Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Gardener's Diary: busy skies

The Eastern bluebirds are back! A bit late; last year I first noted one March 27, then again April 7. That vivid blue back is a joy to behold; I am hoping they will next again in the oak outside my window.

Right after I saw the bluebird in the driveway a new visitor: the Carolina Chickadee:

"Welcome," I whispered, as it pulled a worm out of the leaf mulch I put down on the beds around the house last fall.

It's the 34th species to visit this little half-acre since August, 2014.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The world abloom for another orbit-


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Gardener's Diary

Cotton Boll Conspiracy says we have lived through another winter:
Signs spring is returning to the South: dead armadillos on the side of the road, a thick coat of pollen on the car a day after it’s been washed and the arrival of mosquitoes so big that if you slap them they return the favor.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Spring hasn't so much sprung as it has parachuted

From a New York Times Magazine on spring as a scientific event, this plague which fell upon us- literally- two days ago:

Inchworms in the Trees

“It’s definitely spring when I go out to sample insects from the trees and these caterpillars fall on my head,” said Emily Meineke, an entomologist at North Carolina State University. She’s referring to cankerworms, or inchworms, which hatch in early spring and dangle from nearly invisible webs attached to trees.

The tiny inchworm can cause big problems when it greets the East Coast in the spring. When the hungry caterpillars are not controlled, they can damage an area’s trees. Charlotte, N.C., has struggled with such outbreaks for at least two decades, Ms. Meineke said.

“They are targeting those young, delicious leaves,” she said. “The tree needs those to photosynthesize in the springtime.”

After the inchworms have eaten all of the leaves on a tree, they use their webs to swing to the next one like tiny Tarzans. And when they’ve had their fill, the inchworms drop to the ground from their threads and spin their cocoons.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Stars-struck, me

I was a voracious reader in childhood. The cereal box. Bazooka Joe cartoons on those stamp-sized wrappers. And the newspaper. Front to back, whether I understood it or no (how many seven-year-olds were reading John S. Knight's "Publisher's Notebook" in The Charlotte Observer.

And, yes, I read the horoscopes on the comix pages (there was more than one, fifty years ago, and the pictures were way bigger). There was something mysterious and alluring in the vagueness of the daily prophecy: "Make plans now that will benefit you in coming months. A friend may offer a romantic proposal."

So it has been fun to find a new source of the future in the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. Here's what Free Will Astrology says my future holds- and, in good Calvininst fashion, puts the onus all back on me:

"Look at yourself then," advised author Ray Bradbury. "Consider everything you have fed yourself over the years. Was it a banquet or a starvation diet?" He wasn't talking about literal food. He was referring to the experiences you provide yourself with, to the people you bring into your life, to the sights and sounds and ideas you allow to pour into your precious imagination. Now would be an excellent time to take inventory of this essential question, Sagittarius. And if you find there is anything lacking in what you feed yourself, make changes! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Gardener's Diary: grandiose plans yield to creaky knees

74F yesterday; almost as high today. This bums out the weathermen on Channel 9. They like their weather poor to catastrophic. Really bad weather becomes news and they are, for a time, on a par with the meat puppets who do the real news: always in the present tense, even when it happens in the past.

I got out for a four-mile walk last Friday. Forsythia are popping out flowers pretty uniformly in the neighborhood. A couple of houses over, I see a tulip tree showing off. Along the roadside, dandelions are flexing their muscles, promising millions more yellow blossoms to come. 

In my front bed, which I buried in six inches of leaf mulch for the winter, the bluebells and wood hyacinths are coming up. Last fall, when I turned over all compacted soil in the bed, I moved some of the bulbs around, and now have half a dozen little groups coming up. This year they all get marked with stakes so I can do it again once they have retreated back below. 

The irises- thirty of the thirty-two I transplanted last spring, came up a few inches and toughed out the winter. I am hopeful we will get flowers this year. 

In the backyard, the grape hyacinths are in bloom: four of them this year. They enliven the otherwise still dull scene. The rosemarys do well, though junior is showing some signs of the same browning of the leaves that Mother Rosemary did a year ago. That's gotta be cut out. The tulips have pushed up and I look forward to welcoming them back.

