Thursday, June 30, 2011


Drop-in visitors can be the bane of the working writer. They don't mean to be, of course; and it's not like you aren't glad to see them. Sometimes they even provide you with a good excuse for a well-needed break. 

Unfortunately, that's not typically how it works—in fact, it's uncanny how they invariably seem to know when you're struggling with a piece that refuses to shape up, or hard-pressed against a deadline with the clock ticking. You're desperate, exhausted, strung out from being inside your head for hours, witless and near to the point of babbling or screaming or possibly taking up a new career as a Wal-Mart greeter. That's when these unwelcome folks appear at the door. 

And it should go without saying they're immune to any hint that NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR A THREE-HOUR GABFEST!

As a working writer sharing a riverbank with an array of potential drop-in guests, I also often have my creative stints interrupted by the shenanigans of critters furred and feathered—like the gray squirrel above. A bushy-tailed doofus who hung headfirst off the eave of the roof and stared at me sitting at my desk staring back. I suspect we both looked a bit dumbfounded.  

Notice the slack jaw, the perky ear, the beady eye. A window-peeping tree rodent if ever I saw one…and as it happens, I see this one, or his kin, quite regularly.     

Nope, not really a complaint. Just thought I'd show you what I have to deal with here…

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I don't what things arachnid to become the week's theme, but…spiders are not all bad. Moreover, sometimes they produce what must be—at the very least—considered unintentional art in the forms of their intricately-crocheted gossamer webs.

When I stepped out the back door of the cottage this morning, I found this example strung between two trees in the deep shadows below the hillside. A shaft of rising sun somehow wove its way between the leaf canopy, obliquely lighting the delicate strands. Knowing how ephemeral such moments can be, I went back in for my camera, made several quick exposures, and returned to my desk for a quick upload to the Mac. The shot at the top of this post was the best of the lot—but as I looked at the result on-screen, I realized that in my haste, I'd not done the best job of choosing f-stop and shutter speed, so back out I went for a better try. 

Alas, in that brief interlude, which couldn't have been more than three minutes, the web had disappeared—doubtless taken out by a flying bird. My photo opportunity was over. Such is the nature of this transitory art. It's beauty, like so many lovely things in life, fleeting, existing only in the moment. And the lesson therein is that we must always respond immediately, in word or deed, before the opportunity is forever lost.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Anyone who's read this blog for long doubtless knows my feelings for things arachnid—which, to put it mildly, is coolly lackadaisical. Yes, I know their usefulness in the natural scheme of things. So long as they keep their goings-on beyond my threshold, we can peaceably coexist. However, I will not tolerate them in my house; those which choose to trespass are swiftly terminated.

With that said, I must now admit I find some spiders cute. Not those hairy, nightmarish monstrosities with fangs the size of ten-penny nails! Good Lord no! I'm talking itsy-bitsy spiders, particularly those found inside flowers. That's where I found the funky little spider in the photo—alert and set up for ambush inside the throat of one of the day-lilies at the end of my drive.

Isn't it cute…for a spider, of course?    

Though I believe in "knowing your enemy," when it comes to spiders, there's just too many to learn by name. However, I'm pretty sure this is jumping spider, maybe Paraphidippus aurantius. I don't know what my behavioral contradiction means, except that size does matter sometimes—in which case if I were an ant or fly, I doubt I'd find this eight-legged death angel cute in the least. 

All things are indeed relative…

Thursday, June 23, 2011


I have just finished sprucing up my photo blind…otherwise known as my desk-side window. What prompted this sudden outburst of domestic efficiency was the fact there's a seed feeder nearby, frequented by both birds and squirrels, and the notion that if I removed the dirt, various bits of wind-borne leaves and sunflower seed hulls, feathers, fur, and avian effluents best left unspecified, I might dramatically increase the pane's light transmission while simultaneously upping the quality of my images. 

After all, even I had to admit the window needed cleaning. It is no exaggeration when I say the exterior glass had gradually taken on the patina of an aged chicken coop. Which obviously limited the window's usefulness as a photo-taking porthole. So a few minutes ago I took a spritzer bottle filled with a mix of water and vinegar—a homemade formula that beats anything sold at the grocery or hardware—and gave the glass a good washing. 

Now, though somewhat blinded by the increased light in my workroom, I can sit at my desk, mutter as I labor over the placement of words on the computer's screen, and keep a better eye on the regular stream of visitors to the feeder and perched or hovering (hummingbird) at the various blooms nearby.

