Saturday, March 31, 2012

Still the "before" stage

At least someone likes the bamboo...

It's called yard work, I remind myself. Not "yard play." Not "fun for everyone."


And believe me, I've been working. My husband just suggested that after dinner we watch an old Doctor Who episode called "Seeds of Doom," about an alien plant that triggers all the normal, earthly plants to run amok, until, without the Doctor's help, the world would have been taken over by an invading army of leaves, vines, stems and runners. A very appropriate choice, under the circumstances.

The recent bout of unnaturally warm weather has, like that alien seed, triggered an explosion of growth in my yard, and, as the best that can be said about it is that it is a neglected weed-infested disaster area of invasive plants and eyesores, means one thing: work, work, and more work.

My first project is one I call "Operation Raised Beds." There are four raised beds, surrounded by weed-infested gravel, to the side of my house, which I think would make an excellent place to grow vegetables and herbs, and maybe some sun-loving native plants.

This is what it looked like when we moved in at the end of last May:

I did try to whack it back a few times over the season, but since it was too late to plant much of anything, I mostly let nature take its course. I was curious to see what would pop up. Well, the course that nature chose to take was pretty ugly, so this year I am trying to get things in hand before it gets to that point. My plan is to dig everything out of the raised beds (even the things that were kind of's clean sweep time), and start from scratch, and also to address the weed problem by putting some landscaping mesh down under the gravel. The previous owners did not do this step.

Of course, before putting the mesh down, there is the matter of moving the gravel around.

Holy hernias, Batman! Of course, after the gravel has been moved (and all the weeds pulled out by their noxious roots), and the mesh laid down, well...then one has to shift the gravel back onto the path, right?

The fitness world is full of "extreme" workouts, like Insanity, P90X, Crossfit...those that only the bravest and most dedicated of fitness buffs attempt. I am not such a person. I would never attempt a workout called "Insanity." want an insane upper body workout? Then try shoveling gravel. For a couple of hours. Just saying.

Meanwhile, while I have been toiling like a convict, the bamboo behind the house has been going crazy.

Look at that crap coming back! Like I never cut it down!

No really...look at it! Arghh!!!

And I have a new nemesis. I think of it spreading beneath the ground, taking over the whole yard---taking over the whole town!--and my heart beats with a black and putrid hatred. The bamboo doesn't know it's an offensive, invasive plant. It just wants to live and thrive. And I care not a whit. I plan its demise, and rub my hands with glee. Mwa-ha-ha! So who is the arch-villain here, me or the bamboo?

My favorite arch-villain: The Monarch from The Venture Brothers

In his contribution to the yard work, last weekend Greenturtle did his best to dig out some of the bamboo. I do believe his exact words were, "We're f*@ked!" As I described in a post last summer, bamboo is a wacky sort of plant. Although it grows as high as a tree, it's actually a grass, and spreads by means of underground runners...which are very hard and not at all easy to dig out of the ground. I keep saying we need a Bobcat....

The underground runners in the light of day

He's right...we're screwed.

When he wasn't trying to dig out the bamboo, Greenturtle tackled an even more alien addition to the garden:

At least that one finally came out.

OK, it didn't go quite as far as down as the bowels of hell...

I am chronicling all this so that when my final Avian Haven has been created...the lovely, bird-friendly backyard of my dreams...I can look at the evidence of all this work and pat myself heartily on the back.

Providing I can still lift my arm that far when I'm done that is.

Anyone else busy with yard work these days?

Friday, March 30, 2012

Garden buddy

I didn't have a bad day. Nothing went wrong; it's pretty much been a good week, a whole good month, really. Except for the unusually warm weather, which has put the growing season about a month ahead, and my labors in my garden about a month behind. Things are growing and sprouting and blooming way faster than I can keep up with them. Not that I'm complaining about some warmth and sunshine, but I just don't believe that we ever get something for nothing. Anything good must be paid for. If it's 80 degrees in March, what on earth will July hold?

Have you ever had a time in your life where nothing was wrong...but, somehow, at the same time, nothing felt quite right, either? Of course, I am still adjusting to my new job, my commute to Decatur, the whole new routine. And with all the yard work, with the profusion of weeds created by the hot spring weather, I have had scant time to bird, which is my usual retreat from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

But even so, as I shoveled and scraped at my raised beds today, a very special bird came to me.

Everywhere I dug, it followed, bolder and closer than I ever would have expected, looking for worms and grubs in the earth exposed by my shovel. At one point, as I pulled up a stubborn knot of plants that must go, I uncovered a particularly disgusting fat, white, wriggling grub, and tossed it towards my little friend, who immediately ran forward and ate it as if it were the most delicious repast.

My little companion soon started to endear itself to me, so much so that I retreated to get the camera to take some photos and let it scramble about in peace for a half hour while I took a break.

As I snapped photo after photo, amazed at how this engaging little bird was so oblivious to my presence, I began to see the common American robin in an entirely different way. Have you ever stared at a printed word so long -- a simple, average little word like "quick" or "slop" or "ever" (this trick works better with short words) -- until it started to look weird, until you had somehow become estranged from the link between form and meaning and even wondered, just for a moment, if you were spelling it right or if it was even a word?