Last week I moved all the popper peppers and herbs outside. One pepper promptly gave up the ghost. The rest seem happy to get more sun and I have had to set up a new watering rota. When I was moving the around the house on their kitchen trolley to get whatever sun there was, it was easier to remember.

Two days of high winds have made at least a day's worth of limb-collecting and breaking work. I went out for a while this afternoon, full of grand intentions, and settled for stacking a big pile of scrap lumber where I can saw it up for next winter. We've had a mild one so far, the one January snowfall excepting; I've had maybe five fires in the fireplace, and those mostly for morale boosters on gloomy days when nothing is selling in the Day Job.

It's pruning time in my next-door neighbor's yard. I spent last year uncovering it like a suburban Hiram Bingham hacking his way to Machu Pichu. Now I know whats there, there is much to see to, getting long-neglected plants cut back and reshaped to look presentable. It's coming up on time to put blocs of yard work time back on the calendar.

Just before the bad weather came, I moved half a dozen peonies to my back bed from the yard across the street. I just stuck them in the ground, figuring it was root, hog, or die, and their previous owner never hit a lick with them. So far there are no signs of life among the dead leaves and stems, but I remain an optimist.

My copy of A Southern Garden is down from the shelf.

The birds are coming back, too. I hear a lot more chatter in the trees. Today there were three Carolina wrens feasting on worms and bugs brought up when I got the scrap out of the leaves and restacked it; there was a pair that overwintered around the woodpile. I hope we'll see some more. Three Saturdays ago, after a heavy rain, there were four pairs of cardinals holding a conclave in the side yard- that's a record. Standing at the kitchen door February 15, waiting for my tea to cool, I was astonished to see a red-shouldered hawk- a big red-shouldered hawk- perched on a limb in the woods, not fifty feet away. It sat, stock-still, for six minutes, swiveling its head only twice, then somehow navigated through the undergrowth and scrub and up into the sky overhead.

The days grow longer, and on the nicer ones I can get a window or two open for some air. I have made it through another winter.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Gardener's Diary

22F outside again today, so my gardening work is minimal, and indoors. Threats of snow have been just that. Still, the schools closed- ice is the greater danger in these parts- and the skies are gloomy. It looks like a partial eclipse out.

Still, by the weekend, the temp is supposed to be up fifty degrees. There's deadfall to haul out from the wooded lot and chopped before the vines and poison oak come to life, and pruning season begins in a week.

Back last summer, I wrote about vegetables you can "regrow" at home after you buy them at the store. The base of a stalk of lettuce, for example, will provide a nice crop of celery leaves you can as garnish, for example.

But the easy one is scallions. I buy a couple of batches of those and put them in shot glasses of water on the kitchen sill. They beaver away, growing rapidly and putting out more roots. Over several weeks, I can get two or three cuttings from them.

Then I plant them in pots and they draw renewed energy from the soil to pick up where they left off. I potted twenty stalks the other night, with that many more to go.

My mint pot is thriving, after a fashion. Long tendrils, with tiny leaves: not enough sun. But they grow, and as the days get longer, they will get bigger.

A couple of dozen peter peppers I have overwintered are waking up. I pruned them in October; now they are putting out vigorous new growth and half a dozen flowers have appeared. They sit in a south-facing window that gets the track of the afternoon sun.

A small indoor pot of rosemary is finally doing well after some months of dithering. It's nothing next to the two grizzled veterans in the back yard, but there is something to be said for being able to reach across my desk and get a whiff of it, or the mint, on gloomy grey days like we have had lately.

In the last few weeks, crows have begun returning to the neighborhood. I believe they must be fish crows, rather than the common American crow. Once a coastal denizen, the fish crow has moved inland over time in North Carolina, but retain a migratory habit. We've had none all winter, as I realized when I looked up and saw the old familiar murder in the front yard. "Ah, they're back. Ah, they've been gone."

