Outdoors and Gardening


This is the season I’m overcome with mixed emotions: I love the brilliant colors and subtle hues of autumn; I revel in the crisp cool air and bright blue skies, and I’m energized by the fierce storms magnified by crashing thunder and sparks of lightning. We have weather here.

But with each leaf that drifts toward the ground, covering it with a blanket of yellow, orange and brown, I’m reminded that winter is coming. And that’s the season I’d rather not be here. Trees are barren and stark. Shrubs slink back into sorry masses of yellow-brown brush. The landscape cries for a lid of pure snow to hide it all.

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Knowing what’s in store, I slog through the fall chores at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home.  I cut back the spent flowers—except for black-eyed susans, sunflowers, and any others with seeds or pods for the birds. I supervise the “fencing” of the fruit trees, so the deer don’t demolish them in the early spring before the forest grows its bounty. And I arrange for the pontoon, lift, and dock to be stored on the lake bank and alongside the garden shed—all the while cherishing memories of the delighted screams of grandchildren as they jumped off the pontoon into the lake or were pulled in a tube—a sport they call “tubing.”

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I buy butternut squash at the farmers market and bake an apple crisp to serve during the final week-end here when family and friends will stop by to say their goodbyes. Then next week, we’ll store all the lawn furniture and pots, winterize the cabin and set the heat in the main house to 50° to prepare for freezing temperatures; they can reach 30° below zero in January.

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We’ll soon return to our condo in San Diego and I know that when we watch the sun set over Sail Bay with streaks of orange and red, we’ll fall in love with the Pacific Ocean all over again. But for now, there’s a nostalgic sadness in my heart. I’m leaving my beloved Northern Bliss.

Upcoming blogs will continue the series covering our September trip from Germany down the Danube.

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What a coincidence! I have two framed Egyptian papyrus prints on the walls of my home. And now I have Egyptian papyrus plants in my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss.

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The papyrus plant is a reed that grows wild in marshy areas around the Nile River. One of my favorite excursions when I visited Egypt during our circumnavigation was our boat trip down the Nile River. How I loved to see those papyrus plants swaying in the breeze! During a cultural show, we learned the process of making paper from papyrus. First, the inside of the stalk was peeled into long strips. Then these strips were spread out in two layers, one horizontal and one vertical, and pressed and dried to form a sheet. The sheet could be used by itself, or individual sheets could be joined end-to-end to form a roll. Natural gum held the sheets together, so no glue was required. A roll was usually about one foot in height and could be up to 100 feet in length.

I never knew that papyrus was offered by nurseries in the USA until I built my Rain Garden at Northern Bliss. I had researched the process in sustainable landscaping books and websites and diligently followed the instructions using native Wisconsin plants with deep roots. All of the natural flowers worked well in heavy rains except for the blazing stars planted in the center, the deepest part. They just drowned.

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So the following spring I decided to try something else. But what?  Dale, my gardener with Lake Services, just happened to notice a group of tall papyrus plants in the back of a pick-up truck leaving a nursery. He stopped the driver to ask questions. And then we considered our options: Papyrus is a non-native plant, but because I’d seen it growing wild in the Nile, I knew it had to have deep roots to soak up excess moisture in my Rain Garden. But, because it’s a tropical plant, we’d have to replace the three plants every spring.

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We went ahead and I certainly don’t regret it. This year, we’ve had lots of rain and the system works: My Wet Lot drains like it’s designed to do and the three King Tut papyrus plants stand tall and majestic, swaying in the breeze─just like their ancestors did in the Nile.

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“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

P1110733 Shases of green in the morning mist

We arrived at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home on June 4 this year—too late to see the fiddlehead ferns unfurl, too late to see the tulips and daffodils bloom, but just in time to see the trumpeter swans swimming along White Ash Lake, goslings in tow. My heart sang for joy!

Because of a mild winter leading to an early spring “up north” this year, the landscape is already dramatically lush. I marvel at the many shades of green: blue-green and lime-green hostas, dark-green spruce, and pale-green shoots of new growth. Talk about “50 Shades of Gray.” Here we have 50 shades of green! And green is all about de-stressing, slowing down, and letting go. It’s the color of life, nature, harmony, renewal, and energy.

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I agree with John Burroughs, who said, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order.” While the green palette soothes my soul, the song of newly-arrived finches tickles my ears, the feel of warm soil running through my fingers connects me to the earth, and the heavenly scent of budding flowers brings me peace. I wet my lips and taste the freshness of the country breeze rustling through the treetops.

