Thursday, August 30, 2012

scanning for rodents

scanning for rodents, 
a barn owl swivels her head,
torso motionless

It's early evening but not yet dusk when I catch a glimpse of a large bird sitting on a post by the side of the road as I pass by. A hawk? The bird turns its head toward me and I immediately recognize the beautiful heart-shaped face of a barn owl, Tyto alba. At the bottom of the hill, I turn around and go back.
          From the darker plumage, the owl appears to be a female. She doesn't seem to mind my presence, so I watch in fascination as she scans the grasses for rodents, swiveling her head from front to back and up and down, all the while keeping her body in one position. At one point she does squat to peer forward and down, then straightens up, rotates her head to the left and peers down behind. This amazing head-swiveling is almost comical, yet it has evolved as is an extremely efficient hunting ability.
          Owls are known for their keen eyesight at night. The owl's large, tubular eyes are fixed in a relatively small skull, so the owl turns its head to focus. Without moving its torso, the owl can rotate its head around 270 degrees to see in all directions. Thus, with minimal motion and maximum attention, the owl waits silently and patiently for its prey.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

the gibbous moon tints

the gibbous moon tints
 the banner of crystal clouds 
with a pink halo

The gibbous moon nestles like an ostrich egg in a circle of pink and white down. How quickly the high cirrus clouds slip away, while the much higher moon continues her slow ascent across the cobalt canopy. The Earth-born Moon, like a grown child, long ago moved away from her mother, but not too far. They remain connected by such a strong, invisible umbilical cord that the Moon never turns her face away from her mother. The clouds are also Earth-born, as is the atmosphere which they inhabit, but they hug their mother closely, afraid of the great emptiness beyond.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

swimming in the rain

swimming in the rain --
half immersed in warm water,
half spattered with cold drops

Once you're wet, a little rain hardly matters. But I'm in the minority on that score. In fact, I'm the only person swimming, some might say foolishly, in the rain. It's a rare experience, the contrast of the relatively warm water in which I'm immersed with the cold raindrops spattering my arms and face. I've also been known to swim in a lake with a glacier at one end. Now there was an experience in contrast, my body hot from hiking, plunging into the frigid water. Of course, once you're numb, you don't feel anything anymore, so icy water hardly matters.

Friday, August 24, 2012

stopping by a cornfield

stopping by a cornfield
on a hot summer evening
to watch the sunset,
crystalline clouds reflecting
gold, orange, red, then pink

In the low light of the setting sun, the corn is all golden -- tassels, dry yellow leaves, stalks and corn husks covering the hard golden kernels. The swirls of cirrus clouds above the sun look like stained glass, alabaster white and molten gold at first, then swiftly changing to burnished copper, burning ember.

In the south, the half moon floats at half mast between strands of cirrus fibratus that look like some ancient grandfather's wispy beard.

The sun turns into a golden urn as its light is distorted by the clouds.

Is that a dragon hovering above the sinking sun?

Like a flare, the sun shoots up a column of gold as the light reflects from the crystals in the high-flying cirrus clouds.

After the sun has disappeared below the horizon, its lingering light turns the clouds in the east cotton candy pink. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

bird pecked Concord grapes

bird pecked Concord grapes, 
purple slip skins split open,
glistening pulp popped out

I'm down on my knees, carefully gathering the dark blue and purple globes of Concord grapes, leaving the green ones to ripen. All of the grapes are covered with a translucent "bloom," scratched here and there where the grape has rubbed against a leaf or vine -- Concord calligraphy.

Our Concord grapes did well this year, in spite of the drought, with lots of clusters hidden under the canopy of green leaves. They certainly retain the hardiness of their wild ancestor, from which they were developed in 1849 by Ephraim Wale Bull of Concord, Massachusetts.

The ground is strewn with fallen grapes, many of them broken open, the glistening green pulp popped out of the slip skin. It looks like the work of birds -- chipmunks, raccoons and deer would eat the whole fruit.