Today's new guest was a red-shouldered crow, perched for a good five minutes on a bowed tree in the wooded lot next to the house. He's the 31st species sighted in my little corner of the world. It was a bruiser, too. Mice and squirrels, beware!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

It's often remarkably blind and stupid, too.

From The Writer's Almanac this morning, a poem that reminds me, in its point of view and narrative, of Dana Gioia's verse about money:

What Love Cannot Do
by January Gill O'Neil

It cannot save itself when it expires
like a tire’s slow leak. It cannot bring back
the greediness of youth

                                           mouth on mouth,
                                           skin on skin, that gnawing,
                                           that longing you carried

until the next time
and then there is no next time.

You never see it coming but always see it leaving.

It waits by the door, bags packed,
full of stones from your life.

                                           What it can do is mark
the distance between Point A and Point B,

which feels like a galaxy,
                                           every star you ever wished upon
                                           imploding before your eyes.

“What Love Cannot Do” by January Gill O’Neil from Misery Islands. © Cavan Kerry Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Gardener's Diary- Signs of Life

I went out to the Great Wall of Compost today, to add the scraps accumulated in the kitchen during the snow time. It has settled a good bit. As the week promises fair weather, I may get back out and turn the whole thing over. I'd love to move it out to where it'd get more rain, but if I do, my neighbor will see it as a concession of ground back to him. See, behind his shed is where he puts crap that's too big to haul away, but that he wants to make disappear.

(Another backyard neighbor has take up this odious habit. She bags aluminum cans in trash bags, and stacks the bags on her back stoop for the day she will take them to the recycling plant, only two miles away. There, the birds peck the bags open and strew the cans about. Last fall she discovered that if she rebagged them and put them behind her shed, they, too, disappeared. And the birds picked up right where they left off. I offered to rebag them last week. She said she would do it. The disappeared bags, which date back at least 18 months, say otherwise.)

There were three sets of green shoots coming out of the pile- onions I thought past using, and tossed in. Ever the optimist- in the last warm patch, I moved some potato shoots over to last year's potato patch, only to see the snow time kill off the above-ground growth- I moved these over to the old flower bed in the center of the back yard, where the rosemaries live.

As I planted them, a glint of green caught my eye. The grape hyacinths are coming up!  Cockeyed, I walked around to the front bed along the entry sidewalk. Whaddya know- the bluebells are up, too, including the ones I relocated some months ago when I dug up all the compacted soil in the bed, turned it, and added six inches of leaf mulch.

The early bulb plants give me hope. I have just about survived another winter, and thus, another year. The days grow a little longer. All that is lacking is living long enough to see checks come in the mail for two book orders from Christmas.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Anything worth doing is worth again. And again. And again...

I've been through the Gregorian chant version, and the classic movie dance scenes version, always in search of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. I can now die happy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We are all Uptown Funk now

Hard on the success of the amazing movie musical mashup, the song of songs gets a workover that would have Hildegard of Bingen clapping.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

I am lucky to live near a Food Lion. They rotate one through every Tuesday.

On the other hand-

I was an oddball child in many respects. I was the only left-hander on either side of my family for generations. No one could remember it happening before, and I have not heard of it happening since. I am grateful to my parents for not trying to make me left-handed. As a result, I write and eat that way.

As for the rest of the world, well, I adapted. I play sports right-handed, open doors right handed, use tools right handed.

Some of the happiest times of my life oddly, were when I rented cars in England. Getting into the diver's seat on the right side, finding the gearshift on my left: everything fit. It was all where it was supposed to be. Most don't understand this, as the world is right-handed. But when you accidentally fall into a left-handed little corner, it can be pure bliss.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

H.P. Lovecraft is my weather forecaster.


For me, there is no proof of climate change more convincing than that, after living thirty years in the existentially gloomy weather of Britain and the Pacific Northwest, each of the seven winters I have spent in the Carolinas seems more like Seattle than the last.

