Monday, November 30, 2009

A little bird told me … wake up!

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 30, 2009)

For a small bird, the Carolina wren has a big voice. "Tsk ... tsk ... tsk ... tsk ... tsk," it scolds in a deep bellow that belies its diminutive size.

For several weeks I've awakened to the songs and chatterings of these buff-colored birds with the distinctive white stripe above their beady black eyes.

"Do you know what's making that noise?" I asked Ralph one morning while we were still in bed.

"A frog?" he suggested, "or some kind of cricket?"

"Nope," I said as I slipped out from under the covers and walked to the porch. "It's a bird — a tiny bird with a loud mouth."

Sure enough, I spotted a female wren hopping from the lower limbs of a crape myrtle to the protective cover provided by a bed of yellow-flowered wedelia.

Although it weighs less than nine dimes, a Carolina wren is a powerhouse of activity. From dawn till dusk, these adaptable dwellers of farms, fields and gardens scour the ground and lower limbs of bushes and trees in search of the foods they like best — insects, spiders and the occasional berry.

From years of observing these charming chirpers, I've concluded that they rarely partake in any activity without a good deal of vocalization. What I didn't realize is that while females chatter, only the male birds sing. Males fill the air with a steady stream of high-pitched, whistled melodies while their female counterparts engage in a series of repetitive mutterings.

Scientists who have studied captive Carolina wrens have documented as many as 3,000 different songs by a single male in a day. With such a strong desire for self-expression, it's no wonder I find myself roused in the early morning by a bird-song serenade.

Carolina wrens are terrestrial creatures that tend to use their wings more for assistance when hopping over large objects than for actual flying. When they are not busy building their beautifully woven cavelike nests, these mate-for-life birds expend considerable energy defending their territory and warning each other of potential dangers.

In addition to the ever-present threat posed by domestic cats, predators of the adult birds include blue jays, hawks and owls. Because the parents prefer nesting sites less than 10 feet off the ground, the oval-shaped eggs are particularly vulnerable. Squirrels, raccoons, snakes and fox all feed on the cream-colored, brown spotted ova.

Although Carolina wrens are notorious for their loud songs and persistent chattering, they are also famous for their unusual nests. No abandoned article of clothing or footwear is safe from these clever weavers of twigs, weeds and found materials. Carolina wrens are just as likely to build their nests in a forgotten pair of boots, the pocket of an old shirt or an upturned garden hat as they are to use natural settings such as an old stump or a tangle of vines. I've discovered their handiwork on a shelf in our garage, inside a flowerpot filled with rain lilies and in the hollow belly of an old mailbox.

Lately I've been wondering if nest building is on the mind of the bird that has been waking me each morning from my slumber. There is a definite pattern to its beseeching cries. The sounds begin about the same time each day, come from the same part of the yard and are intoned with the same sense of insistence and urgency. If I wasn't still so tired during this daily deluge of avian verbosity, I might follow the bird and figure out what it is doing.

Most mornings, however, I'm too sleepy for all that. It's all I can manage to pull the covers over my head, nestle into the pillow and strive to re-enter a dreamlike state. Unfortunately, that tactic is rarely successful. Although I admire the little chirpers that inhabit my yard, their admonishments for my sluggish behavior inevitably drift into my sleep-muffled head.

"Tsk … tsk … tsk …," they seem to say. "It's time to get up."

Who needs an alarm clock when you have a back yard filled with birds?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thank you, dear readers, for being there

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 23, 2009)

Thank you … two little words I don't say as often as I should. In the spirit of the upcoming holiday, I'm devoting today's column to words of appreciation. I'm addressing you, my reader, to thank you for being there, to thank you for listening.

I've always been a person who writes. From childhood on, my most comfortable means of expressing thoughts, feelings and observations has been the written word. I grew up in a picturesque setting in Pennsylvania that primed the pump of my imagination. The poems and essays that flowed from the wellspring of my youth were filled with ponderings and pronouncements inspired by the world at my doorstep.

Although I left Yardley years ago, I never outgrew my love of nature. The wonders of the world around me still fill me with awe. Over the years, I've poured out my feelings through stories, songs, poems and essays. For the past three years, I've been grateful to have a vehicle — my column — to share my thoughts and observations with you.

I am especially grateful to everyone who has supported my efforts. So many people have taken the time to send e-mails or to call and share personal experiences that often mirrored the subjects of my writing. Occasionally you have asked me to speak to groups, and at those times I've been able to meet you in person. As a writer who works from home, I find such meetings to be a rare delight with special meaning.

Recently, I published my first book, Rowing Through The Mist: The Everyday Pleasures of Simply Living. This 164-page collection of 42 essays and 43 photographs focuses on the things I know and love best —nature, family life and the changing seasons. Although publishing a book has been a lifelong goal, I plan for this book to be the first of many. My mind overflows with thoughts and ideas. There are many more words waiting to be written, printed and shared.

In these difficult economic times, when so many people are hurting financially and emotionally, it is especially important to remember the goodness. From birdsongs to sunsets and everything in between, we live in a world surrounded by beauty. Even in the darkest of nights, there are shooting stars to brighten our outlook, spark our imagination and encourage our wonder.

