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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Wherever or Whatever Your Home, Plant a Garden

Scroll through the gardening subreddit, and you’ll see a variety of gardens. Some users own vast spans of land in lush, green countryside. Others live in the desert or at the base of rocky mountains. More than a few post photos of tiny gardens along windowsills in offices or a collection of pots along a balcony.

green leaf plant in white pot located near the window
Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I’ve been spoiled. For almost all of my life, I’ve had ground in which to dig. There were a few exceptions – my college dorm and the apartment in which I resided in Pittsburgh – but for the most part, gardening for me was as simple as choosing a spot with good sun, digging a hole, and tucking in a pansy or a tomato plant.

People are drawn to nature. Studies have shown that being around plants calms us, increases our concentration, decreases our stress, and fosters our compassion for others. Caring for something living makes us feel more alive and connected to the world. My friends who have houseplants speak of forgetting to water them in the same guilt-ridden tone as if they’d forgotten to give their dog breakfast. Most plants, however, have the benefit of not needing attention more than once a day, if that.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s break this down even further. Whether it’s one ficus or an acre of sunflowers, caring for plants calls us to act (consciously or not) in several ways that can positively extend through the rest our lives:

Responsibility

Someone or something depends on us, and we are important to them or it. Without us, that person or thing will wither. At the end of the day, we all need to feel needed.

Compassion

By embracing responsibility for something even as small as a plant, we practice compassion. Like my friends who forgot to water their houseplant a few paragraphs above, by physically caring for something, we also learn to emotionally care for that thing.

Mindfulness

One of the ways gardens calm us is by encouraging a state of mindfulness, which roots us in the present. Gardening revives the senses and surrounds us with sensations – a prickly leaf, the refreshing scent of lemon grass, dew drops shining in the sun. Working with plants forces us to be slow and attentive.

light nature sky sunset
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Fortunately, even just looking at nature or going for a walk can provide some of the same calming, de-stressing power of gardening. Even the photos in this post should give you a little boost – searching for them gave me one! But there’s really nothing like the hands-on work of caring for your own plants.

When I lived in that apartment in Pittsburgh, I felt chained in. I really missed having a little bit of yard in which to dig around. And I’m kicking myself now because I barely made any attempt at a patio garden. I figured it wouldn’t work because I only knew how to grow things in the ground. But since I’ve lived in my house, I’ve grown things in raised and ground-level beds, in pots and troughs and hay baskets, in cheap plastic cups and specialized water-retaining planters. In doing so, I’ve come to realize that the set-up tends to be the same, no matter where you grow:

1. Study Your Location

How much space do you have? Is there full sun? Shade? Sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon? Is the soil soggy or sandy? Is it a place where squirrels like to dig? Or do you have pets that will want to nibble on the plant? At the very least, you’ll need to know space, light, water, and “predators.”

2. Know Your Resources

If you only have one store nearby that sells plants, it can be frustrating to build a huge list of amazing plants based off of internet research, and then arrive at the store to find nothing like what you hoped. Therefore, it’s helpful to have some idea of what’s in stock nearby. Of course, you can order plants online, but like anything else, if you’re just getting started, it’s a good idea to see the plants first-hand. Home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot will have a selection, but I also see plants outside grocery stores and pet stores. Farmers markets can also be a good source, particularly because they’ll probably have plants that grow well locally and are in-season.

3. Bigger Can Be Better

For folks just entering the garden game, stick to mature plants. Seedlings and seeds might be cheaper, but it’s really frustrating to nurture a seed only for it to die because you watered it a little too much. Mature plants are a lot more forgiving and you need fewer resources. It’s totally find to stick to them forever, but for the serious gardener, growing things from seed can be a fun and gratifying challenge. Keep in mind that depending on what you’re growing, seeds might require additional equipment – a humidity cover, seedling soil, etc.

4. Protect Your Plant

Protection means everything from mulching to fencing to hanging an indoor plant out of a curious cat’s reach. Unfortunately, sometimes you aren’t aware of dangers to your plant until after it’s in the ground (and you suddenly discover that squirrels just love to dig in that patch of earth to bury their nuts). But hey, you’re checking on it regularly anyway, right? So you’ll be able to adapt and help that plant thrive.

Much of the rest is just knowing your plant. Succulents needs much less water than bushy flowers with thin leaves. Butterfly bush roots will rot in boggy soil. The first year may be a rough one, but the second year will be easier.

You’ll learn and a little bud of pride will bloom in your heart.

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Update: The Birds

You guys, I know it’s more than halfway through June and I haven’t really peeped about my June project goals.

Eh, well, things have not gone quite as Snow White as I was hoping. Fresh off my trip to my parents’ houses, where each has created an avian paradise with feeders and a delightful variety of songbirds, I resolved to add some feeders to my front yard garden and create my own chirpy paradise.

My wise mother advised that the key to a variety of birds was a variety of food, so I added this sweet but sturdy shepherd’s hook and two feeders.

feeders

Every few days, I stock one feeder with a songbird blend and the other with pure black oil sunflower seed. I haven’t yet decided what to put on the lowest hook yet, because the birds are like little piggies on the existing feeders. They fling food everywhere. That stuff that looks like grass in front of the bird bath? Sprouted birdseed. Lovely. Fortunately, it’s super easy to pull. I only fill the feeders once or twice a week, which forces the birds to dig around on the ground for scraps and (hopefully) minimize what’s left behind to sprout.