"I forgive you, old friend," one might say, "for cutting me from your wedding invite list. You clearly have your reason, albeit spineless." Deep down, despite the forgiveness, one will probably still fantasise about letting off a fire hydrant in the groom's face. Acceptance is where it's at. And I implore you to accept, with every bodily fibre, the greatest threat to the British psyche right now: winter.
Are your feet icy cold despite you wearing thick socks and slippers? Is your boiler revealing itself to be on its last legs? Did you go to work in dank darkness and return in the very same dank darkness? Are you fatter than you were in October and have no one to blame but yourself and a tub of Lindt milk-chocolate reindeers? Has a curious despondency over the point of human existence enveloped your soul? Well, this is what January in Great Britain feels like. The sooner you accept it the better.
"I accept the next three months of coldness, enforced personal austerity and endless soup," one should whisper to oneself. "I accept the bedraggled garden and the weekend-long cabin fever. I accept that there is no brightness or sparkle on the near horizon – no bonfire parties, no fancy-dress parties, no gift-giving, no barbecues, no tinsel, no joie de vivre – and that we Brits are merely clinging to a cold rock in the North Sea.
...This isn't to say that accepting winter as an arduous, necessary season – the rough to complement the relative smooth of summer – is not difficult. Some Brits have so much trouble accepting the January-to-early-April period that they uproot permanently to the Costa Blanca. No doubt winter in these places is more agreeable, but the downside must be the punishing schedule of watching Sky News round the clock, and tweeting the channel with your opinions on the UK's awful decline.
Dubai is also a nice place to live at this time of year – or any time, for that matter – particularly if you're a Brit on the run from your conscience, ex-partner, terrible reputation, or pesky child-maintenance claims. But fleeing Britain in winter is cheating, I say. Better to accept it. Lie back and take it you must.
...Almost all dinners that are eaten out of the house in January, I now realise, are consumed in a Mary Celeste ambience accompanied by the icy blast of the front door opening, and served by staff who are severely questioning their bright idea to waste a few youthful years in northern Europe. The park is not pretty. It is full of JCBs carrying out pre-summer maintenance, and the ducks have eaten so much marzipan- covered fruitcake that they flap about showing symptoms of type 2 diabetes.
The park café has a Brechtian atmosphere, is open for only two hours daily, and is used mainly by (a) flu-ridden dog walkers clutching plastic beakers of PG Tips, and (b) parents of toddlers so exasperated by winter captivity that leaving the house to watch the JCBs is preferable. You leave home cold and you come home damp. Your big toe pokes through a hole in your 80-denier tights and stops bloodflow to your lower leg.
Give up, I say. Accept winter. Stay indoors and make yourself a stew. Or even better, dust off the slow-cooker and make a stew. It'll be the exact same stew as on a hob, but it'll kill six or seven hours and that's useful because it's nine weeks until spring officially begins. Accept it – we have all time in the world.

Monday, January 11, 2016

From The Writer's Almanac


by Joseph Stroud

Trying to tie my shoes, clumsy, not able to work out
the logic of it, fumbling, as my father stands there,
his anger growing over a son who can’t even do
this simplest thing for the first time, can’t even manage
the knot to keep his shoes on—You think someone’s
going to tie your shoes for you the rest of your life?—
No, I answer, forty-five years later, tying my shoe,
hands trembling with this memory. My father
and all those years of childhood not being able to work out
how he loved me, a knot so tight it has taken all my life
to untie.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Walt is spinning in his cryogenic chamber

A sleeper in its first season, ABC's "Galavant" launched Season 2 tonight with two absurdly funny episodes, one of which included this Kylie Minogue number in a pub called The Enchanted Forest:

Starter friend


I am getting to the point of notifying people I meet that I am, at best, a starter friend. I have a short value-span. I thought of this the other day. In recent years, all but one of the really valued friends I have had in Charlotte ended up moving somewhere else.

One forgot to tell me until after the move had taken place, some time ago. I found out New Year’s Eve.

No worries, I thought. My parents did that once, too. Only they never told me. I found out when I called home and their phone was disconnected (a sibling let me in on the secret).

We seem to have devolved, as people, into a state of friendship that is, at best, gossamer. We feel connected because we are, literally always, connected by our phones and computers. But we don't seem to invest much in our friendships, or preserve them or deepen them. It's enough to click "Like" on a comment, or to let everyone know when you are settled in the new place with an "I've Moved" Milestone. "We used to see each other all the time," becomes, "I read your posts."

