I spent most of the day in the garden, most of yesterday morning too. I found some old bricks and used them to lay out one end of a small raised bed for our veggie patch this year. We’ve planted banana peppers, onions, and cilantro from starts, and there are seeds to go in tomorrow: carrot, butterhead lettuce, and radish. I’m not sure anyone in the family cares much for radishes, but they grow so quickly and are fun to harvest. Oh, and we’ll plant a few beans. We buried a couple of seed potatoes this afternoon. Will I ever cease to marvel at this climate? February was always the longest, hardest month back east. My children love snow (those who remember it), but not I.
Saw our first monarch of the season today! Alas, it made two passes around our yard and fluttered on by. My milkweed has buds but isn’t open yet, and may not bloom at all—it’s horribly infested with little yellow bugs I thought were a particularly squicky kind of aphid, but now I’m doubting think not. We recruited an army of ladybugs, who munched dutifully for a while but have now flown home to check for fires or something.
Bees: a respectable number, but not the legions we hope to see when the salvia blooms.
I took a million pictures today but hardly any of them came out. Ever since I dropped it on the street during Comic-Con, my camera is reluctant to focus.
Probably more things I can’t remember right now.
This list staggers me. I say that every year but staggered I am again.
We do penance for this in October, when the very air crisps your skin and the only color in the garden is brown.
While we were away, cold rains pounded San Diego, stranding my parents inside with the kids and washing away most of our carrot seedlings. The radishes and lettuces survived the floods and are looking sprightlier than ever. The blueberries dropped a lot of blossoms but I think we’ll get a few berries, at least. The flowers are lusher than ever, fresh-faced now that I’ve picked off the spent, rain-battered blossoms.
We miss our bird feeder. Last summer, it attracted rats, so we emptied it. I’m aching to try again. When we moved from New York to Virginia in the winter of 2002, the very first box I unpacked was the one marked BIRD FEEDERS. True story. In our Long Island backyard, we had downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and titmice at the feeders every day. I can still feel the cold glass of the sliding door that tiny Jane and I use to lean against as we watched our birds. In Virginia, we had cardinals, juncoes, and my favorite, the wee chickadees. A pair of bluebirds nested in a box under our deck, right outside my office window. I wrote Across the Puddingstone Dam between bouts of peeking at those bluebirds from between the blinds.
In this yard, we mostly only see sparrows and finches, and the imperious crows. There’s a lone phoebe, junco-gray and tufted like a cardinal, who perches on the fence, watching warily as I putter in the garden. There are the hummingbirds, of course, flashing low overhead like little green comets, perching on the slender branches of the cape honeysuckle. They adore those trumpety orange flowers, as do the bees. I haven’t seen the scrub jay in a while. All last summer he called outside our bedroom window at a minute past sunrise every morning. The kids named him Peanut, after his favorite food.
I just googled my own blog to see when I’ve posted about the flock of parrots in years past. January and February is when they swirl through our neighborhood, it seems. But I don’t think I’ve heard them this year! Any other San Diegans know the whereabouts of those rowdy green squawkers right now?
The week shimmers past quickly, and my head can’t quite keep up. I’m still chronicling Wondercon (although I will probably never get around to writing about the best part, the dinners with friends), and working, and repeatedly remembering that I keep forgetting to do the taxes.
(File under: Things that Make Me Wince.)
The best part of the morning was the nature walk. We’d just been reading about native San Diego flora and fauna in a “shrublands guide” published (and available for free download) by the California Chaparral Institute, and it was exciting to walk our familiar scrubby trails and greet the bushes by name. Some of the trees we knew already, like the downright Seussian bottle-brush tree, which grows in yards all over the city, but I’ve never before seen it bleed. Ruby sap, glinting in the sun, seeping through scarred bark. One could almost hear the Ents weeping.
I love knowing the names of things. In a way, names are my favorite things of all: the way a name lets you know a thing (bush, tree, flower, bird, person). What used to be a haze of indeterminate bushes becomes manzanita, scrub oak, chamise, sagebrush, buckwheat, each with a voice of its own.
The kids are more interested in birds than bushes. We create a ruckus as we go, and most of the wild things scatter. Only the hummingbirds ignore us. They are the Hermias of the bird world: though they be but little, they are fierce.
Under one of the bushes in the top photo, Beanie found a sort of burrow: flattened grass, a litter of empty snail shells. What lunches there, we’d like to know?
The Lilies-of-the-Nile are being impish again. I was going to remark that as much as I adore their purple spheres of bloom, this bud stage is when I love them best—but I see I already said that, a year ago. I really am repeating myself; I see too that I posted an agapanthus bud exactly one year ago today. Impish they may be, but they are punctual little fellows!
The eclipse through Scott’s homemade pinhole lens.
Eclipse shadows through the trees—lovely.
I watched him walk back and forth past my overgrown coreopsis for a good five minutes—walking deliberately close to them so that they repeatedly thwapped him in the face. This is fun because…why?
Scrub jay. Showed off for half an hour in various parts of the yard, preening, strutting, demanding admiration. We obliged.
So says Rilla. Her father does not approve. Her father is not a fan of tarantulas.
