Monday, April 25, 2011

Dueling Vines

A wall of jasmine covers a large section of the clay wall
Simply Living

Two flowering vines are competing for my attention.  Japanese honeysuckle and Confederate jasmine are both blooming right now.  Cloying aromas fill the air.  In our yard, both plants grow next to each other on the clay wall, about 40 feet away from the wisteria, which stopped flowering just before the others began.  When I walk outside and take a whiff, it’s impossible to tell which fragrance is which. 

I’ve always liked vines.  In addition to their enticing scents, I find vines inspiring.  They offer so much potential.  Filled with strength and determination, these botanical climbers twine upward, stretching toward the sky.  Wispy tendrils wind around whatever material is handy in a steadfast quest for support and height.  Their movement is compelling.  Even when vines sprawl on the ground, they do so with abandon. 

“Mine!  Mine!”  They seem to exclaim, “The world is my banquet!” 

A vine’s hunger for real estate is insatiable.  If something nearby is climbable, the vine is right on it.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a tree or trellis, wall or woodpile.  As long as there’s something to cling to, instincts kick in and a steady rise upward and outward begins.

Often, that rise is a vine’s undoing.    

An overly ambitious climber might warrant removal.  Several years ago, my son and I painstakingly tore out a solid wall of passionflower vine, which I had foolishly started from a single small plant.  I did the same with wild morning glory, another equally aggressive grower.

Both vines thrived along the clay wall.  They liked it so much they proceeded to sprawl across the wall and up the hill like out of control steamrollers.  However, instead of flattening every living thing in sight, the vines embraced them with smothering hugs.   

That’s the problem with some vines.  Their very nature gets them in trouble. 

I have an uneasy feeling that past mistakes are about to be repeated.  The problem isn’t with the honeysuckle or even the more aggressive jasmine vines.  It’s with the wisteria.  The wisteria took off this year as if injected with growth hormones.  Pumped up and on the run, it’s become the Barry Bonds of botanicals.

From my office, I look out at the clay wall.  To the right I see the wisteria, no longer blooming but lush with verdant foliage.  It fills about a 30-foot-long stretch.  To the left is a 20-foot expanse of Confederate jasmine, the white star-like flowers aromatic and full.  Both vines have managed to encompass large swaths of land while the less aggressive honeysuckle has stayed in small islands of resistance. 

“Don’t let us die!” honeysuckle vines seem to cry.  “Don’t let us be buried beneath botanical bullies.” 

It has happened before.  Neither Mexican flame vine, coral honeysuckle nor cypress vine could hold their own against more dominant climbers.  The phrase, “survival of the fittest,” usually refers to animals but it applies just as easily to plants.

My intention with the clay wall has always been to see it covered by a succession of flowers.  I envision a wall of color and different scents, one bloom and fragrance fading into another as months go by. 

Unfortunately, it hasn’t exactly worked out as planned.

Apparently, vines don’t coexist as harmoniously as I had hoped they would.  Each species is greedy for as much square footage as it can grab.  In that way, I suppose vines are like people.  They want their space and their neighbor’s space too.  Harmonious succession?  They could care less!  Cooperative interaction?  I don’t think so! 

That’s too bad because vines have so much potential.  Then again, so do people.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Discovering DVR allows more time for nature

THE BIG BANG THEORY -- One of the shows Sherry Boas likes to DVR -- Brainy best friends Leonard (Johnny Galecki, right) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons, left), can tell you anything you want to know about quantum physics, but when it comes to dealing with everyday life here on earth, they're lost in the cosmos. Neither fully understands that scientific principles don't always apply in matters of the heart - until they meet their sexy new neighbor, Penny (Kaley Cuoco, center), a friendly screenwriter/waitress from the Midwest who also happens to be newly single.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 18, 2011)
The television industry calls digital-video recorders "time-shifting" devices but to me, a DVR is a stress-busting time-management tool that makes modern life just a little bit easier.

A few months ago, our home became one of the 46 million TV-watching households in the United States that use some sort of digital–video-recording device. Many have a standalone DVR like TiVo added to their cable television package. A few others record television shows directly onto their computer hard drive. Because Ralph and I live outside of any cable provider's territory and since the technology to marry television to computer is still in the courtship stage, we joined group three: consumers who use a set-top box with a built-in DVR purchased through their satellite provider.