Until about twenty years ago, I had a vast network of friends. I counted any trip, anywhere, a waste if I didn't come back with a new friend or two. My correspondence forced the mailman into a desk job.

Then technology came along (it always does: fifty years ago, my best friend and I used to walk to school together until he got a bike. I couldn’t keep up), and we had the new and shiny email option. I treated it as letters, only faster. I filed them as letters in my correspondence files. Over time, I noticed the files were growing like crazy, and these new, stampless letters, said less and less even as their volume increased.

After the initial shockwave of my coming out passed in 1996,  I noticed the email traffic fell off a good bit. The first Christmas after coming out, the Christmas card responses collapsed.

After a relationship ended, I found myself divested by friends who had come to me via my ex. Other of my friends hit the divorce/breakup age and I found myself collateral damage there, too. You know you’re a dullard when neither divorcing spouse wants to keep you on their cell phone.

About ten years ago I concluded I must not be much good at the friend thing- as President Bush 1 would have called it- and so scaled back, and eventually, stopped, pestering people with my views. I dare say people figured I must have got above myself and dropped THEM. I didn't intend that, I just figured I really didn't- and still don't- have that much to say. I realized I’d just been fooling myself for a long time, thinking I did, and that others' lives would be improved by knowing it.

We never really know, though, because so rarely do we ever talk about much anymore, in person, actively listening to each other. Attention spans are short, and interest in others' troubles is shorter. We just assume and unfriend, feeling jilted ("I'll show you!"). Even that act has been jiggered around by Facebook so that we can stop seeing what someone posts while they still see us as a friend. We can passively aggress the hell out of each other.

We also find easier pretexts for dropping friends in social media. I’ve been denounced by people on Facebook for supporting presidential candidates I haven’t made up my mind about, even. I was just heterodox enough in some view to make them not want to have to think about THAT again.

Granted, the opposite can be true, if less often. Over recent years I have made a number of social media friends I’ve never met, but whose connections have enriched my life immensely. Go figure. What did they see in me? I’m afraid asking will jinx it.

So what a gift it was today when one of my recently moved-away-friends, in town on business, stopped by for a visit. Two hours we had, face to face, actually talking. No phones were consulted the entire time; the TV was off. Miraculous! Charlotte traffic being what it is, it's hard enough to get someone to cross town for a visit, much less work it in when driving from Virginia (I first noticed this when I moved from Capitol Hill in Seattle to West Seattle, about ten miles as the crow flies; friends acted as if I'd moved to the moon). Really excellent time, it was. I remember Sunday afternoons as a boy- prime visiting time.

That would be a good thing to bring back. A sort of Sunday open house.

But now we have cradle to grave football, and everyone expects a table groaning with artisanal snack food ("They just look like Doritos- I crushed the corn, molded and baked the chips, and ground my chiles into the hot peppers") so we can post pics on Instagram.

Meh. Twelfth NIght's nearly here. Time to start reverse-decorating the tree.

Anyone who's looking to get transferred to a new city? Friend me. I want to see if I can make it happen to someone I've never actually met.

If I can do that, I'm going to hire out to become friends with friends of people who want to get shed of those friends. Kind of like the app that will send a breakup email for you. Irritated by your neighbor? Introduce him to me. If he isn't gone in three months, money back. Guaranteed. And no emotional attachments, like in Failure to Launch.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Have at 'em, it can't hurt

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short-comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

Mark Twain, 1863

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Gardener's Diary: Year's End

Seven inches of rain in the last ten days.

I ventured out briefly this afternoon. Most of my yard is about an inch deep in standing water. An impromptu creek has been running through the back yard for several days.

It has looked, through my window, like the depths of winter. Emily Dickinson called November the Norway of the year; this end of December seems like Lear's blasted heath. Troubles have piled up indoors; sleep has been sporadic; friends have been too busy.

Usually I drag myself outside to do something- anything- to break the drip of worry. Being monsoonized makes that impossible.

