There was a time when we thought Mr. Happy would never rise up, would remain just a withered stump of a thing. But we were wrong. Mr. Happy is standing up straight and proud and pink, a little disheveled around the dark curls at his base, but still a sturdy spike of glory. He's magnificent. One look at him and you can tell he doesn't belong here. You can hike all summer long around here and not run into another ten-foot-tall tower of flowers. The other way to tell is to remember how many days Dave had to wrap him in a blanket with a light bulb for heat and read "Charlotte's Web" to him last winter. It ain't natch'l.
So I'm not getting away with anything here. If I was planning to get an official certification as a Backyard Habitat, Mr. Happy would put the lie to it. It would be like trying to shoplift a refrigerator under my overcoat. People can tell.
I've only recently become aware why someone would want to have a certified backyard habitat. Rules aren't stringent. Someone needs to come by and see that at least five percent of your vegetation is native to the area. Five percent. Why would anyone want to have a garden with just the same straggly stuff you could see in the local woods anyway? Glad you asked.
It's a little lesson in evolution. Every living thing is trying to get along. Get along in life, that is, and not necessarily with each other. Definitely not with each other. It's eat or get eaten. You have a plant that wants to eat sunlight, and a raft of caterpillars that want to eat the plant, the plant is going to have an opinion. And it's going to back up its opinion with some chemical defenses. And sooner or later some branch of the butterfly family tree is going to do an end run around those defenses, and that's where the eggs are going to be deposited. If the emerging caterpillars manage to chew the plants all up, then they've screwed themselves too. But if the birds pick off most of the caterpillars, leaving just enough of them to keep the butterfly franchise going, everyone makes out. What you are witnessing in a natural landscape is the truce that remains after everyone's done duking it out.
This balance the plants and insects are achieving as they dance through time together can get to be pretty precise. Many butterflies are adapted to one host plant only. You start carting them out and replacing them with pretty flowers that evolved somewhere far away, you'll find your insect population at a complete loss. You strip-mine the Midwest with Roundup so you can replace the native milkweeds with corn and soybeans, you'll crash the monarch butterflies. They don't have thousands of years to come up with a new plan.
This is not good news for the birds that are counting on the insect hatch to feed their own young, like
our chickadee friends, the Windowsons. It takes a whole lot of grubs to raise a baby Windowson. They're hauling them in so fast it looks like Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz doing an episode in a sausage factory. Visualize an endless chain of links pouring into the birdhouse. Your pretty new garden does not provide enough little green sausages for the bird population.
Fortunately for you, you don't remember when there were ten times as many birds. Or ten times that many. That was in your mom's era, or your grandma's--might as well have been the Cretaceous. So you're free to enjoy your exotic flowers. I know I do.
But I'm still keeping my favorite invasive species, Tater Cat, indoors, and when Mr. Happy finally shrivels up--he can't last forever--I'll think about slipping in a nice local flowering currant.
It was Birdathon Day and I was up in time to hear the dawn crack. The team was gathered by the bird van, hard by a woodsy urban park. I had my plan in place. At the stroke of seven, I hollered "SCRUB JAY! HOUSE FINCH! CHICKADEE!" and relaxed. My work here was done. Time to let the experts take over.
The van was something. It was a brand-new rented wonder with only a few miles on it. In retrospect, it looked a little like the vehicle that transports people to the pokey, and the BIRDATHON magnet on the back was just a little soothing ruse, like when you tell the kids that you're taking Buster Dog to the farm. But all twelve of us jammed into it just fine along with our lunches and binoculars and three spotting scopes. We were going for 100 species, and we were ready to roll.
We knocked off about thirty species in the park; tacked on a few more in a rest area; and had 69 in the bank by 10:30. This was easy!
It got harder.
Especially since this year our intrepid leaders Sarah and Max took us down the Willamette Valley, for a change, to sparrow territory, and we never got near the coast. At the coast, birds fly right out of the field guide and onto our checkoff lists in alphabetical order. There would be no seabirds for us today, but there were plenty of ducks and long-legged jobs that make a living poking their faces in the mud, not that I'm judging. We eked out a few more at every stop. Just when we thought we couldn't get any harrier, we did. But it was getting hot. Stupid hot, for Oregon, for May. By the time it was a hundred and fifty in the shade, all the sensible nesting birds had gone home to make sure their eggs weren't getting poached. Ha ha! That's a little bonus double-entendre bird humor for you, there.
Our intrepid leaders are as ethical as they are skilled, and they declined to count my Imaginary Woodcock, my Western Eastern Phoebe, or my Least Sanitary Pigeon, and they similarly failed to ink in the massive emu we all saw glowering behind a fence ("that's livestock"), which should by itself have counted for ten species plus a hadrosaur. I personally spotted the Lazuli Bunting I was hoping for, which buoyed me greatly, although it's possible I called it a bluebird, out loud.
