Monday, April 30, 2007

Live and let live -- even lubbers


Sherry Boas
(Appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 29, 2007)

I'm a gentle person. Really, I am.

If a wasp enters the house, I make every effort to catch and release it. I coexist with ants that occasionally parade through the house, and I accept the fact that palmetto bugs will sometimes find their way inside on a warm summer evening. I'm fond of lizards, snakes and spiders and don't even own a can of Raid.

But there's one insect that upsets my sensibilities, inciting my wrath like no other bug -- the lubber grasshopper.

If you don't know what lubbers are, you're lucky and you probably don't garden.

Lubbers live outside where they can find and eat the plants they love, which -- what a coincidence -- are the same plants I love.

Rain lilies, amaryllis, cannas, day lilies, gladioluses and just about any other blooms that sprout from bulbs are the preferred foods for these leaf-eating monsters.

In late February, tiny black grasshoppers emerge from eggs thoughtfully laid near a food source by adult females the previous summer.

The young bugs are kind of cute. They have soft inch-long black bodies with yellow stripes down their backs. They emerge en masse from their underground incubation with insatiable appetites. Newly hatched lubbers instinctively know to chow down on succulent stems, eating nonstop until evening, when an inner voice tells them to gather in clusters on those very same stalks for sleep.

I wouldn't be so tempted to squash them at this stage -- especially at night when bunches can be smooshed at once -- if I didn't know, from previous experience, how fast they grow and how many flowers it'll take to satisfy their voracious craving for garden blooms.

The immature bugs look nothing like their adult counterparts.

While the babies may be on the cutesy side, mature lubbers are anything but beautiful. From 6 to 8 inches long, the adult grasshopper has a large head, huge eyes, big mouth, two antennae and a hard, shell-like body that includes a pair of small wings usually folded against its side. At first glance, it looks like some sort of toy-sized prehistoric dinosaur -- lubbasaurus, perhaps, the mighty devourer of all things green.

A lubber's body is a tawny yellow highlighted by red and black stripes. The insect has an eerie ability to anticipate a gardener's approach and alter its position accordingly. Coupled with the hissing sound adults make when threatened, and the scary body language they use as a defense mechanism, lubbers can be quite intimidating.

Fortunately, they don't bite or sting, but their oversized mouths can chew through flora at an alarming rate. I've lost an entire bed of about-to-bloom rain lilies to one hungry grasshopper in a single afternoon.

To prevent such ravenous feedings, I usually resort to behavior that I admit is neither gentle nor kind. That person who goes out of her way to assure a wayward bee's freedom shamelessly squishes, smashes, snips, steps on and sometimes drowns lubber grasshoppers in vats of sudsy water.

What can I say? Lubbers bring out the beast in me.

For the past 15 years, I've waged war against these marauding insects. And every year my diligent effort to eradicate them fails. Because I'm unwilling to douse my yard with poisonous chemicals, I'm left with no choice but to attack them individually. Experience has proved that handpicking lubbers is a lesson in futility.

Maybe that's why this year, for the first time ever, I've decided to adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy.

When I see a lubber in the yard, I divert my attention, forcing myself to focus on something else. I could never kill every lubber -- there are far too many -- so what's the point in getting all upset and destroying a few?

Does this new attitude mean I won't step on a lubber if it hops in my way? No, I still will. But I won't go out of my way to smite a batch of them. Not this year.

I've also decided to propagate more of the plants that lubbers dislike -- marigolds, cosmos and sunflowers -- and fewer of the plants they love. My new attitude might not completely improve the state of my garden, but it has already improved my own mental landscape.

There's so much senseless killing going on in the world these days, I don't want to add to the carnage. My victims may just be bugs, but if I learn to leave them alone, ignoring the things they do that I don't like, maybe I can apply the same lessons to people.

It's the gentle thing to do.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The slow drive to nowhere beats the superhighway


Sherry Boas
(Apeared in Orlando Sentinel April 22, 2007)

Returning home from town recently, I turned off the highway onto a back road. A car from the opposite direction turned in front of me. It was an old-fashioned car.

A tag on the license plate read "1931 Model A Ford."

Seated inside the cab were an older man and woman out for a Sunday drive. The front seat must have been narrow because the couple sat close together, their shoulders almost touching.

