Thursday, October 29, 2009

Of Microwaves and African Violets . . .

Someone told me of a story circulating on the internet about the health hazards of heating water, coffee, infant formula, and baby food in the microwave oven. The proof offered for the theory was that a plant had died almost immediately after being watered with microwaved water. Easy enough to test.

I bought two nearly identical African violet plants, both in full bloom, one with purple flowers, the other with pink. They were in identical 4-inch green plastic pots from the same grower, presumably in the same soil, $3.99 each. The leaves were the same color, size, variety, and both plants looked robust and healthy.

I filled two pyrex measuring cups with filtered water from the same faucet, heated one for two minutes on full power in the microwave, let them both sit overnight while the heated water cooled to room temp. In the morning, I labeled one plant FILTERED ONLY, the other FILTERED, MICROWAVED, and watered them accordingly. After allowing them to drain in the sink, I put both plants in the same basket on the kitchen table, in identical conditions of light, temp, and air. As near as I can manage it, the conditions are controlled to be identical, except for the water.

I've been following this watering routine, all other conditions being equal, for three months, from July to October, and as near as I can tell, both plants are still hearty and thriving. Both lost their flowers within two months. The purple flowers of the "filtered only" plant withered first, but the pink of "microwaved" water followed soon after, and I can't be certain that wasn't due to a difference between the pink & purple floweres, or to how long they had been in bloom at time of purchase.

I will report again in a few months, but so far, the microwaved water has had no apparent negative effects on the African violet it waters. If anything, that plant has grown larger. dkm

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mystery in Three

All week we noticed orange colored butterflies moving past our 7th story balcony. Considering the altitude, far from any nectar-bearing flower, and this being October on the gulf coast of Florida, we guessed they were south-migrating monarchs, though we couldn't get a good enough look for a positive ID---perhaps on their way to that place in Mexico, there to hang on a tree with their family multitudes for the winter, awaiting the mysterious warm day among many when they know it is time to head north again. The bigger mystery looming---that of how 3rd or 4th generation monarchs, after a summer of life-cycling in places North American, know to fly back to the same trees in Mexico on which their great-great-great-grandparents spent the winter---we concentrated for the moment on the question of whether the ones we saw flying past our open windows were indeed monarchs. Aware mostly of only their silhouettes, darkened by the light behind them, we saw at least that they were orange.

Then, sadly, we found several of the same butterflies dead on the beach one day, looking out of place among the expected shells and jelly fish and seaweed, as if they had been washed up by the tide. The blue patches on their underwings determined they were not monarchs, but provoked the new questions of what they were and how they came to be pressed into the sand without having been eaten. Were they blown there by the wind, and caught by the water? dkm

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hang-Gliding Over Ft. Walton Beach . . .

The human sport of hang-gliding off a mountain side or out of an airplane, or behind a motorboat is a poor substitute for the fun those seagulls were having last week in the wind over Ft. Walton Beach. The balcony of the 7th and top story condo we rented was the perfect place to watch the gulls, close range. The wind off the ocean swept up and over the top of our building in such a way that the gulls came again and again to hang and play in it. From our gull-high vantage point on the balcony, not ten feet from where they played, we could see their black legs hanging vertically from relaxed white bellies, wings spread taught, eyes alert. They dipped and soared and often hung completely still, leaning into the wind, doubling back to catch it again, without ever flapping their wings.

I singled a bird out of the crowd to watch for as long as I could focus on just one. In the minutes of my watch I didn't see a single wingflap, and I forgot I was there. It was as if I had become a gull, thrilling in the wind. Looking back on the experience, I think it was what Annie Dillard calls "self-forgetfulness" or loss of "self-consciousness" that comes with slow, focused observation. And it was "tremendously invigorating" just as she promised. dkm

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Jump Shot

Speaking of seed pods, falling glances, and the simple act of paying attention, today's ordinary walk past the basketball goal in the driveway enroute to the backyard for my hour of observation revealed a phenomenon so arresting, I never did make it to the swing.

Half-way up the pole of the basketball goal, sprouting from the place where the top extension of the pole telescopes out of the bottom, were the unmistakable seed-leaves of three tiny new impatiens plants. I have often marveled at the spring action of impatiens seed pods, powerful enough to turn themselves inside out, and in so doing project the interior seeds high into the air. I've introduced many children and adults alike to the fun of finding and popping the pods with a light pinch between two fingers, to watch them explode, but the noticing of today's seedlings growing from the pole, twelve inches above the highest parent plant, ratchets my awe up a significant notch.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that the plant's determination to regenerate itself against accidental odds propelled a few seeds high enough and with enough force to cause them to lodge into the shallow crevice of the telescoping pole. As proof of the will of natural design, the tiny seedlings impressed me more than if Michael Jordan himself had shown up in my driveway to execute a spectacular jump shot. dkm

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Path Less Traveled

If I hadn't come to The Wayback to eat lunch I would have missed them. Not seen at a passing glance, but peering through the ivy or liriope or out from behind a fallen magnolia leaf, they are everywhere. Everywhere, that is, in the vicinity of the Wayback path. Just off the path. Not until I sat still and let my gaze fall where it would did I see them. Tiny white mushroom buttons at the ends of fine upright tan-colored stems growing in every instance from rotting magnolia seed pods. After the heavy rain of recent weeks and days, there lies a surfeit of fast decaying magnolia pods in The Wayback, thanks to the regal row of ten tall magnolia trees along the fence.

