Monthly Archives: August 2013

Pests, knaves, and varmints


Summer is almost over, and though I regret the waning of the light, I am glad that the reign of the varmints is coming to an end.

Always have I been a lover of wildlife. Never have I wished harm to my winged or my four legged neighbors. I understand the need of deer to forage and grit my teeth when they devour shrubs and flowers. I tolerate the rabbits that eye my impatiens with delight.  But I confess that this summer I have been sorely tempted to wreak vengeance on those pestiferous and rascally varmints, the squirrels.

Take our tomatoes—well, you might have taken some, my friends, but the squirrels have eaten them all. Clambering up the garden fence and somehow managing to leap onto our once sturdy plants, those bushy-tailed rodents have proceeded to decimate every tomato in sight. Oh, they were crafty. They waited until those love apples were round and almost ready to be picked before taking a bite out of each one! Surveying my squirrel-bitten garden I could almost hear the rapscallions say, “Um. Not what I expected. Not nice at all, actually. Let me try that one over there…”

Squirrels are not choosy about what they want to vandalize. They made off with all the fruit on the apricot tree while they were still green. They uprooted my tulips and begonia in order to bury their acorns. They even had the audacity to steal figs while we watched! And now they raid the bird feeders after which they sit on the tree nearest the window and chitter at me. I am not sure what they are saying, but I suspect that they are being sarcastic and vulgar.

There are other and more spiteful pests, I grant you. Voles are one of those insidious and sneaky varmints with which I have no patience—but this year they have not manifested themselves. For this I am grateful, just as I rejoice that we are free of woodchucks in our back yard. Those waddling miscreants used to torment me when we lived up north, and many is the time that I almost wept at their thievery. Once I found a very large woodchuck ensconced amongst my lettuce, chomping away. How it managed to get over the fence I have no idea, but there it was. When I charged out waving my arms and shouting, it looked at me with disgust and contempt and continued eating. Only when I was practically upon it did it sulkily and very slowly saunter off.

I wasn’t the only one afflicted by woodchucks, to be sure. Many of our friends and neighbors were reduced to employing have-a-heart traps to catch whistle pigs after which they carried them off to some spot far away from home. In fact, a dear friend once told me that she had helped in the capture of a particularly pernicious woodchuck.

“My neighbor asked me to help her dispose of it,” she related, “so we got in the car with the have-a-heart cage and the woodchuck and started driving. After a while we passed a nice wooded area, but that wouldn’t do. ‘Keep going,’ said she, so on we went.”

“Did you ever get rid of the thing?” I asked.

My friend chuckled. “Finally we came to a suburban neighborhood, and I was instructed to stop at a house. ‘Surely,’ I protested, ‘you aren’t going to leave the woodchuck here?’  ‘Oh, yes, I am,’ replied my neighbor, calmly. ‘This is my ex-husband’s house.’”

I suppose that on rare occasions even woodchucks can be of use.

This ruined garden

Once was full of tasty food…

Not for us, alas.



EVERYTHING is new under the sun!


The news flash about the discovery of  the olinguito comes on a day when I feel dull, unimaginative, and apathetic. Now I sit up and take notice because there it is in the newspaper, the photograph of a cuddly-cute two pound member of the raccoon family, the first carnivore to be ‘discovered’ in 35 years, that lives in the tree tops of the  Ecuadorian and Columbian rain forest.

The discovery has me wondering what else hides in that high, cool, damp region which is always shrouded in mist. If I close my eyes, I can see the outlines of great trees and ferns that look as if they used to grow three hundred and sixty million years ago. I can see… yes, I can actually ‘see’ the heroine of Green Mansions, Rima, the beautiful jungle girl   envisioned  in 1904 by Henry Hudson. High in the high tree tops, far away from the prying eyes of man live… what? Truly, there are mysteries and discoveries yet to be made on Planet Earth!

