Wednesday, April 29, 2015

maroon pawpaw bells

maroon pawpaw bells 
sway in the spring breeze, exuding
a fetid odor

Lovely to look at, but don't sniff the pawpaw blossoms. The color and odor of rotting meat, the flowers attract carrion flies and beetles for pollination. 
          This is the first year our young tree has produced flowers, so if it does get pollinated, and I can get to the delicious fruit before the raccoons, squirrels or opossums, we'll be in for a treat. The large fruits have a creamy texture and taste a bit like a ripe banana, not surprising since they hail from the same family as the custard-apple and cherimoya. This our largest native fruit and, as an added bonus, it contains more protein than most fruits.
          Actually, the entire tree has a disagreeable smell, due to the presence of acetogenins, a natural insecticide, which can be used to make an organic pesticide. Other pests, in the form of rabbits and deer, avoid nibbling the leaves and twigs. Where deer are dense, pawpaw patches prosper.
          There is one insect that is not deterred by the pawpaw's insecticide. The larvae of the zebra swallowtail butterfly feed exclusively on the young leaves, though not enough to harm the plant. Trace amounts of those nasty chemicals protect the butterfly from predators throughout all stages of its life, since birds avoid eating the bad-tasting insect.

Another fascinating story of survival. The pawpaw protects itself chemically from getting eaten by mammals and most insects. Then it gets its flowers pollinated, not in the usual way of alluring colors and sweet fragrance that attract bees and butterflies, but through imitating carrion to lure carrion insects. Finally, its sweet fruit gets consumed by mammals, which disperse the seeds to a new location. Meanwhile, the larvae of the zebra swallowtail eat the pawpaw leaves and somehow manage to avoid getting killed by the insecticide. Then the butterfly turns that chemical into its own defense against predators.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

May apple parasols

May apple parasols
spring up from the moist earth
pop open green hands

This Earth Day, we are replacing our cedar shake roof with metal shingles, exchanging endangered wood for recycled metal. We counted over a hundred growth rings on one of the thick, hand-split shakes. You can't find big trees like that anymore. And after 25 years of snow, ice, rain, sun and wind, the shakes are etched with lichens, carpeted with moss and split by the elements.

We have a great team of roofers. Jim stands about 5' 2" and weighs maybe 100 lbs. without his tool belt. Craig towers about 6' tall and weighs around 250 lbs. Jim works in the air, gamboling around the sloping roof like a mountain goat, occasionally using a thick turquoise rope like a rock climber. Craig works on the ground, carting 40 lb. sheets of fir plywood like an ox. 
          Jim warned me the first day: "If you have any flowers around the house, they're going to get smashed." Of course, my daffodils are all in full bloom and my irises and lilies are in full leaf. Sure enough, the first thing the roofers do is lay down tarps to catch the shingles. I'm in the kitchen when I see shingles showering down on my Ornamental Plum bush, which is covered with cotton candy blossoms, shattering petals in the air like pink snowflakes. I run out to the bush with a tarp. (Knowing this might happen, I took a photo of the bush before the roofers arrived.)

Jim wields a kind of flat shovel to pry the shingles off. 

Craig stands at the top of the ladder to scoop them off the roof onto the tarp, while Jim pounds down the staples in the old tar paper underlayment. 

Craig drags the tarp full of shakes over to a spot under a tree, thankfully past the colony of May Apples which have just raised their green parasols, and dumps them in a pile on top of the quilt of Spring Beauties and Violets. I cart load after load of broken shakes from the yard to the woodpile. "Why not leave them there?" Craig asks. "Because it's unsightly," I reply. "This is our main view from the house." And besides, my miniature daffodils are due to come up under that very tree in a matter of days.
          After Jim has cleared off a section of old shingles and tacked down the black waterproof sheeting, Craig totes a sheet of plywood from the pile and slides it up the metal ladder to Jim (John helps whenever he can). Jim lifts the 4' x 8' sheet up all by himself, wrestles it around and plops the decking into place, then staples it down with an air gun. Jim raises cattle when he's not roofing (he's done both for 40 years), and I can imagine him wrangling a steer down single-handed for branding. Craig taught middle school physical education for 40 years, and I bet he could subdue a rambunctious adolescent with one hand, held at arm's length.

We live in a timber frame house with walls of clay mixed with straw and stone floors. Now we will add another earth element, metal, to our earthy house. This roof will last for hundreds of years, maybe longer than the house itself. And then, if the metal isn't recycled by some future generation of humans, it will simply sink back into the Earth from whence it came.

Monday, April 13, 2015

red yellow green flame

red yellow green flame
leaves unfolding, lighting up
the mud dark creek

On a loamy walk through the low flats along Pilgrim Creek in April, I'm delighted by Buckeye leaves erupting from the tips of sprouts, twigs and trunks. It's incredible how so much matter is packed into such a tiny space. Where does it come from? Sap, taking on a myriad of forms.

