Thursday, August 13, 2009

An urban oasis?

I'm in a bit of a rut. I shouldn't be, but I am. I'm not depressed; my rut is the lack-of-artistic-expression variety, as I adapt to my life with an ever-changing, wonderful little boy, who may be part machine, based on his ability to do so much, with so little sleep. This blog has been a huge creative and therapeutic outlet for me, and I just don't have the time, energy, or focus I once had. Despite that, I keep a file of blog fodder, so when I do have time, energy, or focus, I'll have something to jump on. The problem with that, though, is that once I do have time, circumstances have changed so radically, that whatever story I was going to tell has become something else to digest and make sense of in my head before I can write about it. And some things just don't ever really make sense.

Periodically, I write about yard and gardening stuff, and this summer, so far (knock wood) everyone is healthy, and I'm not busting at the seams with child, and so, I do putz in the yard a bit. I don't putz that much, for the same reason I don't update my blog regularly. So, the yard is a bit grown over, but nothing that a few hours, some basic tools, and some sweat can't fix.

I like to write about yard and gardening stuff because here in Trenton, many folks forgo the great outdoors for driveways, which is too bad, and I hope that maybe some of those nature haters might stumble on this blog, and maybe, MAYBE, become less afraid, but based on my preferred subjects, my entries may have the opposite effect. There's SO much going on, even in my small backyard. There's so much going on, even in your small backyard, even if it's just a driveway. I see that as a really cool thing, but I realize, sadly, not everyone will share my view.

The problem with gardening and yard stuff is that it's part of nature, and as such, can be unpredictable, and friggin' cruel, even without any help from human assholes who fight dogs or beat cats with brooms, without assistance from idiots who pour their motor oil down the sewers. I like to think of our yard as an asshole-free sanctuary: sure, there are pricks, and the occasional dick, plenty of dummies, and certainly some morons who pass through our yard, but most of them are the animal variety. Animals just can't help it.

The start of this season was, if nothing else, interesting in the nature-sense for me. It started off with a couple of stray cats choosing to give birth around our yard; as much as we don't need any more kittens around here, who doesn't love kittens once they're scampering around right in front of you, prancing around after bugs, and stalking their own tails? We even wound up with a couple stupid kittens stuck in our garage (they were quickly reunited with their mom, outside the garage). On the flora side, I was so pleased with the way the sedum and lambs ears were filling in around the rocks. Also, I've been bugging Glen for a couple of years about replacing the eyesore of a chain link fence on the one side of our yard with something that allows for more privacy, and lo and behold, the hydrangeas we planted in 2006 really started to fill in, and presented us with so many vibrant pink snowball flower heads. The hydrangeas are still a foot or so away from the top of the fence, but their growth spurt this year is encouraging; I think I'd rather allow them to grow than install a new fence at this point. Unless we get new neighbors who piss me off. Which is always a possibility around here.

Along with the hydrangeas, an unknown woody vine started coiling its way around one of my shepherd's hooks last summer, and this year, it went hog wild, and sent out tendrils, hungry for our neighbor's drainpipe, and, on our side, put a choke hold on my trellis. That's what trellises are for, I know, but the voracity with which that thing grew made me think one word: weed. I'm no different from the next gal — I'm not crazy about weeds, especially when they take over. But I don't like annihilating anything (except for bloodsucking insects and arachnids), even when it's well deserved. In this case, I didn't want to remove it from our yard until I knew what it was. That's fair, right? I mean, to kill the thing before knowing what it was is like shooting first and asking questions later. That works for some people, but not for me.

So, I sent a message to one of my master gardener friends, hoping she could help me identify the woody, viney thing; I sent some pictures, and provided details on the leaf type and orientation, adding that there were some bizarre inconsistencies within the specimen: there were thorns on some of the new growth, but not on the old growth. It was fixing to produce some berries. The leaves were shaped one way on the newer growth, and totally different on the older parts of the plant.

The unknown vine which took over my trellis, and tried to consume the neighbor's drainpipe.

Also slowing down my need to remove the Evil Dead vine from my sideyard was a pair of robins who made their nest in the wacky tangles, right in the middle of our trellis. Those little birds were so ambitious, so industrious, and built a solid little nest, and in short order, we could see three little robin babies with their mouths open wide at the sky, waiting for a nutritious deposit from their parents.

I figured I'd wait until the robins grew up and moved on, before removing the vine. That would be fair. I kept the tendrils in check, and clipped the side closest to our neighbor's property, doing my best to not disturb the birds. I'm 5'4" and could almost reach the nest; I wished those birds were a bit higher, but figured they had made it this far — the babies were probably very close to their first flights — were reasonably safe in our little asshole-free haven.

Alas. The cats. The damn stray and ubiquitous and omnipresent and often, dickish cats.

I am not a good napper. I'm not a very good sleeper. I am, however, sleep-deprived of late. It will not last forever, and most days, I'm okay with the fatigue, even if I'm a bit more stunned than usual. It was a rare Sunday afternoon that I thought maybe, just maybe, I could sleep. Glen offered to watch the baby. I went to the bedroom, and managed to drift off...

...only to wake up a short time later, abruptly, to a horrific sound; one I had never heard before, but identified instantly: birds screaming in primal fear for their lives, their children's lives. I heard Glen through the house, screaming, too: "No! No! NO! Get the FUCK out of there! STOP!" I felt his footsteps reverberating through the house as he raced out the backdoor, Matty in his arms.