But today I noticed my neighbor's camellia- always wanton, swayed by the slightest whispered nothings on the breeze and a few warm days- was popping out flowers. So I grabbed my clippers and now have two vases full, nice mixes of pink and red.

I don't know what it is about camellias; I have always adored them. In a Seattle junk shop twenty years ago, I picked up a beautiful lamp painted in red camellias. Recently, after a long separation, it was returned to me. Life is good in these small ways, giving a little respite before slipping the lead into the glove for another round.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Going Downton, for the last time

Always well behind the cutting edge, we just got about to posting Downton Abbey's Christmas charity vid from last year here.

We're trying to atone, as the last season, mercifully, beckons in endless PBS trailers and fundraising come-ons. So here's the new one, hot off the boat (the producers switched to the Mauretania last minute, thank goodness).

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Gardener's Diary: Eeyore Tidies Up For Winter

Miss Elizabeth Lawrence begins her great work, A Southern Garden (1942) with winter.

This will seem counterintuitive, as she readily acknowledges:
Winter, in my garden, takes up December and January in ordinary years. Even in those months there is a breath of spring in good years, though in bad years the cold encroaches upon February. Perhaps it will seem contrary to begin the garden year with winter...We do not have to wait for spring to start the new season. After the slimy stalks of fall flowers have been cleared away, the garden assumes its winter aspect, and winter flowers begin to bloom.
This is not the case in the garden I tend. Well, not mostly. For thirty years it has mostly been a half-acre of lawn. I have found and recovered from abandoned attempts at gardening: a clump of bluebells so close together they could not bloom; I have the bulbs in a bowl now, waiting to replant them. There is a small kitchen-garden, I learned from the remainders of the plastic plant tags I found. There are some tulips there, and two ancient rosemarys. Some money grass, as we call it, congregates in patches whose locations defy logic. I found an azalea locked between two overgrown boxwoods.

“A gnarled rosemary is one of my chief treasures,” Miss Lawrence writes.
I treasure it for the charm of its  irregular outline, for the pale blue of its flowers in very early spring and for the refreshing odor of its foliage as I brush against it in passing.” I have two of those, entrusted to my care for the time I am here.
I found three dozen iris bulbs last summer, buried in weeds in a side-bed along the driveway. I moved them to a spot where they got more sun, and they thrived, but did not bloom, this summer. A number of them are poking up out of the front bed, where I recently turned over the hard clay soil and blew in several inches of mulch. I have hope for blooms in 2016.

The weather here can be fickle, as Miss Lawrence, who moved here from Raleigh in the 1940s, notes:
During our open winters we have some of the most delightful weather of the year. There are times when we have the “little snatches of sunshine and fair weather in the most uncomfortable parts of the year” that Addison describes in his essay on The Pleasure of a Garden, and we frequently have days that are “as agreeable as any in the finest months.” During the false spring that almost invariably comes in December or January- sometimes in both- the weather is mild enough to permit finishing up chores that were left undone in the fall, and even pulling a long chair out of the summer house to sit in the sun.
We have had such a week- sunny, 70s- and I have been trying to “tidy up the garden” even as a serious outbreak of the blues has bade me come to bed, there to pull the covers over my head and awaken feeling neither happier nor better rested.

But I drag myself out nonetheless. Come January and February it will be dark and overcast and cold. Last year we had several inches of what looked like snow but was, in fact, ice, in February. So we must store our memories of bright, warm days for the long stretch of drear and gloom to come.

This week I have been reckoning with leaves. I have blown them into mounds around the two oaks in the front yard, and ignored the backyard entirely. I figured it would be easier to wait until all the leaves were down from the six big oaks, and then move them. And no one could see back there.

This is not a sound strategy.

Once you get enough leaves on the ground, all a blower does is throw them up in the air in joyous abandon, so they can flop back down pretty much where they were.

I ended up raking them into eight piles, as, beyond a certain volume, they get heavy, too. A couple dozen wheelbarrow trips later, they are all in a new compost pile, ten feet long, five wide and three tall.

And that’s only half the backyard.