But we were still missing many likely candidates. Sparrows were sparse. With time running out we were still nine shy of our goal of one hundred.
Well, shoot, it's just an arbitrary number anyway. It's only an accident of nature that we humans evolved ten fingers before the invention of the table saw. So we want things in groups of ten. Still, although I'd never call us Angry Birders, we hurtled home fired up and ready to bird hard to the end. With one last swing through the urban park in fading daylight, we failed to scrape the missing bushtits and nuthatches out of the trees, but scored an owl, a wren, and the briefest of hawks, and finished the day with 98. That's close. That's real close.
And, especially after the can of giant cashews made its fourth trip around the van, we were all starting to round up.
If you want to see the Honor Roll of my sponsors for this year's Birdathon, click here. And although I made my fundraising goal and then some, it's not too late to drop some change in the bucket!
Photo by Max Smith's camera even though Max is in it
I have a modest goal for myself in this year's Birdathon. As a group we will almost certainly find over a hundred species of birds in twelve hours. I am hoping to find one of them. Before anyone else.
I'm not good at this. The most common visitor to my seed feeder is the house finch. I should be getting purple finches too, but I have yet to pick one out for certain, even though they're close by and stay-putty. There's a lot of variability in the house finch. Some are redder, some are more orangey. Some have a lot of color, some not so much. Here's what birders tell me: the house finch is reddish, but the purple finch looks like he's been dipped in raspberry sauce. "You'll know the purple finch when you see him," they say.
That's really similar to what someone once told me about having an orgasm. And they were right. So I'm guessing I haven't yet seen a purple finch.
Anyway, no sooner have I spotted a distant movement in the trees than half the people in my birding van will have hollered out its Christian name and lineage. Holding my own in a Birdathon van is like trying to impress the Nobel Prize Committee wearing a swimsuit, heels, and a sash, only without the pretty part. I don't have what it takes.
It's not fair. But I have a plan.
Once, at a party, the host had us play a game he called "Misspent Youth." He had a recording of theme songs of TV shows and other tidbits from the '50s and '60s. He'd cue them up and we'd try to name that tune as fast as we could. I knew them all but I never got the words out of my mouth on time. So I thought of some shows he hadn't played yet, concentrated on the opening chords, and prepared to hurl those titles in the first nanosecond. I had "Get Smart" and "My Three Sons" in my brain on a short fuse, and I was ready to fire. But I got too excited when they came on, and couldn't get my tongue unfurled. It looked like I was going to come in last, and then, out of nowhere, a tune came up, everyone looked puzzled, and I bellowed "THE DUCK AND COVER SONG!" The skunk was off.
Nailed the "Go You Chicken Fat Go" song soon after, just for extra credit. I'm not proud of either one of them but you have to take your victories as they come.
So I'm going to pick out a few big easy birds that we'll get in the first half hour (great blue heron, American crow, turkey vulture) and have them ready to launch like pebbles in a slingshot. I'll bag my bird and sit back the rest of the day and watch the freaks do their thing. Also, I'm bringing cookies.
We've been pretty excited over here. We had Canadians coming! The real deal, authentic Canadians from Toronto, which is in Canadia somewhere. Holy hockey sticks! I thought I should probably bone up. You know, find out who their prime minister is now, and check to see that it is a prime minister and not a premier, and see if any of that needed capitalizing. You never know. They heave in extraneous "u's" and they might be fussy about the capital letters, too. And I thought I should probably review the provinces so I'd be wieldy with the geography. I know the west coast ones okay. There's British Columbia, Alberta, Snatchcatchistan, Masticola, or the other way around, Ontario (we have a similar lake and I'm very solid on that one), and
then a bunch of auxiliary eastern stuff that gets all jammed up just like our eastern states, like Prince Edward In A Can and Quahog. Plus some territories. They're huge but sort of nebulous and I probably don't need to define them too strenuously; it's the kind of area that gets hyphens for boundaries and can be generally referred to as "up there." That would be the area they stash their First Nation peoples and move them around so they don't get in the way of their oil.
But what to do to make our visiting Canadians feel at home? It would be so hard to tell if we got it wrong. We could make a grievous hospitality error and they'd just go all, you know, wry on us. They're all gifted comedians but tend to subtlety, and really, enough stuff gets past me already. I did some checking around and decided that local moose rentals are out of my budget. At some point I realized Canadians like to make light of Americans, and we have two of those right here in this house, so that should work for entertainment.
