The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

The Reading Landscape

The reading theme for May is landscape/terrain. This is one of those broad themes that would encompass things like field, grassland, range, desert, marsh, and so on. I was really excited about this theme. I have a lot of landish books that I am really looking forward to reading.

But it is May. May, when the birds migrate. May, when the lilacs bloom. May, when butterflies return and the house windows are open. When the herbs are coming up and rhubarb demands picking. The month of warblers. May, when I have the binoculars right beside me even when I’m reading. Especially when I’m reading. May, when I bring binoculars into restaurants just in case we get a window seat. You never know when you’ll see a warbler wave.

I’ve only finished one book so far this month, but have several in progress: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life, by Marc Ian Barasch (later published under the title The Compassionate Life: Walking the Path of Kindness); Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild; Prairie Reunion, by Barbara J. Scot (memoir); Divining the Landscape, by Diane Jarvenpa (poetry); and Joyland, by Stephen King. (Two of these are holdovers from the emotions theme. I love having books that cross themes.)

I am finding Field Notes on the Compassionate Life to be quite helpful. I tend to struggle with issues like grudges and resentment, and perhaps especially forgiveness. This book is giving me some good insights and suggests some practices that I think could be very helpful. I am reading it quite slowly (a chapter a day), because that seems to be all the compassion my wee brain/soul can absorb. And Strangers in Their Own Land promises to be fascinating, but I’ve only read the first few pages.

Report on last month’s theme (emotions): I experienced calm surrender, hate, love, happiness, disappointment, anxiety, longing, grief, moping, consolation, more happiness, wild comfort, and solace. I found emotions to be an absolutely lovely (and fun) reading theme. Best book of the month: Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature, by Kathleen Dean Moore. I loved this book because sometimes I felt like I was right there with her, wherever she was talking about. If she was in the forest, I could almost smell the pines. The writing is that good. But also—there’s a spiritual element to this book which I resound with. Nature is always where I most feel god.

There are many potential landish options for the rest of the month. John McPhee’s Basin and Range is high on the list (he has two other books that also intrigue: Rising from the Plains, and In Suspect Terrain). Found poetry:

basin and range
rising from the plains
in suspect terrain

Other books of interest include Lentil Underground, by Liz Carlisle; and Of Landscape and Longing, by Carolyn Servid. And Notes From the Shore, by Jennifer Ackerman, is nipping at my brain.

Because I am a planner by nature, I always look ahead. The theme for June is celestial objects, and I am finding my pickings extremely skimpy beyond earth, moon, and stars. Any fun ideas or suggestions out there?

July Reprise

July was a lot of sitting on the front porch reading. I read 18 books in July, mostly nonfiction (10). I read 5 fiction books (two of them were graphic novels) and 3 books of poetry. I’ve already written about my favorite books (July 8 and July 10) which were all nonfiction.

House HopeI also had this bookish experience in July: One of my fun light summer fiction reads was The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Pragg, a book incorporating a goodly pinch each of magic, literature, and feminism. After finishing this book, I decided to read A Room With a View, by E. M. Forster which was referenced several times (and quite fondly) in The House at the End of Hope Street. I loved the movie version of A Room With a View (which I’ve seen several times) and have wanted to read the book for a long time, and this was clearly the moment. I went to my shelf and—it wasn’t there! I was so sure I had it. I remember looking for a good trade copy of it for several years, and then I wasn’t looking, and I was sure I had bought it. Apparently not. I found Maurice and A Passage to India, but A Room With a View was not on the shelf where it should be.

They didn’t have it in stock at Moon Palace Books, but they offered to get me a used copy. I didn’t hear from them, so when I went to the library, I checked the shelf and they had a copy so I checked it out. But that weekend we went to Moon Palace and they did have a copy for me, a not-bad trade paperback, so I got it for $5.

Room ViewA couple of days later, I was culling my tall bookshelf of already-read fiction. And there sat A Room With a View. Not only did I have it (at least I was right about that) but I have read it and couldn’t even remember it! (This is not completely unprecedented. I read Stephen King’s novel The Stand and forgot, and it’s much longer than A Room With a View. But I hold E. M. Forster to a higher standard than I do King, and so I am quite disappointed—shocked even—at myself for forgetting.) My guess is that it’s because the movie is so ingrained in my mind that the book just kind of adapted itself in my brain to the movie, because Lucy Honeychurch will always and ever be Helena Bonham Carter to me.

FruitJuly was also a bit about cooking as I ventured into the world of salads. Fruit salad, tuna pasta salad (with lots of celery and peas), creamy cucumbers, and potato salad (my first attempt was not too bad but my second will be much better). Having covered the common bases, I decided to branch out into an orange/lentil salad (lentils cooked with orange zest, ginger, and cumin and then mixed with large chunks of orange, served cold). This was a very good idea in theory, but in practice we liked the lentils so much that we just ate them on their own (both cold and hot). I made juice (and fruit salad) out of the rest of the oranges.

We got tortillas to eat with the lentils. Then I thought to pick just a few herbs from the garden and put on a tortilla, cover with cheese, and microwave for 30 seconds. Particularly delicious with basil. Since we had the tortillas and it’s such an easy summer lunch, I made more lentils (also just because I wanted to practice). And when the lentils were almost gone, I made a batch of refried beans. We are now experimenting with whole grain tortillas. There are a lot of tortilla options out there. Recommendations are welcome!