My mom’s significant other always sings the praises of suet. I always reckoned suet as a cold-weather food, but apparently you just have to make sure you get the no-melt kind in summer. I got a cheap little suet holder and hung it from a tiny shepherd’s hook below my crepe myrtle. Inside the branches of that tree, I also have a little nesting ball to encourage some birdies to take up residence in my yard.

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The blue circle is the suet feeder; the orange is the nesting ball.

Most recently, I’ve also added a little hummingbird feeder to my kitchen window. I’ve never successfully attracted hummingbirds, though apparently they’re prolific in my area. I’m also terrible at remember to switch out the nectar, which may be the problem.

So what has this bounty attracted to my yard?

Like 5,000 house sparrows.

For a while, I also has numerous crow visitors, but they seem to be taking a break.

Briefly, I thought I saw a chickadee or two. I love chickadees because they tend to look chubby and cheerful. A few grackles have also visited. I’ve also seen several brown birds with red heads. The internet suggests these are house finches, but elsewhere, it doesn’t look like those little guys are supposed to be in my region this time of year.

But I really wanted some variety – some robins and bluebirds and goldfinches. Some color.

Ask and ye shall receive.

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Pigeons.

Last weekend, the pigeons found my feeders. Oh boy, did they find them. They told all their pigeon friends and they had a pigeon party at Chez Robyn.

Ugh.

But maybe word will eventually get around to the other songbirds and I’ll see a bit more variety in breeds. I might eventually add a peanut feeder and see if that attracts anyone else. On the plus side, unlike my mom, I don’t have to battle a horde of squirrels. I really just have one stubborn little monster who digs up my bulbs. I think the armies of birds around my feeders intimidate the squirrel, as I haven’t really seen it go for the feeder. So yay for the small victories!

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Are You Fit Enough to Garden?

Okay, so “Are You Fit Enough to Garden?” is a bit of a trick question. “Gardening” is a scale-able hobby. When most people think “garden,” they envision plot of land set aside for plants. But container planting, patio gardens, and windowsill gardens exist. Therefore, caring for a pint-sized potted succulent is as much “gardening” as cultivating several dozen flowers covering an entire front yard.

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The top half of this woman is built like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in his prime bodybuilding and action years.

Over the half-dozen years that I’ve owned my house, digging in the dirt and watching seeds and young plants flourish under my hand has brought me a lot of satisfaction. That’s the main reason I decided to branch out from just my backyard gardens to replacing my front lawn with a garden. But here’s the thing:

I wouldn’t be able to garden like this if I weren’t fit.

I don’t have the luxury of throwing money at non-essential projects. While a garden might be an essential part of my emotional well-being, yard projects aren’t as dire as, say, repairing the broken air conditioning in the middle of a southern summer. If I want a big garden (or some other intensive project), I can’t hire laborers. If I want to complete these projects without hurting myself, I must maintain a fit body.

fit enough to swing a sledge hammer
Even though I’m holding the sledge here, imagine that I’m the hammer and my body is the concrete getting totally wrecked.

My front yard revamp requires a ton of heavy materials:

  • Over 80 2 cu. ft. bags of mulch (average moisture):  260 pounds
  • Over 130 retaining wall blocks:  1,040 pounds
  • Lumber for the fence:  600 pounds
  • Around 30 bags of stones:  600 pounds

And I haven’t even gotten everything yet! We’re already at 2,500 pounds loaded into my car and toted around the yard. Let’s also not forget the drama of The Tiller, which was far too light. But instead of being easier, I had to push and pull harder. The lightness of the machine required more physical labor to dig into my yard and rip up the grass.

I haven’t always been so fit.

Back in January, I made a commitment to myself to work out in the mornings. Evening workouts were too easy to dismiss in favor of plans with friends or post-work fatigue. I’m happy to say that this is the most I’ve adhered to a workout routine in my entire life. Here’s all I do:

  • Tuesdays and Thursday:  run
  • Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays:  strength train (upper body, abs, and hamstrings/butt)
  • Weekends: rest – or more likely, do yard work
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Not me; I have more fat and red hair. But when I’m rockin’ and rollin’ with confidence, this is how I see myself.

As much as I hate to acknowledge physical boundaries and limitations, they do exist. I’ve found that as my yard work in the evenings has grown – especially when I do it for several days or weeks straight – my morning workouts must scale back. Otherwise, no matter how much I sleep or eat (or what I eat), I walk around in a state of perpetual exhaustion, and I start to resent the project. That’s kinda the opposite of the intent – I’m hauling these bags of mulch and lengths of lumber because I enjoy the process and the end result.

In terms of running, I’ve dropped from running six miles in a stretch to four and a half. My strength workouts are shorter – closer to half an hour rather than a hour.

Activity and nutrition are closely tied.

Personally, my morning workouts go much more smoothly when I have grilled vegetables and chicken for dinner the night before instead of saucy, fried Chinese takeout.

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Dagnabbit. Now I want takeout.

Although I track what I eat and try to stay within calorie and macro-nutrient guidelines, I also listen to my body.

I’m not normally a big meat eater, but lately, I’ve been craving steak. So when I went grocery shopping the other night, a tray of juicy, red filets found its way into my cart. And holy cow, my energy rebounded after dinner.

I, like many women, am borderline anemic, which is to say:  Ladies, if you work your body hard, make sure you’re consuming plenty of iron!

So to circle back to the question in the title, yes, you are fit enough to garden, in some sense of the word. But if you expect to undertake a large, physically-demanding project in the next year or so, starting working out now. Build muscle and endurance. Figure out the best way to feed your body to stave of fatigue. And be prepared to sweat.

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