Under the earth, there are surprises, too. Hidden so deep underground that our atmosphere has not reached them for 4,000 to 6,000 years live tiny nematodes unfairly dubbed Devil’s Worms. These multicellular organism, discovered not long ago,  have existed nearly a mile underground in the absolute darkness of a South African gold mine. Is it possible that similar life could exist on seemingly inhospitable planets? Could it be that these organisms might someday evolve into something new and wonderful? The possibilities make my mind spin. There is so much I don’t know, too much I will never know.

For instance, I’ll never set eyes on the Nepalese Autumn Poppy, yet I can picture it in all its brave and vibrant loveliness. Found at an elevation of eleven to thirteen thousand feet in central Nepal, this flower grows in so inaccessible a place that it has bloomed for untold autumns unseen. I would love to see this beautiful flower just as I hope not to see the  recently discovered blue tarantula of Brazil. This surprising arachnid(encountering it would surely be a surprise!) hangs out high in the tabletop mountains of Brazil’s tropical Andes, and although its iridescent  blue glow is supposed to be amazing, I am glad to take this at face value. Some things should be encountered only in imagination.

Science fiction doesn’t even scratch the surface of the discoveries that seem to be turning around us. And it’s surprising that there is so much that exists in the world —perhaps has existed for millennia—about which we know nothing. Perhaps even if we came across the Spongebob Squarepants Mushroom (yes, there really is such a mushroom happily and squeezably  living in island of Borneo!) we would not care, but what about the snub-nosed monkey that sneezes when it rains? Can’t you picture it wrinkling its simian brow at an approaching rain cloud  and hear its sneezes reverberating amongst the high mountains of Myanmar?

Discoveries are not limited to the natural world either, for archeologists have been busy discovering fascinating bits and pieces of our past.  Not long ago, I  read that in a site that overlooks the Philistine capital of Gath, a handle stamped with a seal of the kingdom of Judah was found.   Could it have belonged to someone who saw David slay Goliath on that fateful day? Could it have belonged to David himself, perhaps, and was it once warm from the pressure of his hand? That one simple handle hides a hundred stories begging to be told.

So, I tell myself  today that this is no time for apathy. There are wonders waiting to be discovered in the sea, under the ground, in the high mountains and tree tops, and, yes, in the vast universe beyond our earth. Not long ago a solar system has been discovered  out there,, and it has planets that could be teeming with life. What kind of life no one knows, but we can imagine— and isn’t it true that the greatest and most wondrous discoveries will always be made first in our imagination?

In a drop of dew

There may be entire worlds

And many stories!

 020 (4)



Faraway Places


Many years ago there was a popular song about the siren call of faraway places with exotic names. Listening, Mike and I daydreamed about someday visiting places with magical names like Zanzibar, Kuala Lumpur, X’ian. “And Marrakech,” I added, “and Siam…”

Perhaps dreams do come true, for we spent the next five years in Thailand where the air was scented with frangipani and the canals that crisscrossed the land were bright with water lilies. Since then we have traveled to a few of those faraway places, but the lure of the mysterious remains.

Haven’t you ever heard the name of a place and imagined what it would be like? A name that whispered to you, beckoned to you, sang to you in your daydreams? Such a place for me is Samarakand, which was once the Silk Road’s central point between China and the West. Tamerlane made it the capital of his empire in the 14th century, and  it is now on the World Heitage Lsist of Unesco as Samarakand—Crossroad of Cultures. Though I probably will never set foot on that ancient soil,  the name sings to me of  caravans and the footsteps of merchants traversing the old Silk Road.

Then there is X’ian – “Western Peace”— which also heard the rumble of caravans since it stands at the eastern terminus of the Silk Road. I am fortunate here, for I have walked along its streets lined with fruit trees that were exported long ago from Persia and felt the weight of its 3,100 years of history. The terracotta soldiers still stand at attention in X’ian, having been at last rescued from their entombment in the days of the terrible emperor Qin Shi Huang.

