Saturday, April 30, 2011

Seed bombs & guerilla gardening

Sunday, May 1st is the fifth annual International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day. Guerilla gardeners just want to share the greenery--they fill abandoned and barren spaces with seeds or plants, pretty much without bothering to ask permission from anyone. In fact, some of these secret gardeners act in the dead of night--a derelict area is replaced by a bed of flowers or edibles before the sun rises.  The gardeners act locally and think globally: they share their adventures online from Italy, Romania, Sweden, Austria, France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, England, Canada, Ireland, Germany, and the U.S.  

On May 1, the flower du jour is the sunflower, and nearly 3,000 on Facebook worldwide have pledged to plant.  

One of the tools of the trade is the seed bomb--balls made out of compost and clay that encase wildflower or other seeds.  They're thrown into neglected open spaces (over a chain-link fence, say), and there they sit, the seeds protected from drying out or being eaten by birds, until the next rain when the clay breaks down and the compost offers instant nutrients.

So, how about it? Know any abandoned, neglected spots that could use a sunflower (or a few dozen)?  
Join in the cause: resistance is fertile.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"Ugly to the Last Degree"

That's how the 1936 book Birds of America described the turkey vulture. And you've gotta admit they had a point.
Not even his momma loves this face.
photo by Paco Lyptic

Turkey vultures need that bald head so they can dip into a gooey meal without fouling any feathers. But the head is just one piece of the ugly that this bird can claim. Consider its method of self-defense: projectile vomiting (but try not to consider just what it is they would urk up), and its self-cooling strategy of excreting on its legs.

My friend Greta, a poet, once asked me to identify the birds with the silvery underwings that she liked to watch rocking and gliding in the thermals. She felt a certain kinship with them, she told me, an affinity. I think she identified with them a little less after I explained about the projectile yarfing and the pooping-on-the-legs habit. But hey, if anyone can see the beauty in a turkey vulture, it would be a poet.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Navajo Prayer

Here is part of a traditional Navajo prayer that is lovely to repeat to yourself when you're outside*:

With beauty before me, I walk.

With beauty behind me, I walk.

With beauty below me, I walk.

With beauty above me, I walk.

With beauty all around me, I walk.

Special bonus points to anyone able to name where I was on our lovely sunny Saturday. (Hint: Nature Conservancy).  These bonus points, plus $4, will enable you to buy a cup of coffee at the establishment of your choice.

* With thanks to Joseph Cornell's Listening to Nature: How to Deepen Your Awareness of Nature

Thursday, April 21, 2011

99 cents for Earth Day!

Friday, April 22 is Earth Day, and my publishers are celebrating the day by dropping the price of Kidnapping the Lorax to 99 cents!  The e-book is available at:

(By the way, you don't need a Kindle or Nook to read the book--
you can download it to your computer to read it.) 

It's the 41st anniversary of Earth Day--get outside!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Planet's most successful weed: the dandelion

The humble dandelion has travelled or been introduced to most of the planet, and is arguably the world's most successful weed. It's got a lot of neat tricks to maintain that dominance, like the ethylene gas exuded by its rosette of leaves, which discourages competing plants from growing too closely. Or its clever tactic of wafting those seed-parachutes into the wind, where they hitchhike until the relative humidity is less than seventy percent. When the humidity rises, as it does before a rain, the silky hairs close up, and the dandelion seed comes down, plants itself on earth--and gets watered.

Don't let its sunny disposition
fool you--it's winning this war.
Photo by Natalia Romay 
And if you think dandelions multiply so fast in your yard that they must be cloning themselves, you're right: this plant can reproduce regardless of whether its flowers have been pollinated. A dandelion can can regrow from just a portion of its taproot, which can reach two or three feet down to access water and nutrients.

Dandelions in your lawn: you can resist them, you can wage continuous war against them--but they have too many strategic tactics for you to ever claim victory.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Nick & Valerie: Human Nature

A true story:

When I opened the door, he asked, "Do you remember me?" Well, yeah, I did, mostly because he looks like Santa Claus--same basic shape, same wide white beard. So let's call him Nick, though that's not his name.

One of my jobs brings me into contact with people who are homeless or otherwise in need. They come to the door seeking the vouchers I hand out for lodging or for food. Nick and his wife, let's call her Valerie, had visited me more than once. She was as slender as he was wide, twitchy, and unfocused. Valerie had a neurological disorder, and they would tell me the latest tale of him guarding and protecting her as she'd seizured on the sidewalk, or the desperate trip to the emergency room--because of course they had no health insurance, no regular doctor.

But this time Valerie wasn't with Nick. I invited him in and he sat down across from me and he said, "She passed." As he described the final seizures, the futile attempts at the hospital to save her, he cried and I cried too. He was looking for work again, now, but was unsure how he'd be able to drive a truck without her--in years past when he'd driven, she'd been in the cab with him, over thousands of miles.  The long-haul job he'd recently tried for had fallen through, and he was almost glad, because he wasn't sure how to face the road alone. Now he was living in his pickup truck, he said, but he sure could use a hot shower and warm bed, if I could give him a lodging voucher.