These particular Canadians like food and birds and we've got gobs of both of those. Problem. Because I'm all the time writing about birds this and birds that, people think I know my birds, and I most certainly do not. I LIKE birds a lot but I'm not going to remember one from one day to the next, in exactly the same way I don't remember the people I meet. One of the things I like about birds is they don't get all bent out of shape about it.
Then I figured out that inviting Canadians here to see birds could work just as well as inviting people over for dinner if I'm cooking. All I have to do is get started cooking and my friends will quickly see that I'm in over my head, and they'll start taking over the pans and knives and whatnot, and dinner will be terrific, and I'll do the dishes afterwards. So I know where our birds are, and my friends will know who they are, and all I have to do is pop them out of the car and sweep my arm out to the great outdoors and say "hit it." Everyone will be happy.
Everyone was. Especially because I was able to provide all the birds I'd promised: the dipper, the bittern, the harlequin duck. All but the murres. Figures they'd skip the family reunion.
Word on the street was last Saturday was Naked Gardening Day. I didn't miss it so much as I suspected it wouldn't miss me. I don't have a problem with naked. I can get naked at the drop of a hat and a few other things. Whenever I have my Naked In Public dreams, I always feel just fine about it until I get to wherever I'm going and discover that nobody else got the memo. Then it's kind of embarrassing. This is a progressive neighborhood, but I don't know if it could provide the critical mass you need if you're going to feel peachy about naked gardening.
Besides, I don't want to start having to store sunscreen in a tank. And these days, the only place on me that the sun don't shine is the acreage just south of where my tits used to be. I could scan a photo of me being both naked in public and twenty-three, and a lot of you would probably like it just fine, but there'd be hell to pay with my dermatologist.
I saw some of the photographs that are being displayed on the Naked Gardening Day websites. That's a bunch of attractive people right there. They ain't gardening. Clearly there are furrows to be plowed and seed to be sown, but they're just dancing in a circle like new-age fairies, tra-la! None of them has more than one or two things on them that are at all dangly. They don't have to worry about lopping off the bingo wings or inadvertently pruning a neck wattle.
No, there they are, posing with watering cans in a way that never gets anything watered. Gardening is about a lot more than being young and picturesque with a watering can. There are a lot of positions one might routinely get into that the neighbors might consider too much information. Squatting in the asparagus patch has a certain appeal on a personal level, but nobody wants to watch me pull out an obstreperous rootball naked. I don't even know what's going to happen. I got a hold of a small, unauthorized holly tree the other day that wouldn't let go. I chopped it down to a ten-inch stump so as to get better gription on it, got back on my heels, and yanked as hard as I could. What I thought would happen was the tree would suddenly come loose from the soil and I'd go backwards ass over teakettle. Ha ha! Always a crowd favorite.
What actually happened was the stump snapped off at the roots and I plunged it into my solar plexus with all the conviction of someone committing hara kiri. It's the kind of event that's too embarrassing to bring to the emergency room. I'd rather just bleed out. Throw "naked" in on top of that scene and we have a real situation.
The good news is, the neighbors would probably take up a collection. The bad news is, they'd call it a "hedge fund."
Most of us liked old folks well enough when we were kids; they seemed interested in us, and sometimes they had candy (antique candy, but hey), and sometimes they'd refer to some mythical childhood of theirs. But they seemed like a different tribe altogether. Theoretically, we knew we'd get old too. But the transitions were impossible to imagine. Their skin didn't even fit properly anymore. How can one be so inattentive as to let something like that happen? How do you go from having a neck to wearing a neck (draped, cowl-like)?
But of course it happens day by day. And the transitions aren't easy. Grown-up people in their mid-thirties who seem otherwise levelheaded occupy themselves plucking out gray hairs one by one, scouting their mirrors as avidly as a sniper.
It gets worse later. If a woman is fortunate enough to plow on through to the far side of menopause, stuff starts happening in a hurry. Everything goes to pot at once, after the first horrifying salvo from the neck region. Short-armed women learn to disdain the selfie. No one who takes the time to crouch over a mirror placed on the floor ever agrees to be "on top" again. It's not an easy transition. And then, suddenly, the whole apparatus of attractiveness has gone so far off the rails that you realize, with relief, that for the first time since you hit double digits, you just don't give a flying shit anymore. In fact, even if your ass starts to fall, you ignore it until it starts banging against the back of your thighs. Then you dust it with powdered sugar and roll it up and duct-tape it to your waist just to make the slappy noise go away. Done.
But then there's another transition.
You've heard it before: yep, she's a hundred years old and still sharp as a tack. I had great-aunts at least that age of whom that was said. I couldn't vouch for them: they didn't have that much to say. They just sat all hunched up in their dresses and hats and lace hankies, clutching their little purses. I took it on faith that they were sharp as a tack, and presumed that genetic blessing would be mine.