I'm also popping grapes into my mouth as I pick, one of the pleasant perks of harvesting. The pulp slips out of the thick skin easily. The juice is sweet and a little tart, not like sugar-bomb seedless grapes, but I have to work to extract the seeds from the viscous pulp. A few seeds get crunched, but that's all right, because grape seed polyphenols are a potent antioxidant. The skins of these grapes, because they are not completely ripe, are a bit astringent, but I swallow them because purple grape skins also contain a powerful antioxidant.

Some insect has been eating the grape leaves, leaving a trail of holes. Well, people in many cultures eat stuffed grape leaves, but I don't care to sample bitter leaves with my mouth full of grape juice.

My father raised grapes on proper trellises, and he spent a lot of time training the grapes with his pruning shears, nipping the vines here and there, and sometimes the grape clusters, to encourage more production of grapes. Concord grapes are good for fresh grape juice but not wine. With the ripe grapes he also made grape jelly, which we slathered on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And he pressed the green grapes to make nonalcoholic verjus (verJHOO), an unfermented alternative to vinegar. Unlike vinegar's strong acidic taste, verjus is sweet, tart and mildly acidic, great on salads and lightly steamed vegetables. 

I'm not as diligent as my father. Our grapes grow up, along, over and down the low split bamboo fence on the west side of the house. In the fall I cut back some of the vines that are trailing on the ground and use the pliant vines to make lovely wreaths. 

But mostly the grape vines train themselves, sending out curving tendrils that wrap around anything they come in contact with -- other vines, other plants or the fence.

If they don't encounter anything within some mysterious time limit, the tendrils curve back and wrap around themselves.

Even though this tendril has not accomplished its mission of anchoring the vine, it still succeeds in creating a beautiful work of art.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

chasing clouds I find

chasing clouds I find
wild plums, poison ivy vines,
wild turkey feather

Chasing pink cumulus palaces hovering on the horizon above a green ocean of soybeans, I am arrested by a thicket that engulfs the low barbed wire fence on the narrow strip of land running between the field and the gravel road. Pacing the road, I get glimpses of the clouds through the tangle of branches and vines, but I want a bigger a window. Suddenly something small and pink dangling from a bare branch catches my attention -- a wild plum, and there are many more, in shades of red, orange, yellow and purple. 
          Looking up, I notice that the delicate wild plum trees are nearly overwhelmed by gigantic poison ivy vines with huge green leaves and clusters of creamy white berries mingling with the plums. I'm not happy to see a proliferation of this noxious weed growing along our road. Poison ivy likes to grow on the edge of things, and where the plants are not mowed down, they will creep along the ground, spring up into bushes and climb trees. They're not bothered by lack of moisture, so they've been especially lush and abundant this hot, dry summer. However, birds will eat the berries, without harm, so at least poison ivy is good for something other than its own reproduction.
          I pick a few of the ripest plums, being careful not to brush my bare hands against the poison ivy leaves, whose sap can cause a nasty skin rash. The fruit is quite tart but refreshing, so I fill my pockets. Many of the fruits have fallen and are scattered on the gravel, some still pink and whole, but most are purple and broken open. It looks like something has been eating the ripe plums. I know that birds will peck at fruit and chipmunks and raccoons also love fruit.
          While I'm looking at the smashed plums on the ground, I spot a long brown and black striped feather. Perhaps the plum eater was a wild turkey who left this elegant calling card among the red and yellow leaves and purple plums.   

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

twig-leaf (praying mantis)

twig-leaf (praying mantis)
waiting for prey to stray near --
hapless honeybee -- gone

I am drawn to a hill overlooking our local wetland for a better view of the cloudscape of fleecy cumulus drifting overhead, higher than the three hawks spiraling on invisible currents. Following tractor tracts along the edge of a pasture, I come to a pile of logs where someone has cut down a good-size oak tree. Now my attention is drawn earthward as I tromp all around the logs and squat to count the checkered rings on the largest one.

