A Few of My Favorite Writings on Nature

When I was a kid, I’d turning out the light and climbing under the covers at nine o’clock. After a few minutes, the hall outside my door would grow quiet as my parents retreated to the living room to watch TV. Then, I’d reach under my bed, pull out a flashlight, and open the top book of the stack that lived at my bedside. During those years, I probably read more than I slept every night.

Fast-forward a couple of decades to when I was deciding what to pursue in graduate school. There really wasn’t that much debate. I could get a master’s degree that involved reading books and talking and writing about them for several years? Um, yes, please.

There are two things that happen when you’ve fallen into a really excellent tale:

  • you lose yourself, or
  • you become so enmeshed that even after you close the book, the world, characters, ideas, or plot forever reside inside you.

Both are ways of removing focus from yourself, which can be healthy in a world of selfies and constant comparisons to the lives of others through social media. Gardening and spending time in nature offer this same sort of therapy.

So I’m especially delighted when writer’s take the time to slow down, study, and capture the natural world around us in words. Here are a few that have stuck with me over the years:

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

17934530While the oddness of the story is what initially appealed to me, I didn’t expect to come away identifying so strongly with the main character, a biologist. For a few weeks, I had all but decided to go back to school to earn a BS in biology* – until I came to my senses and remembered how I’ve always struggled with the sciences. This was the passage that initially ensnared me:

“My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people asked me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up . . . Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long. Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent . . . The water level slowly rose, fed by the rain, and the surface became more and more brackish with algae . . . Bullfrogs moved in . . . Rather than get rid of my thirty-gallon freshwater aquarium, as my parents wanted, I dumped fish into the pool . . . Local birds, like herons and egrets, began to appear . . . By some miracle, too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.”

The biologist goes on to describe how she’d “escape” from her bullies and parents to this developing ecosystem. She observed its changes and took notes on species and life cycles. Rather than learn about ecosystems through textbooks, “[she] wanted to discover the information on [her] own first.”

EdgeOfTheSea“The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist best known for Silent Spring, a book concerned with the impact of pesticides on the environment. However, I first read her in a class on the craft of nonfiction, while we were studying nature writing. “The Marginal World,” first published in The Edge of the Sea, describes a trip to the shore in detail that shimmers with the ethereal.

“Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Grey patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color. In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave.”

East of Eden by John Steinbeck9780140186390

“John Steinbeck” is a name reviled by many high school students forced to slog through The Grapes of Wrath. I count myself lucky that I didn’t read that heavy volume until graduate school, where I could appreciate Steinbeck’s lengthy descriptions of rural America. Few things make me feel more rooted and patriotic than Steinbeck’s vivid accounts of American countryside, from Oklahoma to California. However, it is East of Eden that Steinbeck described as “the story of my country and the story of me.”

“From both sides of the valley little streams slipped out of the hill canyons and fell into the bed of the Salinas River. In the winter of wet years the streams ran full-freshet, and they swelled the river until sometimes it raged and boiled, bank full, and then it was a destroyer. The river tore the edges of the farm lands and washed whole acres down; it toppled barns and houses into itself, to go floating and bobbing away. It trapped cows and pigs and sheep and drowned them in its muddy brown water and carried them to the sea. Then when the late spring came, the river drew in from its edges and the sand banks appeared. And in the summer the river didn’t run at all above ground. Some pools would be left in the deep swirl places under a high bank. The tules and grasses grew back, and willows straightened up with the flood debris in their upper branches. The Salinas was only a part-time river. ”

I’m sure I’ve forgotten other fantastic works, but these are the words that I carry with me day-to-day, sometimes ringing in my ears loudly, sometimes faint and soft. Looking back over just these three texts, though, it’s pretty clear that I feel a connection to water. But what is nature without water? Water – and words – are necessary for life.

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*This isn’t as crazy a proposition as it might initially seem. I get discounted tuition at the university where I work, and I have several semesters of my G.I. Bill left to use. And I’m a total nerd who loves to learn.

 

Let’s Talk About Raccoons

Every now and then, photos of videos of raccoons will appear on my Facebook Newsfeed, talking about how cute or impressive the little buggers are. I have to admit, I used to agree. Raccoons can be little chubby balls of fur with masks and human-like grabby paws.

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Do you also like to rip feathers out of panicking chickens?

But ever since I got my first pair of chickens back in 2013? Ugh. Rarely have I felt such malevolence toward another living thing.