My enthusiasm for gardening tends to wane around the holidays as the annual Christmas blues come on This year it has smacked harder than usual, and not even a false spring- a week long- aroused much enthusiasm. I’d put off getting up from not focusing well on work, not wanting to go out, even when it was 70. Doing so, while productive, has not been much fun.

Still, a huge, year-old brush pile is now gone. All the limbs got shaved off, and carried away by the county, which will turn them into mulch. The trunks are mostly sawed up by now; about three or four remain and get done as I can get outside, and as long as the battery on the saw lasts.

Indoors, the plants I brought in are retiring. My pots of scallions have died out; only a couple remain. My mint is tiny but alive. The peace lily I split in two has finally begun to regenerate after I cut it down to practically nothing. My indoor rosemary is sulking a bit; the ancient outdoor ones seem indestructible. I plan to take some cuttings and see if I can root them over the winter.

A Christmas cactus I bought a year ago has doubled in size and gave us a riot of color- for Thanksgiving.

Outside, the mild weather is fooling some plants. A potato plant I thought died in the summer drought has put up leaves. Turning last year’s Great Wall of Compost, I unearthed five I had chucked in with some scraps; they were trying to root, so I replanted them in the potato bed, up against the house where it gets as much winter sun as anywhere and the brick foundation holds some of it.

My next door neighbor has a white camellia, which, in the schizoid manner of all Carolina camellias, is covered in buds. If the freeze this weekend does not kill them off, we may get some unexpected color for the Christmas-New Year’s week. There are also a few roses blooming on her two climbers; I have been counting the time till February, when I can prune them back after years of neglect.

I miss poinsettias: when I was a boy, we had a neighbor who was in the nursery business. What she could not sell, she loaded into her station wagon and bestowed on her favorites. She would arrive unannounced, and instruct me on the proper unloading and placement of her bounty in our house. Long gone, Edna Patterson and her poinsettia Pontiac remains a fond memory in an otherwise rather dark season.

Last February's ice storm: more to come?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sniffle snuffle, toil and trouble

With one of the world's largest in-head collections of allergies, I stay stuffy more often than not. I look forward to trying these relief tools- when no one is around to see it:

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Gardener's Diary

Another day, another coupla inches of rain.

My in-progress dry stream bed is now a respectable stream. Any bigger, I'll have to name it.

My Christmas cactus is reacting to the early holiday ads on the nearby TV ad starting to set flowers.

Dickinson was right. November truly is the Norway of the year.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Small school snapper makes good

Let me pause for a moment to brag about a college classmate, Billy Howard, and his wife.

Billy was photographer for our college paper when I was editor. Happily, he has overcome that potential career-killing episode.

Monday, November 2, 2015

6 pm and it looks like midnight.

Gawker has everything but a black border on this story:

Jesus Christ. The sun went down at 4:51 today in New York. Oh my God. It might as well have never come up. That’s so bad—and get this: it’s not going to set after 5 p.m. until January 22nd. You’re in for a long, bad time. This is awful.

That’s three months of misery. God. It’s going to be so dark in the mornings, too. It’s not even cold yet! By January we’ll be blanketed in perpetual darkness and also freezing. How do we do this every year? I’m amazed any of us are alive, literally any of us. Do those seasonal depression lights do anything? Are those based on any sort of science? Is there any hope? How am I even going to get home. Please help.
The sunset in Baghdad is later than New York tonight. Plus it’s a lot warmer. Worth it? I’m going to say this much: maybe. The point is, you think you’re unhappy now—and that’s true. But you’re going to feel so, so much worse, for months. Man. Will any of us make it until January 22nd, 2016? Good luck—you’re on your own. Man.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Earworms: my life's mix tape

Why You Can’t Get That Song Out of Your Head

A Goldsmiths study published in the journal Memory and Cognition this year showed that the singing we hear in our heads tends to be true to actual recordings. Researchers had 17 volunteers tap to the beat of any earworm they heard during a four-day period while a wrist-worn device recorded their movements. The tapping tempos were within 10% of the tempos of the original recordings. 
Another Goldsmiths study, published this year in Consciousness and Cognition, found that people who report hearing earworms often and find them most intrusive have slightly different brain structures, with more gray matter in areas associated with emotional processing. 
Studies also show that the internal jukebox often starts playing during times of “low cognitive load,” such as while showering, getting dressed, walking or doing chores. Dr. Stewart likens earworms to “sonic screen savers” that keep the mind entertained while it’s otherwise idling.
Of course, as soon as I read the headline, I started hearing this:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How to be scared, c. 1896