There are so many distant  places I yearn to visit if only in imagination. Marrakech, for instance.  I don’t know much about Marrakech except that its name— meaning “Country of the Sons of Kush”— makes me think of spices and bazaars and magic! There is also Kuala Lampur. The word sounds like a lush tropical night and rolls on the tongue like a drop of honey, but the place sits at the confluence of the Gombak and Kland rivers and has thus earned the name which, translated, means “muddy confluence” or, even worse, “muddy river junction.”  Alas for romance!

Alas, also, for canaries, for the Canary Islands—another of those places with an intriguing name—was so called not for a multitude of pretty yellow birds but for dogs which apparently populated the place. Perhaps, as some point out, these ‘dogs’ were actually Monk Seals, but I still prefer the canaries.

Mountains also have names to conjure with. Mountains like Kilimanjaro, Cotopaxi, Nanda Devi, and Obasuteyama demand attention. The last one is in Japan, and I have watched it often from the train with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Why? because legend has it that long ago old people were carried up the mountain and left there to die. Obasuteyama means, literally, ‘Throw away old mother mountain,” and the grisly story still must resonate today because a modern film, Narayama Bushiko , apparently links this legend with issues in present day Japan.

And then there are the rivers. What wonderful names rivers have—the Euphrates, the Tiber, the Danube, the Volga, the Nile—and Shenandoah. There are many theories as to the origin of the word ‘Shenandoah’, but my favorite is a Native American myth. At the dawn of creation, says this myth, the jewel-crowned morning stars gathered together at the loveliest spot that they could find on earth. Full of admiration, the stars let their brightest jewels fall into the blue waters of the Shenandoah. “Daughter of the Stars,” the myth calls this river—and that is, surely, one of the most enticing names that I have heard!

Perhaps some day…

So many places

With names that speak of magic

Call softly to me.

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Those Silent Invaders


When I visited my vegetable garden this morning, there was a Gypsy Moth caterpillar cheerfully devouring my kale. There he sat without a care in the world, doing what Gypsy Caterpillars do best and destroying my garden!

Hard to believe that this menace to gardens, trees, shrubs, flowers and anything that grows was actually invited to come to the United States, but it’s the awful truth. Merchants imported the Gypsy Moth in the hopes of producing domestic silk. Unfortunately, many of the moths escaped to become Public Enemy #1 to  gardeners across the country.

A bug or an innocuous plant might not look like fearsome invaders, but many are just that. Imported ornamental flowers, plants and trees often grow so well that they crowd their native colleagues out of existence. Weeds that aren’t native to a country take hold and grow like—well, weeds.

Take kudzu. An import from Japan, kudzu was touted at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as being a fine-looking, fast growing plant that could help with soil erosions. It arrived in the south, took root, and rapidly proceeded to envelop every surface it could find. Barns, trees, fences—you name it— were covered in jungle-green during the summer and in awful brown vines during the winter.  No possible good could be found in the thing (kudzu jelly, anyone?), so the kudzu bug—when it accidentally arrived on our shores—was considered the answer to a prayer. Alas for the hopes of mice and men! Only 3.5mm in length, olive green with brown speckles, this highly mobile varmint has already made heavy inroads into the soybean crops of farmers in at least four North Carolina counties. It can be encountered almost everywhere, now. If stepped on, kudzu bugs give off a particularly nasty odor and if mashed with bare feet will cause blisters. There’s currently speculation of possibly importing the Paratelenomus saccharalis, a tiny black wasp from Japan to deal with the beastly bug, but there’s  fear that the solution may lead to even more problems.

Of course, some imports are harmless and absolutely beautiful, but a significant number cause more problems than they solve.  In Turkey, large Guineafowls were brought in from Africa to kill off the ticks that were considered carriers of disease. Instead of doing their job, though, the birds have not only refused to eat the ticks (really, who would want to eat ticks?) but are also actually helping them to spread! And in another part of the world, ‘spread’ is perhaps too mild a word to describe the population explosion of Australia’s rabbits. Introduced into that country by an English farmer called Thomas Austin,  the rabbit population has grown so huge that it has not only caused soil erosion but contributed to the demise of much species loss in Australia.

