Tuesday, October 27, 2015

An album of 'Now and Then' photos!

Our four children gave Ralph and me the most special birthday gift.  It may just be the best birthday gift I've ever received!

Since both of our birthdays are back-to-back - his on October 26, mine on the 27th, we celebrate them together and this year, all of our children came home to celebrate with us.

Although people were in and out for much of the month, because of schedules, there was only one full day when all of us were in the same place at the same time.  Despite the lack of time, Jenny, Amber, Timmy and Toby somehow managed to take a series of very specific pictures that they put together in an album.

What a difference 22 years make!
(From left:  Timmy, Amber, Jenny, Toby)

They weren't any old pictures.  They were pictures that matched ones taken years before when they were little kids still living at home with us.  They assembled the photos side-by-side in an album.  Such fun and creativity!  Thank you Jenny for making it happen and Amber, Toby, and Timmy for taking part.  I love it!

Toby, now and then
When we were all at the beach the other day, I couldn't understand why Toby was sitting there making such a big pile of sand.  I get it now!  

Timmy - 29 years later he's still wearing his own handmade necklaces and hanging out in the water whenever he can

My two boys - Timmy and Toby

"I growed it myself!"  Jenny (and cat) with broccoli from the garden.
Once a gardener, always a gardener!
Amber's turn!  

Baby Jenny with stuffed animal and grown up Jenny with stuffed animal
Gee...34 years have gone by so fast!

Circa 1983ish:  Amber playing 'mama' with her doll
Today:  Amber is a real life mama with two kids of her own, 6-year-old Atom and almost 4-year-old Trillian, who she is holding

Two sisters with books sharing one chair
Note that baby Jenny (and her grown up self) are both holding their book sideways! 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bad rat. Good snake.

We were recently away for a few days. When we got back, I did my usual slow stroll around the gardens. I was pleased to see how well my flowering plants fared in our absence. The only plant in need of water was a container of porterweed. 

Zebra longwing butterfly on porterweed plant

After giving it a good drink, I poured the remainder of the not-quite-empty watering can into a begonia on a plant shelf next to the house.

Surprise! There was something moving in the begonia pot! A rat – yes, a rat – was in the container and it didn’t look pleased to have water poured on its back.

Okay. I’m a country girl. I’m used to critters of all kind. That doesn’t mean I have to like each and every one. I accept rats as part of nature. As long as they live outside and don’t gnaw through any wires or walls, I can accept their presence. But they don’t belong next to the house living – or at least resting comfortably – inside a potted plant in my garden.

What did I do? Well, I didn’t scream. I give myself credit for that. I did back away and call for help.

“Ralph!” I shouted for my husband. “Come see what’s living in my potted begonia.”

“What is it?” he asked before he even got there.

“It’s a rat,” I said, too excited to wait any longer. “See its tail hanging over the outside of the container?”

He did. The rat’s naked pink tail was a good seven inches long. He also saw its body - a large body (this was no cute little mousey) about the size of a squirrel, minus the fluffy tail.

“Do you want me to get rid of it?” he asked as he reached for a stick and as I backed farther and farther away.

Before I had a chance to answer (what could I say except an emphatic YES!?) he poked the rat with the stick.

Whoosh! It ran. And where did it run? Out of the pot, down the plant stand, across the walkway and directly toward where I was standing.

Once again, I was proud of myself for not screaming. It all happened so fast. I simply stood there watching as the rat ran toward my bare feet until it abruptly changed course, veering off into the foliage.

That was good. It was gone. That was bad. It was living somewhere very close to our house. And it probably wasn’t living alone. Like all rodents, rats are prolific breeders. There’s never just one.

So I have a problem. A rat problem. What should I do? I considered my options.

A) I could get a cat. An outdoor cat might solve the rodent problem but it would also kill birds, anoles and frogs. Plus, an outside cat would itself be vulnerable to predators. Been there. Done that. Really don’t want to do it again.

B) I could put down poison. Poison would be an effective control. It works. But it works on other animals too. Animals I don’t want to kill might also eat the poison as might predators that prey upon rats. I don’t really want to use poison unless I absolutely have to.

C) I could cut back plants and clean up the area around the house so there are fewer hiding places for unwanted critters. I’m not sure that will solve the problem but it’s worth doing anyway.

D) I could do nothing and wait to see what happens.

I opted for ‘D.’

A few days have gone by and I haven’t seen any rats. That doesn’t mean they’re gone, but it is a comfort.

However, today, something happened that buoyed my spirits. A fifth option appeared outside the bathroom window. Once again, it began with a shout out to Ralph, “Come see what’s just outside the bathroom window!” 


As my husband entered the room, the snake – a yellow rat snake – slithered over the windowpane and down into the garden.

  “Do you think it’s after the rat?” Ralph asked.

“I don’t know but it sure hope it is,” I replied. I meant it.