Okay…where are my sunglasses…?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


All decked out in summer colors, as if celebrating the passing solstice, this common daylily—along with a few dozen others—was in bloom this morning at the top of the driveway hill. 

Summer officially began hereabouts about three hours ago. According to the almanac, at 1:16 p.m. EDT, to be more or less exact. How, you might wonder, can "exact" not be exactly exact? Well, the farther west you live in your particular time zone, the later events such as sunrise and sunset occur. I think this also applies to the moment of the solstice—"think" being my out in case I'm wrong. If true, then the solstice occurred here about 2:02 p.m. EDT. 

Either way, it is now summer…and feels like it, being a sweltering 88˚F and seriously muggy. Of course it barely managed 70˚F yesterday, and then only for an hour or two, and was chilly and pouring rain the rest of the time. All of which is why I'm not planting stuff. I tried, several times—but while I can dig the holes, I can't fill in around them or prepare the beds beforehand because my piles of topsoil, though compost-augmented, are still sopping wet heaps of muddy lumps. It's going to take at least another day of drying out before I can break the dirt apart into particles fine enough to do a good job of properly seating my plants in their new homes.

Unfortunately, even as I now type this post, the sky is heavily overcast and growing darker by the minute. Thunder is rumbling all around, coming closer. Muggy turned to a suffocating clammy before the wind kicked up a minute ago—and now the air feels wet and the temperature is dropping. The weather prognosticators say rain tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night, and possibly Thursday and Thursday night, as well.

I don't know why any of this should surprise me…

Saturday, June 18, 2011


A small milkweed beetle investigates a crown vetch bloom…neither of which have anything whatsoever to do with the post below. 

Well, I know what I'll be doing for the next few days…digging holes! Forty-some holes in a yard where even a gallon-sized excavation can often take well over an hour. This comes thanks to the rocks and limestone fill which were used over the decades to build up, by several vertical feet, what was once a low island. After which a thin covering of soil was sprinkled overtop. This stone underlay is therefore barely beneath the surface, typically flush with the grass roots. You never know when your shovel goes ker-thunk whether you're dealing with a thumb-sized pebble or a boulder bigger than a Volkswagen.

So it's going to be WAY MORE work than simply shoveling out a bunch of modest holes. Alas, how I wish I had someone else to blame! I always think enforced labor goes easier if you can assign the responsibility to someone else. Unfortunately, I got myself into this mess—a sweaty, back-breaking, hard-work dilemma I've repeatedly self-inflicted every year since moving to this streamside cottage, though this time around I've set a new standard of necessary toiling drudgery.

This whole predicament is caused by three things—my love of plants, an Irishman's penchant for thrift, and the fact that the sprawling complex of greenhouses and nursery acres of one of the larger national garden and landscaping catalog retailers is located a short drive up the road. Every year, at spring's end, they put their leftover stock on sale—serious, deeply-discounted, practically-a-steal  sale! Roses and dozens more good-sized plants in gallon containers, $1.99; perennials, 99¢; and everything else a huge percentage off. Hundreds of things, thousands and thousands of plants. Everything from succulents to ornamental grasses to ground-covers to mints and herbs to blooming things too numerous to imagine—practically whatever you can name is available for a pittance. 

When the three-day event kicks off on opening morning, several hundred eager shoppers are waiting. More stream in by the minute. Only the amateurs and planting-space challenged select a push-cart for their prizes; the rest of us grab one of the flatbed wagons which are roughly the dimensions of a dinning-room table and capable of hauling, oh, forty-something plants with ease. Some poor souls, apparently having even less than my own modicum of restraint, pile on a couple hundred gotta-have plants. A few purchase more than one wagon load. 

At any rate, while you're enjoying your weekend—all those picnics and outdoor rambles, fishing trips, and lazing-about-in-the-sun snoozes—I'll be dig, dig, digging. That is, if I don't make a second run up the road for a few more delightfully cheap plants.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


As a card-carrying arachnophobe—at least when it comes to humongous eight-legged critters—you might therefore logically guess I'm not a big fan of applying the word spider to even part of a plant's name. Why go there and inadvertently dredge up all those sinister connotations? Thus, spider plant, spider lily, and spider wort are not high on my list of favorite plant names…though the latter, the Ohio spiderwort, is as pretty a wildflower as you've ever seen. 