For me, the magic lies not in the blatant glare of the latest techno-toy but in the everyday treasures we tend to overlook. I see it as my job — and what a wonderful job it is — to focus attention on those simple pleasures, the little things in life that help us regain our perspective and improve our mood.

Because of you, my reader, I am encouraged to continue finding ways to express that magic. Your response to my writing has been a most generous gift, and it's now my turn to return the favor. So, in honor of Thanksgiving, a holiday dedicated to expressing appreciation, I offer my most heartfelt thanks. Without readers, a writer is a silent voice. You give me the means to make myself heard, and for that I am humbly and most sincerely grateful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Cow encounter is unexpected and unforgettable

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 15, 2009)

I'm always on the lookout for wildlife. I look for snakes and turtles, rabbits and armadillos, raccoons, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and birds of every shape and color. Whenever I walk into my kitchen, I find myself peering out a bay window that offers a long view of the yard, a path through the woods and the untamed acres beyond. I look because that vantage point has often rewarded me with wildlife sightings.

That's what I did the other day. Ralph was taking his midday siesta, which enabled me to anticipate some quiet "alone time" in the kitchen. My plan was to fix a nice lunch and eat at the kitchen table while sipping tea and reading Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. It was a good plan, but it never happened. When I entered the kitchen, I did my usual glance out the window, and what I saw put everything else on hold.

Two cows were grazing about 25 feet away from the house. Although Ralph and I raise dozens of different bamboo, raising bovine is not part of the picture. We have no livestock, and ever since our dog and cat died a few years ago, we don't even have pets. Therefore, you can imagine my surprise when I saw not one but two large farm animals using our yard as if it were their private pasture.

I put my novel down, picked up the camera and entered "wildlife photographer" mode. The cattle — one a brown-and-white female and the other a jet-black male that appeared to be the female's calf — seemed indifferent to my presence. Their big, round eyes focused on the sudden surplus of succulent greenery as I surreptitiously followed. My digital camera clicked away as the cows munched their way up the hill and down the narrow path above the clay wall that borders our driveway.

The female was definitely in charge. Her youthful counterpart trailed with a timorous curiosity. At one point when I approached too close, the black calf became spooked. After fixing me with a gaze that seemed to say, "How dare you come so near!" he bounded off in a gangling trot. The calf caught up to his food-fixated parent who, by that time, had moved on to a greener patch of weedy grass.

Long ago, in our pre-children days, Ralph and I raised a few chickens and a small herd of goats, but neither of us have had experience with larger livestock. I didn't grow up riding horses, and, before this encounter, the closest I'd ever been to cattle was when I interviewed Bay Lake resident Stephanie Copper for a 2004 Orlando Sentinel article. Copper, who is something of a cow whisperer, regularly sings and talks to her small herd of Barzona beef cattle. During the interview, I watched in amazement as the blond cowgirl communed with her tail-swishing charges. She even introduced me to an imposing bull that responded to her caresses with an indulgent patience that bordered on love.

I can't say I love cattle, but I did love chancing upon a bovine moment in my own backyard. The cows, who must have escaped from a neighbor's herd, seemed equally delighted with their own discovery. The adage, "The grass is greener on the other side of the fence," kept coming to mind as I watched the grazing duo meander from one patch of tall grass to another.

I tagged along for about 15 minutes before returning home to my own midday meal. I was still in the kitchen a short time later when a loud crunching sound caught my attention. The cattle were striding across the lawn right next to the house, their hoofed feet crushing the fallen sycamore leaves.

Although I'm used to seeing wildlife through the kitchen window, the sight of two cows right next to the house threw me for a loop. Just when I thought my days couldn't get any crazier, stray cattle appeared from out of nowhere to graze on my front lawn. The whole episode reinforced my belief in expecting the unexpected. It also made me rethink the phrase "wildlife encounter." Perhaps wildlife "en-cow-nter" would be a more appropriate spelling. However it's spelled, my midday interaction was a moo-ving experience that was udderly (sorry about that) unforgettable.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fight litter with fines

(First appeared in Orlando Sentienl November 8, 2009)

The road to my house is trashed. Plastic bags, fast-food containers and a random assortment of tossed-away items line the county-maintained, two-lane road that takes me home.

I recently returned from a weekend trip to southeastern Pennsylvania, where roadsides were surprisingly free of litter. With my host in the driver's seat, I was able to enjoy the view instead of concentrating on street signs and directions. What I saw as we traveled through one small town after another were pretty houses, harvested fields and neat yards. What I didn't see were plastic bags drifting across those fields, snagged on fences or fluttering from tree limbs. I didn't see piles of used tires stacked along streets, nor did I see the remains of yesterday's pick-up-and-go lunch.

In Florida, a more appropriate label for such fast-food fare would be a pick-up-and-throw meal, because so many residents of the Sunshine State treat the landscape like their personal landfill. When a beer can is empty, a cheeseburger consumed or a soda slurped, car windows get rolled down and those empty bottles, bags, cans, cups, straws, papers, plastics and cigarette butts get thrown away to join all the other litter lining our state's large and small roads. That seems to be the misguided mind-set of many Florida residents.