Then I read somewhere that the incidence of cognitive decline among people in their nineties is 100%. That's high. I didn't want to believe it.
But I'm thirty years away from that decade, and things have started to slide already. You think you have control, but you don't. I notice it especially when I'm around interesting young people. I start to tell a funny story and realize I've told it before, except when I don't. I get a great quip all ready to go in the middle of someone else's sentence and prepare to launch it when it's my turn, but five words in I've forgotten what we're talking about. I miss the off-ramp on the freeway because some other part of me decides I'm going to the mountain instead. I lather, rinse, and repeat because I can't remember if I lathered and rinsed a minute ago.
So what you read is that we seniors are merely developing a different kind of intelligence, one in
which trivial information is cast aside, and we are able to pull our life experiences together into some kind of superior, holistic perspective that is unavailable to the callow young. This is the sort of interpretation of age and deterioration that you get when Baby Boomers are writing the script. Not that a fine holistic perspective isn't just what you need when you ponder trivia like what your car keys are doing in the vegetable crisper. We may have gained a little by losing our vanity, but let's face it: we're not what we were.
And I realize. Those hundred-year-old people aren't sharp as a tack. They're just responding appropriately, their shoes are sensible, and they're not drooling. I've adjusted my aspirations. On my hundredth birthday, I'm going to dust myself with powdered sugar and put virtual duct-tape over my mouth and a twinkle in my eye. I don't care if I know what's going on as long as I can still fake it.
It's finished. Empires rose and fell in the meantime, dreams were hatched and dashed, and new paradigms were shifted, but finally my new operating system was successfully downloaded. All that was left was the installation. I let my cursor hover over the "install" button for a few moments and then clicked it with all the resignation of a condemned sailor putting his first foot on the plank.
After a bit of navigation, everything went blank except for the progress bar on the installation, which indicated that there were 22 minutes left. I walked away. A half hour later, there was a dab of progress showing on the bar and the suggestion that there were now 23 minutes left. All right. That is progress, of a sort, and I'm accustomed to the tendency of my computer to be creative about time passage. In fact, after observing things take longer and longer the more progress is made, I've fantasized about a way of living forever if only I could get my lifeline depicted on my screen.
Clearly the machine had a bolus of something, like a big wad of meat that gets stuck halfway down and must resolve itself with difficulty. I walked away again. If the sucker was going to figure out a way to Heimlich itself, I didn't want to be around when my documents started spewing across the room.
But my trepidation only increased. Was this the very worst thing I could do? Was I going to regret installing this thing as soon as it launched? Every item on my screen had already disappeared except the installation window and there didn't appear to be an ABORT button. I didn't know how long the plank was. I left the house.
This is what I do. My capacity for pretending something is not happening is world-class. Forty-some years ago, my roommates and I all bought waterbeds at once. It was socially mandatory. Someone on campus who looked like a hippie but had a prematurely entrepreneurial soul had gotten himself a waterbed distribution franchise, and put out the word that waterbeds were sexy and far-out. Anyway, we all got them, nailed boards together as frames, and hauled in a set of hoses to fill them. We were living in a charming but rickety Victorian house held together by cobwebs and cat shit and fossilized dust, and once we had our hoses in place and turned the water on, we watched in growing silence as the waterbeds remained flat for an alarmingly long time. Someone did a rough calculation of the volume of water required and we tried to remember what a cubic foot of water weighed and gave the whole conundrum the good old college try, but too many of us were liberal arts majors to feel confident about the conclusion, so instead we went out for pizza. If the house was going to come down, it made sense to not be in it at the time.
We did a back-of-the-napkin calculation that the beds would be filled by the time we polished off a large pizza, and then we went back. The beds were duly filled, the house remained upright, and all that was left was to have fun with them until the novelty wore off, which took about a week. By that time, we'd observed that rocking and rolling is more fun if it isn't happening all the time. If one person turned over, the other one got beached into the wall on a high tide. And it was really hard to get out of the damn things, especially since they weren't raised off the floor. Unfortunately, it was now a matter of campus dogma that waterbeds were far-out and sexy, so it was no longer possible to express a dissenting opinion. And we all kept them until we had to move, and gradually, as a population, we motivated back to standard mattresses.
What does this say about us?
Obviously, that we were renting.
But my Yosemite installation was happening in my own house, and eventually I had to trudge back inside and check on things. The new operating system, miraculously, was up and running. Now it was just a matter of getting used to it. There was going to be a lot of rocking and rolling and I wouldn't be able to count on anything staying put.
But there's no getting out of it now. Not at my age.