Thursday, May 27, 2021

Just a Little Help, Here and There

 I decided to try growing a few sunflowers this year, planting the seeds in a semicircle near the sidewalk at the front of my house. When I was a tiny pup, perhaps no more than five, I can remember encountering sunflowers and thinking they were miraculous. I was awed by them. Flowers were supposed to be small and dainty, but here was this bright towering glory, the bloom as large as my head, rising higher than the adults who loomed over me. For such striking plants, they're surprisingly practical. They grow in nearly all soil, they feed the pollinators, and us, too, with a little roasting. And yet they delight children and childlike adults. They symbolize hope, which is reason enough to plant them.

But they don't like storms and high winds, which come with greater frequency as the warmth of Virginia summer rolls in. Even before the flowers form, their top heavy wide leafed stems can become vulnerable to high wind. So as my small patch rose up past waist height, into the ground went the stakes, and the first of the gently tied supports were wrapped around stalks. Just a little help, here and there.

I finished that task yesterday, right at the local Storm Teams gleefully pitched out their alerts. Torrential downpours! Hurricane force gusts! Take shelter! Keep watching! As the thunder coughed and grumbled, and the darkened evening strobed with lightning, the wind rose and howled. I monitored the flowers from the covered front porch, until the spray storm driven rain forced me inside.

The largest flowers of the patch teetered and rocked, leaves fluttering wildly. They strained against the string. But they stayed upright. The storm passed. They were fine.

Just a little help, here and there, and they were fine.

Earth and Ashes

It's Earth Day 2021, and it feels, well, it feels a bit strange.

Earth Day has always been a little peculiar, as holidays go.  It's only fifty one years old, and not really a holiday, given that we generally keep bustling about our lives as we always do.  It lacks rituals and liturgies and traditions, beyond an amorphous set of warm sentimentalities and dreamy aspirations.  Growing things are nice, we think.  We really, really should start taking better care of our planet, we say, nodding sagely, as we have for every one of the last fifty one years.  Now is the time to act, we say, as we get into our SUVs and drive to pick up a case bottled water for little Tyler's travel league team.

There are pictures of green things, and talk of seeds and planting.  Perhaps we put a tree into the ground.   Perhaps we repost some meme with a smiley heart earth, or a pastel drawing of a multiethnic group of kids holding hands in a circle with butterflies and flowers.  That's just so nice.

It just doesn't feel right.  It feels dissonant.  Like we are, somehow, missing the reality of where we stand.

It reminds me a little of something that well-meaning earnest progressive Christians started doing a few years back on Ash Wednesday.  That's the day in the Christian ritual year when we Jesus folk remind ourselves that we are mortal, fleeting creatures of dust, and that our time here on this world is little more than a blink of an eye.

We typically mark ourselves with a sign of ashes, to remember that we are fleeting and mortal and small.  This is meant to be reflective.  It's meant to be somber, because hard truths are that way.  But we don't like to do somber, because somber makes us sad and stuff.  So some folk decided to mingle glitter with the ashes, because it was sparkly and fun.  Let's celebrate our earth-wrought mortality with shiny bits of plastic!  

Oy.  I mean, you do you and all, but oy.  It just felt like missing the point.

"Celebrating" Earth Day feels a bit the same way to me now.  All is not well on our little planet.  We are past the inflection point for dealing with climate change.  We're already seeing the effects, as vast planetary systems are starting to shift.  Wildfires and droughts, storms and rising seas.  Even if we somehow manage to come up with a concerted effort, we're in for a rough ride.   


"Hey, that's cool," said Rache, as she sat across from me at our kitchen table, peering out the bay window.  I glanced back and around, and it was as she said.  From the side of one of our raised beds, the ants were rising into the sky.

It was the warmth of the day that had triggered them, as summer's heat descended to wake the earth on a late April morning.  A tumble of delicately winged drones were clambering out of holes, scuttering up the cedar wood of one of our raised bed gardens, and hurling themselves by the tens and hundreds into the air.  They rose like bright smoke from a fire, their wings caught in the beams of the morning sun.

"Wow.  And there...and there." I said, as all of the colonies in the yard vented their males into the heavens at once, a volcanic eruption of fluttering, clumsy fliers, pouring from fissures, each bearing a possible future of their tiny, industrious little tribes.

Our house sparrows noticed, too.  They leapt chattering and chirping from their nests, racing across the front yard to where a free breakfast buffet was winging its way into the world.  It was an impossible abundance, and the little birds dove into the rising cloud again and again, picking them from the air in a whirl of brown and tan wings.

A couple of the sparrows realized that the pickings were easier on the ground, where clumps of clumsy insect fliers struggled for position at the entrances to their nests, or flopped around uselessly on the ground in a tangle of untested wings.  Two birds hungrily pecked one ant after another from the ground, as an abundance poured out at their feet, a crawling, struggling cornucopia.

But they were sparrows, and sparrows love fighting more than anything in the world.  The two birds on the ground saw each other amidst the plenty.  Even though there was more food than both could possibly eat, they started fighting over it anyway.  They leapt into the air, batting at each other with their wings, pecking and yelling, the free breakfast ignored.  Their fight ranged away, one sparrow chasing another, across the road and into a neighboring yard, where they tumbled to the ground in a shrieking ball of beating wings and claws and feathers.

The ants continued their slow, bright rise into the sky.

Nets and Gleaning

About a decade ago, I planted four blueberry bushes near the front of our house.  One was inadvertently destroyed by an errant lawnmower driven by a teen.  One struggled to thrive, and remains barely more than two lightly leafed branches poking wanly from the ground.  But two grew and grew well, and every spring for the last five years, they've burst forth with clusters of pretty little white-prayer-bell flowers, striated with a hopeful pink purple.  

