Wednesday, June 20, 2012


When the thermometer hits 95F it is sensible to retreat to a relatively cool place with a good book and a tall glass of icy lemonade. The coolest place near my house is a creeks that crisscrosses the village, through alleys, side by side with thoroughfares and a a few rare instances, underneath dwellings built a couple of centuries ago. In my neighbourhood, it flows beneath beautifully sculpted limestone cliffs my to merge with the Potomac river. Along the way, the altitude of cliffs drop dramatically causing the creek to cascade, musically onto the flatter terrain. I think of the music of the waterfall as the voice of the village. In pre-Colombian days, it sang for Delaware warriors and their families. Later,in the Colonial Era, it accompanied the songs of European immigrants as they worked in any of the seventeen mills that made the village prosper. Today, after having been diverted so many times no one knows exactly what was its original course, it can barely be heard above the roar of traffic headed across the river, towards town with shopping malls and supermarkets. It is only at night, when all grows quiet, that it lifts its liquid lullaby rises above the occasional chatter of the owls and the rasping cough of foxes that live in our rapidly vanishing woods.

I have a deep emotional attachment to this village. For better or for worse, it has sheltered me for decades. I am passionately fond of the log house where I have been living for a quarter of a century and where I have struggled to make a garden on land that was once a grazing meadow for the village founder's cattle. A century later, it became the place where local people dumped their rubbish and very interesting rubbish it was. Often, when I dig in the garden after a rain, I come upon rose headed nails, fragments of Flow Blue dishes, slip ware, clay marbles and hand blown glass. I dream up dozens of stories about the people who owned the dishes, these glasses, these toys. Perhaps it was the gun maker who owned the fancy imported dishes. I see him at the head of the table, jovial and rubicund carving up a haunch of venison for his good friend, the owner of the grist mill. His apple cheeked play with the very clay marbles I hold in my hand. Meanwhile, his frail German bride, who suffers from a weak chest, delicately sips a tincture of sassafras this lavender glass bottle once held.In the kitchen, an indentured servant cries because she dropped the the redware platter she bought at the fair earlier in the day against the day when the shoemaker's apprentice will make her his wife. Now the platter lies in a dozen pieces among the roots of lilacs and rosebushes.

Broiling hot weather is a time to dream of other villagers who dipped their toes in this very creek that meanders behind my house. How did those who had no leisure endure the brutal heat? How did they plant, harvest, grind the wheat, bake bread? Perhaps they lived in thick walled houses such as mine where the temperature stays tolerable unless one opens the front door frequently. Perhaps they were hardier than I. They must have dreamt of coolness, all the same, of time spent in British glades or German forests, of icy streams and vast bowls of wine flavored with woodruff. As for me, I avoid exertion, read for hours and listen for the song of the waterfall.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Red-spotted purple butterfly.
Painted lady butterfly on Hesperis matronalis.
Cabbage white butterfly
Butterfly feeding station.

A red-spotted purple butterfly lay on the front step as  I opened the door for the first time today. Its teal speckled black dark blue wings--inexplicable hues for one so colorfully named--shimmered in the sunlight. It remained  nearly motionless long enough for me to grab one of the cameras I keep by the door.That was the moment my cat chosesto dart out of the house as the proverbial bat from hell. The butterfly took off, paused briefly  by one of the rose bushes and flew away. I saw  it once again a couple of hours later and again it vanished, leaving me with a number of unanswered questions--why hadn't I seen it in previous years? Why did it choose this spot ? Had I planted something new this year, something it found attractive? What did it eat? What could I do to make sure that it comes back?

Mine is not, strictly speaking, a butterfly garden. I plant with the wildlife in mind, but I do not single out a particular species.Trees in sadly depleted woods, surround my house, which nestles in a wedge of land between creek and river. My twenty-five years old garden is new, by local standards. My village, Tater Hollow, is a couple of centuries old. Last year, I lost a number of trees and perennials due  a misguided project initiate by  the local government, which is remarkably obtuse when it comes to the ecology of my neighborhood. I have only just begun to replant. Earlier in the season, I added fifty-one trees, a dozen rose bushes and many perennials to my half-acre lot. It will grow, or not, without the benefit of pesticides. Birds and butterflies respond to such environments, though it bears no resemblance to the neat and prim outdoor spaces featured in shelter magazines.

Many years ago i started a flower border border by my front door. Today it is a tangle of vinca gone out of control, several Heirloom rose bushes, hollyhocks, lilies, peonies, blue  salvia and other deer-resistant perennials.  A row of pots filled with miniature roses, columbines,  lilies, dwarf buddleia, hosta and Casablanca lilies flanks the walkway. Beyond that, the grass, which foamed with white clover blossoms three days ago, has been   be tidied into into  a  green, flowerless space. According to  information gleaned from several websites, adult red-spotted purples do like flowers, but their preferred food is overripe fruit. That explains why this is the first time in twenty five years that I have seen this butterfly in my garden. Early  spring, I  prepared a butterfly feeding station with  water, salt and overripe fruit. I expected to see the usual  cabbage whites, monarchs, sulfurs and zebra swallowtails. Until this morning, cabbages whites had been ubiquitous and monarchs elusive. In May, when the sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis was in bloom,  a painted lady butterfly  came by. Neither monarchs and swallowtails joined the winged host. Then, literally out of the blue,  this  jewel appeared on my doorstep, attracted , perhaps by the overripe mango I had set out at the feeding station. I know of no greater reward for such a small effort.