Friday, July 18, 2008

Yes! In my backyard!

I'm continually amazed by the variety of wildlife I'm able to see in my little corner of suburbia. It's not like we live in an area away from the town that backs onto a forest—no, there's a strip mall one block away, and we're half a mile away from a major road that has department and grocery stores, all known fast-food chains, and of course the only IKEA store within several hundred miles. So I'm not kidding when I say we live in the middle of suburbia.

I try to do my part, of course. Besides the corner gardens, I maintain a few bird feeders year round. We get loads of house sparrows and mourning doves every season, and plenty of robins and grackles in the spring. The seed feeders bring in house finches and goldfinches (although the latter have been sparse this year), and the occasional dark-eyed junco. Our huge corkscrew willow tree attracts woodpeckers every once in a while. My favorite birds are the cardinals. Not only are they pretty, they have interesting songs. They are sassy birds; they love to tease our cats by perching near the window, seemingly within reach. I'll see whole families by our feeder; red males, brown females, and the juveniles with their brown feathers and beaks that are starting to turn red.

We get some interesting guests every once in a while. At least once every spring, we get a pair of mallards in our yard. The female will quack and quack, as if nagging the male: "I told you we should have stopped and asked for directions!" Of course, the cats find our duck visitors extremely interesting.

Earlier this spring, the term "birdfeeder" took on an added dimension when we saw a raptor visit. We were attracted by the cat staring into the back yard, as usual; then Boy asked, "That's not a mourning dove, is it?" I looked up and saw something similar in color to a mourning dove fly off with a sparrow in its claws. Checking my bird book, I decided it was either a sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper's hawk, both of which have rusty chests and gray backs. The next week I saw more evidence of a raptor visit: the remnants of a grackle, including beak, claws, and a few entrails left behind when I closed my window and scared off the visitor. I think the raptors may be nesting near our subdivision's clubhouse, a few blocks away; they have a stand of trees next to the road and there are several skeletal ash trees which give perfect views for a raptor. I took a walk earlier this week and saw three perched in the top branches, but unfortunately I didn't have my camera. I won't make that mistake again.

I have to give a lot of credit for the variety of suburban wildlife in our area to our township government. Although there has been an astounding amount of development in this area over the past 15 years, they have made an effort to retain some natural areas. There are a couple of wetland areas preserved in between subdivisions; these and several catch ponds in the area attract great egrets and great blue herons. We often see these huge, graceful birds flying around, or fishing in ponds. The township just opened a walk/bike trail they're developing around the local river network, and there are yearly events to clean up and monitor local creeks. Here is the creek that runs through our subdivision, behind the elementary school, and through the large commons area that's a great place for a morning walk. You can see the manicured lawns in the distance, but there's also a long portion that's allowed to grow naturally—the source of our duck visitors. When I went for a walk this morning, I took my camera, hoping to catch the raptors perched in their tree. What I saw instead, while passing the culvert that passes under the main road of our sub, was a very startled (and too quick to be photographed) muskrat!* I guess life will find a way, even in suburbia. Lucky for me—yet more ways to avoid Chapter 17 ... I'm doing research, yeah, that's it. If I'm going to build my own world, I need to observe the natural world around me. At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

*So I was checking Wikipedia to make sure it was a muskrat and not some other kind of aquatic mammal, and came across this nugget in the entry: "Lenten dinners serving muskrat are traditional in parts of Michigan." What the?!?!? What part of Michigan is that?!? I know Wiki can be unreliable, but this sounds too weird to be true. Looking at their sources, though, they cite an article from the Michigan Catholic in which the Archdiocese of Detroit confirms that "there is a long-standing permission—dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s—to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent." (The reasoning: muskrats swim, therefore they are like fish.) I guess muskrat does not taste like chicken, however, but like duck. There's my weird fact for the day.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A tomato by any other name....