Recently, Toronto spent millions of dollars on “raccoon-resistant” trash bins, only to have some “uber-smart” raccoons still break into the garbage like it ain’t no thang. I wasn’t surprised. While memes might paint raccoons as chubby, lazy little critters, anyone who’s experienced them as a pest will tell you the opposite is true (okay, they’re probably still chubby, but they sure as heck aren’t lazy).

And they’re everywhere.

I live in the middle of a residential area, where lots are about 60 feet wide. Although houses are raised (thanks, sea-level elevation and flood potential!), the openings are fenced or bricked up. And yet, there are hoards of raccoons that are able to find someplace to sleep during the day so they can wreak havoc at night.

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Sneaky, sneaky.

Some of those masked grabby-bears are ballsy!

One night, my chickens started making concerned coos. I went outside with my hefty Maglite to scare off what I assumed was a single raccoon, or maybe a pair. When I round the corner, four pairs of eyes gleamed back at me from on and around the coop. There was a rustle overhead, and I shined the flashlight into the branches of the oak tree to find several more raccoons staring down at me. In total, there were more than half a dozen.

I inched closer to the raccoon gang, made noise, and threw sticks. None of them moved. Whenever animals don’t behave as expected, rabies is a concern. However, I’m more of the opinion that this particular gang was used to people and empowered by their numbers. Whatever the reason, I decided to put faith in the strength of my coop and go back inside. Fortunately, they eventually left without breaking in.

Other memorable raccoon run-ins include:

  • A raccoon chasing one of my hens and pinning her down. I caught them in time and she was able to get free, minus a few feathers.
  • A raccoon sneaking into my coop every afternoon for weeks to steal eggs and feed. It was pretty skinny and probably only out during the day due to desperation for food. I borrowed a trap and relocated the bugger.
  • A raccoon breaking the door of my nest box to try and grab my hen, who spent all night and day in the box due to a strong broody spell. She got away, and on the positive side, the attack broke her broody spell. Even though it was after midnight, I immediately repaired the nest box because…

Raccoons will always return.

Unless you physically relocate the animal beyond its reasonable travel distance, or you make whatever “treat” completely inaccessible, raccoons will keep coming back. They are persistent, surprisingly clever, and occasionally malicious.

A friend recommended I get an airsoft gun and pop the critters. I’m preeeetty sure that’s not legal within city limits, but even if it is, I have terrible aim and would probably hit a hen…or a neighbor!

Therefore, for current and would-be chicken owners, I have one major piece of advice:

Build a fortress.

When installing your coop and run:

  1. Cover all “open” sides and the roof and any windows in galvanized hardware cloth. Secure the hardware cloth onto your frame with exterior screws and washers (the hardware cloth holes are too big for the screw heads, so the washers hold everything in place).
  2. Bury hardware cloth or heavy pavers all around the perimeter of your coop and run, extending out at least a foot. This will prevent digging (and raccoons will dig).
  3. Invest in a treadle feeder that “hides” the food in a closed container when the birds aren’t actively eating.
  4. Place your nest boxes inside the coop and off the ground. If you include an “easy access” door that let’s you collect eggs from the outside, make sure it’s secure enough that raccoons won’t treat it as an easy-access door too.
  5. Secure doors with screw links/carabiners or actual locks. Raccoons can squeeze and work out rods, so simple carabiners or slides won’t keep things secure.
  6. If you feed your birds table scraps, don’t leave them out overnight.
  7. If your birds free-range during the day, put them up half an hour before the sun fully sets. I’ve caught raccoons prowling around my yard well before twilight.
  8. Realize that despite your best efforts, you might still lose a bird. Following all of the steps above should minimize your risk, but anything that lives outside may become a predator’s meal. Losing a bird sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.

Remember that you can always rebuild. I learned about 40% of what I know about coops and predators from research and 60% from failures and near-misses. The important thing is that you pay attention, learn from what went wrong, and immediately take action to remedy the misstep.

Although I prefer prevention as a way to eliminate painful situations before they arise, it’s not like I can eliminate raccoons from my neighborhood. Sometimes, all you can do is make yourself a more troublesome than everyone around you.

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The Fall Vegetable Garden

We’re in October, you guys! This is my favorite month for a number of reasons. Halloween means costumes, my birthday means cake (I’m a funfetti gal, through and through), and autumn really kicks into gear!