Our new unit looks very much like the satellite receiver it replaced. My capable, thrift-conscious husband installed the unit himself with help from the satellite company's telephone support staff. When he finished, we sat down in the living room and picked up the remote.

I am not the most tech-savvy person. I can't count how many times I've struggled to find the desired button on various devices. I expected the usual confusing configuration when we picked up the new DVR remote but was pleased to find it surprisingly straightforward. Even I, a reluctant learner when it comes to any new gadget, figured out how to use the remote in a matter of minutes. Button arrangement is sensible and intuitively designed. Moreover, the unit's capabilities are impressive. We can select in advance which programs we want to watch and the DVR will record them even when the television is turned off. We can choose to record individual programs or weekly shows and can even program the unit to record only new episodes instead of repeats of any previous recordings.

I had heard many good things about DVRs before we got ours but I had no idea this new technology would have such a positive impact on our lives. I realize now that prior to having a DVR, one of the things I unconsciously structured my day around was television viewing. If a show I wanted to see was scheduled for a specific time, I made a point to be home then even if doing so was inconvenient. I often stayed up too late to watch something interesting and I missed many programs altogether because they ran the same time as another show or when I was unavailable to watch. Thanks to the digital-video recorder, those situations no longer occur.

Our little set-top box has made convenience paramount. I watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. I no longer have to be home at a certain hour or swap sleep time for entertainment time. An additional benefit is the ability to shorten my TV time by fast-forwarding through commercials. Advertisers may not like this feature but I love it. The DVR has enabled me to reclaim control over television viewing.

However, as good as a digital-video recorder is, it is not perfect. The system is unable to correctly record programs that have delayed start times due to breaking news or sporting-event overtime. Also, for some inexplicable reason, one of the buttons on the living-room remote control doesn't work. The bedroom unit works fine but the mute button on the living room remote is dysfunctional. Tech support's explanation was a verbal shrug. "The remote doesn't work the same way on all televisions," the technician explained. "There's nothing we can do."

These are small glitches in an otherwise well-designed system.

Raving about a DVR may seem out of character for someone focused on appreciating the simple things in life but the reality is our set top-box has helped me enjoy my surroundings with a less-stressed attitude. It has allowed me to have a more regular sleep pattern and to spend more time outside enjoying nature.

Set the timer. Let the recording begin!

Monday, April 11, 2011

What's a stinkbug taste like? Don't ask!

Two brown marmorated stinkbugs mate on an unripe mulberry

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 11, 2011)

Stinkbugs are a malodorous lot. But, as bad as they smell, they taste even worse. I know this because I have eaten them, though not intentionally.

My experience with stinkbugs involves mulberries and the gluttonous way I pick and eat fresh fruit. When I'm picking, I can't stop eating. I pluck one ripe morsel after another, popping them into my mouth with abandon.

Unfortunately, on numerous occasions, an unobserved insect taints the taste. Stinkbugs like mulberries, too, and because these half-inch-long bugs can quickly move from one side of a berry to another, they are quite easy to overlook when picking fruit.

What's not easy is getting rid of the spit-it-out-immediately sensation that happens as soon as stinkbug meets mouth. In a word: Horrific! Imagine a mouthful of rancid oil mixed with the numbing sensation of Novocain. That description doesn't do justice to the stinkbug's powerful punch.

Indigenous to Asia, the brown marmorated stinkbug slipped into the Western Hemisphere less than 15 years ago. These agricultural pests, which were discovered in Allentown, Pa., wasted no time sucking the juices out of fruit, vegetables, flowers and farm products throughout North America.

I can't remember exactly when stinkbugs began feeding on our mulberries, but we've had them long enough to make their avoidance part of our mulberry-eating experience. When we pick berries at our house, we put on shoes to avoid fire ant bites, wear old clothes in case of stains and do our best not to inadvertently ingest stinkbugs. The trick is to slow down enough in the eating process to examine each berry BEFORE ingestion. That's my undoing. I'm not nearly as careful or patient as I should be.

The oh-so-unpleasant odor is the creature's defense. It's hard to be critical of any animal's desire to protect itself from danger. If I were about to be consumed by a giant predator, I'd do my best to scare my enemy away, too. For a stinkbug, defense comes in the form of a scent gland in its thorax between its first and second pair of legs. When punctured, crushed or in some other way threatened, the gland produces a substance that smells (and tastes) foul.

Although stinkbug infestations are a growing problem for farmers concerned about crop damage, this winged insect poses no threat to humans. Stinkbugs don't sting, bite or harbor diseases. As long as people refrain from handling or eating them, they will never experience the insect's pungent odor.

I accept the existence of this malodorous pest as just another obstacle to overcome in the quest for nature's sweetness. Sometimes in life, we bite into more than we can (or want) to chew. The stinkbug's scent is a gagging reminder that gluttony is not a desirable path in the search for goodness and that sometimes it's best to take things slow, pick cleanly and proceed toward our goals with patience instead of an overwhelming desire for more.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Pause before plunging? Kingfishers do!

Perched on a bamboo pole in the middle of the lake, a belted kingfisher takes time to survey its surroundings before plunging into the water after another meal

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 3, 2011)

Belted kingfishers are busy birds. They spend a good part of their day pursuing food. Small fish, dragonfly larvae and water bugs are fair game for these year-round residents of Central Florida.

I've been having fun watching one particular kingfisher that has claimed our lake as its private watering hole. From my porch-side perch, I can observe the kingfisher on its own perch, a bamboo pole that sticks out of a submerged peat island.

Like ospreys, herons and cormorants, the belted kingfisher uses that airy vantage point to scope out its surroundings. This bluish-gray bird with a white belly, white neckband and oversized head employs keen eyesight to survey an underwater smorgasbord.

The kingfisher is an exceptional hunter. When diving, it swiftly navigates through the top 18 inches of water to capture prey. Its long, pointy beak minimizes splash while maximizing speed. Its beak is such an aerodynamic appendix that many Japanese bullet trains mimic its design. Its eyes are also special. It has a transparent third eyelid, and its lenses function both under water and above.

The other day, I watched as the kingfisher dive-bombed one hapless prey after another. Each time, the crest-headed bird chose a target before plunging headfirst into the shimmering depths. Within seconds, it returned to the perch with its catch clamped in its pointy beak. Before eating — great gulps taken with an uplifted head — the bird killed its prey by repeatedly banging it against the bamboo cane.

As fascinating as it is to learn about the kingfisher's habits and watch it hunt, my favorite thing about this frequently observed water bird is its distinctive call. Scientists describe a kingfisher vocalization as a rattling cry, but I think of it more as a beckoning trill. Whenever I hear it, I stop what I'm doing and look around until I locate the source. If I'm lucky, I catch sight of the bird while it's flying. Belted kingfishers often vocalize on wing when they're about to take yet another headfirst plunge into the water.

I don't know where my kingfisher lives, but I'm excited to find out. Kingfishers nest in deep burrows along the edges of lakes and rivers. They often share their tunneled abodes with swallows. Along the banks of our lake are many potential nest sites in vertical walls of clay, kaolin and sand. In some places, bored holes already exist. For a long time I've wondered what animals made those holes. Now I realize that at least one of those holes could be a kingfisher's home.

Kingfisher courtship happens in springtime. The male bird woos a potential mate by trying to feed her a freshly caught fish. If she accepts his culinary advances, the birds mate, build a nest and raise a family. Often they raise several families. During one nesting season, a single pair of kingfishers can produce three sets of offspring.

Kingfishers are monogamous and remain together throughout the breeding season. They also share much of the work of parenting.  During daylight hours, the male relieves his mate by sitting on their brood of five to 10 eggs, but at night the female takes over. Eggs hatch in 20 days. That's when the real work begins.

A brood of hatchlings requires more than 100 fish a day. Fortunately, both parents pitch in. They feed their young by regurgitating fish and aquatic invertebrates into the opened mouths of their hungry horde. It's no wonder the kingfisher is seldom idle. Parenting babies is demanding work.

The belted kingfisher may be a busy bird, but taking time — making time — in my own busy day to watch its exploits has the surprising effect of calming me down. Worries dissipate as I sit near the water's edge, snapping off photos. Tensions ease as I listen to the belted kingfisher's trilling call and watch it survey the landscape from its bamboo perch.

It's hard to spend as much time as I'd like doing things that make me happy, but sometimes a bit of self-indulgence is worth the effort. Even a busy bird like the belted kingfisher takes time between fishing ventures to digest its food and consider its surroundings. Only then does it take another plunge. Shouldn't people be able to do the same?