Monday, November 24, 2008

Simply living: The ebb and flow of life on lake over the years

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 24, 2008)

Every night like clockwork, an osprey roosts on our lake. When I say "on" our lake, I mean that almost literally.

To explain, I have to go back seven years.

In 2001, Central Florida experienced the final year of what turned out to be a three-year drought. Water levels everywhere had dropped dramatically. Throughout the region, shorelines receded and sections of formerly submerged lake bottom were suddenly exposed.

The water shortage was particularly noticeable on our small lake, which was created when peat was mined from boggy areas years before we bought the property. Even in times of abundant rainfall, some areas of the lake are surprisingly shallow, while others are extremely deep.

During the 2001 drought, our family watched as an island of peat began to appear directly in front of our house about 100 feet off the shoreline. By that time water levels had dropped by about eight feet.

We knew the peat island existed because we had discovered it while swimming and boating. However, prior to 2001, the landmass was entirely submerged. During times of normal rainfall, my husband could swim out to the island, hold his breath, go underwater and stand on the peat. When he did, those of us watching would only see his fingertips stretched up above his head.

All that changed with the drought. Suddenly, large portions of the peat island were exposed. We weren't the only ones to notice the change. Otters, turtles and alligators discovered the island and a pair of sandhill cranes ultimately claimed it as their own. The cranes built a nest and proceeded to raise a family on the soggy strip of heavy, black earth.

Shortly after the crane baby grew up, rain began to fall. Water levels started to rise. The turtles and alligators found other places to bask in the sun, and the otters disappeared completely. Dry times were over. However, before everything reverted to how it once was, our oldest son pounded a tall bamboo pole into the peat island.

Seven years later, the bamboo pole remains. It marked the spot during high winds and hurricanes, through other droughts and times of abundant rainfall. These days, about a 5-foot length of the inch-diameter pole rises from the waterline. The cane must have caught the eye of a passing osprey because one day while I was cleaning up after dinner, I noticed the bird sitting upon it.

"There's an osprey on the bamboo pole in the middle of the lake," I yelled to my husband, Ralph, as I ran to get the binoculars.

Apparently, ospreys don't elicit the same degree of passion in all people. My husband reacted to my burst of wildlife-directed enthusiasm with a monosyllabic grunt.

"That's nice, dear," he seemed to say.

Fortunately, I had enough enthusiasm for us both. An osprey had chosen our lake to spend the night! How cool was that?

"Maybe he'll return," I reasoned. "And, if he likes it, maybe he'll stay and build a nest."

I've always hoped someday an osprey would discover our lake and build a nest here. Suddenly it seemed possible --even likely -- that would happen.

It did happen, sort of. Every day since, the osprey arrives at dusk to perch on the tip of the bamboo pole. Each morning at dawn, he flies off to places unknown. I love that an osprey has finally discovered our lake but wonder why he doesn't stay.

"I bet he would build a nest and stay if he had a platform," I mentioned to Ralph one day. "Could you build him a platform?"

Ralph could and he did. A few days later, I rowed my agreeable and capable husband out to the middle of the lake so he could pound a new pole into the peat island. This pole -- the same height and a few feet away from the other -- has a 9-square-foot wooden board mounted on its top. I could hardly wait to see what would happen next.

What happened was nothing. The osprey kept coming back but he has not, as far as I know, shown any interest whatsoever in Ralph's clever construction.

Was the experiment a failure? No. The osprey has yet to discover the platform's merits but another bird has. Each morning, shortly after the osprey leaves, a lesser blue heron flies in and lands on the plywood. Throughout the day, the heron stands there doing whatever lesser blue herons do when they're not out hunting for food.

I wish I could report that the osprey has built a nest and is raising a family in the middle of our lake, but that is not how it turned out -- at least not yet. I'm still hopeful that one day some bird will decide a platform rising five feet above the water is an ideal nesting spot. Until that happens, I'm sharing a lake I love with two large water birds who seem to love it too. That alone is reason to smile.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The beauty of a compost pile is that anything can happen

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 17, 2008)

About four months ago, my husband, Ralph, and I built a new compost pile. The cinder-block depository for our family's table scraps and yard waste is set into a hillside and, because I can see it from my office window, I didn't want the structure to be ugly.