October’s a time of change. Holiday decor starts to make an appearance. Leaves begin to change. Here in New Orleans, the weather finally cools off enough that festival season roars to life.

That said, our high temperatures are still in the 80s (Fahrenheit), so the weather doesn’t exactly feel like the North Carolina autumns with which I grew up.

pave covered on red leaf between trees
Photo by Ali Yasser Arwand on Pexels.com

If I lived further north, I probably would’ve planted my fall garden a few weeks ago. However, one of the lovely aspects of living in a subtropical climate is our winters are very mild. We might see one or two days with a hard freeze, but those typically aren’t until around February. This weather means that I can plant a bit later because the winter growing season is either long or doesn’t end at all.

What am I going to plant?

Well, one plant is already in the ground and has been all summer. My monster eggplant is huge and still producing, so it’ll stay in place until it starts to die back. This is the first time I’ve had such success with eggplant; I’ve planted it once or twice before, but they typically fail before reaching waist height.

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The eggplant currently stretches across the entry gate and beyond the boundaries of the garden. I cut it back a little bit so that I could put two-foot-tall poultry fencing at the top of the wooden fence (my younger chickens kept hopping in the garden and scratching around). Eggplants tend to max out at four feet tall. I’m five feet and change, and this beast is taller than me.

Anyway, enough with the monster eggplant. (can you tell I’m proud?)

As I’ve grown more confident with growing, I’ve experimented more with growing from seed. Doing this has a few benefits:

  • Plants are cheaper. I get most of my seeds from eBay and spend $1-3 dollars on a packet.
  • Unusual varieties are easier to find in seed form.
  • Seeds can be bought in advance and planted at your/the weather’s convenience (as opposed to a plant in a plastic carton, which should find a home in the ground or a pot quite soon after purchase).

Of course, many root vegetables like carrots need to be planted from seed anyway. Transplanting them, even as seedlings, can permanently damage the root.

As to the middle point in the list above, I’m not going too terribly crazy this year. This is the first time I’m doing everything from seed, so I’m sticking to more common standards.

Sweet Yellow Spanish Onion

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Gurney’s

Days to maturity (from seed): 110-115

Size at maturity: 4-6 inch diameter; up to 1 lb in weight

I’ve grown over types of onions before – usually as transplants or seedlings. This will be my first try at growing them from seed!

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Carrot Rainbow Mix

Days to maturity: 70-80 days, some varieties up to 120 days

Size at maturity: typically 6-8 inches long, but it can vary

Carrots are one of my go-to winter veggies because they’re easy and dependable. My one mistake is leaving them in the ground too long and allowing them to rot. The mix I’m planting this year includes “Atomic Red, Bambino Orange, Cosmic Purple, Lunar White, and Solar Yellow.”

green and purple lettuce on ground
Photo by Markus Spiske temporausch.com on Pexels.com

Heirloom Lettuce Mix

Days to maturity: 45-70

Size at maturity: varies

This mix includes Lolla Rossa, Rouge D’Hiver, Salad Bowl, Red Salad Bowl, and Italienisher.

Snowball Cauliflower

Days to maturity: 70-80

Size at maturity: head is 6-8 inches across, weighs 3-5 lbs

I’ve tried to grow cauliflower from a transplant before, but I wasn’t successful due to pests. I’ll have to keep an eye out this year!

green broccoli vegetable on brown wooden table
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Calabrese Broccoli

Days to maturity: 60-90 days

Size at maturity: head is 5-8 inches across

This is an “heirloom favorite.” Although I didn’t intentionally select heirloom varieties of plants, the idea of heading in that direction appeals to me. Growing heirloom varieties of plants has a romantic connection to the past – but I’ll only keep trying them if they produce.

There will be herbs too.

I don’t plan to plant any new herbs, but the ones I started in the spring and summer are still going strong. At the base of the eggplant, I have chives. In pots, I also grow rosemary, basil, thyme, and parsley. (I was going for the ol’ “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” combo, but I’ve never had success with sage in Louisiana.)

Basil usually dies back in the winter, but the others should keep on trucking, so long as we don’t get a hard freeze.

To be honest, one of the reasons I look forward to autumn and winter is to get a break from the voracious growth of summer. All my gardens in the front and back yard are a lot to tend for one person. Between the daily bright sun and the “wet season” with regular afternoon rain, the weeds tend to go wild.

I’m ready for things to quiet down a bit.

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