From my vantage point, a few yards back, their silhouettes seemed to be framed in a picture. It felt as if I were driving behind a rolling portrait of a bygone era.

I followed in their wake for about five miles. Our two cars -- mine new but dusty, theirs old but shiny -- chugged along at an easy pace. Up hills and down, around curvy bends, the road threaded its way through the countryside.

The two of us traveled along independently, but I sensed a shared purpose. We wanted a road that offered beauty as well as quiet, contour as well as color. I doubt if either of us was disappointed despite the changes so obviously afoot.

During the past 15 years, I've watched the landscape bordering this particular route undergo a slow but steady transformation. For years, like so much other local acreage, it was mainly grove land interspersed with the occasional homestead.

Eventually, groves gave way to pastures and, through the past few years, pastures to subdivisions. A few old homesteads remain but most are a sorry lot, run-down and neglected.

A small herd of cattle continues to glean sustenance from the hardy grasses, but their pastureland is reduced, hemmed in by a series of brick-walled communities.

Despite the juxtaposition of cattle and subdivisions, the road has maintained its integrity. When the developers came, they didn't expand the two lanes to four or redirect its circuitous route. By refraining from such indignities, they kept intact a bit of history.

Traveling over the rolling hills behind the antique car, I could almost imagine what it must have been like to drive this same road during the 1930s. Back then, Model A Fords were all the rage, and the opportunity to take even a short car ride was cause for celebration.

We hardly ever celebrate driving now.

Cars are instruments of necessity to move us from Point A to Point B as quickly, comfortably and, hopefully, inexpensively as possible.

My own car is a minivan that thinks it's a truck. The fold-into-the-floor seats enable me to switch back and forth easily from hauler of people to hauler of goods too big to fit in a traditional trunk. I like my car.

It's a practical and efficient mode of transportation for a contemporary person whose multi-tasking lifestyle demands constant conversion. But it's no Model A Ford. It's not a classic.

Perhaps someday, I'll have the time, inclination and ability to own a vintage vehicle.

Then, instead of riding admiringly behind someone else driving a classic, I'll be at the helm, steering my own antique auto around potholes, over hillocks and across countryside as fraught with contradictions as a vintage car is in the modern world.

It's a fine fantasy, one of those "maybe somedays" that dwell in passages of the mind. But I'm no car person, and I imagine that owners of classic cars need at least a little mechanical know-how.

An appreciation of beauty, however, is a quality I have in spades.

Last weekend, on that quiet country lane, I drove behind beauty, and I'm better for the experience. Sometimes taking it slow is the best way to appreciate a world that's so quickly disappearing.

Breathe! It reaps rewards every April


Sherry Boas
(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel April 15, 2007)

Sweet, sweet air. If you haven't stepped outside lately, please do. Open the door, stand in the backyard and take a deep breath.

The air is heady with fragrance.

Although acres of fruit-bearing groves have been replaced by subdivisions and shopping centers throughout Central Florida, the sweet smell of citrus flowers remains.

Enough trees bearing oranges, Meyer lemons, kumquats and grapefruit have been planted in home landscapes to scent the air with a rich floral repast.

Consider it an olfactory offering, yours for the taking. The only requirements are a few minutes to clear your mind of worldly woes, an outdoor presence and the inhaling of breath.

And it's not just citrus sending a message this time of year. Wisteria, honeysuckle and the pink and white flowers on orchid trees add their special signature to this potent potion of springtime.

Call it "Eau d'Avril," the essence of April. No perfume on the shelves can compare to this elusively sweet seducer of the senses.

The other day I stepped out of my car in the parking lot of a shopping center that might have been a citrus grove a few years ago. Although no orange trees were in sight, my nose caught a whiff of citrus as soon as I opened the car door.

Where did it come from? I scanned the horizon in search of a bloom -- anything in bloom -- but I saw no flowers.

The only vestige of nature was the requisite greenery planted in pockets of cigarette-littered dirt surrounded by pavement.

Somewhere nearby, I imagined, there was a yard covered with flowers. Maybe a lounge chair sat in the shade of a gnarly old orange tree. A few fruit remained on the boughs alongside hundreds of blooms, each one a promise of sweet tomorrows.

