Sunday, December 17, 2017


ProfessorRoush still, occasionally, reads the monthly Reader's Digest.  Not as a regular subscriber, but in a spurious-purchase-at-the-checkout kind of way when I get captured by a headline about an uplifting story.  Sometimes, it jumps into my hand when I just want to get tickled by "Laughter is the Best Medicine," or "Humor in Uniform."  When it is in my hands, however, I always consume it word for word, except, of course, for the multitude of advertisements which I pass over like passing over sinners at the Apocalypse. The standard vocabulary/grammar column is one of my favorites, a momentary diversion in pursuit of a perfect grammar score, or sometimes just to catch a new word wafting around my native language.   

So it was with "petrichor," defined in the 09/2017 Reader's Digest as "the way it smells when rain falls on parched earth."  If there were ever a cromulent word created to express joy and seemingly made just for Kansans, it is "petrichor."  The Oxford Dictionary goes RD one better, defining it as "a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather."  The word blends "petra," referring to "stone," with "ichor," or "blood flowing in the veins of the gods."  Petrichor, most simply, is the scent of rain, although I prefer to think of it as the perfectly delicious scent of Mother Earth and the water that sustains her.

Petrichor is one of those words, in fact, whose exact origin is recorded.  It was coined in 1964 by Bear and Thomas in the journal Nature.  Their dry description of petrichor is not nearly so refreshing, attributing the odor to plant oils absorbed by clay-based soils and rocks and released into air during rain with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of actinobacteria.  In other words, to climate scientists, petrichor is merely the aerosolized combination of plant droppings and bacteria poop.  And we wonder what happened to romance in the garden?

This morning I woke early, in darkness to the pattering of rain on the window by my bed.  Comforting, yet perplexing, no rain forecast nor any seen in quantity since September, I listened and drifted back off, safe in the warm cocoon of covers with the portly lump of Bella pressed against my side.  As I woke later, an early dawn glance out the window confirmed, in fact, that moisture had fallen from Heaven down, enough to dampen the patio and evoke colors from the prairie grasses.

 Close your eyes.  Search your memories for the scent of petrichor.  Does it smell different in the summer, warm rain on warm ground, musk and earth mixed in languid pleasure, than it does in the winter, cool and minty, clean and brisk?  I think so.  The petrichor of high summer evokes joy and dancing, and celebration of new life.  It's a bouquet that tempts me to throw off clothes and feel the warm droplets on bare skin as I stroll through the yard and the neighbors frantically call 911.  Petrichor in summer is the purest caress of nature to relieve all the parched and dusty cracks of living.  In the winter, as this morning, it's still a welcome fragrance, but hardly as comforting.  Metallic and chilling, without the overtones of life and sex, a brief passing promise unfilled.  It has no power to draw me outside, it creates no inner urge to let the cold dampen the inner fire.  It is merely there, stripped of promise, barren of life.  I'll stay inside today, and allow my olfactory memory pretend that it is summer outside, the warm and cloying odor of rich earth all around me. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Hawk Homage

I write today in awe of one of nature's most finely-tuned predators, the Red-Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, ubiquitous on the Kansas prairie and deadly in that realm.   It may have been first described to the Western world from sightings in Jamaica, hence the species name, but it does pretty well on mainland North America.  The photo at the right, of a watchful Red-Tail, ensconced on my cotton-less and currently leaf-less Cottonwood, was taken yesterday evening from my bathroom window, a mere 50 feet from the silent vigil.  The Cottonwoods in my yard are the tallest trees available for a circle of approximately 60 acres, and they are finally large enough to serve as aerial perches for surveillance and attack.  When I took the picture, the coyotes were beginning to howl from the bottoms and the hawk kept looking that way at each new howl, distracted from its concentration on the grass just below it.

We work, the Red-Tailed Hawk and I, with the common goal of population control of the prairie mice and pack rats, although our motives are vastly different.  She aims to feed, herself or her family, on the wholly scrumptious intestines of any little ball of rodent flesh she catches.  My intent is to protect the landscaping from damage, the house from infestation, and my family from disease (i.e. scary things such as Hantavirus).  I only wish she would rid me of the adult rabbit that is currently occupying my front garden beds. I see a brazen lagomorphic lout every morning;  as I open the door and flip on the outside lights to let Bella out, it runs across the front sidewalk, not 6 feet away.  Every morning.  I just know that if I don't get rid of it, I will soon find that the Burning Bushs' have been chewed down to kindling. I know that Red-Tails do feast on rabbits, but it is hard for me to believe they regularly make off with adult rabbits.  In that regard, I have hope for the Great Horned Owl that I hear hooting every few nights.   I suppose it is past time to set out the humane rabbit trap and relocate Mr. Cottontail far away.

As a soft human, I can only marvel at the sharp eyesight and patience of this common prairie denizen.  Sitting in a tree, or soaring in circles above the tallgrass prairie, they can spy the slightest movement, the most furtive rodent slinking, and pounce in an instant on prey.  I have the privilege to observe the moment of capture several times a year, so common is the occurrence here, but I'm always left breathless and stunned by the speed of the stealthy diving swoop. I'd love to show you a picture, but I'm sure that I would spend endless weeks in the grass, camera in hand, before I would ever get that lucky.   Just as recently as early September, however, when I was mowing some of the prairie grass to benefit the donkeys, a hawk audaciously grabbed a pack rat from right in front of the moving tractor.  Was it a Red-Tail?  I wish I could tell you.  There was a blur, a thump audible even over the tractor engine, and a large bird lifted off from the ground, a struggling pack rat clenched in its talons. 