Yes, I know that in the old herbals, the suffix wort once indicated a plant's supposed medicinal usefulness, generally in treating whatever the prefix named. In this case, spiderwort might have been thought a treatment for spider bites. (See what I mean about all those menacing connotations?) 

Of course, another common name for the same plant is cow slobber—which is just plain disgusting. And I've been slobbered on by enough cows over the years to have a right to that opinion. However, should you think you've heard the worst of the names, I say the apex of appellation indignities vested upon this lovely native wildflower is snotweed, which is simply too gross to dwell upon even in jest. Talk about being a three-time loser in the name game!

Both of these last two loathsome names come from the fact that when the plant's stem is damaged or broken, long, shiny strings of juice leak out. Incidentally, some texts claim it's the resemblance of these long juice strands to the silk of a spider's web that gives the plant its name…but because of the usual herbal "wort" linking to use in treatment, I frankly have my doubts.

Ohio spiderwort is often found around prairies, and that's where I photographed these plants yesterday, in a little prairie patch just up the road. Spiderworts are dayflowers, each blossom lasts only a day, and most of the time—the exception being heavily overcast days—the flowers seldom stay open past noon. Typically, the blooms tend more toward shades of purple and violet. However, as you can see, these flowers were decidedly on the blue end of the scale.   

What's in a name? In the case of the Ohio spiderwort, a lot prettier flower than you might imagine.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


The river in front of the cottage yesterday afternoon, before the storm. Now, the riffle and the big boulder you see in the lower right are all under water…and the water is still rising, though shouldn't reach any worrisome level. 
As I write this at 7:45 a.m. on the eleventh day of June, the sky is gray and heavily overcast, the light dim, and it is 65˚F outside. That is not a complaint. Neither is it when I say the ground is absolutely saturated. Nope, far as I'm concerned, these are all good things, minor blessings—right down to the sopping wet earth.

Why? Because I've spent all week—at least the part when I wasn't glued to my desk, writing—planting seeds and seedlings, building a couple of new flower beds, digging, trimming bushes, moving stones. Hard labor for this increasingly decrepit carcass. But work made seriously more difficult by blast-furnace bright skies and temperatures in the upper-80s and low-90s. Being more moose than manatee, I don't do hot weather well during the best of times—but when you jump from an April and May that seldom felt much warmer than March, straight into the tropics, with no time for acclimation…well, the body rebels, energy evaporates, and my will for self-inflicted abuse goes into hiding. 

Then, about 6:00 p.m. yesterday, the weather and world took a turn for the better when a broad band of severe thunderstorms moved in from the west. We got the whole shebang—lightening, thunder, fearsome winds, torrential downpours, hail. In ten minuted the temperature dropped twenty degrees. The river rose three feet in half an hour. A glorious gift! Plus it continued to rain sporadically throughout the evening. 

So now, with the river still on the rise, it is cool outside, there are clouds to act as a sun-screening umbrella, and the ground is soft—which means digging for the stone walkway I've decided to build will go much easier. What a beautiful Saturday!

Here's the same view of the river this morning. Unfortunately, the sun is now out…but it's still cool.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Morning light on a sycamore leaf.

"Everybody," wrote John Muir, "needs beauty as well as bread." 

As much as I'd like to believe this statement, I've known individuals whose lives were too filled with themselves to allow beauty in any form to enter their darkened consciousness. Nothing, not a flower or sunset or range of mountains lifting into the the sky was, to them, beautiful. They saw no beauty in art, heard no beauty in music, the song of a bird, or the laughter of a child. To acknowledge beauty would be to acknowledge something greater than themselves—a  power capable of stirring their soul. 

The flip side of this reflects the thinking of Kahlil Gibran: "When you reach the heart of life, you shall find beauty in all things." 

No, sorry to disagree again, but just as there are individuals oblivious to beauty, there are also things devoid of beauty. Hatred is not beautiful. Neither is cancer. War is sometimes necessary—and I certainly believe fighting is justified for those things we hold most dear; on this point I'm more hawk than dove. I also believe there are moments of beauty to be found within war…acts of courage and compassion, both of which are beautiful. But war is not beautiful. The list of not beautiful things is as long a Marley's chain—from the loss of whole mountains to surface mining to the stinking concrete clutter of industrial sprawl to the brown plume of chemical waste pumping into the turquoise of an ocean bay. Beautiful? Not in the least! 