What happens to your body in the presence of green? Your pituitary gland is stimulated. Your muscles become more relaxed, and your blood histamine levels increase. That leads to a decrease in allergy symptoms and dilated blood vessels. In other words, green is calming and stress-relieving, yet invigorating at the same time. The color green has been shown to improve reading ability and creativity. Aha! That’s gives me just the excuse I need to spend some time in that inviting hammock reading a book!

For a related blog, visit Soft Focus.

 

 

“We are all in the same boat, and we only have one boat.” –Paul Anastas

Circumnavigators, of all people, appreciate how the earth is one. While sailing from San Diego to the Marquesas Islands, twenty-one days without the sight of land, I would marvel at the curved horizon all around us; we were right in the middle of the dark blue sea.

Breathtaking days were followed by overwhelming nights. I wrote these words in my journal and later in my book, Maiden Voyage:

Pacific Bliss glides gently forward, skimming the ocean waves. I know she’s moving because I hear the slosh-slosh of her hulls against the waves and the occasional creak-creak of the mainsail swaying as it tries to touch the stars. I feel like I’m encased in a giant dome, surrounded by stars crowded together so tightly they resemble a thousand Milky Ways. I am mesmerized. I find many sections of the sky so dense with stars that I cannot separate the individual star from the primordial soup. I am seeing constellations that I’ve never seen nor heard of before, lights that have taken millions of light years to come to me.

I feel unimportant, insignificant. That’s how it is at sea, a mystical experience almost impossible to duplicate on land.

“A wonderful, starry night,” I write in my logbook at the end of my watch, “the stuff of dreams.”

NASA astronomer John O’Keefe said that, to the astronomer, the earth is a very sheltered and protected place. A marvelous picture from Apollo 8 show the blue and cloud-wrapped earth, seen just at the horizon of the black-cratered, torn, and smashed lunar landscape. The contrast would not be lost on any creature. The thought, “God loves those people,” cannot be resisted. Yet the moon is a friendly place compared to Venus, where, from skies 40 km high, a rain of concentrated sulfuric acid falls toward a surface that is as hot as boiling lead. Then O’Keefe goes on to say that Venus is friendly compared to the crushing pressure of white dwarfs or the unspeakable horrors of the black holes of neutron stars. He writes:

We are by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures…If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances were created for man to live in…Someone made a lot of special arrangements and took a lot of time so that each of us could be alive and experiencing this just-right world.

 

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As shown from page 28,  In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage

“The earth is what we all have in common,” said Naturalist and writer, Wendell Barry. During this Earth Week, and every day of the year, is up to each of us to cherish this gift and to treat it with the respect it deserves.

 

Life stands before me like an eternal spring with new and brilliant clothes… -Carl Friedrich Gauss

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It’s springtime in the Northern Hemisphere and signs of spring flourish everywhere. I’ve just completed a spring “fresher-upper” of our San Diego condo. New paint does wonders! The most challenging part of the project? Re-hanging about 100 pieces of art and photography. We completed that task last week, just in time for Easter celebrations. I wore a new spring skirt to church, ivory-and-black with butterflies dancing at the hem. At home, I positioned bright yellow daffodils in every room.

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We have three blue-green eggs hidden in the hanging geranium plant on our patio. With the mother chirping and flying back-and-forth, I am fearful of disturbing the bucolic scene. But it’s wonderful to know that she is there and will take good care of her chicks.

Did you know that you can renew those New Year’s resolutions you failed to keep? Yes!! Spring allows you to start over again—it’s a season of hope, of new beginnings, and of second chances. Two of my resolutions didn’t work well together. I combined a huge writing goal with the desire to shed ten pounds. Sitting at the computer for hours on end defeated the weight goal; I gained instead. So now I’ve joined Weight Watchers® and this time, I’m serious.

With worldwide terrorism dominating the news, these words by Madeleine M. Kunin are comforting: “When all the world appears to be in a tumult…the seasons retain their essential rhythm. Yes, fall gives us a premonition of winter, but then, winter, will be forced to relent, once again, to the new beginnings of soft greens, longer light, and the sweet air of spring.”

Spring is also a growing season, and in all of nature, there’s a built-in desire to grow, to improve, to make it better, to make a difference. Above all, growing is my goal for the rest of the year, and I trust that it’s yours as well.

  

A commotion on the lake woke me up in a flash. The splashing was accompanied by a sound I hadn’t heard here—a deep note, like that of a French horn, with a lingering ring. I ran to the window just in time to see a family of five swimming past our dock. My bird book identified them as Trumpeter swans—the largest waterfowl in North America. The next day they came back and I managed to take photos. What a sight—and a privilege.