After digging out a 16-square-foot section and stacking the blocks in a squared-off "U," I surrounded the gray edifice with colorful flowers. I planted a coral-colored hibiscus and tri-colored impatiens in the ground while pots of ivy, pink chrysanthemums and a jade plant were set strategically around the sides.

Thanks to the flowers, a few small statues and some solar lights, an area that could have been an eyesore became an attractive focal point instead. It's soothing to sit in my office and gaze up the hill at the cheerful blooms and garden art.

A few weeks ago when I went out to dump the day's kitchen waste, I noticed some young sprouts popping up amid the scattering of eggshells, apple cores and leafy remains of prior meals.

At first, I wasn't sure what kind of plants they were, but, a few days later, when the first pairs of leaves appeared, it was obvious that the pile was supporting a healthy crop of young papaya, impatiens and tomato plants.

I love volunteer plants. We humans think we're so essential, but plants that pop up unexpectedly put us in our place.

"We don't need your help," they seem to say. "We're doing just fine on our own."

Whether blown by the wind, carried on animal fur or sprouted out of food deposited in a compost pile, volunteer plants are the epitome of independence. Often more robust than their store-bought counterparts, these self-sown wonders of the plant kingdom stretch toward the sun with unbridled determination to live and thrive.

With so many seeds sprouting in my compost pile, I had some decisions to make. Should I leave them alone, move them to a real garden, bury them under a stinky slosh or pull the sprouts out?

I couldn't make up my mind, so for several days I did nothing at all. Well, not exactly nothing. When I took out the compost, I carefully avoided dumping the waste on the sprouts.

However, as more days passed and the young plants grew larger, less space was left to dump the compost. Then I realized one tomato plant had grown considerably larger than the rest.

"Ah-ha!" I thought. "Survival of the fittest." My decision was made.

Leaving the tall plant alone, I pulled out the small tomato sprouts and packed a heavy mulch of grass clippings around the big guy.

I pulled out the sprouting papayas but kept the impatiens. I can never have enough flowers but my need for more papaya trees is limited.

Another week has passed and my volunteer tomato looks better than ever. To support its leggy limbs, I've encircled the plant with four slender bamboo poles and supplemented the soil with a thicker layer of mulch. Someday soon I should be able to dump household scraps in the compost pile and walk back home with fresh-picked tomatoes.

Beauty and utility, practicality and whimsy -- who can say which belongs where? There's no rule book for creating a home landscape. It's up to each of us to decide how we want our yards to look.

After years with a purely functional compost pile, I'm delighted to finally have one that is pretty as well as practical.

Compost pile or garden? It's hard to tell the difference and sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Those crazy red birds - they've turned windows into battle zones

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 10, 2008)

I'm surrounded by crazy red birds.

There's one by the kitchen bay window and another pecking on the narrow glass in the hall. A third guards the double-hung above the laundry sink while a fourth has claimed the picture window in my old office.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.

Return a few minutes later.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away again.

The house windows have become battle zones. Their reflective surfaces are ground zero -- sites for constant attacks. Welcome to what I call TDS, Territorial Domination Season, the time of year when male birds demonstrate supremacy by smacking their heads against glass panes to scare away their reflections.

These fierce fighters of feathery fortitude have no idea they're engaged in unnecessary battles. The bright-colored, brash, ostentatious birds don't realize the perceived intruders are themselves.

"Silly bird," I tell a cardinal whose face is pressed against the kitchen window. "Your battle is futile. Save your energy for other struggles, real struggles yet to come."

He doesn't listen. Even if he could, my words wouldn't resonate. Birds are driven by instincts so strong they defy logic and empirical evidence. So what if -- after being repeatedly pecked -- the enemy returns whenever the cardinal looks at the window. To the cardinal there's a foe. That's all that matters.

It's hard to ignore a bird when it intentionally flies into your window. This year cardinals are the culprits, but a few years back our house was surrounded by male towhees equally determined to defend their territory.

I learned during the towhee period that if a male bird is set on bashing his head against a window there's little a person can do to thwart those efforts. Curtains and window shades are useless. Taping pieces of newspaper to the interior glass doesn't work either. For a while, I thought keeping the window open might help, but ultimately it didn't. The birds merely moved to stationary parts of the windowpane while bugs took advantage of the openings.

In the past 16 years, I've become rather possessive of wildlife in my area. When birds repeatedly smack their tiny heads against the windowpanes, I wonder about their health. Do their crazy actions result in headaches? How about concussions? Do birds get stunned?