I cheered the hawk, blessed the wonder of the moment, and kept on mowing.  I hope it ate well that night.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Witch Hazel Whitewash

As ProfessorRoush looked out his bedroom window two weeks ago, he spied yellow; yellow where it shouldn't be yellow.  In the garden, something was blooming in late fall!  Something that shouldn't have been blooming!  On closer examination, it turned out to be his witch hazel, purchased as Hamamelis × intermedia 'Jelena' and planted in 2008, profusely and vibrantly blooming its overhyped head off.

But, it wasn't, actually.  It wasn't his 'Jelena', because ProfessorRoush has to face the fact that he doesn't have a 'Jelena'.  'Jelena' should bloom in the spring.  'Jelena' should bloom in various shades of red-orange to yellow.  'Jelena' should have better fall foliage color than my obviously mislabeled 'not-Jelena'.  

I'm finally sure that I was sold a proverbial pig-in-a-poke, a witch hazel whitewash, as it were.  I've long suspected it;  the sporadic bloom, seeming to occur in fall or early winter, although sometimes it held off till February.  Plain fall foliage that turns tan and drops fairly quickly, and a slow growth rate.  The discordant fact that no one else seems to be able to grow witch hazel in this area.  Several of my garden visitors have inquired of it, and then proclaimed my green thumb at getting it to grow in these alkaline, dry soils.  Mine never thrived, but it lived, suffered through long summers of drought, and grew a little each year.  And those chrome yellow blooms, which didn't show nearly the length and visibility they were supposed to, in disappointing contrast to rave reports from plantsmen. 

It's now clear that I was sold, at a premium price, the common witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana, or some variant thereof.  I'm going to have to find a way to live with that, to live with the knowledge of yet another mislabeled imposter in my garden.  I've accumulated a few over the years, wrong-labeled roses I can't identify, cultivars of perennials that were sold as something else.  How often, how curious, that the mislabeled plant lives and thrives while the cherished named cultivars perish.  I'm  suspicious that horticultural stores have a way of growing what is easy and then just responding to consumer demand.  "You want a 'Jelena' Witch Hazel?  Sure, we've got those, just give me a minute to type up a plant tag for these unlabeled shrubs over here."  One wonders, one worries, right up until the plant finally matures and shows its true, completely yellow colors, in the wrong season, no less.  And then one has to live with the imposter, right there, in the midst of a dry brown garden, blooming yellow with carefree abandon.  I suppose I can let this one pass.   It does, after all, contrast nicely with the blue Kansas sky.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Nesting Sunday

Last Sunday, ProfessorRoush was really wanting to rest and read, but the outside weather was so temperate (55ºF) and sunny that I just couldn't make myself stay put indoors.  I also knew that if I stalled cleaning out the bluebird houses any longer, it would only lead to the task being critical later when the temperatures were 20ºF and a blizzard was forming.  If you're responsible for a trail, you can't just let it go.  The bluebird houses need occasional repair and removing the old nests decreases parasite and disease incidence.  And I needed a walk, so the Bluebird Trail was calling out to me from the brown prairie. "Come out, Come out.  I need your care."  Perhaps, ProfessorRoush was just, himself, nesting for winter.

I always gain a nice warm fuzzy feeling as I find all those nests where happy little bluebirds and various other species have raised a family under my roof(s).  When you are walking a trail of houses, you can easily tell the ones that hold bluebird nests because their nests are thin and haphazardly constructed, usually of soft prairie grass, as pictured in the top photo.  Other birds, usually wrens, sometimes nest in my boxes, and those nests are formed of coarser twigs like the one at the left.  They are also loaded much higher, sometimes stuffing the box to the top except for the opening entrance.   This year, of my 19 self-designed, NABS-approved nesting boxes scattered over the edges of 20 acres with another 80 acres around them, I counted 10 bluebird nests, 6 wren nests, and 3 empties.  The empties were all houses laying on the ground where the donkeys had rubbed them off the posts.  Donkeys seem to have something against random bird houses around their pastures. 

Walking the perimeter of my land is always educational as well.  I was surprised to notice this small nest within a dried up Babtisia australis (Blue Wild Indigo) floating around the pasture.  These prairie legumes bloom early in spring and normally grow perhaps 2.5 feet tall and round alone or in clumps over the prairie.  In the fall, they dry up, break off, and blow all over the prairie like tumbleweeds, clogging fences and flower beds and becoming perfect tinder for prairie fires.  I've never known that they might serve as shrub hosts for low nesting birds, but here is the proof, a deep little cup formed within what was once thick green foliage. 

You can see, in the closeup at left, the careful construction and perfect form of the nest.  It seems a little big for hummingbird, but whatever was here was a pretty small little guy/girl.  I would put odds on it being a Dickcissel nest, since that species is ubiquitous on the prairie and nests on the ground or in low prairie shrubs.  Whoever the architect was, I hope it was a safe home, because birds and the prairie are meant to be together.


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