Category Archives: Home and Garden

I got the sun in the mornin’ and the moon at night. . .

Annie, get your camera!

Would you believe these images of our two nearest cosmic friends were captured using an inexpensive point-n-shoot?

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Moon over Albemarle. Friday, May 24, 2013, 9:15 pm.

It’s true.

But there’s an explanation required. The camera was a Lumix Panasonic DMC-FS3, a ten year old point-and-shoot which you can still get on E-Bay for a hundred bucks.  

Full  sun over Albemarle. Virginia, May 26th, 8:15 am

Sun over Albemarle. Sunday, May 26th, 8:15 am

But I had a little extra technology out in front of it: an 8″ Meade Dobsonian telescope, with a 26mm Ploessl lens.  

Basically, I held the camera up to the telescope eyepiece and snapped pictures.  And dang! It worked. 

I should add that the ‘scope had appropriate light filters – a variable polarizing filter screwed into the Ploessl lens to knock the moon’s light down by maybe 65%.  And a Thousand Oaks solar filter reduced the sunlight by slightly more than that: maybe 10,000%. . .

Otherwise I’d have probably have a smoking hole where my left eye used to be.

Did I mention that I used duct tape?

What fine marriageable metaphors these make. Sun, meet moon! Day, meet night! Technology, meet duct tape. And Frank Butler, meet Annie Oakley!

Actually, I was once in a local production of  Annie Get Your Gun.  I played 1st trumpet in the orchestra pit.  But because the Barboursville Players were short on tenors that year, I got pressed into service backing up Frank in “My Defenses Are Down,” covertly leaving the pit to appear onstage as one of the cowhands.  A more self-conscious singing cowboy there never was.

But my favorite song from this old musical has always been “I Got the Sun in the Morning,” sung by Annie and company in Act II.

“Sunshine gives me a lovely day
Moonlight gives me the Milky Way
Got no checkbooks, got no banks
Still I’d like to express my thanks
I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night. . . ” 

. . . and the stars, and the trees, and the mountains, and the dogs, and the books, and occasionally some cool technology, and the endless episodes of conscious living, and all the people around me to make life so very worthwhile.

Still I’m happy with what I got.

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Photographic Sequence of an Emerging Cicada

We discovered a cicada breaking out of his larval shell early one morning last week. I decided to record the process at roughly forty minute intervals.

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It looks at first like some kind of mutant – a failure with stunted wings and albino coloring.

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An hour later, the wings have unfurled themselves, and are drying, stiffening.  

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The wings fold back against the body. The body begins to darken.

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And darken. Several hours later it was gone, leaving behind the familiar husk.

Aside

Snapped on our front deck this morning, I caught this little guy chillin’ by the front door.  He’s the very first of the celebrated Brood II that we’ve seen.  Soon enough, however, he’ll be joined by thousands of fellow emergents in … Continue reading

Let me take you down. . .

The day begins very early when, the sole riser at this hour, I open the front door to the soft shimmer of rain on oak leaves –  whispering a presence more immediate than anything my sleep-fogged brain could have imagined. A steady sigh pours across the threshold into our darkened house. We have been asleep, hidden away behind our walls; and now to open the front door is to awaken a second time. . . onto a reality we had temporarily forgotten.

North_doorway_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1372481Here is a secret world I have found, wild and innocent, a place outside of alarms and media, where nature moves, oblivious of our attention and ultimately beyond the container of language. I should like to open more such doors – awakening over and over – each time penetrating further toward the origin of my thoughts. I wonder whether other folks have looked at their awareness as I have: composed of a series of veils – like Russian dolls, each revealing a place more sacred than the one before, each farther removed from the surface of the world, each closer to the One.

The gray green weather is the continuation of a system which has dumped rain all across the country, filling mud puddles and dog bowls in its more benign moods, relocating trees and cars and forcing evacuations in its more destructive ones. But here, on our little piece of ground, the most destructive thing we have seen are the hordes of oak strings that wash down from trees onto rooftop, windshield, and deck, thereby forcing some attentive maintenance. I search the leafy canopy above and note one tiny window of blue breaking the dark clouds. We’ll see intermittent sun today, perhaps. This is good. Rain and sun in the same day, and a ground water level that becomes more substantial by the week.

Today is strawberry day. . . ” the thought rises, unbidden, to my mind as I gaze into the pre-dawn morning. And I think, rather agreeably, that time spent in cultivation of these sweet plants would be very close to the very best thing I could do for my soul – plunging my hands into the soil, becoming slowly and happily soaked by the soft rain falling into the afternoon.

For about a week, I have kept a carton of six or eight new plants waiting on a small white table below the rear deck. Until today, other obligations have delayed our settling them in alongside their peers. But today, those moist cubes of soil can finally be separated from their plastic cartons and transplanted into the composted soil of our raised beds. We have prepared well up to this point. Still, a top dressing of well-rotted chicken manure and straw would not be too much nitrogen to consider. . . perhaps in another week.