Those clusters of flowers draw the bees, then fall away, as the berry beneath plumps out and ripens.  Every year, they swell out by the hundreds, and their color turns from a pale green to deepening hues of deepwater blue.

And then, as if I were some sad suburban Tantalus, they are plucked away at the last moment.  Not by capricious Mediterranean deities, but but by the sparrows and starlings and grackles.  The sparrows in particular seem fond of depriving us of the literal fruit of our literal labor, as they flit from branch to branch, pecking one plump, nearly ripe orb after another.  In the last five years, I could hold our total blueberry harvest in a single cupped palm.

It has not endeared the sparrows to me.  I mean, they're already more than a little on the obnoxious side.  When they're not arguing, they tend to sit on the sides of my raised beds sharpening their beaks ostentatiously, like tiny winged hoodlums in an all-bird production of West Side Story.  They are not doves.  They are not wrens.  Or even crows.  I do not like them.  I have, on occasion, harbored dark fantasies of the Standard American Solution to yard varmints, which can be found by searching on YouTube, keywords "sparrow" and "high powered air rifle."  As vicariously, morbidly satisfying as those slo mo feathered explosions might be, that just isn't me.  Or legal.

And so this year, after two years of failed efforts to net my plants, I've upped the game.  Fifty strong mesh bags, too fine to get around, now are tied in place around fifty clusters of berries. I think, finally, that I have them.  Most of the berries are covered. 

Most. But not all.  

Because although house sparrows are not the most genial of birds, and the enemy of many of my efforts in the garden, I can't quite bring myself to starve them, in the same way that I don't feel like blasting them from existence with a small projectile travelling 1800 feet per second.  

I do not need all of the harvest.  I do not need to maximize my yield.  I will have plenty, and there will be plenty of berries left for the gleaning.  Why take every last thing?  

Old and New

 As the spring fills the air with sweet scents and pollen, and the green life rises in trees and grass, it's a lovely time for newness.  I feel that in my own garden at home.  Every year, the joy of gardening is twofold.  There's the delight in the return of old friends.  My seed-saved green beans date back half a decade, and setting those little irregular white kidneys into the loosened, freshly composted earth has a ritual familiarity to it.  I know these little friends, and I knew their ancestors back five generations.  I know what they yield, and how they grow.  There's something definitely akin to affection returning those seeds to soil.  

My kale goes back three years, and the plants that I started back in the fall have yielded gallons of lovely, nutty-sweet greens.  That won't last long, as the heat of the summer sun and the nibbling predations of caterpillars will soon take their toll.  But I'm letting 'em go to seed again this year, a familiar harvest of spiky pods that will give me greens for years to come.  I've done that for years now, and again, there's a sense of welcoming back old friends.

But there's newness, too, as there is every year when I experiment with things I've not yet tried.  I'm trying butternut squash this year, after having saved the seeds from a squash gifted from a neighbor's garden.  I'll need to tend those squash carefully, as I've lost prior years attempts at spaghetti and summer squash to borers.  Butternut is just so delicious, though, so into the soil those seeds went.  

There are sunflowers, too, which is a first, stirred mostly by the memory of sunflower patches from when I was a little boy in Kenya.  I remember goggling up at the towering flowers in awe, because flowers were supposed to be smaller than me, and wow.  That, and the seeds are tasty and roastable.  So we'll see.

There are the lovely little drawstring bags which I'm hoping will finally save at least some of my blueberry harvest from the sparrows, squirrels, and starlings.  Perhaps this year, more than just one or two blueberries will make it into my mouth.   Again, we'll see.

Each day in God's creation offers us much the same blend of new and familiar, if we look for it.  There's always the comfort of a pattern that reassures.  There's always something new, sometimes startling, sometimes so subtle we have to listen carefully for it.  That's just part of the wonder of life, this last year has reminded just so very precious.

Angry Tweeting

 There's a quarrel of sparrows that have settled into the ivy and boxwood in front of our house. Like all sparrows, they're a fractious tribe, and are pretty much always arguing about something, high pitched shouting matches that occasionally break into tumbling brawls in the grass. Fighting amongst themselves seems to be their main pastime. It's how they fill their days. Well, that and engaging in the process of making more sparrows, which is often indistinguishable from their fighting.

Yesterday, as I sat and studied in the kitchen, an uptick in their continual ruckus drew my distracted attention. I glanced out. On one of the half barrels in which I grow potatoes, a big bluejay perched, staring intently at where the sparrows nest. Jays are beautiful, sure. But they're also brutish birds, dull minded bullies and cold eyed killers, and more than happy to feast on eggs and young chicks of smaller birds if given half a chance. As the jay peered into the ivy, the sparrows yelled and flitted, their endless arguments seemingly made only a little louder in the presence of an existential threat.

"Who's gonna do something about that jay!" "That's not my problem!" "You kidding? You and your stupid nestbuilding, it's your fault that jay is here!" "You talking to me? You Talkin' to ME!" On and on, the chattering complaints and incriminations.

None of the sparrow's seemingly endless font of umbrage was directed at the threat. None of them dived at or challenged the jay. It remained still, leaning forward, focusing, silent.

The jay exploded upward and forward, a blue bolt fired towards a target. There was a moment or two of violent rustling in the ivy. Then it flew away, making a beeline for what was likely its own nest. I couldn't see clearly if it was carrying anything, but it seemed that it was.

The sparrows just kept on arguing. It's what they do.