Thursday, May 16, 2019

Reading The Pioneers in place, and reading my place in The Pioneers

I was reading David McCullough's new book, The Pioneers, which has become required reading locally because he spent significant time on my campus to research materials in my favorite library and because it deals with the history of this area, exploring the lives of characters hailing from New England (my people! my people!) who led the way toward establishing Marietta as the first organized settlement in the Northwest Territory, and while my response was mixed, I experienced a little frisson of pleasure when I saw my insignificant little creek mentioned right there in print.

There it is on page 250: William Cutler's 1846 journey to Columbus to serve in the state legislature is impeded by a flooded bridge over Big Run, the creek that runs past my property. That bridge has long since been washed out and replaced with a modern highway bridge, but it crossed the creek where it intersects with what has long been the main road following the Muskingum River north, so I should not be surprised that the bridge played a part, however minor, in local history.

And how would I rate McCullough's presentation of that history? Mixed. I keep reminding myself that McCullough is primarily a storyteller, and so I should not be surprised that The Pioneers glosses over some complex issues and relies heavily on cliches (most disturbingly in his portrayal of Native Americans, an issue that has been dealt with in other forums, such as this New York Times review). Any book subtitled "The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West" is going to promote a particular perspective on history. I was delighted to see so many of my colleagues and my favorite librarians warmly credited in the acknowledgements, and I gained a greater sense for the various motivations that led early settlers to bushwhack their way to my neck of the woods. (And I also learned a definition of bushwhack that I'd never before encountered: "to pull a boat upstream from onboard by grasping bushes, rocks, etc.," as puts it.)

I was most surprised by the narrow margin by which Ohio and the Northwest Territory remained free of slavery. McCullough describes Manasseh Cutler's intense struggle to assure that the Northwest Ordinance proscribed slavery from the entire territory, a hard-won victory; and later, he shows how Cutler's son Ephraim diligently worked to make sure Ohio came into the union slavery-free, casting the tie-breaking vote to keep slavery out of the state. Imagine the impact on our nation's history if that vote had gone the other way.

Mostly I was impressed by the way McCullough breathes life into some interesting and little-known characters, like Rufus Putnam and Samuel Hildreth and various members of the Cutler family, all hardy New Englanders who packed their bags with determination, grit, and a fair share of personal flaws before heading for what they considered the howling wilderness. He also briefly brings some more illustrious characters on the scene, like John Quincy Adams, Aaron Burr, and the Marquis de Lafayette, whose name still graces the historic Lafayette Hotel down at the waterfront. 

And of course he mentions my creek, which flowed through this territory long before any Heroic Settlers arrived and will continue to flow long after we're gone. It has seen a lot of history, my little creek, and the book helps me understand the broad outlines of that history even if it skimps a bit on nuance. My creek is just an obstacle that briefly blocks the path of those Heroic Settlers, but I wonder: if Big Run could speak, what kind of story would it tell?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Phoebes, feeding

I'm sitting in my favorite spot in front of the big picture window when a flash of movement catches my attention. It's a phoebe, one of the pair nesting on our front porch, and he's sitting just three feet away on a chunk of firewood holding a small insect in his beak. He bobs his tail up and down and looks around, looks sharply in my direction, and then flies up to the corner to feed his mate on the nest. He repeats this pattern over and over again all day long, disappearing only when I step outside--and even then he stays nearby, usually within sight of the nest. 

The female tends to stay on the nest as long as I'm not doing anything loud nearby, but earlier today both of them fled when I had to fill the birdfeeders. The bin holding all our birdseed is located directly beneath the phoebe's nest so I couldn't get to the birdseed without disturbing the birds. I probably ought to ask one of the men to move the birdseed bin until the phoebes finish with the nest.

I keep trying to get decent photos of the phoebe sitting on the nest, but the nest is in a poorly lit spot and getting too close startles the bird. From inside I can get photos of the other phoebe through the window, but I have to be careful to avoid glare and reflection lest I end up with a photo of myself taking a photo. I want to see phoebes, not inadvertent selfies. But patience pays off: I sit very still with the camera aimed and focused and I want for the phoebe to land in his usual spot. It takes a while, but there he is--click! I get a photo, and the phoebes get fed.
He's holding a small winged insect in his beak.

Do the phoebes find me as interesting as I find them?

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Quite a spectacle if you know where to look

Last week we marveled at the roomful of exotic orchids at Longwood Gardens; this morning I found several species of orchids growing wild in my neck of the woods. My eagle-eyed husband saw the tiny rattlesnake plantain orchid leaves nearly hidden alongside the path plus another variety I can't identify just getting ready to blossom, and I found some blooming showy orchis (galearis spectabilis, quite a spectacle if you know where to look), which provided the identification for yesterday's mystery plant. We also saw lots of jack-in-the-pulpit and some oddball species that don't tend to show up in formal gardens, like a tall grass producing spiky pods and a cluster of squawroot, aka bear corn, a non-photosynthesizing parasite that feeds on oak roots. Spring ephemerals are done but the magnolias are still blooming and I'm sure there's more to come, as long as we keep looking. 

My botany expert identifies this as spotted wintergreen.