But I couldn't. The rules on the vouchers had changed with the downturn in the economy, and the new rule was that a person could only receive one. Nick and Valerie had already used several. "Well, that's alright," he told me when I apologized for this unexpected change. "It's been really nice to talk to someone about her." I invited him to come back and see me again, let me know how's he's doing, and he said he would.

As he reached for the door to leave, the sleeve on Nick's arm rode up and I saw on his wrist a tattoo that hadn't been visible in his past visits. Just beyond the sleeve cuff was a Nazi swastika.

Then he was gone, and I was left on my side of the door, thunderstruck at this Santa who embodied the two sides of human nature.  Because the confounding thing is that even Nazis love their wives. Human nature would be much easier to understand if its black and white did not blend to gray.

(Want to read more of these stories? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the words Human Nature.) 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Newts do it...

I wandered over to The New Dharma Bums' blog the other day, and found newts in flagrante delicto.  And it got me to thinking about just how newts go about making more newts. The sex lives of animals (and plants) was a topic I covered with great enthusiasm in my books, mostly because that oh-so-interesting topic seemed to rarely be covered in the field guides I was reading.

So here, because you surely want to know, is an explanation of what rough-skinned newts are doing in ponds right about now:

Males arrive at the breeding sites before the females, and undergo a transformation. Their dry, bumpy skin becomes moist and smooth, their tails flatten, and their cloaca (a vent on the animal's underside for digestive, excretory, and reproductive tracts) enlarges, and "nuptial pads" develop on their feet and hind legs. These pads help the male grip the female during their slippery underwater courtship. He entices her by clasping her from above, stroking her with his hind legs, and rubbing his snout across hers.

He deposits a spermatophore (sperm packet) on the pond bottom in front of her, and if he has successfully wooed her, she picks it up with her cloaca. Fertilization occurs internally, and the female will lay her eggs one at a time, attaching them to submerged plants throughout the pond.

Lookin for love in all the wrong places--
find a pond, Newt!    Photo by Henk Wallays

And next year, the resulting newts will probably return to the same pond they were hatched in to engage in their own watery trysts.

So there you have it, and you need no longer lie awake at night, wondering how newts reproduce.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

First butterfly of spring: Mourning Cloak

It doesn't yet feel like spring everywhere in North America, but even when there's still snow on the ground, you might see a mourning cloak butterfly.

Those lovely brown wings probably allow the
Mourning Cloak to absorb more heat
 from winter/spring sunlight.

That's because mourning cloaks overwinter as adults (most butterflies species spend the cold months as eggs, caterpillars or chrysalises).  But the mourning cloak tucks itself away behind loose tree bark or some other crevice, and take flight on those first deliriously warm spring days--or even on a sunny winter's day.

Given that they're such a harbinger of warm days, don't they deserve a more cheerful name than mourning cloak?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Goodbye to a whaling town

It's very strange for me to read the New York Times article describing how the tsunami wiped out the whaling town of Ayukawa--mostly because when I worked for Greenpeace I spent months in Ayukawa, hoping to shut down that very same whaling operation.

The article begins with a description of a flattened building--the headquarters of Ayukawa Whaling company.  Years ago I sat in that building with Michi, another Greenpeacer, as she translated the vague threats the officials made against us: we were anti-whalers in a whaling town, two young women alone, and the officials of the company could not be responsible for what might happen to us. The whalers got drunk, sometimes, we should understand... to be safe, we must leave immediately.

Michi and I stayed to photograph and document the dead whales that were brought into the station. Greenpeace believed the company was taking whales in violation of international law--they were taking females--and if we could prove this with photographs, we could shut them down. But a funny thing happened during the time Michi and I were in Ayukawa: all the whales were brought in at night, and all were pulled up the slipway into the station belly-side down, so we were unable to ascertain their gender.

Our efforts in Ayukawa ultimately came to naught--we were not able to prove our suspicions, and whaling (although slowed over the intervening years), continued until the March 11 tsunami finally stopped it.

Now, reading about Ayukawa, I remember the grinding sounds from the building where the whales were rendered into meat and oil; the blast of--what? steam? smoke?--that would periodically escape like a spirit from the smokestack; the bitter cold as Michi and I kept watch, witnessing in the dark; the whalers who followed us and knew our names; the thickness in the air that made a coating on the roof of my mouth that I could not scrape off; the owners of the inn where we stayed who taught us a befuddling card game where we called "First page" when holding our last card; the children who would gather outside the inn after school, calling "Hello!" and "How are you?"and "Greenpeace-su" until we hung out the window to answer back--at which they would giggle and shriek like we were rock stars.

I still hold in my mind these lines from a poem, The Whaling Basement at Ayukawa, by Scott McVay:

From this hour
I will carry perpetually
millions of molecules
of Ayukawa air
laced with dead whales.
How check the slaughter?
If I knew, I would be a prophet
and put whalers behind other plows.

How should I feel now that the whalers have finally been stopped? The ending has arrived--but in a way that I cannot celebrate, no matter how long awaited, anticipated, and fought for, no matter how long overdue.

(Want to read more about Greenpeace days? Click on the "Search this Blog" box to the right and enter the word Greenpeace.)