Friday, October 28, 2011

Ghosts of Pumpkins Past

Just what constitutes a perfect pumpkin is in the eye of the beholder. Some people go for the really zaftig pumpkins, the supersized wallowing-hippo ones like this nearly-a-ton new recordholder.

Some like the tall, skinny, dark orange varieties, while others go for the classic round, yellow-orange types, the kind that filled Linus's very sincere pumpkin patch.

When our daughter was a toddler, very small round pumpkins with sturdy stems were the gourds of choice. Their appeal was obvious--a little kid could hug them, pick them and carry them around, and generally treat them like a cooperative, spherical version of a guinea pig.

As she got older, her taste morphed to match mine: cheerful, basketball-sized round punkins. We'd go to the pumpkin patch and search until our fingers and toes froze to find just the right one.

      Finally the season came when she urged us to fill the wheelbarrow with pumpkins instead of picking just one perfect specimen. She was happy to help us make a selection, but also wanted to make sure her own choices stood independently from ours.

(I knew that, developmentally, kids have to separate from their parents as part of recognizing their individuality, but nobody had ever suggested that rotund autumnal fruits were going to act out the progression for us.)

Size-wise, the pumpkins hit their zenith when she was about ten, and now that she's in her teens, the pumpkins of choice are either weirdly shaped or microscopic. Carving is beside the point.
So we don't have any super-duper jack o'lanterns on our porch this year--just the kooky cucerbits in the photo above, lolling on top of the television cabinet.

But what our household lacks in effort and imagination this year is amply balanced out by the effort and imagination that went into creating this 14-pumpkin-high tower in our neighborhood.

I am not sure if the pumpkin on the ground fell off the top of what was once a 15-pumpkin tower (I would think it would be even more of a "squash" than it botanically is, if that were the case) or if it's trying to nuzzle in underneath the stack.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Signs of the Times

Good things do indeed come in threes. Here are three signs spotted locally, recently, and double-takingly.

The Shameless Commerce Division working at full capacity right here in my own neighborhood.
If this gate is to remain locked at all times--is it really a gate? Wouldn't that make
it just a fence? How could you ever go through it?
Is this a command to make ducks happy?
Or does somebody just really want some ducks?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Wild and Woolly-banded

Reason number 4,326,897 why I love my husband: When he discovered a fleet of fuzzy caterpillars stoically trudging their way across a soccer pitch made of synthetic turf--an expanse that was as vast as the Serengeti to the poor things--he took time out of his lunch hour to transport each one to a better location in a hedgerow.

One luckless larva appeared to be dead, so he brought it home so that we could identify it. He told me this after we were all tucked in for the night. "It's on top of the piano," he said.

The next morning, it was still there, but when I picked it up, it wiggled. The rumors of its death had been greatly exaggerated. Still, it didn't have a lot of get-up-and-go. Probably because (a) it feigns death in self-defense, which is probably how it ended up in this predicament in the first place; (b) it was sluggish as it was getting ready to overwinter; and (c) first the artificial soccer pitch and now a piano--it had blundered into a very confusing habitat indeed.

Right away I knew the little guy was a "woolly bear"--a caterpillar found across the United States, and a favorite because of its fuzzy, hairlike bristles. We had often picked up and petted these caterpillars when I was a kid on Long Island. (Fortunately, this species' bristles serve more to make them harder for birds to swallow and don't contain venom, though they can irritate the skin of a person with a sensitive epidermis.)

Woolly bears are famous not only because they're cute and colorful, but also because there is a long-held belief in their ability to predict the severity of winter. According to folklore, winter will be extremely harsh if the woolly bear's rust-colored stripe is narrow, mild if the stripe is wide. In actuality, individual woolly bears are variably marked, with the central stripe becoming wider as the caterpillar grows.

The little bear perked up considerably when we put it in a bowl with a lettuce leaf covered with round raindrops. (Woolly bears eat a wide variety of leaves, unlike many larvae, which are dedicated to specific host plants.) First it put its tiny face to a drop of water, and we watched as the droplet slowly vanished as it sipped. Then it investigated the leaf, though it didn't seem inclined to eat.

A quick look in a field guide revealed that someday this caterpillar would grow up to be an Isabella Tiger Moth. First, it would have to spend winter curled up in a bristly ball beneath some leaves. Its body would naturally protect it from the cold by producing a kind of antifreeze. In spring, it would spin a cocoon, pupate, and eventually crawl out as an apricot-colored tiger moth.