Jack in the pulpit

Morning-star sedge?

Showy orchis

Squawroot or bear corn

Rattlesnake plantain orchid.

More magnolia.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Phoebe & me: mostly unfazed

I walked out the front door this morning, said a polite Good morning to the phoebe sitting on the nest under the eaves, and got in my car and drove away. The phoebe didn't even flinch, so maybe we will be able to coexist. We'll see what happens next week when the power people arrive to replace poles and cut down trees.

Meanwhile, I'm back in Jackson, driving here under ominous clouds and with the threat of rain all weekend. It's been three weeks since my last visit to Lake Katharine, so I decided to make a quick stop there for a hike before the storm hit--but I didn't have my hiking shoes with me, so I took the shorter, less steep trail, on the theory that I'd be less likely to fall and cripple myself.

The good news is that those mystery buds I found so fascinating three weeks ago turn out to belong to the umbrella magnolia trees now beautifully in bloom; the bad news is that I can find a way to fall anywhere, so down I slid into the exposed root ball of a fallen tree, ouch. I didn't break anything but I'll be sore in the morning, and I emerged from the woods with my right side covered in dirt.

Since I started visiting Lake Katharine last summer, I keep having variations on the same conversation:

You shouldn't be hiking out there alone! What about the wild animals?  
(Until mosquito season, I'm not too worried--the wild animals in those woods are more afraid of me than I am of them.)  

What about strange people? 
(Strange people are everywhere. Open your eyes.)  

What if you fall? 

(I'll get back up again, unless I can't, in which case I can't imagine a more pleasant place to merge with the earth.)

So today I tested that third question and it turns out that it wasn't quite my time to merge with the earth, although if anyone had been watching I might have wanted to sink down into the mud in sheer embarrassment. It got back up, dusted myself off, and kept walking, mostly unfazed. (The magnolias helped.)

Umbrella magnolias blooming along the Calico Bush trail.

The branches reach far overhead.

Only a few mayapple blossoms remain.

What the heck is this? I found a cluster of them near the Calico Bush trail.

Three-quarters of the way around the trail, a tree fell in the path. Climb over or turn around? I climbed over. Not fun.

Walked down to the lake and up to the waterfall, a great place to sit and think.


Thursday, May 09, 2019

A wish for a boring season

I set off for a walk in the upper meadow this morning, wading through knee-high grass wet with dew, and by the time I came down my pants were soaked through up to the hip. Neither meadow has been mowed this year because the tractor has been out of commission, but this week we learned that the gearbox for the mower deck has been rebuilt, which means we'll have a functioning tractor soon. If you're wondering what it costs to get the gearbox rebuilt for the mower deck on a Kubota tractor, trust me--you don't want to know. It's significantly less expensive than buying a new tractor, although it doesn't necessarily feel that way.

So the meadows are overgrown and hard to navigate, but the birds don't seem to mind. This morning I saw what I believe was a blue-winged warbler, although the photos are too awful to share. I heard a kingfisher down by the creek and saw more blue-eyed Mary growing where I'd never seen it before. I credit the broken tractor: no mowing means more opportunities for stuff to grow.

In the lower meadow the garden plots are also overgrown, but I found four thick asparagus stalks sticking up over the weeds. It makes me sad to forego a vegetable garden again this year, but it's just not possible to maintain a garden while splitting time between two houses. I've put a few herbs in pots and we'll have some tomato plants over in Jackson, but our big garden plots lie fallow for the second year in a row.

Oh, it was just this time last year that a flash flood washed away a chunk of our driveway and our garden shed (with all our garden tools inside), which means it was about this time last year that a deer totaled my car and my nephew died and it felt like everything was falling to pieces. Three years ago next week my mother was dying, and six years ago my first grandchild was being born. Eight years ago my son was graduating from college. Ten years ago next month my daughter was getting married and I was diagnosed with cancer. Seasons of life, right? Somehow, the tragedy of foregoing a vegetable garden pales into insignificance. 

This summer, I think, will be a season of coming and going, waiting for the power company to tear the place up and then seeing what it will take to put it all back together again. No big plans, no life-changing experiences, nothing earth-shattering on the calendar; I have some courses to plan and some writing to work on, but mostly I'll relish sitting back and rolling with whatever comes my way. I hope it's a tremendously boring summer. If the most exciting thing that happens is seeing a blue-winged warbler in the upper meadow, that will be just about my speed.
I love to see spider webs sparkling in the dewy morning.

That S-shape is the path I took walking up the hill.

Red-bellied woodpecker amidst the leaves.

Dandelions just begging for children to blow on them.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

News from the woods

Apparently the world didn't stop turning while we were on vacation: the perfoliate bellwort went ahead and bloomed without me, the trilliums drooped and faded to pink, the rain kept raining and the grass kept growing. In fact, what I've mostly been doing since we got back from our trip is first waiting for the rain to stop and then frantically mowing before it started up again. But today is dry and lovely so I decided it was time to see what's going on in our neck of the woods.