All the scenes of the drama appear at once, often on the same plant, from encased leaf buds, to emerging leaflets, to blossom buds.

The buds poke up through their red-tipped yellow sheathes like candle flames. 

Over-wintering as tiny match heads.

Covered in tough, overlapping, pointed scales.

Then the leaflets pop up, like silk scarves out of a magician's sleeve.

Unfolding like the most intricate origami.

Some low-growing sprouts show evidence of being nipped off by deer, but the hardy plants just send new shoots off to the sides.

As the now-soft sheaths curl back and the corrugated leaflets unfurl, they flare into wild tassels of lime green . . .

Umber gold . . .

And burnt orange. 

Gradually spreading out into maroon five-fingered leaves that slowly turn green.

And then the final magic trick as the long panicles of yellow flower buds emerge amidst applause.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

awakened by flash-boom

awakened by flash-boom --
then ice balls pounding the roof --
has winter returned?

It's nearly midnight but I can't sleep. Restless. The cells of my body feel a storm approaching from the west. A flash of intense light sears through my eyelids. I start counting. But before I finish one-one-thousand, a loud boom makes my body jump. That was close! Rain is thudding on the roof, but then the thudding turns to pounding. Uh oh. I get up and look out the windows. Small balls of ice are bouncing on the roof overhang like popcorn, banging against the glass, clanging on the metal rain gutters. 
          I wish I'd known this was coming so I could put a tarp over the car. And what about the magnolia tree, just about to bloom? Anxiously, I watch to see whether the hail gets any bigger than popcorn. But then I'm amused to notice the solar lights on the path. Confused by the intermittent lightning, they turn off when it flashes, then back on again during the short intervals.

I'm reminded of a hailstorm I witnessed in Pokhara, Nepal. Pam and I had been shopping after our trek. Without warning, suddenly a deluge of hail. We duck into a restaurant, order chai, and watch the storm. A group of children huddle under a cement ping pong table across the street.

A group of women with a baby take shelter under a large tree.

But a poor cow, confused by being pummeled, keeps jumping and changing directions, as if it is being switched by an unseen hand.

After the hail stops, the sidewalks are littered with leaves, the streets flooded. But soon vehicles and people begin moving again. In the light rain a pair of ladies sharing a pink umbrella stroll through the ankle deep brown water in their plastic sandals. One lady has hiked up her silk sari, but the other lady doesn't seem to mind that her punjabi pants are soaked to the knees.

In my mind I hear the voice of our friend Yuba, expressing the age-old wisdom of Nepal, saying, "No problem." And if there really is a problem, "What to do?"

Sunday, April 5, 2015

first day of April

first day of April --
dwarf bearded iris jesters
pop up from dead leaves

First April shower on April first. Last fall I planted two dozen bulbs of Alida, a dwarf bearded iris, along the front of one of the flower beds. Over the long winter I'd forgotten how quickly these miniature flowers spring up in the spring. So the joke's on me on April Fool's Day when I discover a staggered row of blue blossoms hovering above the cover of dead leaves. 

Glistening with raindrops, they look like glass fishing balls floating on a russet sea.

Or a raucous line of jesters in striped hose, spotted bloomers and beaded, feathered caps. 

The shoots are tiny spears, pliant yet strong enough to penetrate dense soil and pierce tough leaves. 

But when I pull the leaves back, the slender stems have grown pale and weak from being covered up and some of the dew-laden blossoms flop over like a Jack-in-the-box. I spend a happy hour fooling around with my macro lens, trying to capture the capricious exuberance of these merry entertainers. 
          When I rise from kneeling in the leaf mulch, I get another surprise: a tick slowly climbing the front of my shirt. Over the long winter, I forgot how quickly these insects spring up!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

blue shadows stretch away

blue shadows stretch away 
from the wrought iron table
to slide up the wall

On a cold but sunny spring day, shadows are everywhere. Bluish shadows lean away from the feet of the black wrought iron table and bend up the wall, creating patterns of dark and light. 
          We say, "the table casts a shadow," but nothing really throws its shadow. The process is totally passive and unintentional. Something opaque stands between rays of light and a surface impenetrable by light, creating a reverse projection. An absence appears to be a presence, an intangible apparition appears solid, a mirror image seems to move and shape shift while the object that created it stands still, or the dark dopplegรคnger follows its conjoined twin in motion.
          Unlike Peter Pan, as long as we have a body, we cannot lose our shadow, no matter how far it shrinks or stretches away from us. That is, as long as there is enough light to generate a shadow. 
          Light and darkness, paired opposites, both insubstantial. Yet tiny hunks of light can nudge a huge hunk of metal floating in space, and dark energy seems to be the mysterious force driving the expansion of our entire universe. 
          Photons are named for the Greek word for light, so I propose that we name dark energy, erebusons, meaning "deep darkness, shadow," after Erebus, the primordial Greek god of darkness, born out of Chaos.