The curbed roadsides in small Pennsylvania towns such as Newtown, Yardley, New Hope and Wycombe didn't act as open-air receptacles for broken beer bottles or smashed soda cans. Even in Allentown, a small city (population 107,200) that's five times bigger than Leesburg, litter was a non-issue.

I wish it were a non-issue in Florida.

Crews from Lake County's public-works department spent much of October mowing the tall grasses that border the county-maintained roads. I watched as mowers hacked back months of overgrown weeds and untamed grasses. Unfortunately, while neatening the roadside, the machines chopped up and spewed massive amounts of trash. Hidden beneath the tall growth was a season's worth of garbage, and since mower blades can't differentiate between Bahia grass and broken glass, they scattered both.

I suppose that the remains of yesterday's fast-food lunch will decompose faster if shredded, but that doesn't make it any less of an eyesore. A drive down our county's roads is a portrait in ugliness, thanks to the inconsiderate actions of our fellow citizens.

Lake County has so much beauty. Our waterways, hills and small towns have a distinctive look unmatched by any other Florida county, yet we allow that beauty to be marred by litter.

Is it possible to change the way people act? How can we make litterbugs aware that what they do is wrong? Perhaps we can start by enforcing the existing Florida Litter Law, which carries community-service hours plus fines of $50 to $1,000, depending on the amount of trash dumped illegally.

Anyone who has received a ticket for going 55 in a 40 mph zone knows how effective speed traps can be. Driving habits change quickly when speeders face payment of hefty fines. Why not apply that same logic to litter? If police departments were to actively engage in an anti-littering campaign, not only would towns have a sudden source of new income but litterers also would quickly learn to stop breaking laws. If everyone who was used to flicking spent cigarettes out of car windows or throwing beer cans on the ground knew they stood a good chance of being fined, I bet we'd see a significant reduction in the amount of litter.

Or, we can continue to do nothing.

We can continue to tolerate the bad habits of others. We can let ugliness and inconsiderateness rule. When it comes right down to it, it's up to us — people who care enough to say, "This must stop." After all, litter is not going to go away by itself. Adopt-a-Road programs help, but they don't do enough. The only way to rein in the downpour of debris flooding our roads is to attack litterers where they are most vulnerable — in their wallets.

Fining litterbugs would be fine by me.

Monday, November 2, 2009

An overdue bloom


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 2, 2009)

My Mexican sunflowers are finally blooming. It sure took them long enough. Tithonia diversifolia must be one of the pokiest plants around. Although the buds started swelling a few weeks ago, the large, daisy-like blossoms only began appearing at the end of October. Drive through any neighborhood and you’re bound to notice a few of the tall, bushy plants peeking over fences and along property lines. The flowers, when they finally open, look like giant golden daisies. The bushes often tops out around 15-feet, tall enough to tower over hibiscus, oleanders and other ornamental shrubs.

I like Mexican sunflowers because the flowers are so cheery and because they attract a number of butterflies and bees. What I don’t like about them is how difficult they are to properly place in the landscape. I’d probably feel differently if tithonia bloomed for a longer time or looked more attractive when it wasn’t flowering. It would also help if the cold didn’t kill it back every year reducing the bush to an unruly skeleton of gawky stalks. Until the buds turn into flowers, tithonia is an ugly plant. It’s tall and leggy with rough, hairy stems and broad, unattractive leaves. In its pre-bloom state – which is most of the year - it looks more like a huge weed than an ornamental perennial. In some ways, that’s exactly what it is.

I planted my first Mexican sunflower near the house but Ralph was never happy with that location.

“Can’t you move it somewhere else?” he repeatedly asked. “How about someplace where it can sprawl without being in the way of the mower?”

My practical husband had a point. The tall stalks have a tendency to lean over, touch the ground and re-root. That’s a fine attribute for small plants but not such a positive trait when you’re talking about a 12- to 15-foot tall shrub that grows equally as broad.

Our son, Timmy, took Ralph’s suggestion to heart and relocated several tithonias to a spot alongside his vegetable garden. Unfortunately, Timmy then moved away, leaving the plants (and his abandoned vegetable garden) for us to tend.

“They’re still in the way,” Ralph remarked one day when the mower was attempting to whack that area back into a semblance of order.

I’d like to relocate the existing plants to a place on the property where they can sprawl as much as they want. In my ideal world, that spot would be within sight of my front porch so I can look out the windows and enjoy the massive clusters of golden blooms but it wouldn’t be in the forefront. I don’t want to look out and see the plant most of the year when it is not flowering and I especially don’t want it to be front and center after the first frost when whatever blooms remain have withered up and fallen off.

“How about planting it across the lake,” I suggested the other day. “That way, I could look out the windows and still see it but it won’t be in the way of the mower.”

Ralph agreed that the other side of the lake might be a good spot. All we have to do is cut back the existing clumps, dig them up and replant them on the other side of the lake in enriched soil. It’s a good idea but not something we’re going to do right now when the tithonias are finally covered in blooms.

I hope we get to it this winter. After years of growing Mexican sunflowers in the wrong place, it would be nice to finally get it right.