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The new plants are bold and lush – a dark green. They have continued to grow since I brought them home. They reach between six and ten inches in height and are dotted with white flowers. A few stalks have gone leggy; their serrated petals extend above the rest like open hands on outstretched arms.  Plants by nature grow in poses of supplication. All display a unique personality, but always they describe some form of sun worship.

A strawberry plant that is well-washed by the sun becomes unassuming and peaceful, quietly living, quietly producing its gorgeous red bounty. Their serrated leaves find a mirroring correspondence in the form of the berries, stippled as they are with their external pods. On these plants, the first tiny green globes are forming in the protected spaces below the leaves. I want nothing more than to get them in the ground and to provide them with the most optimal growing conditions for our space.

Last year was the first season we put in strawberries, and I didn’t know what to expect. Our plants flowered, fruited, and, at the end of the season, vanished in strands of brown decay and matted straw. I wondered whether we would see them again. And like an ancient humanity contemplating the strange magic of fertility, I nursed that secret fear which predates rationality. But new plants have risen from the old crowns, bigger and better than ever, their foliage a bright, vibrant green. Already, many flowers are apparent, the central pistils showing signs of greening into future berries.

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We call them berries out of custom, but technically the strawberry is not a true berry at all. It is what botanists have called a “pseudocarp“, or false fruit, -carp being a combining form taken from Greek (karpos) for fruit. The true fruits of this plant are actually the tiny seed-like achenes, which dot the exterior of the ‘berry’ and give it that stippled look. The plump red part is called the ‘receptacle’: that part which produces the fruit rather than the fruit itself. As for the word, Karpos, one might look him up later and find further horizons of meaning in the mythology. Context is what gives beauty to language.

Later this summer, mounds of freshly picked strawberries will yield their gorgeous sweetness to our table, served over a foundation of partially soaked shortbread with a dollop of fresh whipped cream, perhaps a blueberry or two, or some mint leaves for garnish. . .  How do you describe the flavor of this food? It is nothing but its own perfection. These are times to quit our internal monologue and simply succumb to a delicious avalanche. I have never understood people who persist in chattering through such experiences.

But certainly, we must resort to the safety and the consensus of shared language to manage our days. Talking, reading, listening: language is where we live, how we maintain our identities. It is where we accomplish everything that requires form and organization. And it is only from language we can construct rational descriptions of places like. . .  the Strawberry Fields of our experience It is tempting to confuse language with reality. But language is, ultimately, itself a pseudo-carp: a premise of meaning constructed over something wilder and beyond description.

There is and has always been a wild place – beyond words, challenging and scary. But to penetrate the veil is to take our words for rain and weather, plants and dirt, souls and strawberries. . . and maybe, just maybe, forget them for a spell.

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Can tasting a strawberry really accomplish all that?! I’ll tell you what: I don’t mind practicing. (Where’s the cream?)

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* Doorway image: Richard Croft  CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)  via Wikimedia Commons

Hot weather hive grows a beard

Given the scorching weather we’ve endured for so many weeks, you’d hardly think it time to sport a beard. But check out the colony. These little ones are right on schedule with a distinctive fashion statement.

The hive lets it all hang out.

Yeah, it’s called ‘bearding.’ This mass might look startling to the uninitiated, but it has a real purpose, as does everything associated with the hive.  This phenomenon typically occurs when daytime temperatures approach 100F.  And in our region, they certainly have.

Getting personal with the peeps. No worries.

Over the months, this hive has evolved from struggling colony to an organism of massive power and energy.  The number of workers hanging in that beard alone easily double the crew installed last April. And unseen are the cadres of nurse and maintenance bees remaining inside who constantly tend to the affairs of the queen and the developing brood.

April 2012. What a difference!

So why are they just hanging there? These folk are mostly daytime foragers, and after sunset they have nothing to do.  But on hot summer nights, to crowd back into the hive along with the maintenance crew would only elevate the hive’s internal temperature to dangerous, brood-killing levels.  So they hang out, literally, on the front porch, chillin.’

Whether the weather is freezing cold or boiling hot, a colony knows to regulate its internal temperature to a sweet 90-95F.  How interesting that the optimal temperature for this super-organism falls so closely to that of humans.  Whether organizing to fan moisture throughout the hive for evaporative cooling, or clumping together in the center to conserve heat, universal principles apply.  Think of these as analogs to our mammalian panting and shivering.

Indeed, some of these folk work all night as part of the air conditioning system.  Note the workers in the picture below with their abdomens up in the air. These little ones perch facing the hive opening. Their rapidly beating wings create the equivalent of a turbo wash behind an airplane sitting on the runway. You can easily feel this breeze against the back of your hand six to eight inches from the hive.