But he’ll forgive me, because he knew what he was getting into when he married me—the runaway train of my enthusiasm. How did we get on to spiders this morning? Rose said something about liking them; I think that was it. Beanie shuddered; she sides with her daddy on this one. Rose and I had a sudden impulse to go outside and see how many different kinds of spider we could count. Oddly, the pickings were slim: we only found two. Usually, they’re everywhere you look, causing some small child or other to shriek and run away. But there were two tiny ones of a species we’ve yet to identify, teensy oblong things with thin stripes of brown and tan, poised on webs stretched between the stems of the rose bush. Look, said Rose, I found this out yesterday: if you put a bit of twig in the web, the spider will come and snip it out. We waited, but the spider was on to us, frozen, silently glaring. Ten minutes later, after we’d roamed the yard in search of others, the twig was gone.
By chance—or maybe this is what put spiders on Rose’s mind this morning?—I’d pulled Fabre’s Life of the Spider off the shelf a day or two ago, thinking it might make a nice nature-study read for the summer, and added it to the high-tide stack in the living room. At the time, I wasn’t at all sure it would grab my girls—read-alouds are a challenge, these days, with one sweet boy endlessly butting in with questions, and the other impish one endlessly butting you with his head. But they were interested, so I gave it a try. Note to writers: If you want to hook an audience of 6-13-year-olds, “Chapter 1, The Black-Bellied Tarantula” is a sure-fire way to begin.
The Spider has a bad name: to most of us, she represents an odious, noxious animal, which every one hastens to crush under foot. Against this summary verdict the observer sets the beast’s industry, its talent as a weaver, its wiliness in the chase, its tragic nuptials and other characteristics of great interest. Yes, the Spider is well worth studying, apart from any scientific reasons; but she is said to be poisonous and that is her crime and the primary cause of the repugnance wherewith she inspires us. Poisonous, I agree, if by that we understand that the animal is armed with two fangs which cause the immediate death of the little victims which it catches; but there is a wide difference between killing a Midge and harming a man. However immediate in its effects upon the insect entangled in the fatal web, the Spider’s poison is not serious for us and causes less inconvenience than a Gnat-bite. That, at least, is what we can safely say as regards the great majority of the Spiders of our regions.
Nevertheless, a few are to be feared; and foremost among these is the Malmignatte, the terror of the Corsican peasantry. I have seen her settle in the furrows, lay out her web and rush boldly at insects larger than herself; I have admired her garb of black velvet speckled with carmine-red; above all, I have heard most disquieting stories told about her. Around Ajaccio and Bonifacio, her bite is reputed very dangerous, sometimes mortal.
Well played, Monsieur Fabre.
Of course we had to look up these twin terrors, the malmignatte with her thirteen red spots, and the tarantula, about whom Fabre’s predecessor, Leon Dufour, waxes quite lyrical: “…when I was hunting her, I used to see those eyes gleaming like diamonds, bright as a cat’s eyes in the dark.” Off we trotted to Wikipedia, for pictures, and YouTube, for pictures that move.
Yes, again. This is what happens when you build suburbs in the chaparral.
This time, we weren’t on a hiking trail in the hills. This time, we were running down the path from the water fountain to the playground at a park we only just discovered this morning. Upon arrival, I wrote Scott: “This is the best park I’ve seen since we moved here.” Beautiful place. Towering trees shading a narrow creek (more stones than water) and an elaborate playground—a welcome improvement on the sunbaked playgrounds we usually frequent. Enormous rocks for climbing, glorious golden hills rising up just beyond the park’s borders, a conveniently located restroom, a functioning water fountain. Before the first child had reached the top of the slide, I was envisioning a regular weekly park day at this heretofore undiscovered (by me, at least) gem.
The kids ran around the playground for half an hour; Beanie spent a long time pushing Rilla on the swings. Then we meandered over to the creekbed, watched a squirrel, climbed a tree, and after a bit, I decided it was sunny enough on the trail beyond the park fence that we could risk a short walk. Too hot for rattlers on the path at that time of day, I reasoned. But Wonderboy was spooked by the memory of that other rattler, the big one we happened upon on a similar trail, and we turned back after a only a few minutes. Back to the swings, the rocks, the blissfully cool shade under the trees.
On the way to the water fountain, Huck complained of mulch in his shoes. I stripped them off: he’s happier barefoot. He raced up the short stretch of sidewalk between playground and fountain, following the others. I trailed behind, stepping over a few fallen leaves and scattered twigs. Drinks accomplished, we turned to head back to the playground. Huck was in front, still barefoot, and I registered that the stick he was about to jump over wasn’t a stick at all just as he did, in fact, jump over it. His chubby bare foot hit the ground about an inch from the slithering, diamonded, triangle-headed, rattle-having stick.
I screamed. Launched myself between Huck and the snake. It wasn’t a big rattler, and it was leaving the path in a hurry, heading for the aforementioned blissful shade under the trees. I backed the kids way up, looked around wildly—and then, yes, took a picture. I mean, I was already holding my camera, and it was clear the thing wanted to put some distance between itself and my pack of wild monkeys.
By this point the playground was filled with a group of day-camp kids who’d arrived for a picnic. I hustled my kids back toward the parking lot, stopping to alert the camp counselors to the presence of the snake. They put in a call to Animal Control and herded their charges to the cement-floored picnic area. The snake hung out under the swings—Rilla’s swing—for a bit and then chan
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Rilla: Mommy! What kind of bird is that?
Me: It’s a mockingbird, see its tail?
Huck (gasps): Me know all about knockingbirds!
Me: You do? Tell me about them.
Huck: They knock trees over. And the fence.