Perhaps against the house a purple wisteria vine wound its way up an arbor, flooding the air with waves of sweetness.

That tree, those vines and a few willing blooms scented that entire expanse of paved-over paradise -- at least in my imagination. The real source of this thrilling perfume remained elusive.

My own wisteria vines wander the ground in search of altitude.

Years ago, when we moved to the property, I stuck two plants in the poor soil above our driveway. One was a white wisteria vine, the other purple.

I fully intended to install an arbor soon afterward, but it has been 15 years, and no arbor is erected.

If the wisteria mind, I wouldn't know it. Each year as March bows out just before April appears, the vines eagerly leap into bloom, dancing on the breeze with an intense aroma.

Determined to reach new heights, the wisteria skip along across the ground, climbing anything to which their tenacious tentacles can cling -- another plant, an oak tree, the bare stalks of last year's dog fennel.

How fortunate to live in an area where seasonal changes can be so viscerally sensed as well as observed. Some call it spring; I prefer to think in terms of the flowers -- the season of citrus buds, wisteria vines, honeysuckle and orchid trees.

Scientific research indicates that the fragrances people smell can have a profound effect on their productivity and ability to sleep soundly. Odors, specifically floral scents, can even influence shopping decisions.

According to Dr. Alan Hirsch, director of neurology at the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, the quickest way to change emotions is with smell.

In 1999, Hirsch studied the power of scents on the brain, publishing his results in a scientific journal.

While his work provided useful information to managers of shopping malls, we don't need a scientist to tell us something we already know -- step outside, smell the flowers and receive a mood boost.

Make time to breathe in April. It only makes scents.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

A disappearing walk on Florida's wild side


Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 8, 2007)

I took a walk out to get the paper on a recent Sunday. The newspaper box is about a quarter-mile away, where the dirt lane that leads to our house abuts the county-maintained paved road.

On the way home, instead of retracing my footsteps, I meandered back through the woods. A 120-acre parcel borders our property. In what was once a citrus grove, untamed lemon trees remain beneath a canopy of 20-year-old slash pines, stately oaks and sprawling tangles of grapevines and Virginia creepers.

When our family moved here in 1992, the pines and oaks were babies. At 5-foot-4, I was taller than most of them. Today their towering trunks dwarf me. All are big enough to be harvested and, a few years ago, many were. The out-of-town owners hired a logging company to come in and thin the woods. About every third tree was cut down and trucked away. Perhaps the trees were made into lumber or crushed into pulp for paper. We all use a great deal of wood products, and I don't begrudge the owners for thinning the forest. But as a neighbor who passed the woods daily, I found the process difficult to watch.

For about a year afterward, the forest looked raw and ragged. The sandy soil was marred by tire tracks; discarded limbs littered the ground. The uncut pines stood meek and spindly, unfamiliar as they were to so much exposure to sun and wind. Eventually, time erased the rough edges. The slash pines filled out. Scraggly oaks, with new space to expand, responded by stretching outward and upward. The tire tracks faded beneath a blanket of pine needles and oak leaves. As I walked through the woods on that Sunday, the ground underfoot felt surprisingly soft and springy. Each step produced an ear-pleasing crunch as oak leaves, dry and brittle from weeks without rain, crumbled underfoot.

I made my way over fallen limbs, around twining vines and stumps left behind by the loggers. Treading carefully, I avoided anything sharp -- pine cones, twigs or the carelessly tossed beer bottles left behind by others. The deeper into the woods I walked, the quieter it became. Sunlight filtered down through a pine canopy, birds fluttered about and sticky webs built by giant banana spiders stretched tautly between tree and twig.

It was a lovely walk, an excellent alternative to my usual trek down our long dirt driveway. But as I wandered through the quiet woods, I couldn't help wondering how the land there will look a year from now. The 120 acres has been pre-approved for a mixed-use development. Although the project is still being planned, at some point the construction will begin. Most of the trees will be cut down to make way for paved roads weaving through a maze of town homes, retail establishments and cookie-cutter houses on lots the size of postage stamps.

I'm not opposed to development and have little sympathy for those who move into subdivisions and then complain about new subdivisions popping up all around them. But I can't help feeling sad when I think about another large stretch of land bound for the chopping block.