I find that I can do that with just about anything, look at it so long that I really start to see it as if for the first time. Like this robin, how often do I notice the white ring around the eyes, the black and white stripes under the throat?

The scalloped pattern on the feathers of its orange breast....

The perfection of a tiny foot....

The black at the tip of its beak...

Of course, if you keep your eyes open, beauty is everywhere.

Thank you, little robin, for reminding me to look.

Friday, March 23, 2012

More fear of birds

Since I now have a 45 minute (each way) commute to my new job, I have been amusing myself by listening to audio books I check out from the library, the best of which (so far) has been Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman (HarperTorch, 2006). The story (which I highly recommend if you enjoy fantasy or just have a sense of whimsy) is about "Fat Charlie" Nancy, who, to all intents and purposes, seems like an ordinary fellow, estranged from his embarrassing father...until his father's funeral, when he learns that Dad was actually the African trickster god, Anansi. (All quotes in this post are approximations, and not actual quotes from the book, as I listened to it while driving back and forth from work.)

"Well, if my dad was a god," Fat Charlie asked the elderly woman who was his childhood neighbor, "then why don't I have any special powers?"

She said, "Oh, your brother Spider got all those."

"What brother? I don't have a brother!"

"Sure you do. If you want to see him, just tell a spider and he'll come."

In a fit of impulsiveness, Fat Charlie tells a spider that he wants to see his brother, and along comes Spider. He is handsome, confident, charming, and does indeed have some special abilities. As Spider horns in on Fat Charlie's life, messing things up with his job and his fiance, Charlie soon wishes he had never gone asking for him. But what can he do? Spider isn't leaving, and he has ways of getting his way.

At this point, I want to be careful to avoid any spoilers for those of you who haven't read the book but think they might like to. But suffice to say, a supernatural figure known as Bird Woman enters the story, and Spider and Fat Charlie soon find themselves persecuted by birds.

This made me think of one of my previous posts, Fear of Flying (Things), about that most improbable of irrational fears, ornithophobia. I mean seriously, being afraid of birds? Tiny, inoffensive little birds? What's up with that? I can understand being afraid of, say, bears or tigers or alligators. Those are big, powerful creatures that could easily mess someone up. Some people are afraid of dogs, cats or horses. I don't really "get" that, being the big fat animal-lover that I am, but sure, those creatures could bite, scratch, or trample someone rather badly. I even had an infected cat bite once in my youth that was nothing to joke about. My cat, alarmed at being transplanted from one place to another, bit me on the fleshy bit of my palm, and within a week I had red and yellow streaks coursing up my arm from the infection. (No, I did not lose my hand...yes, I am grateful.)

Then there is the fear of snakes or spiders. Personally, I like snakes but am rather freaked out by spiders. Some people have pointed out to me that spiders are good creatures, killing lots of noxious insects, etc., that really have no desire to creep onto my flesh and bite me (not that that has ever stopped one, says the gal who has suffered from several spider bites!), and I tell people the same thing about snakes. But at least snakes and spiders will bite people, and some are venomous. A fear of them is not totally off the wall.

But birds?? True, some birds will swoop at people trying to defend their nests...and you really don't want to get in between a goose or a swan and its nestlings. But overall, birds are the most innocuous of creatures. They almost never hurt people. They probably couldn't if they tried.

And yet, a fear of birds is powerful literary trope, as illustrated by this quote from Graeme Gibson's A Bedside Book of Birds:

Natural avian aggression translates powerfully into myth and story. When a creature naturally associated with the soul becomes a threat, you know there'll be hell to pay. Malevolence on the wing is irresistable to storytellers, and historically they've taken full advantage of it.
Suffice to say that Anansi Boys has some scenes in line with that mythic tradition, which might send an ornithophobe right over the edge. As for myself, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought of another fantasy story I read, Ghost Ocean by S.M. Peters (Roc, 2009). Although nowhere near on the caliber of Anansi Boys (to be honest, I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through and didn't finish it), this novel is noteworthy for a particularly horrific supernatural creature named Bird. In fact, Bird gave my mother nightmares. Bird is an example of all the birds we fear, wrapped up into one single character.

And if we want to get blatant about it:

The fear of flying things, including insects, bats, and most particularly birds seems, like it or not (and I don't) ingrained in the human psyche.

Recently, a new permutation of that phobia has appeared. Granted, humans have always been persecuted by disease, and we have never really been OK with that. Interestingly enough, does this medieval image of a plague doctor not appear to be a bit bird-like?

And, of course, for those who are not actually afraid of violence from birds, there is still the much more post-modern fear of contagion:

They might seem cute...they might seem harmless...but who knows what germs they are harboring?

There's a lot I've touched in this post and not gone into better detail. As always, so big a topic, so little time. Perhaps at some future point. In the meantime, what's your favorite scary bird story?