We were surprised to see that birds had built a nest just below the eaves on the front porch, which is kind of a bad spot because the bird skedaddles every time we open the door. Looks like a phoebe, although the poor light makes it hard to be certain. Further over at the corner of the house, the lilac bush that I gave up for dead a decade ago produced many fragrant clusters of blossoms, and all those columbine seed pods I've been tossing onto a slope in the back yard have finally resulted in some blooms.

Down in the woods above the driveway, fire pinks and mayapples are blooming and the wood thrushes are filling the woods with song. I may not see them all season long, but their music beautifies the woodlands. I think I caught a snatch of oriole song in the tulip poplar out front, the one where orioles have been known to nest in the past, but that tree may get cut down this summer when AEP comes to replace electric poles and lines. Nesting orioles will not deter the power company.

On the hillside along the road I saw many shades of blue and violet--blue-eye mary, wild geranium, waterleaf, phlox--plus corn salad, stonecrop, and a riot of Solomon's seal preparing to bloom. Poison ivy and garlic mustard have also returned, alas, and I probably ought to spend some time pulling up the garlic mustard growing along the edges of our property but after all the mowing I did yesterday, my muscles keep begging me to stop, sit, stay.  

Walking up the big horrible hill I saw signs of violent weather: a huge dead tree that used to hang menacingly over the road was torn up down to the root-ball, while up the hill on the other side of the road I saw the remains of fire. Further up a cedar split and one half fell, releasing that distinctive cedar scent to mingle with the honeysuckle.

Up the hill I heard more wood thrushes, prairie warblers, and common yellowthroats, plus turkeys gibbering in the woods. Coming down the hill toward the county bridge over the creek, I sat on the guardrail and watched a yellow warbler flit in the trees and a pair of phoebes perch on the opposite guardrail, dipping down behind it periodically in a way that led me to wonder whether they might have a nest back there.

Back home I found our resident phoebe on the nest out front and I pondered how I can arrange my life to avoid disturbing it. The lock on the back door doesn't work right so we can't just stop using the front door, but I hope we can learn to get along with each other. I doubt that the electric company will leave a problem tree standing just because orioles happen to like it, and likewise I can't abandon my house just to make the birds happy, but for a little while I think I can give nature some space.

chickadee cracks a seed

chipping sparrow

an outcrop of stonecrop

Solomon's seal!

blue-eyed Mary

trilliums on the decline

Greek valerian, I think

Buckeyes! (Watch me start sneezing....)

These phoebes kept ducking down behind the guard-rail.

The nest on our front porch

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Long walk among the lovelies at Longwood Gardens

I probably could have gawked all day at the beautiful things growing at Longwood Gardens (in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania), but we had a date with the Pennsylvania Turnpike so we cut our visit short around 2 p.m. and then drove all stinking day and into the night--and paid heavily for the privilege. I don't object to paying $23 each to walk around Longwood Gardens for a few hours, but paying $33 to drive for hours on a foggy, bumpy, poorly maintained highway seems like a travesty.

We didn't really have time to go to Longwood Gardens but I wanted to decompress after our time in the city, and I also remember how much my mother loved the place. I knew at once what she loved about it--long lanes lined with blossoms, wisteria dangling overhead, a welcoming path through leafy woods, tulips and foxgloves in every shade imaginable and a grotto crowded with columbines reflected in water. I'm sure she loved the orchid room, where some of the blossoms look like the kind of flower a three-year-old with a fresh box of crayons would design, and I know she would have loved my favorite orchid, with simple but elegant butter-yellow blossoms that looked a little like musical notes.

My husband was delighted with the succulents, cacti stretching high overhead or clutching the ground like fallen pinecones, and the man who grows banana trees in Ohio was thrilled to find some in bloom. (Our growing season is too short and cool to allow our banana trees to ever blossom or fruit.) Everywhere we looked, we saw something amazing: pink tulips with blossoms as big as my hand, painted tongue flowers so gaudy they looked like the aftermath of an explosion at a paint factory, pitcher plants and staghorn ferns and a trident maple bonsai with a canopy of three-pointed leaves so perfectly balanced it spoke peace.

I kept wanting to smuggle spectacular specimens in my backpack, but I know I don't have what it takes to maintain that kind of garden: a trained gardening staff, a hefty endowment, and ancestors with the foresight to set aside a huge swath of land and plant amazing things there. But I did have a mom who loved beautiful things, and while I walked through Longwood Gardens I kept wanting to call out Look, Mom--see how pretty! And if she were still with us, she would have kept smiling that gentle smile all the way down the garden path.

A quiet and inviting path through the woods

A white variety of redbud


Columbines--I like the yellow ones best

These tulip blossoms were as big as my hand.

We listened to this catbird run through an incredible repertoire of song.

Cucumber magnolia--huge green buds opening into yellow blossoms.

I want this treehouse.

The Green Wall--just one small piece of it.

Painted tongue.

I don't know what this is.

Note the bird bush in the upper right.

Lollipop bush

Banana tree blossom

Tree fern

Really gaudy orchids

My favorite orchid.

I don't know what this is but I like it.

Trident maple bonsai

Pitcher plants

This tall tree with the green trunk was among the succulents.

More succulents.

He's trying to figure out how to smuggle that cactus home.

I'm glad I don't have to mow those terraces.