I shot up out of bed, and joined him. He was too late. A beautiful, fluffy, creamsicle colored juvenile stray cat had made her way up the trellis, and tossed the babies out of the nest. Their parents were frantic. Glen watched the cat bat one of the babies — again, mostly grown, but not flying yet — in our hostas. He thought another baby bird had hopped in that direction. I poked around and found one of the babies; I scooped it up, and handed it to Glen, who was tall enough to put it back in the nest in the trellis. It shrieked, and one of its parents shrieked desperately in reply, and flew around close, but it wouldn't return to the nest, at least not yet.

We poked around the hostas, and found a dead baby robin. Glen dug a hole in the corner of the yard where Lacey and Monkey are buried, and we laid the baby bird to rest. The adult robin continued to flit and cry nearby; it did not approach the nest.

Prompted by the cat's actions, we named her after she destroyed the bird's nest; we called her Jagbag. She remained in the hostas after her crime, ever watchful, until Glen chased her away, in anger and sadness.

The next day, I took my extension clippers and chopped the unknown woody vine down; it failed to provide safety for the bird family, anyway. Besides, I never heard back from my master gardener friend (and still haven't). I saved the empty nest — materials of which include Easter grass and cigarette butts — and stuck it in a planter in the yard.

I found the adult male robin, dead, while clearing the vine. I buried him with his offspring, and my beloved pets; I didn't dig very deep, lest my shovel make unfortunate contact with one of the other critters in that gravesite. Lacey and Monkey, at least, were buried very deep. I added some soil to the top, for good measure, and then transplanted some lilies to that location.

We've spent a decent amount of time in the backyard this year, and Jagbag had no shame. She'd sit nearby as we enjoyed an evening cocktail. As the weeks wore on, we weren't any happier about the needless slaughter of the birds, but were less angry with Jagbag. She's limited, of course, by her species. She knew not what she did.

She has since disappeared.

We don't need anymore cats over here, inside or out. We do what we can for the stray bunch (food, shelter, and when we can catch 'em, sterilization), so, duh, I never wish them any harm, not even the ones named Jagbag, who kill birds. One could say that maybe karma caught up with Jagbag, but I know that nature and Trenton are way too random for karma. I hope she's okay, even though, logically, I'm pretty sure there's no happy ending for Jagbag.

I grew up in a heavily-wooded small town, with lots of farms nearby. I have seen a whole lot of nature, but there are many more things I had not seen until I moved away from most nature, and into Da Hood. I spent long hours as a kid studying bugs, and yet, never saw a tomato hornworm parasitized by wasp eggs until moving here (I blogged about that two years ago). I'm sure I must have encountered parasitic wasps before moving to Trenton; I must not have known what they were.

I let Steve out back one morning last week, and when I called for him, he was happily chasing an airborne creature around the yard. Steve is a considerable dummy, totally unaware of the dangers of the real world, and completely oblivious of how frigging good he has it for a Trenton street urchin, mistaken, by a neighbor, for a possum, last May. I had recently been stung, and figured he was chasing a bee, since I have not yet moved the bee balm out of the yard. I went out to disengage his pursuit and get him inside, but found he was chasing a Cicada Killer Wasp, and she was struggling to bring her cicada trophy back to her nest. The cicada was fighting the attack; there was a lot of noise. The wasp did not relent.

I took a couple pictures with my phone, but it was a gloomy day, and the low light and quick movements did not yield quality photographs. But this is what it looked like:

Picture from the very informative cyberbee.com

Cicada Killers (Sphecius specious, a silly name if you ask me) are generally fierce-looking mofos, about an inch and a half long, and low-flying. Unlike most other wasps, they are solitary creatures — not social — and the males don't have stingers; most females will never bother with a human, unless accidentally stepped on. Cicada Killer wasp mommies dig holes — decent-sized holes, too, about the diameter of a finger (maybe not if you have sausage fingers), usually near a sidewalk or driveway, or some other compacted, dry area. Then they go find a cicada. There is a fight, and the wasp often wins, dragging the cicada back to the nest, where, exhausted from all the digging and cicada wrestling, she will deposit her egg (it's usually just one egg per cicada, and she usually doesn't lay more than 3 eggs) into the body of the cicada victim. The egg develops quickly into a larva who eats up the cicada, from the inside out, as Cicada Killer youngins are hungry little buggers. Cicadas, in some parts, are pretty big pests, so this particular sort of wasp is our friend.

Maybe it was just too soon after the bird slaughter, and Jagbag's disappearance; maybe I've seen too many disgusting fly carcasses, courtesy of that supposed beneficial fly fungus, all over my garden this year. I just felt badly for that particular cicada. The circle of life often intrigues me, but sometimes, the brutality of it all is exhausting. Once I stopped a hawk from making off with a squirrel (reppin' my fellow mammals, yo!), even though hawks are cooler than squirrels; that carnage would not happen on my watch, dammit. However, I didn't feel THAT bad for the cicada to get involved. It's just a cicada, after all. I wondered where the wasp's nest was, and how much further she had to go with that big, juicy cicada.

Earlier this year, I read an article about how I could turn my urban backyard into a small oasis for local critters. The article inspired me, and I had hoped to create a habitat conducive to attracting the region's birds, and beneficial insects. I haven't completely failed, but I don't feel like much of a success. There's one less cicada in our August choir, and three less robins to sing in the morning, and one less kitty to poop in my garden.

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