My thoughts focus on the animals that live there. What's to become of them?

When bulldozers move in, wildlife dies or, at the very least, is displaced. I've seen bobcats, coyotes, gopher tortoises, foxes, raccoons, armadillos, snakes, owls, opossums, squirrels and all types of songbirds on that land. A family of scrub-jays, Florida's only endemic bird, lives close by. Once, much to my astonishment, a deer -- the only deer I've seen in this neighborhood -- took a daring leap across an abutting road. Knowing that these animals will be forced to abandon their homes when construction commences is a sorrowful thought.

I don't know how to resolve the problem of encroaching growth. Landowners have a right to sell and subdivide their property, but plants and animals need places to live too. As I wandered through the woods that Sunday, I savored the beauty of this peaceful spot and hoped for the best.

Maybe, when developed, at least a fragment of its essence will remain. Maybe some of the displaced wildlife will venture onto my own tract of undeveloped wilderness and take up residence there. Maybe the future homeowners will plant trees -- many trees -- and encourage nature rather than trying to eliminate it.

We live in a world of many maybes and few certainties. Our control over the actions of others is limited, but in our own backyards, we have incalculable power. It takes just one person, one tree at a time, to make a difference. If we each did that, planted more trees in our home landscapes, imagine the effect on the environment.

If animals could talk, I bet they'd say thank you.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Bow ties: Want to tie one on? Then practice, practice

Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 1, 2007)

Do you know how to tie a bow tie? I don’t. Neither does my husband. But my 15-year-old son wants to learn.

His grandfather, who died the year after Toby was born, was famous for his bow tie collection. As the longtime chairman of the math department at Northwestern University, Professor Boas was widely respected for his many successes in the field of theoretic mathematics. But it was his eclectic and colorful necktie apparel that caught the eye of new students. Rumor had it that the good professor seldom wore the same neck adornment twice.

Thanks to his wife, a fellow professor who also happens to be a whiz with a sewing machine, that rumor may have been true. I know that each time Mary Boas sewed a new outfit for herself, she used scraps of the same fabric to make a matching bow tie for her husband.

For his recent 15th birthday, Toby inherited two of those ties. Ever since, he’s been trying to learn how to tie them.

These days, the Internet is the place to go when you have a question. The first time Toby asked if we knew how to tie a bow tie my husband and I answered in unison, “Google it.”

But googling didn’t help. Yes, there were several sites offering online instruction. There were even online video demonstrations. But Toby found all of the sites severely lacking in useful direction.

“There are no close ups,” he complained. “And they don’t show you the last step, pulling the tie through the loop.”

In the weeks since Toby’s interest in neckwear piqued, I’ve been on the lookout for local men wearing bow ties. I haven’t found any.

Are bow ties obsolete? Have they gone the way of wind-up watches, cufflinks and aprons?

The world today is faster paced than it was 50 years ago. We’ve come to expect - even demand - immediate gratification. When a webpage takes more than three seconds to load, we’re annoyed. If the TV remote doesn’t work, we grumble and press the button repeatedly rather than get up to switch channels. We dine on prepackaged foods, frequent drive-thru restaurants and opt for digital over manual whenever it’s available.

Even our language has been abbreviated to make quick work of conversation. Acronyms like LOL, BRB and ASAP have become part of the collective lexicon. It’s not surprising that a simple act like tying a bow tie has gone the way of lace up shoes, handwritten letters and rotary phones.

All take too much time and are no longer necessary.

Teenagers wishing to emulate a grandparent by mirroring their fashion style have it tough. High school curriculum doesn’t offer a Men’s Fashions of Early 20th Century or a Bow Tie Tying 101 class.

But tried and true techniques of learning old tricks still exist.

In between homework, after school and volunteer activities and helping out around the house, Toby finds time to stand in front of a mirror and practice. And, as the old adage says - practice does make perfect.

Toby’s latest attempt elicited rave reviews from his father and I.

“I think you’ve got it!” we cried, as he stood before us looking rather dashing in black pants, a dress shirt and suit jacket.

His bow tie was sharply snapped and evenly tied.

Toby’s grandfather would have been very proud.