Closer to home in the Everglades, the once vibrant wetland ecosystem is having problems because ‘introduced’ fish species are doing better than the native fish. In the Great Lakes, zebra mussels have made a mess by clogging up water systems. In Hawaii, rats, sheep, cats, goats—all introduced by Polynesians and Europeans—have effectively and completely done away with some of that island’s wildlife. And in California, a fly which had been studied for possibly introduction to control a plant called yellow starthistle escaped and proceeded to damage California safflower crops.

This is just a tiny tip of the iceberg, of course. Invaders seize any chance to travel.  Some species can arrive in a ship’s ballast water or in imported products, but they don’t have to be imported; they can even migrate, uninvited, from ecosystems in different neighborhoods. Whether invited or not, the quiet invaders among us continue to cause mischief. To paraphrase the Bard, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we set out to deceive Mother Nature!”

Small caterpillar

looks so gentle and harmless…

It loves my garden!


Have you thrown your face lately?


Have you ever met someone—a nice enough someone—and somehow just couldn’t  feel comfortable around  him/her? There’s no expression in English that can explain this phenomena, but the Japanese have the perfect saying: mushi ga sukanai. The nearest thing I can come to a translation is ‘the inner being does not like’—and that’s pretty weak because who can really translate an idiom?

Idioms are peculiar, flexible, figurative word groupings that make perfect sense to people in a certain part of the world but which leave others shaking their heads. They can be metaphorical, have a historical/cultural basis, offer some kind of analogy or make no sense at all.  They can be a tourist’s nightmare and are always a challenge for writers whose books are set in another country.

Occasionally idioms from different countries will share the same word. Face, for instance. You have ‘saving face’ in both the western and eastern countries while in Spain someone who is trying to make a good impression is said ‘to throw face.’  Sometimes there is an even more definite correlation between idioms, for our ‘don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’ becomes, “making a bull out of a fly” in Finland and ‘making an elephant out of a goat’ in Estonia.

Quite often, idioms are geared to surroundings. While we may say ‘the pot is calling the kettle black,’ Arabic people shake their heads and sigh, “The camel cannot see its own hump.” And when we claim that it is raining cats and dogs, people in some parts of Africa insist that “it is raining old women with clubs.”

Idioms can be a pain because you can’t explain them. I remember talking to our tour guide in China and calling myself a ‘turkey’ because I had done something foolish. She looked at me blankly and, when I tried to explain, wondered if a turkey was really foolish. “Why not a fish?” she wanted to know. “Or a beetle?”  Why not, indeed.

Some idioms can be downright hilarious. In defining a cheapskate (another odd, idiomatic word) Syrians speak of an ‘ant milker.’ A forgetful person in Portugal is said to have a head of rotten garlic. “Quit ironing my head!” yells an Armenian when someone is bothering her. And the French say that wasting effort is like ‘combing the giraffe.’ Cool imagery!

Actually, there are some idioms that make sense. Instead of beating around the bush, Czechs say that someone is walking around hot porridge … and anyone who has waited for hot grits to cool can see that this is smarter than running about smacking bushes (yes, yes, I know they used to beat bushes for game birds and such… but grits taste better). Also, though ‘spending money like water’ evokes a good picture, I think that the Chinese ‘spending money like soil’—especially in a country where land is so important— has more punch to it.

There really are some good ‘figurative word groupings’ around, and my favorite one is a Hindi  expression. When a man sighs that a lady ‘has the wrist of an elegant lion,’ it sounds much more poetic than our prosaic—and inexplicable— ‘What a dish!”

Such a lot of words…

That must be the reason for


 Feather In The Wind