I do like what Thoreau wrote. "The perception of beauty is a moral test." 

Here, I think, we come to the crux of the matter, to what I believe and feel about beauty. "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful," said Emerson, "for beauty is God's handwriting—a wayside sacrament.  Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing." In this declaration I find both discernment and reason. Not all things are beautiful, but when you come upon those which are, take the time to savor the gift. For in so doing we open our hearts to receive the positive power of beauty—the peace and uplift, the blessing. At the same time we renew our connection to that great force which lies beyond us as mere individuals—the power of nature and love that resonates in our soul. 

In beauty we find both our humanity and creator.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


In a comment regarding an earlier post, Robert, the perspicacious perambulator of Solitary Walker fame, remarked as to how he was amazed at the amount of activities I always seem to manage to pack into a day. Moi? For a moment there, I thought he'd posted his comment onto the wrong blog. I do hope he was joking…otherwise, I've unintentionally misled those of you who faithfully read this drivel.

As anyone who's witnessed my working capacity knows, I'm no example of a busy bee. Quite often my daily accomplishments are so insignificant as to remain invisible. Between old injuries, various health flaws, and creeping geezerhood, I now tend to work in spurts and stutters—sometimes getting a fair amount of things done, but more often taking three times the time and four times the energy needed to finish a task properly. It doesn't help that I'm a semi-perfectionist and always want (though don't always get) a thing done just so. Equally problematic is my weakness for distractions and an inclination to never let a deckside rocking chair remain empty too long—especially not when birds are flitting about the nearby feeders and the sun is shining on the flowing river. 

At best, I'm a bumbling bee.

What I do often substitute for accomplishment—and thence write about—is movement. I've always passionately adored getting into a vehicle and going…wherever. Destination was seldom as important as just watching the miles pass by, though the more rural the backroads, the better. From the day I got my first car, a used 1956 army-green VW "Beetle," I've practically lived on the road—regularly chalking up 100,000 miles and more per year. In my teens, I thought nothing of attending school all day, getting off in the afternoon and going to my part-time job, and once that was done—about 9:00 p.m.—getting into my beloved old car and driving around out in the country, windows down, radio on, until 1:00—2:00 a.m. before heading home for a brief sleep before doing the whole scenario over. My parents didn't exactly approve, but they knew my restless nature and understood enough to trust me to stay out of trouble. It was one of the real gifts I received from them, for during those long, solitary nighttime drives, I learned much about myself, about life, and about the roads I wanted to travel.

I also discovered safety in being a moving target.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Common fleabane is, well…common. Here in southwestern Ohio, the plant is both widespread and prevalent. No matter where you live, you don't have to look far to find a clump or two. Which doesn't mean common fleabane isn't worth searching out and examining.

I suppose the appellation fleabane doesn't help, though most folks merely give it a passing glance and immediately relegate the plant to being "one of those boring white, daisy-like composites you find everywhere." More weed than wildflower. Asking the plant's name implies a degree of interest greater than is typically mustered. Most won't walk over and take a closer look. A shame, because I think the flowers are quite lovely. 

One interesting note regarding these blooms…what many call the flowers are really flower clusters or heads. Common fleabane actually has two kinds of flowers—the tiny trumpet-like disc flowers which make the yellow center button, and the 100-150 long, single-petal ray flowers in white or pinkish-tinge.   

Common fleabane, Erigeron philadelphicus, is the earliest-blooming of the fleabanes hereabouts. They're also the first to fade and go to seed; many have already finished for the season. By contrast, the quite similar daisy fleabane will soon appear and continue blooming until frost. 

The genus name, Erigeron, may come from the Greek, eri, meaning "early," and geron, "old man." This name, "early old man," would thus reflect the fact common fleabane ages quickly. Others claim the first part of Erigeron comes from the Greek erio, meaning "wooly," so you end up with "wooly old man," possibly referring to the rather fuzzy fruiting head. As to the various fleabanes having any effect when it comes to poisoning or repelling fleas, historical nomenclature aside, there's no evidence whatsoever the plant works on men or dogs.

I always keep a few clumps of common fleabane growing around the house. The other day, a visitor gushed about their beauty. "Yes," I replied, "you could say they're uncommonly pretty."