Option E) Control the rat population with natural predators. Snakes, owls, hawks and coyotes are among the many animals that hunt rodents. If the rat snake didn’t find our begonia-loving rat, maybe one of the other predators will. This country girl has hope.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Pondering grandparenting...

While waiting in line to pay for my thrift-shop purchases, I struck up a conversation with the person behind me, a tall, slender woman with gray hair accompanied by two small boys.

The boys had that kind of can't-keep-still energy common to male members of the 6-and-under set who are forced to shop for winter coats on a warm autumn afternoon.

We had crossed paths within the store several times, and while I appreciated the patience she displayed as the lads repeatedly eluded her efforts to try on jackets I didn't envy her task.

"You've got your hands full," I said knowingly.

"Sure do," she agreed. "These are my grandson and great-grandson. This one here's the other one's uncle."

"You have a great-grandson!" I exclaimed. "You don't look old enough to have a great-grandchild."

She laughed and said, "I'm in my 60s. I'm 62."

"I'm in my 60s also," I replied, "but my oldest grandchild is about the same age as your boys and I'm 64."

We exchanged a few more words before it was my turn to check out. After paying, I turned back, said goodbye and walked to my car. As I drove home, our brief conversation kept running through my mind. I am two years older than the woman I met yet she already has great-grandchildren. Great grandchildren — the very concept fills me with awe.

Only one of my grandparents was alive when I was a child and since she died before I was 9, my memories of her are vague at best. Because I grew up without really having a grandparent experience, I was pleased knowing that my own children's memories would be different. My first three kids grew up with all four grandparents and although my father-in-law died shortly after my youngest child was born my children were well into their teens and young adulthood when their remaining grandparents passed away.

Years have a way of speeding by. Six years ago, my husband, Ralph, and I became grandparents and within two years our grandchild count totaled four. Although entering the third-generation stage of life happened quickly, the likelihood of us becoming great-grandparents is slim.

A recent picture of our family - three generatons

Ralph and I were married for 10 years before our first child was born and our adult children seem to be following a similar pattern. This doesn't make me sad or disappointed. Amazement is a more apt description of how I feel, especially after meeting someone who has taken such a different path.

Although I've been a grandparent since I was 58, the concept still feels new. There are many times when Ralph and I have looked at each other and wondered how we can possibly be grandparents already when we still feel like kids ourselves. This growing-older thing is an enigma. Time marches on regardless of how we feel about the passing of years.

I'm glad I turned around the other day at the thrift shop to talk with the woman behind me in line. Tapping the opportunity to take a tiny peek into her world helped broaden my own horizons, and if that prompted a little introspective survey of my own history, all the better.

It doesn't really matter if we become parents, grandparents, great-grandparents or go through life without becoming a parent at all. The important thing is not how many progeny we produce but what we choose to do with the one life we have. Our number of offspring pales beside the amount of love, kindness and care we give to others.

No matter how long we live, life is never long enough.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Awkward ibis navigates utility wire

Many birds like to perch on utility wires. I have seen belted kingfishers, mockingbirds, doves and cardinals sitting on the cable that stretches above the brackish pond by our New Smyrna Beach house.

But recently, I saw something different: American white ibises, Eudocimus albus, were on the wire.

Only two of the five birds had stable perches on the utilities pole. Both of those ibises — one adult that was completely white except for black wingtips, and one younger bird, which was a mottled combination of brownish-gray feathers — were busily preening while the remaining flock struggled to find purchase on the utility cable.

Two ibises stands easily on top of utily poles while an immature bird tries to steady himself on the wire

Although the American white ibis often perches and roosts in trees, its two-foot tall body with a three-foot wide wingspan seems too big to balance on such a thin wire. I had come outside that morning to brush my hair, but the incongruity of what I saw on the wire was so striking, I put my hairbrush aside and picked the camera up instead.

The American white ibis is a common bird in Central Florida found in coastal areas to inland regions, where it often probes the ground with its long downward curved orangish beak in search of small prey. It isn’t fussy about where it hunts, frequenting the shallow water of estuaries to overwatered lawns in subdivisions in search of crayfish, crabs, worms, insects, frogs, snakes, fish and snails.

Using their long curved beaks, ibises search for food in a residential yard

Because ibises are social birds, it’s rare to see just one. They travel, feed and roost in flocks that can number in the thousands. The ibises I saw were in a small group of about five birds with a few others flying in every so often.

As I watched, one young ibis stood out. He was trying his darnedest to make his way across the cable to the utility pole where the other two birds already were situated. Awkward as a gawky teen, he swayed unsteadily, tottering back and forth and using his wings for balance as he took one tentative step after another.

Knock-kneed and awkward, a juvenile ibis tries to keep its balance on a utility line

The young ibis was concentrating on his task, and I was concentrating on him. I found his avian tightrope act riveting. While the poor bird’s struggle to maintain balance resulted in an entertaining display of acrobatic antics for me to watch, I doubt if the ibis found it enjoyable.