Ah, summer. When it's not so hot that I want to find a small dark cave and estivate* until fall, I do like to spend time in my corner gardens. I finally got around to doing a little weeding, and I deadheaded my irises, so the beds look pretty neat right now. It's blooming time for my roses, daylilies (both orange and magenta), several varieties of hardy geraniums, snapdragons (many of which have sprouted and spread from last year's seeds), oriental lilies, hollyhocks, a bicolor butterfly bush, and a red honeysuckle that intertwines with a dark purple clematis. Even my shady astilbe plants are blooming, and as a bonus my lavender is in full flower, enchanting both my nose and the local bees.

Right now, however, my favorite plant is the beauty in the photo above. I got it through the marching band's annual plant sale; I'd never bought a tomato plant bigger than a 4" pot before, so I was astounded by the size of this one (a 12" pot, I think) when I first got it. I barely had enough room to transplant it into this container. I added a little sunshine and water, and now I'm getting a bonanza of cherry tomatoes. As a bonus, they're 100% organic (no pesticides needed, only a birdfeeder) and completely salmonella-free. Plus, they taste about 1000 times better than what you get in the store.

So while flowers are a delight for the eyes and nose, they can't quite match the appeal of a healthy, heavily laden tomato plant. I think next year I'll need to get another container and double my output. I've still got a little bit of room on the deck.

*Word nerd alert: You can only hibernate in the winter, as is obvious from the root, the Latin hibernus, which means "winter." If you're going to sleep through the summer, the proper verb is estivate; the adjective form would be "teenaged."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Life Lessons from the Lions

[Removes bag from head.] Hi, everyone. My name is Diane, and I'm a Detroit Lions fan. I can't help it; it's how I was raised. It's pretty miserable, being a Lions fan. During my lifetime (42 seasons), the Lions have won exactly one playoff game. (At least it was against the Cowboys.) They've only had 12 winning seasons, and four of those were before I was in kindergarten and knew what football was. Since 2001, the Puddytats have a scintillating record of 31-81, which I believe is the worst in the NFL. Bad coaching, bad draft picks, bad management, bad play—I've seen it all. Even the franchise can't ignore how bad they've been; their current marketing slogan for the season is "Claim a piece of the future" (... because we don't want you to think about the past).

So yes, the Lions suck. And yet, each fall Sunday I turn on the TV to watch. I pay attention to the draft, I read free agent reports in the paper, I believe the players when they say this year will be different. I love football, so why not switch my allegiance to a team with some chance of making the playoffs? Part of it is probably due to stubbornness. But part of it is also due to being a hopeless optimist. Each September, I really do believe that maybe they finally have the right coach/quarterback/defense to finally become a winning team. I often have to give up my delusions by October, but every season I hold out hope for something different.

This stubborn optimism is proving very useful as I seek publication for my creative writing. Here's the latest piece of bad news: a rejection of a picture book manuscript I've been working on for the last five or six years. This isn't what they call a "champagne rejection"—the kind where they turn you down, but praise your writing and invite you to try something different—but it's slightly better than a form letter. The editor made an effort to personalize the rejection, remembering the conference we both attended, and she didn't say the manuscript was unsuitable because it stunk.

So, I'm out of the playoffs for this season. Time to find another editor/publisher, take the field, and see how they like it. I'm a hopeless optimist. I'm a Lions fan, and I'm too stubborn to give up.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Photo of the Week--7/7/08

We had a very busy year of travel in 1999. Although we took the extended family to Italy in January, at the end of February we were ready to leave again. London is further north than Michigan, despite its temperate climate, and we were desperate for some sunshine. David had a school break and Malta was the perfect place to spend a week. Our travel agent thought we were out of our minds, as most Brits go there for the beaches and average temps in February are in the 60s, but we found so much more there. Beautiful Mediterranean seas (Malta is just south of Sicily) and landscapes; incredible architecture from the Middle Ages; and prehistoric buildings like this one, the Temples of Mnajdra. The site dates to around 3700 BC, almost six thousand years old, and has chambers with various astronomical purposes. I liked this photo because it summarized much of what we loved about this trip: beautiful weather, the sea, and intriguing sites that aren't overrun by tourists. It's definitely a place I'd love to revisit.