The stems first looked to be growing from pinecones and mulch chips, but closer inspection revealed the soft remains of a magnolia pod under every outgrowth. Are magnolia seed pods the only host for this particular bacteria? Why not pinecones? They are just as prevalent.

Whatever the answer, these delicate pinhead mushrooms that look a little like baby's breath flowers, are the ultimate example of personal responsibility. They do their work and achieve their beauty whether or not anyone comes to watch.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Excitement in the Air . . .

It comes in the form of relational energies among the dozens of lemon yellow butterflies that flutter in the sun at this time of year above and around the naturalized impatiens flowers and tomato blossoms.

Never still for long, my lemon yellows are difficult to count, but at least six of them are currently in view as they actively pursue each other and their sustaining flower nectars. They are unmistakably aware of each others' presence as they dart and spin and follow one another from plant to plant, often lighting on the same plant, just inches apart. They rise into the air, chasEE and chasER, spinning and darting around and away from each other in what can only be flirtatious foreplay.

Today I've not seen them make contact but I remember another observation of mid-air crashing, in slam-bam-thank-you ma'am fashion. Having observed the mating of the white moths between that observation and this(see blog entry for 9/13/09 with photo), I wonder if there isn't more to it for the lemon yellows, as well. Do they retreat into the shadows to finish a job I'm not privy to witness? And how promiscuous are they? I can't tell if the spinning partners are uniquely selected, or if any one of the species is worthy of a go round. dkm

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Waiting for Wings . . .

Katydids sounding in every tree after dark, but rarely seen, pique my curiosity tonight. A green leafy one comes again to the outside of the kitchen window, revealing its white underbelly, green feet bottoms, and red mandibles in the light from my side of the glass. I watch long, hoping to see its wings rub together in the act of making its namesake sound.

One can stare at a katydid at close range only so long without looking away. I missed the moment of noisemaking every time, but could at least imagine it by the way the wings were folded flat against each other behind the back.

What I did see were the underneath connecting points of the six legs on what I think was the thorax. Six tiny flat feet at the ends of those long bent legs clung to the glass as the awkward creature crawled across the pane. Occasionally one of the front feet moved to the mouth where it stayed for much chewing action by the bright red mandibles---too tiny to see precise detail. Whether eating or cleaning I couldn't tell, but presume the former, since it was always a front foot, and since the sections of the underbody nearest the head rolled downward in an undulating movement---swallowing? If it had been cleaning, it might have done something about the hind foot that came along dragging strands of silk. dkm

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good as Yoga . . .

How, in 59 years, could I never have noticed the precious morning murmurs of birds waking in their roosting places, wherever in the trees they are? The serenity of that sound is worth setting the alarm and waiting outside in the dark for, and makes the pre-dawn whir & peel of traffic all the more annoying, because I know it covers the first and quietest chirps. Evenso, in the lull between moving vehicles, and before the actual calls begin, those random murmurs around the yard are better than yoga for starting a day off right.

Add a good cup of steaming coffee and a pink sky of rising sun for perfection realized. As the eastern light brightens and spreads upward, so do the wake-up murmurs, until they erupt around the yard into calls identifiable by species. The first one I recognize in this yard on this week at about 7:15 has been the Carolina wren, followed almost immediately by blue jays, nuthatches, brown thrashers, a hawk, and crows. But where are the robins I expected to hear?

Of course, the whole exercise revives my ongoing question of where birds sleep at night once nesting season is over and they abandon their cradles of stick and leaf and down. Do they simply roost on an open branch? How do they escape owls and other nocturnal predators? So far my consulting of the experts has not reaped a definitive answer. dkm

Saturday, October 3, 2009

In the Absence of a Rooster . . .

A sample of a few is not enough to determine the answer to my continuing quest to discover who is the first bird to sing in the morning. But it is enough to tell me I need to learn more about the variant chirps of the species in this backyard. After 4 mornings of focused listening from 6:45-7:45, I've learned mostly that the city's answer to crow of rooster is peel of siren, both police and fire, and that birds wake up slowly, not unlike people.

This 1/3 acre of backyard is tucked cosily into a surrounding length of woods that cover an estimated ten acres from end to end, according to Moe. The woods, aside from being lovely, dark and deep, are the reason for the wealth of wildlife we are privileged to see and hear, even in an urban area. I have wondered if it is the more concentrated, precisely because of the city around us, and I admit to an earlier misconception that we are insulated from city's noise and hustle. Relative to city central, I suppose we are, but these past two years of "paying attention" to the backyard have made me ever aware of the assault that urban development is to natural environment. Yet the animals and trees carry on as best they can, adapting to a point.

The immediate point is that the early morning traffic of Ponce and Scott prevented me from hearing the first soft sounds of waking birds, though a first-stir pattern did emerge---that of barely audible chirps just before 7:00---single syllables---some higher, some lower---some gutteral, some flutelike---from randomly scattered places in the surrounding trees, increasing in number by the minute, then erupting into multiple calls and songs almost precisely at 7:15. More on this tomorrow. dkm