Just as I am leaving the log pile, I notice a long brown insect hanging upside down from a tall, bushy wildflower with small white blossoms. The creature's slender body blends in perfectly with the stems. It's a praying mantis, though its forelegs, instead of being flexed in prayer position, are extended like a diver about to plunge headfirst. From the brown coloration and slender body, the mantis appears to be a male.

Unbeknownst to me, I am being observed even more carefully than the logs I was examining. As I move around for a closer look, only its small angular head turns to follow my movements. Spooky!

A nectar-seeking honeybee lands on one of the white clusters of blossoms on a stem directly behind the mantis. Somehow sensing potential prey, it rotates its head 180 degrees and folds its forelegs. Look out, bee! Maybe the bee hears my mental alarm because it flies off.

How long has the mantis been patiently waiting for prey to land nearby? Moments later, perhaps the same unwary bee, oblivious to the camouflaged predator, alights on the panicle of tiny flowers in front of the mantis. Detecting motion with its binocular vision, the mantis, forelegs cocked, slowly stalks the bee.

Much faster than my shutter can release, the mantis seizes the bee with its vice-like forelegs, powerful enough to crush its victim.

Whether the bee is dead or alive, the mantis begins to eat the bee headfirst. Hapless honeybee, what you do not see, you become!

The mantis cradles the bee's striped abdomen in one foreleg while it continues to eat the thorax and wings. 

The mantis ignores my presence as it munches the bee with its sideways-moving jaws, but I am not curious enough to wait and see whether it consumes every bit of the bee, including the legs. Now I can explain the mysterious disappearance of at least one unfortunate honeybee and attest that the praying mantis preys on beneficial insects as well as garden pests.

As I start to leave the masticating mantis, I spot another male nearby. I can barely distinguish its back legs from the twigs on which it is resting, but the brown outer wings covering the green inner wings, though slender and leaf-like, are easier to identify.

It appears to be in suspended motion, one foreleg raised to move forward. Detecting my presence, it slowly turns its triangular head to stare at me. When disturbed, sometimes a mantis will rear up, spread its wings and forelegs and open its mouth to make itself look bigger and scarier, and of course will pinch and bite anything that comes near. I decide to leave quietly the way I came, awestruck by my encounter with a bee-eater and its fellow carnivore.

The next day I come back, curious to see whether any praying mantids are still hanging out around the log pile. This time I know what to look for and quickly find one on the same type of bushy wildflower. It's hanging upside down again, not some kind of yoga asana pose but a rather successful strategy to look more like a twig-leaf.

This time, a little braver, I poke it with a long twig to see what it will do. I'm a bit disappointed that it does not rear up or spread its wings, though it does grasp and bite the twig. When that doesn't subdue the threat, the mantis slowly retreats to the log pile.

It's a lot more visible against the gray bark and it watches me warily with those keen goggle eyes until I go on my way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

smoking the beehive

smoking the beehive
to calm her bees, cleaning wax,
checking on the brood

Alitza looks like an astronaut in a white jumpsuit, veiled hat, heavy boots and plastic gloves. But instead of going into outer space, she's going into the inner space of one of her beehives. She's doing routine maintenance, cleaning each of the frames that hold wax, honey and brood. Her tools are a copper smoker, a red-handled combination frame lifter and hive cleaning tool, and a lot of highly focused attention and patience.
          Alitza cautions me to stay away from the entrance to the hive next to the one she's working on and to keep a safe distance from the open hive. "It's your dark clothes," she says. To the bees, I look like a skunk or a bear, their natural predators.
          She's already removed the frames and placed them on hangers outside the white super. Next she smokes the area to be cleaned, to calm the bees so she can work.

With her hive tool Alitza cleans out some old wax.

Once the area is clean, Alitza replaces each frame, some filled with honey and bees, some with fresh wax.

"Please don't sting me!"

Then she puts the top super back on.

Then the inner cover with the slot for the bees to enter the frames.

And finally the metal lid, which will be weighted down with a cement block.

Mango comes out to say hello. Fearless cat, he's not the least bit afraid of the bees.

"There's a lot of honey but not much brood," she says. "I don't know why. The bees look healthy. Maybe I just missed some swarms."