like the devil if they get into a suckering mood. Landscapers plant them because they grow really fast and look impressive very quickly, and their flowers really are spectacular. Then they self-destruct at about the twenty-year mark. Not a good plant.