What the caterpillar should grow up to look like
(photo by Steve Jurvetson, WikiCommons)
We decided we ought to put it back outside, figuring that it probably needed cold temperatures to develop properly, like seeds that need cold temperatures before they can sprout. According to naturalist Anna Botsford Comstock, we guessed right: In her 1939 work Handbook of Nature Study, she writes of the woolly bear that if you want to watch the larva's development, it's best to keep it in a box outside because "keeping it in a warm room during the winter often proves fatal."

I am exceedingly jealous of the populations of Vermilion, Ohio; Banner Elk, North Carolina; Beattyville, Kentucky; and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, because I have now learned that they have annual woolly-bear festivals. People dress up as woolly bears and even dress up their pets.

Wait a second...I have to go see why my dog and the cats are slinking out of the room...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

For Want of a Horse

Posted a tribute to our favorite lesson pony on my kids'-book/horsy blog here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Love, Love, Love

It's been very icky-doomy outside lately. Cold, rainy, windy. Even when it's sunny it seems to be cold, rainy, and windy.

Don't know how the weather manages that. Maybe it's just me, as I've been brooding about getting through the first holiday season without my father. I passed by a snail with a broken shell huddled on a concrete retaining wall in the rain the other day and thought, I know just how you feel, pal.

Often I notice things that give me pause and make me think, hey, maybe that's a little message from the universe there, but it's just not happening right now, never mind all those glorious fall colors and the rest of Mother Nature's decorating frenzy.

Still, three oddly related Things appeared in random places within the space of the day, so maybe the universe isn't trying to send Big, Meaningful Messages. Maybe it's just passing along slips of paper from fortune cookies or doing its version of posting chipper quotations on Facebook. Maybe it's just trying to be funny. They made me roll my eyes: Over the top, Universe.

Anyway, here they are--they're really just Loss, Litter, and Leftovers, but one takes what one can get.

This silver ring tumbled out of nowhere in the cargo bay of the Subaru wagon.
A silver ring would normally qualify as aHugely Significant Offering if the
universe did indeed parcel out meaningful messages. But I subsequently
learned it simply belonged to one of my daughter's friends.

These two hearts dangled from a rock wall my dog and
I passed by on our morning walk. (I like saying morning
walk because it leaves the impression that I also take
afternoon and evening walks.)

This heart sticker was attached to the shell of what is, I think, a Nuttall's Cockle
(also known  as a heart cockle--if you put that into a short story, you'd be
accused of being quite maudlin).I didn't find it in nature like this. We found
a box of shells that had been gathered (legally!) on a multitude of northwestern
beaches over 2 decades mouldering in the garage. I decided to dump it
outside around the base of a shrub where nothing else will grow.
Out tumbled this shell, and I only wish there were also a fish sticker
so that I could say it was baring its heart and sole. The bottom
of the box was littered with old stickers left there by my
daughter on a long-ago trip.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Purple, Rain

Warm reds and golds a-flame in the murk and drizzle of a Northwestern autumn adorn the calendar pages of my mind, but this year it's the color purple that leaps out all around me.

Everywhere I look, it seems, purple flowers are blooming. Perhaps it's a result of the very late arrival of hot, summery weather this year, causing a late blooming season for some plants, or perhaps the unseasonably warm spate of September days we enjoyed nudged a few species to bloom again.

Among the plants producing purple posies are lavender, ice plants, rose of sharon, petunias, coneflowers, dahlias, sweet peas, clover, agapanthus, allium, thistle, speedwell, and sage. Some lithodora and wild lilacs are tagged with a few late-opening flowers. I even spied a few clumps of periwinkle crocuses, those perennial harbingers of spring.

Here's a few of the purples and purple-blues cheering up the garden, in which none of the trees' and shrubs' leaves show any signs of turning red and yellow yet:

This little flower is a harebell. What I love about this
particular specimen is that it is only an inch and a half tall!
The harebells in my garden all tower 2 to 3 feet in height
before blooming. It's as if this little late bloomer knew it
didn't have time to reach such exalted heights before
winter. It's charming to see this tiny stem putting all its
effort into growing and holding up this great big flower,
a bit like a two-year-old child putting on its father's hat.
Wild Geraniums


Goldleaf germander

One lone, tiny Birch Hybrid Campanula flower
Verbena bonariensis