Watch the ibis navigate the wire

After repeated attempts to get his footing under control, the brownish-gray-feathered bird finally managed to reach the pole where the two other members of his flock contentedly perched. But was he rewarded for his hard work and successful maneuvering with a stable spot to stand?

He was not.

The two ibises already there completely ignored him. They showed no intention to move over or make room for the newcomer to stand. As if that wasn’t disappointing enough, another juvenile ibis standing on the wire close to the pole tried to chase him off by poking him with his beak. Sensing the futility of his efforts, the immature ibis eventually gave up, flying off to land on a dead tree nearby.

Trees make much more stable perches for ibises than telephone wires

My unexpected wildlife encounter was more than just entertainment or a brief peek into American white ibis behaviors. It also made me think. No matter who or what you are — young bird or old person — learning the ways of the world isn’t easy. No matter how hard you try, navigation is often wobbly, unstable and tricky. Even if you manage not to slip or fall, there’s no guarantee you’ll reach your intended target. And sometimes, even when you’re almost there, insurmountable obstacles can force you to give up.

The important thing, however, is that a safe place to settle is often nearby. Getting there may mean a change of plans — sometimes you have to separate from the flock to become the lone bird on a snag — but at least you know you have tried your hardest, done your best and been rewarded with a peaceful place to rest.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Spice up autumn with a squeeze of pinecone ginger

When I give a gentle squeeze to the red ‘cone’ of pinecone ginger, a clear, fragrant liquid seeps out of the plant and onto my hand. It’s not sticky. Rather, it feels fresh and fragrant.

A gentle squeeze releases a an aromatic liquid that feels wonderful when rubbed on skin or hair

If I rub my hands together and inhale deeply, the spicy scent of ginger fills the air. I squeeze a little more juice from the cone to rub onto my arms, face and hair. I like the way it feels on my skin. I’m not alone in appreciating the properties of Zingiber zerumbet. Originally from southeast Asia, pinecone ginger is found in the warm climates of Malaysia, Polynesia, Hawaii, Thailand, China, India and Central America as well as here in Central and South Florida.

Wherever it grows, native people have used the aromatic liquid from the pinecone-shaped bracts to cleanse and condition their hair, which explains why another name for the plant is shampoo ginger.

Here in Central Florida, I think of pinecone ginger as one of many signs of the changing seasons. As temperatures begin to mellow, the plant’s bracts respond by turning from green to red, and one to five small buttery-colored flowers appear on the bract’s upper rim. With tall stalks, broad leaves and the tendency to grow in clumps, pinecone ginger provides a tropical look to the landscape. The red pinecone bracts even make long-lasting and attractive cut flowers.

A solitary bract of pinecone ginger in a vase surrounded by cuttings from two other plants

I began adding pinecone gingers to our landscape too long ago to remember when we planted our first roots. What I do remember is frequently dividing our initial plantings. Because ginger grows from rhizomes, it’s easy to propagate by division. A shovelful taken from the edge of a clump can be transplanted to another location without doing much more than tamping down the soil and giving it a good soak.

On our property, we have pinecone ginger growing in a variety of settings. It surrounds the base of trees in the woods and grows down the slopes of hills. Although it seems to prefer slightly shady locations, it does well in sunny spots too. It is not bothered by pests and, once established, requires no attention other than admiration for its beauty.

A stand of pinecone ginger growing in partial shade beneath a crepe myrtle tree

The only disadvantage to adding pinecone ginger to the landscape is that its beauty is fleeting. The pinecone bracts that begin to turn red in September will last only until the first cold spell. Top growth is killed back when temperatures dip into the 20s. Leaves, stalks and bracts turn brown and fall over onto the ground. Underground growth, however, remains unharmed. When temperatures warm in the spring, tiny new ginger shoots begin to pop through the soil and quickly grow several feet tall. It’s fun to watch as the plant develops into a tall, attractive and aromatic landscape feature.

While the buttery-colored flowers are already in bloom, the pinecone-shaped bract is just beginning to turn red

While the fragrant liquid inside the bracts of pinecone ginger is the only part of the plant I’ve had experience using, many cultures have used the rhizomes for a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. The grated rhizomes add a spicy zest to a many recipes. In Southeast Asian folk medicine, extracts of the rhizomes treat problems such as worm infestations, inflammation and diarrhea. In traditional Chinese culture, rhizomes are masticated in alcohol to use as a tonic or stimulant. In India, rhizomes softened through cooking are applied to ease the pain of toothaches while native Hawaiians use the softened rhizomes to treat headaches.

Pinecone ginger makes a colorful, fragrant and useful addition to the landscape

I like non-fussy plants that are not only fragrant and beautiful but also easy to grow, a cinch to propagate and resistant to disease. I like them even more when they have so many useful functions. Whether I admire the cut bracts in a vase on my kitchen counter or enjoy the spicy scent as I rub the clear liquid onto my skin, pinecone ginger is a plant I’m glad I grow.