Fanners create an easily detectable breeze

And this is only what we can see from the outside. Inside, more rows of fanning workers have already pushed air down through the hive toward that opening.  The sound of all this activity is quite wonderful – a continuous muted sussuration, perhaps the insect equivalent of the unending word of God.  Its murmured ‘aummm’ invites you to pull up a bench, sit down and hum along. . .

Stay cool, folks.

catching a country buzz

Hope springs eternal.  I am happy to report that a new colony of honeybees is now establishing its niche in a local ecosystem of northern Albemarle county.  Worker bees arrive and depart the hive constantly, the launching board suddenly transformed from vacant runway to busy terminal.  Today I am a beekeeper.

Last Tuesday (4/17) the long-awaited moment (‘Bee’-Day) arrived.  We were finally ready.  The new hive body was assembled and painted.  We had placed it on blocks on our back lot where the sun could awaken it on summer mornings. The sugar syrup had been mixed.  Under a brilliant blue April sky, two intrepid souls – a volunteer recruited for the trip and myself – made the drive down US-29 to Chatham.  I was thrilled to finally pick up my package of honey bees, completing a process initiated months ago.

Upon surrendering my receipt to the gentleman at the Dadant bay door, he presented me with a screened box that literally vibrated with movement and sound. One pound of bees translates roughly to 3,000 winged insects.  In that moment, I held three pounds of apis mellifera*, between my hands.  They emitted a continuous, whispering buzz that thrummed into my fingertips with a muted energy.  I held hope.  Possibly, I held a small piece of our ecological survival in my hands. And hidden in the middle of that living mass was a newly mated queen, riding separately in her own chamber.

Three pounds of Italian honey bees restless, searching (with human assistance) for home.

Placing that box carefully in the seat of the car, we drove home with royalty – the august company of one Italian queen and nine thousand of her devoted subjects. We nervously cracked obligatory jokes about accidents, envisioning a splintered box and the sudden release of some very disoriented honeybees.  We were therefore respectful of our cargo, reaching constantly to steady the box on tight ramps. Despite that precaution, it did tip over once, but I can report an uneventful trip nevertheless.

Installation became a matter of following a rehearsed and well-scripted procedure. The queen cage would be removed from the screened box and suspended between two of the frames. One end of the queen cage would then be uncorked, exposing a special candy which the workers would eat through to release their queen. Lastly, the mass of bees could either be poured directly from the box into the open hive, or the entire box temporarily placed inside.

Preparations before the install - bee veil, water, gloves, hive tool, and waiting hive.

Choosing the latter course, we removed half the frames and placed the screened box in the hive.  With the box cover removed, the colony immediately began to emerge.  Bees in this circumstance are quite calm; as yet, they have no home to protect.  Lastly, we placed a container of syrup containing sugar and water in a 1:1 ratio in the hive entrance. The syrup becomes an essential supplement to hive nutrition until reliable sources of pollen and nectar can be located by scouts.

The colony emerges to explore their new digs. Queen cage tacked into place two frames over.

Having been released, the queen will crawl slowly about the foundation, fed and groomed by a consort of workers.  She bides her time, her pheromal presence asserting a powerful orienting principle in the hive. She waits for cell construction to have been completed and the point where she can begin laying her eggs. And after some three weeks, new workers will begin to emerge from those cells, adding to the strength and vitality of this incredible organism.

Meanwhile, the industry of these small creatures energizes the imagination. Sources of nectar are being discovered and their location communicated to the hive. The nectar is being gathered, processed, converted to honey in some cases, but more importantly at this stage, to wax.  For inside the hive, an engineering marvel is being constructed from raw materials, six sided pillars growing outward as the workers produce, chew and deposit wax in a characteristic hexagonal shape.

Promising activity levels four days later

The honeybee is essential to our ecological balance. Fully 80% of our flowering crops depend upon it. At the same time, colonies have declined at alarming rates over the past several decades. Wild colonies are now quite rare.  But beekeeping associations are taking proactive measures, several states are reporting upswings in populations, and maybe. . .  just maybe, things are looking better.

And so, having installed our little colony of honeybees, and having provided the optimum conditions, we stand watch, hopeful for nature to work its magic. And for all you old hippie classmates waiting to throw that pun: yep, we definitely caught a buzz. . . country style.

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*(Apis mellifera is the scientific name for the Western or European honeybee.)

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a spring bear visit

Cleaning up after a bear last night, we found cat food tins, styro-foam hamburger trays, greasy paper towels and tea bags strewn across the driveway.   Nothing new, really, except that it had always happened to the neighbors, and not us.  I should look next door to see if our visitor was an equal opportunity forager.  Too bad we lost the best anti-squirrel bird feeder we’d ever found. Flattened! One would not want to be under that paw.

RIP a good bird feeder - NOT bear proof.