On a trip to Paris in 1997, every day was a negotiation with my partner to find the right balance of shopping (his) and museums (mine). Happily, we agreed on the half day at Pere Lachaise, where we paid our respects to Gertrude and Alice, Oscar and Robbie, Isadora, Moliere and- my hero of hero filmmaker, George Melies.

Just in time for Halloween, Open Culture has added Melies' 1896 film, The Devil's Castle- which, the site claims, is the first horror movie- to its archive.

Enjoy three minutes with the Master (who also plays Mephistofeles):

Monday, October 26, 2015

Best-thing since Dilbert Random Corporate Buzzword Generator

Other than for the piles of money it can make, a Peanuts movie seemed entirely pointless to me.

Until I discovered The Wah-Wah Machine.

Next, eventually: Atomic-Poweredhenge

There'll always be an England:

Putting the clocks back at Stonehenge this morning. English Heritage repositioning the stones for the end of British Summer Time

How did this all begin? Eddie Izzard explains it all to you:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Gardener's Diary: Closing up for the season

The light wanes; even on sunny days there is less warmth.

It's time to start closing up the garden for the season.

Last night the TV weather critters were raving about frost, so I brought in all the peppers and scallions and potted herbs. I put them back out around lunchtime, but may well gather them in again. I hope to keep the herbs growing indoors for a while; I do love them in my omelets for breakfast.

I mowed my neighbor's lawn the other day, and got eight mulch bags out of the deal, to add to the six from my yard last week. The Great Wall of Compost, which keeps another neighbor (who thinks the area of my yard behind his garden shed is where he can dump junk and, because it is out of sight, has vanished) from piling more junk in my yard, is back up to is usual three and a half feet in height, and I extended it two feet to reinforce the point.

The brick marks the property corner; I found a cool app and was able to step off the corners with the legal description to my lot to within a foot or two. 

I'm able to look over fifteen months' work on the yard and see a lot of improvement. The lawn is much restored from what seemed like endless raking last fall to get out 35 years' worth of thatch. It really looks grand on a sunny day:

Same view last February 17, when it seemed winter would never end:

When I started clearing the encroachments of the wooded lot next door last summer, I found a number of eight to ten foot tall hollies I had not been able to see, just ten feet from the then-edge of the lot. Among the other discoveries was this nandina:

Here is is now, after a year of sunlight:

Out of a weed pile I dug an old flower bed, which included two remarkably hardy, if long-neglected, rosemary bushes. This one probably goes back to the 1980s:

After some pruning and tending, it's a much hardier camper now:

The back yard, as a whole, is the pride of my year's work. It was a right mess, being out of sight in the long years the house sat empty. This is last fall. Just to the right of the oak in the center is the Mother Compost pile- the first one I started; to its right is a twiggery I started with all the limbs I cleared and broke up, and to far right is the start of The Great Wall of Compost:

 The twiggery got moved around to the woodyard laid into a side yard spot as it was reclaimed, making it all closer to the fireplace on cold nights:

On the left is the execution of an idea I saw on Facebook: take two cinder blocks and four longish pieces of wood, and you can stack a lot of of kindling! The lot drops off behind the woodpile, so you can't see the relocated backyard twiggery or several stacks of scrap lumber from the summer deck rebuilding project.

So here's the backyard now, with some of the storm windfall I haven't gotten to yet; the unfinished deck, the repainted and restored garden shed, and- much reduced in size, Mother Computer to the right of the center oak:

This was that first compost pile in February:

Mother Compost turned, in just eleven months into this loamy pile today:

I moved it today, around behind the shed, next to the potting table I've built. Six wheelbarrow loads!

The next two months will be mulching, as we have six great oaks on the lot: