Saturday, December 31, 2011

Your choice...

I wrote this poem in 2002 but it continues to represent my feelings for the New Year... 


An optimist and pessimist await the New Year Hour
One with eager smile, one's expression sour.

The pessimist looks back and groans, "Time goes by so fast!"
The optimist looks back and grins, "More memories to last!"

The pessimist recalls the debts, the dollars thrown away.
The optimist recalls the gains, the values earned each day.

The pessimist sees struggles fought, times that trouble crossed.
The optimist sees each success and respects the cost.

The pessimist looks back and sighs, "I should have not done that."
The optimist: "How much I've learned..."  And gives himself a pat.

The pessimist says, "What a year!  I've never known such woe."
The optimist says, "What a year! ...Amazing how we grow."

One with eyes so used to seeing problems every day.
One with eyes so used to seeking out a better way.

An optimist and pessimist await the New Year Hour
One with eager smile, one's expression sour.

And when the midnight chime does ring both turn to look ahead
The optimist with hope and dreams, the pessimist with dread.

So pour a toast and raise a glass.  Take a drink until
Your glass reflects the year ahead:  Half empty or half full.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A new year = a new chance for successful sandhill crane nests

Roosting cranes prepare to spend the night on a tiny spit of land submerged beneath a thin sheet of water.

Simply Living

December 26, 2011
We haven't had a significant rain in weeks and because of that, the level of water in our lake has gradually decreased. Islands of peat and sand that are normally submerged have begun to appear.

I'm not the only one to notice. A pair of sandhill cranes has returned, flying in every evening to roost on one of the tiny spits of land surrounded by shallow water.

For years, the seasonal islands in our lake have been the preferred nesting spot for a pair of sandhill cranes. Like many birds, sandhill cranes return to the same nesting places annually. In our lake, their chosen spot is always an island, a minuscule land mass a short distance offshore.

It's a precarious choice.

If the weather cooperates and rainfall is limited, the lake level will continue to drop and the islands will stay visible and viable for nest building. However, if sudden downpours happen and precipitation increases, the water level will gradually rise. The islands (including any nests and eggs) will disappear beneath a blanket of waves.

The sandhill cranes don't seem to mind the insecurity of their nesting site. Instinct tells them to return to the spot where they've nested before so that's what they do. Even though previous nests have been lost when water levels rose, an inner voice commands and they dutifully follow.

Earlier this year I watched as the birds — most likely the same two frequenting the lake today — industriously built a tidy nest of sticks and reeds on spit of land a few feet off the northern shoreline. First one then two eggs appeared. The adult birds diligently guarded their nest but no amount of care or avian protection could prevent rain from falling. In April 2011, water levels rose steadily until one day the nest vanished, submerging the eggs in a watery grave.

Two sandhill crane eggs as seen a few days before they disappeared beneath rising water in our lake last April.

It surprises me that the birds don't remember. If they did, I would think they'd try harder to find a different spot to raise their young. As Ralph and I walked around the lake, we passed several large masses of peat and sand that had recently appeared. The two cranes, however, hadn't chosen one of those islands for their nightly roost. The only visible parts of the still-submerged isle they selected were a few reeds poking above the quiet water.

Change happens quickly.

If it doesn't rain for a few more days, more land will appear. If we have a dry winter and if the birds decide to stay and build a nest, the eggs they lay will have a good chance of surviving.

That's a lot of ifs.

Nature is nothing if not full of surprises. I find it surprising that the sandhill cranes have returned to the same place they have nested before and equally surprising that they've timed their arrival exactly when the water level is low enough for submerged islands to appear. But perhaps most surprising of all is the resurgence of hope their arrival triggers.

Despite past disappointments, I'm optimistic that this time around nest building will be successful for the sandhill cranes. I'm hopeful that any eggs they lay will live, and any chicks that are born will survive.

We're on the cusp of a new year. I can't think of a more appropriate time for a flush of irrational optimism.

The sandhill cranes act on instinct, but they're not the only ones listening to an inner voice.

My instinct tells me to be ever hopeful, to see things in a positive light and wish for the best. Like the birds attempting to nest in our lake, I'm not always successful but that doesn't stop me from hatching hopes anew.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Journaling...a noteworthy effort

An inexpensive monthly planner works well as a journal as long as you have a fine-tipped pen and small handwriting.
Simply Living
December 19, 2011

At the end of December, I enter reflection mode. I flip back through the pages of my journal to review annual goals and consider our accomplishments. Each turn of the page triggers memories. I remember the good times, the bad times and everything in between.

I've been our family's record keeper for more than four decades. During some of those years, my journaling efforts were sparse to nonexistent, but since 2000, I've been a diligent recorder of daily doings.

Each month, I post a family review on the computer, but every day I use good old-fashioned paper and pen to jot down the most important information. My journal is a monthly planner that looks like a thin book. Two pages span each month with small squares allotted for every day.

My writing is tiny. It has to be in order to fit even the most rudimentary reporting into the inch-by-inch blocks. A pen with a fine point is necessary, and when I have more to say than will fit, I turn the book sideways and write in the margins.

Record keeping is essential when you get to a certain age. Without a written log, I'd have no idea when we converted our youngest child's bedroom into a kitchen pantry, planted a stand of yin-yang bamboo across from my office window, bought a new-to-me car or did any of a number of small and large accomplishments.

Even when young, it's difficult to remember milestones. When my grandchildren were born, I encouraged their mothers, my two daughters, to keep journals.

"You think you'll remember when the babies first turned over, sat up or had their first belly laugh," I told them. "But you won't. Unless you write stuff like that down, you'll forget. You'll be too busy or too tired. That's just the way it is."

In addition to keeping track of day-to-day events, on the inside back page of my planner I keep a list of yearly goals. I learned years ago that one of the best ways to accomplish dreams is to spell them out, review them regularly and check each one off when completed. It's a simple but effective system. Ralph and I didn't accomplish all our goals for 2011, but a check-mark and date stands next to many.

Oddly enough, one of the most noteworthy of our 2011 accomplishments didn't take any effort by Ralph or me at all. It wasn't on our list of goals and it came about as a complete surprise — at least to us. In 2011, our number of grandchildren quadrupled, from one to four. Our daughter Jenny had twin girls in August, and just a few days ago, our oldest child, Amber, gave birth to her second child and first daughter.

December is, and perhaps always will be, a time for reflection. It's a heady feeling reviewing a year. As I leaf through the inked-in pages in my inexpensive planner, I'm amazed how a few words in a notebook can trigger a flood of memories. Like all years, 2011 was a mixture of positives and negatives. There were difficulties and frustrations, times of anxiety, worry and loss. Fortunately, there were also many days of gladness, unexpected wonders and unbridled joy.

It doesn't matter what form record keeping takes — an online blog, scribbles in a loose-leaf notebook or tiny printing in the blocks of a calendar. The important thing to remember is just that: to remember.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Vines are...divine!

Blue sky vine beautifies a chain link fence
Simply Living
December 12, 2011

I love vines.

I love their tenacity and reckless abandon. I love the way they march onward and upward despite minimal care and attention.

I find their variations in fragrance, color and delicate beauty appealing. I see vines growing in wild places or in other people's yards, and I want them. They captivate and entice me.

Fortunately, I'm learning to resist.

Vines have a way of taking over. It's in their nature. If you are prepared and willing to put the time and effort into reining them in, then cultivating vines is a worthy occupation. They can look lovely crawling over an arbor, trellis or pergola, and they work well at hiding an unattractive wall or object. Vines add beauty to a hanging basket and do a good job as a ground cover. However, if you are unable to regularly monitor and control their growth, a pretty little vine can turn into a pretty big problem.

I've made the mistake of planting vines and watching them grow out of control on numerous occasions. I've done it with wild morning glory, purple and white wisteria, passionflower, cypress vine and Dutchman's pipevine. In each case, what started as a snip — a tiny cutting gleaned from a larger plant — turned into a rambling monster over the course of a summer.

Part of the problem is that vines know no bounds. When you plant a broccoli seedling or an impatiens plant, it grows bigger and broader but never wanders. It stays put — a concept that doesn't mesh with the word "vine."

A vine's essence is to grow up, stretch out, sprawl sideways. It does whatever it can to extend its range as far away from the initial root as possible. Some vines do their climbing with help from tendrils, while others twine or use aerial rootlets. Whatever the method, the result is expansive growth far beyond where the plant was originally established.

Pruning is necessary to keep vines in check.

When it comes to vines, I also require a certain amount of restraint. I need to prune back my predilection to cultivate more vines than I have time or energy to control.

Recently, I've found myself coveting a blue sky vine that grows along the entry fence to a home on one of the back roads I frequent. Every time I drive by, I feel a yearning. I want that vine! Its flowers are such a beautiful shade of blue. It looks so pretty along the fence.

If I stopped and asked, I'm sure the homeowners wouldn't object to my taking a clipping, snipping off a little segment to plant at my own home. But if I got a clipping, what then? Once it was rooted, where would I place it? Would it grow out of control as so many other vines have done? Would it become a problem?

It probably would.

Before I add any new vines to the landscape, I need a plan, a place for them to grow and a means to control them when — not if — they start to grow out of bounds.

I have a solution, at least in my mind.

I envision a series of arbors in a long row. The arbors would form a tunnel that I could walk through and on each one, a different vine would climb and twine. The arbors would be separate so that the plants couldn't intermingle. Mowing the ground between them would keep them contained.

I love vines but I'm trying hard to resist the urge to add more to the landscape. Someday I might get a snip of that lovely blue sky vine but I've promised myself it won't be until all the necessary infrastructure is in place and I have the time and inclination to keep the vine in check.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Firespike adds festive touch to garden

A cloudless sulfur butterfly sips nectar from a firespike bloom

Simply Living
December 5, 2011

During December when brown leathery sycamore leaves are covering the ground and orange tangerines dangle from citrus trees like ornaments, the waxy red blooms of firespike add a festive glow to the garden.

Firespike, botanically known as Odontonema strictum, is an herbaceous perennial with foot-long spikes of showy flowers extending out of glossy foliage. Standing about 6 feet tall in shrubby clumps, this South American native is a wonderful addition to the landscape because it doubles both as an easy-to-grow bush and a wildlife magnet to butterflies and hummingbirds.

I can't remember when I first discovered the firespike plant or where my original cutting came from but this late-summer-through-winter bloomer has been adding color to my garden palette for years. Because it is so tall, firespike does best as a background plant where it can stretch upward without overshadowing shorter plants.

On several occasions, I've made the mistake of placing it in the wrong spot but I've managed to dig up and move plants without problems. That's because firespike is resilient. This drought-tolerant perennial will happily grow in sunny as well as shady locations and is easily propagated by divisions, cuttings or sometimes even by sticking a clipped off branch into the ground.

One has to wonder if a plant this easy to propagate is invasive. Fortunately, the answer is 'No.' Although it readily reseeds, sprouts don't emerge far from the mother plant so it doesn't spread out of control. New shoots merely increase the bush's girth.

Firespike's waxy red blooms, born in clusters along foot-long stems, make great cut flowers. They look especially nice in bouquets with Mexican sunflowers, another late-season blossom. I'm not alone in finding firespike attractive. Many species of butterflies like them as well. Cloudless sulfur butterflies are especially fond of this winter source of nectar. On a sunny day, several of the white-to-pale-yellow flutterers hover around a bush as if awaiting entry to a popular eatery.

Hummingbirds come to dine, too. Individual flowers have thin tubes with fluted rims that seem ready made to accommodate a hummingbird's bill. The blooms are also a brilliant candy-cane red, a color hummers find most attractive.

If you're thinking firespike sounds like the perfect plant, you're not far off. In addition to its tolerance of either shade or sunlight, firespike accepts a variety of soil conditions. It does well in sandy, loamy or even clay soil and doesn't suffer when pruned back during the growing season.

However, like most things that seem too good to be true, firespike has an imperfection: It can't tolerate cold. For the past three winters, freezing temperatures have killed back the top growth on every one of my bushes. Although the roots don't die and the plants rebound the next year, their sensitivity to cold leaves me, well, in the cold.

A single failing, however, can't spoil my enjoyment of this seasonal beauty. If firespike makes December a bit more festive and then fades away when freezing weather hits, so be it. Sometimes it's the tiny flaws that make us appreciate beauty, and the inevitable fade only makes the present more special.