Also on the food front, I have to say I am extremely glad I didn’t have a goal of eliminating 100% of industrial meat from my diet! One surprising thing I’ve found is how many meatless days I’ve had. I’ve only been tracking for 10 days, but half of those days were meatless. This is in large part due to the fact that I’m eating out less. I think I have cut my restaurant eating by about two-thirds. (And I can tell. I’m starting to miss the social aspect. Need to put other things in place so I don’t become a hermit.) But even eating out, I find I’m ordering more non-meat options than I used to, purely to avoid the industrial meat.

I expected to do much more meat eating at home (since we get our meat at the co-op, sourced from sustainable farms), but as mentioned above, I’ve been experimenting with salads and lentils and beans this month which has cut down on our carnivorous tendencies. Come autumn and winter, meat will return to the table.

GreenTFor now, it is mostly about the garden. I’ve got tomatoes coming in (green and plentiful). I continue to harvest chamomile nearly daily, and my plants are doing well enough that I am now using two screens for drying instead of just the one I had been using. I have two late-blooming chamomile plants that have just started flowering. Worth the wait, as these flowers are about three times the size of those in the other pots! I’ve also been more diligent about harvesting my herbs for use over the winter and have already started jars of dried rosemary, yarrow, thyme, plantain, and sage.

The other best thing about spending time in the garden is the wildlife. I’ve seen fledging cardinals, blue jays, robins, and catbirds this year. More than ever before. Also many monarch and swallowtail butterflies, a great spangled fritillary, and different kinds of bumble bees. I think maybe I’m just paying more attention.

Baby Birds, Butterflies, and DIY Bug Spray

gray_catbird_3I took a break while mowing this morning to pick up some sticks in the backyard. I went to throw them on the brush pile, and a small fluttering something on the ground caught my eye. A baby bird! At first I thought it might be a thrush, but then I saw its tail and I wondered if it might be a baby catbird. As if to confirm my suspicion, an adult catbird landed on a lilac branch about two feet away from me. With my attention diverted, the baby scurried away.

I scurried away too. I got a glass of iced tea and sat in the breeze to enjoy the backyard—mess that it is—for awhile. While I sat there the adult baltimore_oriole_6catbird returned, hanging around the smaller birdbath that it seems to favor. I saw a little movement back behind the lilacs, but didn’t espy the baby catbird again. I did see a female Baltimore Oriole, perhaps come to feed on the red-twig dogwood berries.

When I did resume mowing, I gave all areas near the dogwoods and lilacs a fairly wide birth. I didn’t want to take any chances; I like having catbirds in my backyard. They first showed up a few years ago, and each summer since, I’ve seen them more often. This summer I have seen them almost daily, both in the front yard in the ornamental lilac tree, as well as the back at the birdbath, on the fence, the high wires, and in the dogwoods. And the calls! Even when I can’t see them I often hear them. But this is the first year I’ve known they are nesting so close. I am exceptionally pleased to be hosting a catbird family!

The catbird wasn’t the first young bird that I’ve seen in the yard this year. A few days ago there was a fledging blue jay (with attendant parents) in the crabapple tree (mostly). Holy cow were they loud! Earlier a flock had (slowly) passed through—screaming and calling and laughing. I couldn’t tell if there were 20 or 50. A lot if them, though, prancing around among the leaves and branches near the tops of the trees. I couldn’t read. I could only watch them.

A couple of weeks ago I saw a fledging cardinal, also in the crabapple tree, also with both parents. (If you see cardinals and you wonder, you can tell the youngsters by their black beaks. The adults have bright orange bills.) If ever I have thought of chopping down the crabapple tree (and I have, because the squirrels use it as freeway central to my roof), I am loathe to do so after these fine, mesmerizing moments.

On another matter, while mowing the front this morning, some kind of nasty bugs kept landing on me and biting, hard! Always where I couldn’t see them. I finally ran into the house and grabbed my homemade bug spray (I had only tried it once before) and sprayed me, my clothes, and my cap. I had no more trouble with bugs. Maybe these particular nasty bugs just went away, or maybe it was the spray. I will continue testing. If you want to test for yourself, the recipe is below. It takes a couple of weeks for the herbs to infuse, but it’s still July, and at least in Minnesota, that leaves at least two months of biting bugs.

DIY Bug Spray

Take one large handful lemon balm, and a large pinch each of basil, thyme, and catnip. Chop fine (or tear up the leaves by hand—this is my preference), put in a jar, and cover (plus 2 inches) with witch hazel. (Witch hazel can be found in most grocery stores, co-ops, and pharmacies.) Put in a cool dark place (or at least a dark place—I use the linen closet) for two weeks, shaking daily. 

To use, strain the herbs using a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth). Then add enough water to the herbed witch hazel so the volume increases by half (e.g., if you have 2/3 cups witch hazel, add 1/3 cup water; if you have 1 cup witch hazel, add 1/2 cup water). Now add a few drops of essential oils: citronella, basil, lemongrass, thyme, peppermint, eucalyptus, clove. I didn’t have many of these, and added only citronella, lemongrass, and peppermint. It seems to be working. Play around with the oils, depending on what you have and your preferences.

Store in a glass bottle and spritz away!

great-spangled-fritillaryAs for the butterfly, that was a gift while I was sitting and drinking iced tea, waiting for the baby catbird to escape deep into the dogwoods. (Doesn’t it sound like I have a huge yard? It’s a tiny city lot.) It rather zipped through the backyard (the butterfly, not the baby catbird), not the dallying kind of butterfly I’m used to with my monarchs. Something in me said fritillary. And after looking in my books and talking to my butterfly friend, I’m pretty sure it was a great spangled fritillary.

Really, life doesn’t get much better than this.