These swans have had a touch-and-go history in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The last wild nests were located in Heron and Everson Lakes in the late 1880s. The birds were killed for food; their feathers were used for ladies’ hats, and their down, for powder puffs. By 1935, fewer than 70 of these majestic birds could be found in remote areas of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That year, Red Rock, Montana became a refuge for Trumpeter swans. Hennepin Parks, Minnesota hosted restoration efforts in the 1960s. Then in 1982, Minnesota’s DNR (Department of Natural Resources) joined the effort by transporting swan eggs from Alaska to Minnesota. The offspring, called cygnets, were raised for two years and released. Now, over 2000 swans trumpet in Heron Lake, Swan Lake, and St. Croix State Park. In Wisconsin, thanks to the state endangered species act and a public-private partnership, trumpeter swan populations are recovering. Trumpeter swans doubled the goal of 20 breeding pairs by 2000, and were removed from the state endangered species list in 2009. Today, the number stands at a modern all-time high of nearly 200 nesting pairs in 23 counties. You can view them at Crex Meadows in Burnett County and Sandhill Wildlife Refuge in Wood County—or come to White Ash Lake, where we have one family of five.

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Family of FIve Trumpeter Swans

Life Cycle: The male and female build a nest on a muskrat or beaver dam, on a floating mat of plants, or build up enough plants to make a platform. The female incubates the clutch of 4-6 eggs for 34 days. One day before hatching, the chicks begin to peep. Cygnets can swim as soon as their down is dry, but they stay on their nests for a few days. For the next three weeks, until their new feathers grow in, they are brooded by their parents and fed snails and insects from the bottom of the marsh. The juveniles stay with their parents through their first winter until they return in the spring to the same breeding area. Then they hang out with their siblings for 4-6 years until they are mature enough to mate and raise their own young. If a pair uses the same nesting location two summers in a row, they form an almost unbreakable attachment to the site.

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

Pair of adult and juvenile swans

The swans create quite a commotion when they take off. They run on top of the water with their wings flapping. Just after take-off they pull their necks into an S and then straighten it out. They sleep with their head tucked down under their wing.

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

Fluffiing feathers to dry off

I have magic memories of my childhood in the Midwest. In school, I studied the transition of egg to larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis/cocoon) to a gorgeous adult butterfly with amazement. Then as the autumn days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, I marveled at flocks of Monarch butterflies migrating. “Look at those flying flowers,” I exclaimed as they took to the sky en masse. Those large flocks are no longer here; monarch populations have dwindled from billions to mere millions. But something can be done.

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp Milkweed

That such delicate creatures weighing less than a gram can fly over 3000 miles—often to the same tree from whence their ancestors came—never ceases to amaze me. In the Monarch’s summer territory (which includes most of North America) butterflies may mate up to seven times, all living from two to six weeks. Then, signaled by the lack of light (shorter days) the new non-reproductive butterflies hatch. (Reproductive butterflies do not migrate south, however, and the migratory ones do not reproduce until the following year.) The creation of these creatures required a lot of planning!

Migration Map

Migration Map

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency provided $2 million this year for “on-the-ground conservation projects.” A mad rush ensued to plant milkweed along the I-35 Monarch corridor, which extends 1,500 miles from Minnesota to Texas and provides spring and summer breeding habitats along key migration pathways. Conservationists had successfully lobbied transportation departments and utilities to reduce their use of herbicides and to encourage milkweed to grow along the roadways and powerlines. Great! This was one government project I could believe in! Monarchs depend on milkweed; it’s the only plant they eat and lay eggs on. And milkweed populations had dropped 21% between 1995 and 2013 due to increased development and herbicide use. But what happened to the I-35 Monarch migration pathway? Chalk it up to big government ineptitude! This summer, the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing, so the Transportation Department came and mowed the new milkweed plants down. No one informed the drivers of the trucks, and their job is the mow the weeds!

However, those living near this corridor can make a difference, says our local paper, called The Laker. If you have a sunny patch of land, you can mix and match flowers to build your own butterfly garden.  Start with basic host plants such as swamp milkweed, broccoli, and bronze fennel. Then choose from perennials, which often reseed themselves, or nectar-rich annuals. Some choices are: butterfly weed, oregano, lantana, purple coneflower (Echinacea), blazing star, black-eyed susan, pink everlasting (sedum), and Mexican sunflower. I had already designed a rain garden last season so it was easy for me to plant what the monarchs need. My question was, “If I plant it, will they come?” The answer: “Yes!” My Wisconsin garden is now part of the Midwest migration path.

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