In North America, more than 100 million birds die from head strikes each year, according to the Bird Conservation Network and other wildlife authorities. Many others suffer head traumas, fractures and internal bleeding. Most of those deaths come when birds mistakenly fly into windows but some, like the cardinals in my yard, meet their demise while defending territory from their own reflections.

Why do birds persist in such painful, pointless and possibly fatal behavior? The answer in one word is: testosterone.

During spring and autumn, certain male birds experience what scientists call gonadal recrudescence. Surging male hormones send a message to the bird's brain. "Fight!" it shouts. "Defend your turf! Strut your stuff! Stop intruders!"

It's a good thing people aren't like that. Wait a minute . . . maybe we are.

We may not peck repeatedly at our reflections in glass, but at times we fly off the handle, act irrationally and engage in combat against perceived enemies. We humans like to think we're above such basic instincts, but in reality we're as affected by hormonal surges as our feathery friends.

You don't have to look further than a sporting field, gaming board or video console to find testosterone-filled warriors defending turf they've designated as their own or engaged in combat against supposed enemies. Sports and video games may be harmless ways of venting aggression, but what about more serious outlets for surging hormones?

Consider domestic violence, road rage or, dare I say, war?

Every season has its pluses and minuses, and I suppose one minus of Territorial Domination Season is the unnecessary war that male birds wage against themselves.

Short of covering the outside of my windowpanes, my only choice is to accept the unacceptable.

I can do that with birds, but how about with people?

TAP. TAP. TAP. I don't think so.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Your one vote counts in this election: I learned the hard way

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 3, 2008)

Tomorrow is Election Day, and I hope you're planning to vote. This year's presidential race looks like it is going to be close. Your one vote may really help to get the candidate of your choice elected.

What? You doubt whether your one vote makes that much difference?

Think again. Speaking from personal experience, I know just how important one vote can be.

The year was 1968. I was a junior at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pa. It was election time for the student council and I -- a wispy young thing with strong principles and plenty of optimism -- was running for vice president.

My opponent was Jeffrey Lipps and neither of us was a part of the "in crowd." We were both good but not great students and, although we shared a moderate amount of involvement in school clubs, neither of us was particularly athletic or super-popular. I cannot remember why I decided to run for office, but I imagine it was because of a perceived injustice. I was the kind of kid who found it practically impossible to sit idly by when I thought something was not fair.

My campaign included handmade signs, posters hung in the hall and a speech before the student body -- a little more than 1,000 kids -- that caused my stomach to do flip-flops and my mouth to go dry.

After what seemed like an endless campaign, Election Day finally arrived. It was time to cast our votes for the students who would become the next school leaders. I don't recall where we voted -- in homeroom at our desks or in voting booths in the auditorium. What I do remember -- and this is one of those vivid memories etched onto my mental hard drive -- was the strong feeling I had immediately prior to casting my vote.

"Voting for myself would demonstrate pomposity," my still-maturing 16-year-old mind reasoned.

The fair and equitable thing to do would be to vote for my opponent. It would demonstrate strength of character, moral impartiality and plain, old-fashioned good neighborliness. It was the high moral ground that led to success.

Wrong. It led straight to defeat.

I lost the election. Jeffrey Lipps won. And it wasn't as though he won by a landslide. If he had, the entire episode might have been easier to accept. No, when the votes were tallied, my honorable opponent won by a single vote. My vote. My freely given, selfless (translation: STUPID) show of camaraderie was the deciding factor that enabled my opponent to win the election.

We learn many things in high school that stay with us forever. The lessons I learned during my junior year running for office remain with me today. Every time I enter a voting booth to cast my ballot for a public official, a little voice inside my head whispers, "Remember high school: Every vote matters."

While I hope my candidate wins the 2008 presidential election, I have no idea who will be victorious. One thing I'm pretty sure of though: when John McCain and Barack Obama step into their respective voting booths to cast their ballots, neither one will do what I did so many years ago and vote for his opponent.

It may have been shortsighted or unwise for a 16-year-old to vote for her opponent in 1968, but in 2008 an equally foolish move would be to stay home and not vote at all. Get out there tomorrow and exercise your constitutional right. Cast a vote. No one should be indifferent when one vote -- one single vote -- can make all the difference in the world.